How to Phrase by the Numbers

Marcel Tabuteau, 1951

This post follows up on a previous post about phrasing. Here I describe what is arguably the best system for teaching phrasing I ever came across, and how you can practice to make your phrasing more meaningful and expressive.

When I was a student at Curtis, I learned from my wind player friends about the amazing technique for phrasing and legato they were learning in their lessons and in wind class. They were excited by the power in its systematic approach to one of music’s most expressive elements. They were learning the Tabuteau system.

Marcel Tabuteau (1887-1966) was a French oboist. He came to the U.S. in 1905 at the invitation of Walter Damrosch. In 1915 Tabuteau joined the Philadelphia Orchestra as its principal oboist, and in 1924, he founded the oboe department at the Curtis Institute. He is generally credited with establishing the American school of oboe playing.  His students included John de Lancie, Robert Mack, Harold Gomberg, Robert Bloom and many others.

I will attempt to describe Tabuteau’s system in a very condensed version. (For a more thorough study, I recommend David McGill’s book, “Sound in Motion: A Performer’s Guide to Greater Musical Expression.) My understanding of the system was greatly aided by discussions with my friend Carl Kleis, a grand-pupil (student of a student) of Tabuteau’s. Carl reveals the beauty of the system in this one brilliant sentence: The Tabuteau system manages to quantify a quality. 

The basic idea is this: Every phrase, and the legato used to express the phrase, expresses motion. In any phrase, no two notes are alike, whether in duration, volume, emphasis or intent. When two notes are played in exactly the same manner, the motion of the phrase stops. But when each note is expressed with care for its particular role in the melodic line, the line has shape and life.

By assigning a number from 1 to 10 to each note of the phrase, where 1 is the least significant and 10 is the most dynamic, you can get a clear picture of the direction of the phrase and how to shape it. (I believe Tabuteau started his counting at zero, to include a wind player’s preparation for the note. This may or may not be applicable for your instrument.) Numbering makes it easy to see where the high point of the phrase is, and how to get there in gradual stages. Remember that phrases are not usually one directional; there may be one or more smaller peaks on the way to the main high point of the phrase.

Here are two ways to try this system on your own:

1. Start by practicing your control. See if you can express 10 levels of volume or intensity in your playing. Play a single note, or a scale or exercise pattern creating a gradual crescendo and decrescendo. Start at 1, and increase the volume or intensity evenly and incrementally up to 10 and then back down again, trying to match the same increments. Or start at 10, decrescendo and then return to 10. Remember that the more even and uniform you make your “steps,” the smoother your phrasing will sound.

When you are ready for more difficulty, give yourself a more contoured number pattern to try. Here is an example: 1 2 3 2 3 4 5 4 5 6 7 6 5 4 3 2 1.

2. Apply the system to a melody. Start by playing the melody or phrase. Then sing the phrase. (Singing is a good way to get a “second opinion” on how the shape of the phrase.) Assign a number to each note of the phrase. Try playing by the numbers!

Many thanks to my friend Carl Kleis, retired minister, oboist and chamber musician, for sharing his insights and experience. I look forward to many more musical conversations!

How do you teach or practice phrasing?

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