Triumphant Tubas, Euphoric EuphoniumsAug. 21, 2009
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Clay Garrett wanted to win the international tuba competition, but he wasn't holding his breath.
He couldn't afford to. The massive tuba -- if its coils were to be unwound -- would stretch 16 to 18 feet. That's a lot of wind.
Garrett, a Baylor University graduate student from Tyler, Texas, blew away most of the competition. His mighty breathing, vibrating lips and digital dexterity netted him a third-place win in the recent annual Leonard Falcone International Euphonium and Tuba Festival competition, considered the top annual amateur competition for the two instruments. This Super Bowl for tubists is held in Twin Lake, Mich.
Close on Garrett's heels was Baylor senior Kevin Butler of Houston, one of 10 people worldwide who made it to the tuba semifinals.
There was reason for euphoria on the euphonium front, too. Recent Baylor graduate Matt Shipes was one of 10 semifinalists competing with this smaller cousin of the tuba.
Nearly 200 contestants from 10 countries submitted CDs to try to earn a spot at the contest, said Marty Erickson, the event's adjudicating chairman.
Baylor students have been past winners and semifinalists in the competition's student category. But this year, they competed at the tougher artist level. That category has no age limit, and competitors must not hold paid full-time posts in orchestras or at universities.
The tuba is overdue some respect, say the students and their teacher, David Graves, a lecturer in music at Baylor.
"A lot of the people I hang out with are musicians, but there's always a little snickering and oompah jokes," Garrett said.
"There's the stereotype of Tubby the Tuba, the image of the pudgy boy with rosy cheeks, but that's not the case," Graves added. "The repertoire at this level of competition would blow you away, and they make it sound easy."
Pulmonary prowess also is crucial because people tend to take shallow breaths when they get nervous, Graves said. Before competing, tubists do metered deep breathing exercises, much like those helpful to a woman in labor.
"Probably the most unique aspect is the sheer amount of air required to fill the instrument," Graves said. "There are a lot of bends, and you just have to be a good breather."
The tuba is considered a youngster in the musical world. The competition marked its 24th anniversary this year, but tubists were not invited to compete until 1996. Most orchestral instruments have been around for centuries, but the tuba was patented in 1835 in Germany. The sousaphone, also a tuba, is played in marching bands.
Tubists are tickled that the instrument is moving from its supporting role in orchestras to becoming a solo instrument.
"In middle school, I had a knack for it," Butler said. "The tuba was my outlet.
"Everybody who has played the tuba understands we've probably got the goofiest-looking instrument," he said. "We have no illusions. All you can do is play it well and keep good humor, good spirit. People recognize good music is good music."
When the first concerto for tuba was composed in 1954, the reviews weren't favorable, Graves said. One said it was "clumsy and ridiculous, like a tipsy hippopotamus dancing."
But "because of events like this, composers are catching wind of what the tuba is capable of doing."