The ‘American-Style’ Reed

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.

Introduction

During Marcel Tabuteau’s career he sought to improve upon the style of reed in use during his teen years in France. At the top of the list were three items: securing the intonation, freeing up the embouchure to better deal with articulation/phrasing/dynamics, and creating a tone which would blend better with the other woodwinds.

Four phases have been discovered at present which document Tabuteau’s forward movement in this quest. As his teacher at the Paris Conservatoire, Georges Gillet, made all of his student’s reeds, at first Tabuteau had to discover the basics on his own: cane selection, gouging and shaping and how best to tie the reed to the staple. Working with the tool-maker Ernest Graf, Tabuteau formulated designs for the an improved gouge and shaper design. At the same time, he and Hans Moennig were busy attempting to discover how to improve the tone and intonation of the instrument itself.

During the years 1948-1952 Tabuteau was fortunate to have as his student at Curtis, John Mack, a gifted tool and reed maker. And it was during that time that Tabuteau and Mack worked together to create the American Style Oboe Reed with its tell-tale overlapping blades and windows.

The Four Phases in Tabuteau’s reed-making development are:

Phase 1: Tabuteau’ Short Scrape, wherein he reverse-engineered the reeds of his teacher, Georges Gillet, to create his own short scrape.

Phase 2: Tabuteau’ Long Scrape, wherein he, again, reverse-engineered the reeds of his teacher, Georges Gillet, to create his own long scrape.

Phase 3: Tabuteau’s Long Scrape on a shortened reed.

Phase 4: Tabuteau and his gifted student, John Mack, work together to create the American Style Oboe Reed.

Phase 1: Tabuteau’s Short-Scrape in 1915

LS (Laila Storch): 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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Phase 2: Tabuteau’s Long Scrape

Tabuteau was aware of Long Scrape reeds made by his teacher, Georges Gillet. Laila Storch explains this in her article:  Georges Gillet – Master Performer and Teacher. The Journal of the International Double Reed Society 1977: 1-19. 

LS (Laila Storch) : 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.”

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David Ledet. Oboe Reed Styles. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981. These two reeds are from David Ledet’s collection of Tabuteau’s reeds and tools obtained from Madame Tabuteau and now included in David’s extensive collection of music and memorabilia housed in the music department of the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia.
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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 that 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 upper 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. Photo by Zev Pressman, courtesy of Laila Storch.

Phase 3: Tabuteau’s Long Scrape on a Shortened Reed made during the Early 1950s

In 1951, the reed in the photographs below was given by Marcel Tabuteau to Ted Heger, who was studying privately at the Ludlow Street Studio. The lack of a clear delineation between heart and back and the missing overlap of the blades are noteworthy. The lack of delineation might indicate that the center of the gouge was thinner than .55 mm. Still, it should be said that there are occasionally reeds that will vibrate perfectly well without having an unusually thin gouge. In addition, it should be noted that the staple has been cut back from 47mm to 44 mm in order to raise the pitch of the reed.

Closeup of the scrape in the reed above

Ted Heger was not the only oboist who owned a reed like the one above. In 1978 Rhadames Angelucci reported the following to Laurie Van Brunt: “Some time ago I bought an oboe through him [Tabuteau], and he sent a reed along with it, and I was amazed at the scraping. It was just a tip; the very tip was very thin and just a little bit in the hump and nothing out of the back taken out, and it was a good reed.”

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 often had difficult days with reeds!

From letters to Laila Storch written by Tabuteau during the years 1948-1951.

Translations from the French originals by Michael Finkelman

18 February 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. [Louis] Rosenblatt enlisted few weeks ago. I tried [Felix] Kraus, but he is impossible and I decided to do without him. At present I am playing reeds stolen from [John] de Lancie.

Phase 4: Tabuteau and his gifted student, John Mack, work together to create the American Style Oboe Reed

Enter John Mack

JMk (John Mack): I was more like a colleague in participating in this joint reed venture with him.

23 October 1952 Tabuteau to Laila Storch: 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.

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.

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 John Mack 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.

Reeds made by Tabuteau in Nice during the 1960s

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

Five of Tabuteau’s reeds from 1963, and a reed made by David Weber (white thread) that was scraped upon by Tabuteau. Courtesy of David Weber. Photo by Nancy Lehrer.

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

DB (Donald Baker): Cane soaked a half hour in hot water [before shaping]. Shaper width — resulting in 10.5 mm at the tip of the reed, no wider. This maximum is considerably wider than the tip of today’s oboe reeds!

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.

Joseph Robinson studied with Tabuteau in Nice during the summer of 1963. Unbeknownst to Tabuteau, Robinson did not know how to make reeds, and therefore took his lessons playing on reeds made by Tabuteau’s former student, John Mack:

From his book: Long WindedChicago: Joshua Tree Publishing, 2018.

With kind permission of the author

These reeds were given to Adrian Gnam by Tabuteau in Nice during July of 1965.

Charles “Chip” Hamann, principal oboe of Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra, and Adjunct Professor at the University of Ottawa School of Music, contributed the following revealing images of a Tabuteau reed given to him by Rowland Floyd:

Tabuteau reed from 1965
Overall length: 71mm
Tie length: 46.5 mm (tube might be 46.5 or 47)
Width at top: 7.5mm 
Fish skin on the reed. 

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

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.