Merry TubaChristmas; Entering its ninth year, the big horns continue to entertain

Published 7:01 am Saturday, November 10, 2018

If you know nothing about Austin’s annual Merry TubaChristmas concerts held in Austin each December, you have to understand this: TubaChristmas is definitely more than the sum of its tubas (and euphoniums, baritones and sousaphones).

TubaChristmas has a special flavor, sound and look, created and nurtured by musicians who not only love tubas, but also enjoy the event’s camaraderie, the season — and then there is that visual display, too.

You won’t find many venues in which musicians dress in Santa hats and reindeer ears — or outfit their instruments with everything from tinsel and garland, to strings of lights and Christmas bows.

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“It’s magical; it’s something special; a different way, with a different sound, to celebrate the holidays,” said Nancy Schnable, the executive director of the Discover Austin, the community’s convention and visitor’s bureau. Discover Austin organizes and sponsors the concert each year at The Historic Paramount Theatre. This year’s event, which is free, will be held at 11 a.m. on Dec. 1.

For another year, tuba enthusiasts gatherd at the Paramount Theatre for a Merry TubaChristmas in 2017.

“TubaChristmas is unique, to say the least,” agreed Eric Heukeshoven, a music professor at St. Mary’s University of Minnesota in Winona, and one of the directors in Austin’s event this year. “Fun for the players and audience alike.”

TubaChristmas concerts have been held all over the country since Harvey Phillips created the event in New York City in 1974. Since that time, TubaChristmases have been established in cities all over the United States; in fact, some of the musicians in Austin’s version got their first taste of the event in other locales.

It was the late Val Pitzen who brought the idea of a TubaChristmas to Austin. Pitzen, of Stacyville, Iowa, was the recreation director for Austin Park and Recreation for 29 years and well-known for her establishment and involvement in many community and area programs — and TubaChristmas.

Her mother, Carol Koch, said her daughter played in Mason City, Iowa’s TubaChristmas, and said afterward, ‘We can do that,’ in Austin.

“When Val wanted to do something, she went at it whole hog,” said Koch with a chuckle.

The first TubaChristmas in Austin was held in 2010 at Oak Park Mall “and I think there were about 15” musicians, Koch added. Jane Orvick, band director at Southland schools — Pitzen’s alma mater — led the first concert.

Since then, the numbers have grown — a lot.

“We’ve had as many as 50 players,” said Schnable. “A lot depends on whatever the weather is like that day.”

Musicians practice in the morning, enjoy a breakfast and then perform. It is a “y’all come” type of concert. All skill levels are welcomed; those participating have been as young as 8 years old and as old as 93, said Schnable. While audience members listen for free, musicians pay $10 to participate and proceeds go to the Tuba Foundation.

The popular concert is recorded on DVDs and sent to nursing homes in the area, so those who cannot attend can still enjoy the show.

Hayfield band instructor Dennis Conroy plays during the Merry TubaChristmas show in 2015 at the Paramount Theatre. An excited fan and participant of TubaChristmas, Conroy passed away suddenly in 2017. Eric Johnson/

The event moved to The Historic Paramount Theatre in 2015 — a venue many applauded. Having a stage and the proper acoustics is an added plus in Austin.

The number of directors varies. Beginning with one, the event has since welcomed as many as four, who hand off the baton during the performance. Audience members may also hear a bit of history and are urged to sing along with some of the offerings. Traditional holiday music makes up the program that lasts about an hour.

This year, in addition to Heukeshoven, directors will include Rebecca Combs-Cawley from Stewartville, Ross Reishus from Blooming Prairie, and Christoph Dundas from Austin. Combs-Cawley, Reishus and Dundas are all directors of high school bands.

Both players and directors alike agree Austin’s event is special.

“The baritone, euphonium, tuba and sousaphone instruments typically don’t get many fun parts in band music,” said Reishus, “ so this event was designed to showcase those low voice instruments” by giving them a chance to play the melody — usually reserved for high-pitched instruments such as the trumpet, flute and clarinet.

“That’s why TubaChristmas is so special,” he said.

Musicians come from near and far, according to Schnable.

“One year we had musicians come from six states,” she said, adding some musicians travel to different TubaChristmases each year — sometimes over hundreds of miles.

James Lynn, who lives in Ohio, is one of those players. He has participated in 13 TubaChristmases in five different states. He is professor emeritus in audiology at the University at Akron and is a lifelong euphonium player.

He travels with his brother, Robert, who lives in LaCrosse, Wisconsin. The pair came to Austin in 2014 since it was so close to their sister’s home in Dodge Center. They have also played in Minnesota concerts at Northfield and St. Paul.

“TubaChristmas events in some cities seem to place more importance on musical quality, while others have more what I’d call a party atmosphere where musicians are there mainly to have a good time,” Lynn said. “The event in Austin is one that had a great blending of these two attitudes. The director expected and encouraged quality music. But, the participants certainly had a very good time playing in the concert.

Ken Ikier, of Rochester, Minnesota, was just one of several players that has come to Austin for Merry TubaChristmas at the Paramount Theatre.

“Turns out, there are cities we would never think of returning to and other cities we would gladly revisit. Austin is in the latter of these two categories. We have not yet made plans for this year, but we’ll likely return to Austin within the next few years.”

Other players are closer to home. Larry Nerison of Adams, a retired Southland schools band director, has played the euphonium at eight out of the nine events. Val Pitzen was a student of his during his teaching years.

“I still enjoy playing,” he said. “It’s such a wonderful sound. People seem to like it — and it’s a great atmosphere to play in.”

Mark Woeste has played in many of the Austin TubaChristmases. He is well-versed in the instrument. He is the principal tuba player for the Austin Symphony Orchestra, a distinction he has held for the past 18 years. He is an adjunct professor at Crossroads College in Rochester and some of his students enjoy coming to see the concert as well.

He participates “to keep the respect and this tradition for the tuba going” and to connect with other players.

Although his wife “can’t play a note, she thinks it looks like so much fun that she has gone just to dress up ‘Christmassy’ and decorate one of my spare tubas,” he said.

Dundas also earned his TubaChristmas “stripes” before coming to Austin. The Austin High School Director of Bands participated in Northfield’s TubaChristmas while an undergraduate student at St. Olaf College. He was more than happy to participate in the Austin event.

Heukeshoven’s first TubaChristmas event came as an undergraduate music major at the University of Minnesota.

“A bunch of us low brass players decided it would be fun — and it was,” he said.

After moving to Boston in the early 1980s, “I was fortunate enough to once again find TubaChristmas alive and well in New England. I played my euphonium at two events while living in Boston.”

When he returned to the Midwest in 1984, he found another event in LaCrosse. Last year, he played and shared director duties in Austin.

“And all the players had a fantastic morning together,” but later was saddened to hear of fellow director Dennis Conroy’s untimely death a few days after the performance. Several other musicians spoke of Conroy’s easy nature and dedication to the event.

Reishus called Conroy “the unofficial historian” in the group who would pause between a few of the songs in the concert to tell the audience stories about how TubaChristmas began.

This story and more can be found in 2018’s final edition of Austin Living Magazine. Pick up your copy today!

“His loss was very tough on me personally … I looked to Dennis as a mentor in all things related to band teaching,” Reishus said.

Those attending Austin’s TubaChristmas were well-acquainted with Conroy, who was band director in Hayfield for 23 years. He had played in TubaChristmas in Austin from the beginning, and often urged his fellow Hayfield friends and students to attend.

Conroy’s wife, Sally, said her husband was a fan of the concerts even before they moved to Austin. Dennis established the tradition in Garden City, Kansas, where the couple had teaching jobs — a tradition that continues today.

“I think Dennis first became aware of the nationally-recognized concerts when he was studying tuba at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. He had a tuba instructor, Jerry Young, who led a TubaChristmas concert on the campus,” she said.

After the couple moved to Hayfield in 1994, Conroy played and took students for several years to the TubaChristmas concerts in the Twin Cities.

“He was really glad when one formed in Austin,” she said.

And, Austin was glad for Conroy. Fellow musicians and audience members alike enjoyed the upbeat musician who loved the tuba, who loved to share stories about the tuba, and who unfailingly encouraged younger tuba players.

His attraction to TubaChristmases, said Sally, came from his love of the instrument that was too often overlooked in the make-up of a band.

“He loved its rich, mellow sound,” she said. “He felt that instead of always being in the background, this was a way it could be featured.”

He also loved spreading the love of tuba to his students. He did that with a positive attitude, always, said Sally.

“Even during judgings (of student musicians in high school), he would start critiques with a positive, encouraging statement,” she added.

“He really did have a love of the tuba, both as a player and director,” said Schnable. “He would bring family; he would bring students. He was a magnificent man.”

She added his fellow musicians will pay tribute to him during this year’s performance.

And Sally will be there.

“It will be hard — but I am just so honored that they want to honor him, and recognize how he impacted other musicians,” she said.