Five members of the Gomberg family, all siblings, attended the Curtis Institute of Music in the 1930s and early 40s: Robert and Cela, violinists; Harold and Ralph, oboists; and Leo, a trumpet player. All were influenced by Marcel Tabuteau and went on to have distinguished careers.
Robert Gomberg joined the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1931 and became a good friend with Tabuteau. They roomed together on tours and, therefore, Gomberg was able to talk more freely with him than many others could. Via a conversation about Tabuteau with Robert Gomberg, Laila Storch reports a reason Tabuteau gave for the development of his number “system.”
Below are extracts from: Storch, Laila. Marcel Tabuteau: How Do You Expect to Play the Oboe If You Can’t Peel a Mushroom? Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008.
Gomberg asked Tabuteau: “Maestro, why do you use all these numbers. Why don’t you just explain aesthetically what you want the students to do?” Tabuteau said that the string players already came in better prepared, but that he had to accept students from the Midwest and other places where an oboist might have done nothing more than play in a high school band. He had to build them up from uncultivated backgrounds. To explain how to make a line, he couldn’t just speak in musical terms about the aesthetics of expression. They wouldn’t understand. So instead he gave them numbers such as 1,1234, 2345, and so forth, to show them how to make a crescendo and how to build a phrase. With the numbers they could understand the loops and the surge of the music. It was a means to an end.
In addition, Robert Gomberg reported that he used to take his little brother Ralph along to Tabuteau’s ensemble classes. Ralph learned by listening even before becoming Tabuteau’s youngest student at age eleven. According to Ralph, “The violin and piano teachers would come in to hear the classes. Tabuteau thought violinistically and often mentioned up and down bows. He had such a vivid imagination and would make comments to explain the music; he always spoke of the line, and the ebb and flow of the music. You had to bring it alive. Not just the bland notes on a white piece of paper with bar lines. What does that mean? The conductors who say they are only doing what the composer has written!”