Donald Peck

Donald Peck (1930- ) studied flute with William Kincaid and woodwind ensemble with Marcel Tabuteau at the Curtis Institute of Music from 1949 to 1952. He interrupted his third-year studies at Curtis to finish the season with the National Symphony in Washington, D.C. He spent the following years playing in the Marine Band and as principal flute of the Kansas City Philharmonic before joining the Chicago Symphony flute section in 1957. He became principal flute after three months continuing until his retirement in 1999.


The following are excerpts from Laurie Van Brunt’s 1977 interview of Donald Peck concerning the Tabuteau System:

DP: He talked a lot about the number system, which I’m sure you’ve heard about – intensity. He would sing to you in this terrible voice. The tune you were supposed to be playing he would sing in numbers. Of course then, intensity would grow or the number would get larger as the intensity grew, and you know how it goes.

LVB: You mentioned when you were talking about ensemble playing that when you played with another person you would use a narrower vibrato, did he also talk about different speeds of vibrato?

DP: Yes, again this number system somehow applied to vibrato. If you were increasing intensity, you might narrow you vibrato or even speed the vibrato up. It’s interesting that there is a distinction between a narrow, and a fast vibrato. Some people feel if it is narrow, it has to be faster, but that’s not true. Especially if you are going to blend with somebody, we said a wide vibrato would not be good, we agreed on that I hope, but also a fast one would not be too good, because it’s too scintillating, it’s too titillating on the ear drum of the listener to hear a fast vibrato; it captures away the tone quality of the other instrument too much. It makes you a ham in a sense you see – listen to me, listen to me. Tabuteau often would increase the intensity of his playing not only, in fact basically not with volume, but he would increase it by vibrato. The vibrato would narrow and become faster; the tone almost might thin down a bit up close, which also increased the intensity. I think that makes sense. If the same amount of air is going through a smaller opening, it must go through faster and therefore it will be more intense than the same air going through a large opening.

I can’t actually recall any specific occasions that he would say vibrato. I honestly think that he did things so naturally, but he also had a good sense of judgment, and he would listen to what he had done and then he would say, “Oh I did that. What did I really do. Why did I do it, and how did I do it.” So, if he were playing an f-sharp which was going to a g, he would probably naturally increase the speed of the vibrato on the f-sharp to push that leading tone into the g which would be the tonic, and the g would have a wider, more satisfied vibrato – a wider, fuller, more easy sound even. The f-sharp would be a tighter, narrower sound. I honestly can’t imagine he said, “I will do this, I will do this;” I think he did it and then judged later, “Oh yes, I did that and it’s wonderful, and that’s what it should be, the leading tone and the tonic.” Then he was able to tell us. That’s why sometimes some of his students could play very musically, but most unconvincingly. He could tell them: f-sharp you do this, g you do this, but they never really felt it, and it was not convincing. It was almost like a machine doing it. Sometimes that’s the problem with a very good teacher. He teaches too well, and the student himself has nothing and can’t ever teach himself later, so that when they got away from Tabuteau they couldn’t do it. So, in the wind class, either with volume or with the number system using intensity, he would sometimes show us how to phrase, and this would include speeds of vibrato. If it were too fast a vibrato on a C major chord (see, C major is a noble key) that would be not right. E major would be a faster vibrato key or B major a faster vibrato; that’s quite an angular key. Whether he felt these, I think he felt them first and then…

LVB: How do changes in color fit in with the number system?

DP: I’m not sure it does. I’ve talked to some people about what Tabuteau said and what Kincaid said too, and I find the understanding of these systems was variable according to the person. I think that’s the case, because each of us needed something at that time, and we took what we needed. The rest of it went over our heads or we didn’t listen carefully. In the case of Kincaid, who never said a word to me about vibrato, but I know another student that he talked to about vibrato a lot. So, I learned a lot from the other student; we’d get together and talk. So, I’m not certain that I have any feeling of tone color in relationship to number.

I do remember a comment though that Tabuteau made, and later Kincaid used to quote this of Tabuteau by the way; he said, “Don’t try and play loudly; the louder you play the less you’re heard out front.” He said, “The perfect tone is the intensification of a dolcequality.” Now, I have thought about that a lot, and I have written it down and read it sometimes. The season gets long, and my lip gets tired, and I just put the flute down for a day and come back the next day, and I’ll start out playing very softly and very light lipped, very easy lip, not too much focus and a lot of support. After a few minutes or a half an hour of easy gentle playing, dolce – I’m talking about a dolce quality – then I’ll start to increase the intensity, sometimes just mentally at first. If you wanted to use Tabuteau’s system you would start 112233 and build, and you can also do this by vibrato, but you try to do this by not using too much air. Whenever a player in class would start to play with one of these big fat, really romantic, voluptuous sounds, Tabuteau would not like that; it didn’t blend with anything; it was out of scope with everything else. He felt it wouldn’t project. Often that type of tone has not enough center. Tabuteau was big, and Kincaid too, on centering the tone. What it sounds like up here, won’t be what it sounds like out in the hall. He felt that if you blow too loud up closely, it wouldn’t carry. And I think we may agree on that. I’ve discovered that to be true. If you are playing alone, that kind of tone sounds wonderful, but in the orchestra in a big hall if you get a few French Horns mellowing, blending in the back ground and a couple of cellos blending, that kind of tone is lost; it doesn’t project out of the orchestra texture.

LVB: Do you remember him talking about up and down impulses?

DP: My impression of what Tabuteau meant by that is an extension of over the bar line phrasing. I had the feeling that he was trying to get away from the beat, and he demonstrated it in that Franck Symphony I mentioned earlier where I couldn’t tell what was happening. He carried it too far. The meter always has to continue underneath the melody, but we mustn’t hear the meter in the melody. And he would carry a phrase, I feel, not only over the bar line but over several bars maybe to a point. It’s a great feeling to think sometimes even with your hands, you just move them up with the palms upward, and you move the phrase up, up, up and then down, where the major climax of the phrase is, or the major relaxation of the phrase. Of course, the down part of the phrase is after the climax. I think I can tell you how this was demonstrated to me most clearly when I was in Norway once and bumped into Leopold Stokowski in the hotel lobby in Oslo. He had a concert that night, and he said, “Are you coming to my concert,” and I said, “No Maestro I can’t get tickets.” “Oh, I’ll get you two tickets.” So, he got me two tickets, and I went to the concert, and it was a terrible orchestra, absolutely terrible. Stokowski in his way was a genius, in the last movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony – They were beating it [singing every beat of the phrase.] So pretty soon he started beating only one beat per barinstead of two beats; so then it got a little better. So, he just looked around and pretty soon he was only beating one beat every four bars, and would give a huge beat and it was [singing]. And that is what to me the Tabuteau’s up-up system – during the four bars or eight bars that Stokowski was not beating the whole feeling of the orchestra was of moving up and moving beyond, away from this mundane, pedantic beat thing. They were playing that marvelous music to the next phrase, and then they started the down trend, and he didn’t beat again for four bars, but it was a down trend to the end of the phrase That’s what I understood by it.

LVB: You mentioned moving f-sharp closer to g and getting notes closer together. Did he talk about bending notes according to the tonality that you were playing in?

DP: I don’t have any great impression other than the facts that I do recall. You mentioned the up-down feeling, and first I thought you meant of the sound. Certainly f-sharp he would talk about leading to the g all right, but the g-flat would not be the same intensity note, it would be a darker quality. F-sharp would be quite bright going to g, but g-flat would be darker going back to f or lower; and again the vibrato would enter into it – I would say a slower deeper vibrato on the g-flat than the f-sharp. Now, you have to understand that all of these things that we remember him doing he may not have talked about too much, I mean, he probably didn’t say to me: do your g-flat da-da-da, but we listened to him, we listened to him play and Kincaid too (they were two of a kind and still distinctly different, but they had the same ideas), we would listen and then you absorbed it. In fact, you probably did it consciously at first. You said: “Oh, I am going to raise my c-sharp going to the d,” and you thought you were really being musical; but, then you started to feel this too or you may have felt it in the beginning and didn’t know what you were doing, and he merely verbalized it. So, all of these things now that we can attribute to him and to Kincaid were not all verbalized. A lot was gleaned from hearing them play and from hearing them talk to other people or hearing their students play or at that time the basic whole Philadelphia woodwind style of playing. It’s changed now, quite drastically since those days, but at that time that’s what we had. And I think when you ask me a question about Tabuteau saying this and that, it may be that I only gleaned it. And don’t forget that part of my perception is colored by own personality or my own neuroses and experience. I may be saying something that was not quite what he said, but it at least led me on to a path which has been successful. I’m sure this must be true with other people.

LVB: Did he spend a lot of time on balancing chords?

DP: Yes, very much. To this day I wish we had someone like that to do it. Again it’s the same bit of this no-ensemble feeling that I feel so many people coming out of the conservatories now lack. Where to place your note in the chord, (not only how,) what kind of tone and how to blend, and where, in the sense of volume. I mean something as mundane as how loud to play. If someone sees mezzo piano, mezzo forte, how loud do they play? Mezzo forte is a very ambiguous mark. When I used to play with Fritz Reiner, he was always shushing us, “Mezzo forte, softer, softer.” But Stokowski would come to guest conduct, and he would say, “Mezzo forte” [in a loud voice]. So what is mezzo forte? Mezzo forte in Roussel is triple fortissimo, but mezzo forte in Beethoven is not loud. So, it depends on the composer. In other words, he was teaching us to use our heads. If we had an accompanying note in a chord, obviously it’s not going to be as glamorous or as brilliant or as projected or as loud as the main note. He would talk sometimes about the color of sound for a solo instrument playing piano and the color of the sound for a non-solo instrument playing piano. I mean it’s so obvious when you think about it, and so many people don’t think about it or don’t do it. I needn’t even verbalize that – a blander sound for the non-solo, right?

LVB: What about articulation. Do remember any particulars about that?

DP: I don’t have vivid memories of any words on articulation as far as what syllable to use, but, of course, his big thing, I’m sure everyone must agree on that, was to play on the air. The air keeps moving, and you play on top of the air. It’s not that you’re using a different air for every note; it was on the one air. He would often sing and carry the phrase [singing] tu tu tu tu tu, and this would all be on top of a constant moving air stream. The air stream I’ve since compared to the bow. The bow keeps moving and you play on this; each note is not reattacked with the bow, just like each note is not reattacked with the air. Even sometimes if things were staccato you would somehow [laugh] carry the air between the staccato notes. It sounds like you can’t do that, but somehow you can; the air with which you left a note begins the next note with a small gap between. But it basically is the same piece of air with a small gap in the middle. I don’t know if that explains what I mean. But, it would be like really slurring it, and then you have the feel of the air moving, and you have the feel of the intensity of the phrase and the feel of the diaphragm supporting it all, and then you merely break up this one piece of air that is still moving – the air carrying the sound, not the air pushing the sound. Is that at all helpful?

LVB: Yes.

Did he talk about varying lengths of notes, like if you had a tongued passage and it was going up in numbers or something, did he talk about playing perhaps short an the beginning and lengthening as you approached the climactic point?

DP: Yes, I think that school of playing was one of the first to try to get away from woodwind sounding “woodwindy” or flutes sounding “flutey.” He used to make fun of new students who would come in, they would have had a type of training that is now old-fashioned in which a staccato note is always played as short as possible, and with a terrible accent on every note [laugh]. And, of course, he would castigate them unmercifully and laugh at them and make jokes about them, teaching us that a staccato or even a non-staccato, just a tongued note, varies with where it is in the line –certainly the top note might be stressed a bit more than the bottom – or also with the type of music you are playing. A staccato in a March would be shorter than a staccato in a Serenade. These were all new ideas to us. And the length would vary and the attack would vary, which is something I feel people get confused about. They feel if the note is short, the attack must be crisp, or if the note is a long note, the attack must be softer. But, that’s not true. You can play a very short note with a very soft attack [End of side A of Donald Peck recording] , and you can play a very long note with a very hard attack. He wanted to make all of these devices available to us to use.

We were talking about balancing chords, and that somehow applies now with the tonguing you mentioned. I would never have thought before I went away to school not to attack a note. And, of course, now I often don’t attack a note. Some of the most beautiful chords are achieved with no attack on any instrument. You just breathe into them with your support from the diaphragm, and the embouchure set well, and then you start the air moving, and this gives a non-attack. And by the same token you can then taper exactly the same way that you enter with a non-exit attack, so to speak. This was my first exposure to that sort of thing. Of course, at that time the whole orchestra in Philadelphia was doing that, and maybe to the wrong degree, because everything sounded very schmaltzy just like the Berlin Philharmonic does now. But, it is very beautiful, and in the right place it is certainly a device we should use. Tabuteau was very big on that, entering with no attack.

LVB: Did he talk about slurs – any special technique about playing slurs?

DP: I don’t remember anything about that.

LVB: It seems that in his oboe lessons that he very much stressed the end of the slur, not chopping it off…

DP: As far as the slur and the tonguing and how you treat the slur, again I feel it was a further indication of his feeling that the air must keep moving all the time. And as you mentioned a minute ago, the end of a slur you wouldn’t necessarily cut off. You had two notes slurred into two tongued notes; as you mention, he would say, “tee long too too,” and it wouldn’t be tee lot too too. This again just meant to carry the air, because in a classical piece of Mozart you obviously play that second note of the slur much lighter [singing an example]. But, he didn’t want it to be da dut da da , because we had always been taught when the slur ends snap off, no. I mean, we had been taught a lot of very bad things from some teachers when we were younger. So, he did want that 2nd note to be carried.

LVB: You mentioned Tabuteau’s great use of rubato in the orchestra. Was this something he stressed in chamber music classes as well?

DP: Tabuteau was an interesting dichotomy – paradox. On the one hand he was adamant that correct rhythm be played, and on the other hand he wanted you [laugh] to be very free. And I admit at the time I was perplexed, but I since then think I figured it out. He wanted you to be very free, but, founded on a firm rhythmic foundation. I remember two episodes; one time Stravinsky had been conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra, and Tabuteau came in absolutely ecstatic about the man. He said, “They should put this man in prison, capture him, and force him to conduct every orchestra!” He said the rhythm that this man had and the preciseness of the rhythm was astounding – the sixteenth note after the dotted eighth, and the triplet instead of a duple eighth, (a triplet eighth). He wanted us to play rhythms absolutely right. I mean a triplet eighth is not a duple eighth note, it’s a triplet eighth, and the sixteenth after a dotted eighth should not sound like a triplet, it’s too vapid, it’s too pastoral; it’s quite a difference. The full sixteenth is a very much more intense feeling, energetic. He insisted that we play correctly, and really if you have 104 men in the orchestra on the stage playing, it will not be together unless everyone is fervently aware of the rhythm, and abides by it and plays it almost squarely. But, it must never sound that way. It mustn’t sound like the orchestra is counting 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4. It had to sound natural, and he was very keen on these two things. On top of that he wanted a solo to be very flexible, but the basic meter of 1 2 3 4 would move on, and on top of that you would add a bit of flexibility, which is called rubato. You must always arrive at some point [laugh] with the rest of the orchestra or with your pianist or if you have a difficult chord change, you must arrive there with the rest of the orchestra. It can’t be so free that it is anarchy, obviously. I mean it is very obvious, and yet these things are done under the guise of expressiveness, particularly with players who perhaps are playing with only one or two instruments or maybe with just a piano. They feel, you know, let the piano just scramble along behind me. Does that answer your question?