A Tribute to Abe Torchinsky
compiled by Warren Deck
biographical assistance from Carole Nowicke
Abe Torchinsky was born in Philadelphia on March 30, 1920 to Russian immigrant parents. His father was a women’s tailor, and his mother worked in the shop along with his father.
He played in a boy’s band but didn’t have an instrument so he was allowed to be a drum major. He wanted to play the trombone but was told by the director that his arm was too short, but the director had a USA Line York tuba in his basement, which he lent to Mr. T.
His high school years were spent at Jules Mastbaum High School where his classmates were Buddy DeFranco and Joe Wilder. While in high school, Mr. T played in a band with Isham Jones, which is where he met Frank Hunter who was later music director of the Mike Douglas Show. Mr. T had a broad range of musical experiences during these years playing both bass and tuba in anything from dance bands to marching in the Mummer’s parade.
Mr. T’s first tuba teacher was a painter named Robert McCandless. Mr. T’s older brother Jack was a woodwind player with a wide range of acquaintances and thought he should meet Arnold Jacobs, who was then a student at Curtis. Jacobs, who was six years older than Mr. T, charged him $1 for a lesson. When Mr. T later went to Curtis himself, he studied with Philip Donatelli, then the tubist with the Philadelphia Orchestra. His reflections of lessons with Donatelli were that he had a thick Italian accent, that they ran through etude books, and that he reeked of garlic. He started taking the train up to New York to study with Fred Geib and Bill Bell. While he was at Curtis, he would often go over to the Free Public Library of Philadelphia and check out scores so he could watch them during Philadelphia Orchestra concerts. He had a hardbound book of manuscript paper that he used for copying out the tuba parts by hand from the scores he had checked out.
During WWII, the Wind Department of Curtis was closed down, so he had to find something else to do during this time. Mr. T had a perforated eardrum as a child and was deemed unfit for military service. He found a 10-week job with the Southern Symphony Orchestra in South Carolina. He also played in the National Symphony, where he was offered a good salary to stay in Washington, but he decided to go to New York for more study with Mr. Bell. By this time he was married to his longtime wife, Berta, and she gamely went along to New York on their new adventure. Their first apartment was in Jamaica Queens, near where Kennedy Airport is today. They only stayed one night because the place was infested with cockroaches, and they quickly found another apartment. As is common for many, “free-lancing” in New York meant a lot of experiences, and Mr. T’s experiences were as varied as one could ask for. There were playing jobs that included playing bass in a club of Nazi sympathizers called the Gloria Palatz. He was using the name Torchin during that time, so one can suppose there was enough beer flowing at the club so that the patrons didn’t notice the young Jewish boy on the bass. There were non-playing jobs that included selling cameras at Gimbel’s Department Store and decorating windows for the United Cigar Company. A summer job he really enjoyed was playing in the Asbury Park, N.J. band where the tuba section was Bill Bell, Joe Tarto, Fred Pfaf, and Mr. T.
Abe Torchinsky, age 5
He was the first tuba player to have a job in the pit of a Broadway musical when Carousel opened, and the score included a tuba part. In 1946, Mr. T joined the NBC Symphony. Mr. T relates the story of the audition he played for Toscanini where there was no music. Toscanini asked for all of the usual suspects in the repertoire, and he sat there and played them from memory. He was always thankful to Mr. Bell for preparing him for these situations. He also tells of playing for Stokowski where there was music, but it was a hand written copy of a standard excerpt with no indication as to what the piece was. You would play the excerpt for Stokowski and then he would ask, “Do you know what this is?” If you didn’t the audition was over.
In 1949, there was an opening in the Philadelphia Orchestra and some of the older members of the NBC Symphony told him that they thought he should try to get that job. He thought they were crazy. He was making $235 a week with NBC at that time, and Philadelphia paid less than half of that. The older members knew that Toscanini was getting old and if something happened to him, there would be no NBC Symphony, and that he would go from making $235 a week to making nothing. Mr. T did go to Philadelphia in 1949, and NBC did cease to exist when Toscanini stopped conducting a few years later.
Abe as a drum major for his high school band
A story Mr. T loved to tell was when he was playing an all Wagner program in Philadelphia with Ormandy conducting. Ormandy told Mr. T he wanted a bigger tuba for these pieces, so he put his bell front onto his detachable bell King tuba. Ormandy saw the tuba and shouted “You can’t use that: That’s a BAND tuba!” Mr. T said “OK. Just give me a minute.” He went back stage and put his upright bell back onto his tuba and Ormandy said, “That’s much better,” and it wasn’t a problem again.
In 1960 Mr. T suggested to his friend Frank Hunter the idea of arranging tunes using a classical brass quintet and having it break out into jazzy versions of classical themes including a rhythm section. Hunter said he could do it. Columbia Records was on board with the idea, and they came up with the name of the group: Torchy Jones. Torchy was Mr. T’s nickname and the Jones came from Mason Jones, the horn player. When they decided to do this record, they thought they should get Ormandy’s blessing to record some “popular tunes.” Ormandy gave them his permission but not his blessing. When Ormandy found out the music on the recording went beyond “popular tunes” and actually had “jazz” on it, he was livid and had enough clout with Columbia to get them to pull the record off the market.
Later came other ground breaking brass ensemble recordings such as The Glorious Sound of Brass, A Festival of Carols, and the Grammy winning Antiphonal Music of Gabrieli with the brass ensembles of The Cleveland Orchestra and The Chicago Symphony. In addition, Mr. T is on over 200 orchestral recordings with the Philadelphia Orchestra.
In 1972, Mr. T left the Philadelphia Orchestra to accept the position of Professor of Tuba at the University of Michigan, where he taught until he retired in 1989. His studio there had an open policy. Anyone could come in at any time, and the place had a virtual revolving door where students of all stripes would visit to learn all manner of things related to music and life.
Abe with members of the National Symphony Orchestra
While at Michigan, he began to publish whole tuba parts in books with notations at the beginnings of the books about various styles and tempi one could expect with these pieces. The notes also included differences in various editions of the pieces that one might encounter. This was ground breaking as the only thing available at that time were excerpt books that were full of mistakes. In addition, because the whole part wasn’t in the excerpt books, it was difficult to follow along with a recording. These books were a far cry from the hand copying he had to do when he was a student, and a great service to tuba players. In all, 17 volumes of tuba parts were published with mini lessons about each piece in the front of each volume.
In 1975 he recorded the Hindemith tuba sonata with Glenn Gould, and the recording received a Grammy nomination. It was an encounter he often called the best musical experience of his life.
In 1989, Mr. T retired from the University of Michigan and a few years later moved back “home” to Philadelphia. He became active in the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM) and started a new category in the organization to keep retirees apprised of the group’s aspirations and to allow them to stay in touch with friends and colleagues. He was also active in the Philadelphia Orchestra Retirees and Friends (PORF) society and helped to acquire funds to increase pension benefits for retirees of the Philadelphia Orchestra.
National Youth Administration
Mr. T was an effervescent man who loved people, music, musicians, and particularly his wife Berta. He was ceaselessly devoted to her and relished giving her gifts of any kind. She was the light of his life for nearly 65 years until she passed away in 2006. He is survived by his three daughters, Barbara Volger, Penny Clark, and Beth Torchin.
Tributes to Mr. T
Note: the ITEA Journal greatly appreciates the following tributes submitted on behalf of their mentor and friend, Abe Torchinsky. These short passages are ideal pieces of knowledge that will offer readers a deeper insight into the life and career of this pivotal figure for our musical community.
I don’t know that I can narrow my experiences with Mr. T down to a few anecdotes, but I can definitely talk about what he did for others and myself. I remember we were all very excited about his coming to Michigan and meeting up with him after one of the May Festival concerts just before his retirement from Philadelphia. The excitement was well founded as he not only turned my career around in a big way but changed forever the way things were done at the University of Michigan School of Music. Through sheer force of personality, he began to professionalize the school. Other faculty complained about how much he was getting paid, until their salaries rose along with his. He oversaw and produced the first of many recordings made of school ensembles in order to showcase the enormous talent there. (We recorded a Christmas album in July, and he wouldn’t let anybody outside, even for a peek, because it would ruin the Christmas spirit we were generating in Hill Auditorium.) He famously stood up for the students in the university orchestra who were performing in the Canary Islands at an opera festival, who he thought were being treated like slaves (and almost came to blows with the conductor!). As much as he loved teaching at Michigan, he had trouble adjusting to the quirks of life in an academic institution. He would rail about the inanity of faculty meetings (“I swear there’s a committee to go to the men’s bathroom!”), and it was in those meetings he perfected the art of “sleeping with (his) eyes open.”
Philadelphia Brass Ensemble
No stuffy professor was he: within the first five minutes of my first lesson with him, I asked a question about what it took to get to play in a major orchestra. He replied “Well, do you want the truth, or do ya want me to bull*** ya?” I thought, “This is my kind of teacher.” He was very approachable and brought us to his level, which we all appreciated. Most lessons were like masterclasses, meaning it was rare to walk into the studio and see just him. Usually there would be several people sitting around the office, all giving out free advice to the person whose time it actually was, while Mr. T sat at his typewriter banging out a letter or was on the phone badgering some poor tuba manufacturer for an impossible price on a new instrument. (One of my favorite activities later on was when I received a letter from him. I would hold it up to the light before even reading it to observe the pattern of whiteout splotches.) Those giving out their opinions at these “masterclasses” included many future top professionals such as Warren Deck, Dave Finlayson, Steve Seward, Walt Zeschin, John Griffiths, Ava Ordman, and many others.
His approach to music got right to the heart of what it took to be a professional musician, with concepts of how to sound, space management, how different conductors would interpret the repertoire in their own way, etc., driven home loud and clear. His support of his students was boundless, and he used his reputation as “the biggest mouth in the music business” to our advantage by getting us into auditions and other situations. (He let me read a letter of recommendation he wrote for me, and basically it said the in the tuba world, there was God, Jesus Christ, and me, and not necessarily in that order! I looked at it, incredulous, and he said, “Whatsa matter, isn’t that enough?”)
Philadelphia Brass Ensemble pictured with their Grammy Award
I truly believe that by the time I was out of school, I had as much experience as many who had been out there for a while, just from his teachings and influence. I think about him every day, and there is some of him in every lesson I teach. I can’t imagine what my career would have been without him, and I am so thankful that he became part of my life. I owe him a ton of thanks.
~Richard Watson, Professor of Low Brass, Valparaiso University
Philadelphia Orchestra, Eugene Ormandy, conductor
I am so sorry to hear about Mr. T. His passing brings back many memories of myself and Mr. and Mrs. T while I was a student at the University of Michigan. I can’t begin to put into words all that they have done for me.
I remember the many dinners they invited me too. They were always glad to see me and took great care of me since I was so many miles from home. One of my favorite dinners was when he took the entire tuba studio to Zenders in Frankenmuth, Michigan for a family style all you can eat fried chicken dinner. What a treat when we were used to eating dorm food at best!
He always had time for me. No matter what the problem was he would try to solve it or he would steer me in the right direction. He always stood behind his students. Mr. T not only taught me how to make music out of the simplest phrases, but also life long lessons that I use today. I do my best to pass things Mr. T taught me on to my students. I am sure not one lesson I teach goes by where I don’t use something he taught me. When I hear vibrato to this day I still remember Mr. T in my freshmen year stating, “Seward, no vibrato, it covers up a bad sound.” Strive for the biggest and fullest sound possible.” His advice on how to survive conductors I still use today. His just “play it and blow the heck out of it attitude” has served me well for 30-plus years of playing in an orchestra.
Mr. T always loved to share his amazing stories. Favorites I remember are how he won the NBC Symphony and his train rides with the Philadelphia Orchestra. I also enjoyed the reflections of his playing with some of the greatest maestros. He always stood behind his students. No matter what the problem was he would try and solve it or steer me in the right direction.
~Steve Seward, Principal Tuba, Kansas City Symphony; Tuba/Euphonium Instructor, Truman State University
Asbury Park Band
Like many other friends and colleagues of Abe Torchinsky, I will miss not being able to pick up the telephone and speak with him. Abe was a living encyclopedia of information about the tuba. He has now joined a veritable forest of other recently departed “giant sequoia tubists.” He was ever concerned for the welfare of his profession and for his students. He was loved and admired by all.
I am living testament to his concern and generosity. At the behest of our mutual teacher William Bell, Abe sold to me a 1920 Conn 4-valve CC tuba for $125. He had purchased it from Fred Marzan for $175. CC tubas (of any manufacturer) were—next to impossible to find in those days. In 1949, in the off-season of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus Band, I was invited to Mr. Bell’s home in Larchmont, N.Y. for the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. I was reminded by Mr. Bell of the important changes that had just taken place in the tuba world in 1949. Abe Torchinsky left the NBC Symphony to accept the principal tuba position with the Philadelphia Orchestra; Joe Novotny left the Houston Symphony and followed Abe at NBC; Bill Rose left the freelance world of New York City and joined the Houston Symphony Orchestra.
Abe loved playing a variety of music. At one time I remember he and Mason Jones and others in the Philadelphia Orchestra started a Jazz group. They called their ensemble Torchy-Jones. Unfortunately maestro Eugene Ormandy didn’t appreciate his musicians playing jazz. While at NBC Abe’s propensity for being conversant about any subject earned him the affectionate nickname “Walky-Talky.”
~Harvey Phillips, Professor Emeritus of Music, Indiana University
On tour with the Royal Crusaders Orchestra
I first heard of Abe when I was a freshman at the University of Miami School of Music. I had just made up my mind to become a professional tuba player. This was 1949, which was the same year Abe joined the Philadelphia Orchestra. I quickly was completely in awe of this man and wanted to sound just like him. I bought every recording of the Philadelphia Orchestra over the years and looked for any performances on the radio or TV.Later on I bought the recording of Catch the Brass Ring by the Philadelphia Brass Ensemble as the Torchy-Jones Quintet. I completely wore the record out!
I followed his career for years to come and finally got to meet him at some of the TUBA events over the years. This is how I found out what a wonderful person he was as well as being the great classical tubist. I only wish we could have been together more often.
In June 2004 Abe and I both received the honor of receiving the ITEA Lifetime Achievement Award. This was the highlight of my career. I could not believe that I was sharing this award with him, my idol!We all will miss him!
On tour with the Southern Symphony
Abe Torchinsky was my dearest and favorite friend and colleague in the Philadelphia Orchestra.
We must have played nearly 2000 concerts and 200 recording sessions together. In addition, Abe and I were among the founding members of the Philadelphia Brass Ensemble. I don’t believe any of the seven recordings the Brass Ensemble made would have taken place without the energy and imagination of dear Abe. He really knew how to make things happen. And what an amazing player he was! Whether it was the low brass section or the entire orchestra or the quintet, he gave a foundation of beautiful sound, rhythm, and impeccable tuning upon which you could build the entire sonority. From sensitive soft to mountain-moving power, it was all there.
Abe’s unique and sometimes-outrageous sense of humor was legendary and memorable. He could cut through the most difficult situations with his levity and leave everyone in tears of laughter—knowing what was really important and what was not. Inside this very brilliant and funny man was a heart of pure gold. He would give you the shirt off of his back. He adored his wife Bert and their daughters. During Bert’s final years and illness he devoted himself 24-7 to her care and wellbeing. Now that is the measure of a real man.
Abe will be missed. He was an original. And he taught and inspired a whole generation of young players who will “carry the Torch.” (Pun intended.) What a giant of a man and musician! What a dear friend and colleague!
~ Henry Charles Smith, Principal trombone of the Philadelphia Orchestra 1955–67 and founding member of the Philadelphia Brass Ensemble
Pictured with Maestro Leonard Bernstein
Anyone who ever met Abe Torchinsky knew a gregarious, outgoing, and somewhat impish character. He didn’t know a stranger, was always up for a laugh, and relished making fun of convention. Stories of his antics are well known to many. Anyone who ever heard him play live or on recordings could hear what a consummate musician he was. His sense of ensemble, which is perhaps easiest to hear on the Philadelphia Brass Ensemble recordings, is still the standard for me.
But personally, beyond the usual and true platitudes, what can you say about the man who most helped you have the professional life you love? You feel like you owe him everything. Mr. T was like a second father to me, and I already had a first father I admired and loved dearly, so I won that lottery twice. A teacher teaches you about music and how to play your instrument. He did all that, but that was not enough for him. He mentored me. He took me under his wing, and we became friends. He taught me how to get along with musicians. He taught me how the business works. He showed me how musicians think. Through all of this I learned that musicians were exceedingly great people to be around, and, that if I could be fortunate enough to get to spend a life among people like that, it would be a great life. And so it has been.
Abe with Maestro Ormandy and Henry Charles Smith
Years after my last lesson with him, I would sometimes feel really clever about something I had “figured out for myself” about music or about playing the tuba. Then I would hear Mr. T work with a student or do a masterclass and realize that I wasn’t clever at all. I just had a poor memory and had forgotten some of his earlier teaching. My “discovery” was simply remembering something he had already taught me years before without the proper attribution. I can’t count the times where I had thoughts along the line of “Ah, that’s what Mr. T was trying to teach me about six years ago.”
His advice was always sage, and he was never dismissive of any dilemma you might have. He would spend a great deal of time turning it over in his mind. I did learn to disregard the first idea that came to him involving any quandary because he would always go home and think more about the issue. (I’m betting there was also some quietly wise input from his charming wife Berta during this time.) Sometimes the recommendation that came the next day would be the same as the day before, sometimes not. No matter. If you could wait until the next day, you could take his guidance to the bank.
He was a teacher who would really go to the mat to get his students opportunities. He would call, write, or cajole anyone into listening to one of his students. He would always tell us, “OK, I got you in the door, now you have to go and show them you can play.”
Mr. T was a man in a happy marriage. He was crazy about his wife Berta, and the only time I ever saw him raise his voice to her was because she opened the car door a split second before he had brought the car to a full stop in a parking place. He was concerned that she might get hurt. He bought her anything and everything and when she died, I watched him sadly return $600 worth of unworn clothes with tags still attached to Nordstrom’s.
The many fine examples of how to live a good life that I witnessed from Mr. T certainly loom large for me. The sting of his loss is definitely acute, but it pales in comparison to the gift of the time I was allowed to spend with him. Richness comes in a lot of flavors, and I am a lucky man to have had the splendor of Mr. T in my life.
~Warren Deck, former principal tuba, New York Philharmonic (1979-2001); Instructor, University of Denver