An Interview with Sande MacMorran
by Sean Greene, Lincoln Memorial University
I recently sat down with tubist and conductor Sande MacMorran at his home in Knoxville, Tennessee. My plan was to conduct an interview that would give the ITEA membership an idea of what Sande’s been up to lately as well as the insights into his nearly forty years as a professional musician. In our lively conversation, Sande shares his opinions on literature, equipment, and reflects on his life in music. As with most visits with Sande, there was a fair amount of laughing and joking around, too.
Sande is the Professor of Music at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. He has performed thousands of concerts in nearly thirty-five years as the principal tubist and associate conductor with the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra. Sande is the former conductor of the Knoxville Youth Symphony Orchestra and is the conductor of the Appalachian Ballet. He has a busy teaching schedule and performs regularly with the University of Tennessee Faculty Brass Quintet. Before accepting his current position in Knoxville, Sande was a member of the U.S. Army Band “Pershing’s Own” in Washington, D.C. and was a founding member of the U.S. Army Band Brass Quintet. Sande was the graduate teaching assistant at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and graduated from Ball State University with his bachelor’s degree in music education. He studied tuba with Bernard Pressler and Arnold Jacobs.
Sean Greene (SG): What types of things do you want your students to do in preparation for the “real world’ once they graduate?
Sande MacMorran (SM): I feel like, generally, they need to have one extra area of expertise, besides playing the tuba. Of course, there’s not much room, even now as a professional player, if you’re lucky enough just to get an orchestra job, which doesn’t happen, really. There’s not much room for people who have not really studied and done well in school, (who) don’t have a command of language, grammar and written communication. There’s just no room for that. It’s not a matter of putting all your eggs in one basket. You don’t even have a basket without those skills. It used to be a little different, but at this point, you can’t even get into a college like UT without having pretty high standardized test scores.
You have to have some academic polish and the bottom line is, you still have to be able to compete on your tuba. You have to be a fine player, that’s a given. I think that if you’re applying for a job that requires you to teach education courses or conduct—[having those skills] averages them out. But they’re not going to take a mediocre player. You have to be a good player. To be competitive with all the fine players who are out there now, you have to explore some other areas and be able to present yourself as highly qualified.
Sande MacMorran, as founding member of the U.S. Army Brass Quintet
SG: I have a literature question for you. For those who may be reading this and don’t know a great deal about what’s out there or just to get your view of the important literature: What five orchestra, band, brass quintet and solo pieces should every tuba player know?
SM: In orchestra? Well, they’re going to be the Overture to Die Meistersinger and Prokofiev’s Fifth (Symphony) and I would say all the Tchaikovsky Symphonies.
SG: That’s more than five!
SM:I’ve done (Tchaikovsky symphonies) four, five and six a lot. The early (Tchaikovsky symphonies) I think, the pieces themselves are fairly primitive. I think everybody will agree with that. They’re not really good tuba parts but rather just a bassline that’s been doubled everywhere. I think the Mahler symphonies, for sure…and well, that’s the big ones, right there. Also, you have to give a good presentation of things like the Great Gate of Kiev [Mussorgsky] with the big, broad movement through the half-note sequence. I think if you did something like Die Meistersinger, Prokofiev fifth, Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique.
SG: So Wagner, Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky, Mahler and Pictures at an Exhibition.
SM: And there are many individual excerpt parts, too. There’s one particular piece, the dragon theme from Wagner’s Siegfried. People can study that for weeks and months and think they can play it, and then when it comes down to it, they’re totally out of tune and it doesn’t end up where it’s supposed to be. It’s just so low. That’s another one. If you practice that constantly—and that’s a rough thing to get into—because you can’t ever do it well enough—like Respighi.
SG: Fountains of Rome?
SM: Yes. We’re going to play it this spring, and I have a couple of students who just play the fire out of that, and I know I’m going to try to play the fire out of it, and it’s not going to be at all satisfying when I’m sitting there performing it! (laughs) It’s a wonderful piece. That shows up (on auditions), too. That’s another thing that you do to become a better player. Not to really perform the piece like you think you would like to hear it, because it’s not going to come off that way, but as part of the whole orchestra. It’s a great one to study.
SG: What about band pieces?
SM: Well, the (Gustav) Holst two suites. Those are so standard and still some of the most well-written pieces. There are many individual pieces and composers like Peter Menin…
SG: The Canzona?
SM: Yes! That’s just a great piece to get your breathing and your counting going. The Hindemith Symphony in B-flat is important as a rhythmic study and a style study because if you prepare that tuba part well, it will show a lot about your playing. I know many students just don’t come across that (in school). It’s like his Sonate, it’s perfectly written in every aspect and that’s definitely worth studying. Vaughan Williams’ Toccata Marziale. That’s a good one.
I’ll tell you, I love to play Sousa marches more than anything because those tuba parts have so many different style requirements. Even the oom-pah lines make up their own melodic phrases. You can just concentrate on how beautifully you can play. That’s a difficult thing to try to get across to students. They’re playing what is essentially just an oom-pah line on the bottom and they’re just pumping notes out and they’re not giving them any life or buoyancy. I just love Sousa marches. I think everyone should have their own copy of the tuba parts from all the Sousa marches.
Beyond that, there’s just a whole lot of contemporary literature that’s good. I also like all the old war-horse transcriptions. It’s still some of the best band literature because the music itself was so good to begin with. One of my earliest memories of a challenging piece was the band transcription to the finale of “Tchaik” four. If that’s played well, it’s really exciting.
SG: How about five chamber music pieces every tuba player should know? Either brass quintet, tuba quartet, mixed ensemble…?
SM: Well, every tuba player that’s out looking around, maybe auditioning for a position that has a brass quintet involved—the very first quintet, Malcolm Arnold (Quintet No. 1). That piece came out of nowhere and suddenly became a major work for each instrument. I think you need to know the Malcolm Arnold, Bozza Sonatine. That’s an early one, too. Really early, but of course that didn’t make as spectacular an impression as the Malcolm Arnold did, and it’s probably not performed as much as the Malcolm Arnold.
I think that the Anthony Plog brass quintet is an amazing piece of music.
Before rehearsal with the Knoxville Symphony. Photo by Sam Chen.
SG: Is that the Four Sketches?
SM: Yes. I think that’s a piece the tuba player has to have under his belt. That brass quintet shows everything about your individual playing. If you’re like me and don’t have a lightning-fast double tongue, you’ve got to find a way to figure it out to make that happen…And I’ll sell you the formula! (laughs)
If a good musician knows how to write for brass quintet and how to score for it, I hope they keep churning out arrangements of everything. There’s still a long way to go but we still have more literature than anybody else, I think. Certainly much more variety of music that works compared to woodwind quintet or string quartet. I’m not talking about those hundreds and hundreds of pieces that are a staple of our children’s concerts, wedding receptions…I mean, that’s unlimited. There are so many great writers for brass: Bill Holcombe and Jack Gale. Those guys know the formula, man. Another piece that’s not done very often, but I think is a wonderful piece that shows everything about your tuba playing is the Alvin Etler Quintet. I’m a big fan of that. I love that piece. It’s the most satisfying piece rhythmically and technically to do.
SG: So we’ve got Malcolm Arnold, Bozza, Plog, Etler….one more?
SM: Well, I could go on and name things like the Bernard Heiden Dances, which are great…I think stylistically, there are two pieces and styles that you have to show and they are two of the greatest twentieth century works: Selections from Porgy and Bess, is that Jack Gale? Yes! Because the style in there and the tuba parts in there cover everything. If you sat down, if that was on a list for a position that involved quintet playing and you played the Malcolm Arnold and Porgy and Bess and did it well…wow. The other one is West Side Story. Yeah, that’s two for one, there. That’s because of the style. You can name other brass quintets, but you would be getting into things that are similar to Plog, mixed meter and all that.
I think I was really lucky with my stylistic development. When I first came to UT in the early seventies, you know I had just been in the Army Band, and that band just played anything. That band could sight-read anything, and we did. When I came down here to UT I played the circus for eight years. They put the circus together here with the full band, and it was one style right after another. You had people like (trombonist) Don Hough and some of those sax guys like Bill Scarlett that could play anything, those styles were thrown at you, right after another.
I use your duets and trios (Greene, Jazz Duets Vol. I & II, Jazz Trios & Quartets). I think those are very valuable. I have forced a couple of students to play those, and they sit down and say, “Oh, I don’t like these.” Part of the reason is they can’t play it! (laughs) But those Porgy and Bess and West Side Story arrangements, they really show your musicianship.
SG: What about solos?
SM: Hindemith [Sonate]. Hindemith is, I think, still the best-written combination of piano and tuba. The Vaughan Williams Concerto, the Lebedev Concerto in One Movement, definitely. Also, I believe everybody ought to know the (Robert) Sibbing Sonata. I mean it’s not [difficult] range. The range is not involved, but it’s got 6/8 [sings part of the solo] with the syncopation. I think that’s a great piece for every college freshman. That’s a great jumping off place. Then the Plog Three Miniatures. It’s such a great piece because you can do it on F or CC, and, for that style of music, that says it all. From there you can branch off really quickly into F tuba literature.
SG: Tell me a little bit about the equipment you use for all the different playing situations you come across playing in the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, playing in the UT Faculty Brass Quintet, and what you use for solos.
SM: When I bought my Alexander back in 1971, it was my first year in the army and, believe it or not, you didn’t have too many choices as far as horns were concerned. Miraphone had been around forever and I didn’t particularly like the feeling of Miraphones, but everyone was playing them in orchestras. There were some guys playing Alexanders. My brother Scott bought his first. He ordered it directly from Germany, and I bought mine about six months after that.
If I had to play one instrument, now, for me, it would be the Alexander. I have played the Willson (3050 CC). It’s a great instrument. I think it’s very penetrating, but it will hurt you. The more you put into it, the more it will suck out of you. It’s difficult for me to get the airstream vibrating on the Willson, but I love to play it on the 4th of July, with the 1812 Overture on the Willson. (laughs)
I like the 4/4 Gronitz that I finally bought. I don’t like it as much in orchestra as the Alexander, but I’m playing it on a pops rehearsal this afternoon, but tonight I’ll probably take my Alex’ in to play the concert. I’ve got a quintet concert tomorrow and thought I’d better stick with the Gronitz for that. As you know, I held off forever before I’d consider anything but the Alexander. Over the years, I had tried out so many different horns and the (UT faculty) quintet was so great by telling me what they thought. Sam Chen [principal trombonist of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra and trombonist in the Knoxville BrassworX Company] was so great. I’d be playing over there and I can’t see him, but he’ll look down the row and say, “What mouthpiece is that? It’s not what you’ve been playing.” He knows. He’s got an extremely good ear for that. The (UT Faculty) quintet wasn’t excited about any other horn until the Gronitz.
I like the piston valves in quintet. I don’t like the piston valves when I’m in orchestra. I think there’s a big difference. I think if you put piston valves on an Alexander it just wouldn’t work. There are an awful lot of good horns out there now, though. The 5/4 Gronitz, the PT-6, you’ve got one of those right now, that’s a good orchestra horn. For an F tuba, I like my PT-10. For me, the horn that comes closest to what I like without sacrificing the low register is the Rudy Meinl 5/4 F. I’d love to have one of those, but at this point I don’t know if it would be smart to try to hustle around and get one because I won’t play F tuba in quintet.
SG: So, obviously you like to stay busy. What’s on your music stand right now?
SM: Here at the house I have the Telemann fantasies, and I have the Otto Maenz Twelve Special Studies. At school I have the David Gillingham Diversive Elements that I commissioned. My graduate student Molly McConnell and I are starting to work on that together. The UT faculty quintet’s playing Malcolm Arnold tomorrow, so that’s on my stand. The Plog Four Sketches is on there.
In performance with the University of Tennessee Faculty Brass Quintet. Photo by Johnny Newman.
SG: What’s in your CD player? What do you listen to for pleasure?
SM: I listen to jazz. Errol Garner is my all-time favorite. There’s nobody like Errol Garner. I’ve got all his CDs. The happiest tune in the world is when he does “I Remember April.’ If you listen to his development through all of those recordings, he ended up being just a symphony all by himself. I can’t imagine being able to pull something like that out of your head and being able to translate it into two hands. What a kick that must be to be able to do that—to have thoughts and to just have them come out of your fingers like that. (laughs) That’s what I listen to. Now, for work, I will listen to symphonic pieces, but what I really like is good small group jazz.
SG: This next question is not necessarily even about tuba players, but you’re on many committees, you’re a busy conductor and you hear other instrumentalists play. What specific aspect of playing do you think is most neglected by instrumentalists, for those people who don’t win the audition or competition?
SM: Well, I can tell you generally what I think is neglected. It’s a difficult thing to put across when so many masterclasses are aimed toward musicality and all that. I mean, if you’re really teaching students, you’re lucky if you get to that point. It’s just like any other athletic event. There’s a tremendous amount of physical training that needs to go into it. If you’re listening to a masterclass and the person goes off into the philosophy of the music and the quality of the music and—well, man—that just has so little relevance, except to kind of put a smokescreen over the fact that this poor kid hasn’t really studied the slur. He hasn’t really studied it. He hasn’t figured out how simple the embouchure has to be to make it work. There’s no magic bullet. You have to get the Arban book out and just do it. It’s just how you have to think about it.
What’s most neglected is that first, before you can run a marathon—and you’ve heard me say this—you don’t go out and run a marathon just because you’re inspired. You must first put in hundreds and thousands of miles at half speed. Students don’t have that concept because many of the people that they hear play so well, some of them just did it. They played that way and they’re marvelous players. Then there are others who really did go through that process, and they know that you can be a pretty functional tuba player, but if you want to really be great you have to really go through the process of mastering the technique. Whether you are throwing the javelin, running high hurdles or playing tuba there can be absolutely no shortcuts.
Now, I do believe there are prodigies. I was in a lesson with Arnold Jacobs one day and he told me that Roger Bobo was the most natural player he had ever worked with. I believe that, and I believe there are others, too. Then there are those of us who have stuck it out and come to the realization that, “I may be faking my way through this up to this point, but I’m going to have to get things straightened out here.” That’s the hard thing to impart. If you work on it like that, then you end up hearing yourself better, for sure.
It comes across in everyone’s playing if they have inconsistencies. You’ve got to take for granted that the rhythm and the intonation must be there. I’ve had students who have played for me on a regular basis that come in to play excerpts. They were butchering the rhythm. You can’t do that. You know the Ride of the Valkyries? (sings excerpt) That (rhythm) is the reason it’s on (the audition). That’s a joke, isn’t it? That’s the reason it’s on there. So if you’re not 100% accurate with that rhythm, the people sitting on the other side of the screen listening to it are going to immediately say, “Ah! We got him!” Thank you, next.
Of course, the range and the fatness of the sound are important, too, but you can’t fake that rhythm. You can’t say, “Well, but I played it so musically…” No. You’ve got to have the basics there first. That’s just hard work…but it’s also fun.
~Interviewed February 10, 2010 Knoxville, Tennessee
Sean Greene teaches low brass and music theory at Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee. Sean performs with the Knoxville BrassworX Company, the Southern Stars Symphonic Brass Band and is a frequent substitute with the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra. He is the former principal tubist with the Oshkosh Symphony Orchestra and has performed with the Madison, Oak Ridge, Kingsport, Dubuque and Sheboygan Symphony Orchestras and the Orquesta Sinfonica UANL in Monterrey, Mexico. An avid composer and arranger, his work is published by Beautidel Music Press. Sean holds the Doctor of Musical Arts and Master of Music degrees from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Bachelor of Music degree from the University of Tennessee.