Saturday, June 30, 2012


However many brass, woodwind and vocal teachers there are, there are that many theories, philosophies or methods for teaching how to breath; many of them work, however, many of them act in contradiction to nature and the natural flow and beauty that are essential in music. Breathing should be part of the music, but frequently we see it as a contorted fragment of time when the music stops and the performer refills his power supply (air) to restart.

We are an analytical, technically orientated culture; we need to know how things work. While it’s very interesting to know the ins and outs of pulmonary function, sometimes the benefits of that knowledge are dubious; frequently, our preoccupation with how breathing works interferes with our music making. Breathing should be natural and organic to the music and most if the time we find that the music also needs to breathe.

48 years ago in 1957, when I was playing with the Rochester Philharmonic, the orchestra was rehearsing the Strauss Oboe Concerto. Robert Sprenkle, one of my heroes from my conservatory days and the first oboist with the Rochester Philharmonic, was the soloist. There is no tuba in the Strauss Oboe Concerto so I went into the hall of the Eastman Theater and sat down to listen. The very long and lyric opening was wonderful; it was dynamic, beautifully phrased, perfect intonation, profoundly musical and the long, typically Straussian phrase was unbroken because of Mr. Sprinkle’s circular breathing; why was I getting uncomfortable? I was just a nineteen year old boy listening to one of my mentors making beautiful music, who was I to be uncomfortable? I remembered that moment for many years and it wasn’t until much later at another performance of the Strauss Oboe Concerto that I was able to understand what had bothered me. The circular breathing and the unbroken phrase were unnatural, the music itself needed to breath.

Too frequently, we tubists, while trying to continue a phrase when there are no rests written, actually result in distorting the rhythm. In 1968 I got a call from my old student, Mel Culbertsen, who was playing tuba for the Hague Philharmonic Orchestra in The Netherlands. He had just won the position with the Paris Opera Orchestra and needed a replacement in The Hague immediately. He asked if I had any students who might be ready. I told him I had one and he asked that he make a tape and send it immediately, which he did. Ten days later I got another call from Mel and he said, “You’re not going to believe this”, at which time he began playing several of the audition tapes for me over the phone. It was the famous “audition passage” from the Meistersinger Overture. All five versions that he played for me were seriously distorted rhythmically because the players were holding the half note tied to the eighth note all the way through the eighth note, then taking the breath and continuing with the following three eighth notes, which were, of course, late; the whole passage was almost in 9/8 time! Fortunately, my student didn’t do that and consequently won the job.

Think about that: If there is no rest and you play a note it’s full value, then take a breath and start the next note, that note will be late, The time of the breath must always be calculated and taken from the preceding note. If the players that had sent those tapes to The Hague had played the half note, taken the breath on the third beat, those next three eighths would have been on time! The happy surprise here is that the music sounds better with those breaths; the music needs to breath too.

Breathing, is part of the music, it needs to be planned as part of the music and specifically as part of the rhythm. Far more important than our seemingly chronic questions on how to breath, is the question of where to breath; many of the “breathing problems” we encounter simply disappear when we make the decisions where the breath should be. ‘Where to breathe’ is a musical decision and it’s clear the biological function of breathing works much more naturally when it is integrated as part of the music.

There are three simple rules regarding breathing that we need to be conscious of:

1.            While performing, just as in just day-to-day living, the movement of the air should be constant; many of the breathing problems players develop come from the habit of taking a breath and holding it before we start a note. For best results both musically and biologically the air should be in motion at all times whether inhaling or exhaling.

2.            We need to remember it takes more air to play in the lower register. In fact, at the same dynamic, each octave down takes twice the air as one octave above. If middle C on the piano, the tuba’s high C, takes four liters of air per minute at mf, an octave lower takes eight liters. One octave lower, our low C, takes sixteen liters and pedal C takes thirty-two liters per minute. Although we all know the low register takes more air it’s surprising how many players forget this while playing!

3.            Whenever possible we should play within the first 66% of our air capacity; the last third of our air is never as stable as the first two thirds. As tubists we may have to go into that last third occasionally but we should make an effort to minimize it. Taking a deep full breath every time we breath is the best way to be sure we are in the first 66% as much as possible.

A forth rule could possibly be called musical breathing or perhaps rhythmic breathing. It’s not only a question of where to breathe and when to breathe but also the duration of the breath. Depending on the tempo, the breath could be through an eighth note or a quarter note. For example: If an entrance comes on the first beat of a 4/4 measure, the entrance will probably be more beautiful if the breath is taken through the preceding fourth beat. Further, if an entrance comes on the second half of the third beat, taking a breath on the second half of the second beat will set the rhythm; the music actually starts before we hear any sound.

Of course, it’s useful and very interesting to know how breathing works but there is a very real danger when we begin to be preoccupied with its function. When breathing is calculated and organized as part of the music it is amazing how naturally things work.

Tokyo, Japan, May 5, 2006
Revised November 8, 2008
Revised again June 30, 2012, Tokyo

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Choosing an Instrument

Every story is different when we tell how we chose the instrument we play; it’s almost a magical thing and that choice affects us for the rest of our lives. The way we view music and even life itself is very different if we see it from the viewpoint of a flutist or as a tubist, certainly, one is not better than the other but the difference it makes in the way we perceive the musical world we are entering is enormous.

One of the most fascinating questions a musician can ask himself is: Are we the way we are because of the instrument we chose or did we chose our instrument because of the way we are? I’m still working on the answer to that question. And there is also another very interesting question: Has the instrument you play changed your life?

But after that magical time when we chose which instrument we want to play comes another equally important choice; which instrument, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, euphonium or tuba do you want to buy? Now the question is less magical, less esoteric. It has to do with our level of musical performance and it has to do with economics. We must make a good decision.

I have a good friend, a very well known brass teacher, who has an excellent student who just went out and bought a new instrument… without trying different instruments or asking advice from his teacher. He ended up buying a rebuilt instrument that looked beautiful, but was stiff and stuffy, which frankly didn’t sound nearly as good as the old school instrument that he was replacing and cost more than some of the new instruments that are available on the market! My friend is agonizing as to what he should do now to help the unfortunate student.

Let’s take a look at the obvious; He can’t say to the student that his new horn is terrible, that he sounded much better on his school’s old horn, which he was using before. He can’t say that the price he paid was extraordinarily inflated. What can this teacher do?

I have heard this student, my friend, his teacher, is very proud of him and we both deeply feel the frustration; this young player is at the high point of his learning capacity and we both agree that his progress will be severely retarded because of this purchase. Without a doubt the student will sooner or later come to realize that buying that instrument was a very sad mistake and that he will have to find a way to correct it. Buying any instrument at today’s prices is a very scary thing and saying that we need to be careful is a huge understatement; but how can we protect ourselves and be sure of making a good decision?

Of course, that prevailing question of what type of instrument we need will always be present. However, once those basic decisions are made and we are test-playing an instrument that we may consider buying, how to test-play it is something we need to think about very seriously.

  In the various venues where I have taught, whether permanent or just a master class of a few days, I have always tried to discuss and simulate the process of choosing (test-playing) an instrument. I would like to offer a few suggestions that might be the best and safest way to pick any instrument, woodwind or brass that you will probably be using for a number of years.

1.         Try to define as much as possible what you want the instrument for. Should it be an all-round instrument that would serve you well for symphony, band, small ensembles, solos, jazz etc. or should it be more of a specialty instrument. In any case, try and have a clear idea in your mind of what you want.

2.         Choose a reasonable reed or mouthpiece and use the same one throughout the testing.

3.         Test the instrument with people you trust listening; use their feedback to help you in formulating your own opinions.

4.         Try as many instruments as possible.

5.         Be patient; take your time even if it takes you a few weeks to be sure.

6.         Do not allow yourself to be pressured by the salesman or anyone who might profit from you buying a certain instrument.

7.         Ask if you can take the instrument that interests you most for a few days and try it in your personal musical environment.

8.         It’s very easy to get confused when we try a large number of instruments. Use some kind of organized testing form to help you keep track of all the different instruments you’ve tried; sometimes it is useful to let your listeners fill the form while you are test playing.

9.         Choose specific passages for the various aspects you are testing, middle, low and high registers, loud soft etc. and play the same passages on each instrument.

10.    Finally, play music! See how the instrument responds to your style.


Choosing the instrument you will probably be using for many years is a very important step in your musical life. We are blessed today with a rich market full of wonderful instruments; try as many of them as possible, educate yourself as to what is available, and avoid extremes. Be careful and take your time.

Below is an example of a testing form that I organized for tuba; it would not be difficult adapt this testing sheet for any wind instrument. The important thing is to keep a clear memory of what you’ve tested and your impressions of them.

February 3, 2006, Kyoto, Japan

Revised June 28, 2012, Tokyo

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

Friday, June 22, 2012

Embouchure is a verb

“Embouchure: noun
Music: the way in which a player applies the lips to the mouthpiece of a brass or wind instrument.”

So the dictionary states! However, lips alone are useless without air to generate a vibration, but how that air meets and passes through the lips has almost infinite possibilities. The calibration between the lips and air is almost a spiritual thing; it’s a matter of thought and result. It’s our human nature to analyze but for the embouchure, analyses will never be sufficient. Second only to breathing, there is a sad history of lasting problems caused by embouchure hyper analyzation. Let’s just say embouchure, in the modern meaning, is the air meeting the lips, and the way that that air meets the lips. Embouchure then, is a verb!

The embouchure is an active thing, it is in constant flux as we change registers and dynamics, and as we play music, the aperture, air pressure and flow rate (cubic liters per minute) are all in perpetual adjustment. Similarly, we can analyze speech in the same way, the movement of air meeting the larynx, creating the vibration and the subsequent manipulation of our tongue and oral cavity to create vowels and consonants. Still, our analyses will not help us to speak better, not to mention successfully reading Shakespeare.

The lips and the air movement are a collective and active function in brass playing that cannot be separated. It’s very similar to a hose with a nozzle; adjusting the nozzle itself is useless without also adjusting the water pressure. If we want to make a 3 meter arch of water that is smooth and non-turbulent, not a spray, not a dribble, we must adjust the nozzle, AND the water pressure until we get the 3-meter non-turbulent spout that we want. If we want to change to a 5-meter spout we have to recalibrate both the nozzle and the water pressure. It’s quite the same making a tone on a brass instrument except the adjustment is constant and fluid. The mix between our lip tension and air volume is what determines the tone quality, dynamic and register. Further, how quickly the water reaches, how fast the water is turned on and its impact with the nozzle would correlate to articulation.

That’s a lot to think about, in fact, it would be impossible to keep all those aspects of delivering air to the lips in our consciousness as we play. Imagine, for example, carrying an extremely full bowl of water across a room and not spilling a drop; how can you do this? (Please See "WATERSLOSH" on You can say to yourself “I’m going to keep my wrist and arm rigid so that there won’t be any spilling; I going to walk slowly and if I see the water is going to spill to the left I will tilt the cup to the right to compensate and visa versa: This would probably leave many wet spots on the floor. Or you can just walk carefully using your instincts. You will probably spill no water at all.

It’s very much the same while playing: You can take a breath, tighten your lips to exactly the correct tension, tongue it exactly in the right place, use exactly the right amount of air, and if you are out of tune you can lip the note up or down, this will probably leave a lot of missed notes on the way! Or you can use your ears as a reference and play instinctively. Most likely you will play well!

And once again we arrive at the same conclusion; chronic analyzing gets in the way. Listening is the only way to control these micro adjustments that are necessary for a fluid embouchure.

In all aspects of brass playing as we develop our playing tool chest, it’s our ears that determine the final adjustments and the final results.

February 8, 2007, Tokyo, Japan

Revised June 23, 2012, Tokyo, Japan

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Art and Income

Art and Income quickly proved to be a weak, narrow and incomplete premise for the subject I wanted this essay to address, but maybe it’s a good start. Perhaps economic hard times can serve as nourishment for the creative force, but not always. That grist for the creative mill necessary for the traction of progress takes many forms: competition, economics, family, love, and health or just about any other aspect of life that we allow to become obsessive. What would Shakespeare have been without the tensions of love, or Hemingway and Mahler without their obsession with death?

There is a huge difference in the artistic product between what comes easily and what takes the action of work. We can see that in the history of our civilizations on this planet. Those civilizations where life was easy simply didn’t evolve; why should they, when the most demanding thing in life is reaching up to pick a banana? Where as those civilizations that depended on intelligence and cunning to hunt, build a fire, make tools and clothing simply to stay alive, and to form architecture, cities, art and music, developed and flourished. Yet we can’t forget those civilizations that simply faded away because the harsh conditions, weather, nutrition needs, and other hostile environments, were just too overwhelming for survival.

This certainly can’t mean that what comes easily in the creative process is less good than that which requires intense labor; certainly the music of Mozart came easily to him with no negative affect on greatness, but one has to wonder at the profound difference in Mozart’s Requiem, written from his death bed, compared to most of his other works.

Today the question has to be asked if the integrity of the creative force is diminished in greatness since much of our creativity is inspired by its potential of economic reward, i.e. will this project bring income --- will it make money? Is the film soundtrack music of John Williams any less good than if he had written it simply because of a powerful visceral need to compose? Does music created specifically for maximum sales have soul?

More poignantly to the personal perspective of an instrumental musician, is artistic integrity compromised by many symphony orchestras calculating programs for an entire season by ticket sales? Is it possible economic necessity is compromising that artistic integrity?

Now comes the really difficult question: Are we instrumental musicians really creative artists? Painful to contemplate! Is the music we play in our various gigs true art, are we instrumentalists worthy to compare ourselves in any way with the likes of Shakespeare, Mahler, Hemingway, Mozart or even John Williams? Is playing a single line instrument in a symphony orchestra, a single sonic fiber, perhaps of great beauty, but only one colorful thread in a rich tapestry of sound, where real individualism and creativity is frequently discouraged, an art form? Or are we really just a kind of sonic soldier repeating our sonic tasks. And again I find myself forming uncomfortable questions that I avoid or am unable to answer.

I remember occasionally hearing great moments of magic from certain symphony musicians but it seems to me that today, that little bit of individualism, where we occasionally get to shine, has become a non personal non spontaneous approach to music making, i.e. the Sonic Soldier Syndrome.

If so, I personally will fight my hardest to not to fall in that category and hopefully the fight itself might enhance my creative forces beyond that of the rank and file. Musicians need a soul.

Kyoto, Japan, April 2005

Revised June 19, 2012, Tokyo

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Specters Reunion

It seems my most successful essays are the ones that have dealt more with specific aspects of our instrumental function rather than broader thoughts regarding the world of music. I hope I can write about both. I wrote an essay, Specters, about some of the interesting people; those who would follow the various orchestras that I had played in through the years, in our rehearsals and concerts.

Sadly, the stories of an old man who played in the Moscow Youth Orchestra when Tchaikovsky would bring by a new score by to hear the orchestration, or another old man in another part of the world had a big part of his life rewriting symphony scores with all the inaudible orchestration deleted, do not hold the same interest as rotary vs. piston valves or, "Is Bigger Better?" To me that's sad. In any case, I saw these specters again a few days ago.

My daughter Melody was visiting for the last two weeks and as a finale for the visit I arranged that we would spend three days in Kyoto at a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn. Ryokans are famous for being havens of rest and tranquility and this one in Kyoto was no exception; entering, one could feel one’s pulse slowing, a wonderful night’s sleep was guaranteed. That first night in the ryokan was one of the best nights sleep I've had in a long time.

Suddenly the fragrance of eucalyptus filled the air and the sunlight was fragmented as it shined through the high branches of the many trees. The old dirt road that was the driveway was just as it always had been. I was surprised not to be surprised being there, it seemed perfectly natural, nor was I surprised to be standing with the specters that I had been seeing at orchestra rehearsals and concerts for the last 48 years.

The two old men were there, the one from the Moscow Youth Orchestra and the deleter of orchestration; they stood next to each other looking similar and yet very different. The beautiful young girl dressed in white, holding the red rose stood a little apart from the old men and the elegant old woman dressed in high fashion of Europe in the 1920s stood far apart from the other three at the end of the driveway where it met the road. She was just as always, standing very properly and smiling at the strange group of people standing on the driveway. I had no idea who this old woman was, but she had the look of how I imagined Clara Schumann or Alma Mahler might appear. She was truly a specter.

"It's amazing to see you here," I addressed the two old men first. "I only got to talk to you once and shortly after that you both disappeared. I wanted to talk to both of you again but never got the chance. I knew you in Rochester and I knew you in Los Angeles, do you know each other?"

The man from the Moscow Youth Orchestra answered first. "We know each other now."

"I remember so well your story about Tchaikovsky conducting his Fifth Symphony to hear the orchestration; I wanted to hear more stories but never had the chance. Did other famous composers conduct your orchestra?"

"Oh yes, Rimsky-Korsakov used to come, sometimes we would play some of his works, but many times he would come and play some of the works of Mussorgsky. He was always editing and reorchestrating Mussorgsky's works. The last time he came we played Night on Bald Mountain.

Talking to both men, I said, "It's really strange that one of you had such personal experience with the orchestrations of some of the world’s great composers and the other spent a big part of your life deleting orchestration and rewriting scores of great composers without the inaudible orchestration. What ever became of that project?"

He answered, "I put all the work in the attic of my sister’s house in Rochester. I took the last stack of work there just a few weeks before I left your world."

"Do you know where the work is now?" I asked.

"It was a long time ago and all I can tell you is that it was the green house on Kansas St. in Rochester."

"How many people knew about the work you were doing?"

"I don't think anybody. My sister knew I was doing something with music, but she never understood what it was."

The other man interrupted, "When I was a young man in Moscow my big fascination was the orchestration, so I think you can understand how very strange it sounds to me that someone would spend a large part of their life simplifying the orchestration of the world’s masterworks. What started you on such an odd project?"

The deleter answered, "I was never a good musician. I played piano as a boy, but I have been a concert goer all my life. After hearing many of the great works many times it seemed just a natural thing to ask about the necessity of all this inaudible orchestration. I'm not even sure I believe in it but it was a study that I dedicated my life to."

"As a study I can see a little interest but I believe I can predict almost exactly what my conclusion would be if it were possible to hear your modified scores. When you see someone sleeping, how do you know whether he is sleeping or dead?
"You can see and hear them breathing"

"Yes, and that's what orchestration is, it's the life of the music, the breath of the music."

After a short pause, I thought to myself, "I would like to find that green house on Kansas St. in Rochester and spend a day listening to those scores, we would learn a lot."

As the two men continued their conversation on orchestration I turned my attention to the girl in white holding the red rose. "I know you, we knew each other in Los Angeles; I suddenly remember your name, your name is Phyllis, you worked in the administration of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. I remember that you were sweet and you were wise."

"I'm not really Phyllis, I only look like Phyllis, you chose that I would look like her."

"But who are you then?"

"You know me, you have seen me many times but I've looked very different every time I came to visit you."

"But who are you?"

"I'm really a teacher, you could call me a guide and you should just think of me as a friend"

"Have you come to teach me?"

"Not this time, this is just a visit to say hello and to talk."

"Somehow you make me feel special, but why have you come here and where are you when you are not here?"

She was laughing and clearly enjoying this conversation. "Ha-ha, I have many people I like to visit, they are all different and all interesting. Some are curious like you and some are very frightened, but they all can learn."

"What is it that you teach?"

Still amused, "I never know what I will teach or even if I will teach. A better question would be what do you want to learn?"

"There are only two questions I have right now. Who are the old man and woman who live in that house down these stairs? It seems I've known them for a long time. And what is that strange language they speak, I've never understood it and I couldn't learn it."

"They were just caretakers, they were the caretakers of that house and they were your caretakers. Many times, but not always, the caretakers speak a strange language and when that's the case, those who they are caring for develop extraordinary skills at communication."

"Can you tell me who the old woman is who is standing at the end of the driveway? I've seen her so many times all over the world, always listening and moving with symphony music. Who is she?"

"She is always around symphonic music but most of the time you can't see her, you are very lucky. We're going to go now, enjoy the rest of your vacation. Goodbye."

Before I could say goodbye the eucalyptus aroma blended into the wonderful smell of steam and cedar from the tub in the ryokan and the first sight was the small Japanese garden just out the sliding door. It was a wonderful night’s sleep.  Kyoto and ryokans are very special.

Kyoto, Japan, January 19, 2006
Revised June 17, 2012, Tokyo


In the places and in the ensembles where I’ve lived and played, there seemed to always be a number of followers, people that were just there, day to day and year to year. It didn’t seem to be important where or what the ensemble was; it was almost as though it was the same people, whether it was Rochester in the 50s, Amsterdam in the 60s, Los Angeles in the late 60s, 70s and 80s or Florence in the 90’s. They sat in the hall and listened to the rehearsals, usually in the same seat, and usually they wore the same clothes. There was the elegant old woman who would move to the music, whatever it was she was listening to, as though she had conducted it numerous times. There was the old man with an intense, brooding, Beethovenesque expression on his face, looking always very critical, and there was the attractive young girl holding a single rose with a look and demeanor from generations passed.

Generally, there was very little communication between these groupie specters and the musicians in the orchestra. When the rehearsal was over these followers and the orchestra musicians found there own exits into their own worlds, and most of the time we never saw these people other than from our seat in the orchestra.

In my years with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra between the 56/57 season and the 61/62 seasons, there was such a man. Although totally benign, he had that look of intensity and concentration, like the busts of a brooding Beethoven that I’ve seen in concert halls where I’ve played all over the world. He was present at most of the rehearsals during those 6 years I played in Rochester, and as he listened he was always writing; he had a score and he had manuscript paper.

One morning in rehearsal, when I wasn’t playing the concerto, I went into the hall to listen to the soloist and by chance sat directly behind the old man. Quickly, I lost interest in the rehearsal and found myself completely captivated by what this old man was writing. Basically, he was crossing certain things out of the score, but it wasn’t clear what or why. When the break arrived I introduced myself and asked what he was doing. He was very surprised, as it may have been the first time he had ever talked to an orchestra member, and he was quite excited that someone was interested.

I was amazed as he told me of his lifetime project. For the past 20 years this old man had been attending rehearsals, listening and crossing out all the orchestration that was not audible. He would cross out what he couldn’t hear and go home and rewrite the score without all the superfluous and inaudible passages. At this point he reached into his old, worn briefcase and handed me a complete handwritten score to Brahms 2nd Symphony with all the passages he couldn’t hear deleted.

Of course, the easy reaction to this story is to envision it as the crazy ideas of an eccentric old man. But wait! Wouldn’t it be interesting to spend a day with an orchestra reading this man’s modifications and give his 20-year project a moment of consideration? Who knows for sure what we would hear. Surely we would be a little smarter by the end of that day.

It’s sad in a way. Nobody knows this man’s name. Nobody knows where he lived, and nobody knows where the material of this 20-year project is. What we would have learned is probably lost forever.

A symphony orchestra tubist is blessed or damned, depending on your point of view on any particular day, with an embarrassment of inactive time; the most difficult part of the job was to remember where you are and to know where to come in. Symphony orchestra tubists have lots of time to observe, to think and to dream. I used to joke that I was the highest paid symphony orchestra musician in the USA per note! Maybe it was even true. I wonder how many kilometers I walked in my 35 years of full time orchestra playing, while I paced back and forth backstage during tacit tuba parts?

During my years in Los Angeles, after returning from two years with the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, an incredibly similar old man to the one that deleted inaudible orchestration was still visible; he was there all the time, year after year, brooding and intensely listening. It was in the Hollywood Bowl, which was the summer home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra.

I had seen him out in the amphitheater of Hollywood Bowl for a couple of years before the day came when we found ourselves walking from the parking lot together for a morning rehearsal. We greeted each other; I heard that he had a thick Eastern Europe accent and I asked him where he was from.

“Russia, I was born in Moscow.”

“What’s your connection with symphonic music? I’ve seen you out in the audience almost every rehearsal for a couple of years.”

“I’m a musician. I used to play percussion. I played in the Moscow Youth Symphony when I was a boy.”

Like the old man in Rochester, it seemed this was the first time he had had contact with anyone in the orchestra; this is not because of rudeness of orchestra musicians but simply because their paths almost never crossed. I listened and as we walked toward the stage. I began wishing it was a lot further away, wishing that walk would last a very long time and wishing the rehearsal wasn’t going to start in five minutes.

“I played in the Moscow Youth Orchestra in my teen age years. We used to rehearse every Saturday. I played timpani. I loved playing, and I still miss it even today. We had great conductors come and work with us. Sometimes Tchaikovsky would come and play something he wrote with us, just to see how it sounded with the orchestration. Once he brought in the Andante Cantabile from the 5th Symphony. Oh, you should have heard that boy who played 1st horn, oh; he was such a wonderful player. I think Tchaikovsky loved him; after the reading of the part with the horn solo Tchaikovsky stopped the orchestra; he was crying and he walked through the orchestra to the boy who played the solo and gave him a big kiss on the lips… Well, I’ll go take my seat now, I enjoyed talking to you, have a good rehearsal. Goodbye.”

I couldn’t wait to meet him again. I saw him a couple of more times that week from the stage but I was preoccupied with other things, and then I never saw him again. I had never even asked his name.

In the 70’s there were two strange women who became almost a peripheral part of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. One was young and in her 20’s. She usually dressed in white and held a red rose in her hands. At performances, during the applause, she would stand up and hold the rose to her heart with a haunted look on her face. She reminded me of a young girl who I remember having seen in a film, or perhaps films, who was in love with a young Beethoven or some other classical superstar; she was essentially a nineteenth century groupie following her object of infatuation from concert to concert. I talked to this girl several times and found her very attractive; she was intelligent, multilingual and the personification of how I would imagine a 19th century girl. Even with my proclivity to younger women this girl in fact was about 100 years too old for me and my 20th century 60’s fads and fashions. The last I heard, she had fallen in love with a fencing master. Perhaps she had found her compatible time zone.

During the same period there was another misplaced person from another time. This woman was old, surely in her 80’s, and dressed in the high fashion style of Europe in the 1920’s. Who was she and why was she following us on our tours throughout the United States and Europe? She had a chronic smile, as if painted on her face, which was very disconcerting as she moved with the music, every phrase and every note! She was a true specter.

Neither of these chronologically misplaced women were ever seen at the same time and in my science fiction, Star Trek episode imagination I mused that these two women were the same entity, a time traveler that for some reason was attracted to the symphony orchestras of the 20th century. I wonder if she (they) is (are) ever seen anymore. I hope she has found what she was looking for.

Edinburgh, Scotland, April, 2004
Revised June 11, 2012, Tokyo

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Mouthpieces 2012 - The Volare

The past few months have seen an impressive introduction of new mouthpieces endorsed by highly respected artists. Most of these great players, who already have their own personalized ‘signature’ mouthpieces available on the market, continue experimenting to develop something still better. Of course, this is a good thing, it is a perfect example of how our equipment is evolving and always improving.

Ironically, this also presents a problem. For example, if there are ten new great mouthpieces available on the market, indorsed by highly respected players, what is the best way for a tubist to find and test these mouthpieces; buying ten new mouthpieces on the contingency that one might be the ‘right one’ isn’t an option. Mouthpieces are expensive! Personally, not being a business man and having no marketing experience, I can see only four possibilities: advertising, sending samples to a few strategic players, sending examples to a few music shops but finally and most expediently depending on ‘word of mouth’ to reach the members of our unique community.

Once, a very long time ago, I decided to sell tubas. Short summary: I didn’t like it, I was not good at it, and it made me unhappy; I will not do it again. We have people that are good at it and who enjoy that aspect of the music business.
Why do I mention this? Very soon there will be a new mouthpiece, yet another new mouthpiece, with my name on it, it’s called The Volare. Having taken part in it’s development, having played and compared it with many other mouthpieces and having listened to many players playing it, I can say the results are all positive and impressive; The Volare has a focused, clear, and centered tone, the sound it produces very warm, dynamic response very efficient and sensitive, plus intonation is beautifully delineated yet flexible.

I promise this will be the end of my try at salesmanship; I’ll leave that to the businessmen and the promoters. Please watch for this new mouthpiece, The Volare, and audition it when you get the chance.

And the tuba evolution continues.

Roger Bobo

Tokyo, June 10, 2012

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Life with the tuba

This is April 2012, and it’s been 67 years since I started playing brass instruments. The first five years, since I was 7, was playing the cornet, and then in 1950 I moved up to the tuba.

From my present position in the world, I try to keep a view toward the future; it’s a philosophy of mine and I think it’s a good philosophy. However, I’m sure the 67 years of retrospective provide a strong foundation, which allows me to proceed into the future with greater vision.

It must have been 1943 on that cold Christmas time Sunday morning when, while sitting on my father’s shoulders, that I first heard the sound of brass instruments ringing from that church tower in Los Angeles. It rang like magical bells, I had never heard anything like it before and I can remember it perfectly even to this day. I’m absolutely sure that morning was a defining moment in my life.

Another formative sonic memory came several years later while I was singing in the boy’s choir of that same church. After the Saturday morning choir rehearsals I would usually escape and hide in the church’s organ pipe room while the organist was practicing. That was another magical experience, but it was also a powerful acoustical experience. Those pipes were not designed to be heard from only a few meters away in a closed room; the low notes of the huge diapason pipes were so intense they tickled my eardrums. Since that time I’ve always loved to hear powerful low frequency sounds like the ‘hiding in the pipe room’ days.

I really didn’t love playing the cornet but I could play a little and I knew several melodies. I wanted to continue with music when I finished elementary school but not on cornet. During an outing with some of the musically talented kids from my school, we went to visit the band room of our local high school. Of course, we were told not to touch anything bit it was love at first sight when I saw a Sousaphone coiled in the back of the room. Without thinking I found myself seated and enveloped by the big brass beast. Before I could be stopped I was playing the same melodies I knew on cornet. It was easy; it worked exactly like the cornet but two octaves lower. It felt good, the sound was rich and mellow and I had attracted a crowd of kids and teachers. Of course, when I had finished I got in trouble but that only made the tuba more attractive, it was the forbidden fruit syndrome!

From that time on I was hooked, always vacillating between dedication, obsession and sometimes fanaticism. In the world today there are many kids and young people who hold that same kind of tuba passion I had in the 50s, but at that time I was pretty much alone. When people learned my goal in life was to become a tubist, they were a little uncomfortable and soon that made me uncomfortable too. That never changed my will to become a tubist but it did cause me sometimes to feel that the tuba was my cross to bear or sometimes I thought of it as the heavy stone that Sisyphus had strapped to his back for eternity

I felt that image so strongly that I later commissioned composer John Stevens to write a solo piece for tuba called THE LIBERATION OF SISYPHUS, which has now become a major work in the solo tuba repertoire. I have never counted the number of works for tuba that I have commissioned, requested or had dedicated to me but I’m sure it’s in the hundreds; I’m very proud of that.

As time passed, my tuba playing was developing in two ways, as a soloist and as a symphony orchestra player. Through my high school days I played in many community orchestras, all-city and all-state high school orchestras, and in what was called the National High School Orchestra at the National Music Camp in Interlochen, Michigan. The symphony orchestra had completely become the center of my social life, and in that setting were all my friends

After graduating from high school in 1956 I went to the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. During the first week at Eastman I auditioned and was accepted into the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. I was not ready for this remarkable opportunity but in those days there were only two players auditioning, astonishing when we see the realities of today when frequently there are over one hundred applicants for an orchestra position.

While at Eastman my student colleagues and I would frequently listen to recorded performances from orchestras all over the world and tried to guess which orchestra and from which country we were listening to. It wasn’t so difficult then, especially international styles were easy to discriminate. When I first heard the Chicago Symphony brass section in the 1950s I thought it was the most wonderful brass playing I had ever heard; I still think that was the best brass section of all time, and still those players remain my brass player icons.

I have to mention that in 1957 I was privileged to play second tuba to William Bell in the New York Philharmonic when they passed through Rochester on tour. I was 19 and excited beyond belief. I worked hard for a career playing tuba, but there was another thing working in my favor; extraordinary good luck and it seems to still be happening!

In 1962 I played a recital in Carnegie Recital Hall in New York City. It was New York’s first ever tuba recital and I was lucky enough to receive very good reviews. This recital turned out to be the most significant thing I had done and the following publicity was amazing and a little unsettling. Today I wish I had followed that direction of being a soloist more intensely but the orchestra was very fulfilling for me and it offered security that I wasn't able to envision as a soloist.

My curiosity concerning nationalistic musical styles led me to write 20 letters to various orchestras in Europe inquiring about possible tuba openings. Two of these orchestras had openings! (It was that embarrassment of extraordinary good luck again). The Suisse Romand Orchestra of Geneva, Switzerland and the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam, Holland both had tuba openings. To make a long story short, I auditioned for both of them, was offered both jobs, and I chose the Concertgebouw. After two years playing in the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam I returned to my home city of Los Angeles and played in the Philharmonic there for the next 25 years.

Shortly after I started playing the tuba in 1950 my sisters gave me a recording of Tubby The Tuba. Of course, I was too old for that story by that time but because of my love for the tuba I was fascinated by the story, plus there was superb tuba playing on the recording I had. Many times subsequently I humorously have thought that I was actually becoming the personification of Tubby, the need to play a solo, the need to be heard and even, as Tubby experienced, the occasional ridicule by my peers. My own sense of humor has saved me from taking that rejection too seriously but that same humor was not strong enough to spare me the frustration of certain chronic episodes: often, conductors, mostly German or Russian and most of whom I admired, would sometimes speak ‘baby talk’ to the tubist: “…and now the great big tuba becomes the great big bear” or “Tuba, you need to be a very scary dragon”. However, I never showed my anger.

There were only a very few such negatives. Through the years I would very occasionally encounter a student who didn’t like my ideas and thought he knew more about how a tuba should sound than I did. They have all disappeared from the tuba world!

I had to develop tact, humor, kindness and especially perseverance in training stage crew and tour managers who thought I was just purposely harassing them because I would usually need two or more tubas with me on stage or on tour.

I developed a pathological fear of checking in at airports with tubas because of rules that were never the same from flight to flight.

The existence of conservative shortsighted tubists, regarding their relatively new instrument in the musical world with relatively little history, has always amazed me.

This always-present factor of good luck was at its strongest when it came to my teachers through the years, I was extremely fortunate to have superb and inspirational teachers. They taught me to love playing. As much as I loved playing I was surprised to find that after I stopped playing, I grew to love teaching even more. I have found that the every student is unique and requires unique treatment; I needed to use my brain more than I did as an orchestra player. After 25 years in the Los Angeles Philharmonic I took a one-year sabbatical and went to Italy; I never returned the Los Angeles Philharmonic!

I held several teaching positions while living in Europe: Fiesole Scuola di Musica, Italy, Conservitoire de Lausanne, Switzerland, Conservatory of Bern, Switzerland, Rotterdam Conservatory, Holland and the Royal Northern Collage of Music, Manchester, England. For three years I held all these positions simultaneously. During that three-year period I was also making frequent trips to Spain, Greece and Canada. It was very tiring but I still enjoyed it. Now the good luck still abounds with a full time faculty position with the Musashino Academia Musicae in Tokyo, Japan, one of the world’s great music schools. I expect to continue my work there as long as my body stays strong and my mind stays clear. It’s a very personal thing but having lived many places in the world, Japan stands as my first choice.

I have also been lucky in the number of students I’ve taught who are now making a good living playing or teaching. I have started to make a list of my working students several times but it’s proven to be difficult. Where do we draw the line? There are students who have studied four years in a conservatory situation, those who have studied for a year, a few weeks in a summer masterclass, those who have had only a few lessons and even those who have taken only one lesson. Can I call them all my students? In any case, teaching has become the most satisfying aspect of my musical life.

The students today have entered into a new dimension of technique and musicality, to a degree that would have been unimaginable when I started 60 years ago. I was discussing this recently with Roland Szentpali, the Hungarian tuba virtuoso, and he presented me the best accolade I’ve ever received.

Roland wrote: “It’s just not the same; now there are lots of players who can play at a high level and a few tubists who are creative and original and even fewer that are versatile...but you were an UFO”... Roland Szentpali

The past has given me the experience to look to the future to continue the tuba experience in whatever form it evolves. I am very thankful to all those that have helped me accrue these experiences.

April 9, 2012, Tokyo Japan