As an aside to his ‘Little Book’ of Tabuteau lesson notes, Rowland sent a letter to Chick Lehrer (January 2017) following their successful collaboration in digitizing Rowland’s notes for this website. Rowland’s letter puts into historical context his music background and how he came to study with Tabuteau:
Chick, there is a bit of context I thought you might be interested in. I grew up in a small east Texas town, Huntsville, with a small (then) teachers’ college where my father was a chemistry professor. The town was fairly barren of culture. No orchestra of any kind and just a high school football band. So when we called the nearest city, Houston, and asked the record shop to order and send a recording of Monteverdi’s “Orfeo,” they were so impressed that they offered to drive it up the two-hour drive–I always thought just to see what we looked like!
In that spirit, with our limited record collection and with no particular knowledge, my parents had purchased the 3 or 4 recordings of the Casals Prades Festival including Bach Brandenburg No. 1 and 2 with Marcel Tabuteau, and also the Mozart oboe quartet. Frankly I didn’t know Tabuteau from anybody, and in fact, didn’t know what an oboe was. I just got “that sound” in my mind. To me, that was an oboe–such as the sound one hears as a child when he is learning to speak a language. I spoke east Texan and, for that matter, “Tabuteau” as an oboe voice.
So in high school after trying the piano (being double jointed didn’t help), then the flute (and residual problems in my shoulders from polio making it impossible to hold up the instrument “out to the side”), and then the clarinet which I found not very distinctive, I asked the band director what “that” was? He said an oboe, but no one knew how to play it. I said I would.
Turns out the local jewelry store sold reeds, including, as it happened, “French-cut oboe reeds complete with wire” selling for $2.50 with the typed instructions: “Soak in hot water for 30 minutes before playing.” This resulted in an almost circular opening with banshee-like penetrating sound–such that the neighbors called and asked me to close the windows please. After 20 minutes of playing my lips were cut and swollen.
Things soon became more civilized and, within a year, I was fortunately in the hands of Laila Storch–though by next year’s high school graduation I forsook the oboe thinking a career in music meant two things: one, that you were a “sissy” meaning gay, and two, that the only career in music in Texas would be a marching band director–neither of which were appealing.
Thereafter, a year each in Baylor University (Baptist), University of Texas, Arts Students League (NYC), and St. John’s College (Annapolis)–the so-called “great books school,” where I heard Ralph Kirkpatrick (harpsichordist from Yale) give a couple of recitals of Scarlatti sonatas, and then Noah Greenberg’s Pro Musica from New York giving a performance of Monteverdi’s “Orfeo,” both of which introduced me to the subject of “Musicology.”
I returned to my hometown in Texas to get a degree in whatever would most quickly give me a B.A. degree (English) so I could start my graduate career in musicology. This was Cal at Berkeley where I soon discovered I was not a scholar. Someone asked me if I in any way played/performed music? Answer: “No. Oh, actually I played oboe for a couple of years in high school.”
So I went out and on my custodian’s salary, bought a Loree oboe, and started taking lessons. Within the year, Marc Lifschey arrived in San Francisco and I talked him into teaching me—his only student. At the end of that year, he said he was going back to substitute in the Philharmonic (NY) and if I wanted, since he was going to be in touch with Tabuteau who had retired to southern France, he would ask if he would teach me. Answer (forgetting the time and calling me from New York to the west coast at 3:00 a.m.), “Tell the young man if he thinks he can stand it to come ahead.”
That’s all I had to go on, and I borrowed the money ($10 grand) from a girlfriend’s mother, rented a room in Nice from a flute-playing friend who was there studying with Rampal, and went. Many said wait and get a Fulbright. I thought no, now is the time. Sure enough, he passed away 4 months later. However, I went basically every day except Sunday for 3 to 5 hours–intense but amazing; a short time, but time enough to be immersed. Some time I’ll tell you about the final days. That’s another story.
One thing I wanted to say is how important I came to feel those early days of getting a sound in your ear was. As I mentioned, perchance, my earliest days of hearing the oboe was Tabuteau himself, albeit via recording and not “live” in Philadelphia.
This was significant when I once had a student at the University of Ottawa who was in every way outstanding–with the exception of his sound. I just couldn’t help him get rid of the harsh, nasal imbalance in his sound. Once I felt inspired to ask: “When you were first becoming acquainted with the oboe, do you remember who the oboe player/players were on the recordings?” “Oh yes! Pierre Pierlot! My folks had Book of the Month Club and a whole collection of his recordings was the gift we selected.” To me, that was the issue–like my east Texas accent, well ingrained, and really hard to get rid of. This oboist never did.
I was fortunate because I had the sound in my “mind’s eye” and, presumably some natural ability. Whereas I really seriously began studying the oboe at the relatively late age of 25, it progressed rather rapidly. Instinctively I knew a lot of what Tabuteau was teaching me.
I officially started the oboe at San Francisco State. Two years later was in France, returned (all major American oboe players wanted to meet me out of curiosity given the fact I had been with “him” when he died), and was playing professionally the end of that year: Carmel Bach Festival, 2nd oboe San Francisco Opera Orchestra, Music in Maine, Chamber Symphony of Philadelphia, Atlantic Symphony (Halifax), and the National Arts Centre Orchestra of Canada (Ottawa).
I don’t know why I felt like giving you a little “context.” [We’re glad you did, Rowland!]