The complicated life of a tuba player


When you are a tuba player, life can be, well, boring.

If you happen to be the best tuba player around, you get all the gigs and look busy.

For 37 years, Scott Irvine has been a freelance tuba player doing gigs with Dixieland, polka and clown bands. He got all the gigs on recording sessions in the Toronto area -- commercials, too. He's a member of the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra and is a founder of the brass ensemble True North Brass.

"You name it, anything where a tuba could be used, I was doing it," Irvine said.

He even became the voice of Elephant on theSharon, Lois and Bramshow.

"The tuba was the voice, not me."

Once you get on with a symphony orchestra, you lock up all the work. Well, you can call it work.

"With tuba players in orchestras, we have a lot of time off because the tuba was one of the later instruments in the orchestra. If the symphony orchestra is doing a Beethoven festival, the tuba player is sitting at home. I play in the opera orchestra. When I'm playing, it's usually because the bad guy is on stage. During the love duet, I tend to sit and listen."

Now in other groups -- popular groups -- bass players have a bit of a reputation for being different, special, maybe a little bit weird. One wonders if that translates to the tuba world.

"Because of having so much time on your hands, tuba players tend to either be philosophers or humorists. But weird? I'd say the woodwind section is weird," Irvine said.

It's been noted before in these pages that there can't be enough tuba, and tuba players, in a band. The Orillia Wind Ensemble -- with whom Irvine is the guest artists for Saturday's concert at St. Paul's United Church (8 p.m.) -- have had as many as six tubas on stage. Irvine's symphony orchestra experience is a bit lonelier than that.

"Traditionally, there's one tuba player in the orchestra and even then the player isn't used all the time. I've played second tuba with the Toronto Symphony on occasion because every now and then a composer will write for a bloated orchestra. Stravinsky'sRite of Springfor instance has two tubas and I've played that a few times with them. In fact one of those times was at Carnegie Hall."

So how does that work when a wind ensemble, brass band, drum corps, or other group has more tubas it sounds better and symphonies get by with only one player?

"That's different. Tubas in a concert band are providing the function of the string bass in the orchestra. In a concert band, a number of tubas is a good thing. It provides a foundation because it is the bass. In a symphony orchestra, the tuba is basically a colour instrument. There are all sorts of bass instruments there already, the double bass section, bassoon, bass clarinet, the cellos on occasion; there's a lot of bass happening and a tuba is something you add to the mix when you want it to get a little more exciting, a little louder," Irvine explained.

So, tuba players can get comfortable watching all the other musicians work and learn to live with it. They can join a brass band, professional of course, and do more playing, or they can branch out.

"I felt I wasn't living up to my full potential. I felt there was more to life than just playing tuba, so I started composition lessons in the 1970s," Irvine said. "This concert features three of my works, and I'm conducting one of them. Had I been a cellist, I may not have also become a composer because I would have been busy enough playing the cello."

Irvine writes many pieces for bands, orchestras and for True North Brass.

With True North, he can control how much of the playing he gets to do and feel alive with all the great musical lines happening on his own instrument, you'd think.

"It's funny. I've written a euphonium concert, a concerto for Joan (Watson, Irvine's wife), but I must be a bit lazy because the last thing I would want to do is write myself something incredibly difficult for tuba and then I'd have to end up learning it and playing it. The arrangements I do for True North Brass I tend to give myself the easiest part."

As featured guest soloist in the concert, he's taken the "not too much to do" attitude by bringing along his wife to perform, too. Joan Watson was a guest soloist with the OWE a couple of years ago. The eminent French horn player will repeat a performance ofShape Shifter(written by Irvine) she did then, but this time she will play it on a Wagnerian tuba. That fits the concert theme of Meet the Tuba, until you learn that the Wagnerian tuba is really an overgrown French horn. OK, a really overgrown French horn.

The last piece the OWE will play is a big one, the last movement of Shostakovich'sFifth Symphony.This is a well-known piece of music, even if the title isn't top of mind. Irvine also has a visual treat for the audience too.

"I'm planning on doing a little slide show about the life of a tuba player."

Oh joy, we can watch pictures of Irvine nodding off while waiting to play his parts.

"There is that aspect. I think there is one photo of me with my eyes closed," Irvine laughed.

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