Wayne Rapier (1930–2005) studied with Marcel Tabuteau privately in Philadelphia from 1951 to 1954 during Tabuteau’s final years with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and in Nice after Tabuteau retired. He received a scholarship to the Eastman School of Music at the age of 16. He then played principal oboe in the following orchestras: Indianapolis (age 19); U.S. Marine Band and Orchestra (attached to the White House in Washington, DC); Kansas City; Baltimore; and the Boston Pops. He joined the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1970 as associate first oboist, performing there until his retirement in 1995.
The following are excerpts from Laurie Van Brunt’s 1977 interview of Wayne Rapier concerning the Tabuteau System:
LVB: What would you say are Tabuteau’s most important ideas?
WR: To put it one word I would flexibility. What fascinated me most about him was his sense of variety of intensity and a variety of tone color. He put it in words that most people would not understand; the people who did not study with him that heard the tape usually don’t know what he’s talking about on the down-up impulses. You can hear or make your own concept of his playing, (but he was using very mediocre equipment and sometimes what he was doing very beautifully really did not come through on those tapes.)
LVB: Can you explain the down-up impulse?
WR: Well, I could explain it better with an instrument, but I’ll try. (This is my own self-defense; this is what kept me out of trouble with him after a couple of years.) The down impulse corresponded with a harmonic resolution; the up impulses were everything between resolutions. The more up impulses you had in a row, the more intense the sound became until it resolved again. And you would start all over in the next phrase. For Tabuteau, no note was standing still; it was going away from something or towards something. For me the intensity or motion in the sound is composed of three different things: the most obvious is the vibrato or lack of it, the various speeds of vibrato or not at all at the beginning of a phrase sometimes. The second part would be (for the oboist) the speed of the wind through any given size opening [of the reed.] The third part, less obvious, that we have to be very discreet about is the pitch. As the intensity increased, we usually get sharper as most good string players can tell you. [laugh] And the vibrato gets faster as it becomes more intense, and we blow a faster stream of air through the opening.
LVB: You said no note is ever standing still, [but] on a down impulse would that not be a note that’s standing still?
WR: It would be relaxing.
LVB: But it’s not standing still.
WR: No. And the beginning of the down impulse was the most intense part. Of course, you could have more than one down impulse in a row, but usually one note took care of the resolution, and you relaxed very quickly before you started all over again. I’m not saying that he would not play a note without vibrato; if he was playing with a clarinet player, he could very easily turn it off.
LVB: How do you produce up and down impulses, is that what you were talking about – vibrato. I guess we covered that already…
WR: As Tabuteau says, it comes with the wind. Various people interrupt the wind in different ways, and mine comes from diaphragm. I know a lot of good oboists who use a throat vibrato. I cannot do it, so I don’t attempt to teach it even. But, the intensity came mostly from the diaphragm, in my case. Of course, the tone color changes were the different positions of the throat and embouchure.
LVB: Did he differentiate clearly between up and down impulses and his number system, which is the scale of expression, which are the colors?
WR: He did not differentiate very clearly. In fact, he had about three different sets of numbers that kind of rotated, I still get confused when I listen to those tapes about which set of numbers he’s using. One set of numbers corresponded with just dynamics. Another set might correspond with intensity.
LVB: I wanted to get back to one point, did he only really have then – about the articulation –, he didn’t vary lengths of notes? Or is that something different? I know in some phrases where you have a repeated note you want to make the first note short and the next note a little longer and the next note longer to show some kind of motion forward or ta taa taaa [with more emphasis], you know getting longer, but that would be within his definition of articulation? Or was it always the same – there are two things taa and tee, and there wasn’t any variation in between? Or were there variations?
WR: There were quite a few variations. He described it as scaling notes. Scaling the notes meant starting as you said short ordinarily and going longer as it approached the climax or the important part of the phrase.
LVB: Could you explain a little bit more about the end of the slur – how that would be done.
WR: The end of it?
LVB: The end of the slur. Let me just check some comment about that – If two notes are slurred, only the second one is actually affected. The space between the notes slurred is taken away as the sound is continuous.
WR: He made a big deal out of that. One of the outstanding examples that I first got hit over the head is Barret No.1. And if you chopped off the second note, even if you didn’t chop it off, you still got a lesson on the da da tee long — da da tee a ta [Singing Barret Grand Etude #1 phrase #1]. That second note of the slur or as he said the only note that is slurred has nothing to do with a staccato note that follows. To get through the lesson without getting your head chopped open, you would play da da tee aa ta; the end of that note went exactly up to the beginning of the staccato note that followed it.
LVB: So that would be as he would describe it – that would be “long.”
WR: Right, da da tee long – yes.
LVB: Do you think that Tabuteau always played by his principles of distribution of inflection and scale of expression? Do you think he worked out everything that he played in terms of numbers and up and down impulses?
WR: I’ve heard him spend literally hours on going over one phrase. He used to throw things at us like – you’d do a phrase that wasn’t very well thought out, and he’d say: ‘Next week you do it in ten different ways.”
As far as actually thinking them out, he did it in his own studio. But as the tape said, those numbers were for lesser days. It means days when you really don’t feel you want to play a concert, but you have got to play a concert. That’s what the numbers were; it was a standard that he set below which he would not go, reed permitting.
LVB: Could you using a selection of your choice describe how up and down impulses and groupings would be used?
WR: I can think of two examples both Brahms which I think are quite descriptive of what Tabuteau had in mind on the up and down impulses. The down being where the harmonic structure resolved, the up was becoming more intense leading into the next down where it resolved all over again.
The first example that I have in mind is Brahms First [Symphony] the first oboe solo starting on the g’. The grouping on this would start out in 3 note groups [whistling] up, up, down up, up down, and then five ups in a row. That top d’’’ would not be the top of the phrase intensity-wise, you would go into the following a-flat’’ [whistling] intensity wise, but you would get softer at the same time, before it resolved back in the bottom of it, and you got out of the way of the clarinet player.
The other example I can think of, you had asked what does the intensity or ups and downs have to do with dynamics.
And I think a good example of that would be in Brahms Violin Concerto; it’s the last time around . The top of that is marked “forte” and the bottom of it you’re supposed to be getting softer, but much more intense as you go down that last time. And that is a good example of the ups and ups and ups getting more intense while you’re getting softer. But as Tabuteau used to say, you should get on the end of that “a deafening pianissimo,” which he could blow the whole orchestra right off the stage and play “pianissimo.”
LVB: While we’re talking about the Violin Concerto, what about the bar line. How would you phrase the first part, the opening solo. Would you phrase on the bar line ? – or….
WR: No. We try to ignore bar lines [laugh] Very often I think people mistake you’re playing by bar lines, because the logical place to resolve a chord or to make a down impulse would be on that first beat of the bar line. I think the mistake that a lot of people have made is by phrasing before you get to where you’re going, before the resolution. That was one thing that Tabuteau always emphasized was going to wherever it resolved and usually it just happened to be the first beat, but not necessarily. The strong beats were the logical places for something to resolve, and the beginning of the resolution would be the most intense part. It’s misconceiving at first when you start talking about up and up and up and down. The students don’t understand at first that the beginning of the down is where they’re going; and then they relax.
LVB: Could you say how you would do, well let’s say the first three measures of that solo of the Brahms Violin Concerto in terms of up and down impulses?
WR: I’d start the a’’ on a down without really resolving it on the end, and the 3 ups in a row; and that top a’’ that I just arrived at, the fifth note, would be a very gentle down, because you’ve got somewhere to go after that [whistling]. There is where you’re going, the g’’, and then you can relax.
LVB: What about the c?
WR: The third note?
LVB: The last note of the measure.
WR: You mean on the beginning [whistling]?
LVB: No, the last note of the 2nd measure.
WR: I don’t have the music here. [laugh].
LVB: Okay, it’s the last note of the 2nd measure [singing the first two measures]; it’s the low note.
WR: Ya. I try to round that off into a very gentle down and almost connect it with the next a’’, but it is detached gently.
LVB: But does that c lead into the a” slightly?
WR: Yes, I think it does; you have not relaxed completely until get to the a”.
LVB: Shall we talk about syncopations and dotted notes, if there were any techniques about playing dotted note [rhythms]?
WR: He wanted you to go the middle of the syncopated note and then relax. As his friend [Marcel] Moyse points out the French word for syncopation is something like “syncope” which means to drop dead or stop breathing or your heart stops beating. Tabuteau always pointed out that your heart stops beating in the middle of the beat after it is gotten to be quite intense. And then it would be like an up down, the down would be in the middle of the syncopated note.
LVB: In a dotted rhythm like the opening of the Eroica [Beethoven Symphony #3] slow movement solo [singing dotted eighth note followed by a sixteenth], is there a space between the long note and the short, the dotted note and the sixteenth note?
WR: Yes, it’s about a two hour space when you’re playing! [laugh] The dot, I always feel like you’re weightless going over that dot [singing the rhythm], you round it off, but it is still going up, up up up down, a very gentle down [singing the rhythm]. That’s another example of that first note almost decrescendoing, but still becoming more and more intense, because the third note, that third g’, is where you’re going. Since it is a very intense funeral march, those three notes are the crucial point of getting it off the ground.
LVB: How about in Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony [first mov’t in 6/8] [singing the dotted 8th followed by a 16th note followed by an 8th note and so on]. Is that the same thing? Where you go into the dot, but there’s maybe a little space between the notes?
WR: I think the dot would be the end of the group, and the beginning of the group would be the 16th note very definitely. It would be up up down [singing], you would be going to the dotted 8th note every time; that’s the rhythm you’re about, right?
LVB: Yes, right.
WR: Very definitely the beginning of the group would be on the sixteenth, and it would be going to the next main beat of the dotted eighth note, and there would a punctuation on the dot.
LVB: Did you ever hear Tabuteau say, “it is important to remember to place one’s notes on the bow or the wind and not to bow or wind the notes”? Can you explain that?
WR: Well, he was trying to get away from people that started a note by blowing into it and coming out with something bulb shaped and consequently no line to the phrase. He would place his phrases on a series of numbers which were heading in one definite direction and then back down again. By winding a note I think would mean a crescendo and then a decrescendo on the note, which we do sometimes on purpose, but not usually.
LVB: How important was rubato to Tabuteau’s playing?
WR: Very [laugh], very important. He, as [Robert] Bloom used to say, performed fancy robbery. He would get by with whatever he could get by with and still have the discipline of coming up on the main places with the conductor involved. By fancy robbery he meant he took away from one thing and gave it to another. When the reed was working right, he played quite rubatoish [laugh]. That also depended on the conductor and the reed. I think he had as high an average as anyone in the business mostly because he worked six to eight hours a day.
LVB: How original do you think these ideas were with Tabuteau – the ups and downs and the numbers and that sort of –
WR: That’s always interested me where it came from. I think very much of it came from imitating the best string players in the business. He was always envious of the great concert artist who could pick up their one hundred thousand Strad, and it would be exactly like they left it yesterday, and they didn’t have to make a new reed for the day. He would try to imitate vibrato and their intensity and everything that they did. He would always compare our embouchure with being close to the bridge or close to the finger board and our breathing with the speed or pressure of the bow. It was always from a string player’s point of view or imitation, I should say.
LVB: Did he ever mention his teacher [Georges] Gillet?
WR: Yes, he kind of worshipped him. As far as giving any direct ideas of Gillet, I can’t remember his giving any musical ideas.
LVB: I see, okay.
Let’s see I should pick up on a few things that I skipped over, if that is all right. We didn’t talk about the playing of intervals, which is really basic to technique. Did Tabuteau have special ways of teaching the playing of intervals?
WR: Well, he would pick out an interval and starting out on a basic one, say a fifth, and if you play the scale connecting all 5 notes and then maybe play the chord, a major chord, up to the fifth and then play the fifth. The fifth was supposed to come out exactly where the scale was when it was beautifully connected. The whole object was to get the low note in most cases to go to the high note in intensity and dynamic without their being any space in between at all. He compared it to, on the tapes, to the horse jumping over the hurdle. When he got to the top note, he was already on top of the hurdle, and he had done his work and the next note took care of itself.
LVB: Is there anything we missed that you think we should talk about?
WR: You have mentioned here, how did he teach numbers. I can’t find the specific [statement on the interview outline.] The scale of numbers: he had at least two specific scales. One was obvious: dynamics, and he would have you start on most lessons playing a five note scale and [the number] one was always as soft as you can get next to zero, which is nothing, and five was as loud as you could get and then back down to one again. That was the beginning of the lesson usually and then 1 to 5 to 9 to 5 to 1, each note exactly where it should be if you were using a ruler, [or] a micrometer to measure. Then about a year or two later [laugh] after you were getting the numbers, he would add to that the down and up impulses on the numbers.
You asked about vibrato, how does that fit into this. I think it’s a very important obvious part of the motion or intensity, although it’s not the complete thing at all, but the vibrato you hear either stopping or speeding up or slowing down, although Tabuteau did not teach vibrato specifically, in fact he deliberately avoided it.
[WR looking at the interview outline.}
You asked about groupings. He took an example of each group was like a joint of a finger and finally you had the whole finger and then next you had the wrist and the elbow, and the complete arm was the whole phrase. And the groupings were anywhere from two notes to whatever that joint of the finger included, probably up to 5 or 7.
Bar lines he ignored wherever he could.
Are slurs and groupings related? Most of the times I should think so; most of the time a slur is part of a group.