Tabuteau System Extracts

The following description of the Tabuteau System has been assembled from letters that Laila Storch wrote to her mother during her student days and notes taken later on at lessons with Marcel Tabuteau. The concepts are presented sequentially as Laila notated them. (This compilation is still a work in progress.)  The full context of Laila’s experience appears in her groundbreaking 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 highly recommended reading for all serious classical musicians. Thank you Laila for sharing!  

He was explaining something about this new, original system of his—says it would revolutionize the whole foundation and conception of music and that it is what makes his playing sound different that everyone imitates him, but they don’t know the secret so they don’t sound the same. It is all based on numbers and when you know that, you can actually hear them when he plays. You can hear 1, 1-2, 2-3, 3-4 as plain as day. Every note is placed exactly at a certain spot as if on a micrometer. It seems to me it would take almost a superhuman accuracy and perfection to play like that and you’d think anything so calculated and mathematical would sound cold and dry, but it certainly doesn’t the way he does it. He’ll have me play five notes over and over to get just the right impulses. Then he also scraped on my reed and tried it on my oboe and he could sound the same as he usually does on my oboe while I can’t sound anything like him. He says of course he cannot expect me to change over night. I’m surprised he doesn’t expect me to do just that. However, I think his system of thinking of notes by numbers (which is something different again from his reeds), would put a very solid foundation under everything you do and would keep your playing from sounding aimless and pointless. There is such a difference between just blowing an oboe and playing music regardless of the difficulties of the instrument. Tabuteau makes you play from the top of your head to the bottom of your feet—not, as he says, “From your neck up.” It may not sound any different to the average listener, but it’s what makes you feel there is a lot more behind every note he plays.

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The way I place my notes on my wind annoys him no end. There has to be a perfect continuity, and you really have to get a mental picture in your head of the line of the music. He is always talking about the Line. One thing I did pleased him—something he demonstrated first—and he said he couldn’t do it any better himself. For him, you can’t practice a lesson, and then dismiss it from your mind after you play it, because you have to keep putting the same things into practice, and also, he makes you go back and play the same exercises over in a different key, so there’s no forgetting, but it surely takes concentration.

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The lessons, as described in my letters, were often close to traumatic experiences, but fortunately I also kept a little notebook in which I wrote down the valuable counsels Tabuteau gave me week by week. If faithfully followed, they provide a basis for control of all the elements necessary to play expressively on the oboe. The notes began on January 25, 1943:

  1. Start long tones like an engine, gradually, not sudden, increasing the wind intensity by blowing faster from 1-9, while the lips do the opposite. On the return, 4—3—2—1 must be up, up up inflections before the “down” resolution on 1.
  2. There should be no friction—begin the note like a hot rod cutting into butter. The gradations [of sound or intensity] should be as fine as those on a micrometer.
  3. In a series of notes separate them but gauge the space between the longer notes, decreasing the space as the notes get longer.
  4. The oboe should be a part of you. In itself it means nothing. You should speak. Beautiful phrasing is more thinking first than anything. Think before you speak or play. Hear the tone in your head before you produce it. (A dark, smooth tone, not shrill.)
  5. Practice on one note 1-5-1, sustained and tongued. When changing notes, play between the notes with a perfect legato. Play these five notes as if they are the most beautiful music in the world. Scale—wise passages are the most beautiful.
  6. When beginning a note say Ta not Blah, and don’t sound like the air coming out of a balloon. Be ready to play.
  7. Silence—and then a tone starting out and coming back to silence is most beautiful. Silence—quiet—is important. Just create more and more disturbance in the air—gradually—not sudden.
  8. Be every bit as particular in practice as at lessons.
  9. Have something to say, not just moving your fingers and having it sound like an oboe. When the oboe talks it means nothing.

All of the above comments were made in my first two lessons. By my third lesson on February 4, I was admonished not to “pump the wind into the notes. No matter how many notes you play, do it with the continuation of the wind, like bowing on a violin.”

Don’t force for volume. Be conscious of what you do. Analyze how you finish the last articulated note. In connecting notes, float like an eagle, don’t flap like a duck. In a series of 1-9-1, hold the final attacked note as long as possible, letting air escape through the nose. Between 1 and 0 there must be a mile.

Have the air pressure there before you start to play. Like the pressure in a faucet. Analyze what you do when it is good, so you can be sure you know what you are doing.

A dark, smooth tone should be velour—like velvet. Not scratchy like sandpaper.

Every reed is different-—you must change the position of the lip accordingly.

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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!”

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By February 18, we had progressed to making gradations from 1 to 13 and back to 1. Then we began doing three sets of scales in chromatic sequence, C Major and A minor, D Flat Major and B Flat minor, D Major and B minor, as well as the chromatic scale from C to high E, all detached and slurred, with the admonition to change position of lips when going to the high notes and not to play like steps of a staircase but in a spiral.

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I began to understand more fully all that I had learned in these first ten lessons and became convinced of the logical base of Tabuteau’s “system.” I saw that in playing the notes of the 1-9-1 pattern, if you are counting in 4/4 time, the fifth and the ninth will arrive on a downbeat (or down impulse) and the notes in between should be played with “up” inflections, all of which can then be transferred to scales and applied to musical phrases.

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After over a month spent on trying to achieve some control over single notes and scale-wise patterns, I finally began the melodies in the Barret book. Now he gave even more attention to inflections, the “up and down” directions, which must be in the right places in the melodic line. Recognizing that the oboe’s great possibility is to express the essence of a musical thought, he said, “It is better to practice a few notes carefully than to play one thousand—especially on the oboe.” I began to realize that with Tabuteau’s approach, as much significance could be condensed into a short phrase as something thinly spread throughout several pages of music.

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I wish I could tell you how wonderful his class was. I’m sure there’s nothing else like it in the world, and I am so grateful that I can be in it. Everyone was absolutely terrified. It was like the first lesson I had with him, only he applied those principles to each one individually, having each person play long tones, counting 1-2-3-4-5-4-3-2-1-0. He told some students they weren’t fit to play in ensemble yet and that they would have to learn to attack a note first. The way he explains things and what your attitude toward music should be is terrific. He is so much more than just a superb oboist.

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He explained about placing the notes on the wind and not winding the notes. Also, he defined silence as being beauty. He spoke often of Gillet, who said you would have to practice this way four or five years before it would become a part of you; then it would be in your blood. He told us that Gillet just dropped him a word now and then, which he often didn’t understand and he only found the meaning, and applied it years later.

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He said what we might mistake for coldness was really control, and that we must be as careful as if we were counting out each grain in a bag of sugar. Another illustration was to prepare like a tennis player before you begin to play. In the pattern 1-2-3-4-5-4-3-2-1, the notes must have their values gauged—2 must be longer than1, 3 longer than 2, etc. He practices phrasing on long notes and adds the coloring, that is, the melody, later. Or as in the Sibelius 2nd where there is a series of repeated notes, they should all be different. Don’t let your notes go down in inflection but up, up, up and only down on 1. The aim is to have many levels of contrast. That you must he able to take off and land; these are the most difficult things to do. Some people could fly, but nothing else. He said the instrument means nothing. Like having a gold fountain pen, but it is what you write that counts. Pointing to different students, he said, “You—play a pen. You, a piece of charcoal. You, a pencil. You, a piece of chalk.”

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When practicing, you must always have your ideal or goal in mind and work for it. The intelligence must be your guide. As he is always telling me too, you must develop your sensitivity and become conscious of every note. Solfège will help as Miss Soffray teaches his way of phrasing—each note going to the next—having a direction. Today she spoke about rhythm being more important than time. Tabuteau said his teacher told him only a pencil was necessary to make music and illustrated by tapping on the table.

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Then he talked about the three uses of number patterns; for rhythm, 4,1234 etc; for placement on the line—distribution; and in the rebound, where two numbers come together, such as 1-1-2, a change of direction. He really swears by it and says it is a marvelous system. Said he played that way even when he was eighteen but he did not make the patterns then. You must go somewhere according to the harmonies and know where the climax is. He said most people always think the highest note is the climax and how stupid that is. You must be able to drive higher on the line to a lower note and travel. Also, the spirit is the last thing to put on the playing. You cannot work from the “spirit” of a piece. It would be like trying to put a flower on canvas and starting with the perfume. But what work it is to play a few notes well—even the beginning of the solo in the Tchaikovsky 4th—it is unbelievably difficult. He said if I ever play a few notes well, it will only be because I came here. True enough.

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Before he left, he brought up my wind again. He said in a very derisive tone, “but your wind—you don’t shape it—you play all on one wind.” I guess I should be glad he tells me things. I’m just not phrasing with my wind enough and I make triplets sound 1 2 3 4 instead of 1-1 2 3 or down — up, up, down. I don’t change the direction of every note. It is not only thinking right, but one must have the technique to express the bound and rebound, 1-123 like a rubber ball, not like a piece of wood, and the notes must be placed at the perfect, exact spot on the circle.

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Toward the end of April Tabuteau began to say that I should play the spirit of the music and quit worrying so much, that my playing was lifeless as a mummy, and he could just as well teach a robot. I knew he had been thinking form, form, form, and cells, cells, cells. He had so completely drilled into me the idea that I must calculate and think that I was afraid to do anything else. Now he suddenly told me to play with feeling. Things seemed to be falling into place, and I saw that it was a question of balance, and I did not have to find cells and patterns to the exclusion of everything else. He said, “Scale your feelings!” when before, it was always, “Scale your givings.” “According to Tabuteau, some people do things well without knowing what they do and others have to think and practice. Some do too much and some too little; to get the right balance in your phrasing and to know what is just enough is the difficult thing.” Lessons were winding up for the season. I was able to play the last five Grand Studies in Barret quite to his satisfaction.

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Then he talked about practicing. He lays great importance on the “Grand Studies” Nos. 3, 12, 15 and 16 in Barret. And about blowing, he reemphasized that you have no control if you play directly into the reed. You should expel all the wind—say A-h—Ah-a-a, for 45 seconds, and then attack with the pressure of the wind. Not with the wind itself. Once you get it, you have it.

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“The troub’ with you, is that you don’t understand the laws of physics. You should develop your logic.” So he throws things up in the air showing how they reach a point, turn slowly, and then come down fast. That’s what you’re supposed to do between notes. Anyhow, he did say, as he has before, that my technique is “enough, “my intonation “purty good,” and my tone is “not bad,” but not knowing how to use my wind, is as bad as being a string player with no bowing technic. “This is what you must practeece,” he says.

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I had another good lesson. It seems for the first time, I’m beginning to have a musical reaction. So often Tabuteau has said there must be a certain inclination; you must have a musical reflex. When you see a group of notes, you should immediately see what to do with them. He says “You must answer the little call.” Trouble was, I really didn’t feel any little call! That’s why I hardly dare to believe what seems to have happened. Suddenly music has begun to take on real meaning in terms of form and color and I see so much to do. It’s like beginning to see the grammar or structure of a language as a whole after having learned only little pieces of it.

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There was a particularly difficult Sunday at the Studio with a lesson I would never forget. It was on the solo passage shortly after the opening of the Brahms First Symphony. He insisted that the intervals progress in an almost inexorable manner so that in the octaves G to G and D to high D, the lower notes build enough intensity to allow the octave above to emerge and soar effortlessly upward. There must be intensity on the high C followed by a leaning inflection (in a piano dynamic) on the descending A-flat. The F and D have to grow out of the A-flat and be played with an “up” inflection so that one can lean on the C before the diminuendo on the final B natural. He was pulling it out of me note by note and then screamed, “The tragedy—it is C minor—Damn fool! I told you to take the C key. The high D and C must ring. Tense! Practice a tempo with a metronome.” And I was supposed to use other fingerings for the final C to B.

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The advice Tabuteau gave me at that time covered every aspect of oboe playing. I tried to write down as well as I could the essence of his remarks.

  1. Wind control and numbers: He returned to the things he had emphasized in my first lessons of five years earlier. Practice 1-2-3-4-5-4-3-2-1 on one note and then in fifths (A-E-A) detached and slurred. From a low C, play 1-13 (to high A) and then the opposite. Do the same, playing all the notes in between. Practice all the intervals, then when you have a little solo, you have something to play on. Exaggerate—but in the right direction. Always let the music determine the numbers and try to come as close as possible to what fits you and the music the best. Don’t force the pattern on the music. Always keep the line. Each note must take its cue of placement from the note you are on. You must get beyond just playing the notes on the oboe. There must be distribution and form and then the real spirit and life besides. Play to the last fellow in the balcony. Travel!
  2. How to practice: Don’t waste your time playing foolishly. Never play anything valueless. Every little prelude must have a meaning. Play every arpeggio and interval exercise as if it were a beautiful solo. Your mental ideal must be better than you. You must try to meet it. Play little exercises to keep in form. Practice articulation in slow motion. Some are “ta” and some are “ti.” “Ti” is sharper than “ta.” Practice striking notes at exactly the spot on the range that you want. Practice the skeleton of everything. FORM ROOT.”
  3. Suggestions for a division of practice time: Play exercises for embouchure and wind for one half hour. Then forty-five minutes on studies, forty-five minutes on solos to develop style. Practice scales and thirds—staccato and legato. Practice Gillet Studies sometimes for the acrobatic embouchure. Play them slowly and always with line and purpose. Practice in front of a mirror. Make it look easy. Don’t frown and make faces. Always imagine Tabuteau is behind a curtain listening to you.
  4. About reeds: Get the feel of the reed before you play and make it sound as you want it to. If reeds play low-C#-F#”-E”‘ they are not false. Always put five or six reeds away that play well to keep on hand for emergency, but don’t depend on them. Then try to make one.