The Tabuteau quotes and quips documented below have been culled from various primary sources and organized by subject matter. They give a window into Tabuteau’s profound musical understanding, his sharp wit and colorful personality, as well as his opinions and idiosyncrasies. Thanks to first-hand accounts from his students and colleagues, interviews and lesson recordings, these memorable pronouncements are preserved for posterity. If you know of a colorful Tabuteau quote or quip that should be added to our list, please click Submissions.

“The [Ancient] Greek attitude towards music complies very much with the theory that music follows the laws of the universe.”

“Music works with the natural laws of nature, not against it. It’s a natural thing—we revolve in circles.”

“Music is like physics: The notes are different as [in so] far as the number of physical vibrations are concerned. [However,] This is not enough difference; there also must be a distribution of color and inflection. You must fuse the two.”

“Music is part of the universe–part of the system. If you are not part of the system…well then you are out of luck.”

“Music is like the Bible—you find new things in it all the time.”

“Bach’s music is the closest to God.”

“Bach’s music is the essence of what I try to do in playing.”

“This is the answer to breathing in Bach: Catch a breath on the fly as a frog; otherwise you will not get the fly.”

“I love trees. The form of a tree is like is like the most beautiful symphonic structure and even more perfect than Bach.”

T describing how to shape a phrase: “Think of a dying leaf falling from a tree limb in autumn; it floats downward toward the forest floor, but just as it is about to settle there, an unexpected breeze freshens and carries it whirling away for a moment of new life.”

“The truth is always right around us; it is up to us to find it.”

“Don’t play as you feel—play as you think; when you play with your head, you are playing with your heart. The mind is what works and is reflected in the playing. “

“Play the way you think, not the way you feel.”

“I believe to play as you think more than to play as you feel because how about the day you are not feeling so well?”

“There are so many things to think about [in music]; learn how to think.”

“Think before you play!”

“The oboe is nothing. You have to say something from the head.”

“If you think beautifully, you will play beautiful[ly], but if you think medioc[rity], you will play that way.”

“I have always been in favor to play as I think. Of course, the ideal combination would be to play with thinking and intelligent feeling.”

“Feeling has nothing at all to do with it. The musician who plays with ‘feeling’ doesn’t know what he is doing—everything depends on intelligence and control. It is hard, cold calculation-–knowing just how and where to place the notes and what to do for contrast. It’s taking infinite care over every detail.”

“Don’t play luck—there is a reason for everything.”

“Music is like a game; you must try [experiment with] all the [different] ways of playing. You can have fun with music.”

“All the games you might want to play are right there in the music. You aim for a note, glide, hit it, [and] make a loop.”

“If I didn’t have so much fun with music, I would have quit long ago.”

“I always have fun or I wouldn’t do it.”

“You know, I really had fun [with music] because there are all the keys of logic and truth in music, you see, when you are willing to feel it the right way.”

“The golf player can have the cap and the pants and better clubs to hit the ball. He looks like a golf player–but the real one–the professional, knows exactly where the ball is going. Every note must be placed like the ball in golf—in the hole. You must not miss—it is a game!”

“Relax in breathing, just as it is necessary in swimming. Otherwise, if you’re stiff, you will drown.”

“The more tricks or tools at your disposal, the better: the more things and combinations to manipulate.”

“In music, you must use the makeup of an actor; the more makeup, the more roles and characters he can play.”

“You must be made up as an actress makes up.”

“You have to play with a lot of make-up so that it will register in the top balcony.”

“You need the right (key) (combination of the lock) (dents in every key) to open the door.”

[Say] “There are five dents in the key now—perhaps [there will be] twenty in many years” [as you gain more understanding].

“Music is like a photograph; you see only the negative in front of you.”

“Electricity must have the friction of positive (+) and negative (-). So it is in music.”

“Music can be expressed in [foot]steps: The first foot advances, the other foot finishes. When you walk, you can’t take only four steps—you really must take five; you must bring the feet together to complete the action (last step). It takes five steps to make four.”

“The Russians have the right idea by combining dance with music and their gaiety.”

“The Russians dance in their music; they sing their music; they take a breath and are alive; they have discipline. I am Tabuteau the Russian!”

“The pendulum doesn’t stop, but it continues.”

“Watch the pendulum of a clock; look at the balance.” [T’s father was a clockmaker.]

T describing how to shape a phrase:

“Think of a downward swoop of a seagull: Which then about to land, breaks upward momentarily in the air with its wings, then settles gently.”

“Many times you wish to land on a note like a bird landing on a wire without shaking it.”

“Play like a bird turning on wing.”

“Don’t fly like a duck but glide as an eagle.”

“Don’t be a duck which flaps its wings.”

“Float like an eagle; don’t flap like a duck.”

“A bird sometimes flaps its wings against the wind to fly. Other times it glides.

“Ride like a horse, not a donkey.”

“Music is like a horse or a bronco. It will throw you unless you learn these tricks to keep you riding.”

Wide interval: “Fill up the gap between two notes—like a horse jumping over a hurdle.”

Rhythm: “You should land back on the beat like a cat always lands on its feet when you drop it.”

“A teacher is like a mother bird. Feeds you a few years but should help you learn to teach yourself. Then will give you a peck on the head and tell you to fly away.”

“You must be able to take off and land; these are the most difficult things to do. Some people can fly, but nothing else.”

“Music is like flying; the take-off and landing are the most difficult.”

“Watch a stone skipping across the water and the ripple effect it produces. It bounces each time a little less and then sinks. You scale the line like the stone skims the water; play like that.”

“Like good cigar smoke, the line goes up; bad cigars, the smoke goes down.”

“Now watch; that’s the way to finish a note. When the tone fades away, it goes up—it doesn’t sink.” [T blowing smoke that slowly drifted up]

“Blow at a flame softly & it bends, but it’s more difficult bringing it back up; [you need] more control.”

“Music can be compared to a car: If it is out of gear, the car does not move; it just makes noise,” [perhaps T’s favorite analogy].

“Keep the music in gear like a car.”

“You play but you don’t go anywhere like the car when it’s not in gear.”

“Don’t start the phrase with too much force. As gears in a car, start in low gear.”

“The further rubber is stretched, the harder it comes back.”

“Don’t sound like air coming out of a balloon.”

“You play like letting all the air out of a balloon.”

“Blow under a note, not on top of it. Like a balloon which equals a note, keep hitting it to keep it in the air.”

“I keep the balloon bounced and in air by pushing it upwards, not like an empty eggshell bouncing on water.”

“There are no rules that can’t be broken.”

“Perfection is like the point of a needle—it is easy to hit all around it.”

“It is not the golden pen or silver pencil that writes the novel—not the platinum flute or diamond oboe that plays the melody. You must have something to say!”

“You can have a gold fountain pen, but it’s what you write that counts.”

“It is better to write something fine with an old stick of charcoal than nothing with a new fountain pen.”

“Every note is a pearl. You must put it into a necklace.”

“One doesn’t put the largest pearl in the back of a necklace. In every group there is a pearl somewhere. It’s up to the player to decide where.”

“Scale your notes as a necklace; otherwise nobody will buy your necklace.”

“The trouble with being talented is that you have to work at it all your life—always improving.”

“C to E is a third; E to G is a third; together they are a fifth––music’s incongruence”––[they should total a sixth].

“The organ is like a comet—it doesn’t belong to our system.” [T on a number of occasions mentioned his dislike of bagpipes as well!]

“If the organ could breathe, we would all be out of a job.”

“The organ is like the steam from a radiator—pshhh.”

“A Conductor once told me to play like an organ–so I did, clipping notes. The organ is not able to play in between the notes. It’s always on a straight line, rather than as a circle.”

“Make use of all our modern advances in technique to play the old music. This is only logical. If you have an improvement, use it!” [One wonders if T would have approved performing on period instruments!]

“Unfortunately, people [musicians] conform to the technical deficiencies of their instruments instead of overcoming them.”

“In older days, they [composers] even indicated major and minor for the stupid musicians.”

“Only a fool accents the downbeats.”

“You must project to the farthermost balcony, and play for the little fellow who only has fifty-cents to spend for tickets.”

“You are not saying anything. I don’t care how you say it. There are people who speak languages much better than I do. I speak English terribly. They speak English beautifully, but they have nothing to say.”

“Your playing: It’s like seeing a well-dressed man on the street and then he stops and blows his nose with one finger on a nostril.”

“You have the lips of a chicken and the jaws of a ‘crocodeal!’” Evil laugh!

“Now you are beginning to understand time in between even though you are still stupid.”

“You sound like a cow kicking over a bucket.”

“I have not much hair but plenty halo, and you have plenty of hair, but nothing around it.”

“You play like an empty clamshell–good on the outside but inside–empty!”

“Every note you play sounds like an extraction. You should at least give the listeners Novocain.”

“If you don’t enjoy music, extract teeth!”

“They sound like elephants blowing water through their trunks.”

“Your forte is like near-beer during Prohibition—not the real thing.”

“Your playing is like saltwater taffy: You see all the all the beautiful colors—red, blue, yellow—but they all taste the same.”

“Those notes you are playing—they are like salt water taffy—all different and beautiful colors, but when you bite into it, every piece tastes the same!”

“Young man, you must learn to play the oboe before you play Mozart!”

“You sound like a singing cuspidor.”

“You sound like a squawking turkey.”

“Say, even a mummy couldn’t play deader than that!”

“Your playing is like pouring sand into a cup without any bottom in it—no matter how much you pour, it never gets filled.”

“Your tone gets away from you—like the jackass who follows the carrot around all day but never catches up with it.”

Certain intervals: “They should be played like a [braying] jackass, and for you that should not be so difficult.”

“The Blue Danube—you sound like the dirty Schuylkill.”

“Voices of Spring sounded like voices of the frozen moon.”

“Your reed had a tone like walking with your bare feet on cut glass.”

“You zigged when you should have zagged.”

“I asked for champagne and you gave me Pluto water [a laxative].”

“You are allergic to music—like you have a good waterproof raincoat on. All the drops go right off; you don’t react.”

“You don’t know how to use your talent. It is like lighting a cigarette with a $1.00 bill.”

“Young man, you are stupid!”

“Young man, your tone reminds me of a Bermuda onion peel.”

“Young man, you are a very sick young oboe player. Fortunately for you, I have the cure.”

“Young man, don’t waste your notes on the Mediterranean. Play to the Alps.”

“You are doing everything right but I don’t understand what you are saying.”

“Here comes the hair in the soup.”

“I hope you do not punctuate my letters like you do music!”

”Young man, when I want musical advice, you will be the last person I will ask!”

“Why you want to be a moosicienne [musician]? Why you don’t be a plumber? A dahntiste [dentist]? a fie-erman [fireman]?”

“A note should be started like a hot rod being sunk into butter—no friction—but yours are like a hot rod against metal—friction.”

“You should go to a modeling class and learn how to model a little phrase.”

“You are like a gangster with bad habits.”

To a student: “If anything happens that you can’t handle the job, don’t blame me!”

“I drink the whiskey, but you are the one who is drunk!”

“Look, any idiot can play well on a good reed. The trick is to play well on a bad reed.”

When a student couldn’t understand why his reed wouldn’t work in a wind class, but it did at home: “Pack up boys! We’re all going to [his] house.”

“It’s a funny world. He wants the same salary but he does not want the same pitch.”

“You call yourselves Friends of Music? You are enemies of music! Enemies!!”

“You must be open to everything—learn from everything. The more you take from the world, the more you can give the world. Develop your personality and do more than shroom and scratch ten hours a day.”

“You must go somewhere according to the harmonies and know where the climax is.”

“Spin your sound. Don’t be an idiot.”

“The ‘spirit’ is the last thing to put on the playing. You cannot work from the ‘spirit’ of the piece. It would be like trying to put a flower on canvas and starting with the perfume [aroma].”

“The day of only playing with feeling is gone. What if you have a cold or a stomachache? A fine performance you would give! But if you think well, you will have a chance.”

“Don’t play notes–play what is between the notes.”

“You have a beautiful tone – now we must work to make the music beautiful.”

“You must play with the notes.”

“It’s just like the leg of a piano which can’t make any music. You’ve got to do something with the phrase to make it interesting to people.”

“The oboe should be part of you.”

“Hitch your wagon to a star!”

“The oboe is supposed to be growing on you like your ear.”

“In music we have two important elements: mood and mode. The absence of both makes mud!”

“Before you start to play, all the pressure should be behind the note, just like it’s there before you turn on a faucet of water.”

“A dark smooth tone should be velour—like velvet, not scratchy like sandpaper.”

“It is better to practice a few notes carefully than to play 1000–especially on the oboe.”

“We must play as if we were counting out each grain from a bag of sugar.”

“That first note is like stepping on a banana peel.”

“When practicing, you must always have your ideal or goal in mind, and work for it. The intelligence must be your guide.”

“You must play the life of the note! Have something to say!”

“You must learn to scale your givings.”

“Music is the friction between time and space.”

“You have the boat, but now you must cross the ocean.”

“Never play to please–no matter whom–only for you!”

“Often you must play an ‘ugly’ note to bring out beauty of the others.”

“You know, you have to let the music take you. Do not impose your mediocrity on the music.”

“Let the music take the best from you.”

“You must start as a baby walking on soft legs.”

“Your attack should be clear like the ring of a good glass goblet.”

“A beautiful tone in and of itself is not more useful than having a fine rifle and not being able to aim it in the right direction.”

“The more you learn about music, the less you know.”

“When you give 500% only about 70% or 80% comes out, so if you take it easy—you can imagine!”

“A big tone in and of itself does not carry. Like the woman without the girdle, everything spreads.”

“Play from the top of your head to the bottom of your feet—not from your neck up.”

“Don’t let your mediocrity come to the top; but the cream, like milk.”

Control of a phrase: “It is like butter in a pan, it melts, it runs; otherwise, it is like a rock in a hot pan.”

“Make your wind return. Return as yo-yo. Get a yo-yo and observe.”

“Always prepare before starting to play. Otherwise you bark like a dog.”

“To go down, you must first go up. Otherwise it’s like your feet are on the ground and they try to go lower.”

“Like climbing up ladder: Don’t put your foot in between the rungs.”

“You are in command. Don’t let the oboe be in command.”

“Discipline yourself, just as if I were with you to tell you what to do all the time.”

“Like a billiard ball-one, must direct the sound by way of phrasing; otherwise, it will go over the side of the pool table from being hit too hard.”

“Playing on a hard reed is like sitting on a hard chair: One might as well be comfortable.”

“Play on the wind as I do. Think of the Indian dancers holding their arms out to side and moving their wrists gracefully.”

“If you can play for me, you can play for anybody.”

“You can’t play on zero like a sewing machine; you have to go somewhere.”

“If you play only one way traffic—it is meaningless.”

The T ‘Diploma of Stupidity’: “The faster you go the more stupid you become! The louder you play, the less volume.”

“This is music. Pay me after the lesson. Only with a prostitute do you pay before.”

In response to how T liked the oboists playing a concours at the Paris Conservatory: “They should declare a Day of national mourning!

“There’s no such thing as a good reed.”

“If a man has great and noble thoughts [but lacks] the where-with-all or technique to write them down, he’s not much use to the world as a philosopher.”

“The oboe is nearest to the human voice in being able to express ideas of whatever one wants.”

“It’s more difficult to undo bad habits then to learn new ideas.”

“There must be the stupidity of a metronome or conductor against the intellect or inner beauty.”

“There is always a reason for everything. There is one reason why you make it, and 50 why you don’t make it.”

“The musician who can only name chords is like the grammarian who can name parts of speech but cannot say anything.”

“The rest [other musicians] are not born [yet]; I’m still on milk.”

“The conductor knows everything but doesn’t understand anything; I don’t know a damn thing but understand a lot.”

“Memorizing is bad; forgetting is better so music is always fresh. I try to forget; everyone [else] tries to memorize.”

“I get my big tone from the position, the angle of the oboe and reed against my lip.”

“Once, four or five years ago I played a few notes that really satisfied me.”

“For forty years I have played the oboe and still I never know what is coming out. It is perpetual anxiety, but maybe this is good—I have never the time to get myself bored.”

“I have been playing the oboe for 45 years, and for 44 years my greatest desire has been to give up that very ungrateful instrument.”

At a moment of frustration: “If I thought I was going to play the oboe for another ten years, I would jump right out that window. I’m tired of it and am going to quit.”

“All I could show the world as a result of my work would be a pile of cane shavings. Yes, if I had saved all my shavings, it would make a pile as high as the Drake [hotel].”

“Everybody imitates me but they don’t know the secret, so they don’t sound the same.”

“When I was not feeling well in the Philadelphia Orchestra, I could play anyway because I had the tele-direction [telekinesis] in mental concept which took over.”

“I learn something every day from the knowledge I have. If one cannot learn from what one knows, then it is not worth knowing.”

“If my theories were not true and sound, I could not do today what I do.”

“When you almost can do what you wish to do, I think it is worthwhile to be alive.”

“There are three things I don’t understand – women, roulette and reeds.”

When asked how he can teach less-advanced students: “Oh, I am used to that sort of punishment.”

“When teaching, I always keeps something to myself; I never tell all, especially in America with conductors as they are.”

“One takes inoculation against typhoid. My teaching is an inoculation against stupidity.”

“All I have to teach is logic, first and last.”

Auditioning students: “It’s just like a finger print. And from hearing anyone play for two minutes, I can tell just what they’re like.”

“Playing is a reflection of how you are thinking. I teach to think beautifully.”

“At Curtis, I was the boxer who punched my students for 4 years.”

“Most of my pupils only imitate me without understanding.”

“You know, the oboe is the most wonderful instrument. When you get it just right, you can express more in just one note.”

“I’m always trying to find something better [a better oboe]!”

“And you know, I’ve never been in Tunisia!”–responding to a compliment on his ‘African’ style in Escales.

“You know, I have never been to North Africa, but I can do all this with my little oboe.”

“In the old days, they could only reproduce a shadow of what was performed. The men at the controls were only interested in obtaining a perfect neat line, c’est a’ dire [that is to say], amplifying the soft expression ‘piano’ and subduing the climax ‘forte.’ Nothing of the in-between was considered and, as you know, the in-between is my aim. That is the reason why I was not at that time interested in recording. I am happy now the technique has improved. As for the inflection and form…distribution, what do you expect from them? To understand now as it will probably be done by the majority in—2175?”

“Records are distorted and canned—like when you look in the crazy mirrors at a fair.”

“There are three kinds of conductors: Those who let you play, those who make you play, and those who keep you from playing!”

“I have played for many conductors – now to play for the Devil would not scare me.”

“That’s the joy of being a conductor. You just need the idea. You don’t have to produce it.”

“When you play pianissimo they [conductors] want forte, and when you play forte they want pianissimo. You can’t please the bastards.”

“The negative in music as like the negative of a photo: The color and what we do with the line ourselves is the positive. A conductor who spends his time only memorizing the score is thus steeping himself in only the negative.”

“Ansermet is a big piece of cheese. He should have gone into the dry cleaning business. If you play well, he wants it some other way. He is a pest.” [He later changed his opinion.]

On Gabrilowitsch: “I’ll take a picture of Gabrilowitsch and hang it in my bathroom.”

On Hans Kindler: “He is a ‘bad egg’ as a conductor.”

“Only Arthur Nikish conducted the opening of Beethoven Symphony V from this proper rhythmical standpoint.”

On Reiner conducting Electra: “The greatest feat of conducting I experienced in my entire life.”

“You know, I played for George Szell – He did not like me – but I did not like him either!”

On Stravinsky: “He shouldered the notes and gave the dotted notes their inner value.”

On Toscanini:

“I will never forget when we did Carmen with Toscanini at the Metropolitan—“Every measure was like a different landscape and how exciting it was.”

“…the beauty of playing Gluck under Toscanini.”

“A man like Toscanini would always improve even if he lived to be 2000.”

“What a wonderful man [Toscanini] he is.”

On Toscanini following a concert with the Philadelphia Orchestra: “Now I can die!”

On Ormandy:

“If I don’t get first oboe in Heaven, then I’m sure I’ll have no trouble [getting] in Satan’s Orchestra since I spent so many years with Eugene Ormandy.”

“He does not even know the tempo of operas.”

“You know Maestro [Ormandy], it has been my experience that the more the men hate the conductor, the better they play for him, and Maestro, your orchestra is sounding very well lately.”

On Paray:

“You know, in my life I only had admiration for two men, my teacher and Toscanini, but now I have to include Paul Paray.”

“You know, I heard him [Paray] conduct the Beethoven ninth on radio. It was terrible and I didn’t want to see him again.”

On Monteux:

“Monteux is one of the two or three best conductors in the world, and compared to some around here, a master.”

“Monteux knows very little about woodwinds and he doesn’t hear intonation very well.”

On Stokowski:

“No conductor ever rose to the realm of the angels as does Leopold Stokowski.”

“Stokowski is the greatest conductor in the world.”

“One thing about Stokowski was I could play the same piece twelve times, and twelve different times change a little of here or there, and Stokowski always recognized the change. With others, it would just go by them—they wouldn’t understand the subtleties of it. Stoki had a talent and the ear to hear all these fine variations.”

“Stokowski above all is an artist, and no matter in what field he might have worked, even outside of music, would have been extraordinary.”

“If you had the elements of Toscanini and Stokowski rolled into one, you would have the greatest conductor of all time.”

“Yes, that he had [color].”

“Stoky’s [Stokowski’s] tempos are awful [Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for winds]–and Stoky had the impertinence not to follow me that day!’

“Stokowski has the redeeming feature of a certain sense of humor.”

“Stokowski was the master of the up-down, but not the down-up.”

To Stokowski after he fired a colleague in the Philadelphia Orchestra: “Mr. Stokowski, if you ever try to do anything like that to me, I will tear you apart from limb to limb.”

“How hard I have to work to satisfy that madman!”

“We pull the strings and he’s like a puppet up there and he just follows what we do …”

“You know, if I am so hard on my students, it’s because I want them to be prepared to play for a son of a bitch like Stokowski!”

Mme Tabuteau speaking about the Stokowski/Tabuteau relationship: “Stokowski was a rotten egg but that Tabuteau could stand him at first as there was an element of gamble in his [Tabuteau’s] nature and you never knew when Stokowski might do something really great. From time to time he did—being unpredictable.” She said that “he [Tabuteau] was once so fed up with him, he wanted to go study in Germany and become a conductor himself—but finally decided to ‘idealize’ the situation in his own mind and accept it. He said he often wanted to be in a room alone with him and just wring his neck!”

Tabuteau: “In all honesty, I have to admit that in my half century experience with conductors, he [Stokowski] was the most gifted of all, but he was possessed of such a power of destruction that he could neither escape nor be saved from it.”


Advising his students never to give an opinion about a conductor: “There are stool pigeons everywhere. Spend time fixing your reeds.”

“The only salvation and possible happiness for the orchestra player is to develop the technique to admire without reservation le chef d’orchestre [conductor], otherwise it is unbearable!”

“Memorize the important passages. We must be able to keep our eyes glued on the conductor and never be looking down into the music.”

“Always give the man in front of you [the conductor] the feeling that you admire him. Therefore, keep your head and eyes up!”

“The lion will never lie down with the lamb [conductor and player]. They are natural enemies.”

“Gillet was the greatest musician I have ever known.”

“Gillet, I take my hat off to you.”

“After thirty years, there is not a day that I don’t think fifty times of what my teacher told me.”

“What a great man he was—what musical understanding.”

“The greatest man I ever met, you know—better than all the conducteurs together.”

“Mischa Elman gave so much at first and then when he was older and played out, he had nothing to say.”

Ginette Neveu: “She puts all the men in the shade. I am glad that girl does not play the oboe! It would really annoy me if a woman played the oboe like that!”

To violinist Oscar Shumsky: “You know, you are the only violinist who has ever taken my ‘A’ the way I have given it.”

“Thibaud was God-like but deteriorated from careless living.”

Following a performance of the Brahms Double Concerto with Szigeti and Feuermann: “Bravo Szigeti!” (Tabuteau had complained that the cellist constantly played sharp.)

After a six-hour uncut performance of Tristan upon leaving the hall: “Tell me, is Roosevelt still President?!”

“Who teaches you to make reeds like that?!”

“You can’t play oboe with teeth like that!”

“Hey, Norris! Who played the oboe?”–when a radio announcer neglected to give him solo credit after a broadcast.

“Well, thanks is not enough. If it’s so good, how come we didn’t get a bonus of some kind?”—after being thanked for their recording of the Mozart Sinfonia Concertante for winds.

Upon cordially greeting a newspaper vendor on the street: “I like to keep good relations with the press.”