(John) Laurence Thorstenberg (1925-2019) served with the United States Army from 1944 to 1946 before entering the Curtis Institute of Music to study with Marcel Tabuteau in 1947. He graduated in 1951 with a Bachelor of Music degree. He performed in the Baltimore, Dallas and Chicago Symphonies before becoming solo English horn in the Boston Symphony Orchestra, performing there for almost 30 years.
The following are excerpts from Laurie Van Brunt’s 1977 interview of Laurence Thorstenberg concerning the Tabuteau System:
LVB: Is there any concept that stands out?
LT: One of the most important things, perhaps the most important thing as I saw it, was he had a kind of a way of building phrases or explaining how to build the phrase or punctuation and that sort of thing. I’m not putting it very well, but, something about phrasing – well just phrasing I guess… and expression. And he had some kind of formulas for doing this I think, some sort of cliché ways of doing certain things… And I don’t necessarily mean that cliché as a negative word.
LVB: Would the up and down impulses and numbers be a part of the cliché way of doing things?
LT: The numbers I saw as just a device for trying to explain how he felt the relative values of the notes should be in intensity or dynamic level, I’m not sure where to distinguish the two. The numbers and what was the other one?
LVB: The up and down impulses.
LT: I think of the up and down business, I don’t really understand all of it and can’t explain it all, but I think it is a really very basic, inherent aspect to music – up and down motions and feelings and movements, rhythmical. Rhythm sort of consists mainly of up and down, I think. And I don’t think that was… that is a very basic thing that he did talk about.
LVB: What about vibrato? How does this fit in with intensity? Did he teach vibrato or –
LT: I don’t think he taught vibrato. It seems to me I heard him once say or somebody quoted him as saying that vibrato is some sort of god given thing. And he almost never used the word vibrato. He certainly didn’t say “Vibrate” or anything like that. Vibrato just seemed to be taken for granted or something like that. I think it was to be a part of the expression and a part of the phrasing. It would enter in somehow or another into the ups and downs and so on. I can’t explain just how. I became much, much more conscious of vibrato years later. I never really thought that much about vibrato when I was with him.
LVB: Is increasing the intensity with vibrato part of that? I mean would you increase the speed of vibrato with an increase in intensity, or wasn’t that something you thought about then?
LT: I don’t know whether I thought about it then, but I think that was so.
LVB: Is there any anything more you want say about that?
LT: I just want emphasize that I think that’s very definitely, perhaps the most important aspect of my experience with Tabuteau.
[Pause] In the ensemble work he used numbers, as I remember it, occasionally to express, to clear up the balances, for example, of a chord. Suppose you have an E-flat chord in close position – e-flat going upwards to g upwards to b-flat and then another e-flat on top. Well, if I remember right, he called the low note 1, and the third note 3, and then 5 and then 8. And that expressed that – oh something about how the chord had to be balanced, that the bottom shouldn’t over balance the top or something like that. I don’t know how that should have been interpreted, because obviously the top note can’t be eight times as strong as the bottom note, but I think it just – this just tended to focus our
attention on balancing a chord. And the numbers were just a means of drawing our attention to that… something like that. I don’t know how it would be interpreted, but that’s what he did.
LVB: Did Tabuteau talk in terms of character of phrases or moods, in talking about the way a phrase should played – like answers and questions? On the record, he talks about that kind of thing.
LT: Well, the question and answer I remember that – interrogative and declarative, I guess.
LT: Affirmative, yes right, Affirmative. But, that’s just like the two parts of a phrase, the complimentary parts. But, the first part of your question about the moods, I don’t think that has anything to do with moods, I don’t really remember him saying or seeming to be concerned much about moods or different characters of movements or phrases so much. I got the impression that he had a set way of approaching everything, and I think the moods kind of took care of themselves or something like it. It was a kind of suave, finished quality that he was looking for, and I think the music all tended to come out sort of that same way. You might say it was a certain preconceived style applied to all music… At least that’s the way it came to me.
LVB: Were there also principles of articulation?
LT: Yes, what was that – the tee, tee – tee long
LVB: taa, tee, long
LT: Or whatever it might be. That was there. The last of the slurred notes was never to be really chopped off. It was always to trail off in a very refined way. It might correspond to sort of playing everything on the string on a stringed instrument.
LVB: Let’s say you had a series of groups of 2 slurred notes in an eighth note passage, so it’s 2 notes slurred and 2 notes slurred. Are you saying there’s a diminuendo on the end of each of those slurs, or does it depend on the context. I was under the impression that the slurred, the long part the second note under the slur would lead into the next.
LT: Oh yes, right. There was something about that. There was always (I don’t know how to say it)…you always started on the up-up notes; there was always an up note going to a down note, but in a figure the way you mentioned that seems very paradoxical, and doesn’t seem to quite fit. I just don’t know what to make of his view on that, because in most cases you, most musicians, I think, would interpret that all right the down, the note on the beat, followed by a note off the beat as belonging to the beat before it not the one after it, not an upbeat to the next note. So, I think that was sort of a fallacy that he had. I’m not sure that he – well, maybe that’s another question — I don’t think he always played things the way he explained them. …Well, he just didn’t get that rigid about his thinking about his up-up beats preceding and so on. I don’t feel I’m explaining that very well, but I think it’s – you know what I mean.
LVB: Did he talk about scaling of articulation? Let’s say you had a group of repeated notes and they were all detached, did he ever talk about having [playing] one note short and each note progressively longer? This probably applied to ensemble playing as well. Do you know what I mean?
LT: The same written length of notes, but…
LVB: Yes, the same written lengths of notes, and the repeated note or maybe even a scale going up or down, maybe reaching over the bar line, did he ever talk about playing 1 note short and the next note a little bit longer as you approached the note over the bar line…?
LT: I don’t recall that except in the case of a ritard. I do remember in the case of a ritard you supposedly, oh whatever it might be, a series of eighth notes say with staccato dotes, but a ritard over that. So, he pointed out more than once that you have got to play the later ones longer, because to keep the right proportion between the rest – the silence and the note. But, in a steady tempo, I don’t really –
LVB: I didn’t mean long in terms of tempo, I meant long in terms of lengths of tonguing the note. Not that it would slow down at all –
LT: No, no, I understand what you [were saying]… But, I don’t recall him saying anything about that, although he may have. [Pause] He did some of that in his own playing I seem to remember though. I just can’t remember him saying anything about that point.
LVB: Did you ever hear Tabuteau say: ”It is important to remember to place one’s notes on the bow or the wind and not to bow or wind the notes?” What does that mean? Can you explain?
LT: I do remember him saying that any number of times. And I puzzled over it many, many times. And I think it means in terms of wind playing that you have a…, you must have a kind of on-going support of the wind on which you play any phrase of any kind. And you don’t have little separate gusts or separate supports or anything like that for special notes. You just have a good support that lasts throughout whatever you’re doing, whatever it might be, and place that music and those notes on top of you wind.
LVB: Did Tabuteau have any special breathing techniques like circular breathing?
LT: Circular breathing I don’t think he did. I don’t remember him saying anything much about breathing.
LVB: What about the bar line?
LT: [Pause] Well… he didn’t want us to phrase on the bar line. [Laugh]
LVB: Was there ever an instance where you were allowed to phrase on the bar line or was it a blanket rule that you just never…
LT: It seemed to be a blanket rule not to, and I think it was a mistake. [Pause]
And another – well it reminds me of something else, that if a phrase starts on the note after the bar line, in other words the first note in the measure, very often that was kind of – all right you play that note and that was just sort of getting the things started or making a zero reading or something. Then the music [laugh], his way of explaining, the music really didn’t start until after that somehow. You kind of played… if you had a phrase in 4/4 time which started with 4 quarter notes in the first measure, the first note really was just sort of there, but it didn’t mean anything, and you had to kind of phrase after it. Then you really started in for good on the second one, which was an upbeat to the third [laugh], something like that. [laugh] I just think that that’s – all right some music is that way, some phrases are like that, but I don’t think it should be taken as such a formula. Imposing that plan on every phrase is a very big mistake, and some of his students still do it, and I think the music really suffers as a result.
LVB: You mentioned zero – in his number system I know he says, at least later on, that you should never play on zero. Was that something he said often, do you remember that at all?
LT: I don’t remember him saying zero except possibly in the case that I was just talking about. I don’t recall him ever saying anything about zero; I don’t know what that would mean.
LVB: Can you talk a little bit about syncopation?
LT: As I remember he taught us in the case of syncopation always to diminish the tone. And I got in the habit of doing that, and I think that’s another one of those examples of sort of weakening the phrase line. It has that effect many times I think if you consistently do this. And it wasn’t until I went to and worked with Moyse at Marlboro when he had a way of crescendoing on many syncopations. And I thought that really fit phrases better a lot of times. So, now I might do either one or the other; it depends.
LVB: It depends upon the situation?
LVB: Can you explain how Tabuteau differentiated between dynamics and intensity?
LT: I don’t know that he differentiated exactly, but in the number, in the increasing, I think the numbers when it applied to phrases and kind of build ups and stuff were to convey some sort of more abstract increase in intensity rather than a sheer increase in volume. But, they do tend to go together.. However, I seem to remember that he did say it doesn’t necessarily mean just getting louder.
LVB: Do you think Tabuteau always played by his principles of up and down impulses and his number system?
LT: I do think he used the ups and downs, but the numbers, as I tried to explain before, the numbers I think were merely a device to try to explain certain intensity variations or whatever about certain phrase groupings, but when he played I don’t really think he thought about numbers. I think that’s kind of a mechanical device that was probably useful, but playing by the numbers is something I don’t think he really did. [Laugh]
LVB: You hope he didn’t. [Laugh]
LVB: What do you think are Tabuteau’s best ideas that you incorporated into your playing?
LT: Well – the ideas of thinking through and organizing phrases is one of the most important, I believe… The way one ends a note was something, although he didn’t really put it that way, I think that was an important point that came out. The last note of the slur how that was treated, how that note was to end, I think was a very important concept and has a lot of importance in playing style and phrasing.
Let’s see I’ve already forgotten what your question was –
LVB: What his best ideas were.
LT: Oh, best ideas…
LVB: We talked about this a little bit, but can you talk a little bit more about how he would suggest ending a note and the end of a phrase?
LT: Well, a note just about always had to end, to fade away with a quicker or slower, well you might say diminuendo. He didn’t really explain that clearly, but that’s what it really amounted to as far as I could tell.
LVB: How was the diminuendo done? Was it done with just air or was it a combination of lips and air? Or is that getting too specific?
LT: I think it was probably to be done, since we already said that the placing the notes on the wind, I think the wind was to be there as a kind of constant, but then I think it really amounted to some kind of (the word I use is ) valving with the tongue and the embouchure that was to effect that. Maybe on the very final note in a phrase, the wind would let up a little bit, but for the most part the wind, at least the support of the wind potential was to be, as I got it, maintained at a constant level. But the tone, each tone could fade away as you went along, but that didn’t mean the wind faded away or the wind support, the wind potential, I don’t know how to put it. [pause] Fading away was a very [laugh] – that’s one of the outstanding elements of the style it seems to me.
LVB: What did you reject of Tabuteau’s ideas? [pause] What didn’t you like?
LT: [pause] Eventually I decided that I wanted a more juicy, more obvious vibrato at least some of the time that I remember he ever made. I think I wanted a kind of a bigger, darker sound that I ever heard him making, although I will say that I studied with him right towards the end of his career, and it was said by a lot of people that he had played with a bigger, darker, heavier sound somewhat earlier.
I think I decided that I wanted to play with a little more variety of expression that I heard him using. I wanted to play with some really short notes sometimes – even choppy once in a while if it fitted the music. And [pause] those are all the odd things I can think of just now.
LVB: You already mentioned about the bar line too.
LVB: How original do you think these ideas were with Tabuteau?
LT: I really don’t have any way of telling, and I am very curious about that myself. I suspect that he… he did say a few times about his teacher. Oh yes, he expressed great admiration for his teacher, more than once. And he remembered his teacher saying certain things, which he said he thought about for years, and still thought about. One of them was the roller coaster image. The roller coaster goes zooming down and then it come up-up, and then as it comes up and around it almost stops before it starts going down again. Well, that’s something like an upbeat, and then there’s a kind of stop before the down beat. There’s a certain of feeling that you can get about that, sort of a kinesthetic thing, about pulling up and then there’s a kind of stop and sort of a labored time before you, before there’s the drop. That was one thing that he, that was one concept that he clearly got from his teacher.
LVB: That was Gillet?
LT: Yes, Georges Gillet. And… I suspect that he talked with various players about further ideas, I really don’t know.
LVB: One thing that I forgot to ask you about was the term “drive.” I wanted you to explain that.
LT: Well, what he called “drives” were long tones with crescendo and diminuendo, which were carefully graded. One would start on a level next to nothing, which he called number 1. Then you’d take maybe four, six, or eight beats crescendoing and with each beat you would have an increasing intensity number. Then you would take an equal amount of time to diminish into nothing. This was something that I worked on for some time in the beginning of lessons with him. Of course, one has to have a pretty good reed of a sort to be able to do this, to do the lower end of the dynamic scale so controlledly. I don’t know that he really explained that, I guess he just took it for granted that he knew you’d find out, that you’d better fix up a reed on which you could do that. [Laugh]
Intervals: That’s something that I don’t think I touched on before.
LVB: No, we didn’t talk about it.
LT: Melodic, I guess I mean melodic intervals. Well, I think I understood what Tabuteau was driving at there and I agree with it for melodic playing.
LVB: So as long as we are on intervals, and I didn’t ask you about it, do you have anything —
LT: Well, he applied numbers to –, see the numbers were used in several different ways, as I remember. Numbers were used for intervals too. Now if you had in a melody, well say the melody starts on the tonic and then goes to the dominant, there’s kind of a relationship of filling in the interval. All right call the tonic 1 and the dominant going up to 5, sort of filling 1,2,3,4,5 as you’re going up or as you’re holding the tonic note before you go into that, but it grows out of the tonic somehow and then growing up into 5. And I think that’s a good idea – as a general approach to intervals, although you might also… in a phrase you might say the opposite depending on how the phrase was.
Impulses (distribution of inflection): I guess that gets back to ups and downs again. I think I agree with that with the exception – we talked about the series of two eighth notes slurred and all, not every up note has to lead into the next down note. There can be a kind of a punctuation before the down beat, and I sincerely and strongly believe that this is the case sometimes and that that should be played that way and not fall into the trap of always having an up beat followed by a down beat and then punctuate after that.
LVB: Do you use the actual terms up and down in your teaching?
LT: In my teaching I use very few of these particular expressions that we have been using here – Tabuteau’s expressions. I don’t know, I think the up and down is such a natural thing, and it’s just inherent in the music. I guess I do use up and down sometimes, but not a lot.
Numbers (Scale of Expression): I don’t use those very much. Sometimes if there’s a sequence in a phrase, I’ll point that out. I’ll say you can take the first statement as number 1, the second one as number 2, the third one as 3. Sometimes in a rare while I’ll go through and attempt to assign numbers to each note in a phrase a la Tabuteau, but very rarely.
Articulation: I guess I go along pretty well with those ideas he taught. But, I think I also, I definitely will allow for other ways of doing things too, because I think his formulas and all are limiting if you just stick to them.
Grouping and punctuation: Yes, I go along with that, and I do teach that pretty clearly I think; I try to.
Character of phrases: I don’t quite know what that means. As I said before, I don’t remember Tabuteau saying anything about all right this is a happy phrase or this is sad or anything like that, but I do. I say those things sometimes. I say [for example], “Play this draggy and sad.” He never said anything like that.
Dynamics versus intensity: I don’t know whether I really say very much about that. Sometimes you can have an intense pianissimo; sometimes I think I say something about that. I do encourage people to play with a life in the tone, even when they’re playing very softly, not to drop the last note of a phrase for example, not let it be too dead or too vibrato-less.
LVB: So is vibrato continuous?
LT: Well, not completely, no, I don’t think so. It certainly ought to be varied a lot and delayed more or less a lot of times in long notes, although that can be done to a fault too. That is one of the Tabuteau, what I think of as one of the Tabuteau, formulas that has been overdone by a lot of people. A lot of people seem to think that every time you have a note it’s got to be like a “drive,” or something like that. You start small and then you build up and add vibrato, but that makes for a very weak, what I think of as, weak style. And it destroys the unity of the phrases. But, to answer your question, I don’t think the vibrato should be absolutely continuous; I think it should be varied, it should be a part of the phrasing; it should enter into the phrasing, whatever may be the case of the needs of the music. Some notes should be played without vibrato. Vibrato should be varied in the sense that one phrase or one movement maybe should be done with a very restrained vibrato and others with more flamboyant vibrato.
LVB: Is there anything else we might have missed?
LT: I was saying that I remembered something that went through the back of my mind I believe when you asked me whether Tabuteau was very dogmatic. I believe that almost completely that he had his own conception of style and more or less tone quality and so on. However, there was one time at a lesson, one unforgettable time, when he shocked me with some sort of statement about how I seemed to be trying to get a little different kind of tone quality. And he said it in a kind of neutral way, I don’t think he seemed to be disapproving or especially approving of it, but just accepting. And that was the only time that I recall him ever really allowing for any individuality. That’s all I have about that.
[Long pause as LT looks over interview outline.]
LT: Well, this thing I don’t think you asked or maybe you did, how do you produce up and down impulses.
LVB: I [think I] forgot.
LT: I just don’t know how to answer that… But, I could try. How to produce the up and down impulses: I don’t know if this really explains it very well, but it is as close as I can come right now. The up impulse is usually a kind of a crescendo affect, and the down is more of an accent affect or diminuendo affect, maybe. But, very often there was kind of a hang up in between, and that’s where the image of the roller coaster comes in. So, there’s a little let up on the crescendo right before you go into the down beat in the classic up and down beat notes.
[Pause, LT looking at the outline.]
Well, you didn’t ask me what are the aims of distribution of inflection (up and downs.) I think the aim of that is to, well most music has a certain metrical pattern to it and the aim is to clarify that in how you play. By the way, many years later after I studied with Tabuteau, I discovered that there was a book written by a man at the University of Chicago called the Rhythmical Basis of Music or the Rhythmic Basis of Music. [possibly The Rhythmic Structure of Music by Grosvenor Cooper and Leonard B. Meyer, published by the University of Chicago, 1963.] I can’t remember his name now, but he wrote a whole book on the ups and downs. He expanded all this up beat and down beat business into not just, all right one note is an up beat and the next note is a down beat, but he had up beat phrases and up beat sections, and it was absolutely amazing. So, I thought well Tabuteau wasn’t the only who expanded on this up beat and down beat stuff.
[Pause, looking at the outline.]
Did he ever mention side impulses? Well – in 3⁄4 time the 2nd beat is kind of a side impulse, I guess… well, the 3⁄4 time can divided, can be punctuated either after the second beat or after the first beat. If it’s punctuated after the first beat, then I guess the second beat becomes a kind of…one of the 2 upbeats into the next downbeat. But, if it’s punctuated after the 2nd beat, the 2nd beat is still, it’s a kind of a rebound. Oh yes, there is the “rebound.” That was a kind of a rebound from the first beat. Then you have the real upbeat on the 3rd going into the next 1st beat. But, I don’t think ever, ever, ever did he say that you could punctuate on the bar line in that case, and I think there is music in which that really should be done.
[Pause, looking over the outline.)
Well, about grouping, I guess I talked a little about that. He did advocate a kind of a logical, uniform grouping whenever it could be done. For example, if you had a phrase that consisted of a lot eighth notes starting on the eighth note before the bar line, then probably he would want you to group maybe every 4 notes beginning with the first upbeat note, so that the next group would be the pick-up to the third beat if you were in 4/4 time. Clarifying the different parts of the phrase and bringing those out uniformly I think is very often a good idea, although that mustn’t be overdone either. You mustn’t lose sight of the forest for the trees.
[Pause, looking over the outline]
About the terms taa, tee, long – the taa tee taa tee taa tee up down up down up down, he had that. I guess you were supposed to – tee is a little more intense, I guess beginning of the note than taa. So you have up down up down taa tee taa tee, and then the longalways referred to the last note of a group of slurred notes, which was to be kept long, but kind of faded on the end of it.
[Pause, looking over the interview outline.]
Oh, dotted notes, dotted rhythm; there was always a fading on the dotted note and if not, usually actually a space. The dot would actually become a rest. There was never a chopping (as usual), I mean as always in his style. There was never a chopping of the note, but the note would fade away and there would be a light rest. That was the typical way of doing a dotted rhythm especially, well in a relatively fast movement like the usual dotted eighth and sixteenth would be spaced. And also something I didn’t talk about the – well, I really didn’t get into rubato, and this gets into that a little bit. About the typical dotted eighth and sixteenth rhythm, for example, especially in a fast movement, there would be a slight distortion of the rhythm so that the sixteenth note was really not quite as long as a mathematical 16th note would be, a little bit shorter, and so that the dotted rhythms would tend to be in faster motions anyway, faster speeds, and faster movements especially would tend to have that distortion where maybe the short note instead of being 1⁄4 of the value would be about 1/5 or so. That seemed to be the standard way of doing things, although in a slow movement, in a slow draggy movement, you wouldn’t necessarily do that. Most of the time you would though.
LVB: Do want to say anything more about rhythm?
LT: Oh, rubato. Well, that’s gets me into rubato. That’s a typical case of rubato I guess – well, in that case, you’d play the long note longer than written and the short note shorter than written. Tabuteau certainly didn’t want everything played or maybe anything played metronomically. And these punctuations and these phrasings were often done, at least in part, by adding little bits of time which on paper didn’t belong there; you couldn’t do it with a metronome. [Laugh] I think he grew up and played a lot in an era when people I gather did play rhythmically more freely that we generally do today. And I think today we feel that we should play more strictly than he probably really liked. People who use his ideas religiously sometimes sound very affected and precious in their phrasing to me – too rubato and get away from a basic – sometimes they get so there’s just no tempo. And so I remember those tapes when I did hear, I don’t know if I heard all the tapes that Tabuteau made late in his life, maybe the biggest impression, I mean the most important impression they made on me was: my god! What rubato he’s using. And he didn’t play with such rubato as I remember in the Orchestra; I heard him many times in the Philadelphia Orchestra concerts when I was a student. But, I think he tended to get a little carried away with rubato.