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A different kind of ‘heavy metal Christmas concert’

Rich Egger
At Tuba Christmas, you can hear new interpretations of holiday music.

There was a strong turnout for Tuba Christmas in Macomb. Around 30 tuba players participated, and the performance drew a sizable crowd to the Western Illinois Museum.

The concert was part of Dickens on the Square, which is Macomb’s annual holiday celebration.

Any tuba player was welcome to participate. The players gathered at 5:30 p.m. for a quick rehearsal and started the show at 7 p.m.

“It definitely keeps you on your toes. You never know who’s going to show up,” said James Land, who teaches the tuba at Western Illinois University. He directed the tuba players, who ranged in experience from professionals to novices.

Rich Egger
Anneliese Land (left) performed with the band during Tuba Christmas and James Land directed the group.

Land said it’s a joy to see people’s faces light up when they hear familiar Christmas songs being played on tubas.

“You come to an event like this – Dickens on the Square – expecting to hear music. But you never expect to walk into a room and hear 30 tuba players,” he said.

“And it’s a joy to see the performers. They’re always excited to play, especially as a tuba player because you get to play the melody. Usually you never play the melody as a tuba player when you play in a large band or a large ensemble.”

Land told the audience that Tuba Christmas was “a true heavy metal Christmas concert.”

Paul Schmidt was one of the more experienced players in the ensemble, and he played an unusual looking tuba. Schmidt said he has a large collection of “oddball brass instruments” that he likes to share with audiences, and in Macomb he played an ophicleide that dates back to around 1835. It has keys like a woodwind instrument rather than valves like many brass instruments.

“At the time the ophicleide was invented, they did not have workable valves yet. The only things you could do to adjust the pitch of brass instruments was to use a slide or to use your lips alone,” he said. Woodwind instruments used keys, but the ophicleide’s system is different. “It’s totally upside down from a woodwind system. It’s very infuriating to learn the fingering system for ophicleides.”

Rich Egger
Paul Schmidt playing the ophicleide during Tuba Christmas in Macomb.

Schmidt started learning the system in 1986 and has been playing the instrument ever since.

Schmidt, who lives in Lindenhurst in far northeast Illinois, said he has played in more than 200 Tuba Christmas shows through the years. He came to western Illinois to play in Galesburg’s Tuba Christmas, which was happening the next night.

“Scanning the Tuba Christmas website I found that there was (also) one here, which I had never done, so I thought I’m out this way anyway, I’d like to check out this one,” he said.

Schmidt said he did not know what to expect but found Macomb’s to be a very good Tuba Christmas.

“Ensembles like this, especially when it’s based around a university, tend to be good. And this was not a disappointment. It’s got university students, people who know how to play, and they’re playing for their instructor so they’re on their best behavior,” he said with a laugh.

The Tuba Christmas tradition began in December, 1974 in New York City. Renowned tuba player Harvey Phillips organized it to honor his tuba teacher, William Bell, who was born on Christmas Day in 1902.

Tri States Public Radio produced this story.  TSPR relies on financial support from our readers and listeners in order to provide coverage of the issues that matter to west central Illinois, southeast Iowa, and northeast Missouri. As someone who values the content created by TSPR's news department please consider making a financial contribution.

Rich is TSPR's News Director.