Monday, June 25, 2012

Enlightenment in BBb

I was fifteen; it would have been 1953, when I made the change from BBb to CC tuba. It seemed like I had been liberated, the response was quicker, the tone was clearer, the low register was actually better and, of course, the high register was much easier; it was simply more fun to play and I never looked back. Around the same time my good friend Tommy Johnson made the same change. We would talk to each other about our fantastic discovery and how we felt sorry for those players that were still struggling with the encumberments of BBbs. During the next years we watched as most tubists made similar changes and little by little CC tubas became the contrabasstubas of choice by most tubists in the United States.

It was in the 60s and 70s that several America tubists with CC tubas started winning positions in European orchestras and many more were pursuing positions in Europe. Very quickly the tuba communities in Austria and Germany began requiring tubists to play BBb tubas for all auditions. Of course, deductive reasoning led one to the conclusion that the German school tubists were using this requirement to assure that only German school tubists would win the jobs. Certainly to some degree that was true but there was more to it than just that.

I have been in many situations through the last five decades when I’ve had the opportunity to listen and compare the sounds of the CC and BBb tubas and in every occasion I have favored the CC but in light of an experience I had recently in Detmold, Germany, while giving a masterclass at the Conservatory, I have to face that I may have maintained that same kind of prejudice and dogma on behalf of CC tubas that I have accused the Germans of having for BBbs.

In an ensemble masterclass my colleague professors and I heard a five trombone and tuba ensemble playing an arrangement of a Bruckner piece. The Meinl Weston 195 Fafner 4/4 BBb tuba that was used was strikingly rich, clear, gloriously beautiful and exactly the right instrument for that music; it was instantly obvious that there was a valid use for a BBb tuba that I had not seen before, further it was clear if I still had a few years of symphony orchestra work ahead of me I would feel a strong need to have such a tuba. My colleague Anne Jelle Visser, a CC tuba oriented player with the Zurich Opera and who shared this enlightening experience with me has subsequently ordered two of these tubas, one for the Zurich Conservatory and one for the Zurich Opera Orchestra. If I played in a symphony orchestra I would probably not use it more that 5% of the time but those times when I needed it I would have to have it.

There is another issue of hard realism here: If we tubists want to be like our trumpet playing colleagues and own several instruments in all keys and sizes for all occasions, we would either have to be rich or have generous benefactors, such as orchestras or conservatories to possess all these instruments. Economics is a factor in all our lives but as artists it should at least not let that limit our thinking and our vision.

However, I try to imagine the reaction of a symphony tour manager while being informed that for the next tour we will need to carry four of five instruments or filling my personal vehicle with all the instruments I might need for a studio job! Sometimes it’s tough to be a tubist.

Tokyo, May 6, 2009

Revised June 26, 2012, Tokyo