Back in my younger days, when my hair was long and thick, my waist was thin, and my future was bright, I was a tuba player. That’s right, that big, brass instrument seen mostly in German Oom-Pah-Pah bands.
I sat first chair in my high school band, was chosen to participate in the Fox Valley Festival Orchestra (one of my fondest tuba memories), and I was invited to join a national high school honors orchestra in Washington D.C. ( although I ultimately didn’t participate). Even though it sounds like I was a pretty good tuba player, the truth is, I was a bit of a hack. I rarely practiced and I didn’t take my playing very seriously. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t love it. I loved playing tuba.
Sadly, tubas and tuba players get a bad rap. In the rare movie or TV show that includes a storyline about a tuba, the tuba player is almost always a fat, nerdy kid. It’s as if the show writers are straight out saying, “Well, who else would play that big, dumb instrument?”
But it’s not a “big, dumb instrument.” It is a beautiful, bass-toned instrument that sadly doesn’t get to take centerstage very often. But in 1974, a man named Harvey Phillips set out to change that.
Phillips, a tuba player himself, wanted to honor his teacher and mentor, the legendary William J. Bell, whose birthday just happened to be December 25. By honoring Bell, Phillips also hoped to pay tribute to all tuba players and teachers who had displayed high performance standards, professional pedagogy, and personal integrity.
According to the TubaChristmas website:
“The first TUBACHRISTMAS was conducted by Paul Lavalle in New York City’s Rockefeller Plaza Ice Rink on Sunday, December 22, 1974. Traditional Christmas music performed at the first TUBACHRISTMAS was arranged by American composer Alec Wilder who ironically died on Christmas Eve, 1980. Wilder composed many solo and ensemble compositions for tuba and euphonium. He was a loyal supporter of every effort to improve the literature and public image of our chosen instruments. Through Alec Wilder we express our respect and gratitude to all composers who continue to embrace our instruments with their compositions and contribute to the ever growing solo and ensemble repertoire for tuba and euphonium.”
Now, after 50 years of celebrating Phillips brainchild, TubaChristmas events are held in nearly every state and around the world. In 2018 in Kansas City, a TubaChristmas event set a Guinness World Record for the most tubas playing in one place at one time. On that day, 836 tubas played the Christmas classic, “Silent Night.”
Here is a video of the record-breaking event in Kansas City:
Here is the nearly hour-long concert held this year (2023) at the Kennedy Center in New York:
From this (former) tuba player to you, Merry Christmas!