Q: How does somebody choose an instrument like the tuba? Did you have it pressed upon you?
A: In 1942 I was 12 years old. The lone tuba player in our small high school band joined the Navy. The music teacher came to me and asked me how I would like to become a tuba player. I was absolutely enthralled by the idea. I had always wanted to play a brass instrument. But my folks simply could not afford it. The school furnished the sousaphone and the bass drum. So I found myself with this beautiful old worn-out sousaphone and I was delighted. I took it with me everywhere. I was working at the local funeral home before school and after school and riding my bicycle to various appointments in town, at school and at the funeral home. I kept that sousaphone with me everywhere I went.
Q: You didn't play it at the funeral home by any chance?
A: No, I haven't played my tuba in a funeral home yet. I wouldn't object to doing so. I think the tuba would be a beautiful instrument in such a setting.
Q: So the tuba was the first instrument that attracted your attention and affection? You didn't switch from the piccolo?
A: No. I had played the guitar a bit. My father happened to be a very fine barn-dance fiddle player. I learned enough guitar to accompany him.
Q: The parental reaction to the idea of the tuba?
A: The first circus I joined was King Brothers. I think my parents had been conditioned a little bit by a very wonderful man named Homer Lee who was a retired circus bandmaster and who was bandmaster of my high school band. He, in fact, arranged for my first job with King Brothers Circus Band.
My parents took it very well. I think our local minister didn't take it so well. The minister came to our house when he heard that I was going away with the circus. Every country home had a parlor that was only used when the insurance salesman or the preacher came to your house.
My mother and I and Rev. Gilbert went into the parlor and he said, "Well now, Mrs. Phillips. I'm very concerned about this young man. He's a fine young man and I'm just afraid that we're going to lose him because I hear rumors of his going away with the circus. I'm very concerned that this boy is going into a life of sin and become lost."
My mother, who is a very small and very gentle lady, had been sitting there holding her handkerchief in her lap all this time. She stood up rather slowly and she walked over toward the door. When he paused to catch a breath, she interrupted him by saying that she was sorry that Rev. Gilbert didn't have more faith in me than that, and that she had faith in me, and she didn't think I would be lost in any pursuit. And he left and I never saw him again.
Q: Is the circus, in fact, a life of sin? More sinful than the newspaper or something?
A: Oh, gosh no. Gosh no. Some of the most wonderful people I've ever known in my life were with the circus. I came from a town of 1,250 population. When I joined Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey, which was right after the 9-week stint with King Brothers, there were 1,500 people on that show. It was bigger than my home town. Some of them were wonderful people. They were not all carousers or philanderers.
Most of the circus band musicians were ex- Sousa band members. Their respect for their instruments, for the music that they were playing, made a lasting impression on me. They had infinite respect for the tuba. The other gentleman who played tuba when I first joined Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey was one of the greatest tuba players I have ever heard or worked with. Playing with him was like having six hours of tuba lessons every day. Discussing with him the potential of the instrument molded my own sense of purpose about the instrument.
Shortly after I joined the circus we played New York's Madison Square Garden. One of the great circus fans was William Bell, who at that time without any question could be considered the greatest living tuba player. He was with the New York Philharmonic. He had been with the Sousa band when he was 19 years old as principal tuba. He invited me to come to New York to live in his studio and arranged for me a four-year scholarship at the Juilliard School of Music.
You can imagine what it would be like to walk down that corridor of the old Juilliard School of Music. To pass one practice room and hear a pianist working on the Tchaikovsky piano concerto or a Chopin etude. Still in quest of a room, going to another door and realizing it was occupied because of the flutist performing Handel flute sonatas. Going to another practice room and hearing the violinist working on Mendelsohn's violin concerto. And then finally finding an empty practice room and getting out a music stand and a chair and getting comfortable and then opening my briefcase and pulling out "Asleep in the Deep," "Rocked in the Cradle of the Deep," "Down in the Deep Cellar."
Vincent Persicetti, my theory and composition teacher, encouraged me to borrow literature from the other instruments. I simply adopted the attitude that if I felt a work would sound good on the tuba -- or even if I felt it would be enjoyable to perform on the tuba -- I didn't let the attitudes of our more rigid musicologists stand in my way.
Vincent Persicetti also convinced me that if anything was going to be done about the quality of the literature, it was not going to be done by the flute players, by the violinists, by the pianists, by the conductors. It was going to have to be done by the tuba players. And since most of the tuba players I knew at that time were not into such serious evangelizing, I took it upon myself to commence.
Q: What year was that?
A: Well, I joined the circus in 1947. I commenced studies at the Juilliard school in the fall of 1950. I spent four years struggling to meet the schedule of classes and rehearsals because I found myself, fortunately, a very busy free-lance player. I commenced playing in the New York City Ballet orchestra and the New York City Opera orchestra, the RCA Victor recording orchestra, the Voice of Firestone orchestra, Band of America. I spent some time in the dean's office every week explaining why I hadn't been to this person or that class. Trying to impress upon him that it was worth missing a rehearsal with the Juilliard student orchestra if my reason was that I was recording with Leopold Stokowski and the RCA Victor Orchestra.
Q: Life as a New York free-lance musician can be very hectic.
A: My experience with the circus prepared me for free-lancing in New York. In a circus we might bring out a high wire act -- play an ascending march to get them up to the wire. Then play some Strauss waltzes while they're on the wire. Then when they come down, we play a galop to get them off. While they're tearing the rigging down and the clowns are going around the circle, we would play some trombone smears or Dixieland jazz kind of music. So we were really, in the course of a three-hour circus performance, performing just about every discipline of music.
As a free-lance player, you find yourself, when you get to be very busy, living out of a datebook. You know from your answering service you're supposed to be at RCA studio A on 24th Street at 10. And at 2 you're supposed to be at Columbia & 30th Street. And at 7, you're supposed to be at Decca on 71st Street. You don't know whether you're going to be performing with a symphony orchestra or a small jazz ensemble or if you're going to be performing with just two or three other players. The thing I liked about free-lancing was the opportunity to meet so many great orchestrators and arrangers and composers and to become friends with them. To enlighten them more about the needs of the tuba. Once you become friends with a person, he's writing a part for his friend Harvey. He doesn't want Harvey to be upset that he doesn't have something that's rewarding to play. By the same token he might even take the stance that he's proud of his friend Harvey and so he wants to write something that will really show him off.
I really get upset when I think of how different the life of the tuba player today would be if Prokofiev and Bartok and Stravinsky and Debussy and Ravel and all of the great composers of this century had each written one concerto for the instrument. The stature of the composer, the strength of the literature would demand that those works be performed X number of times a season. It would have elevated the tuba more rapidly than we've been able to do it into the role of a solo instrument. The tuba came along around 1835. Of course, this meant, unfortunately that Mozart and Beethovan and Bach and Handel were deprived of the privilege of writing for tuba.
We of course cannot resurrect composers. We can take works that they wrote for other instruments and perform them and we do. The Mozart horn concerti work very well on the tuba. The Handel flute sonatas. The Telemann works for flute. The Bach unaccompanied cello suites. Anything we can get our tuba hands on, we adapt.
Q: The Brahms was a great thing.
A: If I didn't have the unmitigated gall to play on the tuba the Brahms horn trio, I would be denied closeness to that great composer. So it's worth it for me to take the chance on what the reaction might be to my doing that. I have an experience with Johannes Brahms that can only be achieved in that way.
Q: Are there special problems that a composer encounters when he's writing for the tuba that he wouldn't have if he were writing for the flute or the trombone or the trumpet? Does it have limitations that might cramp his expressive feeling?
A: No. Quite the contrary. That composer would be pleasantly surprised to find that the instrument is not limited in scope compared to all the other wind instruments. The tuba has the most extensive range of brass or woodwind -- over half the piano keyboard. The tuba can play lower than any basso ever thought of singing. And our upper range extends into the range of the soprano voice. There's tremendous opportunity for lyricism there, compositionally. It's got expression, it's got dynamics. That's candy for a composer!
Q: What are the most common prejudices about the tuba that you encounter?
A: Most of the general public's exposure to the instrument is a band marching down the street. That usually means vanilla as far as musical level is concerned. They hear this out-of-door sound of two notes to the measure. So they just assume that this is all the tuba can play. Of course worse is the half- time show, where the tuba player is asked -- indeed, required -- to make some very unmusical sounds.
And the German band -- the word "oompah" used to really bother me. My initial objection to that word was that it showed total lack of imagination on the part of journalists. I started pointing that of course that the tuba was not an "oompah." The tuba was an "oom." The horn was the "pah." But I don't want to eliminate any employment opportunity that might exist for my instrument. While sometimes the music might be trite, it's damned entertaining. It is appropriate to the food and libation which is enjoyed at such occasions. Everything that I've done for the last several years, the bottom line is whether or not it will expand opportunities for those who play these instruments. I don't want to lose any polka band jobs.
Arnold Jacobs is going into his 40th season with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. If all of these tubists in the major orchestras have a career like his, then it means twice a century there'd be an opening for a player in the orchestra. So I have to be concerned about more outlets for the talent than just the symphony orchestra.
There are many professional brass quintets throughout the world who make a very good livelihood. There have been absolute milestones in almost every level of jazz where the tuba has been utilized as a very important instrument. In the very early days of jazz, Dixieland grew out of the funeral bands of New Orleans. It would have been very difficult to march down the street plucking a string bass. So the tuba was a natural instrument.
Coming up through the '40s we have a very important album done by Miles Davis called "The Birth of the Cool." In that nine-piece ensemble the tuba played a very important role. Now we have the Madison-Phillips Tubajazz Consort that consists of tubas. And of course you hear the use of the tuba commercially in films such as "Close Encounters" and "Star Wars" and television themes -- the Cannon series which used the tuba predominately; the detective show on ABC called "The Fat Man" using the tuba in the theme.
We must reach a point where there's got to be room for at least one or two tuba soloists -- the same as it's possible for a violinist or a flutist. These are goals that we have to shoot for. Of course, we cannot attain them unless we are able to change the attitude of the supporting public. This is part of the purpose of "TubaChristmas" -- of the gathering together of 500 tuba players in Rockefeller Center in New York. People might come to hear, "God, I wonder what 500 tuba players are gonna sound like? That's gonna be funny! Let's go down and listen to that!" But when they get there and they hear a choir of euphonium tubas playing "Silent Night," that's a serious composition. That's a serious performance. And they can be turned around.
Q: Is it working? Is the audience growing?
A: Yes. This last year there were well over 100 Octubafests thoughout the United States. This last year, the ninth year of TubaChristmas, we had 52 cities present concerts. In those cities where TubaChristmas has become a tradition, like in New York City, the tuba is more closely associated with Christmas than any other instrument.
Q: How do you react when people say that the tuba is a very loud instrument?
A: Loud? Well, I think it is. I think it's also a very quiet, very gentle instrument.
Q: The other stereotype that I think I detect sometimes is the size of a tuba player. You're a distinguished professor at the University of Indiana. you could also have been a fullback or a lineman at that university. Do you have to be big to play a tuba?
A: No. It's not the physical size of the individual that's most important. It's the size of the talent and the size of the desire. We have some very small individuals who are great tuba players, great euphonium players. Where physical size enters into it, of course, is that since the tuba is a wind instrument, the use of air is of prime importance. With someone who's 6-foot-5, you look at the lung which would go from the point of the shoulder to the bottom of the rib cage. You know that that person has to have a lot more bio-capacity for air than someone who's 5-foot-8.