Tubas get their turn at holiday celebration

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BRATTLEBORO — Behold the humble tuba. The lowest register instruments in the brass instrument family, the tuba and its cousins — baritone horn, euphonium, helicon and Sousaphone — form the foundation of the horn section, but rarely get to carry the melody.

But every holiday season, the unsung heroes of the horn section get the chance to shine in Brattleboro.

For the twelfth year, TubaChristmas will be celebrated in West Brattleboro on Sunday at 3 p.m. Players of the tuba, euphonium and baritone horn will gather at First Congregational Church, at 880 Western Ave., at 1 p.m. for registration and rehearsal. (Registration is $10, with proceeds funding local college music scholarships.) Doors open at 2:30 p.m., and admission is free, but a good-will offering is encouraged and will be donated to the church.

Cities and towns throughout the world have adopted this tradition of bringing together musicians to play beautiful arrangements of sacred and secular Christmas carols set for a four-part low-brass choir by American composer Alec Wilder. Steve Rice, music department chairman and band director at Brattleboro Union High School, has led this ensemble since 2017.

"It's the bass instrument of the band, so it doesn't feature very prominently in ensembles," Rice said of the tuba's underdog status. "They sit in the back of the band, but they are the unsung heroes of our ensembles" because of the foundation they provide, Rice said.

"Tuba Christmas is an opportunity for tuba players to be the only instruments and to have their time in the spotlight, and to bask in the beauty of that sound," Rice said.

According to Rice, TubaChristmas is presented by permission and cooperation of the Harvey Phillips Foundation, a not-for-profit foundation dedicated to developing, expanding, and preserving the music arts. The Foundation focuses special attention on musical instruments not ordinarily the object of other support, Rive explained.

TubaChristmas was conceived of by Phillips, tuba performer and professor at the University of Indiana's Jacobs School of Music, to honor his mentor, William Bell. The first TubaChristmas was held at the Rockefeller Center ice rink in New York City in 1974 and is still held annualy at that location, drawing hundreds of musicians.

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In New England, 19 TubaChristmas events will take place this season. It was introduced to Brattleboro in 2008 by Steve Damon, who now hosts a TubaChristmas in Bernardston, Mass. Bruce Corwin, conductor emeritus of the Brattleboro American Legion Band, took the reins four years later, and Rice took over from Corwin in 2017.

While many TubaChristmas participants claim tuba or euphonium as their primary instrument, others such as Rice are primarily players of other instruments who know how to play low brass instruments, Rice said. In honor of the founders of the event, only players of valved low brass instruments such as the tuba, sousaphone, euphonium, baritone horn (treble or bass clef readers) and Sousaphone/helicon may participate. (Trombones are not part of the tuba instrument family.)

In addition to drawing an appreciative community of musicians and listeners, TubaChristmas also provided Rice with a cherished family memory.

Some years ago, Rice's father, Wesley Rice, 82 of Shelburne Falls, Mass., retired from his insurance career and decided he wanted to re-learn a musical instrument. At his son's suggestion Wesley tried the euphonium but had trouble hitting the high notes. He then decided to learn the tuba and taught himself how to play and read music. One of the first times Wesley played in public was at a TubaChristmas in Shelburne Falls with his son Steve sitting and playing, next to him.

Doug Switzer, a euphonium player and retired educator who lives in Brattleboro, learned how to play the euphonium in high school. He hasn't missed a single one of the 12 TubaChristmas celebrations in Brattleboro, he said.

The main difference between a tuba and euphonium is that the euphonium is smaller and sounds more like a tenor, Switzer explained. For the past 27 years, he's played euphonium with the Brattleboro American Legion Band.

"It's just fun playing the music and playing with people who play the same instruments," Switzer said. "It's also fun to play for an audience who enjoys the music."

Audience members will be invited to sing along with the carols and are urged to bring sleigh bells to accompany the finale.

For more information, contact Rice at 802-451-9072.


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