Tuba, Word of Many Meanings II

It was 1959 when I wrote my first article; it was called “Tuba, word of many meanings”. It dealt with the various kinds of tubas in different countries; that the “tuba” we see printed on a piece of French music was quite a different instrument than the “tuba” we see printed on a piece of German music. And what was the best piece of equipment for the enormous numbers of styles we’re required to play? Now, 46 years later most of these questions have been answered… but there are new ones.

46 years ago the French players were still desperately trying to keep their tradition of using small bore tenor tubas in C; the French tuba. I have spoken to conductors who performed in France during that period and their frustration was intense. The French were proud and stubborn, they believed, or at least said they believed, that the French tuba was the best thing for almost everything and if the conductor insisted on a larger tuba (bass or contrabass) they could, of course, play it, but of course, it required extra pay! It wasn’t until about twelve years later when Mel Culbertsen won the position in the Paris Opera that things quickly started to change. Now France produces some of the most sophisticated and versatile tubists in the world.

Not all the other countries have been willing to move forward like the French; in Germany, they are still insisting on BBb tubas when frequently a CC would simply be superior. Further, they still insist on rotary valves! One has to ask if this is for some subtle musical reason or if they are just trying to protect themselves from foreign competitors. Certainly, the evolution of the tuba in Germany has become retarded by these inflexible rules.

There are more tendencies in the rest of the world; North America seems to be involved in some kind of a equipment “arms race” with the philosophy “bigger is better”.

The countries from the old communist block have been held back for so long that the growth that has taken place in the rest of the world over last 50 years did not reach them until fifteen years ago, causing them to be years behind in the tuba evolution. Many of these old east block players are aware of the tuba evolution but economics are preventing them from moving forward. Of course, a huge exception to this old east block syndrome is Hungary, which is arguably the most advanced country in the tuba world. Why this anomaly? Certainly there must be some extraordinary teaching in Hungary.

And then there is the United Kingdom: Unquestionably one can’t say the tuba is retarded in England. It’s doing very well and there are many fine players but certainly they seem to be isolated from the rest of the world regarding the tuba evolution. It’s understandable that the British are reluctant to move away from their brass band tradition of instruments and playing. The Eb, or as they prefer EEb tuba, seems to work fairly well for everything and it certainly is the best instrument for brass band, why bother to change? The truth is that perhaps the Eb tuba is the best all round tuba but the fact is that outside of brass band the British are severely limiting themselves to the possibilities of equipment versatility. Sometimes the Eb sounds correct in but many times it doesn’t.

Thank God we are all different, and thank God we have a variety of equipment, but I would hope that in the extremely rapid evolution of the tuba that we are still experiencing, which is unique in musical history, we might become more like the string instruments; the emphases being more on our musical diversity rather than our equipment.

I have been saying for many years, and I still say from experience, that when a BBb, CC, D, Eb, F, G or tenor sounds best, that’s what we should use. And I still say that the trumpet community has always been ahead of us, they have to be equipmentally flexible to do the best job possible.

Lausanne, Switzerland, July 20, 2005

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