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Lessons with William Kincaid: The Early Years at Curtis

Charles Wyatt | January 2012

   I can remember easily my audition with William Kincaid. The common room had never seemed so dark and elegant – then up the stairs after a nervous wait sitting on the edge of a comfortable upholstered chair. I entered a paneled room with a music stand in the middle and a white-haired florid-cheeked man I was almost afraid to look at. I did, and he made a terrifying situation almost comfortable. 

   For the first two years my lessons had a very stable pattern. There were steadying whistle tones, and then the Maquarre Daily Exercises. These were memorized, and I still play them for comfort. I have a notebook I made for my first year: scales in three octaves which seem based on Taffanel & Gaubert. I can’t remember if I had something to copy or if they were dictated to me. The scales and Praeludium dominant 7th exercises were dated October 5. (Curtis started rather late in the fall to correspond with the Philadelphia Orchestra Season.) Thirds and sixths exercises are dated October 12. The pattern covers three octaves. (See Patricia George’s Free Downloads for Praeludium and Thirds and Sixths Exercise
   On October 19 I began a pattern of diminished, minor, and major triads. For October 26 I have written out the Praeludium dominant 7th exercise with dynamics. The final note begins forte, and there is a diminuendo for ten beats. My notes say the following: “From forte to pianissimo, pucker slightly so to allow the air speed to remain constant and keep pitch from falling. Relax corners of mouth to pucker – relax more than seems possible.”
   November 2, I have written, “Learn the two whole tone scales in thirds and sixths – it doesn’t pay to practice excessively with a weak lip.” I practiced myself into a corner on several occasions. Kincaid always calmly talked me down. I’ve never known such patience in a teacher.
   But not always. One lesson I remember he hadn’t finished with the student scheduled before me. This didn’t usually happen. They were working on the ending of a movement in a Bach sonata. The student couldn’t seem to get the ritard right. He would play it too slow or too fast. I wanted to help, but I knew I had better pretend to be invisible. They went on for another ten minutes, Kincaid’s exasperation increasing with the student’s inability to get the point. Finally, the student was excused, packed up and left. Kincaid seemed to notice me for the first time. “It’s not always easy,” he said. 
   On November 9 I had written a B major triad in the third octave with a note to play the high F# with the middle finger or “use regular F# and press down both trill keys for high B.”
   “Practice this interval (Eb6 to Ab6)) with nothing in between – play flautando.” Flautando was a word I heard a lot. He almost always used it when he thought I was working too hard at the sound. When in doubt, try to sound like a flute. Under that same November 9 date, I have written “Learn Maquarre No. 2.” Kincaid surprised me in a lesson by asking me to play whole tone scales in thirds. I did better than I expected.
   April 15 entry, “Vibrato should be within sound – (will come naturally?) not like this” with two drawings, the first with squiggly lines representing the vibrato inside two parallel lines, and then for the example to be avoided, the squiggly lines exceeding the boundary of the parallel lines.
   April 22: “Vibrato can be controlled by keeping open throat, and I think a larger sound will result.”
   July 17: “Air column from diaphragm has two points of control – at bottom and at the lips. Low register can be made to speak by using more air from the diaphragm rather than tightening the throat.”
   Obviously I became interested in vibrato issues that spring. I certainly wasn’t having lessons in July. I spent that summer as a counselor at a music camp in upstate New York, a job Kincaid suggested to me. I think Kincaid’s position on vibrato can be summed up in the phrase I put in parentheses and then added a question mark to: (will come naturally). He wanted me to stop worrying about it.
   In student recitals I played the Benedetto Marcello Sonata in F that I had played along with Kincaid’s recording back in the days before Curtis. On that same recital I also played the Prokofiev Flute Sonata and could hear the director of the school Efrem Zimbalist (who was quite deaf) saying loudly from the balcony that he did not like modern music. For my graduating recital I played the Bach B minor Suite with the student orchestra. Did William Smith conduct? I can’t recall, but I do know that a cellist who had missed our rehearsal plowed through spots in the Polonaise where he was supposed to pause for me to breathe. Then I played the Ibert Concerto with a pianist who was the real star of the show, covering all of the notes in the piano reduction.
   In our first year Kincaid conducted the wind class where we played quintets and larger ensembles in a genteel atmosphere. When Kincaid began having health problems, John de Lancie, principal oboe in the Philadelphia Orchestra, took over the class. De Lancie was to become the director of Curtis in later years.
   John de Lancie took a long time tuning us. When it was my turn to play the A, he wanted me to play it softer. Again and again he had me play the tuning note until the quality and timber was just to his liking. Then he struck the tuning bar. I was a quarter tone flat! Sometimes we spent the whole class tuning. Tuning in lessons was more fun as I was allowed to play with a full tone. The idea was to play the A and make the tuning bar ring sympathetically.
   I don’t have notes for the lessons which followed that first year. By that time, I was on track with the fundamentals his other students already understood. In those days, most of Kincaid’s students began taking lessons from John Krell, the piccolo player in the Philadelphia Orchestra and learned the “Kincaid fundamentals” from him. I didn’t have that opportunity, but I did take some lessons from him after I got out of the service and was playing in the Peninsula Music Festival in Door County, Wisconsin, where John had a summer home. 
   Early in my second year at Curtis, an event took place which caused a great deal of soul searching. I had been taking a creative writing class at the University of Pennsylvania and the teacher arranged for me to have a meeting with a visiting writer, the poet and playwright Archibald MacLeish. MacLeish told me he was impressed with my writing and suggested that the best training for a poet was a liberal education at a college like Harvard or Yale. Briefly, I considered transferring to Harvard, a school that had accepted me when I graduated from high school. I had a talk with Kincaid about the situation before one of my lessons. Kincaid told me that he had the greatest respect for poetry and for that art as a calling. Then he looked me in the eye and said he would like for me to stay at Curtis. I did, of course. There hasn’t been a more exciting time in my musical life since those years and I realized how much they meant to me even then. It was William Kincaid, as much as any of my writing teachers, however, who instilled the respect and admiration I have for the art and craft of poetry. 
   For example, I think Kincaid enjoyed exercising his vocabulary on me. When I played a passage in the low register which seemed tight and unsupported, he chided me for my lugubrious tone. When I came back from a summer at Aspen for my third year at Curtis, I had been practicing many hours in the thin air at a considerable altitude. Kincaid immediately remarked that I should do something about my frank tone – he did not say I was playing too loud. Finally, when he wanted me to play an impressive diminuendo, he told me to imagine the sound as ever diminishing concentric circles, not dimming, but spinning away into nothingness.