Joseph Robinson interviewed by Daniel Stolper

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Daniel Stolper is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music where he studied with Robert Sprenkle. While still a student, he played beside his teacher in the Rochester Philharmonic and the Eastman-Rochester Symphony. After graduation, he did further work with Robert Bloom, John Mack, and Heinz Holliger. In the early 1950s he took private lessons with Marcel Tabuteau. After receiving his BM, MM, and the Performer’s Certificate in oboe, he joined the San Antonio Symphony as principal oboist, a position he held for five seasons. He later played first oboe in the New Orleans Philharmonic. In the late 60’s Dan joined the faculty of Michigan State University at East Lansing, and became first oboist of the Lansing Symphony Orchestra and member of the Richards Quintet. In the late 70’s he joined the faculty of the Interlochen Center for the Arts. He has given master classes here and abroad, and has served on the juries of important international competitions. He has recorded for Mercury/EMI, Columbia, and Crystal Records. Dan has been editor of the Double Reed Magazine, the publication of the International Double Reed Society, since the society’s inception in 1972.


JR (Joseph Robinson): I believe a radical and separate investment will pay off quicker than one which is a compromise with faulty techniques. This may be one of the critical ingredients in one’s potential for success – it’s an important index of a student’s promise – whether he or she is able to continue to grow – to undergo this kind of metamorphosis, sloughing off the old skin in a way, moving on to better things.

Actually the next time it happened for me was much more drastic! That was when I met Tabuteau in France in the spring of 1963. At that time he had yet to accept an oboe student in the ten years since he’d left the Philadelphia Orchestra. I was in Nice to look for cane, en route to Spain, and I had his address and went to see him. He wasn’t at home so I left a note for him with the maid, explaining that I was an oboe student who had worked with John Mack and Ralph Gomberg, and that I very much wanted to meet him. I said I would come back that evening at 8. I chose the hour thinking that would be after dinner, and yet prior to an older man’s bedtime. My traveling companion and I had already eaten a huge meal in the old quarter of Nice when we showed up at Tabuteau’s apartment. He opened the door, and there he was in a white apron, smelling of Scotch and garlic, making dinner for us! And not only that, he had beenmaking dinner all afternoon. He said in response to my greeting “You don’t look like an oboe player,” and then noticing my friend, he said “My God, there are two of them!” A loud discussion in French with his wife followed, and then he said that we’d just have to divide up dinner, which came as a terrific relief to us, as you can imagine! So that was the strange beginning of my relationship with Tabuteau, and of course I was so naive about the profession, there was so little I could tell him about what his students were doing, that he seemed to lose interest in me rather quickly.

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Joseph Robinson

At the critical moment just as Tabuteau’s head was touching his plate that evening, I remembered a list of cane growers that John Mack had given me which I had in my pocket. I intended to be John’s emissary over there with French cane growers, and as I showed Tabuteau the list he read it with great interest, then began to laugh as he said “This one’s been dead for twenty years,” “That one’s now in the furniture business” . . . I remembered I had some tube cane in the car from Deriaz which was hard to get then. So I ran down to the car for the cane and the evening magically began again – now in his studio! I’ll never forget Tabuteau’s excitement working with this cane – feverishly preparing, twisting and admiring it – “see that – it cuts like butter!” He seemed as thrilled as a youngster with a new present. He’d just been told by his doctor that he couldn’t drive and it was harvest time, just before the cane was sent to the dealers in Paris, and he’d run out of cane, and there I was with a car. He’d never taken anyone cane-hunting, but he agreed to go with me. So the next day three of us set out together. My companion and I were instructed by him at every stop to speak German – to pretend to be German students because he thought if we were recognized as Americans it might jeopardize his chances, and so we put on a little charade in each of the four places we visited. In every case the grower would give us a certain amount of time in which we could “attack” a hundred-kilo sack of cane. Tabuteau had a wonderful time, away from the apartment and sort of “out with the boys” again – I think it was a rejuvenating thing for him. By that time our relationship was so convivial that he insisted I help him prepare spaghetti for supper that evening. He said to me at one point “you remind me of myself when I was young”. . . but of course, he had never heard me play a note. We just hit if off, with me in the role of a grandson or something like that. As I was preparing to leave for Spain he agreed to teach me during the following summer. When I came back to Nice in July, Tabuteau had actually spent time with Don Baker and David Dutton, so to be really accurate, they were the first ones to study with him there. But then I stayed about five weeks; and that was in the summer of 1963.

The first lesson I had with him was so friendly and low-keyed that I was amazed. I would play something, then he’d take his oboe out and play for me . . . and my memory of the orchestral excerpts we were playing wasn’t so good then; I remind myself so much of my own students who want to play some very difficult work when they should perhaps be revamping their embouchure. We played together that way for about three hours and when I left that afternoon, I remember feeling somehow let-down, with the idea that if this is Mecca, it doesn’t really amount to that much. A paradoxical, unexpected feeling of disappointment. But he had asked me to come back the next morning. And when I arrived, he had already been working, though he was still in his pajamas and robe. I came into the studio where he was gouging cane, and he virtually ignored me. It was an entirely different mood from the day before. Finally he turned around and said over his left shoulder, “Robinson, you are a very sick oboe player!” And then he gouged another piece of cane while I thought about that. When he looked back at me again, this time, thank heavens, with a bit of a twinkle in his eye, he said “I think I know the cure, but you’re not going to like it.” He was throwing down the gauntlet! My feeling was that I had a safeguard, an “out,” and I must confess that the kind of schizophrenic life I’d led saved me in a way, so that I didn’t feel my self-respect entirely depended upon him. If he destroyed me as an oboe player, I could stand it. And so the mood changed and we never regained that convivial grandfather-grandson relationship, and I realized that that was a sacrifice on his part too. Then he took my oboe away and told me to put the reed into a tube of cane, and to practice 1-2-3-4-5-4-3-2-1 for hours a day. I sat under a palm tree at the summer academy where I was staying, like some sort of an idiot, peeping on this tube of cane. Something that seemed so simple in concept was very difficult in practice, which was to play 1-2-3-4-5-4-3-2-1 on a monotone as he did, keeping the pitch constant and making those discrete levels of volume sound alike on both sides of the center. All of us who’ve worked at this sort of thing know how much harder it is to do than it seems when it’s described to us. He held me to that for a long time, and what I learned from that – was that the most basic fundamental relationship in oboe playing has to do with the reed opening and wind speed. For Tabuteau the most important significant variable for the interpretive musician was the dynamic shape of the phrase, and I think that’s why he emphasized his number system – at Curtis I hear he went up to 13, a very sophisticated level. Changing the wind speed has implications for the pitch. If you don’t believe it, just try it with a reed stuck into a tube of cane. I tried to play a little louder and the pitch went up, or softer and it went down, so it became very clear to me what I only intuitively had dealt with before, namely that the size of the reed opening must compensate for the amount of air. Since then I ‘ve learned that at a pianissimo the pitch is almost totally sustained by the embouchure – the aperture of the reed is virtually closed down to nothing. At that point I bite the reed closed with my jaws. I’ll interject that this is an analytical approach to the most fundamental aspect of tone production. I think there are a few players who make diminuendos without closing the reed appreciably because they play reeds that are stable enough not to change drastically with the wind speed, and because the reed is sophisticated enough to allow for more reed to be taken in as an alternative to closing. But in any case there has to be compensation for the change of wind.

DS (Daniel Stolper): In this discussion of dynamic levels, how much of this has to do with changing the shape of the inside of the mouth?

JR: That’s not a major element in my own thinking. In making diminuendos, my manipulation is mostly with the embouchure, in that I definitely close the reed by biting. It of course depends on the particular reed and its own tendencies where I have to go on it. I don’t consciously change the configuration of the inside of my mouth simply because I’m getting softer – I don’t feel the need to do something with my tongue or with my soft palate although I do make some subtle change back there for different pitches and registers. With regard to the open-throat sensation that some people speak of – I started out with that idea – the half-swallowed egg or whatever, which I now think is a big mistake. I think the whole idea of the throat that’s open in a way that pushes the larynx down is an intolerable one – people who start out with the larynx down invariably squeeze air out using the larynx to recover its normal position.

DS: Did Tabuteau talk about physical things like this in regard to controlling dynamic levels?

JR: He said – in a very strong, emphatic way at one of my last lessons – that I should blow toward the bridge of my nose and keep the focus of the windstream as high as possible. That’s always meant to me the opposite of the throat orientation. I try to keep the feeling of compression as high and as close to the reed as possible. Tabuteau never talked in terms of the abdominal musculature, but I myself am so convinced of the importance of an unimpeded, efficient airflow as a starting point, that I spend a great deal of time helping students get around to breathing abdominally – and freely, eliminating feelings of constriction – and I think this is one of the most difficult things we have to deal with. Abdominally the feeling of support is often confused with an isometric, and futile, kind of tension and the perception is almost identical for the right kind of support and the wrong kind if you’re thinking of signals from the abdominal area. I would say the most helpful indication of a proper use of the abdominal musculature is a free expansion and contraction in that area. Displacement of the musculature is one key to its proper use. It would be possible to chart the level of dynamic in a passage I play by using a stylus similar to what’s used for an EKG, charting the motion in and out of my gut. The effort of the abdominal musculature is definitely related to the speed of the wind. High speeds of course cost more effort than lower speeds – I make a diminuendo, my stomach comes out. I feel a pulling inward of the abdominal musculature for a breath accent – up and in. I involve the muscles from far below my lungs – even those below the belt line, pushing the air up from the bottom. When I’m blowing like that my chest comes up – a rebound from that force of the stomach underneath. Concern about controlling the wind was underlined by Tabuteau’s interest in this subject – he commented that violinists who could control the left hand were dime-a-dozen, the ones who can really handle the bow are the great ones. He was concerned about the fact that not many wind players try, as a regular discipline, any exercises which are designed to help train the wind itself. I think of one of the first things he says on his record – that as a young man he trained his wind by blowing the flame of a lighted candle – almost blowing it out. I used to have the feeling of flexible support on the crescendo side, but on the diminuendo side I didn’t. On the back side, so to speak, the pressure and tension would suddenly be in my gut, but the note would sound unsupported. I realized that my stomach muscles moved in in proportion to the wind speed on the crescendo side but didn’t return on the back side. So I was concerned about why I didn’t feel the same at “1 ” on the back side as I had at “1” on the front side. An exercise that proved helpful was to take a note and to allow the pitch to move without any compensatory adjustment in my embouchure, using the least embouchure that would keep air from escaping around the reed . . . blow slowly, then faster and faster, allowing the pitch to go up and down as kind of a barometer of the wind speed. I realized through that, that the pitch and density of the note were exactly proportional to the wind speed and to my effort. Then I felt I was on the road to recovery, because I realized I’d been working much too hard on the diminuendo side, and fighting myself, because the effort in my gut was not related to the wind speed. The pitch will show a lot, but people with good ears don’t like this exercise because they just don’t want to hear the pitch moving around like that. Getting back to my first lessons with Tabuteau and all that peeping on the tube of cane, the relationship between reed opening and wind speed relative to pitch seemed most important. As far as I’m concerned that’s such a basic thing – like an XY equation. The one variable, the wind speed, has implications for the pitch which have to be counterbalanced by changes in the reed opening. That means pianissimo levels for the same pitch are supported almost entirely by the embouchure, which is “biting,” because you can’t close the reed opening with your lips alone. For the softer dynamics as far as I’m concerned, the embouchure does become more like lip-covered teeth. And I use my jaw muscles, and Tabuteau did too whether that’s representative of his playing as a whole, I don’t know, but when I was with him, he did that. The pitch is supported at the other end of the dynamic spectrum almost entirely by the wind, with teeth pulled apart as much as lips will permit. Tabuteau’s image for that was a fish coming up out of the water after a bug! A word of warning to students about that, because it depends upon the reed. Some reeds respond much more drastically to opening and closing than they do in response to the wind. I believe students should have conscious manipulative control of the variables relating to tone production, and that means practicing changing the pitch with embouchure alone – by biting they’ll find that a pitch curve created by the embouchure, like a roller coaster curve, will have parameters almost the same as the pitch curve created by blowing fast and slow. Once those two variables can be manipulated separately, then they can be spliced together so that they compensate for each other in a crescendo-diminuendo trade-off.

There is a third variable in the tone production equation, and that’s reed placement The only thing on Tabuteau’s lesson records that is addressed directly to a technical problem is the business of making a tone brighter and darker, and he says specifically to move one’s embouchure toward the string and back again. That means that the color of a note is a function of the surface vibration of the cane, the superficial vibration of the cane. The more cane that is exposed in the mouth, the brighter the tone. A third pitch curve can therefore be created by moving the reed in and out, as any student can quickly see. This can be done in two ways: by either moving the lips with the reed, and I think that’s preferable, by changing the vowel from, say EE to OO, or by slipping the cane in and out with the lips in the same place which makes it very hard to recover the tip of the reed once you’ve moved in. I try to have my students practice manipulating all three variables, and so now I guess we have an XYZ equation – very complicated! Tabuteau said the numbers are not just dynamics, they’re also color. I think he DID mean dynamic, I’d be adamant about that – he meant volume of sound, but he also meant color, and the fusion of the two, it seems to me, is a natural outgrowth of the tendency for there to be more potential for flatting from opening than there is potential for sharping by blowing. At some stage in the search for a maximum dynamic limit, the reed must be taken more into the mouth to compensate for opening, and the tone will therefore be brighter. So you do have a practical fusion in the middle range of a crescendo-diminuendo which creates not just a quantitative change but also a qualitative change. Student players often think – going back to my XYZ equation – that what comes out is what is dictated by their equipment or their embouchure, as though there’s only one F# in there, but we know that there are hundreds of possibilities. Students who do learn to manipulate these variables consciously realize that tone production is sort of like baking a cake – it’s a complex thing; any note is a complex creature made up of elements which they can control in terms of proportions. Once I can say to a student “a little more pressure” or “a little more reed in your mouth” or “a little less wind speed” and have a response which is immediate and direct and well-understood, and once the student can discern these things for himself, then problems can be fixed up and solved right away that otherwise might persist. Tabuteau said that every note has a different place – that was the bad news I got in France! We have to be oboe players in the same way great athletes function – doing difficult things from a posture of relaxation, so that anything is possible at any instant. The only security comes in flexibility. Some players learn to play with a pressure level that might be appropriate for only three notes out of twelve say, and everything else sounds forced or saggy. Most of us get into rigidity out of defensiveness. Most of us play reeds – or have at one stage – that are so unstable that the pitch implications are drastic and at times intolerable, so we bite flat reeds up and the teeth never come apart. Or there’s a sagging tendency because of weak sides, and then the wind speed never varies. Sometimes it’s the best players who have the biggest problems because their musical standards are high enough not to tolerate these pitch discrepancies. And then it always comes back to whether the student has the courage and the capacity to make big changes. Flexible control of wind, reed opening and placement is the “basic technique” Tabuteau said every player should master before trying to imitate great performers. It’s the heart and soul of correct tone production, and it’s much too complicated to discuss thoroughly here, unfortunately.

DS: Should we get back to your biography? You studied in France – then when you came back to the States did you immediately go into professional playing?

JR: We talked some about catabolic experience. It really took me a couple of years to feel “healed” because Tabuteau was so severe, and he said pedagogy was like a grain of sand to the oyster – it takes a while to make a pearl. He was deliberately abrasive – even ferocious at times – and I must say, inescapable – and I suffered a good bit under his heel. But what he did for me was to absolutely revolutionize my thinking about playing, because until I went over there my approach was like that of every “all-stater,” every high school player with some ability. I’d played just about everything I’d heard of; I was looking around for the next hard piece to learn. And what he had to say about my “sickness” as an oboe player meant that I just didn’t know ANYTHING about the interpretive art, per se. So what he did was open my eyes to the infinite creative possibilities that exist playing a musical instrument in an artistic way, so that what had seemed limited to me suddenly became boundless. And I realized that here was a man of magnificent gifts, who would have succeeded at anything, who still loved experimenting with an eight-note phrase of his own invention, turning inflections and dynamics upside down and changing the colors, playing with all these variables to produce something spontaneous and fascinatingly new. He would take a particularly favorite melody, like the Schumann piano concerto, and spend two weeks fooling with it. This whole idea, that there is infinite treasure to be mined from old familiar notes, gave me a keener appreciation of the interpretive artist and greater respect for our profession. Then when I went to Marlboro, Casals reinforced many of the same things Tabuteau stood for, the idea, for instance, that the music is just a blueprint, and the musician’s goal is to project the architecture of the piece, developing its symmetry in an understandable way for the audience. I just remembered an analogy that occurred to me when we discussed ping-pong balls earlier – Tabuteau said oboe tone should be like a ping-pong ball on a fountain of water, buoyed and constantly renewed. He used that expression all the time, and histone had something about it that I think was unique, a kind of buoyancy and vitality that was just like that, like sunlight reflected off a lake. There was a dazzling, shimmery quality on the top – at the same time, it was deep and complete, on the bottom. I must tell you it feels as if it was only yesterday that I heard that sound, and the search for something like it is what compels me still as a player.

Now I know we should say more about vibrato, and I found myself joining all those people who are coy about it, and you know, Tabuteau was too. He would not touch the subject, except to say that if the tone is produced correctly vibrato will take care of itself. There was a discernible overlay of undulation in his tone, which of course we’d call vibrato. He was careful not to move the pitch around, and I think we’d all agree with the importance of that. But how he produced the vibrato, he never would say. What vibrato I have I developed consciously by doing on the oboe what I did when I sang, so I’m sure it’s largely a throat vibrato. I think my throat vibrato is inhibited under high pressure, so sometimes when I need it most, it’s least obvious. That’s when I supplement the throat with a diaphragm vibrato. For me, the vibrato is generally an easy and permissive thing. When I’m backed to the wall because of a high dynamic situation I then have to get my gut into the picture. But my vibrato is usually a function of relaxation and freedom, rather than the opposite. It seems important to inform the student whose vibrato is out of bounds, that the limits of undulation are quite circumscribed. In other words, the student needn’t be too permissive. Sometimes it’s a problem getting people to calm down a little bit. Other times vibrato is like the pursuit of happiness, it’s better not sought directly! I’ve had students with vibrato problems, and the more anxious they become about the subject, the more tied in knots they become. Most of my students can sing a vibrato – that seems almost irresistible; and a relaxed approach to playing the oboe almost invites that kind of undulation in the tone. Other students may have to create a vibrato by using a series of breath accents, and if all else fails I tell my students they can always pump something like that into their tone. For a long while, the only kind of vibrato one could talk about was diaphragm. Admitting to using the throat vibrato was like confessing to some kind of sin. Vibrato is a very personal sort of thing, and happily, thinking on the subject isn’t quite so polarized now as it once was. However, one still hears poor playing discussed in most complimentary terms for the vibrato, while other players who have impressive professional skills worry all the time about it and feel as if they don’t have enough vibrato, or a good one.