John Mack

John Mack (1927–2006) studied with Marcel Tabuteau privately during 1944-45 and from 1948 to 1951 at the Curtis Institute of Music where he received his diploma. While attending Curtis, he began making reeds for Tabuteau much to his teacher’s satisfaction. Following his graduation, he was principal oboist in the New Orleans Symphony and then the National Symphony in Washington. In 1965 he was appointed principal oboe of the Cleveland Orchestra by George Szell where he performed with distinction until his retirement in 2001. During his time studying with Tabuteau, he assimilated many of Tabuteau’s musical ideas passing them on to a new generation of oboists. In interviews with Laurie Van Brunt and Melissa Stevens, John Mack discusses various aspects of the Tabuteau System.


The following excerpt is from Laurie Van Brunt’s 1977 interview of John Mack concerning the Tabuteau System:

LVB: Did you work on different things when you studied with him earlier?

JM: Barret – started right in on Barret, the most simplistic things in the Barret book. That means like page one, quarter notes, when to breathe, and the most basic things about which notes go with which notes. I might say at this point that I consider Tabuteau to have been extremely arbitrary. He was arbitrary on purpose sometimes with every forethought, because of the fact that he felt that many people’s musical training from kindergarten on up with the beans in a jar or whatever it might have happened to be, the antithesis of what he considered to be the way rhythm, for instance, was distributed between beats. The whole idea of having the subdivisions come as a residue of a strong pulse was absolutely abhorrent to him. He was much more concerned with the rhythm having direction towards the strong pulse, towards the down beat. As far as I’m concerned personally, it could happen to be one of many. I mean if you want to take four, there are the times when it is 1 2 3 4 and does fall from the strong beat, as in the last movement of the Prague Symphony of Mozart [sings example.] Each one is an appoggiatura on the beat and the residue therefrom. The other divisions being 2 3 4 1, which he was very fond of; 4 1 2 3, which he was very fond of; and 3 4 1 2, which would be ‘gavotte’ style. I think that it is very, very important that all of those things be explored by a teacher with the pupils so that they are as best equipped as possible to recognize a musical situation and play according to its demands. Tabuteau was a little more arbitrary than that though; he would very often force a last beat resolution into an upbeat posture rhythmically, because I think he felt he was fighting a battle. And he had to fight it. Of course, I was not that far from the end of his teaching career, and as is the case with all really outstanding and inspired, gifted people, their own theories and outlook become rather more precious to them as the years mount up and almost seem to become a holy cause to be espoused. And I think Tabuteau was also that way. He was going to make something fit his theory whether it was an exception to the rule or not. He did spot the exceptions, and he did point them out sometimes, but there were many times when I felt it was a little too one-sided, and just a little too absolute, a little more than could be swallowed. Of course, I feel much, much more strongly that way now with the passage of years and the gaining of some considerable knowledge since that time.

LVB: Can you explain his numbers system?

JM: Surely. Tabuteau used numbers in order to show advancement of the intensity and/or dynamics of a line. He was always interested in advancement, and he was always against retreat. The numbers that he used were really to, in my estimation, accomplish a dual purpose. One was to give you an outrigger, a way of being able to control and recognize your levels of intensity, whatever you want to call them … let’s just call them levels. That was one; that’s more or less the obvious one, the way in which it makes it possible for a player to be able to pick up the instrument and execute some intricate little phrase with exactly the same shape time after time after time after time. Not that it’s a machine like thing, but an artist has to have that capability. If they want it to be a certain way, they have to be able to do it that way. And this is a way for them to learn how to do this and also to learn to recognize things. Now the second part of it is rather more subtle, and I think it’s humorous, really. What it did was by Tabuteau graphing a phrase for you, he was subtly getting his ideas of how the phrase should be shaped right into the marrow of your bones without you ever knowing that that was what was happening. He was getting you, as he said to a student once who came to him France from afar, that in six weeks’ time it would be long enough for him to put his mark on him. And that mark would be something that would show up in their playing that would be recognizable as something, that would be associated by those who knew, with the musicality and direction and artistry of Marcel Tabuteau. So, that’s what the numbers were for.

He also used the numbers in such a way as to help a line be successful from simply an acoustical stand point. Tabuteau was very concerned about the line. I remember him saying that the first rule of music for us above all other rules is to keep our lines. Now that’s acoustics that you’re talking about. That means that when you play a line, no note is either going to disappear from the line to such a degree that it destroys the line nor is any note going to step out so far that it is incongruous with the passage of the line. And for this purpose he would use numbers. Very, very seldom would you be going from one number to another number that wasn’t an adjacent number, unless you were stopping to start again. So, a string of seven notes instead of being 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 would very often be 1 1 2 as the first group and then 1 2 3 4 as the second group, which is a way of, what I would call compression, that is to say, getting much more out of something than you ordinarily would. It’s the same thing as if you were to try to throw a ball with a stiff arm or to throw it with an arm that hinges at the elbow. The one that

hinges at the elbow gives you a 1 – 2 sectionalization of the motion that makes twenty times the impact that you can possibly achieve with one sweeping motion. Tabuteau thought about these things; he experimented with them; he fooled around with that and tried and tried and retried and so forth until he felt that he found a nugget of musical truth or reality that was something that he could use. So, the numbers were really a way of doing those two things: getting his own ideas across subtly and the other from a completely practical stand point, physical stand point if you would, of getting a student to be able control their output. That’s basically what the numbers system was, and I wouldn’t even presume to try to go into detail other than what I have already, and the fact that you could be ever advancing with numbers and still end up more or less not louder than you were, but still with the feeling of advancement. He was always very much against the idea of having the engine going without being in gear or marking time in one place without moving. Everything had to move, and it was forward motion always, be it crescendo, diminuendo, or whatever.

LVB: He used the numbers to explain the phrases all the time – -?

JM: Not all the time, no, gradually less as you went on. I use the numbers very sparingly with my own students, just enough to get them to the point where they understand the control factor that can be achieved that way and its importance. I hound them only long enough to the point where I feel that they have achieved that and that they do understand it. I try to solve some of those problems in a different way than my own teacher did. It certainly did work for him.

LVB: In your own mind, how did vibrato fit in –

JM: Vibrato was an undiscussed topic. It was made a joke of sometimes. I remember as a youngster asking him something about it and immediately getting some cock-and-bull story about “You relax the lips and the reed vibrates and makes vibrato” [imitating Tabuteau’s accent]. He would say anything whatsoever, and it was one of those things; that was a subject that was up to you to come up with your own solution. It’s one of those mystical things with the oboe since it’s an internal thing, not external like a string player. String Players just go ahead and study and learn to do that. It’s no more given any thought of; no one is going to sit around on the violin and wait for something to happen as if by magic, by nature. Although this is greatly espoused on the oboe that that’s what one should do, I take a rather jaundice view of the whole business. I’d rather not go into it too much, but as far as Tabuteau’s concerned to say that he didn’t. I remember when he had seized upon a high note and the room was throbbing at full intensity, and he fixed on me with rolling eyes that reminded me of frightened young calf or something, being sure that he had my attention, he pulled the oboe out of his mouth and in mock something or other said, “Well, Mack, there is your vibrato!” [Imitating Tabuteau’s accent.] Something like that, sort of trying to make a joke out of it. Was he concerned about it himself? Of course, he certainly was like every other artist, deeply and completely concerned, but he felt, and I agree with him, that there is something rather private about it. I think that in a way vibrato is almost a reflection of a person’s psyche or the condition there-of. I think most people would be forced to admit that. He tried to avoid physical things. The only physical that Tabuteau every really harped on were certain elements of posture like not having your arms too low or too high and the angle of the oboe which he would experiment with, perhaps according to his student’s embouchure, in order to get a better result. And the hand position was discussed in some great detail. I’m always amused when I see

former students of Tabuteau who were told repetitively by Tabuteau that their hand position was too much this way and too much that way, and to this day they are doing what they did despite having been told, but I suppose that’s human nature.

LVB: Did he make a distinction between dynamics and intensity?

JM: Oh yes, sure. There were times when there was to be an increase or decrease in intensity that was not that much to do with the volume itself. It had to do more with what we would probably break down and call either tone color or vibrato or something like that. He would do all those things, and he would play them for you and make your hair stand on end, and you’d eat your heart out to be able to do something like that. You would go home and extend yourself. And I think a great deal that was learned from Tabuteau by his pupils was simply learned by imitation. And I don’t see anything wrong with that whatsoever. If you can learn to do something even if it’s by imitation, you have a least learned to do it, and you may a little later on learn the rest of it, but at least you didn’t waste any time in between deciding not to try. So, yes he did, he absolutely did discuss and make musical demands on you.

LVB: Did he use his embouchure and reed placement to change colors?

JM: Oh sure, and he would talk about it. He did talk about embouchure position and things like the chin must be down. I’m not talking about the jaw, but the meat on the outside thereof, so that your jaw would look like while playing as it would when whistling. He would discuss it. Yes, he absolutely would, he would say that it was with your lips that you were able to have the same range of color on the oboe on the same reed that a string player can get by playing nearer the bridge or nearer to the finger board. He could do it himself. I really don’t think I have heard any oboe player ever anywhere approach the range of tone color that he could have on the instrument and still having it sound just fine all the time. Most people find their voice, so to speak, and stick to it. I think one reason they do is because if it changes too much and too drastically or too wildly from what it is at one moment to what it is at another moment, it can give a practically schizophrenic kind of attitude to the playing. But his was not that way. He could rearrange the color in a most striking way without ever having you feel that he had taken leave of his senses or he was Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or anything like that. It was always from one personality. I think that is very important in playing just for the acceptability of a performance on the part of a listener that a certain voice come from one personality, not that the personality doesn’t have many different facets, but that it’s not in any ways a shattered thing.

LVB: How did he accomplish the change in color?

JM: Well, by how much lips he had on the reed in different places. He always contended that it was best to have some kind of a scissors grip on the reed between the upper and lower lips, and that directly opposite, confronting upper and lower lips towards the oboe was something that gave you far less control than having something off-set somehow. It would give you more purchase on the reed. And, of course, after you have done that and you fool around, you find out what it is. Am I supposed to tell you what it is when he didn’t? Well, certainly having to do with how near one’s lip might be to the tip of the reed compared to the other, and that’s practically a filtration system.. You can take noisy notes on

the oboe and make them sound completely and perfectly civilized without any great difficulty if you touch the reed in the right place, in the right amount.

LVB: So it was moving up and down the reed –?

JM: Well, no, no, I wouldn’t say that. He would move up and down the reed according to register demands. Of course, needless to say, low notes were in principle played nearer the tip and high notes with the reed moving into the mouth. The oboe was played in principle with the mouth open, not shut, and the tone was carried by the wind, and the dynamics were a result of the composite, what you might call an indirect ratio between the wind speed and the lip pressure. That was spelled out to me in my very first venture as a sixteen year old, that that was what it was, that you had more lips and less wind or wind speed (He always used the word speed.) He wanted to think of the wind as something traveling and alive, never something like just pressure. He didn’t like the idea of talking about it that way, so he used the expression “speed,” which I think is quite fine. Anyone who has ever heard any of his…., well the records aren’t that good that we hear, but one can hear the motion in the sound; there’s no question about that. The motion in the line and the concept and phrasing; it moves, it goes; it travels, it’s never stationary. Sometimes it travels faster than it does at other times. And I would defy anyone to say it is because of the vibrato or it is because of this or that. It’s not because of any of that business; it’s because of his imagination; that’s all.

LVB: Did Tabuteau use the terms up and down impulses?

JM: Oh, all the time. That would be one of the very first things that anybody would get was that there is an upbeat and a downbeat, and the upbeat goes to the downbeat, and you can’t stop between the up and the down any more than you can throw something up in the air and have it stay up there before it decides to come down. And that even the uninitiated down beat has an invisible, inaudible preparation to it, that you don’t have a downbeat that doesn’t have a reason for its being. He did not believe in the spontaneous generation of a pulse. Far from it, it always had to have some preparation be it 4 1 2 3 or 2 3 4 1. Also likened to inhaling and exhaling, as inhaling being the up feeling. If we were to go into a discussion about what does up mean and what does down mean, then we could have a lot of fun, but everybody knows what up means and what down means. And high notes we call high notes; high notes have more vibrations per second and low notes do the opposite. We know that notes sound high or low in a particular voice, that low notes on the piccolo sound like low notes although they’re high notes on the bassoon; they sound like high notes when they’re played on the bassoon. We know all those things. So when we think up, we think up and when we think down, we think down. And he wanted us to feel that advantage that the string player can have, which is also a natural disadvantage, of having something (the bow) that naturally is easier to give that kind of a feeling of a pulling up and a preparation to something that settles down.

LVB: Well, the up seems easier to understand how to produce it that the down.

JM: Why?

LVB: I mean, how do you physically produce a down impulse?

JM: There’s no physical thing involved whatsoever other than your body answering the demands of your mind. It’s so very simple to play notes that sound like they have an up impulse or a down impulse. I don’t think there is anything I can say physically that would explain anything whatsoever; it’s all strictly mental, and perfectly clear to hear when it’s down. So, it’s not a physical thing. I am very much against physical aspects of teaching, as Tabuteau was. I don’t like to discuss physical things. Physical things are not the answer! They are a means to something or other, but they have nothing to do. The solution, the idea, the concept that’s in your mind is the ruling force and the body will conform. It does. It does; enough people do it. It’s not that you can do a physical thing and get a musical result. You do a musical thing, and the body helps you out, and you get the musical result.

LVB: We pretty much touched on the bar line before –

JM: Well, the bar line was something to cross over as far as he was concerned. He felt that the bar line, I suppose, was like a line in the sidewalk that you step over and not in anyways like a bulkhead on shipboard that has to be stepped over with a great effort. He was very much, very much concerned with getting over the bar line, very much concerned with it, and he was very much concerned with that up impulse. Of course in so doing he would go into such detail as to point out the fact that there are so many instances where the character of the up beat and the down beat that follows are completely and totally different. As is so often the case in classical music, for example, where there’s an accentuated up beat that goes to a dolce downbeat and does not in anyways sound like a rude or vulgar accent. His analogy for that to me early on was you tap the balloon up, you give it a sharp tap and it jumps up, but then it settles down. And it’s a perfectly natural thing. Of course, if you think hard enough, you can think of almost a natural thing to fit anything. As long as you can think of a natural thing to fit something, you can play it that way and have it sound fine. But yes, he was very concerned with the upbeat, very, very concerned with the up beat and to the point as I say, I feel sometimes that the up beat work was overly stressed by him in his teaching and sometimes in his playing also. It was as though he had to settle a score, an old score, and had to keep working at it all the time.

LVB: [We left off on the last tape on principles of] articulation.

JM: Tee or taa, nothing else, supposedly. The tee was relegated to the strong pulse, the down impulse. So if you play 2 3 4 1, taa taa taa /tee, and the idea being of course to give that extra energy, I suppose, to that one that needs it, but without having the in-between ones fall off to something less than of relatively primary importance. So, he always had the two directions. I guess the taa you would consider to be either residual from a strong beat or preparatory to the next beat and the tee would be that. So it would be taa taa taa/tee, taa taa taa /tee. In the two and two articulations, what we call two and two, which he would call one and three because only one is really legato or something like that, but anyway, what we in the trade refer to as two and two articulation, two notes slurred and two notes separate, he would sing that as tee long taa taa, tee long taa taa,tee. The reason he did this (I take great issue with that myself personally,) but the reason he did it was to solve two problems: one of rhythm and one of line. If you play this last slurred note full length all the time, it will always be heard; and it will be heard in relative equality with the other notes. Also playing that note full length tends to keep one from playing unrhythmically. The usual tendency in two and two articulation for wind players is to get

off the first note slightly too soon. By concentrating on playing the second note full length, for some reason, it helps the first note also. And also the feeling of saying tee long taa taa, the sound itself almost makes an attenuated feeling. So when you think tee long taa taa, tee long taa taa, you have something there for each note. Now he insisted on the last slurred note being played long all the time. That was gospel of some sort or other. We all did it. It was either do it or get you head handed to you, so we did it, and we all decided that’s the way it’s supposed to be. That’s one way it is sometimes, and it all depends on the musical situation. He was solving a problem, two problems; he solved the two problems. Unfortunately in my own estimation and one of the ways in which I differ with his teaching is that I feel that to send somebody out with that knowledge is to send them out short of what they should know. He has not taken care of all the musical situations. It’s a much easier way to handle it; it’s much easier to do; you can get somebody to play in such a way that it sounds reasonable and musical and nice right away, but it does not … I mean that’s like being a baseball player, and you know how to catch fly balls, you can catch any fly ball around, but with grounders you’re not so hot. I don’t think you can really be that way. I must say that I remember perfectly clearly that Tabuteau himself did not always play that way by any matter of means. That was one of those things that you were told, and you were either smart enough to pick up on the fact that he did not do that himself all the time or you weren’t. And that was something that was left up to you. That was the interesting part to Tabuteau; wait and see what somebody would do with what they had been given. Which ones would just accept blindly at face value what they were told and live with it for the rest of their lives or which ones would be a little more acute about it. I also remember perfectly and distinctly playing something for him where I was playing the last slurred note less than full length, but with a feeling of the line continuing through it, through the next notes. It was at that point he started screaming, “Yes, you’ve got it Mack, you’ve got it.” I was so happy; however, I didn’t have it the next day, but I had it that day. I have it now; I had it from four years later; I’ve had it ever since. I finally figured out for myself what was going on that he wasn’t particularly able to explain. I asked him specifically once over lunch at Horn and Hardarts, having a Tabuteau Special (which was a grilled cheese sandwich, apple sauce, and coffee, all very fine at that particular Horn and Hardarts), and he at that time was toying with the idea of having his students write down everything they thought they had ever learned from him, and he would compile it and issue a tome. But, he wouldn’t want to do that; he wouldn’t want to spill too many beans to too many people without their doing something other than just pay money for it. Since I was busy making reeds, I didn’t have to write anything down, but I got asked and the very first thing I asked was is how do you stop a note when you are articulating. Well, we went around Robin Hood’s barn; it was like you dampen like the piano and this and that with the lips; yes, no, no, yes with the tongue, no, yes, yes, no, and he finally started to get angry. So, that was the end of the conversation; he changed the subject and that was it. But, he did it to perfection himself. He could do it, he could do it any old way whatsoever, and did very frequently. It’s amusing to me in retrospect that he would teach one way as if it were the only way and yet do many other things himself without ever mentioning it to his students. I think that falls in with the whole idea that Tabuteau was very fond of, I think in a way: “I taught him everything he knows, but I didn’t teach him everything I know;” which was exactly what Tabuteau would do.

LVB: Was there scaling of articulation?

JM: Yes, scaling of articulation, scaling of articulation length, absolutely. Now that differed, you know, that differed at different times. In earlier days than mine at Curtis, he had something called a reed class where the students would line up and get their reeds broken or whatever. Also he would have them line up and play scales with each one playing a note differently [playing a different note?] At that time they played their notes all full length. That was their way of playing scales; they played all notes full length. Later on he changed them, certainly by the time I was around there, you played scales and if you played articulated scales, as you went up the scale the notes gradually became longer until they were full length at the top and they were graduated on the way down. But this is not something that one does very much in music. It’s a marvelous exercise though; it’s a marvelous exercise in the development of your control of articulation lengths and also of your imagination. It’s sort of like taking a free ride; it’s like jumping off the roof and flying around the house three times and landing again. That’s not something you do in your daily life, but it sure is exciting and perhaps instructional in some way too.

LVB: If you are scaling the articulation, this is something different from tee and taa?

JM: That would be taa taa taa taa taa taa tee or whatever it happened to be. You would just use the basic taa or whatever it was, but the scaling of the articulation as in Barret articulation study number #1, second line, then you would play [singing the example lengthening the notes on the way up], and the notes on the way down would be getting slightly shorter; just like pearls would be on a necklace where the pearls are graduated in size and they’re getting slightly smaller, although perfectly matched in color and shape, the only thing that’s different is the size. And there’s a thread through them all, which although invisible, is obviously present. That kind of thing.

LVB: Were there any special techniques for playing syncopations and dotted notes?

JM: Syncopations always had to have a space before them. He would very often make iron clad rules. Then every now and then there would be an exception which would crop up which was to illuminate you on the subject. For instance, all grace notes and trills were to be articulated with a space or a semblance of space as preparation before them, so that their true purpose musically would be set off. Syncopated notes also had to have space before them with the one every-now-and-then exception where a syncopation is rushed to from the previous note. All those situations are covered in Barret fairly early on in the book; you run into all those things and you have both situations.

On this subject of the Barret book, I might say that that book has been handed down and used here and there for so many years, and the book itself could be terribly, terribly misleading. Even the most talented youngster could take the Barret book and wade through it by himself or herself ten times in a row and be completely misled by any number of things. One must remember that Barret was a player and a teacher, and he wrote the method to teach with. That’s still exactly what it is. None of the most important teaching is done by books, by written word or anything like that, it’s by the passing on of information and most helpfully with the instrument in the hand and mouth to show from one generation to the next generation what this means and how this is done and not what it looks like, but what it represents. And the Barret book is very much that way, and Tabuteau used it brilliantly in so doing to try to make you aware of what looks a certain way, but really means something quite different

and that one must learn how those things go, just as one has to learn certain articulations mean rather different things with one composer than they do with another, that a composer uses articulation markings in his own way.

LVB: Did you want to say anything about dotted notes?

JM: Dotted notes?

LVB: As in the opening of the Eroica slow movement –

JM: Well, it all depends. There’s not too much to be said about that; it depends upon the purpose of the dotted note. If the dotted note is an upbeat, and the little note following is also an upbeat, then they both have a certain upbeat impulse, each one to themselves. I don’t exactly know what you’re trying to ask me.

LVB: Was there any space –

JM: Oh feeling of space according to the mood of the music. In the beginning of the slow movement of the Eroica, it sounds very musical and almost too arty and not somber enough to make space between those notes. The feeling of relief from the first note yes, but I think those are all determined in the final analysis by the musical situation. In a faster tempo in a major key then certainly you play [sings with a space], but in a minor key in a funeral march, it’s almost out of keeping. It’s as though you were walking along behind the caisson or something and skipping while you’re walking; it’s a contradiction.

Tabuteau was very strong on contradictions. As a matter of fact, one of his cutest things would be to bob his head up and down and say very cheerfully, “No, No!” [imitating Tabuteau’s accent] at the same time and then wag his head from side to side and happily say, “Yes, yes!” at the same time. Of course, when somebody does this to you, it’s a shock. It’s like putting one hand in hot water and the other in cold at the same time. It’s unnatural, and it is a shock because it is an obvious contradiction. His purpose would be to show you that certain things are by their very nature contradictory. Under certain circumstances you don’t do this no matter what it looks like, because it doesn’t make sense. It’s not supposed to be that way, you’re to interpret what it really means.

LVB: Was there a down impulse on the dot or –

JM: No not at all. No, the down impulse is on the downbeat. If you were going to play something that was [sings repeated dotted eighth with sixteenth figures], well then it would be tee, taa-tee taa-tee like that kind of a feeling of up down up down or something he would do with a bow. He used to say that wind players should learn from string players and singers, etc. Each of the other learn from the other two. He didn’t mention the piano to terribly much there, and he despised the organ. (But, my answer to that is J.S. Bach played the organ and wrote for it all the time, so how could it have been so bad?)

LVB: Would you like to talk about intervals?

JM: Oh yes, very much so. That was one of the earliest things too that you must play the life of the intervals, the real value of the interval to play an “a” and then a fifth higher, an “e”, consecutively with the preparation for the interval, the pressing off of the low note and the arrival of the high note in good form, the arrival being an achievement rather than impact was very important to him and that the low note must sound as though it is going to go to exactly the note it is going to go to. No mistake about it whatsoever, it is a calculated leap. If you leap a certain distance you know where you’re going to, just like a dancer’s going to leap a certain distance, he or she knows exactly the distance they are going to leap and they know how they are going to land. It’s not going to look like a difficult thing, and you have to push off in order to make it, like a high jumper has to push off a certain amount in order to achieve altitude. And that was very much the case with him. Also upward intervals were played on an under curve upward, and down intervals were played on an over curve downward on a loop of some sort or other, that give you a feeling of motion and of driving something just as much as, I suppose rushing down a roller coaster and sort of coasting up the other side. There’s a certain trajectory that the notes come on and you provide it and the notes come on it. It sounds sort of crack-potty, but it most certainly is not. That’s exactly where it is.

LVB: Did you ever hear Tabuteau say, “It is important to place one’s notes on the wind or the bow and not to wind or bow the notes.”?

JM: Oh, absolutely. A basic premise was that the line… you created the line, and the notes were placed on the line. Haphazard notes did not create the line. The notes were not haphazard. The line was specific. No matter how curved it might be, no matter what the direction of the line might be, the notes must be placed on it. So, he preached this, and of course, the whole technique of articulation on the wind is something I would not presume to go into in this, but that’s exactly what he taught, absolutely, the line was first. He would practice a passage sometimes or demonstrate how a passage could be practiced on one note to make the arch of a phrase on one note and then to take the variegated notes themselves and place them on that same line. So maybe a high note is going to be a little less and a low note is going to be a little bit more in order to take their proper place in that line, so that the line comes out with the same continuity as if you were playing one note repeatedly. He would do that with passages from the repertoire or anything. He would say, “I practice this this way,” and play the repeated notes in the right rhythm and with the direction and the inflection that he wanted and do that and make it sound quite convincing. Something is missing, but it is a very convincing statement in itself. And then add the other dimension by producing the real notes on that line. The whole technique of doing that with the wind is a rather complicated thing, and it’s certainly not something one does all the time by any matter of means. But, it’s something that one has to be able to do in order to be able to achieve certain things musically. It has to be in the repertoire.

LVB: Did Tabuteau teach breathing?

JM: Oh not very much, not very much. I may not be in the position to answer that question properly, because he did not say much to me about it. Now it may simply be that he felt I was doing more or less the right thing and therefore he didn’t say anything. The one thing he would say was, I mean he wanted to make sure when we talk about correct breathing on woodwinds we’re talking about

breathing essentially without moving the rib cage too much and using the musculature there-beneath to do the work. So, if he saw a student’s shoulders hike up when they took a breath or their chest pop up, then he would get after them for that right away, but he didn’t talk that much about it. As I say, I think perhaps if a student’s breathing seemed to him to be on the right track, he wouldn’t become worrisome about it. Whereas if somebody’s were not, he might, but I don’t know for sure.

My own feeling about it, and one of the ways in which I really do not see eye to eye with my great teacher, is that Tabuteau in a way taught a generation of players, and he really left it all up to them about what would happen after themselves. This has been gnawing at me for many, many years, and I am very much concerned about it that I not follow in his footsteps in that department. I try to give all the alternatives. If a student doesn’t know about a certain thing because it’s not a particular problem, discuss it anyway, because it may be a problem they’ll have to deal sometime with a student of their own. And to leave somebody alone in a certain department just because they happen to be lucky about doing it well is leaving too many stones unturned. So as I say, that would be my basic disagreement; I really feel he taught players. He taught people to play the oboe. I think that perhaps the reason he didn’t do anymore that that was the same thing that I have harped on before, I guess he figured if there were one or more among them that had the particular interest to be more observant and to be more interested in being a successful teacher themselves that those qualities would evidence themselves in that person. I suspect that that’s true, because of his overall approach towards everything.


The following is an extract from Melissa A. Stevens’ 1999 dissertation Marcel Tabuteau: Pedagogical Concepts and Practices for Teaching Musical Expressiveness: An Oral History.

JM: John Mack; MS: Melissa Stevens

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