John Mack Oboe Camp: The First Ten Years

Elizabeth Camus, Cleveland

Entrance to Wildacres

How it began...
The first year...
What makes it special...
The future...
About the writer...





For those readers who have never heard of John Mack Oboe Camp (such as recent arrivals from other planets), perhaps some biographical and historical information is in order before I begin. Mr. Mack is the 58-year-old principal oboist of the Cleveland Orchestra, a position he has held since 1965. A native of New Jersey, he holds artist diplomas from both Juilliard and Curtis, where his teachers included Bruno Labate, Harold Gomberg, and the legendary Marcel Tabuteau. Aside from his fame as a player and as an expert reed-maker, Mr. Mack is regarded as one of the foremost teachers of the instrument active today; his former students hold orchestral and teaching positions throughout the U.S. and in several other countries. From this long-standing commitment to the art of teaching, and thanks to the energies of one of those former students, came the First Annual John Mack Oboe Camp, in June 1976.


How it began...

Class the first year--1976That student was, of course, Joseph Robinson, currently principal oboist of the New York Philharmonic. The JM-JR connection began at the very beginning of Joe's playing career in Lenoir, North Carolina; his high school band director was happily of the highly enlightened variety, providing his students with the best equipment available, which for Joe meant a Loree oboe from Hans Moennig and reeds by John Mack. Intermittently throughout his career, Joe studied with Mr. Mack, so that in 1976, when he was professor of oboe at North Carolina School of the Arts, he conceived the idea of importing his teacher to Winston-Salem for master classes, for the benefit of his own students and as an aid to recruitment for his class at NCSA. Although the school was informed after the fact by the state of North Carolina that "only the governor can officially proclaim a 'Day'," the event was dubbed "John Mack Oboe Day in North Carolina", a seminar of master classes plus an evening recital featuring both men as well as several of their students. It attracted many players, primarily from the southeastern U.S., and those in attendance remember it as a great success.

Shortly after Oboe Day, Joe visited with Herman Blumenthal, owner of Wildacres Retreat, a mountainside facility just off the Blue Ridge Parkway, 40 miles northeast of Asheville. The two had first become acquainted when as a youngster Joe attended Wildacres with the Charlotte Oratorio Society. The Blumenthal family had bought the retreat during the Depression ("roughly half the mountain for $6500", recalls Mr. Blumenthal), and since 1947 had operated it as a meeting place for groups of various types, the only requirement for admission being that each group have a central theme and a program. In the late seventies, the family was beginning to develop the facility on a much grander scale, adding buildings and extending its season, and as Joe says, "It was a logical connection" to inquire about the inclusion of an oboe group, again as a potential recruiting population for NCSA. An agreement was made, and the John Mack Oboe Camp was born. Since that time, Wildacres has hosted several other instrumental music camps, but the Oboe Camp, at age ten, is the grand- daddy.

(At present, Wildacres, a public non-profit foundation, operates six months of the year, from May through October, hosting forty groups in 1985. The entire month of June is now devoted to music camps. Expansion continues, and the mountain will soon have its own auditorium building.)

The first year...

One sometimes wonders if the Blumenthals knew what they were getting into - I've always felt that the sound of more than two oboes played at once was something only an oboe player could love, and it is true that some of the mountain's wildlife seems to depart when the "ducks" are in residence. But, for better or worse, during June 6-11, 1976, the oboe camp became a reality, with 68 participants plus a staff including Messrs. Mack and Robinson, instrument repairman Pat McFarland (also English horn of the Atlanta Symphony), and piano accompanist Bruce Moss. For a fee of $125, participants received room and board for the six days, two opportunities to perform in master class or recital, free instrument adjustment and 10% discount on supplies from the transplanted McFarland Oboe Shop, and more instruction on playing, music and reeds that many mortals can safely bear under the kind of dense scheduling that was involved.

Dining Hall

The first year's organization, which has continued essentially unchanged through the next nine, was thus: Following registration and supper on Sunday, participants were presented with a recital by Mr. Mack (Joe's idea, "to show them you can play, so they'll listen when you teach"). The daily schedule for Monday through Thursday was as follows:

7:30 Wake-up bell
8:00 Breakfast
9:00-12:00 Morning Workshop (etudes)
12:30 Lunch
1:00-5:00 Free
5:00 Participant's recital
6:30 Dinner
8:00-10:30 Master Class (excerpts)
10:30 Refreshments and Tabuteau Stories

There was no free day that year. The famous "Mr. -Mack-Tells-All" reed seminar took place on the final morning, Friday, followed by lunch and departure.

All participants were housed in a pre-World War II wooden frame building, with limited hot water and little or no sound- proofing, hardly designed for the kind of rumpus seventy oboe players can raise. It quickly became necessary to institute a rule: no practicing after midnight, or before the wake-up bell. That took care of the oboe din - though not without some policing by the staff - but of course, when so many human beings of similar interest are suddenly dropped into one place, the discussion does not stop when the classes end, nor for that matter does the party stop after the refreshment hour. The old building had a long porch equipped with many rocking chairs, and these tended to be occupied until very wee hours of the morning.

So the first camp was an intense experience, in many ways. It was also an enormous success. Joe had optimistically called the operation "The First Annual John Mack Oboe Camp" in its announcement brochure, and as it turned out there was never any question but that it would be repeated. It's doubtful though that those involved at the outset believed there would ever be a brochure proclaiming the camp's "11 th Great Year!"


The camp was organized and administered by Joe Robinson for its first three years, until his duties with the Philharmonic took precedence. The director since 1979 has been Pat Grignet Nott, whose gift for organization was already known to many by her association with the Moyse Seminars and other groups. Whether in her capacity as administrator, diplomat, or mother confessor to the young ones, Pat is indispensable.

Pat McFarlandOther changes included the addition of a free day (thank God), a seminar on basic instrument repair by Pat McFarland, a music shop run by Gall Warnaar, and the enrollment of auditors. Mr. Mack's recital format has expanded to include other guest instrumentalists for works such as the Britten Phantasy and his original intention not to repeat himself in camp recital has been scrapped, due both to the limited repertoire and to the fact that most participants prefer to hear familiar works as well as new ones.

A sort of informal network of teaching has arisen too, as many players seek coaching with more experienced participants. Some teachers have been able to use this to good end, to recruit for their schools.

The Reed Doctor is INThe problem of reeds and instruction thereon has undergone much mutation also. Initially Mr. Mack felt that to concentrate on reeds too early in the proceedings would confuse rather than instruct, and the reed seminar was always scheduled toward the end of the week. There occurred during the second camp a sort of spontaneous "reed doctor" session, which was later made official by the posting of a sign-up sheet for individual reed help - six minutes per, in all the cracks before and after classes and meals and so on - with JM doing all the work. Enough is enough, and lately name drawings have been held instead, to give all at least some chance at what little time is left beyond the basic schedule.

That basic schedule has changed, too. Many applicants realized almost immediately that being personally taught in two classes was much more rewarding than being taught only once and then playing a recital, which produced no immediate feedback. Thus, in 1985 there were two additional afternoon classes given in place of recitals, to accommodate all those who had designated etudes and excerpts as their first choices of performance.

Master ClassesTaking the place of the original building are two new hotel-like dorms. Both have porches, and both porches have rockers, and the late night yak sessions go on. Pat McFarland got to know Marsha Alexander during those sessions in 1981, and they were married the next year. So there is a "camp marriage" - there is also a I I camp baby", born to Bruce and Meleah Moss on June 7, 198 1, the opening day of the camp. (Bruce, you'll remember, is our accompanist, much beloved, who as the saying goes can sightread a Chinese laundry list.)

Over the years certain changes have occurred in the makeup of the student body as well. The group as a whole has become more serious and disciplined, preferring to spend the bulk of its energies on learning and performance rather than summer camp shenanigans. This is not to say that there are no more wild bashes - in fact, there seems to be at least one each season. The number of people who show up for breakfast still gets smaller as the week goes on, and a good time is still had by all. New friendships are made and old ones renewed, gossip is swapped and bad jokes told till all hours. But the oboe comes first in the minds of all.

With all the changes, some things remain the same. Four of the number have been in attendance at all ten camps: JM himself, Pat McFarland, Bruce Moss, and Gayle Petrick.

The 10th Annual Camp was held June 16-22, 1985. Participating were 73 players and 14 auditors, more than a full house.



Gayle PetrickThings don't always go right

What makes it special...

A many-faceted question: why is the camp so special? There is of course the man himself, John Mack. Those of you who know him recognize that his dedication to the art and craft of
oboe playing is matched by his relentlessly positive view of the problems it entails, and that
positive nature permeates the atmosphere of the camp. There is also the fact that all denizens of
Wildacres, teachers, professionals, and students alike, perform at one time or another for the
group. This means that everyone is in the same boat, so that no one has cause to feel threatened
or defensive. Or even nervous. To one obviously intimidated young player, Mack said, "If
you're feeling embarrassed, don't bother, because as a result of this experience, you'll
probably fix the problem." It still isn't easy to play in front of all those oboe players, but JM
makes it as easy as possible. One can argue that the real world isn't like that - but maybe if
one's outlook is positive enough, the real world I is like that. A large number of camp alumni
think enough of that notion to give it a shot when they return home.

I requested letters and comments from the 1985 group as input for this article, and what you've read so far reflects greatly the contents of what I received. The themes were strikingly similar. Rewarding, intense, positive, thought provoking, inspiring - words such as these appeared again and again. Several repeat participants spoke of the phenomenal amount of knowledge imparted at each camp, and said that each visit produced even more insight than the last, no small accomplishment in a program of such long standing as this one. Teachers wrote of the wonderful effects of Mack's teaching on their own - what they most admired was his ability to help players of all levels, to home in on problems in the most efficient and constructive way at each level. This matter of levels is important: a number of oboists who attended the camp at ages 14-16 have gone on to prove themselves in conservatories and later in auditions, and many of these regard their experience at Wildacres as the catalyst that began it all. What counts most, however, is not professional ambition so much as the fact that once a year this large and diverse group of oboe players gets together to try to master something which can never truly be mastered; the phenomenon is that nearly all of them leave Wildacres with the feeling that the trying is the real lesson, and that its rewards are more than worth the work.

Perhaps a good way to portray the class atmosphere would be to list a few quotations from over the years. These are in no particular order and are certainly not meant to be allencompassing - they are simply samples, things which were said and quotations which were made by the camp leader in the course of things at Wildacres.

Class of '85


John Mack:

" Having reeds with loose sides in your reed case is like having nitro-glycerine in your basement. "

"A short note is shorter from front to back, but the same from top to bottom."

"The Tchaikovsky 4 solo is like rocking the baby to sleep, only the baby's dead."

"Beethoven's quail is dumb but happy

"Pianists play lots of notes, but they only use one finger per note."

"Play in tune with your own low register."

On articulation: "Allow the tongue to return to the reed, don't strike it."

"Getting there is more important than arriving."

"Support means control over the pressure, not the pressure itself."

"Teaching is close to a sacred duty."

George Szell:

"Notes are like babies; the smaller they are, the more attention they demand. "

"The phrase must sound completely spontaneous, but as the result of meticulous preparation. "

"One four-bar phrase is worth much more than two two-bar phrases."

Refreshments and Tabuteau stories

Marcel Tabuteau:

"Play the notes on the line, don't make the line with the notes."

"A perfectly balanced gouge often cracks right in the middle of the top blade."

"Don't apply a scrape to a reed, scrape it according to its needs."

"Do as you do." (This one requires explanation from JM.)

Stevens Hewitt:

"Like telephone numbers, close is not good enough."

Elaine Douvas:

"I used to think that response in a reed was very important, but now I think it's everything. "

Bert Lucarelli:

"If you practice, it gets better."

These last few are from Silas Franklin Mack, a fine young man of eighty-six years, and a staunch supporter of his son's career throughout. JM speaks of him often while teaching.

"The Dancing Chicken"


"Come home with your shield or on it."

"Deserters will be shot."

And the ever-popular "Never take no for an answer from an inanimate object."

You can see what sorts of gene stock and nurture are involved here.

And so it goes: sometimes tiring, after ten years often repetitious, but always interesting.

Mountains and Music--1976Underlying the hyperactive character of the classes, the rapping, and the fun is the magic of Wildacres itself, a thing difficult to describe. That remote region of the Smokey Mountains teaches lessons of its own - it is a sort of paradise, and one becomes a part of it without effort. The natural beauty of the setting has a calming effect that on the face of it might seem to be at odds with the furious activity of the camp - what in fact occurs is that the nearness to nature becomes mind-expanding of itself, and that enhances both the learning process and one's appreciation of the music involved. "Mountains and music are the nearest thing to God on earth," said Joe Robinson on the occasion of the second camp, and everyone who has spent a week at Wildacres knows the truth of that.

Oh yes, it is special. Whatever one's ultimate opinion of the camp experience, no one can deny that the combination of forces involved make it a rare thing indeed.

The future...

At the close of the '85 camp, Mr. Mack announced that beginning with the second decade (!), changes would be made - in format, content, number of active participants, etcetera. For a number of years, the large (and growing) number of players has made in-depth coaching virtually impossible. The problem as he sees it will be in how to fairly restrict the number who actually perform for the group, and its solution will likely lie in requiring tapes of all applicants. Admitting that this procedure would create problems of its own, he nonetheless believes that a sample etude performed by all would provide a basis for restructuring the classes. As in years past, the age, performance level and experience of each applicant will be duly considered.

So in future camps, look for fewer pieces played by fewer players, with more time allotted in class to each of those who win the right to perform. Other applicants will be invited to audit, and while the auditor's life is comparatively dull, there is a great deal to be learned by simply "being there". Changes in the repertoire of classes is being considered also: many participants have requested the addition of solo works, "monster" etudes, and ensemble coaching. The final decisions on all this are still in the works, and details will be posted at a later date. The hope is that what many, including JM, perceive as stagnation in the format can be corrected, and thus the potential for learning increased.

Mountain view--1985


When Pat Nott and Dan Stolper approached me about writing this article, I felt some trepidation, because I knew that to be complete about ten years of history would be impossible. For instance, time and space prohibit the inclusion of all the "folklore" surrounding an institution like this one; we all have our memories of the place and our stories to tell. To all those of you who responded to inquiries for thoughts, opinions, photos, etc., warmest thanks. Perhaps the editor will agree to a follow-up article eventually, to include what this one has omitted; perhaps it will also be possible to include the effects of whatever innovations occur beginning in 1986. The John Mack Oboe Camp has been an important part of the growth of oboeplaying in this country, and we should all wish for its continued development and success.

Finally, I hope all of you who have been associated with the camp in any way over the years will join me in expressing our gratitude to the Blumenthals and the staff of Wildacres Retreat. Their gift to us cannot be measured.

About the writer...

Elizabeth Camus is a member of the oboe section of the Cleveland Orchestra. She has also played in the orchestras of San Antonio and Atlanta. She has been a participant in the John Mack Oboe Camp for many years.

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