John de Lancie interviewed by Melissa Stevens

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Melissa Stevens is currently assistant professor of oboe at Capital University’s Conservatory of Music in Columbus, Ohio. She is a member of the ProMusica Chamber Orchestra, the Lancaster Festival Orchestra, and an associate with the Columbus Symphony Orchestra. Miss Stevens has been a member of the Wheeling Symphony and has attended the Aspen Music Festival, Waterloo, and Interlochen. She performed at the 2001 IDRS Conference and the 1999 NFA Convention with the Cardinal Trio. She holds a DMA and Master’s Degree from the Ohio State University, and a Bachelor’s Degree from the New World School of the Arts, Miami. Her major teachers include John de Lancie and Robert Sorton.


MS (Melissa Stevens): What years did you study with Marcel Tabuteau?

JD (John de Lancie): 1936-1940, four years.

MS: What classes did you take with him?

JD: We had oboe lessons, woodwind chamber music, and what we called an orchestra class. It was made up of all the winds, brass and percussion of the orchestra, and a pianist who would play the string parts. We would go through, generally speaking, one piece that would be on the program of the Philadelphia Orchestra that week. If there was something we were playing in the orchestra with Reiner, that Reiner wanted rehearsed, we would work on that as well.

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

JD: We always started with long tones, scales and broken thirds. Then we had to play our lessons, which generally consisted of four exercises. 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.

MS: Did he ever demonstrate by playing?

JD: Oh, yes. He had a little studio in a building in downtown Philadelphia. Our lessons would either be at the Institute or at the studio, quite often at the studio. When we would go to the studio, he would be making reeds. He didn’t play the lessons very much, but he played for us. He wasn’t necessarily playing for us, but he played a lot.

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John de Lancie

MS: What kind of things would he play?

JD: Well, he was generally fixing reeds, or making reeds.

MS: So he would test the reeds?

JD: Yes, and when he made reeds, he could make a reed almost to the point of being done before he ever played on it, even for the first time.

MS: Did you ever learn anything from that? Did he ever tell you about the reed?

JD: No. During my period, none of us played on any of his reeds. He always played on our reeds. Occasionally he made comments (well, he almost always made comments), but occasionally he would make some kind of comment that would help. I learned, as time went on, that just watching him making reeds was really not very helpful, or at least not for me. I was pretty dumb about making reeds.

MS: Hard to believe…

JD: Well O.K., but I was. I never made a reed in my life before I came to Curtis. My teachers had always given me reeds. Suddenly, I had to make a reed. I’d never thought about it. I had never done anything about it. It was all a great mystery to me and remained so for a long time.

MS: So, he wasn’t very helpful ?

JD: No, not in the reed situation, no.

MS: How long were your lessons in length, usually?

JD: They were generally an hour long. At the Curtis Institute, they would be the specified length. At the studio, if you played everything you had and you finished early, that was the end of the lesson. If you were late you went on until you finished. He was not looking at his watch all the time. At the school he was because kids were waiting, but at the studio there was no regimentation.

MS: How come he occasionally taught at the studio?

JD: He wanted to make reeds. The first year I was at Curtis there were 13 oboe students. Six of us had a two hour lesson together. We each had 20 minutes.

MS: So you all watched each other?

JD: Yes. We all sat there while one student played. Actually it was an extremely educational process, because we learned from other people’s mistakes. We learned a lot of things that may not have come to us if we had private lessons. The second year there was a big fall out. After the first year many left. It began to dribble down so that in my fourth year there were, I think, four of us.

MS: Did he do that because there were so many oboists, or do you think he consciously thought it was educationally a good thing to do?

JD: No, it was kind of ridiculous. We had 13 oboists and there were not many more violins in the Curtis in those days; therefore, 6 students were together for 2 hours. The other students had 40 minute lessons. He was probably just told he had so many hours to get us all in and that’s the way it worked. As I said, a number of them left after the first year and from then on it was private lessons.

MS: What etudes did you go through? Barret, Ferling?

JD: Barret, Ferling, Brod and then at the very end, I did some Gillet. MS: Did he ever discuss breathing in lessons?

JD: Do you mean where to take a breath or how to breathe?

MS: How to breathe.

JD: No. How else can you breathe? You take a breath and you blow.

MS: Well, nowadays it seems that some people are obsessed with breathing.

JD: I know, they have all these theories, but I think most of it is a lot of baloney. How do you breathe?

MS: Take in a breath.

JD: Take in a big breath and blow. Obviously there are some kids who take in a little tiny bit, but they soon realize they have to take in a deep breath and do something…sweat a little.

MS: Did classroom instruction differ from private lesson instruction? Did he treat you any differently?

JD: No. If anything, he was worse in classroom than he was in private. He had a sadistic streak in him and he loved to humiliate kids, humiliate one in front of another. The lessons, when six of us were together for the whole year, was what they call “a baptism of fire.”

MS: Was that his teaching style, or was that just his personality over all?

JD: Both. He was a very domineering man. I understand that his teacher was that way, so he was imitating his teacher. I like to think, of course you might disagree with me, that I was tough and demanding, but I don’t think I ever went out of my way to humiliate anybody.

MS: No.

JD: Well, he did, and we all had the same first name, “Stupid.” You Stupid. He was brutal, but the wonderful thing about it was that after you finished four years of that, there wasn’t a conductor in the world that scared you.

MS: Did he communicate well though?

JD: Yes, Yes. That was his great thing. He was the only man I ever heard who explained music to us.

MS: In terms of phrases?

JD: Everything about music. He just seemed to have an understanding about the structure of music, how music was supposed to sound and how it was played. In other words, he could take a “dumbbell” or a “turkey” or whatever you want to call it, and make them play well. Of course, in our youth and naive approach, we thought he could make them play well forever. He could, however, make them play well as long as he was there telling them what to do, but when they would go out and try to do something by themselves, they would be back to square one. He could work with some kid who was not good and show him how to play a phrase that was very beautiful, and it would be startling. Then, if the kid had to do something by himself, if it was somebody that was not talented, he didn’t seem to know what to do.

MS: How did he get his ideas across so well?

JD: He got them across so well because there was never any structure in any of his lessons or his classes. You had four pieces and you did not necessarily go through all four pieces. You could spend the whole lesson doing 8 measures, and you would never get beyond that if things were not happening. In the orchestra classes or woodwind classes, it was the same thing. He wanted to make sure you understood and you were going to stay on that until the two hours were up. To give you an example, we had woodwind classes with him. We played one concert a year. We started at the end of September and in April we played a concert. You could have, during the concert, dumped a bucket of ice water over each one of us playing, and we would have kept right on playing and playing well.

MS: Are there many teachers now, from what you see, that work with their students the same way?

JD: No, no. The whole thing has changed so dramatically. Now you see, particularly with our experience with that stupid academic world. You start out at the beginning of the semester and they tell you you’ve got to play a recital, and you’re not going to get your grade if you haven’t played a certain number of compositions. I didn’t have anything like that. I never played an orchestra excerpt or a solo for my teacher. Because, his point was, and I think it was pretty well demonstrated in all his pupils, you learn how to play music and then you just apply that to anything you have to play. I was talking to some students in Aspen trying to make them realize this. For instance I’d say, “We’re going to do the Brahms Violin Concerto.” Open up the beginning of the Barret book and compare it to the oboe part of the Brahms Violin Concerto. The Brahms isn’t as complicated as 80% of those little melodies. If you learn how to play those melodies, the Brahms Violin Concerto isn’t going to be any harder or as hard. That was his point. He never said this, but it became obvious. If a teacher has the patience, he or she could take a student and teach him how to be a top flight oboe player and never do anything except play long tones, arpeggios, scales, broken thirds, intervals. You can turn those all around to teach all sorts of things. Everybody thinks you just learn the scale so they honk up and down the scale and they learn the scale. Well, you can learn the scale and you can also practice how to get a beautiful attack on a low B natural, and how to make a beautiful line going up and down, and while playing broken thirds how to play in between the notes, and to learn about when to take a breath, and to practice scales with inflections- down, up, down. You can learn all those things, and how to make a line by playing long tones and ninths. That was his approach. It took anybody that was with him a while to catch on. In some instances, in my case, it was very frustrating, because I never had more technique in my whole life than I did the first day I came to the Curtis, before I even had a lesson with him. I had all kinds of technique, but I didn’t know anything about music. So the first two years I spent just doing these things which I thought, “Oh God.” I could do a Gillet study and there I was doing do, re, mi (slow, with inflections he demonstrates), and learning how to make reeds. Well, as time went on, I began to understand what it was all about, but the first year in particular, it was just excruciating. I just thought “I will never be able to play oboe, and if this is what it is, I don’t want to do it.” As time went on, I began to understand his methods. He explained everything about music, but he never explained anything about what he was doing or what he asked you to do. It was “Do it.”

MS: So, he never told you the purpose?

JD: No, there was never any explanation such as, “You will understand as time goes on.” It was just “do it.”

MS: Tabuteau was said to have used many analogies in his teaching career. Would you consider this part of his teaching style?

JD: Yes, yes, most definitely.

MS: Do you have any examples?

JD: Well just the sort of things you heard me say for years. He talked about inflections, impulses and lines. I think I probably use a lot more even than he did, because I find that a very effective way of getting ideas across. He certainly was the man that made me think about that to start with.

MS: Would you say Tabuteau revolutionized American wind playing?

JD: Oh, definitely. MS: Why?

JD: First of all, with his ability to explain to people how to play and what to do. The proof of the pudding. The charter of the Curtis Institute was a school to develop solo performers, which meant piano, violin, voice and some cello. The orchestra was not considered the focus of the school. The school started in 1924, and it took a few years for things to gel. By the time the school began to function in all ways, it was the beginning of the Depression. I’m sure you kids have seen all the TV things about the Depression. They were pretty scary days for everybody. You could not find a job anywhere. The word began to get around that when there were openings for wind players in American orchestras, the conductors all came to the Curtis. Here were kids like me. I was 19 years old when there was an opening for first oboe in Pittsburgh and first oboe in the Philadelphia summer season. Now you can imagine that there were plenty of older men with a lot of experience around that were playing. I say there were plenty- there were some that would have liked very much to have those jobs. First oboe in Minneapolis, Angelucci; first flute was Opava from Curtis; and Santucci, bassoon, from Curtis-Washington D.C., small orchestras Indianapolis, and Detroit. These young kids got hired everywhere. They didn’t get hired for any sentimental reasons. They got hired very simply because we played better than the other people around, and that was certainly all Tabuteau’s doing. Sam Barber said to me on a number of occasions, “Everything I learned from Curtis I learned from Tabuteau and Vengerova, my piano teacher.” Jorge Bolet said the same thing to me, “I learned all my music from Tabuteau.” During the days when I was the director of the Institute, I had a series called The Faculty Commemorative Series and I had a “Tabuteau day” which lasted for the weekend. People came from all over the country, not just oboe players. All kinds of people on all instruments saying, “This is the man who taught me more music than anybody else.”

MS: I read that some musicians were brought over from Europe to play in the Boston Symphony, for example. So why was Tabuteau the teacher that stood out?

JD: First of all, he stood out as a player and then he had this gift of teaching. When you consider at the Curtis he taught oboe, woodwind ensemble, orchestra class, and then for the last 12 or 14 years that he was at Curtis, he also taught the strings. He had a string class.

MS: Is that something he wanted to do?

JD: That started during the War when I was away, so I don’t know. But, he started the string class. You hear the men in the Guarneri quartet talk about how the string class was the greatest experience at the Curtis. There are a lot of them around in this country who were in that class. As I said, I don’t know how that came about. In those days, Zimbalist, who was a great violinist, was the Director of the school.

MS: So Tabuteau was apparently a better teacher than their teachers?

JD: Well, I don’t know-his thing was that he taught music-I don’t know if he could have told them what to do with the right arm. I don’t know if he was able to do that. He started out life as a violinist as a little kid. He played violin for a while. Obviously, not very long, but he had some idea about violin. It was the way he explained music to the kids that transcended whether you played the clarinet or violin or any other instrument. He even had an orchestra for a couple of years during the war that did broadcasts.

MS: How did Tabuteau go about teaching you phrasing?

JD: Well essentially- you want me to repeat all this stuff?

MS: You don’t have to go in depth.

JD: He started with the Barret, with the very simplest structures, and he explained how the music went from this point to this point, and then instead of playing the notes, you play the line…and you put your notes on that line.

MS: How much do you think he inherited from Gillet?

JD: That’s a good question. It’s a question that I don’t know if anybody alive today will be able to answer. Did you get to visit Minsker yet?

MS: No, that will be in two weeks. I did read that Laila Storch wrote he did attribute some of his ideas to Gillet.

JD: Well, I never heard about that until the end of his life. He never mentioned Gillet during my student days. Minsker is one of your prime sources, and he is certainly the last living one who goes way back. He connected with Tabuteau 7 or 8 years before I did. He left the Curtis in 1933, or something like that. He knows as much about that as anybody. We’ve often talked about that, but there is no way of really knowing except to say look at Gillet’s pupils. Among the pupils who came to America was Longy in Boston. They are beginning to release some of the very old Boston recordings made before 1917, and I’m looking forward to this, as a matter of fact I think some of them have already come out. I knew Longy’s daughter very, very well. She was a teacher at the Curtis Institute when I was a student there. She said, “My father never made any records.” I could hardly believe that, but she was very adamant about it. I’ve discovered recently that it was not exactly true. There were some records made, now maybe she didn’t know about it, it’s very possible. She was a little girl. There are some records, and someone has told me that there are some things that have recently come out. I’ve heard one of them where there’s just a few notes of the oboe, but it sounds like it could be the “real stuff,” as the kids at the Curtis used to say. Then there was Gillet, who played with the Boston Symphony for many years, who was Gillet’s nephew. We always thought him to be a very ordinary oboe player. He had phenomenal technique, but a sound that was just-I don’t know-it was hard to believe the two were pupils of the same man. There was a man in Chicago that I heard a couple of times whose name was Barthel. He was also nothing particular. Tabuteau seemed to be something very special. There were a couple in France I heard who were quite good, one by the name of Bleuzet, and one by the name of Morel, who really played. They didn’t quite have the sound, but they played, and there was something very beautiful about the style.

MS: So, he never talked to you about his development?

JD: No, no. Except at the end of his life. He was a very vain man, and he began thinking, “I want to make sure I get credit.” So, he used to blow up every once in a while and say, “If I hear any words when I’m in my grave I’m going to come back and haunt you kids,” and he’d say, “I owe everything to my teacher-everything to my teacher,” as if to say, “You owe everything to your teacher.” I never heard any of that until toward the end of his life. When I was a student, there was never any mention of his teacher’s name.

MS: Or when you played with him?

JD: Well, yes, but that was very different. When you’re playing in an orchestra with someone, you’re almost living together. There was a lot of conversations, things we talked about or heard about, that I never would have if I had just been one of the students, no matter what my career had been. John Minsker was the one who had the longest period with him. John Minsker was with him almost 20 years. He left in January, 1954, and Mr. Minsker joined the orchestra in 1936, so that was 18 years.

MS: Did Tabuteau talk about the number system with you?

JD: He never talked about it, he just did it. Well you have the Art of the Oboe recording.

MS: I have the new one.

JD: Do you have the old one too?

MS: I don’t own it, but I’ve heard it.

JD: Some of it’s the same and some is different, but it’s all from the same source. It’s about dynamic progression, but it can also be about intensity without necessarily being dynamic. In other words, you can be going towards a peak, but it’s quiet. It’s an intensity, a coloring you might say. It, in itself, was kind of a paradox in that it was very limited, but, at the same time, it opened up worlds of ideas. It was very limited in that you go from 1 to 9 or 10. As he used to point out, in English you can’t do that without having the number seven with two syllables, because you see in French (he counts in French) you have to go to 14 before you get to two syllables. So you could say those things quickly in his language. He used to get upset because he had to go 1,2,3,4,5,6, seven…

MS: You think he developed it in his mind in French then?

JD: I don’t know. Did you get the Capet book?

MS: Yes.

JD: Well, he talks about distribution of the bow. Did you get it in the English translation?

MS: I got it in German and translated parts.

JD: Well, I can’t even remember, it’s been so many years, but I should get it out and look at whether the distributions were ever equated with the musical sense. I mean the distribution as to where you should be on the bow according to the technical execution of the passage. But, did that ever equate with the musical execution? In other words, did he ever equate certain numbers on the distribution on the bow with inflections that equated with the musical structure? I’ve forgotten to be honest with you.

MS: I seem to remember it being some kind of equation with color depending on which part of the bow you were using.

JD: O.K. You could say he got this idea there, or he could have gotten the idea there

MS: So he spoke to you about this book then?

JD: He spoke to me about this book more towards the end of his career in Philadelphia. MS: Did he say then that this is a book you should get and read? (See Appendix A)

JD: Yes, he gave me his copy.

MS: Did Tabuteau use this numbering system to teach inflections also?

JD: Yes, with everybody.

MS: Can you think of any specific exercises he gave you outside of etudes?

JD: Scales. You mean for inflections or numbers?

MS: Numbers.

JD: With scales it was very simple. Down, up, down, up, slowly. Try to make it sound like you were playing a down-bow or an up-bow. Yes, that went on forever.

MS: What have you carried on into your own teaching that you learned from Tabuteau?

JD: Well everything, everything. I owe everything to my teacher. However, there are a lot of things I’ve talked to you guys about that are my own ideas. He got his ideas from his teacher, and his teacher got his ideas from his teacher. Even if it’s not the ideas themselves, but something gives you an idea of what to do. I don’t think anybody just springs whole out of nothing.

MS: Do you think that Tabuteau’s ideas had a positive effect on everyone because he was a good communicator?

JD: Yes, he was a powerful communicator. Very convincing-great storyteller. He had the flare for acting. He put on a good show. He was a fantastic storyteller. He could be in the presence of anybody, Toscanini, or Stokowski, or anybody. If there was a group and he was there, before ten minutes went by, he would be the center of attraction telling stories.

MS: What would you say was the single most important musical concept that you took from Tabuteau?

JD: I couldn’t answer that. There were so many things. I couldn’t answer the single thing. If you start thinking about the different things and you started to separate them, it’s like saying you’ve got to come down to one that can’t be eliminated. They all evolved into a total, into an entity which is pretty hard to chop up. I can chop it up when I’m teaching, but I believe I made it obvious, that even though we’re discussing one particular thing, it’s related to the other things we do. It’s all a related situation.

MS: When you were in school and talked to other students, did he teach everyone the same way?

JD: As far as I know, yes.

MS: Everyone has different problems though, would he take them aside and work on that specific problem?

JD: Well, to a certain degree. You have to understand one thing. In the early days there were so few oboe players anywhere. This is a bit of an exaggeration, but it was almost like taking in warm bodies. If a kid came and wanted to study the oboe, he just accepted him. I don’t know if he was being honest with us when he said it, but I think he believed he could take anybody and make them play. As I told you, I realized later that only to a degree this was true. He could make them play in the room. But as far as them absorbing this and being able to go out and do well on their own, it didn’t work. Some had it, and some did not have it.

A Personal Note from Melissa Stevens

I am deeply saddened by the passing on of John de Lancie, a great oboist and teacher. I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to study with him. His teaching had a permanent impact on my musical life. Mr. de Lancie introduced me to music in a manner I had not previously experienced. Marcel Tabuteau seemed to have a similar effect on the students he taught. In search of the rationale and explanations behind what made Marcel Tabuteau one of the most influential teachers of the twentieth century, I chose to do an oral history on his pedagogical concepts and practices for teaching musical expressiveness. Marcel Tabuteau’s ideas endure mostly through the students he taught. In addition to Mr. de Lancie, eight other musicians were interviewed at length, including: John Minsker, Mason Jones, John Krell, Abba Bogin, Hershel Gordon, John Mack, Felix Kraus, and Louis Rosenblatt. The musicians of Mr. de Lancie’s generation are responsible for the quality teaching and high performance standards we enjoy today. The contributions of those who have passed on will be sorely missed. It will be up to our generation to carry on the Tabuteau traditions.