Steven Mead, one of the world’s foremost euphonium virtuosos, tells an anecdote about being stopped at airport security and asked to show the contents of the case he carried. He dutifully unveiled his euphonium, an instrument that looks like a miniature tuba. The security officer took one look at it and said, “Oh, it’s a piano.” She let him pass.
Welcome to the world of the euphonium, the tuba’s best friend. Unlike the tuba, which battles stereotypes of oom-pah and of comic value, the euphonium fights simply to be known. Even you, gentle reader, might have wondered through the first several installments what this euph-word was and what place it had in a column that promises confessions from the tuba world.
Tuba and euphonium are so much a part of one another socially and professionally, they cannot be rent asunder. Our sections sit next to each other in the band. Since most universities have only one tuba professor, those individuals, with very few exceptions, are expected to teach tuba and euphonium. Many competitions, like the Leonard Falcone International Competition, have tuba and euphonium divisions at the same contest. We share the same professional organization, the International Tuba and Euphonium Association (ITEA), and we blend so well musically that the tuba/euph ensemble is the string quartet of the low brass family.
Still, what the heck is a euphonium?
Picture a miniature tuba. Now, give that instrument a voice pitched an octave above the tuba’s, and give it a lovely, singing tenor tone, and you have the euphonium. It plays in about the same range as the trombone, but the timbre is richer, mellower, less horn-like. If you know what a baritone is, you’re 95% on your way to knowing the euphonium. The differences between baritone and euphonium are very subtle and technical; it’s not the number of valves or the direction the bell faces that differentiates them. Instead it’s the size and shape of the bore—bore being the chamber inside a wind instrument that air travels through to make the sound—which is cylindrical for baritone (hence the similarity to the cylindrical-bore trombone) and conical for euphonium (hence the mellow richness closer to the conical-bore tuba).
That’s the technical definition, but I like to think of euphoniums as the poets of the band. They are poets in the sense that they live up to the meaning of their name, “sweet sounding.” They provide an inner voice in band music that won’t immediately pop for a casual listener but that nonetheless adds texture and depth, a subtlety and nuance that seems closer to the stuff of poetry than the underlying bass part the tuba provides. But the euphoniums are also poets in that there’s very little demand for them outside their specialized sphere of wind band or brass band. Euphonium is not scored in most orchestral works, although there are exceptions like Holst’s The Planets where euphonium plays the “tenor tuba” part. As in the writing world where making money off fiction is difficult, but making money off poetry is next to impossible, so too do tubas find themselves with more marketability while euphoniums—well, let’s just say there’s a lot of truth to the following joke: What do you call a euphonium player who’s not in a military band? Unemployed.
If you’re a euphoniumist in the United Kingdom, however, you might have better luck, thanks to the rich tradition of brass bands there. The nineteenth-century into the early twentieth was the heyday for concert bands both here and abroad, but the UK was unique for the number and quality of its amateur brass bands. If you saw the movie Brassed Off, you know a little something about how brass bands were a form of recreation for the working class, like the Grimethorpe Colliery Band and Black Dyke Mills Band, bands of the coal pit and textile mill whose names bear witness to the industries that supported them. Some of them survive today, and brass band competitions continue to be a big deal. The point for euphonium is that brass band music not only includes a euphonium part specifically (and, amazingly, distinct from the baritone part) but it often features the euphonium as a solo voice. Many test pieces—a piece composed for all competing bands to play—include a section where a single euphonium stands up and takes the melody. And those solos are often “fiendishly difficult,” in the words of accomplished euphonium and baritone player, Diana Herak. Her father, Paul Droste, an important euphoniumist who has started several brass bands here in the U.S., characterizes British feelings towards euphonium as being a bit like American feelings towards jazz—a corner of the music world belonging uniquely to them.
The brass band tradition, along with the concert band generally, has done a lot to ensure euphonium doesn’t go the way of the sackbut. But let’s get back to the euphonium as a solo instrument. In my opinion, it’s one of the very best solo instruments to listen to because it combines a beautiful tone with the capacity to be played very rapidly. I’ve heard it said that euphonium repertoire consists of two pieces: “Danny Boy” and “Go Like Hell.” Exhibits A and B.
As a listener, I prefer albums like Brian Bowman’s The Sacred Euphonium, which contains “Danny Boy” after “Danny Boy,” to recordings of serious, virtuoso repertoire that can be a little mind-bending after awhile, like Euphonium Concerto by Ellerby, but not easy listening. Another fun option is transcriptions from other instruments. Since euphonium, like tuba, has a repertoire that’s generally younger and narrower than more “mainstream” instruments, euphoniumists often take pieces from the repertoires of other instruments. You’ll likely recognize this Bach cello piece, played here on euphonium by Ben Pierce.
So now that you know something about the euphonium as an instrument, you might be wondering what it’s like to be a euphoniumist, a question I had never asked myself until I sat down to write this. Like an older sibling who takes a younger sibling for granted, the tuba tends to claim an alpha role, and while it’s happy to have euphonium along for the ride and as a buddy to hang out with, we tubists think little of how euphoniums have to put up with the equivalent of being known as “Kent’s sister” when in fact your name is “Elizabeth.” Think about it. It’s easy to define euphonium as a “miniature tuba” because the general public knows what a tuba is, but they’re unlikely to know euphonium. We call TubaChristmas just that, even though the euphoniums have every bit as much a part in it, and maybe even more if you consider they take the melody in most of the carol arrangements. The ITEA used to be Tubists Universal Brotherhood Association (TUBA)—I defy you to find a hint of euphonium in that name, even though euphoniums were involved from the very early days. Even I’m guilty of talking about “tuba” when I should really say “tuba/euph.”
With this dawning guilt, I turned to a few euphonium players to ask whether they experienced envy over tuba favoritism. And you know what? Not one of them did. They all cited their closeness with tuba players, pointing out the shared turf with tubas in an “us vs. them” feeling, where “us” means obscure, neglected tuba/euphs and “them” includes all the other better known, broader-repertoired instruments. I have to say I agree. I also found myself agreeing when one very prominent career euphoniumist said, “Tuba players are legendary beer drinkers—euphonium players not so much, so tubas win the chugging contests.” (Of course, I can name more than a couple euphoniumists who hold their own in that regard.)
As a side note, I’d like to call attention to one interesting piece of turf we don’t share: the double-bell euphonium, a two-headed monster for which there is no equivalent in the tuba world. They’re uncommon today, but as recently as the 1950s you could order double-bell euphoniums from brass catalogues. If you play a double-bell euphonium like you would normally play a euphonium, you get a euphonium sound out of one of the bells while the other is silent. Push down the fifth valve, however, and the sound now comes out of the second bell, which has a baritone/trombone timbre, thus allowing the player to manipulate his sound to best suit the part at any given measure. Early euphonium virtuosos like Simone Mantia, who played in the Sousa band, often used double-bell euphoniums as a matter of course.
And now I would like to make what is possibly the greatest confession I have to make in these “Confessions from the Tuba World”: every now and again, I find that I—tuba-playing me—have a twinge of jealousy towards the euphonium. It’s just so beautiful, and when you watch a euphoniumist play, they have a stance as if they’re prepared to take off with their instrument in a ballroom dance, right hand on the valves, left arm encircling it. And let me tell you, when I used to haul a brass sousaphone in a slow-moving parade on hot, sunny Fourth of July days, I had serious envy issues with those precious little baritones mincing along. Of course, I can play the euphonium; the fingerings are the same as for tuba, and I have experience with the tighter embouchure from the days when I played valve trombone in the high school jazz band because there was no place for tuba. But you see, that’s a plight euphoniums would readily identify with: having to set aside your own beloved instrument and take up another, more called-for horn. The “us” vs. “them.”
I suppose tuba/euphs are at an advantage in that all this swapping around of instruments makes us better musicians. Still, no matter how well I can swing “Satin Doll” on a valve trombone or how quickly euphonium “Danny Boy” brings a tear to my eye, it’s the tuba I feel an innate allegiance to. I’m sure many tuba-playing euphoniumists feel the same for euphonium. It’s as Steven Mead, the euphonium/piano-toting virtuoso, says: The highest compliment anyone can give is that you played as if the instrument was part of you.