Tabuteau’s Creation: The ‘American-Style’ Reed

WR (Wayne Rapier): Sometimes he would get mad at a reed and do something really wild to it just to experiment. That’s where I think the back cutting of the reed started. He probably got mad at a reed and made a slash out of the back and suddenly discovered that it had more depth.

Five of Tabuteau’s reeds and a reed made by David Weber (white thread) which was scraped upon by Tabuteau. Courtesy of David Weber

DW (David Weber): During the summer of 1963, Joe Robinson, an early teacher of mine, studied with Marcel Tabuteau in Nice, France. Joe suggested that I write to Tabuteau and make personal contact. I gathered my courage and sent a package that included a letter overflowing with compliments, as well as a request for some reed cane (with a check) for a beginning oboist in the south. I also sent a few oboe reeds of my own construction along with a reel-to-reel tape of me playing the Marcello Oboe Concerto (with organ accompaniment), and part of Bach’s F Major Missa Brevis–asking for his assessment. Mr. Tabuteau later sent me some tube cane, gouged cane, a shaper tip, and some of his personal reeds. — David Weber, March 2016

See David Weber’s Complete Set of 5 Tabuteau Reeds of 1963 in High Magnification

Diagram of Tabuteau’s Long Scrape made by Rowland Floyd during his lessons with Tabuteau in France during October-December 1965

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DB (Donald Baker): Tabuteau’s reeds have what looks like everything has been taken out of the middle in the back. They have a rather short heart, a long tip straight across, with no big bump at integration. They are very responsive but without too much vibration.

DH (Donald Hefner): 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.

Tabuteau’s Basics Concerning Reeds as expressed to Rowland Floyd

Reeds come from making them to express what you want. They are made for your musical ideas.

Playing on a hard reed is like sitting on a hard chair: One might as well be comfortable.

Everything depends on the reed and the reed depends on the balance.

You can never finish a reed on the same day. The cane does not like to be forced around that little hole in the staple. Adjustments will be necessary later on.

Get the feel of the reed before you play and make it sound as you want it to.

Always test the reed itself, then the reed on a tube of cane prior to putting it on the oboe.

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.

Reeds are best with the least vibrations; when made this way they present fewer problems.

Your top note in the crow is somewhat flat. This accounts for the stuffiness and limited quality in your reed. Rowland Floyd: I told him that the first three reeds in my reed-case were better. He tried one and said: “It has a good octave crow”.

Play scales every day. This will force you to make your reeds better; this is the nurture key.

Even Tabuteau had difficult days with reeds!

From letters to Laila Storch written during the years 1948-1953.

Translations from the French originals by Michael Finkelman

18 Feb. 1948: The reeds are always unpredictable, and I am eternally on the hunt for a good gouge.

12 December 1948: I am going to send you, without fail, what remains of the cane gouged on machine no. 1 at the start of the season.  Lately, I saw Graf who overhauled for me a gouger encompassing some new ideas which seem to work.  You can tell me what you think of this.

18 November 1949: As always, the reeds are recalcitrant, but one can find something among them, and no one complains of this.  [presumably a reference to the audiences] I’ll send you a few canes of the latest gouge quite soon.

December 1949: The reeds are very bad: I work like a madman with no good results.  I really think it is time for me to quit!

May 1950: When I think of my numerous gouges, it seems to me like a pasha with all his wives. He loves them, and yet he does not know which one to play with. Tell Mack to bind one dozen of each: 2 – 4 – 1, and a few on 3. [= different gouges]

28 January 1950: I again have to ask myself why the canes sent to you arrived split.  The ones prepared for me at the same time by young Mack were in perfect condition.  Would you like some more from this lot?  If so, we will do what is necessary.

28 January 1950: I am back at work.  The reeds are not too problematic, and in a moment I’ll be participating in the first broadcast of the season.

5 April 1950: For the [Casals] Festival, you have only to bring the English horn and your oboe.  I’m going to make you some English horn reeds, and I have some gouged oboe cane which should bring you luck.

20 November 1951: Any luck with reeds? Here, there is no one left to help me. Rosenblatt enlisted few weeks ago. I tried Kraus, but he is impossible and I decided to do without him. At present I am playing reeds stolen from de Lancie.

23 October 1952: Reeds made by the faithful Mack are good: nothing fabulous, but valuable all the same, with a little fixing.  I’ve been playing one of the instruments made by Dubois this past summer, and I have to admit that never have I had so much ease in getting what I want out of an instrument, even regarding the pitch!  I hope everything is going well for Lola, that [neither] the oboe [nor] the reeds are giving too much bother.  I think I have an interesting gouge at the moment and will shortly send you a sample.

Tabuteau Often Refrained from Reedmaking During His Latter Years in Philadelphia

LS (Laila Storch:  For weeks he didn’t even go to the Studio. Mme Tabuteau wanted him to get used to what retirement would be like. I would go on Monday evenings, soak the cane, split and chop it, shape and tie five or six reeds which I would then finish during the week at my own place. On Friday I took them to Tabuteau’s apartment between the Orchestra’s morning rehearsal and the afternoon concert. Often he would play on them right away.

In a letter of 13 November 1950 to Laila Storch, Tabuteau showed his appreciation of the current situation:

LS: “Imagine that since the month of February I have not yet made a single reed. The good Mac [Mack] has freed me from this infernal nightmare. It doesn’t sound exactly as I would like, but everyone is happy and I have now only to wait for the benefits of Social Security. It seems, they say, that the orchestra may join the plan. Enclosed is the program for next week (Tombeau de Couperin, Milhaud Symphony No. 1, Beethoven Emperor Concerto with Serkin). I’ll let you know how it goes; if the reeds are up to the task, I’ll tell Mac to think of you. He is really splendid notre Mac.”

But the welcome respite from reed inferno could not last forever, even with the help of “le brave Mac,” whose own account continues:

JMk: Around the ninth week something happened and a couple of the reeds did not close well on the sides. Tabuteau immediately accused me of having changed the gouge. But by then I was learning how he was, and had taken the precaution early on of gouging eighteen pieces of cane which I dated, put in a little box, and stored away in one of his desk drawers. Now I could show him this cane. When he tied some reeds on his original gouged cane, I was vindicated. However, then nothing would stop him from getting back to the Studio and beginning to fuss with the gouging machine again. I used to worry about how much he did with that.

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Tabuteau working on reeds in his Ludlow Street studio. Sitting on a piano stool and scratching away, he has recently finished gouging a piece of cane which still lays in the bed of his gouging machine. Additional gouged cane sits in a box seen just above his left knee. The ‘infamous’ sharpening wheel used for preparing his gouging blade can be seen on the left side of the photo. Tabuteau is scraping a reed; the knife he holds in his right hand (and at an angle to the reed) has a rather narrow blade. A closer look at his cluttered desk reveals his easel, shaper, thread, and guillotine.

Tabuteau’s American Scrape: A Mysterious Development

JMk (John Mack): It was reported to me by Frederick Jacobi at Juilliard many years ago that he heard Tabuteau when he [Tabuteau] first came to the Met., and he sounded like each and every other French oboe player when he showed up, but not when he left. So, I have to feel that one of the things that Tabuteau started to do in his growth process started right then, at the age of, I think, nineteen, when he went to the Met., that it was a process of trying to expand the capability and the voice and the ways of the oboe, to be able to encompass a much greater array of capability than the instrument had been known to be capable of before.

LS: There has always been a good deal of curiosity concerning how and when Tabuteau changed the style of his reed making. An interesting photograph taken around 1915, shortly before he went to the Philadelphia Orchestra, shows Tabuteau, still with a fair amount of hair, his easily recognizable heavy eyebrows, and a mustache, wearing a stickpin in his impeccable necktie. He is holding an oboe, and one can clearly see his classic finger position and the reed with its conventional short French scrape.

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Two of Tabuteau’s early reeds as presented in David Ledet’s groundbreaking Oboe Reed Styles, Theory and Practice. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981, reprinted 2008. These appear to show Tabuteau transitioning from the short French scrape into a long W scrape.

LS: It is generally thought that Tabuteau began to experiment with a longer scrape only after he became interested in the results achieved by Peter Henkelman, the long-time English horn player of the Philadelphia Orchestra and favorite of Stokowski. He would also have been impelled by Stokowski’s demands to find a way to blend more completely with the different colors of the other woodwind instruments. According to Wally Bhosys, there may have been an additional impetus for Tabuteau to change his sound and reed style. Bhosys knew some of the wind players from Tabuteau’s early years in the United States, including the bassoonist Auguste Mesnard, one of the ‘Famous Five’ brought over by Damrosch in 1905. He played jobs with Mesnard, who told him stories about how Tabuteau would sometimes crack on the low notes and wobble on high ones with that short French scrape. Whenever Henkelman played a solo on the English horn, Stokowski had him take a bow. Lewis Raho, the second oboe before DiFulvio, said, “You could see the smoke coming out of Tabuteau’s head and he started fooling around with the long scrape.” Some believe that Tabuteau was already experimenting with reed changes on his own while he was in New York [at the Metropolitan Opera]—that he had been impressed by a German oboist there and tried to combine French fluency with a fatter sound. Bassoonist Ferdinand Del Negro, who remembered Tabuteau’s playing from the early 1920s, said that his sound was thinner then but had “flare, like the old French oboists.”

Tabuteau Was Reluctant to Divulge his Reed-Making Secrets

John Minsker Speaks with Melissa Stevens

MS (Melissa Stevens): Did Tabuteau ever demonstrate by playing at your lessons?

JM (John Minsker): Not very much. When I studied privately, it was at his studio. He spent his lifetime at the studio making reeds so he was playing constantly. He might have done some demonstrating there. As I recall, at Curtis he did not demonstrate, except when we had reed classes. We had a reed class once a week.

MS: Would he help you with reeds?

JM: To an extent. He would usually try your reed. I think it was just a case of his wanting to pick up a little compensation that he had the reed classes. He really didn’t teach very much about reeds there, but he would look at them and criticize them.

MS: Did you ever play on his reeds?

JM: Yes I did. And they were marvelous. You didn’t have to pinch at all. It was so easy to make an attack and expand the sound. You could blow us much as you wanted and it never became harsh. His reeds were simply wonderful. Of course, they never suited him, and he he spent his life in the studio making reeds.

MS: How was it that you got to play on his reeds?

JM: He took me as an “assistant“ in his studio. I had the key to his studio and would prepare the cane for him. In the mornings he’d go to a rehearsal, and I’d go to the studio and do my practicing. After rehearsal, he would return to the studio and spend the entire day there making reeds, whether he had a concert or not. Of course, I’d hear him playing. He would try the program for the week. There’s no doubt I heard him more than anyone else ever did. I feel very fortunate there, and I’d give anything to hear that sound again. It was very dark and he could get so much color.

MS: How did he work on getting this dark sound? Did he spend most or his time with the reed?

JM: Yes, but just with the reed. I never heard him really practice, aside from practicing what he was playing that week, and that was more a case of his finding a suitable reed for that program. He did not need to practice, but he did need a decent reed.

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John de Lancie Speaks with Laurie Van Brunt

JD (John de Lancie): If you came in with a bad reed or something like that, you rarely got any sympathy for the fact that you had a bad reed, at least during the period that I went to school. Now I do know that along around 1934 or 1935 he changed considerably in his attitude toward his students. It used to be prior to that time he used to help some of his students a great deal with reeds. There was something that took place in his life around that period that changed him in this approach. My experience during the years that I was at school was that, well in my own case, for instance, I spent four years here and on two occasions he picked up a reed and picked up a knife and did something to my reed, and the rest of the time why it was just sink or swim. We weren’t shown anything, and he didn’t do anything. He demanded that you do things, and he was relentless in that aspect. It was always obviously to our benefit, but at no time when we were trying to do something that our terrible reeds wouldn’t let us do, at no time was there ever any assistance offered. Now this isn’t true with all of his students. There was generally one student each year that would get some kind of help, but I wasn’t among that group.

LVB (Laurie Van Brunt): Did he expect you just to learn from each other about reeds?

JD: I don’t think he cared one way or another. His approach was that he was going to show us what we should do and how we should sound. Now he played for us a great deal, a great deal. And he just said that’s the way it should be, and anyway you manage it that’s your problem.

LVB: Do you think you learned as much by imitation as by understanding or was it equal?

JD: Well, I don’t know, that’s a very difficult question to answer, because I learned by imitation in that I knew what I wanted to sound like. My particular problem, now everybody has his or her particular problems, reeds were an almost insurmountable problem for me. I came to Curtis hardly ever having even made a reed. I didn’t have any idea about the mechanical aspects of the thing, and I wasn’t particularly gifted along those lines. I just about sank in my early days, because I just didn’t know how to cope with it. And I unfortunately could not associate properly how you should play or how the reed should be for how you should sound. I wasn’t able to figure out the two things. I had the impression that in order to get a big sound, I thought well that must mean that I had to exert an enormous amount of effort. Consequently I played on reeds that were like boards, and I had a terrible time doing it. I was never told to the contrary. So, to say by imitation, my only means of imitation was to know what I wanted to sound like; it wasn’t knowing really the aspects of how it should be done. I didn’t know or have any idea of how a reed should feel in my mouth, how it should react, how my embouchure should be or one thing or another, because at least with me he never talked to me about any of these things. With me everything was just strictly playing; he wanted it to sound this way or that way, and that was it.

LVB: Did you finally just work out your reed problems by hit and miss?

JD: Well, sure. Well, little by little, you know, assuming… Well, you have to understand that by “hit or miss” it was by hit or miss according to the way I approached the thing. Now you’re, how old are you?

LVB: Twenty-nine.

JD: All right you’re twenty-nine, so you obviously never heard him play.

LVB: No.

JD: Just on some records and like that. But now, I don’t know if you would tick off a lot of his students that have played a great deal. You’ve listened to a lot of their records, I’m sure?

LVB: Yes,

JD: Marc Lifschey’s records, John Mack’s records, Harold Gomberg’s records, Ralph Gomberg’s, my records? Okay, now I’ve named five, right? Would you say there is a difference between…

LVB: Oh, yes.

JD: Okay, so you see, you’re like talking to the [laugh] disciples, it’s like the scriptures according to this one or according to that one. Everyone is going to give you a different idea. When you say how did I find out, what in effect happens is that each one of us had arrived at an accommodation that suited us, because I know for a fact, because obviously, eventually, I lived with the man. And I know how he played and so on and so forth, and I know that all of us played different reeds from the kind of reeds he played, you see we don’t all play the same kind of reeds. We all have a different kind of approach to it. So when you say to find it out, to find out how it’s done, there is no way.

LVB: No, I meant for yourself.

JD: For myself, well sure, I arrived at it by the hit or miss thing.

LVB: No, I didn’t think that came by the reeds, that you know, his…

JD: Well, sure I got to the stage where I could play on his reeds somewhat, and he obviously could play on my reeds. But, I think that it’s a question of how each one of us conceived of what we had heard. That’s what in essence art is all about, filtering a central idea through different brains, and each one of us had a different idea of what he was trying to say or what he was trying to represent.

LVB: How great was Tabuteau’s variations in color in his playing?

JD: Well, [laugh] how great? They were greater than anything I have ever heard before or since, put it that way; I don’t know how else to express it. He had an enormous, enormous facility and a range on the instrument, an enormous range of color and dynamics, and he had the type of embouchure that allowed him to play the kind of a reed that gave him more of that than anyone else I’ve ever heard.

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Wayne Rapier Speaks with Laurie Van Brunt

LVB (Laurie Van Brunt): Did he talk about reed making at all?

WR (Wayne Rapier): Sometimes he would try to avoid it, and I was one of the lucky ones that took my oboe lessons in his reed room. When my lesson was over, he would start on making his own reeds. I could peek over his shoulder and as he used to say “steal his secrets.” I don’t think he was that scientific to really have a lot of secrets to steal except making 5 to 10 reeds a day. But, he had a very high concept of what that reed should allow, and he would tear up reeds a lot of other people would gladly play concerts on.

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Laurence Thorstenberg Speaks with Laurie Van Brunt

LVB (Laurie Van Brunt): Did Tabuteau help you with reeds?

LT (Laurence Thorstenberg): Not much. He had…I can’t remember anything, any specific thing that he told me to do about reeds.

LVB: And he just expected you to be able to come up with this great reed that was supposed to do everything on your own.

LT: Yes. He probably knew that the fellow students were usually comparing reeds and ideas and all that.

There was one student at that time, John Mack, who was doing work for him in his studio – preparing and gouging cane for him and also making reeds. John was at least some of the time making reeds or beginning reeds for Tabuteau. And I don’t know if Tabuteau ever used them or whatever, but I’m sure that John learned something from him. And he did tell us, at least me, some of the things that he learned. So, I got some ideas that way, indirectly. But, Tabuteau himself, I don’t know if he ever said really anything specific about reeds – how to scrape them, how long to make them, or anything.

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John Mack speaks with Laurie Van Brunt

LVB (Laurie Van Brunt): What kind of rapport did you have with Tabuteau?

JMk (John Mack): Perhaps a little different than the other students, at least the ones that were there at the time, because before I actually entered Curtis Tabuteau knowing my own natural proclivities with reeds and that I had made shapers and done all kinds of things like that, had invited me to become his studio assistant, also referred to as studio slave or whatever, in which I was to be in attendance with him whenever he wanted me to be there, while he worked on reeds, on gouging machines, on this, on that, on any other thing, and to prepare cane for him, eventually to gouge, to shape, to do everything, the culmination of which was that in my final third year in the Curtis Institute I made every reed that he played on for the first eleven weeks of the season and the previous Casals Festival in France. And so there was a little bit more rapport I suppose in a certain way, because I was more like a colleague in participating in this joint reed venture with him. Of course, there were many other things involved besides just working on reeds. I was given the job of listening to and declaring my opinion about various and sundry oboes –- top joints, bottom joints, bells, whatever – or the difference between this reed and that reed from outside the closed door. And errands to run, all kinds of things to do; go up there Monday evening, sit around picking cane, soaking cane, and while the cane would soak, I would practice my solfege. So, rapport-wise, yes, I had my ears knocked down a few times, quite a few times as a matter of fact; in Tabuteau’s own words, in his studio it was strictly one way traffic, his, and he didn’t cotton to having other people air their own view points when they might differ with his.

LVB: I wanted to ask you if there were people before you who occupied the same kind of position?

JMk: There were a few people before that did a little, but there was never anyone who was on the same scale as my work there. As a matter of fact, in connection with that, I remember that in my first year out of high school, Tabuteau had an operation the previous summer, he had a gall stone operation, and I don’t know the facts for sure, but I just assumed that he tried to play the oboe too soon afterwards, and he suffered a major hernia. He had two others during his career in the orchestra that I found out about much later, but, anyway, he suffered one. And at that particular point he started playing slightly lighter reeds, which he explained to me later, when he obviously saw that I was somewhat disappointed in the fact that he scaled down the robustness and the range of his tone, and he explained it simply by saying: “If I play out, he asks for more, if I don’t play out, he keeps them down; now what would you do if you were in my shoes?” Well, that took care of that. But, at any rate, during that second year I was taking lessons with Minsker. (I feel a great debt of gratitude to John Minsker for having put up with me. He was told to teach me by Tabuteau and had no choice other than to do so, and that was the start of a teaching career that John Minsker pursued for some years, which he always found terribly distasteful, and for which he always personally blamed me. Anyway, the problem was that every few lessons Minsker and I would both go to Tabuteau’s studio, and I would play my lesson. If I did something poorly, Minsker was likely to catch the blame for it, instead of me ….) But, at any rate, on one of those occasions, I happened to have quite a good reed. At that time the Philadelphia Orchestra had hour-long broadcasts Saturday afternoons from five to six. Tabuteau said to me one time, [imitating Tabuteau’s French accent] “Say I wish I had that reed for the concert tonight.” I said, “Well, Maestro, please help yourself.” He allowed as how no-no, no way. Minsker laughed, thought that was very funny that anyone else’s reed could be thought to be used. So, I finally out and out asked him why not, and he said [imitating Tabuteau’s accent], “If I play poorly, I will take the blame. But, if I play well, I want all the credit!” So that was his operating procedure at that time, and yet it wasn’t but a brief five-six years later that he was playing in the Orchestra on reeds that I was making for him. The reason for that was simply that as meticulous as he was (and he was truly meticulous and painstaking in his selection of his cane for the curvature, the symmetry, and the texture, and everything, and also meticulous in his gouging. He would put a piece of cane back in the machine three times after measuring it in order to rub something off one corner where he thought there was too much cane. Then with the shaping also and with the tying, great pains), but once the knife hit the cane it was just like the Tazmaninan Devil or something. The reed would get chewed up in no time. So, the reason he brought me in to help him with the reeds was because he was becoming so impatient with the knife that it was destructive; he was destroying his own good work. He needed some governor to slow him down and so forth. I provided that service for him, and it worked very successfully that way. He had somebody around to be a buffer against his own impatience with all the naturally frustrating appurtenances to oboe playing.

LVB: Did he actually show you how he wanted the reeds scraped?

JMk: He always said don’t apply a scrape to the reed; scrape the reed according to what it needs. Assuming that your gouging happens to be extremely consistent and every other thing about reed making is also, still all in all every piece of cane his different. As soon as you start the reed, the idea would be to start the reed in such a way that you would get as quickly as possible to the point to see what was going to be in the reed without ever having taken too much out. From that point on you scrape the reed according to what its probable future needs would be. And that was it. So, it wasn’t a case of how the reed would look. I remember him in my last year in Curtis taking a cigarette box (he used to smoke cigarettes, finally gave them up, but he always bought cigarettes that came in a nice little box, just the right size for cane), and he pulled a box out, and he made a big point of saying: “You see these reeds, they’re beautiful, beautiful scrape, lovely opening, and so forth and so on, you made these reeds for me two years ago, aren’t they beautiful? But, they don’t play. Ha Ha Ha!” Of course, the whole idea being that how it plays is determined by how it plays and not by how it looks in any way. Then to his scrape, so-called. I would say that there was something distinctive about his scrape, and I’m not talking about the appearance of the reed as far as the relationship between the tip, back, this that or any other thing, but I mean the brush stroke itself, so to speak. He used an extremely sharp knife; he would labor endlessly over a knife to get a certain character of edge on it that would take the cane the way he wanted it, on an extremely sharp knife. In his use of the knife, in the way in which the knife passed over the cane, I could easily pick up a reed and just see the way it looked and know that Tabuteau had scraped that reed. As a matter of fact, I remember having the experience just a couple of weeks ago when I saw lots of different oboe players’ reeds, and I saw one of them and it looked reminiscent in some way, something about the scraping was reminiscent of my teacher’s, something I can’t put into words.