Amateur Focus: Breathing, Story Telling, and Polishing Plumbing
By Lanny Robbins
Tubas. Not a way of life, but life itself. By days I’m a mild-mannered computer analyst with a major Mid-western utility, but evenings I turn into “Plumbing Polisher.”
I currently play with a regional-caliber symphony, the Livonia Symphony Orchestra, in Detroit’s western suburbs. Our conductor is Volidymr Sheshiuk who was resident conductor with the Bolshoi in Moscow. The year the Soviet Union broke up, he became music director of the Kirov in St. Petersburg. My background includes the University of Michigan bands under William D. Revelli in the early sixties. After college I quit playing for 28 years, mainly from frustration with the way my playing had deteriorated. My alleged tuba teacher had claimed I was just lazy while I kept insisting that I had developed a breathing problem. I returned to playing early in 1991 when Revelli came out of retirement to conduct the Ann Arbor Concert Band. He found me a loaner instrument. That’s what started me down this “road to ruin.” That summer, National Public Radio had a Saturday feature, which interviewed Vince Simonetti from the Tuba Exchange and played Arnold Jacobs’ recording of the Vaughan Williams concerto. I called Vince and wound up with a BB-flat Hirsbrunner that is still my prime instrument.
Eventually, I was able to increase my capacity to 4.3 liters in a quick breath as a result of my work with Mr. Jacobs. In one lesson he tapped his head and said, “the music is in here, the horn is just a lot of brass plumbing.” Music making had two parts: hearing the notes in your head, and using them to tell a story, and he wanted me thinking music from the very start of the lesson. Previously,
I used to do lots of intervals in a long warm up. Instead, I was instructed to “play” a quick tune on the mouthpiece, and then play another tune on the instrument. I was ready to go full volume in under three minutes.
That fall I became Fritz Kaenzig’s student. Later, I also studied with Wesley Jacobs of the Detroit Symphony. Both were very helpful and are excellent teachers. Wes suggested that I attend the 1995 ITEC in Chicago, which resulted in my studies with Mr. Jacobs.
I met Mr. Jacobs for the first time in the summer of 1959 when he visited the University of Michigan for a conference and again in Ann Arbor attending his masterclass in 1993. Our third meeting occurred when I almost literally ran into him at the 1995 ITEC as he was coming out of the auditorium. I asked him if he was still taking on students, and he said yes. He took a glance at me and said that he could “get my 3.8 liter lungs into shape.”When I entered Mr. Jacobs’ studio for my first lesson, I felt right at home. We shared the same clutter level tolerance—infinite. There were anatomical charts on stands and various electronic devices on cabinets and his desk. It turned out they weren’t just for show. At some point they had all contributed to his research. His curiosity was in finding out how our playing tools, the body and the brain really work. His underlying goal: using science to improve musical performance.
Mr. Jacobs mentioned that he had discovered the value of mouthpiece playing when hospitalized as a youth. While they wouldn’t let him play his trumpet, they would let him play the mouthpiece! He found that when he came out of the hospital, he was playing much better than when he went in. Singing a passage is the best way to learn it. His sequence was to play it on the piano, sing it, and only then actually play it on the instrument. One lesson he pulled out his adjustable cup mouthpiece for me to try. I believe Schilke produced at least two of these for him. The other was a bit better in the upper register, but couldn’t hold a setting. In our next lesson I purchased it from him, and he told me his suggested settings, notably those he used for Bydlo!
There was also a mouthpiece on his desk with a slender piece of brass tubing coming out of the side of the cup. I asked him if he had used a mercury column on the tubing. He was impressed that I had spotted and understood his tool for determining the relationship between air pressure and pitch.
I was very fortunate for the opportunity to study with Arnold Jacobs over a period of three years. Jake, as many people called him, had an incredible curiosity about a breadth of topics. He was able to tell a joke about himself and admit his failures, and I know there weren’t very many. He wanted to pull the student up to his level.
His teaching was more than just technical, and he built confidence and opened possibilities that a student would have never imagined. I still miss him very much. Arriving in Chicago exhausted from the five-hour Saturday drive, I would arrive home at midnight high on adrenalin. That’s what a stimulating teacher he was.
Many of my instruments have arrived in absolutely despicable condition, tarnished and corroded. It usually takes me at least sixty dollars in materials for the first cosmetic cleanup: six rolls of tissue, two bottles of Noxon, and one bottle of fermentation distillate. The instrument’s national origin governs distillate selection: Slilovitz for Czech, Glenmorangie for British, Remy Martin for French, and Old Grand Dad for American.
Euphonium with 3 leaf top action rotary valves
With the purchase in May of a Conn double-bell euphonium, I reached 70 tubas (I count euphoniums as tenor tubas). These include a herd of helicons, a bunch of baritones, a tribe of tubas, several sousaphones, and one rain catcher. When a friend asked me once what I did with so many tubas, my honest answer was that I trip over them.
My first acquisition was a three-quarter size Conn EE-flat (1891) that had been subjected to the extreme indignity of being painted silver and used as an umbrella stand!
Steve Mumford of Horn Works in Ann Arbor, my repairman, braised the lead pipe back into like-new condition. Steve is incidentally one of the top restorers around.
My most unique tuba is a top action rotary that uses leaf springs! I have no other information about manufacturer or date. From the narrow shape it’s obviously 19th century, and the bell garland suggests Central Europe. The leaf springs might place it before 1860.
I have three monster EE-flat tubas, probably intended for converted trumpet players with small lungs. One is a 1917 King with a 22″ bell, and the second is a 1918 Conn with a 20″ bell. My third monster EE-flat bass was Paul Kryzwecki’s Conn that he used for the Alborado de Grazioso recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra. This instrument has three interchangeable lead pipes plus adjustable slide top pulls. It was found in the Conn warehouse and a 4-valve section was added later. It had supposedly been built as a prototype for the Navy Band in the 1940s. Fortunately, I was able to get a hard case for it from Wes Jacobs, who happen to be tossing one out that fit it exactly.
Tuba with Berliner Pumpen valves
|Actually early in 1996, I could have had the best tuba collection in the world with a single instrument and probably saved a lot of space in my house. After a particularly good lesson where he gave me five bravos, Mr. Jacobs asked me my goals. I said, “to get good enough that you would consider selling me your #1 York.” He floored me by actually quoting a price of $20,000! I didn’t realize that he was trying to give me the instrument. Over the next two weeks I agonized over the decision. I called him to ask if he anticipated any problems from my converting back to CC. He said “just tie down the thumb valve, pull the other slides, and it’s the best BB-flat ever built!” While I did have the cash, I was worried about my job. But, the most daunting issue was the responsibility of owning the instrument. I felt there was an obligation to put it back on the stage of a major symphony.
My oldest accurately dated instrument is an EE-flat helicon, known in its time as a “Circular Bombardon.” It was ordered from the Distin Factory on 12 September 1870, went into stock 6 December 1870, and was sold to Boosey New York on 9 December 1870. Its serial number is 31096. I have a similar Distin with serial number 24917, which should place it in the mid-1860s.
My proudest collecting achievement didn’t cost much. When Custom Music, then in Royal Oak, Michigan was selling out old stock prior to their move, I spotted a York BB-flat in pieces on two different tables. Knowing that the salesman was watching, I “attempted” to fit the pieces together and shook my head in disappointment. In purchases an hour apart I bought each of the two sections for thirty dollars a piece.
I’m also fortunate to have a very tolerant wife. In 2003, I convinced Carole that the most romantic thing that we could possibly do on Valentine’s Day was a trip to Chicago to pick up my second Holton 345 6/4 tuba. I had located one in Wisconsin, but the seller was reluctant to ship it. We finally agreed to meet at the public library in Calumet City, Illinois. The seller obviously wanted to show it to me, so he took it out of the case in the parking lot. Everything seemed okay, but then I looked the other direction and saw the police station! My panicked reaction was that Calumet City probably had an ordinance against selling tubas in parking lots, and we were about to get busted!!
What is most interesting about my instruments is to see how even though manufacturing techniques weren’t nearly as good over a century ago, the designers already had it right! The basic layout had already been worked out before the 1880s. I’ve found that, other than needing a valve job, many pre-WWII tubas are actually more powerful than modern ones. The denser and heavier gauge metal lowers sympathetic vibrations. My repairman believes that the brass alloy was changed at the start of WWII to lower the copper content. My 1936 Conn short-action is a heavy beast, but actually blows louder than my Hirsbrunner.
I freely admit to ignorance regarding much of my collection. Up till now I’ve been mainly in acquisition mode, picking up interesting items. It will be some time before I’m able to set up a proper display for viewing. I’ve been learning a lot as I discover websites and meet fellow collectors. It’s reassuring to know that there are people out there almost as crazy as I am.
Unique instruments in Lanny’s collection
1936 BB-flat Conn Tuba EE-flat Diston Helicon
FF 1870s Helicon (Royal Prussian Instrument Mfg.)