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