An Interview with Carolyn Johns (Australia)
By Lisa Muth
Carolyn Johns should be a household name for tuba players. One of the most prolific female tubists in the world, Carolyn holds the position of principal tubist with the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra in Sydney.
“Cazzbo,” as she is affectionately known, has been musical all of her life. Despite her musical involvement as a child, she did not begin to play tuba until the age of sixteen. As she provides on her website, “she agreed to try the tuba in the school brass band–for a joke–and she’s still laughing!”
It was the brass band environment that allowed Carolyn to further her playing skills. She attended Victorian College of the Arts and simultaneously began to explore the jazz scene in Melbourne. Jazz provided quite an appropriate niche for her since she had always possessed a natural ability to improvise.
In 1987 Carolyn was appointed to her position in the AOBO. At that time she moved to Sydney, where she expanded her musical horizons even further. She has performed on many Australian commercial and film soundtracks and plays in a variety of bands, five to be exact! Her interests, in addition to jazz, include blues, world music, and funk.
Besides playing the tuba, both for her career and for the fun of it, Carolyn also plays the jug and the Swanee whistle! She has even been called the “Paul McCartney of the jug.” She cites her non-musical hobbies as being “cycling, recycling, staying up past her bedtime, and protecting the Old Growth Weeds in her garden.”
By visiting Carolyn’s website, “The Very Humble Digital Domicile,” at http://go.to/cazz, one can get a further taste of her accomplishments, hear some mp3 files of her ensembles, and witness firsthand her terrific sense of humor!
Carolyn Johns is an extremely gifted, creative, and eclectic tubist. The following interview offers some background information and philosophies that she has been gracious enough to share with me.
Let’s initiate this conversation with some discussion on your musical background…
What is your earliest musical memory?
Singing with my mother–nursery rhymes and other songs she taught me. My mother is naturally musical, but largely untrained. I remember my younger sister and I singing “Kum Bay Yah” when I was 4 or 5 at my grandfather’s 70th birthday party. My mother sang the melody with my sister (to keep her on track) and played the piano–I found my harmony lines easily and without assistance.
Stories from my mother about my musical inclinations predate my earliest memories considerably. These include humming notes back to her at 9 months of age. We had a toy guitar, and my mother would tune the open strings to a chord (so it didn’t drive HER crazy). When the tuning changed, I would press it up against her leg and say, “fix it.” I was about 3. Generally it’s stories about always singing with impeccable pitch (in a husky little voice that sounded like the world’s youngest smoker). Naturally these stories are retold because of the path I’ve subsequently chosen (or did it choose me?). Had I become a sportsperson, they’d be all about my bat and ball prowess, but then again, the fact that no stories exists in the latter category may explain why music was a good thing for me to discover!
Carolyn Johns playing with Bob Brozman at The Basement jazz club
What was your first experience learning music and at what age?
I took some piano lessons at 8 or 9 years of age. I was all set to enjoy it, but I didn’t at all! The teacher was very old fashioned and a poor communicator. Having an excellent ear, I was able to parrot back anything she played to me and thus progress to the next exercise, but I did not grasp reading musical notation at all during this time. I was a musical illiterate. I used to announce “I made up a song,” but my teacher never took any interest in such offerings. The greatest lessons I learned from this time were about how NOT to teach!
How old were you when you started playing the tuba, and what motivators were present that helped influence you in choosing the tuba?
I was 15 years old–a typical teen, simultaneously brimming with attitude and insecurities. It was with a bit of a “what the heck” feeling that being a slightly older kid I could agree to a slightly larger instrument. But I had been interested earlier but had not done anything about it. Two years earlier, an announcement about band recruitments had been made. I thought, “I’d like to try that.” But since they were asking for students from the class one year younger than I was, I thought, “nah, I’m too old,” and did not inquire.
When I did eventually do it (because by then my younger sister had) the timing was right, and finally it was my OWN motivation to be there, not someone else’s (as it had felt to me during the piano lessons).
I felt very strongly that I had to “catch up” to those of a similar age (who had commenced years earlier). This was quite a motivator, feeling I had started late. In band rehearsals it seemed that everyone else knew what they were doing, I felt “the band won’t wait for me to figure my part out” so I finally had a reason to learn to read music!
Carolyn Johns as special guest with The Zydecats on the blues stage, Woodford Folk Festival, December 2003
You mentioned starting tuba “late” as compared to others. Do you feel this was a disadvantage?
At fifteen I’m probably on a par with many tubists, but many may have changed from another brass instrument and already have years of brass playing up their sleeve. It’s hard to know whether or not it’s a disadvantage or not, probably a mixture.
What advantages, then, did you find to starting later?
Before too long I spent more and more time in the band room, playing with the younger brass learners and helping my teacher to teach them.
What are some words of wisdom you would offer to “late bloomers?”
“Hurry up! You’ve got to catch up!” I’m not sure how helpful that really is, but it was the prevailing feeling I had at the time and quite a motivation. Actually I don’t know that I really regard myself as a “late bloomer,” more a child prodigy denied the opportunity to be completely precocious (heh!).
Who was the most influential teacher you ever had, and how did he or she shape your personality as a musician?
Whew! That’s a hard one! So many people have influenced me, and many more than I formally regard as my “teachers” of course. But I guess I’d say my first teacher, Shane O’Callaghan (a brass band cornet player and director of the school brass band), because if he hadn’t “reached” me I may have simply become another statistic of attrition (as I had been with piano). He challenged me and made it clear that he believed in me.
You mentioned your mother being a big influence on your musical career since you were very young. Did you have complete support of your musical career from those close to you?
Absolutely! I’ve never felt anything but complete support, that it would be okay whatever I chose to try. It wasn’t specifically about music, more that there was belief in me no matter where I headed.
I didn’t firmly plan to become a musician, I’ve just followed “the path of least resistance” gravitating always towards things I liked, and those that seemed most aligned with my strengths. I’ve consistently moved away from things I didn’t like and/or wasn’t too good at!
Did there come a time when you knew you had crossed the proverbial “point of no return,” when you made the final decision that music was the way to go for you? In other words, how long had you played before you just knew that being a tuba player was your calling in life?
That’s so hard for me to answer, especially to find a “point!” For my final year of high school I chose the subjects I found easiest, to set myself up for a “cruisy” time. I had no clear tertiary study or career directions. On the other hand I’ve been completely filled with musical thoughts and daydreams for as long as I can remember, with some sort of subconscious “knowing” that something would come of it.
If there’s a “calling,” it is to make music, not to play the tuba, as such. I’m passionate about making music!The reason I predominantly do it on the tuba is the same reason I verbally communicate in English. Tuba is my “mother tongue,” and the one with which I’ve got the most grasp. It’s the vehicle that I am most likely to get closest to for expressing my ideas in the discussion, to speak from the heart, to be in the moment.
I have more limitations and less experience on my doubling instruments, although they’re streets ahead of my doubling languages! The passion for making music however is the same.
Was there ever a time when you were faced with adversity in your career?
I necessarily underwent major dental work (extractions and orthodontics) while still fulfilling my job. Looking back I wonder how on earth I got through that time, it was an 18-month period.
How did you deal with that?
It was difficult physically and psychologically. Playing became a shifting terrain with what seemed to work or not work changing from day to day. I said “no” to absolutely everything outside of the orchestra and focused entirely on whatever I needed to do mentally and physically to prepare for each orchestral task. And I took a LOT of painkillers.
As you mention saying “no” to everything outside of the orchestra, I’m interested in learning more about those entities of your musical life. You have a terrific sense of humor it seems like, as is showcased by your website! How does integration of this with your playing help you attain a wide range of different performing opportunities, if it has?
Thanks! It may have helped me attain a wide range of playing opportunities… that’s a bit hard to gauge, but I do know that it affects and informs what I do as a performer (musically and physically). I guess I’m just being me, so when I get positive feedback about my stage presence, etc., I think “cool, I’ll keep doing what I’m doing” and that it’s just as well, because it is usually just what comes naturally!
But I’d add to that that I do have a fascination with what makes various types of performances “tick,” and I enjoy examining the detail in what different performers (not necessarily musical performers) do.
I’m very lateral, very spontaneous, and of-the-moment. I’m never likely to play anything the same way twice. Sometimes the differences are subtle, other times dramatic. I’m referring largely to the improvised side of things, but it is an element of my personality that is evident with whatever I do or think.
Related to that (and to the next question) is the interactive nature of good jazz communication. Ideally, it is like a stimulating conversation, where statements are both offerings and responses to fellow performers.
Furthering the “conversation” analogy, I find it irresistible (when the moment has piqued me) to be cheeky and humorous through the horn. It may be subtle nuances that might only be amusing to me (!) or to a very connected musical colleague, or it may be (within the context of an improvised solo or elsewhere) that I choose to play in a way that may be very accessible to (and perhaps tickle the fancy of) the audience… physicality, (spontaneous choreography) subtle or unsubtle may (or may not!) bepart of the equation. Clearly it’s easier to do it than talk about it! For example, I’m hope I’m making sense!
How did you initially become interested in the jazz idiom?
I’ve always found it really easy to “make stuff up” and to recreate tunes I’d heard, long before I met the tuba. It’s all ear-, sound-, and feel-driven for me. It has always been easy to know what would “work” with what harmonies, bass lines, implied chord progressions, different harmonization, etc., long before I had labels to attach to any of these things. In the school band kids used to come to me when they wanted to learn a particular TV theme, I’d always be able to show them what notes to use in what order to play the tune they’d requested.
My “training” has simply been listening and doing! During my university years, I had a boyfriend who was a trumpet player who was quite an influence. We had a lot in common, both enrolled in the “classical” course but with well-developed natural inclinations to improvise. We used to jam, “busk,” and eventually formed some little bands.
Were colleagues open and accepting to your using the tuba in non-traditional ways?
I guess the ones who wanted to work with me again were! While I’m not on a “campaign,” I am conscious of actively breaking tuba stereotypes. Sometimes I pull myself up when thinking, “I wish that drummer would do more this or less that” as we play (if I’ve something different in mind, musically). I remind myself that he has (possibly) taken the greater leap of faith to play with me!
The unusualness has its advantages, too. Sit-ins and invitations in pubs, for example, the audience vibe is: “What’s this going to be?” They often don’t know what to expect, or their preconceptions are perhaps negative and limited. If they get to revise those preconceptions, great!
Added to that (stereotype-breaking) is being female. So that blues patron (or “muso”) may not have seen or heard a tuba, there’s even less chance he’s seen/heard it wrangled by a girlie!
On that topic, just briefly, I was the first girl to join my local town brass band. The decision-makers pontificated, and I had to attend rehearsals and listen to demonstrate my enthusiasm (something the male recruitments never did). Once I was accepted, they said: “Gotta watch that language, fellas, there’s a girl in the band now!” I dragged my sister along shortly afterwards, for moral support! Now the band is half females.
How many different ensembles do you play in?
It varies because there are the ad-hoc calls and occasional or on-off projects. New opportunities come along, and other activities become so occasional that they drop off the radar. At the moment it’s the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra (my “real job,” Principal Tuba since 1987), Mic Conway’s National Junk Band (vaudeville with attitude), The Ticklers (gypsy & New Orleans), Grassboy (an anagram of “Bass Orgy,” jazz trio comprising bass clarinet, double bass, and tuba), The World’s Klang (funky street band), and The Brass Belles (all-female brass quintet).
How about the “flip side” of your playing–what are some of your favorite pieces to play from the solo rep?
I confess that I don’t really have any! When I was at the university I did recitals, as required, with mainstream and other repertoire. I have benefited enormously from that part of my musical journey, but even at the time I felt that for me greater joy and naturalness came from other types of musical expression. I worked out I’d rather “take a chorus” than learn a concerto!
To follow upon this response then, what elements would you include if you were to perform a “typical” (or not-so-typical) recital?
Beer, perhaps! A recital for me at the moment would possibly be a concert featuring me with friends, my Grassboy colleagues, for example, having our signature musical conversations. I’d be fairly unlikely to perform a “typical” recital, but how I would make it differ from a “gig” is a bit unclear!
I’d possibly choose a selection of musical friends to perform with me in a series of small and varied combinations. I like the intimacy of trios and quartets. There’d be structure and form, musically, but plenty of freedom for individuality.
Do you do any teaching?
I carefully keep it to a small quantity. Generally it’s beginner and intermediate brass (ages 9-17). I find interacting with kids to be refreshing and honest, and working to give them a good foundation and a love of music is worth it.
Could you tell me just a bit about your pedagogical style?
Lateral, positive, relaxed, unorthodox, and humorous–I like to challenge certain types of thinking–for example, the thinking that musical worth and attainment is easily measured in examination grade levels. My approach varies a great deal from student to student: each has different aptitude, motivation, needs, reasons for being there, and a theoretical musical future! I really tailor my approach and style of communication to the signals they’re each giving me. It’s so obvious, of course, but many seem not to vary their methods as much.
Fundamentals, written notation, theory and general knowledge (“musical trivia!”) are all of paramount importance and are never neglected. I provide opportunities for them to make decisions right from the beginning and to guide me. I love to get them thinking!
To explore other areas we invent scale (and other musical) patterns, and rhythm patterns. If they’re at a loss, I invent one to set an example. We take turns. I create other “be my echo” games–the parameters can be as simple as needed to have the child feel comfortable to have a go. They may be looking AND listening (i.e. seeing my trombone slide positions and hearing the notes I’ve played), or the “rule” may be listening only. There are endless ways to vary and specifically tailor these activities. I invite the student to adapt the rules or set up the whole game. I’ll tweak, if I think their suggestions needs tweaking!
Being that you are so eclectic, in what ways do you think diversity could help make one a stronger pedagogue?
Charlie Parker’s favorite composer was Stravinsky. I’m often preaching that the real “greats” have a very broad range of appreciation (even if they have a specialized focus in their own attainment). The “big picture” point is that they are open to stimulation and inspiration from the gamut. This informs their musicianship.
The contents of the different musical “pigeon-holes” of style and specialization are far more connected and related than most believe. My lateral nature (and my “eclecticism” if that’s a word) magnifies that for me and informs everything I do as both performer and teacher.
With your many, many varied experiences in the musical world, there must surely be a trove of experience and advice you could offer to musicians. Do you have ways of psychologically preparing yourself for a “big performance?” Perhaps I should phrase this as, what input would you have for a player who is preparing for an important gig of any sort?
Gosh, I’m not sure I have the perfect formula at all! Any suggestions? I make time for some mental calmness.
I noticed you mentioned cycling as a hobby. Are you active physically, and do you find that this improves the foundation of your playing, either mentally or physically?
I’m reasonably fit and active. My cycling is just commuting here and there, getting out of the house, saving on parking meters, but it never fails to lift my mood.
What would be the most important advice you could offer to someone who wishes to have a career in music?
Think laterally! There are so many different things that could fit the definition of a career in music.
Often folk adopt a very narrow definition–only the “big orchestra job,” for example. This affects what they regard as the “right” equipment, sound, and style. It may cause them to dismiss much that does not fit within these parameters, both in terms of what other artists have to offer, and in terms of what activities and options may become part of their “career in music” equation. Something compels me to challenge that type of thinking even when performing my “small orchestra job.”
The equation may be a “blended career,” which challenges terms like “professional” and “career” and what they are defining. Teaching and other things will most likely be involved, but only if one wants them to, hopefully!
Lastly, where is it that you ultimately see your career leading? What are your goals for the future?
I’m pleased with my lot at the moment. I never feel without challenges, but generally not over-burdened! I enjoy my position in the orchestra and nurture my professional relationships with my brass colleagues. I get to be “inside” some incredible music, and it’s fabulous when the orchestra hits its straps. Even when it does not seem an artistic or repertoire “highlight” I still never feel less than completely privileged to be doing my job, and approach it positively. Our physical performance space (the Opera Theatre pit, Sydney Opera House) is notoriously problematic, with serious health and safety issues, but that is another story!
Diversity is undeniably the key for me for all-round artistic health, and I need to improvise like I need to breathe! For some the goals are competitions, climbing to better and better orchestras. For me it’s the breadth of experiences I have with different folk and different playing requirements. Even different environs and audiences–my connection and interaction with a little kid viewing the street band or a school show will be starkly contrasting with that of the bejeweled opera patron of opening night. And festivals are a world unto themselves!
I hope to continue to have a variety of opportunities and invitations. I’ve done some arranging and composing and see that continuing as a small strand of my activities.
The areas I haven’t explored: I’ve never initiated a project, formed a band, or done my own recording. I’ve always just waited to be invited by others to be part of their “thing.” These ideas are potentially of interest for the future, but at the moment they ask of me questions to which I don’t have the answers.
I hope to stay healthy!
Employment and what would be my hobby activities are inexorably entwined, how very fortunate I am!
Lisa Kaye Muth recently finished her Master of Music in tuba performance at Ohio University in Athens and plans to attend law school at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio beginning in August. Additionally, she teaches instrumental lessons privately in the Central Ohio area.
For more information, visit Carolyn’s website at go.to/cazz