Donald Hefner

Donald Hefner (1932?2007) first attended the University of Illinois but won an audition to study oboe with Marcel Tabuteau at the Curtis Institute of Music in 1952, working with him for two years. He graduated from Catholic University, where he was a member of Phi Beta Kappa, then spent five years, until 1959, in the U.S. Marine Band as a solo oboist. He received a master’s degree in music in 1960 and a doctorate in music history in 1984 from Catholic University where he became an associate professor and taught there until he retired in 1991. His 1984 Ph. D. dissertation: The Tradition of the Paris Conservatoire School of Oboe Playing with Special Attention to the Influence of Marcel Tabuteau offers valuable information about the Tabuteau System:

Tabuteau’s Use of Imagary

Tabuteau’s teaching was rich in imaginative comparisons to occurrences in the physical world. He said, “You must be open to everything learn from everything. The more you take from the world, the more you can give to the world.”

A few well remembered examples follow: to illustrate the proper resolution of [a well-known] florid clarinet passage, he compared the line with the downward swoop of a seagull which then, about to land, brakes upward momentarily in the air with its wings, then settles gently.

In the same movement, the clarinet arpeggio at the end of the passage was to dissolve in the air while rising, like a disappearing plume of smoke. The then student clarinetist, now for many years in the Philadelphia Orchestra, was able to make both images clearly perceptible

For a deceptive or false cadence, the following picture was evoked: a dying leaf, falling from a tree limb in autumn, floats downward toward the forest floor, but just as it is about to settle there, an unexpected breeze freshens and carries it whirling away for a moment of new life.

An apologetic down inflection following an energetic upbeat was graphically compared to a boxer who puts all his energy into the backward preparation of a punch, and very little into the punch itself. “He won’t win many fights,” observed the master.

For an abrupt change in the character of the music intensified by the unresolved upbeat , Tabuteau would say, “You must reverse the machine.”

Regarding Phrasing in General

The musicians of the [18th] century who wrote on this subject were concerned primarily with one thing: the perception of cohesive musical units and the marking of them by pauses in the groups of notes. There were, to be sure, observations made with regard to the treatment of dissonances of specific figures like appoggiaturas, and of chromatic alterations. Mozart wrote again and again of “expression,” “taste,” and “feeling,” but made no attempt to be more specific. The expression of the overall shaping of a melodic line did not appear until the 19th century.

This is an ephemeral subject, very difficult to reduce to prose, but the attempt will be made to convey an idea of Tabuteau’s general approach to it.

Tabuteau’s description of an arc drawn on a plane of silence on one note was a vivid picture of such a curve, as were the drives, which began “next to zero,” rose in an arc of increasing intensity to a peak and gradually returned to a resolution.

And so the perception of the phrase and of its general shape is the first problem that the player must solve, consciously or instinctively. Tabuteau said once, “It is best done by inspiration; but if the inspiration is not there on a certain day, you had better know what you are doing.” By what increments a phrase rises from its incipit to its peak is a more complex question.

The Grouping of Figures

The confusion between articulation marks and phrasing is only one of the pitfalls into which an unwary musician may be drawn. It seems that everything in our notation system conspires to mislead a young musician.

Not only do the bowing marks [in an example at hand] appear to bind the figures into one-bar units, but the heavy beam that binds the eighth notes adds to the illusion. And each bar line appears to be a dam or obstruction. The actual grouping of the figures in the sense of the phrase is, of course, in direct contradiction to the appearance of the notation. Occasional attempts have been made to revise the notation of the music so that it more clearly shows the relationship of the notes, but the old system has prevailed. Students must be taught to feel the real relationships within the music. This was Tabuteau’s supreme gift to his students.

Regarding Inflection

Nearly every beginning music student is taught that duple time consists of a strong beat followed by a weak beat, while triple time involves that same strong beat followed by two weak ones. This describes metric groupings in terms of weight or accent. Tabuteau would describe them instead in terms of the urgent movement of the upbeat to the downbeat. To take an obvious example, in 2/4 time the fundamental groupings results from the tension generated from the active upbeat resolving to the stable downbeat. This relationship was the heartbeat of Tabuteau’s philosophy of interpretation.

At the beginning of his third recorded lesson in 1965, he said: “We will have today a lesson on distribution of inflection.” And after several examples he added, “You will excuse me with my Up and Down but to me, it is very important!”

This principle is hardly novel; as a matter of fact the words commonly used to describe it in scholarly writing, “arsis” and “thesis,” refer to the raising and dropping of the foot which was the chorus leader’s way to keep time in classical antiquity. Tabuteau used the words “up inflection” and “down inflection” so they will be preserved here. It was his imaginative expansion of this simple principle that gave his phrasing so much life and made his ideas so clear to students.

And so, in duple meter, the fundamental relationship exists between beat “two” and beat “one,” commonly compared to an iambic foot in poetry. A second relationship can exist between metric beats, that comparable to a “trochaic foot.” Tabuteau described this relationship as “down, rebound.” In ternary meter, this is the added element.

In triple meter as well as in smaller triple groupings there are: “up” (tension), “down” (resolution), and “rebound” (reaction).

Tabuteau often explained this in terms of that rubber ball when thrown against a wall. The cocking of the arm produces tension, the release against the wall is resolution, and the ball’s rebound is reaction. Like the ball, the rebound note must have a moment to react to the impact of striking the wall before it springs back and, like the ball, it rebounds with a little less energy than it had on impact.

Tabuteau often related musical “syllables” to prose. A phrase that begins with a “down inflection,” like the beginning of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4, was compared to a sentence which begins with “Now! ” or “Well! “

How Tabuteau Prepared his Students to use his Numbering System: The Drives

John de Lancie made the observation that undertrained players manifest their deficiencies most clearly “in the area of pianissimo.” It was to this area that Tabuteau addressed so much of his training in the form of “drives”, of scales, and of the level of control demanded in his now legendary ensemble classes. As he said in 1965, “In my opinion, the quality that carries is the amplification of a dolce tone. The dolce tone is the nearest to zero!”

Georges Gillet’s admonition, “Care should be taken to play piano in the low register, mezzo forte in the middle range, and forte in the high range in order to acquire homogeneity of tone,”  was reflected in the way the scales were done [by Tabuteau]; they were to be scaled from the level of 1 at the bottom to 9 at the top, exactly opposite to the acoustical tendency of the oboe. They were usually played in articulated eighth notes at a moderate tempo.

The “drives” began each lesson. They consisted of patterns of articulated (or sometimes unarticulated) notes of increasing, then decreasing, intensity. They addressed at once so many of the problems of “tone emission” that are at the core of the difficulty of oboe playing: wind control, articulation, reed placement, tone coloring, and even phrasing. They were very difficult to do.

After the “drives” and scales came etudes, at first from Barret and later from Ferling, carrying on the established tradition of the Conservatoire. There would always be a transposed study, invariably a semitone higher or lower than the original, most commonly from Barret , and then a difficult technical study to conclude.

Tabuteau’s Numbering System

Tabuteau’s Number System, the subject of so much discussion, was a way to more precisely chart the rise in intensity of a phrase and to indicate the smallest elements (he called them “syllables”) toward the peak and away again. This system was, in Tabuteau’s own words, subjective and applied inconsistently. This writer’s impression was that it would be applied only to phrases where the groupings were relatively clear and simple.

To quote an example, remembered exactly from an ensemble class [Hefner presents a well-known melody here]: Note that the rise in intensity is not necessarily synonymous with a rise in pitch. This phrase derives its increasing tension from the sequential repetition of a two “syllable” motive. When the numbers progress, that signifies an “up-down” inflection. When the number repeats, it means that these adjacent notes are unrelated. When the phrase is progressing toward its climax, the “down” inflection has more weight than the ” up . “

Tabuteau would illustrate this point by pretending to hold a carpenter’s hammer. He would make a violent upstroke and a soft downstroke and say, “You can’t drive nails in like that!” In the course of resolution, however, as the decreasing numbers indicate, the opposite is true.

There are, of course, other means of increasing tension than simple repetition. Rising pitch can be a contributing factor, as can harmonic movement, the introduction of active rhythmic figures, and above all, dissonance.

Regarding Color and Speed of the Wind

The comparison of the placement of the reed to the placement of the bow of the violin is very telling. To play near the tip of the reed produces a result exactly comparable to the bowing of the violin near the fingerboard: mellow, deep, and emphasizing the lower partials in the sound. As the bow moves toward the bridge, the sound becomes increasingly more strident and metallic. The same is true of the oboe.

As the player’s lips move toward the “string” of the reed, the sound approximates more and more the sound of the shawm, the ancestor of the oboe, in which the reed was either encapsulated or thrust untouched into the mouth of the player against whose lips the “pirouette” (like the handguard of a fencer) rested.

Needless to say, the fundamental reed placement of the oboist is near (Tabuteau said “on”) the tip of the reed, but for the high register or for a more strident quality the player must move toward the “string.” Tabuteau’s admonition: “Very important; avoid the crocodile bite with an immobile embouchure,” is to be taken very seriously.

“A real oboe vibrato is produced by the intensity of the speed of the player’s wind. But as you increase the speed, you should release the embouchure. Perhaps I can make this clear by comparing the process to the starting of a train. In the station, the locomotive grips the rails tightly as it slowly begins to move, but as it gains momentum it moves along more lightly and the grip slackens.”

This does not mean a loss of control, but simply that control is more lightly exercised at high speed. If the player does not loosen his lips as the speed of vibrations increases, he will produce that thin, acid tone, with its pinched quality, which is the mark of a bad oboist.

He often said that the player must “spin the tone” at moments of intensity. Krell’s comparison to a light ball suspended (and spinning) in the player’s wind is the perfect image to illustrate Tabuteau’s concept of tone support, coupled with a flexible embouchure and movable reed placement intended not only for the fundamental purpose of adjusting o the various registers of the instrument, but also for producing a variety of tone colors.

Tabuteau’s reeds were very light, as were Gillet’s, though in a much different way. The great depth and color in his sound came from the intensity and control of the wind and not fundamentally from the resistance of the reed. This was a point which he made somewhat unsuccessfully, even to some of his most successful and admired students.

Tabuteau on the Organ

Most performers have two powerful means of expression at their disposal: the distribution of time and weight. The organist has but one; he cannot make a inflection, but must give the illusion of doing so by shortening and lengthening notes. Tabuteau once said of the organ, “If it could breathe, we would all be out of a job.” And on another occasion, “It is like the steam from a radiator: pshhhh! “

Most of the great composers, the most conspicuous being J. S. Bach, of course, did not have any such prejudice. When similar sentiments to those above were expressed to Mozart by “Herr Stein,” the renowned clavier-maker and organ builder, he [Mozart] responded as follows:

When I told Herr Stein that I should like to play his organ, since the organ was my passion, he was greatly surprised and said:

“What! can such a man as you, such a great pianist, wish to play on an instrument devoid of douceur, of expression, of piano and forte, one which is always the same?”

[Said I] “Oh, there is nothing in that. The organ is still, to my eyes and ears, the king of instruments.”

[And Herr Stein] “Well, just as you like.”

And so we set off together.

The above is an extract from Donald Hefner’s 1984 dissertation: The Tradition of the Paris Conservatoire School of Oboe Playing with Special Attention to the Influence of Marcel Tabuteau; Ph. D. Catholic University of America.


Donald Hefner gave additional information regarding Tabuteau’s Number System in a 1996  interview with Sarah Maude Wetherbee:

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The above is an experept from Sarah Maude Wetherbee’s 2002 dissertation: Marcel Tabuteau’s Influence on String Playing at the Curtis Institute of Music: a Philosophy of Twentieth-Century Performance Practice.

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