Whip Up A Tone Palette

By Robert Bloom

Reprinted from Woodwind World, Jan/Feb 1959

Minor Editing by Ed Joffe

“No, my dears, I am conscious of a flute and a bassoon. That’s not what I want. I want to hear a third instrument, the result of a happy marriage between the two.” The speaker is Arturo Toscanini and the phrase occurs in Debussy’s Iberia at the beginning of the third movement. Those few words of a great maestro contain the key to one of the secrets of fine solo and ensemble woodwind playing: the ability to vary the tonal color of one’s instrument at will for the purpose of blending with other instruments or voices. Many players think they are fulfilling their duty to music when they play with a pleasing tone, good intonation, finger dexterity, a good range of piano-forte, and a good feeling for rhythm. The foregoing is very necessary, but there are other important factors that distinguish the artist from the merely competent performer. Unfortunately, these other qualities are less tangible. They are difficult to teach and learn. Being closely allied with one’s personal talent and imagination, they belong in the category of aesthetics rather than mechanics.

My desire to write about the variety and blending of tone colors came about through a letter I received some time ago. A few days before the receipt of the letter, some colleagues and I were discussing the very subject of “why some instrumentalists are easier to play with than others.” I remarked that I prefer to play with a musician who has a flexible tone even though his/her scale may be a little erratic. With us that night was a young clarinetist who was just starting his professional career. He had received his instrumental and general music education at a good school and had composed music that indicated outstanding talent. He wrote the letter from which I quote a part: “The talk the other night opened my eyes to an aspect of playing that I had neglected. Until now, I thought it necessary to have a good tone. Now I see that I must acquire many good tones. I think all young players should be made to realize this.” Bravo! How boring it is to hear players who “turn on” the same tone for every measure of music they play. They have never learned there is a difference between La Boheme and the Eroica. Musicians who would never tolerate this monotony in singing or string-playing have very often in the past accepted it as inevitable in woodwind playing.

If tonal variety is important in solo playing, it is the quintessence of ensemble playing. As an oboist, I am well aware of the difficulty of making the tone of my instrument approach that of the flute or clarinet while still retaining its own distinctive hue. I know that the same difficulties are encountered by other woodwinds, but I feel that young woodwind players should be warned that conductors are no longer satisfied with the standards of a few years ago. They are constantly demanding more and more flexibility. If you doubt this last statement, listen to the woodwind players in the newer symphony orchestras of our nation’s smaller cities. Listen to them critically and I think you’ll agree that much of the woodwind playing is of the caliber which only a few years ago was reserved for our major symphony orchestras. There were always outstanding artists but now artistry is demanded as the rule rather than the exception.

Good woodwind teachers have always insisted on careful intonation and enough flexibility for the execution of extreme nuances. Now we have advanced to a period when a command of tonal colors is becoming mandatory. One may ask: “But why all this talk about colors? Doesn’t every woodwind have its own distinctive timbre?” The question is justified but one may be overlooking the fact that every color has many shades. The shade of tone used when playing with one player would sound wrong when playing with another. If you will permit, I would like to cite some personal examples.

In my orchestral experience, I have had the pleasure of playing with Julius Baker, Joseph Mariano, and John Wummer. All three are outstanding artists on the flute. It is unnecessary to tell flutists that each of these players has a different conception of flute tone. That is as it should be. Nothing is as uninteresting as a lot of carbon-copies. I have had to match my tone to each one individually and they have had to do the same for me. I hope the effort has been as artistically rewarding for them as it has for me. In our work with the Bach Aria Group, Julius Baker and I have had the interesting problem of blending with vocalists. These arias are not to be confused with our modern conception of arias in which the voice is of prime importance, everything else accompaniment. Bach has treated his voices and instrumentalists as equals, thus making his arias chamber music in the purest sense.

Once at a Victor recording session with Stokowski (who is an acknowledged master of orchestral color), John Wummer and I were listening to a play-back of the second movement of the New World Symphony. When the second theme in C# minor entered (flute and oboe unison), Wummer looked at me and said, “Bloom, we sound like a FlOboe.” We had achieved success; here was the third instrument!

One of the most memorable examples of this kind of playing I have ever heard was the blending of Marcel Tabuteau’s oboe and Robert McGuinnis’ clarinet in the first theme of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. Indeed, the spirit of this whole subject was expressed very succinctly by McGinnis, as he expresses everything. Once, when I congratulated him on the way he took over a passage from the flute in L’Apres Midi, Bob said: “Well, I was actually playing flute for the first three of four notes.”

One cannot hope to fully cover this subject in an article of this length, but I hope I have aroused the reader’s interest. I know there is very little in what I have written that can be put to immediate technical use, but I will feel my aim accomplished if young players are encouraged to think and experiment along these lines.

Editor’s Note: Robert Bloom was a student of Marcel Tabuteau at the Curtis Institute. He became the English horn player in the Philadelphia Orchestra upon graduation. He then went on to the Rochester Symphony as principal oboist and eventually left the RSO to assume the same position with Toscanini’s NBC Symphony. He was a founding member of the Bach Aria Group in 1946 and played with them until 1980. A professor at Yale and The Juilliard School, a composer, editor of rare 18th century manuscripts and a prolific recording artist, Mr. Bloom embodied the true definition of a musician’s musician! To get a better idea of the depth of this man’s music making, please log onto https://robertandsaralambertbloom.com/robert-bloom-cds/art-of-robert-bloom/ in order to access the 7 CDs available under the title: The Art of Robert Bloom.