Tabuteau’s Secrets

In an age when conductors could dismiss players for any reason, Marcel Tabuteau kept certain information about oboe-playing under wraps so that he could maintain his status as America’s greatest oboe player and keep the competition at bay.

Although he was generous in imparting to his students the most intricate aspects of phrasing (The Tabuteau System), when it came to cane selection, gouging, reed making, and correcting insufficiencies to the instrument itself, Tabuteau was reluctant to tell his students very much at all. 

Tabuteau worked in collaboration with several individuals in order to achieve the high standard of playing for which he was known. For cane selection he relied upon several members of the Sicilian Biasotto family whose cane fields were once found along the Rivera. For gouging machines and reed knives, the machinist Ernest Graf was indispensable (Laila Storch reports extreme secrecy was maintained here).  Corrections to his instruments were worked out alongside Hans Moennig. And after years of silence on reed making, Tabuteau eventually turned to the gifted John Mack, and in conjunction with him,  created the American reed style.

Tabuteau was reluctant to divulge his reed-making secrets to anyone:

Marcel Tabuteau in a letter to to Laila Storch of July 29, 1946

Do not speak to anyone about Graf [manufacturer of gouging machines]. If you go to see him, give him my regards and remind him about what I expect to have ready next September.

John Minsker speaks with Melissa Stevens

MS (Melissa Stevens): Would he [Tabuteau] help you with reeds?

JM: To an extent. He would usually try your reed. I think it was just a case of his wanting to pick up a little compensation that he had the reed classes. He really didn’t teach very much about reeds there, but he would look at them and criticize them.

MS: Did you ever play on his reeds?

JM: Yes I did. And they were marvelous. You didn’t have to pinch at all. It was so easy to make an attack and expand the sound. You could blow us much as you wanted and it never became harsh. His reeds were simply wonderful. Of course, they never suited him, and he he spent his life in the studio making reeds.

MS: How was it that you got to play on his reeds?

JM: He took me as an “assistant“ in his studio. I had the key to his studio and would prepare the cane for him. In the mornings he’d go to a rehearsal, and I’d go to the studio and do my practicing. After rehearsal, he would return to the studio and spend the entire day there making reeds, whether he had a concert or not. Of course, I’d hear him playing. He would try the program for the week. There’s no doubt I heard him more than anyone else ever did. I feel very fortunate there, and I’d give anything to hear that sound again. It was very dark and he could get so much color.

MS: How did he work on getting this dark sound? Did he spend most or his time with the reed?

JM: Yes, but just with the reed. I never heard him really practice, aside from practicing what he was playing that week, and that was more a case of his finding a suitable reed for that program. He did not need to practice, but he did need a decent reed.

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John de Lancie speaks with Laurie Van Brunt

JD (John de Lancie): If you came in with a bad reed or something like that, you rarely got any sympathy for the fact that you had a bad reed, at least during the period that I went to school. Now I do know that along around 1934 or 1935 he changed considerably in his attitude toward his students. It used to be prior to that time he used to help some of his students a great deal with reeds. There was something that took place in his life around that period that changed him in this approach. My experience during the years that I was at school was that, well in my own case, for instance, I spent four years here and on two occasions he picked up a reed and picked up a knife and did something to my reed, and the rest of the time why it was just sink or swim. We weren’t shown anything, and he didn’t do anything. He demanded that you do things, and he was relentless in that aspect. It was always obviously to our benefit, but at no time when we were trying to do something that our terrible reeds wouldn’t let us do, at no time was there ever any assistance offered. Now this isn’t true with all of his students. There was generally one student each year that would get some kind of help, but I wasn’t among that group.

LVB (Laurie Van Brunt): Did he expect you just to learn from each other about reeds?

JD: I don’t think he cared one way or another. His approach was that he was going to show us what we should do and how we should sound. Now he played for us a great deal, a great deal. And he just said that’s the way it should be, and anyway you manage it that’s your problem.

LVB: Do you think you learned as much by imitation as by understanding or was it equal?

JD: Well, I don’t know, that’s a very difficult question to answer, because I learned by imitation in that I knew what I wanted to sound like. My particular problem, now everybody has his or her particular problems, reeds were an almost insurmountable problem for me. I came to Curtis hardly ever having even made a reed. I didn’t have any idea about the mechanical aspects of the thing, and I wasn’t particularly gifted along those lines. I just about sank in my early days, because I just didn’t know how to cope with it. And I unfortunately could not associate properly how you should play or how the reed should be for how you should sound. I wasn’t able to figure out the two things. I had the impression that in order to get a big sound, I thought well that must mean that I had to exert an enormous amount of effort. Consequently I played on reeds that were like boards, and I had a terrible time doing it. I was never told to the contrary. So, to say by imitation, my only means of imitation was to know what I wanted to sound like; it wasn’t knowing really the aspects of how it should be done. I didn’t know or have any idea of how a reed should feel in my mouth, how it should react, how my embouchure should be or one thing or another, because at least with me he never talked to me about any of these things. With me everything was just strictly playing; he wanted it to sound this way or that way, and that was it.

LVB: Did you finally just work out your reed problems by hit and miss?

JD: Well, sure. Well, little by little, you know, assuming… Well, you have to understand that by “hit or miss” it was by hit or miss according to the way I approached the thing. Now you’re, how old are you?

LVB: Twenty-nine.

JD: All right you’re twenty-nine, so you obviously never heard him play.

LVB: No.

JD: Just on some records and like that. But now, I don’t know if you would tick off a lot of his students that have played a great deal. You’ve listened to a lot of their records, I’m sure?

LVB: Yes,

JD: Marc Lifschey’s records, John Mack’s records, Harold Gomberg’s records, Ralph Gomberg’s, my records? Okay, now I’ve named five, right? Would you say there is a difference between…

LVB: Oh, yes.

JD: Okay, so you see, you’re like talking to the [laugh] disciples, it’s like the scriptures according to this one or according to that one. Everyone is going to give you a different idea. When you say how did I find out, what in effect happens is that each one of us had arrived at an accommodation that suited us, because I know for a fact, because obviously, eventually, I lived with the man. And I know how he played and so on and so forth, and I know that all of us played different reeds from the kind of reeds he played, you see we don’t all play the same kind of reeds. We all have a different kind of approach to it. So when you say to find it out, to find out how it’s done, there is no way.

LVB: No, I meant for yourself.

JD: For myself, well sure, I arrived at it by the hit or miss thing.

LVB: No, I didn’t think that came by the reeds, that you know, his…

JD: Well, sure I got to the stage where I could play on his reeds somewhat, and he obviously could play on my reeds. But, I think that it’s a question of how each one of us conceived of what we had heard. That’s what in essence art is all about, filtering a central idea through different brains, and each one of us had a different idea of what he was trying to say or what he was trying to represent.

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Wayne Rapier speaks with Laurie Van Brunt

LVB (Laurie Van Brunt): Did he talk about reed making at all?

WR (Wayne Rapier): Sometimes he would try to avoid it, and I was one of the lucky ones that took my oboe lessons in his reed room. When my lesson was over, he would start on making his own reeds. I could peek over his shoulder and as he used to say “steal his secrets.” I don’t think he was that scientific to really have a lot of secrets to steal except making 5 to 10 reeds a day. But, he had a very high concept of what that reed should allow, and he would tear up reeds a lot of other people would gladly play concerts on.

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Laurence Thorstenberg speaks with Laurie Van Brunt

LVB (Laurie Van Brunt): Did Tabuteau help you with reeds?

LT (Laurence Thorstenberg): Not much. He had…I can’t remember anything, any specific thing that he told me to do about reeds.

LVB: And he just expected you to be able to come up with this great reed that was supposed to do everything on your own.

LT: Yes. He probably knew that the fellow students were usually comparing reeds and ideas and all that.

There was one student at that time, John Mack, who was doing work for him in his studio – preparing and gouging cane for him and also making reeds. John was at least some of the time making reeds or beginning reeds for Tabuteau. And I don’t know if Tabuteau ever used them or whatever, but I’m sure that John learned something from him. And he did tell us, at least me, some of the things that he learned. So, I got some ideas that way, indirectly. But, Tabuteau himself, I don’t know if he ever said really anything specific about reeds – how to scrape them, how long to make them, or anything.

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John Mack speaks with Laurie Van Brunt

LVB (Laurie Van Brunt): What kind of rapport did you have with Tabuteau?

JMk (John Mack): Perhaps a little different than the other students, at least the ones that were there at the time, because before I actually entered Curtis Tabuteau knowing my own natural proclivities with reeds and that I had made shapers and done all kinds of things like that, had invited me to become his studio assistant, also referred to as studio slave or whatever, in which I was to be in attendance with him whenever he wanted me to be there, while he worked on reeds, on gouging machines, on this, on that, on any other thing, and to prepare cane for him, eventually to gouge, to shape, to do everything, the culmination of which was that in my final third year in the Curtis Institute I made every reed that he played on for the first eleven weeks of the season and the previous Casals Festival in France. And so there was a little bit more rapport I suppose in a certain way, because I was more like a colleague in participating in this joint reed venture with him. Of course, there were many other things involved besides just working on reeds. I was given the job of listening to and declaring my opinion about various and sundry oboes –- top joints, bottom joints, bells, whatever – or the difference between this reed and that reed from outside the closed door. And errands to run, all kinds of things to do; go up there Monday evening, sit around picking cane, soaking cane, and while the cane would soak, I would practice my solfege. So, rapport-wise, yes, I had my ears knocked down a few times, quite a few times as a matter of fact; in Tabuteau’s own words, in his studio it was strictly one way traffic, his, and he didn’t cotton to having other people air their own view points when they might differ with his.

LVB: I wanted to ask you if there were people before you who occupied the same kind of position?

JMk: There were a few people before that did a little, but there was never anyone who was on the same scale as my work there. As a matter of fact, in connection with that, I remember that in my first year out of high school, Tabuteau had an operation the previous summer, he had a gall stone operation, and I don’t know the facts for sure, but I just assumed that he tried to play the oboe too soon afterwards, and he suffered a major hernia. He had two others during his career in the orchestra that I found out about much later, but, anyway, he suffered one. And at that particular point he started playing slightly lighter reeds, which he explained to me later, when he obviously saw that I was somewhat disappointed in the fact that he scaled down the robustness and the range of his tone, and he explained it simply by saying: “If I play out, he asks for more, if I don’t play out, he keeps them down; now what would you do if you were in my shoes?” Well, that took care of that.

But, at any rate, during that second year I was taking lessons with Minsker. (I feel a great debt of gratitude to John Minsker for having put up with me. He was told to teach me by Tabuteau and had no choice other than to do so, and that was the start of a teaching career that John Minsker pursued for some years, which he always found terribly distasteful, and for which he always personally blamed me. Anyway, the problem was that every few lessons Minsker and I would both go to Tabuteau’s studio, and I would play my lesson. If I did something poorly, Minsker was likely to catch the blame for it, instead of me ….) But, at any rate, on one of those occasions, I happened to have quite a good reed. At that time the Philadelphia Orchestra had hour-long broadcasts Saturday afternoons from five to six. Tabuteau said to me one time, [imitating Tabuteau’s French accent] “Say I wish I had that reed for the concert tonight.” I said, “Well, Maestro, please help yourself.” He allowed as how no-no, no way. Minsker laughed, thought that was very funny that anyone else’s reed could be thought to be used. So, I finally out and out asked him why not, and he said [imitating Tabuteau’s accent], “If I play poorly, I will take the blame. But, if I play well, I want all the credit!” So that was his operating procedure at that time, and yet it wasn’t but a brief five-six years later that he was playing in the Orchestra on reeds that I was making for him. The reason for that was simply that as meticulous as he was (and he was truly meticulous and painstaking in his selection of his cane for the curvature, the symmetry, and the texture, and everything, and also meticulous in his gouging. He would put a piece of cane back in the machine three times after measuring it in order to rub something off one corner where he thought there was too much cane. Then with the shaping also and with the tying, great pains), but once the knife hit the cane it was just like the Tazmaninan Devil or something. The reed would get chewed up in no time. So, the reason he brought me in to help him with the reeds was because he was becoming so impatient with the knife that it was destructive; he was destroying his own good work. He needed some governor to slow him down and so forth. I provided that service for him, and it worked very successfully that way. He had somebody around to be a buffer against his own impatience with all the naturally frustrating appurtenances to oboe playing.

LVB: Did he actually show you how he wanted the reeds scraped?

JMk: He always said don’t apply a scrape to the reed; scrape the reed according to what it needs. Assuming that your gouging happens to be extremely consistent and every other thing about reed making is also, still all in all every piece of cane his different. As soon as you start the reed, the idea would be to start the reed in such a way that you would get as quickly as possible to the point to see what was going to be in the reed without ever having taken too much out. From that point on you scrape the reed according to what its probable future needs would be. And that was it. So, it wasn’t a case of how the reed would look. I remember him in my last year in Curtis taking a cigarette box (he used to smoke cigarettes, finally gave them up, but he always bought cigarettes that came in a nice little box, just the right size for cane), and he pulled a box out, and he made a big point of saying: “You see these reeds, they’re beautiful, beautiful scrape, lovely opening, and so forth and so on, you made these reeds for me two years ago, aren’t they beautiful? But, they don’t play. Ha Ha Ha!” Of course, the whole idea being that how it plays is determined by how it plays and not by how it looks in any way. Then to his scrape, so-called. I would say that there was something distinctive about his scrape, and I’m not talking about the appearance of the reed as far as the relationship between the tip, back, this that or any other thing, but I mean the brush stroke itself, so to speak. He used an extremely sharp knife; he would labor endlessly over a knife to get a certain character of edge on it that would take the cane the way he wanted it, on an extremely sharp knife. In his use of the knife, in the way in which the knife passed over the cane, I could easily pick up a reed and just see the way it looked and know that Tabuteau had scraped that reed. As a matter of fact, I remember having the experience just a couple of weeks ago when I saw lots of different oboe players’ reeds, and I saw one of them and it looked reminiscent in some way, something about the scraping was reminiscent of my teacher’s, something I can’t put into words.