Joking aside, TubaChristmas is big, warm, mellow

  • Local tubaists play at TubaChristmas, at the United Church of Bernardston on Sunday. David Neal, far right, is the pastor of the church. STAFF PHOTO/MAX MARCUS

  • Local tubaists play at TubaChristmas, at the United Church of Bernardston on Sunday. STAFF PHOTO/MAX MARCUS

Staff Writer
Published: 12/9/2019 1:01:39 AM

BERNARDSTON — Like the holiday itself, most Christmas music celebrates lightness: jingling bells, lilting choir voices, radiant horns.

Try to imagine the opposite of that, and you would probably get something like TubaChristmas.

At the United Church of Bernardston on Sunday, 12 local tubaists performed Christmas songs, specially arranged for all-tuba groups. Directing them was Steve Damon, who teaches music at Guilford Central School in Guilford, Vt.

This was the seventh year the show has been at the Bernardston church, and its 24th in Franklin County. But the concept is international, Damon said. The first TubaChristmas was organized in 1974 by a music professor at Indiana University, Harvey Phillips — “the ultimate tuba teacher,” Damon said.

TubaChristmas soon spread. All TubaChristmases play out of the same book of official TubaChristmas arrangements, which is distributed by the Harvey Philips Foundation. For $10, any competent tubaist can play. The money is donated to a tuba scholarship at Indiana University organized by Phillips’ foundation. Phillips died in 2010.

Franklin County’s TubaChristmas is the second oldest in the state. When it started in 1995, the only other one in Massachusetts was in Boston, Damon said. Now there are several others.

This year’s turnout of 12 tuba players, plus a singer for a bonus song, was on the low side, Damon said. Some years the turnout has been as high as 52. He suspected people may have been busy with events delayed to the weekend by last week’s snowstorm.

Most of the players were regulars who had performed in past TubaChristmases. Among them was David Neal, the pastor of the United Church of Bernardston. He’s really a trombone player, he said. But for TubaChristmas, he plays a euphonium.

“There are lots of good professional musicians here,” Neal said. “I’m not one of them.”

The arrangements are written in four-part harmony, like choir music. The euphonium and baritone play the upper parts, and the larger bass tuba (usually simply called a “tuba”) plays the lower parts, Damon explained.

The baritone has the brightest sound in the band, so it tends to take the melody, Damon said. The euphonium has the same range as the baritone. But because its tubing expands gradually through its coils to the bell, its sound is mellower than the relatively trumpet-like baritone. Damon called it a “bridge” between the upper and lower parts.

Sign-ups to play were on the morning of the show, so the band’s only rehearsal was an hour and a half before show time. But most had played in previous TubaChristmases. And besides, the arrangements are pretty simple, Neal said.

The band’s sound is muddier than most Christmas music. But it is big, warm and mellow, easily filling the room.

The concept is intentionally goofy, Neal said. Every time a piece’s title was announced in rehearsal, the musicians would make tuba-related jokes about it.

“Tuba players have a stereotype,” Damon said. Like the plodding bass lines they often play, “They’re kind of slow, not too smart. ... The slow, dippy troublemakers in the back of the band.”

“Like the turtles on the Comcast commercials,” Neal said.

But, they added, the show has always been popular.

“Sometimes, when you do something outside the box, people pay attention,” Neal said.

Reach Max Marcus at or 413-772-0261 ext. 261.

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