Tubist  Harvey  Phillips
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Unless one is a brass player, the tuba just does not pop into your mind very often.  The fact that it is the foundation of the entire sound being produced escapes notice.  The idea that it might just be a melodic instrument seems to be alien to general thought.  Rest assured, however, the tuba is all of that and much more!

Sure, it is bulky and cumbersome and hard to maneuver, and one might think that only guys who share those qualities even consider taking it up, but the tuba
— in all its forms and varieties — is advancing steadily and becoming more and more of a household name.  And a major reason it is having wider success and larger involvement is due to the efforts of Harvey Phillips.

It is right to single this man out for his contributions to the bottom blaster.  He has worked all his life to promote the instrument, aid in its advancement, commission new works for it and teach others young
and not so younghow to release the sound from within the monster.  Besides all of this, he has established groups and fostered organizations that continue to push and enrich the instrument in every manner.  Oh, and he is also acknowledged to be its foremost performer by friends, colleagues, critics and the public.

What you are about to read is a conversation that I was privileged to have with Harvey Phillips.  He was jolly (of course), as well as knowledgeable, understanding, insightful, vigorous and eager to expound on his favorite topics.  We met outside my studio and began chatting immediately.  Once inside, the tape machine was turned on and we just continued without stopping.  As we pick up the flow, Phillips was nostalgically reminiscing about his colleague Alec Wilder . . . . .

Harvey Phillips:  Alec, without a doubt, is the closest friend I’ve ever had in my life.  He traveled with me a lot and would come and spend anywhere from a week to two or three weeks with us at a time.

Bruce Duffie:    So not only was he an influence on you, you must have been an influence on him.

HP:    We were.  A short time after I met him, I realized that he had composed a lot of chamber music that no one was interested in publishing.  The publishers were interested in his popular songs, but they weren’t interested in chamber music.

BD:    Even though it was accessible chamber music?

HP:    Oh, yes.  Chamber music was not in vogue in the late fifties and early sixties.  I spent close to five years collecting all of his music in one place.  I think I had over seven hundred titles.

wilder BD:    You’re his Köchel?

HP:    Yes.  I told Alec, “We have to start a publishing company.  We have to publish twenty or twenty-four works ourselves.  Then everybody will want that, because it’ll be a catalogue.  They’ll want the catalogue.”  And that’s exactly the way it worked out.  The name of the publishing company is Wilder Music, Incorporated.

BD:    Is it special for you every time you play one of the Wilder scores?

HP:    Oh, always.  There isn’t a room in my house that doesn’t have something that reminds me of Alec.  There’s a wonderful picture of Alec looking down on my desk where I work when I’m in the office, and we have a room in the house that the children still call Uncle Alec’s room.

BD:    Do you encourage all of your students to play Alec’s music?

HP:    I have, yes, but that’s been the easiest part.  For a long time, a good bulk of our good literature was Alec and Persichetti and a couple of works by Walter Hartley and the Halsey Stevens Sonatina.  We didn’t have much.  I used to pride myself on being able to play everything in the literature, but I can’t do that anymore.  No one can.  There’s just too much!

BD:    So the tribute to you is that you have expanded the literature so much!

HP:    I’ve commissioned over a hundred and twenty works.

BD:    When you commission a piece, do you just say, “Write me a piece,” or do you give the composer any more parameters than that?

HP:    I’ve never counseled a composer to write a certain technical kind of passage, or write within a certain range, or anything like that.  The composer should be left free to do what he wants.  I knew most of the composers and they were familiar with my playing.  Certainly Morton Gould was special.  I did all of his recordings in New York. 

BD:    He just won the Pulitzer Prize.

HP:    Yes, and he’s very well-deserving, too.  He’s thinking about a tuba concerto, so I’m hoping he will write one.  I had a good long meeting with him about three months ago.  He’s a wonderful man.

BD:    When I won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor award for my programs of new music on the radio, he was the one that presented the award to me.  I’d interviewed him a couple of times, so I’m very pleased about all of this.

HP:    Morton’s a wonderful man.  In 1973, I organized the First International Tuba Symposium-Workshop in Bloomington, and I invited seventy-two composers to that conference.

BD:    How many showed up?

HP:    Sixty-seven.

BD:    Wow!

HP:    Most of these composers only knew me as a tuba player, and my invitation to them was to come and share the excitement of many great performers.

BD:    When you organized this first tuba festival, was it just the standard tuba or was it also the euphoniums and the small tubas?

HP:    At that time it was just the standard tuba, but a lot of euphonium players came.  We had already thrown out the life ring to the euphonium players because, strangely enough, they weren’t embraced by the Trombone Association, which was formed before T.U.B.A. [Tubists Universal Brotherhood Association]

BD:    I guess they don’t like valves.

HP:    I think it was just an oversight because a lot of the best trombone players I know also play euphonium.

BD:    It’s essentially the same range, is it not?

HP:    It’s the same range, but one is conical and one is cylindrical.  And the euphonium has a more mellow sound.  I like to hear a little of that mellow sound in a trombone sound.  That’s why I say that the best trombone players I know all play euphonium.

BD:    Don’t tuba players also play euphonium?

HP:    Many tuba players do because in point of fact, it’s a tenor tuba.

BD:    But it’s a much smaller mouthpiece.

HP:    It uses a smaller mouthpiece, but some players have special mouthpieces made so they don’t have to give up the rim; they just go to a more shallow cup.  It still gives them the range; it still gives them the sound.  But that first symposium was like a private party for me, because of the three hundred tuba players that came, I knew most all of them.  And I knew all the composers who came.  Then I invited some very special people who weren’t composers and weren’t tuba players, but had been very influential in my life.  I wanted them there to share this first symposium.  So I invited Merle Evans, the great circus bandmaster, and Freddie Fennell.  I invited Bill Revelli, and Eddie Sauter, Bill Finnegan, Manny Albam.  I told all of the composers, “I’ll pay your expenses but I can’t pay you a fee.”  And they said, “Oh, that’s fine.”  But at the end of it, not one composer would take money.  Most of them wrote letters to me saying, “We can’t accept money for having learned so much.”

BD:    So it was really a symposium for the composer as well.

HP:    Every one of those composers wrote at least one work without a commission and even without being directly requested.  Some have written as many as ten and fifteen works for tuba because they were so turned on.  Since most of our composers today are residents in colleges and universities and conservatories, they really don’t have to worry too much about their next meal.  So it gives them the freedom to write the kind of music they want to write, which is the way it should be.  And they turned all their students on to the tuba.  So I would venture to say that as a result of that first symposium, just that one alone, we expanded our literature by five or six hundred works.

BD:    That’s incredible.  That’s good seeding!

HP:    Oh, yes.  When I commission a composer, some is coercion, some is friendship, some is small stipends, but I always made sure that the composition didn’t cost the composer anything.  They can write something for tuba and wind ensemble, or tuba and orchestra, or tuba and band.  For instance, Warren Benson wrote a wonderful piece called Helix, a two movement piece for solo tuba and concert band.  He handed me a pencil score; I handed him back an autograph score and parts.  So I paid about eight hundred dollars for that piece.  Then he could take it to his publisher and say, “Put titles on it.  It’s ready to go.”

BD:    When you’re giving the commission, do you stipulate that it be a concerto or that it be an ensemble piece, or the length of the piece?

HP:    Sometimes we discuss it and if the composer has in mind a certain kind of piece, I leave him alone.  But if he doesn’t, then I might suggest something.  When I was talking with David Baker in the late sixties while I was still at New England and he was already at Indiana, it was his idea to do a work for solo tuba and string quartet.  The first year I arrived at Indiana he presented me with the composition.  But with Jan Bach, I suggested that he might consider writing for string quartet and tuba, and it’s a wonderful piece!  It may be the best solo piece in the literature.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let me ask you a bit about your recitals in New York City.

HP:    In 1975 I did five recitals in a period of nine days at Carnegie Hall.  I did sixty-seven hours of rehearsals.  Some of the rehearsals were in Boston and some of the rehearsals started at two o’clock in the morning, because it was the only time I could get the players.  I did recitals every year.  The next year I presented ten recitals.  I presented nine players plus myself.

BD:    Were they well attended by the general public?

HP:    When you do five, by the time you get to the fifth one you have a pretty good audience.

BD:    It gets more and more by word of mouth?

HP:    Yeah.  Some people bring other people, which was nice.

phillips BD:    You’re going to get the brass players and the tuba players and interested composers and a few managers, but that’s why I’m interested in the general public coming.

HP:    One of the people from the general public I met at one of my early concerts was an artist named Ira Schwartz, who was a very wealthy man.  He was the graphic artist for Fabergé and Lanvin and Estée Lauder.  He wouldn’t miss a concert.  When Ira passed away, his family called me to play at his funeral.  I couldn’t because I was professionally committed, so I arranged for a quartet of my former students in New York to play.  It got to be embarrassing after a while.  Jim Buffington, a horn player, was my New York contact to organize the musicians, because I was writing program notes, and practicing, and everything else.  When it came time to pay the musicians
who had all been my associates for many years when I was in New Yorknot one would take money from me.  And many of them gave up concerts and recordings to do those concerts and the rehearsals with me.  So I’ve always felt that was about the warmest tribute that I could ever get from my peers.

BD:    You were doing something very special for them that they couldn’t buy with money.

HP:    I think that’s the way they felt, yes.

BD:    So these concerts at Carnegie Hall also engendered more interest in the public and in the critics?

HP:    I knew if I went to New York and played one recital it would mean nothing.  Because by the time some of the musicians heard about it, it’s gone.  But I felt if I do five, and I do thirty-nine works and eighteen world premieres, that’s going to grab the newspapers.

BD:    Even now that’s mind-boggling! [Laughs]

HP:    It has to grab the newspapers, and one of the people that it grabbed
was Whitney Balliett of the New YorkerHe was with me at every rehearsal, every concert, every taxi ride from rehearsal to concert or rehearsal to rehearsal.  It’s one of the most extensive profiles they’ve ever done [Issue published December 15, 1975], and in all that time I never saw Whitney take a note or record anything.  He became a buddy that was with me everywhere I went; he helped me with the tuba or helped with the briefcase or music or whatever else.  And his writing is absolutely amazing. 

BD:    It was a very fine article about you and about the whole situation. Since that time, I assume that the interest in the tuba has grown amongst players and composers and the public?

HP:    It hasn’t stopped and it never will.  I think our Tubists Universal Brotherhood Association now has over three thousand members throughout the world, and most all of them are very serious performers.  People ask me, “What’s going to happen to all those tuba players?”  I say, “What’s going to happen to all the lawyers?  What’s going to happen to all the doctors?”  There are three kinds of people in the world
those that make things happen, those that watch things happen and those who go through life wondering what happened.  [Both laugh]  If those tuba players are the kind of people who make things happen, they’re going to be fine because they’ll generate activities for themselves.  Those who aren’t will hopefully never give up the instrument, but they’ll have to find another means of income.

BD:    Even if they wind up going into business or some other profession, if they tell their colleagues, “Hey, there’s a tuba recital,” they get more audience for the other tubists.

HP:    That’s very true.  I know many very fine doctors who are very fine tuba players.

BD:    When the news anchor Harry Smith plays the tuba on CBS This Morning, that’s huge exposure to ordinary people who would never think of the tuba as being more than just oom-pah.

HP:    Of course.  That does us all good, but that’s a word we’re trying to erase.  In fact in his article, Whitney couldn’t refrain from using it either, so he wrote, “Goodbye Oom-pah.”  But you know
tongue in cheekwe’re really the ooms.  The horns are the pahs.  So it’s wrong to identify the tuba as an oom-pah.  It’s an oom!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You’ve been teaching tuba for many years.  As the interest gets bigger, does the quality of the playing and the interest of the performing musician get better and better year by year?

HP:    Oh, yes.  The average of performance has risen dramatically.  The star maybe is as rare as ever, by number, but people like Gene Pokorny or Roger Bobo or Dan Parantoni or Sam Pilafian are stars.  If they played flute, they’d be stars because they’re fabulous musicians, not just fabulous tuba players, and I think that’s the way it ought to be.  New works and new challenges are generated and brought about this renaissance, and I think a lot of credit has to be given to the New York Brass Quintet, the first professional quintet.  For five or six years, we were the only quintet.  You can imagine what that’s done to generate teaching positions for tuba.  In 1960, there was only one full-time teaching position for tuba in the entire United States.  That was Rex Connor at Kentucky.

BD:    So anyone else that wanted to learn tuba would just go to the trumpet player?

HP:    They might study with a trombone player who also taught tuba, which is the way it was at Indiana.  And I said full-time teachers.  When I was at the Julliard School, I studied with William Bell who was with the Philharmonic at that time.  He only had three students at Julliard, but Julliard only had two orchestras!  With the New York Brass Quintet, I found my head because it was a singular responsibility, as opposed to playing in a band, for example.  I did the Goldman Band and I loved it, but the New York Brass Quintet was a great challenge because there were no quintets.  We were it.

BD:    Did you model yourself after a string quartet or a woodwind quintet, or did you just try to carve something fresh out of stone?

HP:    I would say both strings and woodwinds, but Samuel Baron was a great influence on brass playing because of his musicality, his comments and his recommendations.  Robert Nagle, who was a principal trumpet, and a principal force of New York Brass Quintet when it was founded, was an incredible musician.  I learned more about phrasing and tone and colors playing with Bob.  In 1961, William Bell was invited to be professor of tuba at Indiana University.  They had become a very major force in schools of music in the United States by that time.  Phillip Farkas had joined the faculty, as did Janos Starker, Joseph Gingold, William Primrose... the list goes on and on.  So everyone was sitting up and taking notice of Indiana.  The thing that pushed us over the edge was when we were able to convince brass faculties — which, at that time consisted of trumpet, horn and trombone — that they should add a tuba.  I went to several universities.  I would go in and play a recital, rehearse with the faculty brass players, perform a brass quintet concert, perform solo with the orchestra, perform solo with the wind ensemble, do a lecture, do master classes, and then I’d meet with the Dean on the last day and show him all the programs, and show him how just adding a tuba to the faculty could enhance it.  I was proving then, to the brass faculty, that if they added a tuba to their faculty, they became artists-in-residence.  If they formed a faculty quintet and concretized, their status changed from being instructors of brass to being artists-in-residence.  That made every brass teacher in the United States a great ally in bringing on board a full-time teacher of tuba.  Even to this day, when there is an opening for tuba, the player goes to that university and auditions in the faculty quintet.

BD:    Back in those days, was it difficult filling all of these new positions?

HP:    Oh, no.

bell BD:    There were enough tuba players to do that?

HP:    Oh, yes.  I think back on my own situation.  When I was traveling with Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus Band and we got to Los Angeles, I received a telegram from William Bell telling me that he wanted me to come to New York right away.  I could live in his studio and I had a four-year scholarship to the Julliard School.  So obviously I took him up on that.  But then I realized that all those years when I wasn’t in New York, none of the contractors or conductors were wringing their hands and saying, “Oh, won’t it be nice when that Phillips kid gets here and we’ll have a tuba player?”  [Both laugh]  No!  Every job that needed a tuba had one.  It was sort of like getting on a bus when all the seats are taken.  If you’re polite and you’re nice and you’re clean and you speak politely and you don’t smell too bad, maybe someone after a while will say, “Why don’t you move over a little?  I’ll move over a little and let’s make room for this person.  He seems to be nice and it’ll be okay.”

BD:    But it seems like what you’ve done is made it so now there has to be a caravan of buses!

HP:    [Laughs] Well, I hope so!  I hope so.  I’m very proud of what we’ve achieved.  Tubists have a camaraderie that other instruments can only envy, and it’s been going on for a good long time.

BD:    Is it a low-brass-player camaraderie?

HP:    Right, right.  It’s very special.

BD:    Does it spill over the contrabassoon player, and the double bass player also, or is it really just the brass players?

HP:    I think it’s just the brass, but we speak kindly of those people.  [Both laugh]

BD:    Being an old contrabassoon player, I thank you!

HP:    You know, Gunther Schuller wrote a concerto for contrabassoon.

BD:    Right, and Donald Erb just wrote Five Red Hot Duets for Two Contrabassoons.  It
’s lots of fun!

HP:    Right!  Well, I love it!  I used to love playing with the New York City Ballet when they were first getting started.  They didn’t have a lot of money and they wouldn’t hire a contrabassoon player.  So I got to play all the contrabassoon parts, including the Mother Goose of Ravel.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Are you pleased with the recordings you made with the New York Brass Quintet?

NY Brass Quintet HP:    Oh, yes!  The first album we did was called New York Brass Quintet in Concert.  It has the Eugene Bozza piece and several other great works on it.  Then we did Alec’s First Suite for Brass Quintet, and on the other side is a suite by Donald Hammond, which is quite a nice piece.  Then we recorded Gunther’s piece for CRI and a Harold Farberman piece.  Quite a number of works we recorded for CRI.  Then we had a contract with RCA.  I was a very close friend of Howard Scott who negotiated that contract for us.  We were supposed to do six albums, but shortly after we did the first album I left the Quintet, and RCA cancelled the contract.  So the New York Brass Quintet only did one RCA album.

BD:    What a loss!

HP:    Yeah, it’s a shame.  I was a founding member of the Quintet and I played with them for fourteen years.  In March of 1967 Gunther called me and wanted me to go to the New England Conservatory with him as Vice President for Financial Affairs. 

BD:    Not as instructor in tuba?

HP:    No, because we were using the tubist from the Boston Symphony.  I was to start in September and we had a tour that summer with the Quintet of Eastern Europe, which I was looking forward to.  Well Gunther called me about the middle of May and told me he wanted me to start on June first.  He would be in Tanglewood all summer and he wanted someone from the new administration in position.  So I had two weeks to sell my house.  I loaned the money for the down payment to the person who bought it!  [Both laugh]

BD:    You had to uproot yourself and your family and just go!

HP:    Yes.  It was very rough on my wife and my two sons at that time.  And it was rough on me, because I went to the New England Conservatory solely because Gunther Schuller asked me to.  That’s how I felt about Gunther.

BD:    Did he make sure that you would have time to play and places to play, even though you were in the financial end of it?

HP:    We didn’t even talk about that.  But I didn’t worry about Gunther because he and I had a very special relationship.  The point is that I didn’t realize how bad the financial affairs were for the Conservatory until that first day I went to work.  I started studying the books and found out the school was broke.  They had no endowment.  They’d never had a fundraising drive, even though this year was their one hundredth anniversary.  So we had buttons made, “Save the New England Conservatory.”  I was there from ’67 through ’71, but once I came home, I told my wife, “I can’t give up New York for this, because I’ve never been a vice president before.  Gunther’s never been a president before.  Who knows if we’re going to succeed or not?”  So then I started commuting, and for the four years I was at New England I commuted every day
— sometimes twice a day by planeto New York, and kept my recording and concert schedule.

BD:    Didn’t anyone ever look at you and say, “That’s just nuts!”

HP:    [Laughs] Oh, maybe.  I would take the Eastern Shuttle everyday and I would have to get on a schedule.  I had a choice of American Airlines or Eastern.  And so if I’d take another flight, then the next time I’d come on Eastern she’d say, “Where were you yesterday?” [Laughs]  I got to know all the stewardesses.

schuller BD:    In the end, obviously, it didn’t break your health.  Was it worth it?

HP:    Yes, yes.  It was worth it.  It was worth it to know that in the event we didn’t make it, I was going to just go back to New York and be with my family.  But we were successful enough that after I had agreed to go to Indiana and we were in Bloomington, I got a telephone call from the Chairman of the Board of the New England Conservatory saying that there was unfinished business, and that I would have to come back on the 24th of September for the Executive Board.  Knowing how I felt about my family, he put tickets in the mail for everybody!  Well, we get to Boston and we go to the Colonnade Hotel
which was brand new at that timecheck in and then we go to the Conservatory.  I think I’m going there for a meeting, so we arrive and there’s a big sign over the door which says “Honoring Harvey Phillips Day.”  This was everybodythe trustees, the maids, the janitors, the guards, the faculty, the students.  They had a cocktail afternoon which started about two and went until six.  Then they had a dinner, and at the dinner the trustees and Gunther assembled behind me.  I didn’t know what was going on, and suddenly I was tapped on the shoulder and asked to stand.  They put a black robe on me and I saw then that all the trustees were in robes and Gunther was in his presidential garb.  They presented me with an honorary doctorate of music degree.

BD:    Well-deserved!

HP:    Sherwin Badger said it was the first time
and it would be the last timethat they ever gave an honorary degree to someone who had resigned.  [Both laugh]  They were wonderful people; Gunther and I worked very hard.  I felt then and I feel today that Gunther Schuller is the most important living American musician.  I say that because of my personal contact with him from the early fifties, knowing of the artistic and personal integrity of the man, and that he has functioned at the highest level in every areaas an author, as a critic, as an administrator, as a musician, as a horn player.  They still talk about Gunther as being the only horn player who ever went through a season at the Met without scratching a note.  And I think he’s a wonderful conductor and a fine author.  He’s a champion for contemporary composers and he’s an authority on jazz!  So I just don’t see anyone else.  I see other people who are great conductors, I see other people who are great composers, but I don’t see anyone else who’s covered all the bases the way Gunther Schuller has.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    I’m glad to talk about Gunther Schuller, but let’s come back to Harvey Phillips and talk more about your work.  I assume that you have enjoyed doing so many things?

HP:    I’ve always been busy and I’ve always considered myself as a person who does things.

BD:    How are you able to juggle all of these things and keep all the balls in the air at the same time?

HP:    Sometimes you wonder, but it’s a matter of priorities.

BD:    Do you get enough time, for instance, to practice and keep the embouchure in shape?

HP:    That’s a struggle; I have to fight for that.  I have to get up very early some mornings to make sure I get my hour or two hours in before all the other things fall in on me.  My foundation is very busy.  We produce over a hundred and fifty Tubachristmas concerts throughout the United States every year.  We produce over a hundred Octubafests.  It’s a very busy life.  We run a tuba ranch.  We have horses, we have Vietnamese pigs, we have llamas and we run a farm called Tubaranch.  I like to teach as much as I can.  Since I’ve retired from Indiana, I really wonder how I ever had time to teach that intensely.  I’m very proud of the students that I’ve had association with and I keep in contact with my students.

BD:    When you’re teaching someone tuba, are you teaching them the technique of playing this large instrument, or are you teaching them music?

HP:    I teach survival, and music is a part of it.  No matter how much technique, no matter how well they play the instrument technically, if they can’t play it musically, they’re not going to get very far.  In point of fact, no musician, whether he’s a tubist or a violinist, can advance in music beyond his ability to hear pitch, to hear tonal quality and colors, beyond his ability to hear intonation, beyond his ability to hear rhythm, beyond his ability to hear blend and balance.  So it’s an ears game and that’s what I try to do.

BD:    Now all of these things are coming in to the musician.  Can you also teach the feeling that then goes out of the musician?

HP:    [Thinks a moment]  I would be less than I honest if I said you always could.  You can’t always.  You can make it available.  I tell my students from the outset, “Talent does not make a great artist.  Time makes a great artist, and no matter how much talent you have, if you don’t apply it, you might as well not have it.”

BD:    But time alone won’t do it if the talent isn’t there.

HP:    That’s right.  That’s right.  But I have seen some players who weren’t so naturally gifted, who were so inspired and so committed and so dedicated that they would surpass some of those more gifted players who were lazy, who didn’t apply themselves, and maybe weren’t as inspired as they could be.

BD:    Or had more interest in partying?

HP:    Yeah.  There’s many things that can take their attention, but I point out to freshman when they come to school, that by the very fact they were there, they had made a commitment to a life in music.

BD:    How focused and how narrow can
and shouldthe life be, to the exclusion of everything else?

HP:    I don’t think you can exclude anything else!  You have to be totally open, aware and cognizant of what the world is all about.  You have to be able to feel sympathy and empathy for people in the world who aren’t as well off as we are in this country.  You have to share because that’s what music is.  Music is a sharing art.  If you have no audience, you have no performance.  These are old saws that we embrace, as musicians.

BD:    If an orchestra plays in the forest and there’s no one to hear, is it art?  [Both laugh]

HP:    I doubt it!  I don’t want to see students become myopic.  I see that happen sometimes with youngsters who want a career in a symphony orchestra so bad that they go in a practice room and practice excerpts.  They don’t go in a practice room and practice music.

BD:    It’s all technique and no feeling.

HP:    That’s right, but I hear that with a lot of other instruments, too.  It’s not just tuba, obviously.  I hear that with violinists, I hear it with string players, woodwind players, brass players.  There’s a commitment and a dedication that a musician has to have to think generously towards the public.  As I say, it’s a giving art; you never stop giving.

jazz BD:    Are you optimistic about the future of music?

HP:    I’m very optimistic about the future of music.  I sometimes worry about my colleagues in the studios in California, and about the synthesizer maybe overtaking — especially when I hear a film score that’s totally synthesizer.  There are no live musicians, other than the one playing the synthesizer.  That bothers me, but then I look at the wealth of music that doesn’t have tuba.  The Beethoven, the Mozart, the Bach, the Corelli, the Haydn, and I know music’s going to survive.  We build great museums at great expense to protect little two-foot-square canvases because it’s art.  Well music is art, too, and we spend a lot of money creating concert halls.  Ask any acoustical firm and they’ll tell you they’re still trying to build a perfect hall; they’ll be trying in the year 3000.

BD:    But we don’t want to consign the music to a museum atmosphere, do we?

HP:    Oh, absolutely not!  Absolutely not.  It bothers me when I realize that the average age of the audience for symphony concerts keeps rising, but I think enough youth are involved in serious music.  I don’t mean to degrade any other music by saying
serious music, because all music is serious.  I remember someone complaining about a rock guitar player one day, and how trite their music was.  I said, “To him, that’s serious music, and if you don’t believe me, go over and tell him he’s not serious about what he’s doing.”

BD:    He’d punch you in the mouth!

HP:    Maybe!

BD:    Well, how can we get more of the audience that goes to the rock guitar concerts to come to brass quintet concerts?

HP:    We have to make them want to.  

BD:    How do we do that?

HP:    The Canadian Brass take a lot of heat, they take a lot of criticism, but they win audiences over.  And audiences will come back for a second, third and fourth time and pay twenty-five to forty dollars a ticket to hear five brass players onstage!  Not just because of what they play — and they’re all superb players — but because they make the audience feel good about what they do!  They make them feel good for being there.  Think of a great symphony concert
Pictures at an Exhibition, or the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra for example.  When an orchestra like the Chicago Symphony or the Cleveland Orchestra or the New York Philharmonic or the Berlin Philharmonic play those works, the audiences leave the concert feeling a lot better about themselves, and about the world they’re going back into.  The artistic atmosphere that’s generated by a great performance of great music is a powerful force.  There’s no other feeling like it, and to experience it live is especially exciting!  We’re building enough cultural, musical troops to preserve what we’ve worked so hard for.  It’s not going to be easy, but if it’s only a matter of money, it’s just a matter of selling it.  And we have to keep working at it.

BD:    You mean we should put music out there like corn flakes???

HP:    Why not, if that’s what keeps it alive.  Ultimately, I would go to any lengths.

Classical — the Music of Champions!

HP:    [Laughs]  Or jazz, you know.  Jazz is as structured and organized as any classical music ever was!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let me ask you to gaze into your crystal ball just a little bit.  We were talking a moment ago about becoming museum artifacts.  Is there anything to say that the instruments which we play today
including the tubaare not going to become as ancient as the krumhorns and sackbutts that we now have in museums?

HP:    No, I don’t think so.  Would you say that about the violin?

BD:    But consider the synthesizer.  Are we not going to go into a new age where our acoustic horns will become ancient instruments?

persichetti HP:    No, I don’t think so.  Think, for example, of the violin.  They are very fortunate to have had great artists such as Guarneri and Stradivarius who created the ultimate, the nearest thing to perfect instrument of that kind that could be created.  It took our brass instruments a lot longer because we didn’t even have the valve until 1819.  And valves didn’t find their way to the tuba and the other instruments
so they could be chromaticuntil the middle 1830’s.  That’s why we missed out on Beethoven and Bach.  Shortly after I arrived at the Julliard School, I had a practice room assigned to me for the evening.  On my way I passed studios where pianists were playing Tchaikovsky and violinists were practicing Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky and flute players were playing the Handel Flute Sonatas, and horn player was playing the Mozart Tuba Concertos.  Old Mozart was clairvoyant; he knew some day there’d be tubas, so he wrote four concertos!  [Both laugh uproariously]  Then I get to my studio, take off my coat, take my tuba out of its cover, and put music on the stand and start going through it.  I’ve got Solo Pomposo, Bombasto, Hall of the Mountain King, Down in the Deep Cellar and all this trite music.  I put it back in the briefcase and left.  The next morning I had a class with Vincent Persichetti.  At Julliard we called it Literature and Materials of Music, but it was theory.  I asked him if I could make an appointment for that afternoon, and at one o’clock I go to this big room where all the theory faculty had desks and composers had desks; they shared this one big office.  So I sit down at his desk — Vince talked very fast — and he said, [speaking very quickly] “Well, Harvey, what is it?  What is it?  What can I do for you?  What’s your problem?”  So I poured out my heart about the literature and I put it on the desk.  I said, “Look, this is all we have!  What do I do?  I hear so much wonderful music!”  He said, “First of all, all the music ever written belongs to you as much as it belongs to anybody.  It doesn’t matter what it’s written for.  I’m a composer; I speak for all those composers who can’t speak for themselves.  I speak for Bach, I speak for Handel, I speak for Telemann, I speak for Corelli, I speak for Mozart.”  And he goes on and on.  “They want you to play their music and they want you to play it well.  So anytime you hear something that you feel you can present on the tuba, take it.  It belongs to you.”  He then continued, “The second thing I have to say to you,” and he got a little sarcasm in his voice, “you want better music for the tuba?  Well, let me ask you something, Harvey.  Do you think the flute players are going to do something about it?  Do you think the violinists are going to do something about it?  Do you think the conductors are going to do something about it?”  He looked right at me and said, “If you want better music to play on the tuba, you have to do something about it!”  That was my charge.  And from that time on, if I heard an arrangement that I admired, I’d seek that arranger out.  I remember I sought Manny Albam out.  I’d heard Zoot Sims and Al Cohn at Jim and Andy’s, and I told him how much I admired his writing, but I’d never heard anything he did that used tuba.  He had never used tuba.  We became friends right there at Jim and Andy’s.  About a week later I got called for a recording session, and who’s the conductor on the recording session?  Manny Albam.  From that time forward he wrote tuba in everything he did, and guess who he hired?  Me!  And not only that, but other arrangers would hear this.  “Hey, Manny’s using tuba!”  Monkey see, monkey do, and I would say within two years after that, about a third of my income came about from that little conference in Jim and Andy’s.

BD:    What about things that already exist
for instance the Bach Cello Suites.  Have you attempted those on tuba?

HP:    Oh, yes.  The first four, especially, are very accessible.  The first movement of each of those suites is very demanding.  If you don’t circular breathe, you have to leave too much out.  You have to take a breath too often.  So you learn to take a phrase, make a slight rallentando, a ritard, and then you learn to push another phrase a little bit, so that you’ve got enough air in both instances to do it.  I hear cellists doing that too.  If you listen to recordings by cellists
especially Starkerto me, he makes those suites breathe!  Many times, when Janos starts a phrase, he takes a breath just as though he was a brass player!

BD:    He wants to make the tone sing.  You’re even closer to making the tone sing on the tuba.

HP:    The brass instruments are the second most physical of all instruments.  The most physical is the human voice because it’s a part of the anatomy that vibrates and creates sound.  With the tuba and the other brass instruments, it’s a part of the anatomy that vibrates
the lip.  We simply substitute the lip for the vocal cord.  When it says cantabile, that’s what we dowe sing.  I encourage all my students to sing songs.  That was one of the major influences on me; in fact, that’s why I say one of my first teachers was my mother.  I started on an old, beat-up Sousaphone at my school which I inherited because in March of 1942, the one Sousaphone player joined the service.  We just started a war, and all the young men of seventeen and eighteen knew they were going to be drafted anyway, so they were joining Navy so they could get into the service they wanted.  I would carry that instrument home, and sit down in the parlor at the piano.  I had no method books, so I would play out of the hymnal, page after page after page.  My mother’d be out in the kitchen singing along with me.  If I hit a clinker, or played something out of tune, I would hear, “Now Harvey, that’s not right!”  She’d come prancing into the parlor and correct me.  Even to the year my mother passed away, when I would go home to visit, we’d sit in the backyard; I’d play those hymns and she’d sing with me.  In 1976, for their bicentennial celebration, my hometown had a Harvey Phillips Day.  They called me in February and asked me if it would be all right to do this, and I said, “Yes, but when do you have in mind?”  They said, “We would like to do it Fourth of July weekend,” and I said, “No, no, that’s for war heroes.  I’d like to do it on my mother’s birthday, August 29th.”  As it turned out, they had a meeting and were able to do it on the 28th because it was a Saturday.  My mother, unfortunately, passed away in April, so she wasn’t able to be there.  But they had a wonderful day for us.  We had a breakfast and I gave a master class for students.  Then we had a parade and we had a picnic, and then an Army band came and gave a concert.  Then we had This is Your Life kind of thing, you know.  “Hey, Harvey, you remember the time...?” and I’d have to identify the voice.  The next morning I went into the choir loft in my mother’s churchjust myself and the tubaand I played all her favorite hymns for the congregation, until I just broke down; I couldn’t play anymore.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Tell me about some of the things which you have commissioned for tuba and strings.

HP:    I’ve commissioned five works for tuba and string quartet.  It’s a great challenge for the tubist because you have to emulate all the articulations of the strings
which we should learn to do anyway, just to play in the orchestra.  It’s an infiltration for those string quartet aficionados who wouldn’t miss a string quartet concert, but might not consider a tuba recital.  However, if the tubist comes in as a guest artist with the string quartet, now that says something.  It says the players have enough respect for the instrument and for this particular artist to invite him on to their program.  They’re going to deny themselves a chance to play another Beethoven String Quartet so they can do this work with tuba.

BD:    If there are three pieces on the program, you’re a third of the concert!

HP:    Right.  So I’ve commissioned works for tuba and string quartet, tuba and woodwind quintet, tuba and saxophone quartet — which is a great medium.

BD:    Do you then turn things around and invite the string quartet for part of a tuba recital?

HP:    [Laughs] Well no, but we were the entertainment three years ago for the harp competition.  My tuba ensemble was the sole entertainment, other than the harpists competing and the audience loved it.  I commissioned a work for eight tubas and eight harps.  It’s a wonderful piece.

BD:    Now this brings up one of my favorite questions.  In music, how much is art and how much is entertainment, and where’s the balance?

phillips HP:    I think what you’re charged with as a performer is to make the audience happy they came.  Even if they’re crying when they leave, they’re happy they came, and I think a lot of that has to do with audience contact.  When I coach a brass quintet or a chamber group or even a string quartet
which I’ve donewhen they come on stage, each of them must pick one person in the audience that they make eye contact with.  And continually through the concert, they make periodic eye contact with that person.  Well, that’s infectious, you know.  The audience senses that after a while, and pretty soon everybody in the audience feels they have eye contact.  When you make eye contact with a member of the audience, you make eye contact with all of them, and if everyone in the group does that, you win the audience over.  You bring them onstage with you, in effect.  You make them a part of your program.  You don’t pull down an invisible screen and say, “We’re the performers; you’re the audience.”  There must be contact, and the eyes are the best way to do it.  Or a smile; not being hokey, but being genuine.  I think that’s the secret of retaining audiences, and even symphony orchestras can do it.  I know the conductor demands all your attention when he’s conducting, but there are those times between movements; there are those times when you may have lots of rests, and that especially happens with the brass players.  You’re not going to do anything that distracts the attention of the audience from the music, but you’re not going to be a stone statue either.  We all have to make the effort, and not just when you’re performing.  When we have a chance to chat, like we’re having now, even without the microphone and without the tape recorder, we can have a great time talking about music.

BD:    Sure!  This conversation started on the street when I met you and brought you up here, and it’ll continue long after the microphone is shut off!

HP:    Music is a communicative art, and if you don’t communicate with it, then you lose it.

BD:    Do you communicate with the audience the same way live as you do on the recordings?

HP:    You try.  You can try.  I practice most of the time with my eyes closed
— unless it’s a new work that I have to study and learn.  In the recording studio, usually I would be recording something that I knew, so I would close my eyes a lot of times, except for those moments when you must have eye contact with your accompanist or your colleagues.  Then you never take your eyes off them.  That’s why when you’re playing in a great chamber ensemble, the audience never knows how you start or how you stop, because the slightest tic or just a short [inhales] breath, and everyone is ready to start.  With the New York Brass Quintet, many times an audience member will ask, “How do you know when to play?”

BD:    Are you pleased with the recordings that you’ve made over the years?

HP:    Technically I am, but one of the things you learn to accept, and you have to accept, is that ultimately the sound you’re given is the sound that was conceptualized by the last person to mix the recording.  Seldom is the artist there.  But I’d have to say I’m very pleased, especially with these Golden Crest recordings, because in those days, if Golden Crest didn’t record tuba, nobody did.  I was a very fortunate tuba player to have the friendship with Clark Galehouse, who was President of Golden Crest Records, and of Alec Wilder, who was a great influence on Clark Galehouse.

BD:    Sadly, Golden Crest Records no longer exists, so where are all the master tapes today?

HP:    We don’t know.

BD:    If you could get a hold of the masters and put them on compact disc, that would be wonderful.

HP:    It would be great because you could do so much to enhance the imperfections of the recording techniques of those days.

BD:    Not talking about sound, but talking about technique and performance, is there such a thing as a perfect performance?

HP:    I hope not because if anyone ever played a perfect performance, they’d be afraid to ever play again! [Both laugh]  There are performances that you’re pleased with, but it’s a never ending quest to play something better
— or just to play it different!  When we would tour and play the same program four or five nights in a row, we’d make an effort to do something different.  It might start anywhere in the group.  It might start in the tuba, it might start in the trumpet; then you catch up to that.

BD:    Just a little change in the phrase?

HP:    Just a little change.  And everybody imitates.  They have to do it because so much of chamber music playing is imitation.  John Barrows used to amaze me when he played with the New York Woodwind Quintet because he would take over a line from the oboe or flute or clarinet or bassoon, and he would be six, seven, eight notes into the phrase before you realized it wasn’t a bassoon anymore, or wasn’t a clarinet anymore, or wasn’t a flute anymore; it was the horn.  He had an uncanny ability to color sound, and he was a great influence on me in my tuba playing.  I’ve always felt that the most subtle adjustment of pitch is not a change of pitch, but a change of color.  Put a little more highs in the sound, or a little more lows, to influence the phrase.  When I coach a group, we might play through part of a work and I’ll stop the ensemble and ask the trombone player, “What does the horn have in the next measure?”  He’s in trouble if he can’t tell me!  Or you might stop and say to the horn player, “What did the trombone play in the previous measure?  What did he just play?”  Or even say to the entire group, “Okay, I want everybody to play the horn part at the beginning.”  They can’t think of what notes he played!  So it’s listening.  You hear, you listen, you assimilate, you respond.

BD:    Right then, you have to be not an individual, but part of a teeny, tiny community.

HP:    That’s right.  That’s right.  And it’s such a joyous experience!  It really is.  Most of the playing that’s done in the symphony orchestra is chamber music.  There are moments when the whole orchestra is just roaring and then there are other moments when the whole brass section is roaring, but for the most part it is chamber music.  I think of Prokofiev and The Prodigal Son or the Fifth Symphony, which is the closest thing to a tuba concerto he ever wrote.  There are passages where you have tuba, bass clarinet, flute, and violin, and you’re sitting twenty-five feet apart.  In the Mahler First Symphony, the little trio starts with the contrabass and then the bassoon and then the tuba.  You’re sitting twenty-five feet apart and you’ve got to match.  You’ve got to blend and you’ve got to match sound level.  That’s chamber music personified.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let me ask a couple of technical questions about the instrument, if I may.  Have the various sizes of the tuba been standardized, so that you know what you’re getting from instrument to instrument?

HP:    You know what you’re getting from instrument to instrument.  The first thirty years of this century belong to the band.  There was the Sousa Band, Pryor Band, Kryl Band, Creator Band, Conway Band — all these great touring bands.  All the circuses had great bands that toured and all of the theaters of any size had an orchestra of one size or another.  In 1928, Al Jolson came out with The Jazz Singer, and we had sound on film.  Right away, all the theater orchestras are booted out.  Sousa got very ill in 1929 and died in 1932.  The crash came in ’29, and between all of these forces, the music instrument business for brass instruments fell apart.  Very few schools had band programs; high schools and even colleges had very weak music departments and very few colleges could afford to have instrumental instructors for each of the instruments.  So in the early 1930’s, the instrument manufacturers realized they had just lost most of their market.  Now they had to create one, so they became champions for establishing music programs in the schools.  The instrument companies would hire someone from the Sousa Band to go in.  He didn’t have a degree or anything else, but would get a teaching license from the state.  They would give the school a Sousaphone and a bass drum, and they had this great rental program.  Even though we were in a depression, parents could rent a trumpet for a nickel a week, or twenty cents a week, all different instruments to get band programs started in the schools.  Professional players buy an instrument and keep it their whole life, but schools keep buying instruments, and schools are adding bands all the time.  So they came out with what they called a student model instrument
— which is a shame, because sometimes kids would be blamed for no talent when it was the instrument.  When I came along and I had my first lesson with Bill Bell, and he said, [imitates in deep voice] “Well, son, if you’re going to be a professional tubist in New York, you’ll have to get yourself a C tuba.”  And I said, “Where can I get one?” because I had money saved up from the circus.  He replied, “I haven’t the vaguest notion.”  We would literally look in the Union of International Musicians to see if some tuba player from the symphony orchestra had passed away, and the widow might have some instruments to sell.  We’d wait a respectable thirty seconds and call the widow to see if there were tubas.  My instrument, that I lucked onto in 1949, was made in 1920.  From 1930 up to 1950, no American instrument manufacturer made professional instruments for tuba.  And in the late forties, we weren’t getting any instruments from Europe, and we weren’t getting any from Japan!  But now, because of all the work that so many of us have done, the tuba player lives in tuba heaven!  There must be at least twenty-five brands and maybe twice that many models of tuba for a youngster to select from today.  There’s one thing that bothers me — it seems that the orchestras today are going to larger and larger and larger tubas.

BD:    Because they need more sound down there?

HP:    Well, they think they do.  And the bass trombone has gone from an instrument with an eight or nine inch bell, to having a sixteen inch bell.

BD:    Yeah, it’s a huge instrument.  And it has a trigger and sometimes two triggers back there.

HP:    Oh, and sometimes three.  It might as well have valves!  Sometimes they do have a rotary valve.  A few years ago the Holton Company came out with the Superbone, which had three valves and a slide.  Maynard Ferguson plays one of them.  But I love the sound of tuba.  I think it’s a warm blanket.  It’s a great sound.  It’s a very melodious sound.

BD:    Should the orchestra, perhaps, have two tubas
a smaller one and a larger one?

HP:    Oh, I wish they would!  If the tuba had been invented in the 1500’s, the symphony orchestra would have a section of tubas
— maybe two euphoniums, an F tuba and double B-flat or a double C tuba.

BD:    Sometimes at the Chicago Symphony, Gene Pokorny will have to bring out two tubas of different sizes to play either the different parts of the same composition, or different compositions.

HP:    But that’s a matter of choice; it’s not a matter of necessity.

BD:    It’s not written for a different size tuba?

HP:    Today some of the new compositions might be, but most orchestral tubists feel that they’re a little closer to the original sound if they use the F tuba for Berlioz.  Most of his parts were written for the ophicleide.  And they feel they need a very large tuba for Prokofiev, Wagner and Mahler.

BD:    It’s wonderful when you get the Wagner
— you have the horns, the Wagner tubas, the trombones and the bass tuba all there!

HP:    No gratification can equal that for a musician, for a player.  Every time is a grand experience.

BD:    Is there more variety of tubas in the band because it is a wind orchestra, rather than the string orchestra, which has the winds added on?

HP:    Not really.  The British brass bands always have two E-flat tubas and two double B-flat tubas.  The Sousa Band, when it toured, had at least two E-flats and then the other two or three were double B-flat tubas.  But in the symphony orchestra, from the turn of the century, the C tuba has been the standard.  Just on that tuba, the instrument has over half the piano keyboard of range!  My friend Walter Piston apologized to me about that at a luncheon.  He sat next to me, and I called him on his orchestration book, because it would have you think that the tuba can only play whole notes and can only play in a fourth of its range.  He apologized and said, “I was so wrong about the tuba!”  I asked him if he would add an errata, but of course he wouldn’t.  But that Piston orchestration book did us a lot of harm with the composers because it planted the wrong seed.  Now composers love to write for the tuba because if they write a concerto for the tuba, they don’t have to compete with Mozart, they don’t have to compete with Beethoven or other famous names.  If they write a concerto for violin, they’ve got to compete with Mendelssohn, Stravinsky, Beethoven and all the rest!

BD:    Even though you are
“retired,” I am glad you are still working hard for all of your ideas and projects.

jacobs HP:    I continually try to create opportunities for those who play my instrument.  I’ve always felt that if the tuba is at the bottom of the musical pyramid, if we elevate the tuba, we raise the entire pyramid.  We’re the foundation and we have to think of ourselves that way.  We have to be tolerant of the general audience who isn’t educated as yet to the qualities of the tuba.  I think we’ve earned the respect of the audience.  Many of the audiences who go to symphony concerts hear a great tuba solo and don’t realize that it’s the tuba.  If they hear the “Bydlo” from Pictures at an Exhibition, they think, “Oh, what a beautiful horn sound.”

pokorny BD:    Of course, here in Chicago we were spoiled for forty-four years with Arnold Jacobs...

HP:    ...and he has a great disciple in Gene Pokorny.

BD:    Gene was absolutely the right person to take over when he retired.  I see Arnold every now and then.  He comes to concerts on Thursdays when he can, and I run into him and say hello.  Such a wonderful man!

HP:    We have a fraternity that, as I said earlier, is unequalled by any other instrument.  And it’s more than mutual admiration; it’s a mutual concern and respect.  I’ve always had great admiration and respect for those great tubists who’ve gone before us, people like August Helleberg, who was the first tubist of the Chicago Symphony and who was principal tuba in the Sousa Band for many years.  He played at the Metropolitan Opera and was designer of almost every American-manufactured tuba from 1900 on up into the thirties.  And Fred Geib, another great tubist in New York; Fred Pfaff, and of course my teacher William Bell, who was a giant musician.  But I get a little angry at all those wonderful people, sometimes, when I realize that they were coming in contact with Debussy, Ravel, Prokofiev, with all of these great composers.  I swear, the only reason we don’t have concertos by those great composers of the early part of this century is because those tubists didn’t go to those composers and say, “Excuse me, maestro, but you write so beautifully for my instrument.  Would you consider writing a solo, a concerto, a sonata, for tuba?”  I’m sure many of those composers would have done so because I have never been rebuffed by a composer!  Every time I have approached a composer about writing for tuba, they’re wide open.  They say, “I’d like to know more about this!  Show me.  Let’s talk about it.”  Then they come and say, “How would this work?” and you say, “That would work fine.”  The next thing you know, you have a piece!

BD:    You teach them the tuba, and they produce the music?

HP:    It’s not a matter of teaching them; it’s a matter of generating trust and belief.  You let them know that you believe in them and what they do.  You’re only asking for the same in kind, that they should believe in you, that you’re serious about what you do, that tuba players are not clowns, they’re serious musicians.  I’m just as serious about what I do, about my instrument, as my son, who is a surgeon, is about his scalpel!  We try to work with the same precision, the same artistic concern for the patient, for those who will listen to us, and hopefully learn to admire what we do.

BD:    The surgeon works on the physical body; the musician works on the immortal soul!

HP:    I couldn’t have said it better!

BD:    And it’s mostly due to you!  You have planted the original seed.

HP:    Well, Persichetti told me, “If you don’t do it, it won’t get done.”  And people like Roger Bobo and Michael Lind have commissioned many works, too.  They’ve generated many new works for the instrument and now it’s a groundswell of tubas.  But we know this is a groundswell.  Crabgrass is as hard to kill today as it was a hundred years ago.  Prejudice is born of ignorance, so when someone doesn’t know your instrument, it’s because they’re ignorant.  You have to enlighten them.

BD:    Thank you for all that you have done for the tuba, and for music.

HP:    Well, thank you.  It’s an honor to be here and have that said.

Harvey Phillips is considered by many to be the best tubist in the world. His prodigious technical command of the tuba, musical sense, and rapport with the audience have made him in great demand as a performer. Through his efforts as a teacher, commissioner of new works, and popularizer of the tuba, he has been largely responsible for the present-day renaissance of interest in tuba performance and literature.

The youngest of ten children, Harvey was born on December 2, 1929, in Aurora, Missouri, to farmers Jesse and Lottie Phillips. The Phillips lost the family farm due to the Depression and became tenant farmers, finally settling near Marionsville, Missouri. Harvey began to study music in high school with retired circus bandleader Homer Lee, who introduced him to the sousaphone, the rap-around version of the tuba used in marching bands. "I had always wanted to play a brass instrument, but my folks couldn't afford to buy one." Phillips told the News-Sun. "So I fell in love with it. I thought it was the greatest thing that ever happened to me."

After graduating in 1947, Phillips got a summer job playing tuba with the King Brothers Circus. Nine weeks later he left to go to the University of Missouri, where he had a scholarship, but he was unhappy there and gladly joined the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Baily Circus band when he received an offer from Merle Evans, the band's leader. Phillips stayed with Ringling Brothers until 1950.

His time with the circus proved to be very beneficial as he learned to play many kinds of music to accompany different acts and in his first year he visited every state in the Union. During his second visit to New York City, he met William Bell, then tubist with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Phillips later studied under Bell, and with his support attended the Juilliard School of Music, in New York, where he received a four-year scholarship.

Except for a two-year stint with the U.S. Army Field Band in Washington, D.C., Phillips remained in New York, attending classes at the Manhattan School of Music and performing with a variety of ensembles: the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra, the New York City Opera, the New York City Ballet, and the Goldman Band. Upon the request of Gunther Schuller, then president of the New England Conservatory in Boston, from 1967 to 1971 Phillips served as Schuller's vice-president for financial affairs. During his tenure there, he helped raise more than $6 million to rescue the conservatory from bankruptcy.

In 1971 Phillips joined the faculty of the Indiana University School of Music, in Bloomington, upon the retirement and recommendation of Bell, and by 1979 he was made a Distinguished Professor of Music, the highest professorial rank. Phillips has taught many master classes and clinics, been featured at dozens of national and international music conferences, and served on many committees and panels. He strives to instill pride, commitment, and professional ethics in all his students.

Phillips aspires to expand performance opportunities in every musical discipline, eradicate musical prejudice and misunderstanding, and broaden the base of audience support for the performing arts. To these ends Phillips organized the Tubists Universal Brotherhood Association (T.U.B.A.), which has a mailing list of 12,000, and other societies to promote brass instruments. He has co-founded such ensembles as Orchestra U.S.A., the New York Brass Quintet, the Matteson-Phillips Tubajazz Consort, and Twentieth Century Innovations, and has performed widely in the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia, and Japan.

To generate audience support, in 1973 Phillips originated the annual TUBA-CHRISTMAS, which later engendered OCTUBAFEST, TUBAEASTER, and SUMMERTUBAFEST, festivals held across the country to celebrate the tuba. TUBA-CHRISTMAS originated when Phillips wanted to honor his teacher, Bell, who was born on Christmas day. Phillips arranged for tuba players to come to the skating rink at Rockefeller Center to perform Christmas carols in what has now become a tradition. OCTUBAFEST, held annually at Phillips's TUBARANCH in Bloomington, attracts as many as 4,000 participants.

Invented in the early 1830s, the tuba was a relative newcomer to the orchestra. It was a vast improvement over its predecessors--the serpent and the ophicleide--and quickly assumed its role in the orchestra. It was not until 1954, however, when Ralph Vaughn Williams composed Concerto for Bass Tuba and Orchestra that the tuba's solo capabilities were made known. Nevertheless, the solo repertoire increased little until Phillips decided to take matters into his own hands. Phillips has been directly responsible for the composition of more than 600 works for tuba. He has inspired, cajoled, and coerced works from many composers--including Vincent Persichetti, Morton Gould, Gunther Schuller, and Alec Wilder--and has directly commissioned more than 100 others. Sometimes payment has taken various forms, such as a case of gin, and when Phillips found himself deeply in debt from commissions and festivals, he set up the Harvey Phillips Foundation to support his musical activities.

Indefatigable in his efforts on behalf of the tuba and tubists, Phillips maintains a hectic schedule of performing, teaching, and consulting. Though he is satisfied that people are beginning to appreciate, play, and compose for the tuba with appropriate enthusiasm, he sees no reason to slow his pace.

Perhaps Gunther Schuller, a horn player and conductor of renown, who has throughout the years worked with Phillips on many projects, describes him best: "Harvey Phillips is not only a supreme artist on the tuba, but through his multiple activities as a teacher, clinician, commissioner of new works, and organizer of tuba and brass festivals, he has been an indefatigable 'philosopher of the tuba.' His efforts on behalf of other musicians never cease. More than anyone else he has tenaciously proselytized the notion that the tuba can, in the hands of fine musicians, communicate the entire gamut of musical emotions and expressions.

For his missionary zeal and his exemplary performance record, Mr. Phillips has won the respect of all his colleagues, as well as countless composers whose works he has premiered, championed and performed. Harvey Phillips, in short, is the major progenitor in his field, and already two generations of younger players are forever indebted to him."

by Jeanne M. Lesinski

© 1995 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded in Chicago on April 24, 1995.  Portions were used (along with recordings) on WNIB three months later, also in 1997 and 1999.  The transcription was made and posted on this website in 2009.  

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.