Tuba or not to be

Published 10:34 am Monday, November 26, 2012

The third annual “Merry Tubachristmas” will occur Saturday at the Oak Park Mall. I know, because a year ago I wrote the date on my 2012 calendar, so I would be certain to attend once again. I take the Merry Tubachristmas as not funky but a celebration of those “lesser” musical instruments, those that are essential to bands and orchestras but are only occasionally used in solo parts and seldom featured in their own right.

Not only musical instruments, but many worthwhile enterprises have components that are as essential as those featured but do not receive the attention and appreciation they earn. I think of linemen on football teams and other than pitchers and heavy hitters in baseball. I think of whole sports such as lacrosse, wrestling, gymnastics, and the like. I think of the stage crew of dramatic productions. I think of those positions scrolled much too fast at the end of movies.

There are systemic reasons to place certain performers in the front row or on stage, but there are equally sound systemic reasons to place others where they have the greatest effect. Do not be misled by appearances and conclude those upfront are the only important actors. Sometimes, they are not even the most important to the total production.

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We need to pay closer attention to the contributions of such neglected parts in order to take in the whole for all it is worth. The greatest understanding to be achieved by playing attention to, for example, the tuba is not to understand the tuba but to understand the ensemble of instruments.

Even singling out the tuba for this well deserved attention, is but a metonymy for other low brass instruments, e.g., baritone, Sousaphone, or euphonium. Take these out of an orchestra or band, and you, well, just do not have an orchestra or band.

The very word “symphony” describes this. The English word is derived from the Greek “sumphonia,” which has the sense of “agreement or concord of sound.” The blending and melding of sounds would be incomplete without these low brass instruments. Violins may be thought to be more prominent in orchestras and trumpets in bands, but every instrument is of equal importance. Therefore, every player of such instruments is as important as those more prominent.

The tuba festivals started in 1974 in Rockefeller Plaza ice rink by tubist Harvey Phillips (1929-2010). A professor of music at Indiana University, Phillips was the champion of the tuba. Not only did he play the tuba as no one had ever done, but talked about the tuba as no one ever has. Now deceased, his legacy lives on in the Harvey Phillips Foundation that actively encourages tuba playing across America. At last count, over 200 cities have annual events such as this. Austin started just three years ago, and every year additional cities catch on and join in.

There is also something egalitarian about this event. Last year the youngest player was eleven and the oldest was seventy-nine. This latter was Dave Kallman who, it seems to me, has taught about half of Austin’s musicians, and almost all who went through Austin schools.

Many people in this community play roles in other efforts and activities as “minor” as tuba players. They have importance to those activities as important as tuba players have to bands and orchestras. I suggest it would lift the spirits of these good people to come out to the Oak Park Mall on Saturday and learn the uplifting lesson of the lowly and lonely tuba player. They are your brother and sister or, at least, cousin.

If you join me in attending this event, I suspect you will listen to bands and orchestras in a new way from then on. Who knows, you might even want to take up tuba.