Tabuteau Numbers

by Suzanne Gonsalves

Kodaly and Orff Music Teacher’s Blog, December 18, 2012.

This month I’m giving you a special gift.  My tidbits of learning from conservatory and memories of some of my colleagues about their most influential teachers.  As an alum of The Curtis Institute, I would be remiss if I didn’t share Tabuteau Numbers. This system of explaining intensity within phrasing is the reason why musicians trained at Curtis are known for being able to spin phrases beautifully and endlessly.  It’s not difficult to explain or to implement, but for some strange reason, other music schools don’t teach phrasing this way.  It’s time to teach you the secret hand shake. Tabuteau Numbers!

A little history

Marcel Tabuteau was one of the founding teachers at The Curtis Institute in the 1920s.  He along with the other men in this photograph went on to teach the most regarded wind players of the 20th century.  The most famous teacher among these men was the oboist, Marcel Tabuteau.  His teaching didn’t just impact his students, it made its way into chamber music and orchestral rehearsals via his system of numbers.  Players used these numbers to agree on phrase pacing and to thwart a phrase’s end to extend tension and increase impact.

The system

1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 are the numbers.  1 is the least intense, most calm, tranquil, nearly dead intensity.  5 is so intense that it nearly explodes within itself.  As numbers increase, the intensity of the phrase increases.  As the numbers decrease, the tension decreases and the phrase winds to an end.  THESE NUMBERS ARE NOT DYNAMICS, TEMPOS, OR ARTICULATIONS!!!!!!!  The numbers represent the intent behind the note.

Example:  Try this.  Say one of the following phrases at a mezzo piano dynamic

  • I love you
  • I didn’t mean that
  • Why are you following me?
  • Do you hear what I hear?
  • Brown bear, brown bear, what do you hear?

Now say the phrase with as little intensity as possible.  Say it 4 more times, each time increase the intensity.  Remember not to change your dynamic, tempo, or articulation.

Listen to this!

Well, you can’t attend Curtis without having legends for classmates. Joshua Smith was in Freshman Quintet with me, he now is Principal Flute for The Cleveland Orchestra.  Josh’s playing is loaded with Tabuteau-rich phrases.  He’ll hold a note that is a phrase all by itself.

Listen to this example, [on Joshua Smith’s site] he spins the opening notes into a shimmering gauze of color.  He’s wavering his numbers between 2 and 4, weaving them in and out and making the music sound all dreamy and wavy.  The listener is transported into Starry Night and mesmerized by the story Josh tells with no words.  Can you tell where he flips between low numbers to higher ones?  When does he get dangerously close to ending the phrase, but he gets softer and increases his number?  It’s amazing how much he noodles the numbers in this piece.  While he doesn’t consciously think about numbers anymore, the concept of spinning the intensity of a phrase without change to dynamic, articulation, or speed has become part of him.

You might think that Tabuteau numbers are too advanced for your students, but I assure you, your students will love them.  It is a basic human need to make art.  Give students a tool to make better art and they will use it.  Try it out!

Posted 18th December 2012