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Camaraderie is keynote for USC Thornton tuba players

Most of the working professionals around Los Angeles received their degrees from the USC music school

Tuba players pose for group photo
Tuba players form a close-knit group at the USC Thornton School of Music. (Photo/Jim Self)

It’s the tuba player’s paradox: always alone, but never lonely.

“There’s only one tuba player in an orchestra,” said Jim Self, head of the USC Thornton tuba studio. “But tuba players are clannish and we keep in touch with one another.”

And why not? According to Self, “most of the working professionals around Los Angeles have their degrees from Thornton.”

“In the 10 years that I’ve been in charge of the tuba program, I’ve tried to encourage our alumni to stay involved,” Self said. “For example, when our ensemble goes to play at a conference, I always invite our alumni to join in.”

Adding to the sense of intimacy and camaraderie is the small size of USC Thornton’s tuba program — there are only six students. This allows for a strong bond between teacher and student.

“My first year studying with Jim as my private teacher was a fun experience week to week,” said undergraduate student Cameron Holt. “He’d always make a point to ask how I was doing outside of playing the tuba and kept a constant, vested interest in how I was doing outside of Thornton. I wouldn’t be where I am today without those band directors and professors in my life because they really do become life coaches in addition to music instructors.”

In addition to Self, the tuba faculty is rounded out by Norm Pearson of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Doug Tornquist, a prominent studio musician and principal tuba of the Long Beach Symphony.

You would be hard-pressed to find such a lineup of tuba teachers all in one place anywhere else.

Kyle Richter

“When you step back and really think about who the three of them are in the tuba world, it’s remarkable that consistently being around and learning from all three of them felt like normal,” said Kyle Richter MM ’16. “You would be hard-pressed to find such a lineup of tuba teachers all in one place anywhere else.”

Oom-pah-pah

“Here at Thornton, we have an emphasis on chamber music and it’s a great thing — very few schools have it,” Self said. “So every tuba student plays in a brass quintet. And every semester, we have a Brass Bash concert where all the brass chamber ensembles get together for a performance.”

Yet there is also an opportunity for USC Thornton tuba players to play with one another: the USC Bass Tuba Quartet.

“It’s a mix of graduate students and the top undergraduate players,” Self said. “It’s an outgrowth of a professional group we had back in the ’70s called the Los Angeles Tuba Quartet.”

In addition to Self, the Los Angeles Tuba Quartet featured Roger Bobo, Don Waldrop and tuba legend Tommy Johnson, who was Self’s predecessor as head of USC Thornton’s tuba studio. “He was my teacher when I came to do my doctorate here,” Self said. “He was my mentor; he helped me a lot.”

Because very little music had previously been written for tuba quartet, the Los Angeles Tuba Quartet commissioned “a lot of music back then.” The USC Bass Tuba Quartet has continued that tradition.

“I’ve commissioned really good music from our faculty here, like Bruce Broughton, who’s a famous film composer. He wrote a great piece for us last year and we premiered that,” Self said. “I’ve written music for them and done some tuba quartet arrangements. We’ve done lots of cool things over the years, so by now we’re getting quite a library of music for four tubas.”

An all-tuba ensemble challenges the students.

“It makes them play beyond what they thought were their capabilities,” Self said.

The hard work was has paid off. Two years, ago at the International Tuba and Euphonium Conference, the quartet took first prize in the chamber music competition and appeared again at the conference in 2016.

Free concerts around the world

Self works to ensure that the USC Thornton tuba students have every opportunity to improve their skills through performance.

“We have a concert every spring at my home. We call it ‘Live From Bassett Hall,’” he said. “It’s a private concert for 70 to 80 people, but it’s really a nice affair.”

Every winter, the tuba quartet gives a free holiday concert to the public as part of an event called TubaChristmas, in which hundreds of tuba players play free concerts in cities around the globe.

“It’s become a worldwide Christmas tradition, but it was started by one of my teachers, Harvey Phillips,” Self said. “We’ve been doing it in L.A. for 40 years now.”

USC Thornton tuba students also learn the ropes of studio recording. Last year, all six tuba students recorded “Snajort,” an original piece by Self, and an arrangement of “Polkadots and Moonbeams.”

“Each year I try to give them a real studio experience and we record really challenging music,” Self said. “I’ve always found throughout my teaching career that students like to be challenged. I always tell them, ‘prove to me that you can do it’ and they like that.”

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