Tabuteau’s Demeanor in Teaching

Laurence Thorstenberg; What Tabuteau Was Like

LVB: What was Tabuteau like? Did you get along with him?

LT: Very early, I decided that he was very insulting and belittled me, and I didn’t like it. I was about ready to quit, but then reconsidered and decided to continue anyway. But I never developed much of a real liking for the man.

LVB: Did he treat most students this way do you think?

LT: Yes, he was very harsh on all the students that I ever saw. And he probably wasn’t as bad on me as he was on some of the others.


LVB: Would you like to talk about any really good lesson or very bad lesson that might be interesting.

LT: Well, the lesson that stands out most in my memory always is – was one when I played along, I don’t know what I was playing probably something from Barret, and this was probably in one of my earlier years, and Tabuteau said, “It’s on top.” And I didn’t know what he meant by that; I don’t think I had ever heard the expression before. And I said, “Do you mean it’s sharp?” And he said, “No – on top!” And then he repeated that louder and louder until he was shouting at the top of his voice “on top!” [laugh] I really didn’t know what to think. But, I felt that was a real example of his kind of teaching: no real explanation, just emphasis of the same phrase.

John Mack: The Situation During Lessons With Tabuteau

LVB: What were lessons like?

JM: Lessons were fierce. Lessons were not in any ways benign, as one might get the impression from the recording that was issued some time back about “My dear young friends” and so for forth and so on – it was not at all like that. Tabuteau was rather vicious in lessons, and I don’t mind that it having been that way. Young students nowadays don’t like to be treated that way, and so I never do treat my own students viciously, but if it’s necessary, I tell them a story about Tabuteau’s viciousness, and they get the idea. But, he was very strong and very demanding, and you were usually in an emotional state of being buffeted back and forth between all kinds of harsh criticism. I suppose maybe some student came along who didn’t get called “stupid” a hundred thousand times, but I doubt it very much. At any rate, you would be buffeted between that kind of treatment and then all of a sudden he would throw you a crumb and tell you that something sounded “Not bad,” and your heart would soar. I think all of that was on purpose. I think that he was that way with students, because he realized that in order to do what he did, what I do, what we do, you must be able to take it and to dish it out. If you can dish it out and you can’t take it, then that is not the arena for you; you have to find something else to do.

In order to prepare people for that, I used to think in terms of a student being a piece of steel that Tabuteau trod on and trod on and went through a tempering process and so forth and so on. It was like a spring being alternately squashed and released, and by the time you got done with your studies with him, then he released the spring, and the spring would spring or it wouldn’t spring according to what the character of the metal itself was that he was dealing with. But, it was a pressure situation all the time; the pressure was on – off, on – off. Wind class was very much that way. Tabuteau would always use analogies in teaching and very often humorous ones, which in a way broke the tension, which would then be immediately reestablished afterwards.

Even to the extent that in the Curtis Institute where other lessons were 45 minutes, oboe lessons were a half an hour. One would come in a couple of minutes before one’s lesson time and be ready. As soon as the clock reached the half hour, Tabuteau would scream, “Next, you play!” [imitating Tabuteau’s accent.] Then there would be a quick change of guard and off you would go. The other person would get their things out of the way and go pack up, and when they were packed up, leave the room. But, a half an hour; and a half an hour was quite sufficient if you had prepared your work thoroughly. Some of us did – some of us tried and didn’t succeed. I would definitely put myself in that category. Some of them were a little more methodical than I was at that time about their preparation. But, if you were well prepared and by any awful chance you got through your entire assignment before the half an hour was up, well then you were in hot water, because you might be asked to sight transpose a Ferling or Barret or whatever it happened to be. 

Jane Pearce-Bauer: A Lesson with Marcel Tabuteau in December of 1949