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Tuba: Interview and demonstration with Chris Olka

Created by All Star Orchestra.

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Video transcript

("Symphony No. 5" by Dmitryi Shostakovich) - This is my six-quarter contrabass tuba. This is one that's pitched in double C. And this is the instrument that I play, I'd say, 90% of the time in the orchestra. I like it because it's a large instrument, and because it's so large, it actually is more efficient at providing plenty of bass sound to the orchestra. It reinforces the bass section and all the lower instruments much more readily than a smaller instrument would, and I have to work less hard to do it. The sound's not as clear as some of the smaller instruments, again, it's more omnidirectional, very present, but kind of like a big, velvet fog, so to speak, so, generally this is the low left hand of the piano, if you envision the orchestra set out like a piano, this is low left hand. It's more suited for middle and low-register playing. So, I'll just play a couple of things on this. (tuba booming) So this is the instrument I use most of the time in the orchestra. Then we've got the bass tuba. Because it's pitched in F, a fourth above the C, it's more suited to higher solo repertoire, and higher orchestral repertoire. So, Berlioz, Ravel, some of the lighter, brighter orchestrations, for example, Berlioz, The Hungarian March. (tuba booming) Stuff like this, it's got a lighter, leaner, clearer, more vocal sound. It's easier for technical passages. (tuba booming) So it can play all the same notes that you can play on a contrabass tuba, but it's certainly easier to play on the upper register on it, and for smaller, lighter, leaner orchestrations, it's less encompassing of a sound. It's clearer, more focused, and so you can have it be a little pointier, and tuck it into a smaller orchestra a little more handily. Then we've got the tenor tuba, and these, you see 'em mostly in British brass bands, but occasionally there are some repertoire in the orchestral rep that calls for a tenor tuba, and it would be one of these instruments, and it's pitched an octave above its bigger brother here. This one happens to be pitched in B flat, and you'll hear it's a much smaller, clearer, leaner sound. (tuba booming) Then we've got the cimbasso, and this is pitched in F, in the same key as the bass tuba here behind me, which is also in F, and you'll hear this is a much leaner sound than either of the tubas, but not as small as the tenor tuba. It's kind of a hybrid, and it definitely has more of a trombone-like sound, as a result of the fact that it's forward facing, it's directional, and smaller bore. And again, this is used for Italian opera. (cimbasso booming) ("Daphnis and Chloe - Suite No. 2" by Maurice Ravel) Basically, all the mouthpiece does, is it focuses, it acts as a cup to focus your buzzing lips into the small shank here, which then is plugged in to the instrument that you're gonna put it in, so, on the tuba here, you've got your mouthpiece, and you buzz into it, and then you plug it into the leadpipe, which then goes into the valves and the sound comes out of the bell. All you're really doing when you play a brass instrument is amplifying your buzzing lips, and you do that with the mouthpiece, so, let me get a pitch here, if you want to buzz a C, for instance, or play a C on tuba, if you've got that pitch in your ear, and you can sing it, ♪ Do, do ♪ if you sing there, whatever, you hear the pitch in your head, and you buzz your lips. (lips buzzing) Now, if I do that looking at the mouthpiece, (lips buzzing) it doesn't really work very effectively. So now we've got this mouthpiece which has a cup, or a cup-shaped bowl, with a leadpipe, (mouthpiece buzzing) Now we've got something to work with. We've got a focused buzz, and that's going to be amplified into the tuba. (tuba buzzing) So while there's a lot of money spent in research and development for the various brass instruments, they're basically glorified, as I like to call it, megaphones that, like a cheerleader would use, and all they do is amplify a raspberry. (lips buzzing) (tuba booming) ("Adieu!" by Bernard Rands) If you look, every instrument in the orchestra just about, has some brethren, for lack of a better way to put it. There's a ream of fiddles, there's a bunch of violas, you have a section of basses. Even in the woodwinds section, you've got a couple of oboes, you have a couple of bassoons, a couple of clarinets, a couple of flutes, as many as three or four. Trumpets, you have usually two at least, sometimes three, four, or more. French horns, you have four or five, counting an assistant, and trombones you have three, but the tuba you only have one, generally speaking, and there's some exceptions, but rarely do you see more than one tuba in the orchestra. Because your job is to provide the foundation of the orchestra, the bass role in the wind section, and you've got all these other instruments playing with no help from any other section of tubas, tend to kind of go towards a larger instrument, so that's why I play a six-quarter double C contrabass tuba. (orchestra music) I kind of have a non-traditional background as far as how I came to play the tuba. I should say the tuba was thrust upon me. It wasn't something that I arrived at, at my own. Previous to me playing the tuba, I was in middle school and late grade school, I was a saxophone player, and a very happy and contented saxophone player. I played an instrument that everybody liked, and everybody knew, and I loved it. I felt like I was pretty good on it. But when I got into the ninth grade in high school, my band director said, "Son, you're the biggest guy "in the band, we don't have any tubas, "and we've got plenty of saxophone players. "If you want to be in the band, you have to play the tuba. "You don't really have an option. "You must play the tuba if you want to be in the band." Well, I mean, I really liked the saxophone, but I liked being in the band more than just playing the saxophone, so I thought, well, if this is my only option, I guess I'll play the tuba, and basically what he did, was he gave me a tuba, and he gave me a method book, and a tired, old, rusty mouthpiece, and basically said, okay, go into a practice room, and band camp is for the next two weeks. Don't come out until you can play that thing. And so every day for four hours a day during band camp, when everybody else was in the band room rehearsing all the great classics, Rockin' Robin, Louis Louis, Wipeout, all these songs that I really desperately wanted to participate in, instead I was learning how to push the buttons down, and how to buzz my lips, and reading this Rubank Method for elementary tuba, and I figured out enough that I could go out and play the bass line to Louis Louis and Wipeout and Rockin' Robin, and earn my way into the band. So that was my freshman year in high school, and the rest, as they say, is history. I played the tuba for my entire high school career. My senior year in high school, I also started working as a musician at Walt Disney World in Orlando as a atmosphere musician playing tuba in the various bands. 1990, I graduated from high school, started my undergraduate degree and took six years of night courses, and some day courses, while also working at full-time at Walt Disney World as a musician there, starting every morning at eight o'clock when the park opened up, started playing a show, 20 to 30 minute sets every hour, hour and a half, seven shows a day, sometimes two, three parades, depended. And I was playing mostly jazz, marching band, popular music, stuff like this at Walt Disney, as you might imagine. Wasn't much of an orchestral guy. Had real no aspirations to be an orchestral tuba player, but I heard this recording of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Leonard Bernstein, of Mahler's Second Symphony, and when that was recorded in the late '80s, it was with what I call the dream team brass section of all time, in an orchestra in the United States, which was my teacher and a number of these trombone players in the New York Philharmonic, and the fabulous trumpets and horns. I mean, every person in that brass section was just world-class. I heard it and I was stunned. I was smitten by how beautiful this Mahler symphony was, which was the first one I had ever heard, and then the quality of playing and artistry in this recording. Now, I mention that because that had a profound impact on me. ("Symphony No. 2" by Gustav Mahler) I heard that recording, and I decided right then and there I wanted to be an orchestral musician, and I auditioned at the Julliard School for my master's degree, so that I could study with these gentlemen, and in fact, I had done a summer festival previously, that previous summer, with the principal brass players of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, and the principal trombone player, this guy, Joe Alessi, he set me down, and he said, "Listen, you need to quit your job, "and you need to come and study with us at Julliard, "and you'll get a job in an orchestra." Now I'm thinking, okay, he says this to everybody, he must, he's just trying to recruit. He said, "Listen, I don't say this to everybody. "In fact, I don't say this to anybody, "because I know how competitive it is "to get an orchestra job. "I'm telling you, if you come and study with us, "you've got what it takes. "You will win a job in an orchestra." So I took the leap of faith. I auditioned at Julliard and got a scholarship, and went to Julliard School for my master's degree, finished that in 1998, started working on my doctorate at Rutger's University for one year, and then the position opened up here in Seattle Symphony, and auditioned for that job subsequently, and won the job, and I've been here ever since 1999. ("Symphony No. 2" by Gustav Mahler) The very first orchestra concert I played in the Julliard Orchestra, the conductor was Jerry Schwartz. My very first concert I ever played at the Julliard School, Jerry's the music director. Three years later, I'm principal tuba in his orchestra. Now we're looking at Jerry putting together this orchestra in New York, this all-star orchestra, and he's asked me to be the tuba player. I mean, what a tremendous thrill, but on top of that, one of the things that he programs is the first movement of Mahler's Second Symphony, and no less than four of the brass players that were on that famous recording that was on Deutsche Grammophon, that was recorded with Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, no less than four of those brass players that were on that recording were in this orchestra, and I got to play with them. Two of 'em were in the trombone section of that famous recording, Joe Alessi, who was principal on the Mahler, and David Finlayson, who was playing third trombone on that recording, and in the recording we did last week, as well as two of the horn players from the French horn section during that recording back in the '80s were also in this all-star orchestra, so, for me it was a really big moment. Here, I'm getting to play a piece that was pivotal in my decision to be an orchestral musician and a brass player, and I got to revisit this repertoire with a conductor I feel very strongly about, have a great relationship with, with my teachers that made this recording possible. ("Symphony No. 2" by Gustav Mahler)