The following narrative was extracted from the Preface of Laila Storch’s monumental biography Marcel Tabuteau: How Do You Expect to Play the Oboe If You Can’t Peel a Mushroom? Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008. It is being included here because it sums up the profound influence Marcel Tabuteau had upon the standard of classical music performance in the United States during the 20th-century and beyond, and serves as the ideal introduction to her understanding and explanation of the Tabuteau System. Editorial Board
For almost forty years music lovers, students, connoisseurs, and fellow musicians were enthralled by the unique artistry of Marcel Tabuteau. They listened to his phrasing, his elegance of style, and to his silvery tone as it would spiral and float seemingly without effort to the top rows of the balcony of the Academy of Music in Philadelphia. During the time that Tabuteau was the solo oboist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, he also taught at the Curtis Institute of Music. To his own oboe students he passed on the best elements of the French woodwind tradition, at the same time establishing such new standards of finesse in orchestral blending, Variety of tone color, and nuance of phrasing that what is now known as the “American school of oboe playing,” or, more specifically the “Tabuteau style,” has become the accepted and expected norm for oboists in all American symphony orchestras. Through his conducting of woodwind ensembles, his influence reached the players of all other wind instruments. In later years he coached string groups and led an orchestra. Many violinists, Violists, cellists, and pianists have said that they received their most valuable musical knowledge in Tabuteau’s classes at Curtis.
How did an orchestral musician, someone who only rarely appeared in the capacity of a soloist, and who in his thirty years at the Curtis Institute did not teach more than fifty-seven oboists there, come to have such a far—reaching impact on the development of musical performance in our country? It may be easier to understand through a brief look at some of the ways in which Tabuteau thought about music. His conception of technique was not speed of fingers, although he would emphasize brilliance when it was called for. To him, oboe technique was the total control of all the elements required to most ideally express the life of a musical phrase. This meant a coordination of the use of one’s wind, the embouchure, variety of tone color and nuance, articulation, and, above all, imagination and personality. While conducting the string ensemble at the Curtis Institute, he once said to the students, most of whom practiced for long hours with the single—minded idea of a virtuoso career, “You must be open to everything—learn from everything. The more you take from the World, the more you can give to the world. Develop your personality and do more than ‘shroom’ and scratch ten hours a day!” Tabuteau repeatedly stressed the idea of having “some-thing to say.” “It is not the golden pen or the silver pencil that writes the novel—not the platinum flute or the diamond oboe that plays the melody. You must have something to say!”
In speaking of his philosophy of music, Tabuteau often referred to the “laws of nature.” To explain his concept of the “life” of the notes and of the “up and down impulses,” he used illustrations ranging from the movement of the earth around the sun to the motion involved in our own normal respiration or the Way one must lift the foot before being able to put it down. He also evolved his “number system” as a way to impart in an extremely precise manner his ideas of rhythm, dynamic range, and the shaping of musical phrases. However, applying numbers to explain the minute gradations of intensity and nuance in a line of music did not preclude his use of colorful examples to help put across a point. Sometimes it was by means of the “golf player”: “He can have the cap and the pants and better clubs and hit the ball. He looks like a golf player—but the real one—the professional, knows exactly where the ball is going. Every note must be placed like the ball in golf—in the hole. You must not miss—it is a game!” Or again: “Perfection is like the point of a needle—it is easy to hit all around it.” And in a warning against monotony: “Your playing is like saltwater taffy. You see all the beautiful colors—red, blue, yellow—but they all taste the same.”
Tabuteau, who retired in 1954, missed by a few years the time when he could easily have been caught “in action” by television or video cam-era. With his volatile temperament (explosive outbursts were often followed by observations full of wit and humor, all delivered with an intonation that made his English sound more like French), he would have been more persuasively represented by himself than by the imitations and the “Tabuteau stories” that continue to circulate to this day. In once criticizing the degree of sound he wished a student to produce, he said, “Your forte is like near—beer—during Prohibition—not the real thing.” It is perhaps an indication of the force of his personality that even though contact with the “real thing” is no longer possible, the fascination continues, and many people wish to hear more about Marcel Tabuteau.
Next Section: Studies with Marcel Tabuteau