Musicality by the numbers

Times Staff Writer

Los ANGELES and cities around the world have been dazzled by young conductor Gustavo Dudamel, who will take over the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2009 and is leading it this weekend and next at Walt Disney Concert Hall. When Dudamel made his U.S. debut with the orchestra 2 1/2 years ago at the Hollywood Bowl, Times critic Mark Swed wrote that he couldn’t remember when a Bowl concert had been so focused from the start.

We’ve since learned that Dudamel, now 27, is the product of an innovative educational system in his native Venezuela that will teach any child who’s interested how to play an instrument. He studied violin before picking up the conductor’s baton that he wields with such authority. But that raises a question: Can musicality be taught, or is it a gift from the gods to a lucky few? And if it can be taught, how?

A recent book by Chicago Symphony principal bassoonist David McGill offers one answer: “Sound in Motion: A Performer’s Guide to Greater Musical Expression” says that a lot can be taught, even to players with considerable experience. Other musicians are not so sure.

McGill takes off from a method created in the first half of the 20th century by Marcel Tabuteau:16080/publications/TWOboist/TWO.V2.1/TWO.V2.1.Tabuteau.html, a onetime principal oboist with the Philadelphia Orchestra and a teacher at the city’s Curtis Institute of Music. Tabuteau is widely credited with founding the American school of oboe playing, but his influence went far beyond that.

“I don’t believe there was any single music teacher on any instrument who had a greater impact on the American way of making music than Tabuteau,” McGill says. “Almost all the principal oboe players in America by the mid-'40s and certainly by the 1950s were Tabuteau students who had graduated from Curtis. And through a sort of osmosis, other musicians -- clarinet, bassoon, horn players, even violinists -- were influenced by hearing this more pure, more expressive, more nuanced way of playing which was certainly due to Tabuteau’s teaching.”


What Tabuteau did was develop a numbering system to help instrumentalists phrase -- that is, divide and play the notes in a given score in meaningful segments -- musically and expressively. Rather than vague, poetic imagery such as “Play it as if you’re looking at a sunset,” his system uses numbers to group notes, create forward motion and suggest approaches to dynamics and color.

“We tend to think that what we see on the page is music,” says McGill, whose teachers included oboist John de Lancie, a Tabuteau student and himself a former principal with the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Pittsburgh Symphony. “What it really is is a recipe for how to make music. You have to take that bare framework and turn it into living sound. This is where the Tabuteau number system and everything else he taught comes into play, because it helps you get from that point of looking at black notes on white paper to creating emotion in the mind of the listener.”

It’s not a matter of good technique or of playing “just the way you feel,” he says, but of dissecting a passage to understand the role each note plays.

Is there a danger in approaching the process too intellectually?

“Emotion and intellect do not have to be separated,” McGill says. “In fact, they are not separated. Greater involvement of the intellect yields a greater emotion within the listener and within the performer. But the emotion that occurs should primarily be in the mind of the listener.”

Tabuteau was born in France in 1887 and came to the United States in 1905 after winning a first prize at the Paris Conservatory. He played under Walter Damrosch at the New York Symphony (one of the predecessors of the New York Philharmonic), under Arturo Toscanini at the Metropolitan Opera and, from 1915 until he retired in 1954, at the Philadelphia Orchestra, initially under Leopold Stokowski. He taught at Curtis from its founding in 1924 until he retired from teaching in 1953 and eventually returned to France, where he died in 1966.

His legacy is preserved on a number of recordings, including a discussion of his ideas available on the Audio CD “Marcel Tabuteau’s Lessons” (formerly “The Art of the Oboe” on LP). (See accompanying discography.)

The system was by no means a paint-by-numbers approach, however.

“It’s not just dynamics in moving from point A to point B,” says Anne Marie Gabriele, a Los Angeles Philharmonic oboist who studied at the Juilliard School with two Tabuteau-influenced teachers and has also been coached privately by McGill. “It’s knowing the function of every note harmonically and melodically and making those things crystal clear. It’s emotional content and a way of looking at music and having it sound very flexible and fluid even though you’ve thought out every note. I use it all the time when I teach.”

Ronald Leonard, a former Los Angeles Philharmonic principal cellist and a teacher at the downtown Colburn Conservatory of Music, became familiar with the system by attending Tabuteau’s string and conducting classes at Curtis.

“It was always a mystery to me,” Leonard admits. “But he got fantastic results from the orchestra, and he was not a particularly good conductor -- just a great musician.”

Still, Leonard doubts that musicality can be taught to people if they lack it entirely.

“But there are directions you can give people to greatly improve their musicality,” he says. “Mr. Tabuteau found a number system. Other people found other ways. We string players talk about changing bow pressure, bow speeds, things like that. These are not necessarily something people think of naturally. They have to be directed. I’ve seen many times people who seemed not particularly musical totally evolve into very fine-sounding musicians and not just technicians.”

‘A model for architecture’

Richard BEENE is associate dean of students at the Colburn Conservatory and a bassoonist also taught by a Tabuteau student, Richard Lottridge, who would use the system when Beene was having trouble.

“He would write a few numbers in so I could understand his concept of what the intensity in the phrase was,” Beene says. “It was a model for architecture more than anything else. I don’t use this system, but I’m always talking about where notes lead and architecture and phrasing with my students. I’m not sure we’re saying something different.

“But this for me really is not what musicality is. Musicality is when a person walks onstage and plays and you’re immediately transported to a place that is not about a number system. You’re moved from their ability to communicate the emotion of the music combined with their own emotion about what they’re playing.”

Los Angeles Philharmonic concertmaster Martin Chalifour, a Curtis graduate and a former colleague of McGill, believes that musicality can be fostered but not taught.

“Musicality is something either you have or you don’t,” Chalifour says. “It’s a gift of expression, the ability to exteriorize your feelings and make them obvious to someone else. Most of it is innate. But there are ways to trigger and encourage it and bring it out of a person.”

Chalifour’s teacher in his native Montreal, Taras Gabora, had his own way of triggering it.

“He would do the unthinkable: at a very early age assign major pieces of repertoire without much indication of how to do it,” Chalifour says. “Then we would discuss things as I was learning it. There was just a healthy measure of guidance but not an imposition of technical and musical ideas. He very much believed in developing the personal style of the student.

“It’s very important for a person to become self-sufficient,” says Chalifour, who teaches at USC. “It should be a goal never lost track of. It’s like the saying ‘You feed someone for a day, but you don’t teach them how to fish.’ ”

McGill would no doubt agree. He has developed his own ideas beyond the Tabuteau system but insists that the master himself felt the number system was just a starting point.

“Tabuteau even said that numbers are for lesser days, which means when inspiration doesn’t strike,” he says. “He would often say, ‘Numbers are for stupid people.’ But he was really referring to all of us -- that we’re just stupid people who need to be taught. But he believed human beings could improve, which was kind of admirable.

“Tabuteau really got people to think about what they were doing rather than just feel what they were doing, because your feelings are hit and miss. It’s like a lightning strike. Sometimes lightning is going to strike in the right place, but most likely it’s not.”




Listen and learn how it’s done

In addition to “Marcel Tabuteau’s Lessons,” David McGill cites a number of recordings in his new book that exemplify superb musicianship. Maria Callas is at the top of his list, but he is no simple-minded swoony admirer. In her case and in many of his other recommendations, he analyzes specific passages to show exactly what impresses him.

“When I tell people about the recordings of the musical artists whom I most admire,” McGill writes, “I am often met with the question: ‘Yes, but who do you like who’s alive?’ It is disconcerting to hear this question because I believe that, through their recordings, the great performers of the past are as alive today as they ever were.”

Maria Callas, soprano

Bellini: “Norma.” La Scala Orchestra. Tullio Serafin, conductor (1960). EMI

Bellini: “La Sonnambula.” Orchestra of La Scala. Antonino Votto, conductor (1957). EMI

“Mad Scenes.” Philharmonia Orchestra. Nicola Rescigno, conductor (1958). EMI

John de Lancie, oboe

Strauss: Oboe Concerto. Members of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. Max Wilcox, conductor (1987). BMG

Marcel Tabuteau, oboe

Bach: Concerto for Violin and Oboe in C Minor. Isaac Stern, violin. Prades Festival Orchestra. Pablo Casals, conductor (1950). Sony

Handel: Oboe Concerto in G Minor. Philadelphia Orchestra. Eugene Ormandy, conductor (1952). Columbia Records LP

Mozart: Sinfonia Concertante in E Flat for Oboe, Clarinet, Horn and Bassoon. Philadelphia Orchestra. Leopold Stokowski, conductor (1940). Boston Records (without opening tutti); Cala (complete)

Leopold Stokowski,


Bach/Stokowski: Orchestral Transcriptions. Philadelphia Orchestra (1927-40). Pearl

Debussy: “Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un faune.” His Symphony Orchestra (1957). EMI

Wagner/Stokowski: Love Music From “Tristan und Isolde.” Philadelphia Orchestra (1960). Philadelphia Orchestra Assn.

-- C.P.