Listening to last night’s game on WFAN while in my seat at Citi Field watching the game–my modus operandi—I was reminded by Howie Rose that last night’s starter was one of the pitchers on our staff who had been given the unique opportunity of having the legendary Sandy Koufax as a tutor at Port St. Lucie during Spring Training. Specifically, credit for helping Jon Niese to refine his 12-to-6 curveball supposedly goes to the great Dodger left-hander. (Photo by Simmons for New York Daily News.)
This is not the first spring that Koufax has played mentor to our young pitching staff, but it got me thinking, once again, what a daunting thing it must be to “do your stuff” with any sort of confidence and self-assurance in front of a master of the art such as Koufax. John Maine was quoted as saying, “I got a little nervous when I heard he would be watching my bullpen session.”
As my husband and I talked later about the scenario, he exclaimed, “It would be like taking composition lessons with MOZART!”
Or like taking piano lessons with BEETHOVEN!
Pianist/composer Carl Czerny‘s father started him on the piano, but he later went on to study with Hummel, Salieri and, yes, Beethoven. Not only was Beethoven known to have a most disagreeable temperament, but he strikes me as the type of genius that would have trouble relating to and absolutely no patience for those not as gifted as himself.
Or like taking oboe lessons with my noted teacher, Richard Woodhams (pictured, at left.)
As a young, aspiring oboe student about to be awarded my Bachelor of Music degree from Wichita State Univesity (alma mater of Mike Pelfrey), I auditioned for and was one of only two students accepted as a graduate oboe major of Mr. Woodhams at Temple University for the fall of 1985.
While I was thrilled and honored to have been accepted and this guy’s oboe playing I had known and worshipped through recordings and broadcasts for years, I found that my first few lessons with him didn’t seem to go so well. Mr. Woodhams seemed slightly irritated with me…dismissive. Was he beginning to regret having selected me to be part of his class?
I suspected that my talent and dedication were not in question but that perhaps my inability to play my best in front of him due to my being totally and completely intimidated by this God of the Oboe had something to do with any lack of patience on his part. My incessant questions and requests for clarification of his suggestions were not helping the matter either.
At this point, I cautioned myself that I was going to be missing out on a unique opportunity to learn, grown, and absorb advice and musical demonstrations if I didn’t alter my approach. Yes, I told myself, this amazing artist performed daily on the stage of the Academy of Music in Philadephia–where his teacher and his teacher’s teacher had previously held the same post of Principal Oboe–but he obviously sensed I had some potential. The idolization of this person was standing in the way of my benefitting from his wisdom and expertise.
Asking my teacher how he was producing the sound I was striving so hard to emulate and having him respond, “I don’t KNOW! It should just sound like THIS!” led me to eventually figure out (1) that he didn’t like being asked to overanalyze his technique and (2) that he wanted me to figure things out on my own through trial-and-error and by using my ears.
Besides learning to keep my questions to a minimum, I also began playing up to my potential during my lessons as I gained self-confidence.
Even figuring out my teacher’s preferred teaching style and being able to summon some false bravado for an hour each week, I never did waken on Sunday mornings–the day of my lessons–feeling anything but a sense of foreboding and apprehension.
Soaking up a reed, putting together my instrument, and blowing a few warm-up notes in front of Richard Woodhams initially felt just as agonizingly foolhardy to me as John Maine and others must have felt putting on a glove, picking up a ball, and stepping on the mound in front of the likes of Sandy Koufax.
In the course of thinking about being a student of the oboe versus being a student of pitching, I had another interesting thought.
The “Cy Young” of oboists–at least in America–is considered to be Marcel Tabuteau (pictured at right with Arturo Toscanini.) He did play briefly at the Metropolitan Opera, but most of his career was spent as Principal Oboe of the Philadelphia Orchestra and teaching at the Curtis Institute of Music. Many of his students went on to become eminent oboists and teachers in this country. One of them, John de Lancie, succeeded his teacher as Principal Oboist in the Philadelphia Orchestra as well as at Curtis, passing along Tabuteau’s teachings and playing style to many future professional oboists, including Woodhams.
While held in great esteem not only by oboists but by woodwind players in general, stories of Tabuteau’s irritability and stinginess have circulated through the years. Blessed with a real knowledge of reed making and skilled with scraping on and refining oboe reeds–critical to any oboist’s success–he reputedly withheld at least some of this valuable knowledge, even from his own students. (Photo of one of my reeds, below.)
Scraping on my reed during a series of lessons I had with John de Lancie at the Aspen Music Festival, he told of studying with Tabuteau and him agreeing to scrape on his reeds to try to improve their response, but only after turning his back to the young de Lancie. By doing so, de Lancie could see neither where on the reed Tabuteau scraped nor how much cane he took off.
For the most part, I think, information about reed making is more generally known and widely available, especially in the Internet age. But thinking about Tabuteau’s well-guarded reed “secrets” made me wonder what pitching sages–even retired ones–have been possessive of any “tricks of the trade” that they discovered along the way.
From a purely selfish standpoint, I hope the players lucky enough to have spent time with Koufax listened intently, hung on his every word, and absorbed as much as possible from this Hall-of-Famer…half-scared out of their wits or not.