How Tabuteau’s Reeds/Oboes Impacted Pedagogy

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. -John Mack

Position of the Body

JMk (John Mack) The only physical that Tabuteau every really harped on were certain elements of posture like not having your arms too low or too high and the angle of the oboe which he would experiment with, perhaps according to his student’s embouchure, in order to get a better result. And the hand position was discussed in some great detail. I’m always amused when I see former students of Tabuteau who were told repetitively by Tabuteau that their hand position was too much this way and too much that way, and to this day they are doing what they did despite having been told, but I suppose that’s human nature.

WR (Wayne Rapier): He caught me one time leaning back in the chair when I was supposed to be supporting. And he said [in a French accent] “You cannot play that way. If you ever got between the toes of my shoes and the floor during a concert, I would crush you to death!” [laugh] And after that I started putting my weight on my toes, and I found that it worked. I watched in the Orchestra and his weight was so on his toes when he was sitting in the chair that he would actually get up out of the chair sometimes.

Tabuteau’s position of his instrument during the 1929-1930 season of the Philadelphia Orchestra was rather high by today’s standards in the US.
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Tabuteau backstage, holding his instrument somewhat close to his body.
Tabuteau in his later years (December 1957) standing and holding the oboe well away from his torso.

Position of the Instrument and Fingers: Marcel Tabuteau to Rowland Floyd:

Keep all fingers above the keys in playing position.

Keep your fingers curved, especially your right-hand fingers.

Hammer with the fingers when playing the oboe; like a pianist, curve your fingers, do not hold them out flat.

Keep the reed covered by holding the oboe lower and back against your lower lip.

Hold the oboe down and keep the head up.

Don’t hold the oboe out at such a straight angle. RF: Tabuteau demonstrated, showing how uncontrolled and wild the sound is — actually barbaric.

Look straight ahead at me, the conductor; don’t look at the ground.

Hold the oboe straight, not to side of the mouth as flute player.

There should be no stupid excess bodily movements.


JMk (John Mack): At one other time he decided that my fingers were being used in too, what would we call, confidential or sneaky Pete fashion, of playing all over the oboe and hardly being able to see the fingers move, and he didn’t like that one bit. So, he put a stop to it. I had to perform the goose step with a raising of every finger no matter how fast I was playing for four of five weeks thereafter, at which point he let me stop.:


JM (John Minsker): He started off with long tones and he would ask you to whistle to form your embouchure. The idea was to avoid the stretching so that the corners of your month were closer together. This naturally gave you more cushion in the center. If you want to play pp, you play on the tip of the reed, and gradually as you expand that tone, you can take more reed.

RF (Rowland Floyd): Tabuteau directed me to draw my lower lip more over my lower teeth and lay the reed against my lower lip. He showed how Robert Bloom went to an extreme since he held the oboe almost flat against his chest.


LVB (Laurie Van Brunt): How about the embouchure and reed placement in terms of the colors. Do you adjust – he talks about moving the reed in and out, how did he do this? How does that work exactly?

WR (Wayne Rapier): Well, he did it. I mean he literally moved his embouchure in and out; he was always talking about avoiding the crocodile bite. That meant to have a flexible embouchure so that if you wanted to play dark, you could surround the reed very much, and if you wanted to drown out the trumpet section, you could put very little lip on the reed and play straight out.

Marcel Tabuteau in 1950 at Preades with John Mack to his left and Laila Storch to his right.

Marcel Tabuteau to Rowland Floyd:

Never blow into the reed! Blow against your nose; feel the pressure in back of your nose; the reed will work by itself. The pressure of the wind gives inflection.

Use a mirror to check against a cheek or cheeks puffing out. Also, check to see that the oboe remains straight down, not to the right side. Check to see that the embouchure is flexible: up-and-down with the range of the instrument; in other words, in-and-out of the mouth by degrees.

Find the correct place on the reed. That is, each reed, however less than perfect it might be, has a right place for each note of the scale. This has to do with putting more or less of the reed into the mouth in a flexible manner.

Embouchure: Maintain it very tightly on level 1, but use less-and-less embouchure pressure on each higher level.

The following is an exercise to test the range of the instrument and to test the reed, tongued and slurred:

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Practice on the reed alone, and then insert it into a piece of cane. Play chromatically using levels 1 to 5 to 1. Before playing, try the reed in the embouchure alone. The reed should be further into the mouth for high notes and further out of the mouth for the lowest notes.

Don’t puff out your cheeks; imitate me.

Take more reed in your mouth, and turn, roll, and twist your reed in the oboe to the left as does a bassoonist because it lets the reed vibrate more.

Take more reed in the mouth when playing low notes and loud notes. For these, you need more vibration of the reed.

Think ‘O’ on a low attack, not ‘E’ like a crocodile. Then you are cooked!


RF (Rowland Floyd): Tabuteau advised me to play on a reed by itself, or in tube of cane to ‘save’ the neighbors when practicing [see below].

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RF: I noticed that Tabuteau had a crease, a red mark on his lower lip after playing, which was ¾ of an inch long where his reed impressed his lip by turning it slightly to the left.

AG (Adrian Gnam): Adjust with the change of notes. Use the syllable ‘Oh’ not ‘Ah.’

DB (Donald Baker): Taught [tight] all around.

DB: Indentation of the jaw: tight there.

DB: Lips relaxed and flexible. A little flatter than I would have thought.


LVB: How about the embouchure and reed placement in terms of the colors. Do you adjust – he talks about moving the reed in and out, how did he do this? How does that work exactly?

WR (Wayne Rapier): Well, he did it. I mean he literally moved his embouchure in and out; he was always talking about avoiding the crocodile bite. That meant to have a flexible embouchure so that if you wanted to play dark, you could surround the reed very much, and if you wanted to drown out the trumpet section, you could put very little lip on the reed and play straight out.

WR: He would always compare our embouchure with being close to the bridge or close to the finger board and our breathing with the speed or pressure of the bow. It was always from a string player’s point of view or imitation, I should say.

Marcel Tabuteau on Tone

The tone must start from dark, and then can be allowed to get brighter from there.

A big tone comes from a small one.

A big tone is only a dolce tone enlarged. The dolce tone is the one nearest to number one.

On the violin, the area from the finger board to the bridge constitutes color change as follows: 1-25-1. On the oboe, push the reed into the mouth further as you ‘reach the bridge’ in order to change the color of the sound.

Prepare the wind pressure. The device of saying ‘Ahh…’ prior to playing is intended for this purpose. Compare this to the fact that pressure exists in a water faucet before one turns it on.

Say ‘aaah’ and sustain this, then abruptly close your mouth with the pressure and support still there. Only then should you begin to play.

The speed of wind must be sharp as a razor.

Feel the pressure behind the nose; this helps in keeping one’s throat open.

Feel the pressure of the air behind your nose, release the air through your nose if necessary.

Just as when you whistle, three times more wind speed is required in preparation to play the octave (third octave) on the oboe.

Don’t let the pitch or the support fall; keep the pressure up, keep the direction up.

Remember to articulate the wind.


JM (John Minsker): He always stressed a dark sound, and he had the most beautiful dark sound of anything you can imagine. It was such a dark quality but light weight. Many students misunderstood that, and as a result, they got a dark sound which was thick and heavy. It wasn’t light like Tabuteau’s sound.

The Amplification of the Dolce Tone

JMk (John Mack): When Tabuteau talks about “the amplification of the dolce tone,” “forte” being the amplification of the dolce tone, I really think that this is just only an answer to one thing, and that is that he tried to counteract the natural limitations of the instrument, that is, for instance, for the tone to sound broader in the low notes and tinier in the top notes, to be sort of pyramid shaped, and he was always trying to get us to learn to play in as petite a fashion in the low notes as possible, and with as much scope to the tone in the high register as possible to sort-of overcome this, or to improve the voice of the instrument. I really think that when he says something like “forte being an amplification of a dolce tone” on that record that he made that what his point probably is that one should be able to give more and more tone when it’s necessary without ever having it come apart at the seams and come unglued and so forth and so on. That’s a wonderful thing to be able to do, but at the same time Tabuteau was completely aware of the fact that very often as the tone gets louder, extra richness has to be added to it to be commensurate with its size. Naturally, on the oboe one of the things we all have to work on, parallel to the high and low registers of the instrument, we have to work at the problem of being able to play as clearly as possible when playing quietly and to diffuse the sound enough when play loudly to keep it from sounding like getting a poke with a sharp stick. I think that’s what he meant when he said that.


LVB (Laurie Van Brunt): How did he accomplish the change in color?

JMk (John Mack): Well, by how much lips he had on the reed in different places. He always contended that it was best to have some kind of a scissors grip on the reed between the upper and lower lips, and that directly opposite, confronting upper and lower lips towards the oboe was something that gave you far less control than having something off-set somehow. It would give you more purchase on the reed. And, of course, after you have done that and you fool around, you find out what it is. Am I supposed to tell you what it is when he didn’t? Well, certainly having to do with how near one’s lip might be to the tip of the reed compared to the other, and that’s practically a filtration system. You can take noisy notes on the oboe and make them sound completely and perfectly civilized without any great difficulty if you touch the reed in the right place, in the right amount.

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

JD (John de Lancie): 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.

LVB: Did he use his embouchure and reed placement to change colors?

JMk (John Mack): Oh sure, and he would talk about it. He did talk about embouchure position and things like the chin must be down. I’m not talking about the jaw, but the meat on the outside thereof, so that your jaw would look like while playing as it would when whistling. He would discuss it. Yes, he absolutely would, he would say that it was with your lips that you were able to have the same range of color on the oboe on the same reed that a string player can get by playing nearer the bridge or nearer to the finger board. He could do it himself. I really don’t think I have heard any oboe player ever anywhere approach the range of tone color that he could have on the instrument and still having it sound just fine all the time.


MS Melissa Stevens): Did he ever discuss breathing with you?

JM (John Minsker): Yes, every facet of your playing was discussed. He used to say that he would blow against a candle to just barely keep it from extinguishing. He did stress the use of the candle, although I have to confess I never did it.

JM: He did mention the fact that you always had too much wind and should try to get rid of it though your nose while playing.

The X Diagram

JR (Joseph Robinson): The “X Diagram”—described in that way—is from John Mack, who told me it was “bedrock production theory during everyone’s first year at Curtis.”

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JMk (John Mack): Of course, needless to say, low notes were in principle played nearer the tip and high notes with the reed moving into the mouth. The oboe was played in principle with the mouth open, not shut, and the tone was carried by the wind, and the dynamics were a result of the composite, what you might call an indirect ratio between the wind speed and the lip pressure. That was spelled out to me in my very first venture as a sixteen year old, that that was what it was, that you had more lips and less wind or wind speed (He always used the word speed.) He wanted to think of the wind as something traveling and alive, never something like just pressure. He didn’t like the idea of talking about it that way, so he used the expression “speed,” which I think is quite fine.

The Drives

LVB (Laurie Van Brunt): One thing that I forgot to ask you about was the term “drive.” I wanted you to explain that.

LT (Laurence Thorstenberg): 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 controlled. 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.

Direction of the Wind in Relation to the Reed

JMk (John Mack): This idea of directional wind on the reed, maybe I should say a word about that. Tabuteau felt one should not blow directly down through the reed into the oboe, but rather obliquely across the reed and that the air should be directed toward the bridge of the nose as far as the sensation of blowing was concerned. He always wanted, I mean like a phrase in two parts that it would have a rebound in the middle of it and not just go in one stream in one direction. He felt that way about the blowing too. It’s a difficult thing to talk about, because it sounds sort of obtuse, but if anyone can try for themselves on the oboe to play with the feeling of blowing straight down through the reed in the oboe or blowing across it instead, there’s an enormous and marked difference between the two. What it is, I just leave up to anybody who wants to try to do that, but there’s a definite difference. I teach the same thing myself, and I can’t imagine not doing that.


RF (Rowland Floyd): Tabuteau told me to direct the air at my nose.

RF: Tabuteau said Lifschey was extreme in the amount and direction of the air he aimed at his nose [upper palette] resulting in noise.


LVB (Laurie Van Brunt): Would you like to talk about intervals?

JMk (John Mack): Oh yes, very much so. That was one of the earliest things too that you must play the life of the intervals, the real value of the interval to play an “a” and then a fifth higher, an “e”, consecutively with the preparation for the interval, the pressing off of the low note and the arrival of the high note in good form, the arrival being an achievement rather than impact was very important to him and that the low note must sound as though it is going to go to exactly the note it is going to go to. No mistake about it whatsoever, it is a calculated leap. If you leap a certain distance you know where you’re going to, just like a dancer’s going to leap a certain distance, he or she knows exactly the distance they are going to leap and they know how they are going to land. It’s not going to look like a difficult thing, and you have to push off in order to make it, like a high jumper has to push off a certain amount in order to achieve altitude. And that was very much the case with him. Also upward intervals were played on an under curve upward, and down intervals were played on an over curve downward on a loop of some sort or other, that give you a feeling of motion and of driving something just as much as, I suppose rushing down a roller coaster and sort of coasting up the other side. There’s a certain trajectory that the notes come on and you provide it and the notes come on it.


MT (Marcel Tabuteau): Also use a mirror to see that when tonguing, especially when attacking each note of a scale, that this is done on the wind and not separately. Maintain the air pressure at all times, and in tonguing, no exterior movement should be seen. Check incidentally to see that you are sitting up straight with your feet on the floor to insure proper support. If individual movements in the throat can be seen, this means that the air pressure starts and stops on each note during tonguing. This is wrong.

JMk: (John Mack) The very first thing I asked was is how do you stop a note when you are articulating. Well, we went around Robin Hood’s barn; it was like you dampen like the piano and this and that with the lips; yes, no, no, yes with the tongue, no, yes, yes, no, and he finally started to get angry. So, that was the end of the conversation; he changed the subject and that was it. But, he did it to perfection himself. He could do it, he could do it any old way whatsoever, and did very frequently.

LVB (Laurie Van Brunt): We left off on the last tape on principles of articulation.

JMk (John Mack): Tee or taa, nothing else, supposedly. The tee was relegated to the strong pulse, the down impulse. So if you play 2 3 4 1, taa taa taa /tee, and the idea being of course to give that extra energy, I suppose, to that one that needs it, but without having the in-between ones fall off to something less than of relatively primary importance. So, he always had the two directions. I guess the taa you would consider to be either residual from a strong beat or preparatory to the next beat and the tee would be that. So it would be taa taa taa/tee, taa taa taa /tee. In the two and two articulations, what we call two and two, which he would call one and three because only one is really legato or something like that, but anyway, what we in the trade refer to as two and two articulation, two notes slurred and two notes separate, he would sing that as tee long taa taa, tee long taa taa,tee. The reason he did this (I take great issue with that myself personally,) but the reason he did it was to solve two problems: one of rhythm and one of line. If you play this last slurred note full length all the time, it will always be heard; and it will be heard in relative equality with the other notes. Also playing that note full length tends to keep one from playing unrhythmically. The usual tendency in two and two articulation for wind players is to get off the first note slightly too soon. By concentrating on playing the second note full length, for some reason, it helps the first note also. And also the feeling of saying tee long taa taa, the sound itself almost makes an attenuated feeling. So when you think tee long taa taa, tee long taa taa, you have something there for each note. Now he insisted on the last slurred note being played long all the time. That was gospel of some sort or other. We all did it. It was either do it or get you head handed to you, so we did it, and we all decided that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

LVB: Was there scaling of articulation?

JMk: Yes, scaling of articulation, scaling of articulation length, absolutely. Now that differed, you know, that differed at different times. In earlier days than mine at Curtis, he had something called a reed class where the students would line up and get their reeds broken or whatever. Also he would have them line up and play scales with each one playing a note differently [playing a different note?] At that time they played their notes all full length. That was their way of playing scales; they played all notes full length. Later on he changed them, certainly by the time I was around there, you played scales and if you played articulated scales, as you went up the scale the notes gradually became longer until they were full length at the top and they were graduated on the way down. But this is not something that one does very much in music. It’s a marvelous exercise though; it’s a marvelous exercise in the development of your control of articulation lengths and also of your imagination. It’s sort of like taking a free ride; it’s like jumping off the roof and flying around the house three times and landing again. That’s not something you do in your daily life, but it sure is exciting and perhaps instructional in some way too.


JD (John de Lancie): Well, vibrato was something, which was a very personal thing, which he never taught. He, at least in my case, the couple of times that I got up enough nerve to ask him something (because most of us were always afraid to even ask questions) he just said, “Well, don’t worry about it, it will take care of itself.” In my case, I feel fortunate in that it did take care of itself. He said, ”Just keep on playing long tones, and it will happen,” and sure enough it did happen. But, I have found in my thirty years of teaching that it doesn’t always work out that way with some students, and I would say that there are some of his students that could be pointed out as examples of where it didn’t work also. He never made, very rarely ever made a reference to it, except that he didn’t like a lot of it. Anybody who would try to use a great deal of it, he would say, “Forget it.”


LVB (Laurie Van Brunt): In your own mind, how did vibrato fit in –

JMk (John Mack): Vibrato was an undiscussed topic. It was made a joke of sometimes. I remember as a youngster asking him something about it and immediately getting some cock-and-bull story about “You relax the lips and the reed vibrates and makes vibrato” [imitating Tabuteau’s accent]. He would say anything whatsoever, and it was one of those things; that was a subject that was up to you to come up with your own solution. It’s one of those mystical things with the oboe since it’s an internal thing, not external like a string player. String Players just go ahead and study and learn to do that. It’s no more given any thought of; no one is going to sit around on the violin and wait for something to happen as if by magic, by nature. Although this is greatly espoused on the oboe that that’s what one should do, I take a rather jaundice view of the whole business. I’d rather not go into it too much, but as far as Tabuteau’s concerned to say that he didn’t. I remember when he had seized upon a high note and the room was throbbing at full intensity, and he fixed on me with rolling eyes that reminded me of frightened young calf or something, being sure that he had my attention, he pulled the oboe out of his mouth and in mock something or other said, “Well, Mack, there is your vibrato!” [Imitating Tabuteau’s accent.] Something like that, sort of trying to make a joke out of it. Was he concerned about it himself? Of course, he certainly was like every other artist, deeply and completely concerned, but he felt, and I agree with him, that there is something rather private about it. I think that in a way vibrato is almost a reflection of a person’s psyche or the condition there-of. I think most people would be forced to admit that. He tried to avoid physical things.


LVB (Laurie Van Brunt): How important was rubato?

JD (John de Lancie): Very important; he was a Kreisler-type player in that he had an enormous amount of chic in his playing. He could take little things, and oh, little solos, and… and nobody had heard anything like it. He was a gypsy, but the most refined gypsy that anybody ever heard. Well, a Fritz Kreisler type.

JMk (Jon Mack): Tabuteau played with a great deal of rubato especially in his studio. I’ll never forget before the first Casals Festival in which he was going to be performing the Bach Violin and Oboe Concerto. (As a matter of fact, I got to play it on the Curtis recital that spring to help in the learning process, because it was sort of new to the market at that time.) I heard him playing the slow movement himself, and I thought: Oh, isn’t that wonderful, that’s a piece of Debussy that I never heard before in my life. A great amount of rubato, however, that was sort of like a horse cantering around the pasture, frolicking, rolling around, nothing like what it’s going to do when it gets a jockey up on its back and gets in the starting gate. Tabuteau was very much in the traces, so to speak; when he got into the orchestra, then he minded his p’s and q’s with great care. So, any rhapsodizing that he might do while playing by himself usually got minimized. Yes, he played with a certain amount of rubato, he absolutely did. He could not stand the idea of something being absolutely straight, and straight to him was anathema, just had no place in music.


LVB (Laurie VanBrunt): Why was Tabuteau so strong on transposition of etudes?

JD (John de Lancie): Well, transposition served a number of purposes. This is a subject that I can’t, there’s only one thing that he ever said to me about it; I’m assuming another aspect of it. The one thing that he mentioned was and that is you had to practice, you couldn’t fake your way through a lesson. So that was an enforcement along those lines. The other two reasons for my continuing, no, I mean, there are two other reasons, one of them is one that I assumed and that was that, you know you tell a student, the student comes and he plays a lesson, and then you correct him and tell him and so on and so forth. It’s very difficult to know whether they understood what you said, but if they have to play it again, then you get an opportunity to see if they understood. Now when they have to do it in a transposition that doesn’t change the music any; all right that’s the second reason. The first is that they have to practice; they can’t get a way away with faking. The second is that you get an opportunity hear the same piece again to see if they understood the musical corrections of the things that you are doing. The third thing is another assumption of mine, and I never asked him, along with lots of things that I should have asked him, but I don’t know I just didn’t. But, I can tell you that back before the Second World War, if you played any opera, it was not at all uncommon, you know the proliferation of printed music just didn’t exist, we didn’t have copying machines, we didn’t have all this very inexpensive way of reproducing all kinds of material, so that it was a very common thing if you played opera, maybe you’d get towards the second or third act, the contractor would come into the pit during intermission and say now the tenor has a cold or he isn’t going to make that high c, we’ve got to transpose the whole section down a half step or maybe even a whole step. And you were supposed to be able to do it; that was part of your equipment. Now his [Tabuteau’s] early training was in opera; he spent seven years at the Metropolitan, and this probably happened frequently. I know that in my very limited experience as a student playing operas in Philadelphia, it happened to me many times. Now I also know for me at the time it was as simple as pie, because I did it every week. And I know that a lot of people who were working in the opera company they had a tough time, and boy the conductors used to boil when they’d say this has to be transposed, and there would be some monumental bloopers that would take place during the performance when people were trying to transpose at sight. So that I think that that was part of it also. He wanted us to have the ability to do this quickly, which was very good. Now there is a fourth reason too, and that is that it adds to your technique, because it means, you know if you take any example, and put it up a half step and down a half step, you’re going to go through almost all of the conceivable combinations of fingerings that you would have to, and it’s a very definite technical aid.

Lessons and Practicing

RA: (Rhadames Angelucci): After a few lessons, then I began to play scales; I had to play scales – very slowly, both detached and slurred, a major and minor scale. And each lesson started with two scales — both detached and slurred, both scales. And you progressed then, of course, from the sharps then to the flats. And then after that always I had to play in intervals thirds and fourths, as I recall. And then you got into the Barret book, for instance. And then after I finished the Barret book, I went into the Ferling Studies, then the Brod Sonatas, and, of course, I had to do the Handel Sonatas and the Paladilhe or I don’t remember which one now, — I think both of those I had to play and learn. And then I took the Gillet Technique and also a Prestini my last year in school. That’s exactly what I went through, but the scales were always, always preceded your book, always the scales. I understand that later on he might have changed that, you know. Some pupil later on was telling me that he had the scales done differently than I had learned.


MS (Melissa Stevens): Can you describe a typical private lesson with Tabuteau?

JM (John Minsker): Well, I would say there’s no such thing as a typical lesson with him. Things could go smoothly occasionally, and he could blow up on occasion. He would always start you out with a long tone. That was the basis of your playing.

Then you would play scales in a few different keys, maybe scales in thirds in different keys. Then you played your lesson from Barret or Ferling and transposed into a nearby key. If you got through alive you left.


MS (Mesliisa Stevens: Can you describe a typical private lesson with Tabuteau?

JD (John de Lancie): We always started with long tones, scales, and broken thirds. Then we had to play our lessons, which generally consisted of four exercises [from Barret, Ferling, or Brod]. Two would be new pieces in the original key. The other two would be pieces we played the previous week in the original key, now transposed to a different key.


LVB (Laurie Van Brunt): You mentioned Barret, what other music did you work on?

JMk (John Mack): After Barret came Ferling. After Ferling sometimes you did Brod and sometimes Gillet. I can’t say too much for myself, I never even got through the Ferling. I’ve had to finish the Ferling book myself in order to keep ahead of my own students now. I don’t in anyways anymore need Marcel Tabuteau’s assistance to study the Ferling book, but, for instance, at one point, I guess in my second year at Curtis, we were doing Barret Grand Studies in the back of the book, and he decided that my articulation needed work, which it most certainly did. And the world stopped, and for the next two and a half months I would play those last studies in umpteen different keys with umpteen different rhythms. So, the fast C Major one, the one that goes [sings first few phrases] became for instance in D-flat [sings an 8th note followed by two sixteenth notes under tempo and all staccato]. Of course, at that tempo you never get finished. I would be coming down the second page absolutely dying, and this man was sitting in an arm chair at the corner of the room screaming at me at the top of his lungs, “Don’t stop, I tell you!” [Imitating Tabuteau’s accent]. The only way you could stop for air would be to commit some grievous musical error for which he would then say, “Stop, Stupid!” [Imitating Tabuteau’s accent]. At least it was a chance to get some oxygen back in your brains and some blood in the lips. But, I mean, that was the way he would teach. As I say, he would stop all of a sudden if he thought something had to be done.

I might mention that Tabuteau would never help anyone with orchestral excerpts of any sort. The only time that you ever got help with actual music other than etudes was if you were doing something in a string class or wind class with him. His idea being that he is trying to teach you how to make music and how to play the oboe and when it comes time to play, that’s your business and should be your work and not his work other than what he’s done already to that point.

LVB: Did lessons follow in a logical progression of complexity?

JMk: No, Tabuteau was a counter-puncher as far as teaching is concerned, in my own estimation. I used to think the most dangerous chair in Philadelphia after the electric chair in Harrisburg, or wherever it might be, would be a certain easy chair in a certain apartment in the Drake Hotel, where Tabuteau lived. We would all imagine he was sitting there of an evening fiendishly deciding what to do to us in our next lesson, because of something we had or hadn’t done and because of some comment that Madame Tabuteau had said or made about one of us, that he is not doing too well in French, you know, something like that. (Madame Tabuteau taught French at Curtis, and it was more or less “de rigueur” that the oboe students study French. Not all did. There were a couple of brave souls who refused to do so.)

In actual fact, I do believe that he was very thorough; he would see to it along the way that everything would be covered. But, when I say counterpuncher, what I mean to say is he would seize upon something that he saw, heard, or didn’t see or hear in your work when you were playing something, and he would pounce upon it and go into it in great depth. Stop the world right then and there and explore this thing. Of course that was very much a part of his own outlook towards preparing anything, that anytime you came upon a difficulty you would take it apart, you would reduce it to the most common part, take that little part, make a pattern out of it, make an exercise out of it, practice it all the way up and down the instrument until it’s no longer a difficult thing, but a fluent thing. –Sort of like the Cadillac Motor Company in the early part of the [20th] century when it became the first manufacturer to make parts that were interchangeable from one automobile to another – perfect enough to do so.

He would want to prepare in detail the working of any phrase in such a way that they would take care of themselves under the stress of performance. So, he would attack what he sensed to be a weakness or a weakness that cropped up or has cropped up too much, something he perhaps hadn’t noticed before, and he would take that and work on it. That would almost be a theme to the lesson; you really didn’t know what it was going to be, because you didn’t know what it was that he was going to hear in your playing that day. Now it is very possible, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised, if there were sometimes when he came into a lesson with the idea already preconceived, “I am going to get after this student for such and such a reason today, and it’s high time.” And he may have been thinking what he had heard in the previous lesson and decided that it was going to get done no matter what. And he would see that in your playing even if it weren’t there. If he decided to see it, it would be there; and it would be no use denying it whatsoever.

He would practice a passage sometimes or demonstrate how a passage could be practiced on one note to make the arch of a phrase on one note and then to take the variegated notes themselves and place them on that same line. So maybe a high note is going to be a little less and a low note is going to be a little bit more in order to take their proper place in that line, so that the line comes out with the same continuity as if you were playing one note repeatedly. He would do that with passages from the repertoire or anything. He would say, “I practice this this way,” and play the repeated notes in the right rhythm and with the direction and the inflection that he wanted and do that and make it sound quite convincing. Something is missing, but it is a very convincing statement in itself. And then add the other dimension by producing the real notes on that line. The whole technique of doing that with the wind is a rather complicated thing, and it’s certainly not something one does all the time by any matter of means. But, it’s something that one has to be able to do in order to be able to achieve certain things musically. It has to be in the repertoire.


WR (Wayne Rapier): We all had to go through the Barret. In fact, he could spend four years on the Barret book if you would like. You had to almost force him to start listening to solo repertoire, especially orchestral repertoire. Of course, I was interested in mostly getting his interpretation of the orchestral repertoire.


LS (Laila Storch): He lays great importance on the “Grand Studies” Nos. 3, 12, 15 and 16 in Barret.


Marcel Tabuteau on Practicing:

When playing scales, for sake of practice and to meet physical demands musically, breathe after every 9th note.

Begin increasing the velocity of your scales every two weeks, eventually reaching mm = 120 and playing them as follows: detached, slurred, and articulated.

Play scales and articulations every day, 30 to 45 minutes each. It takes a lifetime.

My suggestions for a division of practice time: Play exercises for embouchure and wind for a 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.

I practice every day.