Each year, if you’re a New Yorker, you might find yourself snarling Grinch-like at the crowd of 40,000 people pressing around the ice rink of Rockefeller Center and clogging the surrounding sidewalks. But if you pause and put a hand to your ear, you’ll catch what they hear rising up from the ice—a sound deep with the warm hum of several hundred tubas. A rumbling sound, a golden sound, a sound so golden, in fact, that just when you think it couldn’t get any more golden, the euphoniums gild the whole thing with their agile melodies as all together the tall and the small, the pistons and the rotaries, the sousaphones and the double-bells, the BBbs and the Fs, the professionals and the students, all join stands and play—Christmas carols!
Lest you think this scene belongs to a Seuss-like fantasy realm, let me assure you that I am describing a very real event: TubaChristmas, the first of which indeed took place on the ice rink of Rockefeller Center in 1974 and which has proliferated today into TubaChristmases that occur annually in most major American cities, many smaller ones too, rural locales, and even abroad in countries like Italy, France, Costa Rica, and Japan. And yes, it continues on the ice rink at Rockefeller Center to this day.
TubaChristmases take place in grand old theatres, college auditoriums, shopping malls, gymnasiums, on the steps of government buildings—you name it, there the mass ensembles of tubas will be, playing carols arranged for them and their euphonium brethren. And when I say mass ensemble, I mean upwards of 300 players in cities like Denver, or even 500 in Akron, Ohio. The beauty of it is, everyone who brings an appropriate instrument and who coughs up the nominal fee is allowed to play. That means you have twelve year-olds next to Peabody graduates, and people like my brother Jon, who pulls the tuba out of the closet once a year, playing next to people like my brother Kent, an internationally-celebrated professional. One year when I played in TubaChristmas at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, I played next to a man who worked for DARPA and who therefore probably had more to do with inventing the Internet than even Al Gore did.
Now, this vast and diverse ensemble works in part because of our low brass instruments. They produce a mellow sound that blends over mistakes in a very forgiving way, unlike, say, the squeaks and squawks you’d have to endure if ClarinetChristmas existed. And should you be tempted to underestimate the importance of a mellow tone, I have two words, one hypothetical situation: Piccolo. Christmas. TrumpetChristmas, on the other hand—that might be okay if you could find a location big enough to accommodate the heads of all the players.
But TubaChristmas is about more than an unforgettable sound. We TubaChristmas participants have a note on the first page of our carol books that reads like this: “When you appear in public, you represent ALL OTHER tuba and euphonium players. Be dignified; you never know who may be observing you. Dress neatly and be friendly. Present a proud image for yourself, your instrument, and your art.”
These words ring with the voice of Father TubaChristmas himself, the late Harvey Phillips. Harvey used to travel to many TubaChristmases throughout the season, and I was lucky enough that my home TubaChristmas in Columbus, Ohio, was one of his regular stops. He was precisely the type to carry himself with dignity and friendliness—and with a mission to encourage public interest in the tuba. The result was that he didn’t just get up and conduct the carols; he told stories and reminisced about Christmases and TubaChristmases past, and he always led the audience in singing along. He’d tell the audience to simply enjoy the sound of the tubas while we played through the carol once, then to join in singing on the second time through. When we’d get to “Angels We Have Heard on High,” he would recall Christmas Eve services of his youth when the women sounded, to his boyish ears, absolutely angelic as they sang the refrain. And so he’d have everyone, even the tubas, drop out at the refrain and just the women were invited to sing “Gloria!”
I’m getting a warm fuzzy feeling just writing about it. But some TubaChristmases offer a good dose of cold and headache, too. When my dad started playing in TubaChristmas Columbus in 1982, it took place outside on the steps of the statehouse; I have vivid childhood memories of standing in the audience shivering through his performance in which he would later report that his valves had frozen with cold. Legend has it that some tubists add anti-freeze to their valve oil in preparation for outdoor TubaChristmases. Fortunately for me, by 1996, when I first crossed over from audience member to participant, Columbus had moved the event inside a theatre auditorium. Warmer, yes, and better for sound too—the resonance from the walls and ceiling adds an extra ring to that already unforgettable sound—but every year, by the end of balancing my tuba on my lap in the confines of an old theatre seat and trying to watch—nay, glimpse—the conductor through the maze of tubas in front of me, I wind up with my annual TubaChristmas headache.
Right now, if other TubaChristmas participants are reading this, I guarantee they are nodding in sympathy at the difficulty of maintaining a view of the conductor. They also know how vital it is to see the conductor because in the large indoor TubaChristmases, you often have a choice of three beats to follow: the conductor’s beat, your neighbor’s beat, and the echo you’re hearing as the music reverberates. While we’re divulging TubaChristmas woes, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention logistics. In that first TubaChristmas, no one foresaw the difficulty of funneling all 300 musicians with their instruments through a single revolving door onto the ice. People in a nearby restaurant reportedly left their tables to watch the slow-moving spectacle. A more common problem for participants of any urban TubaChristmas is navigating subways and other public transit with your tuba. When my brother Jon played in the New York City TubaChristmas one year, he walked for many blocks carrying the tuba he’d borrowed from my dad. Fortunately he had the foresight to borrow the Naked Lady (a small Conn tuba, so named because of the engraving it and other Conn instruments of the period bears of the naked torso of a woman) rather than what we lovingly refer to in our family as the lead tuba. It’s not really made of lead; it’s just a giant old tuba with a front-facing, recording-style bell that makes it extra unwieldy. Still, uncomfortable and cold as the approach to a venue can be, it’s always a part of TubaChristmas I enjoy because of the visual illustration of tuba players coming out of the woodwork. Businessman, businessman, tuba, businessman.
Playing in TubaChristmas is well worth putting up with a few discomforts, but even if it wasn’t, I couldn’t stop now or else I’d mar my collection of TubaChristmas buttons. Each year, participants get a new button with the year printed on it. My dad long ago ceased wearing all of his because, well, it would be like chainmail, so he dons the 1982 button and the present one, assuming people will fill in the blank. I, on the other hand, crown myself with my buttons by pinning them along the faux-fur trimmed brim of my Santa hat. Come to think of it, this may have a lot to do with my Tubachristmas headaches—I’ve got seventeen years’ worth riding around up there.
I am, by far, not the only one to show Christmas spirit. People decorate their tubas with everything from strands of battery-powered lights wrapped around the tubing, to entire tinsel trees coming up out of the instrument’s bell. Photos from TubaChristmases around the nation show that it is not uncommon for a line of sousaphones to sport a letter each across the circumference of their bell to spell out T-U-B-A-C-H-R-I-S-T-M-A-S.
The best part of TubaChristmas, though, is not the tinsel, the trimmings, the trappings or tags. Just as Christmas itself is about great mystery becoming concrete in human form, so does TubaChristmas take that unnamable quality—the gestalt, if you will—of the low brass world and put it into one existent event. I mean, who but a mass ensemble of low brass would embed the “National Emblem March” into “Jingle Bells?” But year after year, we do, and it always delights the audience into clapping along (which puts a fourth option out there for which beat to follow). And who but a tuba player, when looking for a way to memorialize his beloved teacher so that future generations will know who he is, would dream up a mass ensemble playing carols on the Rockefeller ice? But that’s exactly why Harvey Phillips started TubaChristmas in the first place, to pass on the memory of the “late great”—as Harvey always called him—Bill Bell. You see, even TubaChristmas’s origin story brims with that winning combination of seriousness and comedy, of high art and low brow, of endearing sentiment blended with a certain earthiness, that is the tuba mystique. Here, in Harvey’s own words from his autobiography, Mr. Tuba, is how it all began:
“Hello. My name is Harvey Phillips, and I would like to reserve the ice rink stage at Rockefeller Center for a musical tribute to a great musician.”
“What is your ensemble?” asked the vice president who answered the phone.
I said, “Well, I don’t have an ensemble but I am expecting around three hundred tubas.”
The phone went silent. He said very quietly, “Would you repeat that?”
When the vice president turned him down, Harvey proceeded to give him the unlisted phone numbers of several references, which included Leonard Bernstein and Leopold Stokowski. Yeah. Apparently the vice president was sufficiently impressed with these references because an hour later, he called Harvey back and said, “Mr. Phillips, I have spoken with some of your friends. You can have anything you want, and we will help you in any way that we can to have a successful event.”
And it was successful. Not just because TubaChristmas has prospered and multiplied for four decades, but because at TubaChristmas 2010 in Washington, DC, where I was one of the participants, the conductor had us pause during the rehearsal. He talked about Harvey, who had passed away in October of that year, and talked about Harvey’s devotion to the tuba and to memorializing great forebears of our instrument, like Bill Bell. And though we had only an hour in which to rehearse for the performance that would take place in another hour (that’s the tight time-frame on which TubaChristmas day is usually structured), we played together “Komm, susser Tod,”—the old Bach chorale, “Come, Sweet Death.” The commemoration was made even sweeter to those of us who recognize that Bill Bell arranged this very melody into the piece “Air and Bourree,” an early staple of tuba repertoire. There we were, most of us not even professional musicians, remembering the warm spirit of a giant of our own time in Harvey, as well as the kind encouragement of a giant of a former era, Bill Bell—and in so doing, becoming ourselves a part of their proud tradition, claiming our place in the community of low brass camaraderie. We didn’t play “Komm, susser Tod” in the performance; just in that rehearsal, just for us.
Good news: That kind of inwardness is rare when it comes to TubaChristmas. And so, on behalf of Bill Bell and Harvey Phillips and the thousands of tuba and euphonium players of TubaChristmas past as well as TubaChristmas future, I invite you to go to tubachristmas.com, find the date of the TubaChristmas nearest you, and join us this year. We’d love to have you singing in the audience, or if you can, playing there beside us. It doesn’t matter which spot you occupy; we wish you all a Merry TubaChristmas!