Musican to study tuba – and tubas – in Germany
Gabriel Sears would like you to get one thing straight about the tuba: It’s not just an “oom-pah” instrument.
“The tuba is much more,” Sears said. “When most people hear the tuba, or even the word tuba, what usually automatically comes to their head is oom-pah stuff, or tubas keeping the beat.
"Little do people know that the tuba can do everything that the violin, flute, trumpet, etc., can. It's a fantastic soloist instrument as well as ensemble instrument. The tuba has a larger range than most instruments, which makes it that much more unique. The tuba isn't necessarily the most common instrument most people think of, but it can do anything and everything that all other instruments are capable of, and it's tough to fight that stereotype."
Sears, who began playing the tuba in the sixth grade, and earned a music degree from ASU in December 2010, will take perhaps the ultimate tuba trip this coming year – in the quintessential “oom-pah” land – on a Fulbright Scholarship.
He leaves in August for a year-long stay in Hannover, Germany, to study tuba at the Hochschule fur Musik, Theater, und Medien Hannover (Hannover University of Music, Theater, and Media). There, Sears will study with Jens Bjørn-Larsen, a world famous tuba soloist and educator.
While he is in Germany, Sears also plans to visit all the major tuba makers in Europe, including B&S, Meinl-Weston, Miraphone, Besson and Groenitz, to “see if there is a possible universal design, and investigate the most efficient way to wrap a tuba.”
The first tuba, according to various histories, was the “serpent,” an instrument made of wood covered with leather, invented in approximately 1590 in France.
Tubas have appeared in various incantations over the years, but the “big ones,” Sears said, were the serpent, the ophicleide, which first was played in Ireland in the early 1800s, and the saxhorn, which Adophe Sax designed and began manufacturing in the mid-1800s.
The tuba is, Sears said, basically 12-18 feet of brass tubing, depending on the pitch of the tuba. The design varies with the manufacturer and the country, and a major difference is in the valves – tubas come with either rotary or piston. Sears said that German tubists seem to prefer rotary valves while Americans like pistons.
Sears himself plays two tubas – a large Besson double C tuba that he uses for large-ensemble playing, and a smaller Yamaha F tuba, made in Japan, for solos and smaller groups.
At ASU, Sears studied with tuba professors Sam Pilafian and Pat Sheridan and earned a degree in music education. He’s looking forward to learning the differences between German and American tuba pedagogy, and he hopes to “bridge the cultures, taking American-style teaching, and bringing German ideas home with me,” he said.
Sears at first wanted to play the clarinet along with a friend in fifth grade, but his band teacher in Albuquerque said no, that there were already enough clarinets in the band, and that perhaps he could play the euphonium.
“When the band director suggested the euphonium in fifth grade,” Sears said, “my parents came to the school to talk to the band director, and the teacher who gave private lessons, about the euphonium. My parents were supportive. My mother didn’t want me to play the clarinet because she didn’t want to hear all the squeaking.”
In sixth grade, Sears switched to the tuba and started on a three-quarter-size tuba, which he said was “a lot harder than the euphonium. It took a lot of air. But then your lungs grow, and you do a lot of practice.”
Though tubas are very expensive – the range is anywhere between $7,000 to $10,000 (though the most expensive tuba Sears has heard of is $36,000) – and are big and heavy (25 to 50 pounds), he said he has never regretted his decision to switch from the euphonium. “The tuba is a way for me to express myself musically,” he said.
After his Fulbright year is up, Sears hopes to stay another year in Germany to finish his master’s degree, then find a playing or teaching job in Europe or the United States.
And after a year in Germany, he might even start adding a little of that “oom-pah” music to his classical repertoire. Stereotype, begone.