Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Our Sophisticated Scream


In the mid 1960s my friend Tommy Johnson lent me a number of the components for playing electric tuba. The possibilities with the sounds and effects that were available seemed endless. And I could play loud, it was unbelievable how loud I could play; while using only enough air and energy for a very conservative mezzo forte, I was able to play many times louder than I could ever have played on my own power. I never really tried to play at the maximum forte possible, I was afraid for the windows in the house, I was afraid for the neighbors and I was afraid for my ears. I used this equipment several times in the Hollywood studios. For each component that I used: fuzz tone, octave divider, ring modulator, amplifier etc, I was paid a double; I was making money with this toy, but what a toy it was. However, time soon put this fad to rest, but it was great fun while it lasted. Somehow, I was relieved the trend had come to an end, or almost to an end.


Ten years later my good friend Fred Tackett wrote a jazz-rock concerto for tuba and rhythm: electric piano, electric bass, drums and guitar, called Yellowbird. While setting up for the first rehearsal I was surprised when they gave me a mike. Naively, I thought, since I considered myself a powerful symphonic tubist, I wouldn’t need a mike; I learned quickly how wrong I was. When I began to play with the quartet, even though it felt like I was playing I had to admit that I could hear no difference in the sound of the room whether I was playing or not. When I accepted using the mike everything worked.


Is the world making a poco a poco crescendo?


In 1966 I played a radio recital and gave a masterclass in Reykjavík, Iceland. On a free weekend I was invited by the president of the Icelandic Band Association to spend a few days at the home of his in-laws in Reykholtsdalur, a very small village with houses set at great distance apart on the hillsides, overlooking a stream of steamy volcanically heated water that flowed through the center of the sparse community.


My host’s father-in-law was 84 years old and had only been out of Reykholtsdalur once in his life; in 1918 he went to Reykjavík, the capital of Iceland. He left Reykjavík after just a few days to return to Reykholtsdalur because Reykjavík was too hectic for him! To most urbanites in the world, Reykjavík, even today, would appear as a very quiet small town. The old man had never met a foreigner before and even though he had read all the wall-to-wall books in his home in English, French, German and Scandinavian languages, he had never tried to speak anything other than Icelandic until my visit. 


Certainly, Reykholtsdalur is the quietest place I have ever been. When this old man spoke his voice was clear, resonate, full and very very soft; he had never in his life had to speak at a volume that would cut through any peripheral sounds and he probably never had to shout. I’ve never heard a voice like that; he simply never needed to speak any louder.


One year later I spent several days on tour with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra in Sarajevo, which was then a part of the old Yugoslavia. At 4:30 in the afternoons we would hear the powerful and penetrating voices from the minarets of the castrati Muslim sheikhs calling the Muslim community to worship.


It seems mankind will do anything necessary to be heard.


In my conservatory days at the Eastman School of Music the British guitarist Julian Bream came to give a masterclass in the afternoon and a recital in the evening. It was a wonderful masterclass. Not only was Mr. Bream the standard-bearer for the state of the art amongst guitarists, he was also a man of considerable charisma and charm. At the finish of the masterclass several of the Eastman girls asked if I thought Maestro Bream would like to go out after his concert that evening and enjoy a drink or two. “Well, you’ll never know until you ask him”, I said; they did, he seemed very pleased and they made the appointment. Now the girls seemed almost panicked, “Where shall we take him” was the question. After a little conversation they decided to take him to their usual spot, which was called “Al’s Green Tavern”. It was located just on the edge of town and as well as being the frequent “watering hole” for the habitual party people of the Eastman School, it was also the hangout for the tough, pool playing motorcycling types of Rochester; Al’s Green Tavern was a rowdy joint!


Since I had an exam the next day I went home to study for a while and didn’t get to the tavern until a couple of hours later. When I arrived I was a little concerned by the extreme quiet as I walked in; this was not normal. There was no pool playing there was no rowdiness, just an eerie quiet with the attention of the whole pub focused on one corner of the room where Julian Bream sat playing the lute, perhaps the softest and most intimate musical instrument we have. Mr. Bream had calmed the rowdy pub crowd with sonic beauty and musical eloquence; his musical power, stronger than the rock and roll that was normally heard from the jukebox, caused his unique public to make an effort to listen.


I’m not very fond of rock and roll; I try sometimes to understand the text when I can, whether it’s rap, hip-hop or whatever. The social message in the lyrics may be interesting, however, it’s very rare when I can understand them; it’s usually just too loud to discriminate anything subtle…like words. There is one rock and roll group I enjoy very much; Pink Floyd creatively uses dynamic contrasts and consequently becomes a much more powerful musical entity than most rock and roll groups, we hear the text and we hear the sonic beauty. 


Dynamic levels also differ among symphony orchestras. Part of this difference is, of course, the difference in the concert halls. A great hall, like a great violin, has a certain point in the dynamic where the sound becomes enhanced; it generates a feedback, a luster, to the timbre. In some halls, like the Concertgebouw of Amsterdam this point of enhancement happens at a simple mezzo piano, in other halls like Avery Fisher Hall, the home of the New York Philharmonic or Chicago’s Orchestra Hall, home of the Chicago Symphony, this acoustical enhancement doesn’t happen until well into forte or even fortissimo. The Concertgebouw seats 1750 listeners, Avery Fisher Hall seats 2738. If the members of the Concertgebouw Orchestra were to play at the dynamics used in Avery Fisher Hall it would probably sound quite vulgar. The problem for the larger halls is that by the time that point of enhancement is reached in fortissimo the tone quality often becomes forced. This could partially explain why many players are moving to larger equipment; they believe bigger equipment won’t sound forced in extreme fortissimo. 


Throughout history, music has been reflective of our environment, so it’s not difficult to understand why the dynamic, the decibel level today is chronically rising. With rapid population growth and the resulting traffic and urban chaos, with war and an always present threat of terrorism, and with sociological changes that come so quickly, we hardly have time to adjust before they change again, it’s no wonder that the poco a poco crescendo is approaching a frighteningly painful level.


If the poco a poco crescendo continues it’s inevitable we are going to see an inordinate amount of hearing problems in our future; one has to wonder if the extremely high decibels in our environment and our music will affect the evolution of mankind’s hearing mechanism, thus resulting in a development in our tolerance to loud sounds. If that were to happen, would it mean that we would lose our capacity to hear low decibel sounds? In any case it would certainly mean a change in the way we hear.


Is it possible that this high decibel music today for many of us is in reality a sophisticated scream, a visceral reaction to the stresses of our time?


If so, it’s a natural thing. A scream, as well as a call for help can also be a threshold we cross to a clearer state of mind suitable for finding solutions for life’s problems. Is it possible that the intoxicated, anesthetized high decibel bacchanals, (wild intoxicated revelry) in which many of our young people frequently indulge, is part of that sophisticated scream caused by fear of the future, of the unknown? An occasional bacchanal needn’t be a bad thing; like the scream, it could be the first step toward adjusting to the aspect of solution.


Perhaps Julian Bream showed us an alternative to the poco a poco crescendo fifty years ago when he played the lute in Al’s Green Tavern and tamed the rowdy locals into quiet listeners.


And who shall be the first to leave the monstrous power behind, pull the plug and communicate by beauty, elegance and poetry of sound?


Amsterdam, March 1, 2007


Reposted Oaxaca, Mexico, November 17, 2020



Thursday, November 12, 2020

Sonic Genesis

In Japan a fiscal year starts in April; that includes schools, which started April 1 this year. It takes a little getting used to, having spent my whole life counting down for first semesters starting in September. Two days ago I attended the entrance ceremony, (in western schools it’s called a convocation) for the new students.

The ceremony was held in the beautiful Bach Saal, the concert hall on the expansive 111-acre Iruma campus of the Musashino Academy of Music, in Tokyo. The new students, around 500 of them, sat in the hall and the faculty filled the large stage. At the back of the stage was a huge magnificent organ, one of those organs with giant vertical pipes symmetrically displayed across the back wall of the stage and at the center of those pipes was an amazing array of horizontal pipes, shaped like brass instrument bells, facing into the hall only a few meters from where I was seated. Unbeknownst to me this ceremony was to begin with an organ prelude, a very dramatic organ prelude. After the first impact, when my posterior returned to my chair, I happily basked in an amazing and overwhelming emersion of sound. It wasn’t the first such experience for me; it brought back very special memories.

When I was a boy, as far back as I can remember, my family would all get into the 1938 Plymouth every Sunday morning and go into the center part of Los Angeles to the very large church, which my parents attended. I didn’t like church much but I loved the music. Other than the boys choir, which I joined when I was seven years old, I spent most of my time ditching the Sunday school classes and exploring all the many secret passages, rooms and towers that were part of that huge church. Among those secret places I soon discovered the organ pipe room.

I found this pipe room while exploring various hallways in the area behind the front of the sanctuary; I heard the sound, followed it, it was coming from behind a dark colored wooden door, I opened the door, went in and my world changed forever!

It was a new world of tangible, intense and beautiful sounds, from the agile, sparkling, fast moving timbres of the smaller higher pipes to the thundering ear tickling massive beauty of the largest contra bass pipes. It was probably unhealthy and the ear damage possibilities were real, but I had no idea of such things at that time. Certainly it was an extremely high decibel sound for the ears, it was also sound that could be felt in every fiber of my being. I went into that pipe almost every Saturday morning for a whole year, before and after choir rehearsal, when the organist was practicing, until one day I went to that magic door and it was locked. I was never able to enter again. I missed those wonderful weekly encounters with sound. That entrance ceremony at Musashino vividly brought back those memories of sixty years ago.

I also vividly remember it was at that church where, for the first time, I heard live music. My mother and father told me on that crisp cold Christmas time Sunday morning that they had a surprise for me. I was sitting on my father’s shoulders in front of the church when the clarion sounds of a brass choir playing Christmas carols poured down on us from the church tower. I can remember so clearly between pieces, seeing the musicians with those shiny silver and gold instruments looking over the wall from inside the tower down to where the people were standing; how I wanted to see and touch and try and play those instruments! A little more than a decade later that was to be the venue of my first paying job as a tubist. And even today, somewhere in some box stored in someplace in the world I have a copy of those extraordinary arrangements. Maybe someday I will find them.

I wish there was someway I could find the words to formulate the question on a TubaNews poll: “What was your first live music experience, and did it open that magic door for you into the world of music and sound?” There must be many beautiful stories out there that would be fascinating to hear.

April 11, 2006. Tokyo, Japan

Revised November 12, 2020


Friday, October 23, 2020

  1.                                                          Students





When looking back on my musical career and my connection with the tuba, the most gratifying and fulfilling aspect of my 70 years in the tuba business, is seeing the success of my students. Of course, my memories are rich with symphony orchestra concerts, films, television and recordings in the Hollywood studios plus my own solo performances and solo recordings. However, the most significant accomplishments for me were clearly the teaching processes with my students. Leonardo Da Vinci once said, It’s the duty of the student to surpass the teacher; I’m proud to have experienced that several times in my teaching career. It’s also the duty of the teacher to guide the student so that can happen.




A joke that I’ve made in the past is that how angry it makes me to listen to a student who has not studied with me for a long period of time, reappear in my life and sound stunningly better than the last time. The joke continues: How rude for a student to return after years of separation since the last lesson and to sound enormously better. I was thrilled last year when giving a lesson to my old student from twelve years before, Diana Cardona. Diana was a very nice girl (a tubist) I met on the Internet 12 years ago. She came to Japan occasionally to study and four years ago I had the opportunity to teach and to hear her again at the Italian Brass Week in Firenze, Italy. I was happily amazed that she had become a world-class tubist with the tone, technique the power and especially the musicality of a truly fine tubist. 


Diana is a Colombian citizen and she clearly had made the right decision 8 years ago to study in France, the first 2 years in the Conservatoire de Perpignan studying with Harumi Baba the next 2 years in the Conservatoire de Versailles with David Zambon. While communicating with her online for those 5 years I was impressed when she would tell me she usually practiced six hours a day; it abundantly paid off! I feel a little ashamed that I didn’t see that potential 12 years ago but that just points out that the learning process never stops, the teacher must always remain a student. 


I was thrilled this morning when receiving an email from Diana telling me that she had received her Masters degree from Universite de Paris and Consevatoire de Versailles, teaches tuba and euphonium in 3 different conservatoriesies plus conducts a youth band, plays in 2 brass quintets, has 2 symphony orchestra concerts this weekend and will perform Ein Heldenleben with another orchestra next month. This is a remarkable success story considering this is during a time when COVID-19 is causing many musical events to simply come to a stop. At this time and at any time, it’s a very good feeling to see a student successfully making their living centered around music and particularly with the tuba.



Certainly, I will continue to watch Diana Cardona. Subsequent to Diana’s lesson, I was fortunate to have another memorable learning experience. During a week of classes I gave at the at the Zurich Conservatory when Diana came to Zurich to visit and to take a lesson with the maestro Anne Jelle Visser. Not only did I enjoy hearing Diana play again but I was hugely impressed by observing my old friend and student since the early 90s in his present role as the highly successful tuba professor of the Zurich Conservatry.





                      Anne Jelle Visser and Roger Bobo


Naturally, it’s logical that the quality of teaching would also evolve with time; hopefully, that evolution will also surpass that of the teacher. I had the pleasure of observing the Zurich Conservatory tuba professor, 10 year member of the Zurich Opera orchestra and my student of 25 years ago, Anne Jelle Visser, teaching Diana Cardona. There was much more to watching and listening to this lesson than that both teacher and student were part of my teaching history. Anne Jelle Visser has become a true master teacher of the highest level and observing this lesson was a classical learning experience for me, it was the teacher learning from the student. 


There is a visible and audible connection from brass generation to generation and if I have been an influence in this evolution that is always in motion in our unique community, I’m proud and content. Things seem to be developing very well.


I’ve seen my grand students surpassing my students and I hope to live long enough to see my great-grand students surpassing my grand students




August 1, 2015, Firenze, Italia


Revised October 23, 2020, Oaxaca, Mexico




Friday, September 25, 2020



Some people call it edge; some sizzle, and some just call it energy. Many think it’s a bad thing, especially when it’s referred to as ‘edge’ and sometimes that may be correct, but this timbre, with its many names, is an essential enhancement to any brass player’s sonic palette. In seeking one appropriate word that describes this special timbre I have chosen“Friction”; technically it’s the correct word and it doesn’t have the negative connotations that we see in some of the other words used to describe the same thing.


Friction starts when our air passes between the lips and causes the vibrations to travel through the length of the instrument; the longer the instrument, the more friction the smaller the bore size, the more friction. Instrument makers and brass performers have been working for centuries trying to get that ratio just right.


There’s something magical about the high register of a brass instrument when it’s played strongly, we hear it in the sound of the single F horns of the Vienna Philharmonic, we hear it with commercial trumpet players like Harry James, Doc Severinsen and Maynard Ferguson; that’s exciting sound! Sometimes we hear friction in the trombone solo in Ravel’s Bolero when the player uses a smaller bore instrument, of course, if the instrument is smaller friction will start at a lower dynamic.


Frequently, for the sake of security, many players choose to use a higher pitched (shorter) instrument, which in most cases proves to be a prudent decision, but sometimes something is lost by doing this. I have two personal examples that point this out very clearly. In the mid 50s, when I first started to perform the Vaughan Williams Concerto I learned it on a CC tuba and it wasn’t until the late 70s that I started using an F tuba. Of course, the results were better on the F, the Vaughan Williams is written in a tessitura that is far more idiomatic for F tuba. But in the Romanza, the 2nd Movement, I missed the friction I was accustomed to on the CC, it sung, it projected and it had a rich intensity. I had a similar experience with the Encounters ll by William Kraft; the power and drama I could get on the CC tuba just wasn’t there when I relearned it on the F. The very thought of the Bolero trombone solo played on an alto trombone would be a very clear example of the same situation; the excitement would just be gone.


Perhaps the Vienna Philharmonic, with their tradition of playing everything on single F horns, is one of the best examples of friction. Everyone agrees that is an absolutely exciting sound, which usually functions beautifully. Now the question is evident; is it better to play a higher pitched (shorter) instrument, Bb horn instead of F for example, for security issues? It’s a very personal decision that needs to be made by every player, and every section for every situation.


And a more polarizing question is the option of changing to instruments of different bore sizes in order to achieve the quality of friction. Again, this is very personal. Concert halls also have a huge influence on friction. Most players try to achieve friction in some way and many times that way is simply by playing louder. The dynamic level that results in friction is very influenced by the halls we play in. The New York Philharmonic performing in Avery Fischer Hall with sometimes problematic autistics has to play at a very loud dynamic to achieve friction, while the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, playing in the extraordinary Concertgebouw, can achieve the effect of friction at a much softer dynamic and therefore is able to use equipment considerably smaller than New York.


Friction is an aspect of brass playing that many players fear, especially when we refer to it as “edge”. It exists in all instruments including voice and it’s a powerful and essential tool in music making. Too much of it is ugly and too little is boring, but when it’s just right it’s beautiful.


Tokyo. Japan, October, 2007 

Revised, Oaxaca, Mexico, September, 2020