TubaChristmas: Concertgoers in Philly give love to, and get joy from, overlooked instruments

An ensemble of 100 tuba, sousaphone and euphonium players from the region, perform a TubaChristmas concert. (Kriston Jae Bethel for WHYY)

An ensemble of 100 tuba, sousaphone and euphonium players from the region, perform a TubaChristmas concert. (Kriston Jae Bethel for WHYY)

Tuba players often feel their instruments aren’t really understood by the general public. Musicians say audiences often think of oompah music — think classic polka band sounds — when they think of these low-brass instruments.

But for the past 29 years, dozens of players from the Philadelphia region have been able to show just how versatile their instruments are with “TubaChristmas”— an annual holiday concert where they’re the stars.

“It’s like a really exciting time for instruments that are not usually seen at the forefront,” said Jason Wu, a junior at Temple University, who’s been playing in TubaChristmas for the past five years. “[We] have a chance to show, “Hey we exist, we can play more than just bum-bum-bum-bum-bum.’”

Jason Wu performs during the 29th annual TubaChristmas at the Kimmel Center on Sunday. (Kriston Jae Bethel for WHYY)

This Sunday, the free event drew almost 100 musicians from different backgrounds for its noon performance at the Kimmel Center’s atrium, and the 6 pm concert had more than 80 people slated to play.

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 Tubas weren’t the only stars. The sousaphone — in the same family as tubas, but designed for marching — was well represented, as was the euphonium, also known as a tenor tuba.

Musicians like Wu wore punny sweaters that read “Joy Tuba World” and they adorned their instruments with red and green string lights, wrapped tinsel around their bells, and even added some ornaments, to the delight of hundreds in the audience.

The concert’s origins aren’t in Philly.

Musician Harvey Phillips, a former tuba professor at the University of Indiana, created the concert in 1974 as a way to honor William J. Bell, a former teacher of his who was born on Christmas Day.

In a 1976 interview with the New York Times, Phillips said he wanted to show audiences how “noble” of an instrument the bulky tuba could be.

The first of these concerts took place in New York City’s Rockefeller Plaza Ice Rink, and has since spread to cities like Missoula, Montana, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and Baltimore.

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In Philadelphia, Jay Krush started the tradition 29 years ago. At the time, the concert took place at the Franklin Institute and drew only some 30 musicians.

Christy Milliken of Bristol performs during TubaChristmas. (Kriston Jae Bethel for WHYY)

Now the concert has grown so much, Krush said it’s become a great way for musicians to “tuba-network.” In orchestras, there’s typically only one tuba player and they don’t play the entire time, which can make musicians feel isolated, according to Krush. 

“It’s such a neat thing to get everybody together and play,” Krush said. “You have amateurs, and professionals, and students, and retirees playing together. That doesn’t happen all that often, so it’s a healthy and lovely thing.”

Jennifer Michel, an elementary school orchestra teacher from Bucks County and first-time participant, said that welcoming feeling was encouraging as a beginner euphonium player.

“It’s a little bit nerve-racking getting up in front of an audience on an instrument I’m not super experienced on but there’s so much support out here,” she said. “Just that camaraderie coming through, that no matter if you make a mistake everyone is just happy to be here.” 

Families and spectators were just as delighted.

Krush spent the breaks between pieces to give a quick overview of the history of tubas, euphoniums, and sousaphones. 

Families listen to the performance of the 29th annual TubaChristmas at the Kimmel Center. (Kriston Jae Bethel for WHYY)

Musicians played crowd favorites like “Joy to the World,” “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem,” and Hannakuh pieces. The space was also well-suited for children who could dance with their parents and hum along.

“I think it’s really important for children to be involved in these cultural experiences where they can learn that they can derive emotions from instruments and playing songs,” said Ahmara Ross of East Falls.

Ahmara plays the piccolo and flute, and her husband plays the trumpet. They brought their children, who are already learning music, to the concert so they could, “start to see themselves, as they grow, in the musicians that are playing.”

It was also a way to pepper in some holiday cheer for the budding musicians.

“[The music] is good,” said four-year-old Elvin Ross IV, shyly into a microphone.

Right after he gave the concert his seal of approval, he went back to dancing with his one-year-old sister as they watched and listened to a sea of gold tubas. 


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