Thursday, September 17, 2009

Is it a Woman's Brass World?

Women have been active in the brass instrument world since the time I first started playing (a long time ago). But the frequency that they appear today definitely shows an enormous increase. Two days ago it was my pleasure to listen to exactly 50 freshman brass students play their exams at the Musashino Academia Musicae in Tokyo. Very early in the day it became apparent that a huge majority of these students were women; in fact, it was exactly 75% women and it was true of all the instruments; trumpet, horn, trombone, basstrombone, euphonium and tuba, plus in one of these instrument groups it was abundantly clear that nine women of the twelve players were hugely superior to the three men. (Perhaps that’s another discussion.)

Why this huge shift in the man woman ratio? Here in Japan many believe that because of the intense competitive circumstances of music performance as a profession, men are simply more attracted to venture into different fields where employment offers much greater chances for a secure income. Women, however, at least Japanese women, seem to show contentment moving into music related fields such as teaching. Many fine Japanese women brass players are happily living in their home towns teaching children; this is a good thing, it starts young players out at a very high level and therefore influences the rapidly growing level of brass playing throughout the whole country, which is strikingly impressive.

It’s interesting to point out that a similar situation existed in the middle of the last century in the United States. Many men considered a career in one of the military bands as a poor alternative to successfully playing professionally as a civilian, now a position in one of these bands is considered prestigious and secure.

In that same period of the last century women brass players correctly saw themselves as a minority group and as a minority group many organizations began to appear with the intension of correcting the prejudice that clearly existed toward women. Many, most, symphony orchestras throughout the world simply didn’t allow women as well as the military bands and throughout general musical work place. Most notable among these organizations was the International Woman’s Brass Congress, which met once every year and impressively demonstrated that women were by no means less good brass players than men.

Similarly, many extremely good women’s brass groups began to immerge into the musical world and many of them, taking advantage of their femininity, cleverly and successfully marketed themselves; this is not a bad thing, as well as creating a market, they proved again that women are at least equal to men. Although today the situation for woman brass players has largely corrected itself the International Woman’s Brass Congress is still visible and active and enjoys a high level of respect from the entire world brass community.

But there is another aspect to this discourse; there are differences between women and men. That beast that we homo sapiens once were certainly still exists in our DNA and in our basic characters. The males of the species were the hunters and warriors while the females were the domestics, the bearers of children and the nurturers of the communities; those differences still live within us. Personally speaking, as a young player I could definitely feel a difference in the atmosphere when a woman or women began to appear in the brass section and for the most part it was a clearly positive difference, and that same difference is still evident for me when even one woman is in a class.

This difference is more difficult to explain. Music encompasses many polarities, aggressive and passive, happy and sad, visceral and intellectual, and of course, masculine and feminine; it seems to me those polarities are more easily realized when the collective music making is made up of both genders.

I consider myself a clear thinking modern man with no gender prejudices, our musical community is a better place when it is made up of both men and women, but as a small codetta to this article, I have to admit to one flaw in my social evolution; I found it very difficult to feel at ease when my orchestra had a female conductor. It was a new thing then, and I left orchestra life before it became popular; I’m sure, will, I hope, I would have adjusted. I am completely sure that the modern symphony musician will have to be comfortable with women conductors.

September 18, 2009, Tokyo, Japan.

Monday, September 14, 2009

A Photo of Vaughn Williams and Me

One of my most valued possessions was a photograph taken in 1954 of me and Dr. Ralph Vaughan Williams at a reception at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) after a lecture he had just given.

Moving to a new location is difficult whether it’s a mile away or 10,000 miles away and packing up all one’s belongings and determining where they should go is dramatic; which pile to throwaway, store, giveaway or take? Mistakes are always made. I left 13 boxes of stuff I couldn’t throw away in my sister’s garage in Los Angeles in 1989 when I left for Europe; after thirteen years she asked if I would please come and get them. I had a student that lived in LA pack them up in a crate, call the movers and send them to me in Lausanne, Switzerland where they sat, still unpacked for another five years. When my good friends Todd and Rose came to help me pack for the move to Japan, I was embarrassed when after opening the boxes that had been closed for 17 years, I felt I couldn’t part with their contents!

Not only were we packing for my move to Japan, we were looking through all my possessions in the world for my cherished photograph of Vaughan Williams and me.

I was fifteen and a half, I had read about the tuba concerto in Time magazine and had tried everything to get a copy of it. I even wrote a letter to the Library of Congress and received a letter that read something like this:

Dear Roger Bobo,

We have no record of a Concerto for Tuba by Ralph Vaughan Williams and you can be sure that if a composer of the stature of Ralph Vaughan Williams had written a tuba concerto we would know about it.

Good luck in your musical studies.

Library of Congress, Music Department

I heard about his lecture at UCLA, went to it and crashed the reception afterward to meet him. He was a very nice and kind man, he was also completely deaf; Beethoven could not have been deafer! During the lecture he would play musical examples and he had to have somebody tell him when the music had stopped; well almost completely deaf, as his wife, Ursula served as his ears. She was a wonderful woman with a piercing sonic laser beam voice that was able to penetrate his poor hearing.

I waited my turn in the reception line and when I introduced myself and spoke about the tuba concerto Ursula Vaughan Williams translated. “RALPH, THIS YOUNG MAN IS A TUBIST AND HE WOULD LIKE TO KNOW HOW TO GET A COPY OF THE CONCERTO”. Of course everyone in the room was looking by then. I was no longer the low profile boy who crashed the reception. Dr. Vaughan Williams put his arm around my shoulder and told me that the music was being edited at the time and as soon as it was finished he would have the Oxford University Press send me the first copy. While he was talking to me Mrs. Vaughan Williams took a picture of us. I gave them my address and went home and waited.

About a month later I received a copy of the photograph Ursula Vaughan Williams had taken and a note from her saying that they hadn’t forgotten about me and that they expected the edited version to be ready soon. I framed the photo, hung it in my room and waited for the music; it took more than half a year before it came. It arrived rolled up in a tube and when I opened it, “Sent At The Request of Dr. Vaughan Williams”, was printed on the cover. Within minutes after receiving the music it was on my stand and I was trying to play it. It was high! The fact is that I essentially learned how to play the tuba by that piece and little did I know that I would perform that concerto more that 70 times during my career. One of those performances was with the London Philharmonia in 1964 with Joseph Horowitz conducting, it was a good performance, the reviews were very good and best of all Ursula Vaughan Williams was at the performance; seeing her there was a wonderful moment.

Todd, Rose and I spent the better part of a week looking for that picture; while packing for the move to Japan we went through every page of every book, every piece of music and everything looking for it. I know I put it someplace special so that I would never lose it, but I don’t remember where. Or I gave it to someone to keep it for me but I don’t remember who. Very sadly, I think it’s gone forever, however, if ever it miraculously appears you can be sure it will become very visible very quickly.

Lausanne, December 4, 2005

Roger Bannister and the Four Minute Mile

Although this article was first published in June 1004 I feel it’s message is just as applicable to today. Enjoy


The following letter was received by email on June 27, 2004 in Tokyo, Japan.

Dear Mr. Bobo,

If you get this, this is the tuba player from North Carolina named Kory Faison. I'm just writing to tell you that my journey is about to begin. I told my brother that I was going to be the best tuba player in the world, hands down, but he doesn't believe me. I'll be auditioning for 5 music schools my senior year in high school, but I'm going to take the time now until then to find and perfect my solos. Have you ever heard of ''Dream of a Witches' Sabbath''? Well, if you choose to read this, I've finally proven that I'm one of the best here in North Carolina, but now it's time to prove it to the world. If you're still around in about 10 years, I will be the best tuba in the world, hopefully and I hope that you'll be proud to see that a small town boy has achieved the highest level of success. So, I hope we will meet, eventually.


Kory Faison

Thank you for your letter Kory.

It's strange to have received your letter in my email inbox the very day I planned on starting this essay.

I sincerely hope that you will realize your tuba playing goals, that we will meet someday and that I will still be around. I remember very clearly a letter I wrote to William Bell a very long time ago, when I was in my early teens, which was much the same as your letter to me is today. But I wonder if you know who William Bell was? William Bell was the daddy, well, let's change that to granddaddy, or is it greatgranddaddy of all American tubists. You see, the generations of tubists are not the same as regular generations, by my observations through the 54 years of my tuba awareness; a tuba generation is about every ten years, and as each of these ten-year tuba generations passes into the next I am absolutely amazed at how the level of playing and musicianship improves.

About the same time that I wrote that letter to William Bell, it might have been 1950, I was quite interested in sports, particularly swimming as a competitor and track and field as a spectator; it was a great thrill for me to see world records fall and to see the track and swimming times getting faster and faster. One of my heroes in that period was the Australian mile runner Roger Bannister; he was the man whom the world thought would break the seemingly unachievable goal of the 'four-minute mile'. The world watched as Roger Bannister trained and prepared his strategy for his record breaking run; finely the news came that he had done it. It was a milestone (pun unintended) in track history. Today a four-minute mile is still a very good time but there are hundreds of college and even high school runners that can do it.

When I was a young man, the composer William Kraft, wrote a very fine and special piece for me called Encounters #2; it was considered extremely difficult at that time, and I had heard it said that I was the only person who could play it. If that was true it was only true for a short time; today you can frequently hear it played by high school and college players. I enjoy very much watching this happen.

But, Kory, I'm troubled by one thing; how far can it go? How fast will it be possible for a man to run a mile, will we ever see a limit? And in our tuba community will we continue to excel at the same unbelievable rate that we've seen so far? Of course, I want to believe we can but when we look at the evolution of more traditional instruments like the violin, for example, we don't see the continuing remarkable growth that is presently visible in the tuba. We see generation after generation of remarkable violinists, but we do not see the expansion of the technical capacities any more. Rather we see their ability to express their musicality, their musical soul, and their musical personality. Today, when we listen to the international competitions for tuba we begin to hear the same thing, the same growing ability to project a musical atmosphere. Everybody in these competitions has an extraordinary technique; it's the music they make that makes them winners!

Your goal to become the world's greatest tubist is a noble one, but there are a few things you should know as you begin this quest. First, please keep in mind that there are other young men and women your age that have the same goal. It's very much like the Olympics, not every athlete can win a gold medal. However, the performance of these athletes is enhanced by the energy they receive from their competitors; don't forget that.

There are three pieces of advice I would like to offer as you set off on this tuba quest:

        Become part of the extraordinary tuba community; read the magazines and books, join the associations, attend every masterclass and symposium that you can so that you will know what's happening in the tuba world, and listen; listen to every CD, recital and concert possible. Be aware of every aspect of this tuba world that you are entering.

        Remember that this tuba community is only a small part of the much bigger and richer musical community; look beyond the tuba, look far beyond the tuba world.

        And, be your own teacher. I'm sure you have a great teacher but he or she is your second most important teacher; you are number one! It is fun to think about the things you want in a teacher; let me start your list for you: Good musician, intelligence, kind, wise, patience, perseverance, and please don't forget a good sense of humor. Use the learning tools you have: metronome, tuner, and I hope you have and use a minidisk so you can play something and instantly hear it back. We hear things differently when we hear ourselves without the horn in our hands!

Just one more thing; the experience you'll have in pursuing your quest for the next ten years will probably be more important in your life than achieving your goal of becoming the greatest tubist. Enjoy this time.

So Kory, I wish you luck in this journey, and I look forward to that meeting in ten years.

I'll be around...

Tokyo, June 30, 2004

Sunday, September 06, 2009

E Lesson Logistics

The organization of e lessons has turned out to be more difficult than I originally imagined; I have encountered misunderstandings regarding time zone differences, sound quality problems and a high percentages of cancelations, all seemingly for legitimate reasons. However, even with all these problems I believe the time for successful e lessons, music lessons, has come and that it will become a normal and workable medium. I would like to try once more to organize a schedule of these lessons.

For those interested I propose three steps:
1.        An interview between the prospective student and me via Skype, to get to know each other and evaluate our compatibility.

2.        A trial lesson to hear the potential student, and to find the optimum sound quality.

3.        And to create a meeting time for the first lesson.

My lesson fee here in Japan is $150 per lesson, I plan on initially charging $100 per e lesson, which would be paid through PayPal.

Anyone interested in setting up an interview please contact me a
Please note the time differences and calculate a mutually convenient meeting time:
North America;
Eastern daylight time is 13 hours behind Japan time.
Central daylight 14 hours
Mountain daylight time 15 hours
Pacific daylight time 16 hours
British daylight time 7 hours
Central European daylight time 6 hours
Ease European daylight time 5 hours

For other countries please calculate the time difference.

I look forward to hearing from you and setting up a time to talk.

Roger Bobo, Tokyo