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Tuba Players Make It a Big, Brassy Christmas

  • Susan Logue

Christmas is known for its music -- jingling bells, carolers, church choirs. But tubas? Absolutely. It has become a regular tradition for musicians who play the tuba -- or the euphonium, a similar instrument half the size of its better-known cousin -- to gather in cities large and small in the weeks leading up to Christmas to play carols.

What is called "Tuba Christmas" first began 31 years ago in New York City's Rockefeller Center. That is when musician Harvey Phillips held a holiday tuba concert to honor his teacher, William Bell, who was considered by many to be the world's greatest tuba player. "The Rockefeller Center people were so impressed by the whole thing that they asked me to do it a second year," says Mr. Phillips. "This year we have over 200 cities around the world presenting Tuba Christmas concerts."

As Tuba Christmas has grown in popularity, founder Harvey Phillips says his mission has also expanded. He also wants to bring more attention to the tuba, a brass instrument primarily known for playing the oompah-pah bass line. "I'm out to improve the instrument, to improve the image with the general public, to improve the self esteem of those who play the instrument, and to get them a repertoire that will place them on a parallel with every other great instrument," says Mr. Phillips.

The musicians who participate in Tuba Christmas truly enjoy having their instrument on display. "All of us here really love playing the tuba," says Michael Salzman, who coordinates Tuba Christmas concerts in the New York region. "When you play the tuba, you become a member of a family unlike any other. The tuba brings so much warmth and satisfaction to the player that this is just a wonderful, wonderful event for us." Mr. Salzman has been involved in Tuba Christmas almost as long as founder Harvey Phillips. His first concert was in 1975.

Andy Post has only been participating for four years. "I'm the only tuba player in my high school," says the 17-year-old student. "This is such a great experience for any tuba player to hang out with a bunch of other tuba players, because it just doesn't get to happen. The first time I was here, I was almost freaking out because I saw this wall of tubas, sousaphones and euphoniums, and it was awesome. You never get to see that."

Not every Tuba Christmas concert looks like a wall of tubas. While there were more than 450 musicians at the Rockefeller Center concert, only a dozen or so showed up to perform in Leesburg, Virginia at a local shopping mall. But the players there were just as enthusiastic. "I'm a trombone player, but there is no 'Trombone Christmas' yet, so I just sign out a euphonium and see how fast my fingers will go," said Mike Aloisi, who drove 172 kilometers from Aberdeen, Maryland, to play in Leesburg, and has driven even farther to participate in other Tuba Christmas concerts. "This is my second year doing them," he said. "I've gone to a bunch. Yesterday, I went to the one in Greenville, North Carolina. Friday I was in Richmond. I like playing Christmas carols."

More than half the musicians playing in Leesburg were high school students. Their teacher, Rick Reaves, served as conductor, but the teenagers did not appear to be performing under duress. In fact, student Ian Richard said he would participate even if someone other than his teacher conducted the concert. "It's a lot of fun," Mr. Richard said. "Everyone thinks tubas are crazy because they're so big and so low, but it's really a good thing to do. I like it a lot."

That is a sentiment shared by nearly all of the musicians who participate in Tuba Christmas, whether they perform for a few weary shoppers at a shopping center in Leesburg, Virginia, or for a large crowd at Rockefeller Plaza in New York City.

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