The Supreme Court could use an oboist


There are many prisms through which to view Supreme Court nominees. We can look at how they hire their nannies. We can take certain remarks (like “wise Latina”) out of context and paint the nominee as a mystical narcissist. We can elevate questions like “Who has put pubic hair on my Coke?” to matters of national debate.

In a pinch, we can look at a nominee’s rulings and legal writings. Let’s not get carried away, though.

But only one thing matters when it comes to Diane P. Wood, the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals judge and University of Chicago law professor who is believed to be among the president’s top picks to replace outgoing Justice John Paul Stevens. It’s a trait more reflective of her character than any childhood experience or religious conviction. It might even be more important than her stance on abortion.

Wood is an oboist.

This is no minor detail. The oboe isn’t just an instrument; it’s a way of life. Wood plays the oboe (and its bulbous cousin, the English horn) in two orchestras, the Chicago Bar Assn. Symphony and the North Shore Chamber Orchestra in Evanston, Ill. Presumably these gigs don’t demand the concentration and practice time of the Chicago Symphony, or even of a woodwind ensemble composed entirely of members of the American Board of Thoracic Surgery, but they’re pretty darn impressive. Playing the oboe means living your life entirely at the mercy of tiny wooden double reeds that crack at inopportune moments (weirder and more awful yet, you’re supposed to make them yourself as though you were a 19th century artisan). It also means blowing so hard into them that you risk a brain aneurysm every time you try to hit a high D. It also means you’re a huge nerd.

I know all this because I was an oboist myself. And I use “was” loosely. Although it’s been nearly 20 years since I bought a spit rag at Sam Ash or prayed to make it through the last movement of the Mozart Oboe Concerto, once an oboist, always an oboist.

And speaking for myself and so many others in the oboe community, I don’t think it’s an overstatement to suggest that even if Wood had no judicial experience at all, even if she’d never even gone to law school — heck, even if she were a fifth-grader squawking out “Ode to Joy” on a plastic Bundy — she’d still probably be more qualified for the Supreme Court bench than anyone else in the pool. Why? Because oboists may vary in talent, discipline, ethnicity, gender and taste in unfashionable clothes, but we all have one thing in common: We’re just about the most judgmental people on the face of the Earth. Ergo, one of us should sit on the highest court in the nation.

Where does our judgmentalism come from? The same place as everyone’s: insecurity, self-loathing, anger at parents (which oboists have in high doses because most of us had parents who forced us to play the oboe). We unleash it on our fellow musicians, few of whom have to deal with ornery, unreliable double reeds and therefore “don’t know how good they have it.” We unleash it on nonmusicians who confuse the oboe with the big, gangly bassoon. We unleash it on bassoon players for undermining our sense of sanctimony due to the fact that the bassoon is arguably even more difficult than the oboe.

The root of our belief that we are the arbiters of all things, however, is the fact that the oboe sounds the A that tunes the first violin that in turn tunes the whole orchestra. There is great power in this, and also great responsibility, a responsibility not unlike the one that comes with deciding the law of the land. Granted, this tuning process is not a result of the oboe having intrinsically good pitch but, rather, because it’s so hard to get an oboe in tune that the rest of the group basically just has to go along with whatever the oboist’s idea of an A is that day.

But that’s a negligible point. Oboists may not always be right, but we’re still the deciders. And that’s why if Wood ends up appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, I hope they’ll cut to the chase and just ask her to play the Mozart Oboe Concerto. Or better yet, an A.