Sherman Walt (1923-1989) studied bassoon at the University of Minnesota and the Curtis Institute of Music where he attended Marcel Tabuteau’s wind ensemble classes–graduating in 1946. During World War II, he served with the 82nd Infantry Division in Europe, winning a Bronze Star. He spent five years as principal bassoonist of the Chicago Symphony before joining the Boston Symphony Orchestra (1953) in the same capacity, serving until his retirement in 1989. Mr. Walt was a founding member of the Boston Symphony Chamber Players and taught at the Tanglewood Music Center, the New England Conservatory in Boston, and at Boston University.
The following are excerpts from Laurie Van Brunt’s 1978 interview of Sherman Walt concerning the Tabuteau System:
LVB: What sort of things did he talk about to achieve good ensemble?
SW: Well, of course, you had to listen to everyone, because he would call you stupid if you came in early or late. He used his famous number system, you know. I say “you know” because I’m obviously not the first person you’ve talked to about it. I think he would talk to us the way he would talk to his oboe students. He would take a thirteen-note cadenza and divide it into numbers, so it would really sound natural. And this number system, as he put it, it was very mechanical. And he knew teaching it, it was mechanical… When he conducted the orchestra, for example, he would tell you how it should be done in the numbers. He felt guilty about it, because he’d say, “you know,” (I’m not going to try to imitate him, because there are so many people who do it well), but he would say even when he would know what he was going to do [planned it out with his number system] and even when he didn’t feel like playing or felt ill, it still sounded great. And if you don’t have an idea of what you’re going to do and you don’t feel good, it can sound bad, but it may not sound great, but it would sound very good, it would still sound like Tabuteau, because he knew exactly what he was going to do. And this is something that I think all of us who were impressed with that still use to teach and for ourselves. We systematically find out what we’re going to do and then when we are ready to play it, we don’t really think about it anymore, but to prepare ourselves for it. And that’s what he projected.
LVB: As far as the numbers go, what all did they imply to you?
SW: Phrasing. I mean that’s what it’s about and rhythm. Numbers imply to me — well when we speak for example, I’ll give a little lesson, you start a sentence and you continue like I’m speaking now, you arrive at a climax [speaking with more intensity] which I am doing now, and then you finish as I have just done. And that’s what the number system is about. Rather you wouldn’t [spoken loudly] speak like [spoken loudly] this. I think that covers it. It was definitely phrasing so that it would sound natural; find out where your high point is and you work toward that. 1 432/1 432/1 I think after most of us left school, we kind of devised our own number system, because that really wasn’t so important exactly [to use the number system as Tabuteau did]. But, it was the idea [of] the whole number system that helped us.
LVB: What I was wondering, it’s not just dynamics?
SW: It was dynamics, rhythm, and color really. Have you ever heard the Tabuteau tapes?
SW: Ok. Well, then you really…
LVB: Well, I’m trying to find out what people thought he was talking about.
SW: Ah huh
LVB: How they interpreted what he said, so what I have gotten from different people —
SW: It’s interesting, yeah. Well, I have to admit that it was all three things, it was phrasing and rhythm and even color. You could devise your own number system for that.
LVB: Of course. Do you remember him saying anything the bar line? Being very restrictive about where you could breathe in terms of the bar line?
SW: Yes. Yes, that was very important. I mean you had to breathe in a natural place like when you were singing or talking. I think one of the reasons that Tabuteau today could not be as influential, is because those of us who were doing work with Tabuteau were studying solfege, and we knew what he was talking about. Where today, now I don’t know about many schools in New York, but I know some of the prominent schools, they don’t require a music performance major to study solfege, and he would just laugh, I mean it would be impossible to teach someone who doesn’t understand solfege. If they didn’t sing solfege, they would be playing by rote, I mean the second space fingers like this, rather than “la.” So, we’re talking about breathing, solfege you do know where to breathe and he did, it was important.
LVB: No one else has really mentioned how important solfege was.
SW: Oh good, I am glad I mentioned it. (I was friendly with some of the oboe players at the time) I believe that some of the oboe players told me that they had to sing their lessons in solfege; so that was important for him.
I think he was most prominent in my playing as a “phraser.” I still remember like the Haffner Symphony [singing] the last note less than the first one, everything had to be scaled. Whenever I play it today, I still think of that. And I think to myself, “That must have been the best performance I ever played,” (I’m sure it wasn’t the lousiest) but in my mind that will be a highlight.