A Tuba’s Tale: The Story Behind The “Pink” Tuba

Volume 35 Number 3 (Spring 2008)

A Tuba’s Tale:
The Story Behind The “Pink” Tuba

Wherever I played my Sander tuba, whether it was at the grand music festivals of Europe, at the ancient Roman outdoor theaters of the Middle East, or in the gilded concert halls of North and South America, the inevitability of the question seemed almost to be pre-destined: “Why is your tuba pink? Although I was asked the question more times than I’d like to remember, language barriers notwithstanding, I was always glad to answer, happy that someone might have been listening as well as looking at the goings on in the bottom end of the low-brass section. One of the most memorable—and flattering—responses to the answer of the question came from a very elderly lady after a performance near Santa Fe, New Mexico. “Oh,” she said, “the tuba is my favorite instrument of all, and if we get our wish when we get to heaven, I’m hoping that we can spend eternity playing duets on shiny pink tubas.” She went on, “now, I’ll be there long before you, and I’ll have my tuba all polished up and ready to go.”

Over the years, many of my students at Trinity Western University in British Columbia, Canada posed the same question. Recently, one of them suggested that I write the story about the “pink” tuba. The following tale is the result of his suggestion.

“Heavenly” tuba music on the shiny “pink” Sander. Paul Hoelzley’s performance near Santa Fe, New Mexico. Photo taken on August 28, 1963.


In November of 1959, while a member of the United States Army Field Band, I began making trips from the Washington D.C. area to New York City to take lessons with the inimitable William “Bill” Bell, who, at the time, was principal tubist with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Upon my discharge from Uncle Sam’s Army in 1962, I followed Mr. Bell to Indiana University where he had recently become Professor of Tuba. Mr. “B” had helped procure a scholarship for me, and it was in the summer of 1962 at I.U., that he took me on what he called a “tuba hunting expedition.” With his robust humor feigning a clandestine mission to some forbidden place, Mr. “B” led me to a rather large, obscure room on campus (perhaps it was in the attic of the music building—I don’t remember the exact location). The room, poorly lit and musty smelling, was a virtual tuba graveyard. It appeared to house every shape, size, and model of old tuba, helicon, and sousaphone that were ever made. Among this tuba player’s treasure trove, we came upon the subject of this story— a copper-colored (pink?), Sander CC tuba with large bell and four string-action rotary valves.

New York Philharmonic on tour. Paul Hoelzley with Bill Bell at the Lyric Theater, Baltimore, Md. Photo taken on April 17, 1961.


“Try this one,” intoned Mr. Bell, in his rich bass-baritone voice, gesturing to a tuba reposing in a non-descript, well-worn box. I must confess that it was with a measure of indifference that I pulled the decrepit looking instrument from its place of internment to repair the broken strings (three out of the four). After all, I thought, this old horn hasn’t been relegated to the tuba cemetery without good reason. It probably couldn’t withstand a well-supported fortissimo low b-flat without bursting apart at the seams.

After getting the valves to work, I sat the instrument on my lap and twisted the Helleberg mouthpiece that Mr. Bell had given me into its place. The instrument felt remarkably comfortable, substantial, and natural. The bell extended over my left shoulder, not too high, just as I like it. “How about a bit of Die Meistersinger, Mr. “B” suggested? Anticipation mounted as I sucked in air, pretending, jokingly, as I did so, to utilize sniff breathing, Mr. “B’s” trademark breathing technique. I complied—C-G-G-G, etc. I’ll never forget the impression of those first few notes—I was struck nearly giddy with amazement as I sensed the effortless response and heard the resplendence of this dusty old tuba’s magnificent tone. “Well done, old thing,” commented Mr. Bell as he laughingly pulled back on a huge-fisted left jab to my shoulder. This good-natured punch I knew to be a signal of approval from him, for I had received them before from time to time, but only if I had had a particularly good lesson. More excerpts—Berlioz, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Ralph Vaughan Williams, the instrument seemed to play itself. I knew then and there that I “had” to have this instrument. Mr. Bell’s “well done, old thing,” comment indicated that he, too, agreed.

Paul Hoelzley, playing Mr. Bell’s CC King tuba during a lesson at Indiana University, July 24, 1962.


Acquiring the Sander was no easy task. As a university-owned instrument, I was told it was property of the State of Indiana. The process to acquire it involved a long and laborious trek through numerous bureaucracies, both at state and university levels. Mr. Bell led the charge all the way. After several months of diplomatic interchange—and perhaps some artful arm-twisting and creative cajoling as well by Mr. “B” on my behalf, a deal was agreed upon whereby I would be able to trade an instrument of mine for the Sander.” This would happen if I could present a convincing rationale to university officials as to why the instrument I would trade would be better for I.U.’s tuba students’ use, and why the Sander would be a better instrument for my use. Bottom line: I agreed to exchange an Alexander CC of mine for the copper-colored jewel we had disinterred from the tuba graveyard.          

Publicity shot with the Sander. Taken for the Tulsa Tribune promoting Paul Hoelzley’s performance of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Concerto for Bass Tuba and Orchestra with the Tulsa Philharmonic. Photo taken on January 24, 1964.

Paul Hoelzley and the Sander with the Tulsa Philharmonic Orchestra, 1963–64 season.

With papers completed, the Sander was finally shipped to me in 1963 in Tulsa, Oklahoma where I had taken a position as principal tubist with the Tulsa Philharmonic Orchestra. I had the instrument overhauled and an extension made for the fourth valve slide at the old York Band Instrument Company in my hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. While there at that historic old building, I admit to secretly hoping for good fortune to strike again—wouldn’t it be serendipitous, I thought, if, like the Sander,” I might find hiding in a corner somewhere one of those huge five-valve York CCs of 1930s vintage? Yeah, sure-dream on! Anyway, back in Oklahoma, I played the Sander with the Tulsa Philharmonic and the T.P.O. Wind Ensemble and Brass Quintet through 1964. For the next few years I used the Sander at Michigan’s Interlochen National Music Camp, as principal tubist with Dr. Leonard B Smith and the Detroit Concert Band and in teaching and solo/quintet performance as an instructor at both the University of Michigan and Bowling Green (Ohio) State University.

Tulsa Philharmonic Brass Quintet children’s concert, March 12, 1963. Even kids ask the question. The little girl on the right is asking Paul Hoelzley, “Why is your instrument pink and all the others are gold?”

Pink between gold. Front: Paul Hoelzley with his Alexander F, middle: the Sander with National Music Camp student, Deana (last name unknown). And who is the young lady in the rear holding the Mirafone CC? Non other than tubist extraordinaire, distinguished University of Denver faculty member and current ITEA treasurer, Kathy Aylsworth Brantigan. Photo taken at the Interlochen National Music Camp, Interlochen, Michigan August 22, 1965.

About the previous history of the Sander, Mr. Bell thought it to be the only one of its kind. To the best of my recollection, he recounted that the Sander’s history dated back to World-War II, during which time the Sander factory—or factory that made these instruments at the time, was either bombed out or severely damaged during the war. Brass was difficult to come by at the time and some instruments—including the Sander, were made of copper-colored red brass. No one seemed to know how or why the instrument came to be at Indiana University. Arnold Jacobs (Chicago Symphony), Abe Torchinsky (Philadelphia Orchestra), Sammy Green (Cincinnati Symphony) all thought this particular Sander tuba to be unique, and all (including others) recognized its value, and many expressed an interest in adding it to their own tuba arsenal at one time or another. Personally, I have never seen any other original Sander like it, although Sammy Green and Lou Pirko (formerly tubist with the Baltimore Symphony and from whom I had purchased the Alexander CC that I traded for the Sander) had similar vintage Sander tubas that they played in their respective orchestras, but these were not made of red brass and were more compact and of smaller bore as I recall.

ON THE WAY FROM LA SCALAI used the Sander exclusively as my CC instrument for my first two years (1968–70) with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. While on an Italian tour with the I.P.O. in 1969, the Sander was damaged sometime after our performances at the La Scala opera house. The bell was badly damaged. Italian insurance covered the accident, and I elected to have the insurance company send the Sander to the Meinl-Weston factory in Germany for repair. I had done some promotion for Meinl-Weston tubas in the United States earlier and had just recently tested some instruments in their factory in Germany. I was confident that the Sander would be in good hands.

Paul Hoelzley and the “pink” Sander with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra at the Herod Atticus outdoor Roman Theater below the Acropolis, Athens, Greece, August 1969. The guest director in this photo is the brilliant Hungarian conductor Istvan Kertesz. Shortly after this photo was taken in Greece, Maestro Kertesz came to Israel for a series of concerts. He conducted a morning dress rehearsal for that evening’s concert, went swimming that afternoon, and, tragically, drowned in the Mediterranean Sea near Tel Aviv.

Several months after the mishap in Milan, the newly-repaired Sander arrived from Germany to my home in Tel Aviv. A new bell had been fashioned and a new lead pipe now replaced the original. Dents had been removed and the horn had been buffed and re-lacquered to a pinkish sheen reminiscent of a highly polished penny. The Meinl-Weston people had done a great job.

Nevertheless, disappointedly, but not entirely unexpectedly, the original resplendence of tone had been diminished to a degree, and some of the intonation problems were more pronounced, most likely due to the attachment of the new lead pipe. The valves, however, functioned quickly, quietly and effortlessly then as they do today. Without question, the Sander’s string-action valves are the best I’ve ever played on.

A McSorley’s-based membership card (foreshadowing things to come no doubt) from 1962, signed by William Bell.

My intent had always been to reattach the original mouth pipe—which had been returned by the Meinl-Weston factory—in hopes of recapturing the tuba’s former resonance. I never got around to doing this, as I had to discontinue playing professionally in 1981 due to a medical problem with my throat. I played the instrument from time to time after its repair during my last three years with the Israel Philharmonic in the 1970s, again for a few times with the Calgary Philharmonic during the 1980s, and more recently in some of my music therapy work with autistic children in the U.S. and Canada. But, for the most part, the “pink” tuba has been counting rests in my university office since 1990, its mellifluous tones that once resounded in music centers from Buenos Aires to Berlin, from Rome to Rio, from Caesarea to Caracas, and from Munich to Mexico City, now merely echoes of the past.   

But no more tuba graveyards for this magnificent instrument! In the fall of 2006, along with a career’s worth of tuba music and several mouthpieces, the unique “pink,” tuba and its storied past was gifted to the band department at Trinity Western University. It will serve the students well. Good bye, old friend!