“Dennis Miller of the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal”
Dennis Miller has been principal tubist with the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal since 1989. He previously held positions in the Vancouver and Houston Symphony Orchestras. In addition, Miller teachers at McGill University in Montreal and is active as a soloist. Miller’s teachers included Arnold Jacobs and William Bell.
David Zerkel (DZ): Can you tell me how your musical journey started? Did you begin on the tuba or did you start on a different instrument?
Dennis Miller (DM): I started on the tuba back in junior high school in Vancouver. I wanted to play the saxophone because the handsomest guy in the school played the saxophone and all the girls were crazy about him! But I had an uncle who was a choir director at a church and he said “Oh, no, no, no… what you really want to play is the trombone. You have to have a wonderful ear to play the trombone because it doesn’t have any frets. You need to develop your ear, so the best way to start is on the trumpet, since it has valves. When you get pretty good on that, then you can take up the trombone.” I said “Oh. Okay.” So then a few months later, the grade eight band was starting and I went to the first meeting. Everybody put up their hands for the clarinets, saxes, and everything else. When he came to the end and the band director looked at me and said, “Well, what do you want to play?” I said, “ I’d like to play the trumpet!” He looked at me, and I swear he said this, “Trumpet players are a dime a dozen.” And he was a trumpet player! He went on, “I don’t really need a trumpet player, but I do need someone to play the euphonium and I need someone to play the bass. The school owns a euphonium and a couple of E-flat basses. You can rent the instrument for $2 a month, and that includes the instruction book!” Well, the “$2 a month” part probably sealed the deal since there wasn’t much money around our home. When I got to the band room after school I found that somebody had already chosen the euphonium. I was handed an E-flat bass and a Rubank book. By the time that I learned that E-flat bass meant E-flat bass tuba, I was already in the band and was kind of hooked!
DZ: When did you start taking lessons?
DM: At first, I took some lessons with the band director himself, who played trumpet. There weren’t any tuba players in Vancouver except for the couple of guys in a military band which was based about 60 miles away. The tuba player in the Vancouver Symphony was a transplanted Dutchman who played in one of the military bands. So, I began taking lessons with a horn player named Doug Kent who was a Curtis graduate. I think that this is probably where my sense of phrasing and style began to take form. I didn’t actually have any tuba lessons until many years later when I went off to study with Bill Bell.
Carica-toon of Dennis Miller by Nino Falanga
DZ: Very nice! Did you study with Mr. Bell in New York or in Indiana?
DM: Actually, neither. I studied with him at Aspen. I went to see him in 1964, which was my first encounter with a real tuba player. By that time, Mr. Bell had left New York and was at Indiana University. I had actually been in correspondence with him several years before, when I was looking for an instrument. Prior to about 1960, there were hardly any instruments that a serious tuba player could get. Certainly not a CC tuba. This was only a few years after the Second World War. Everywhere you asked, the response was, “No, we don’t have anything like that!” You could get a Holton, but they were big and hard to get and it could take some time to have it delivered and it might even leak once you got it. It seems Holton didn’t like to make tubas because in the time that it took to make one tuba, they could make 20 trumpets. So, I had written to Bill Bell and he replied that the best choices were an Alexander or a tuba distributed by a new company called the Mirafone Corporation, based in Los Angeles and run by Howard Lockie. He said that the instruments were made in Germany and were about the same price as an Alexander, but that the intonation was much better. So, I ended up buying a Mirafone 186. By the way, the price was $510 after a “special” discount.
DZ: What was the timeframe in terms of your own age when you studied with Bill Bell? Were you in college at that point?
DM: My situation would seem unusual now, but really it wasn’t all that unusual back then. I was born in 1944, so in 1962 I was 18. Right before I graduated from high school, my horn-playing tuba-teacher, who was a member of the Vancouver Symphony, said to me, “You know, there is an opening in the Vancouver Symphony for a tuba player. I think that you should take the audition.” In those days, long before audition procedures were the way they are today, and long before there were orchestra agreements as we know them today, the most powerful person in an orchestra was the personnel manager. He did all of the hiring, except in certain situations when he would consult with the conductor. In this particular case, I had an appointment with the personnel manager and the conductor. I went to the personnel manager’s house and played for the conductor for about an hour, and was hired. I was 17 years old when all of this happened, so I began my job with the Vancouver Symphony a few months later when I was 18.
OSM brass in concert, March 2012
At this point, I had never had a lesson with a tuba player. I continued my lessons with the horn player and then enrolled at the University of British Columbia as a first year music student with the view that I would become a high school band director. That plan got derailed in a few years when I realized that what I really wanted to do was play in an orchestra. So, about two years later I want to Aspen and studied with Bell and the following summer I studied with Abe Torchinsky who was still with the Philadelphia Orchestra. In 1968, I went off to study with Arnold Jacobs. My horn teacher friend, Doug Kent, had been on a tour of Europe with the Philly Orchestra and Jake was on that tour too. He said, “Arnold is amazing. You need to find a way to study with him!” I wrote Jake a letter but didn’t get any answer. I didn’t know at that time that Jake didn’t answer mail… he got so much of it from everywhere, he just didn’t respond. Everyone in the know knew that you had to telephone him. In those days, phoning long distance was kind of a big deal and it had never occurred to me to call (and I didn’t have his number anyway!). Eventually, I got “in the know” and phoned him and he said, “Sure, come study with me this summer!” So, I went and studied with him in the summer of 1968 and again in 1969 – all summer long. I would eventually spend one or two more summers studying with him. That was my exposure to those guys!
DZ: Great! I think what’s interesting and refreshing about that is that sometimes when you study with a tuba teacher, it can be easy to get hung up on all things tuba, as opposed to working on concepts such as high musicianship. If you have a fine tuba teacher, of course, you will be working on those concepts all along, but it can be easy to settle into the track of “learning to play tuba like a tuba player.” You learned how to play tuba like a horn player, which I think is pretty cool!
DM: Yeah. Since I had so little formal training at that point, this was very helpful. The very first concert that I ever played was with this young and up-and-coming conductor by the name of [Dennis pauses, searching…] Zubin Mehta. (laughter) As I recall, the program was Petroushka. I didn’t know my ass from a hole in the ground, really…. So from that point on, being acutely aware that I didn’t really know anything, I realized that I had to have the antennae up all of the time to figure out what was going on. So, I’d listen to the players in the orchestra play a particular passage and would recognize that I had a similar lick coming up and would do my best to imitate what I had heard. In the course of time, you learn an awful lot just by paying attention and participating. You are stimulated by everything around you, not just things brass. So, I think that that’s a good point that you have made!
DZ: It’s the same concept of how we teach solo repertoire in lessons in the States: You end up learning only the solo part of a bigger piece of music, as opposed to the European Conservatory model of having an accompanist in every lesson so that you are, in actuality, learning the entire work properly. You just had the luxury of learning the orchestral repertoire with an entire orchestra at your disposal (laughter), which I’m sure led to a more comprehensive understanding of what was going on!
DM: That’s an interesting way of putting it!
DZ: So you began in Vancouver in the early sixties….
DM: In 1962. This is my 50th year as a professional musician! I played in Vancouver and Houston, and I’ve just finished my 23rd year in Montreal.
DZ: Tell me about your time in Houston.
DM: Well, it was a very short time – only one season, 1980-81. My wife and I had been married for just a year and we weren’t too sure if we wanted to go to Houston, but it was a great adventure because we were invited to go. We went down for the year and I got my tenure right away. Then I had to decide what I was going to do next. It was not easy but in the end, we decided for family reasons that we would really prefer to live in Canada. So, we very reluctantly returned to Canada. I remember Charlie Geyer, who was the principal trumpet in Houston at the time, saying, “You know, it’s very difficult, but once you make the decision it will be a lot easier.” I anguished over it for weeks and weeks and when I finally made the decision, I realized he was wrong! It didn’t make it any easier! (Laughter) I spent the rest of that season with so many mixed emotions about leaving. It was a really good orchestra and the brass section was tremendous—the trombones were especially a joy to play with.
DZ: So then you went back to Vancouver…
DM: … and we started our family in Vancouver. Then in the course of time the orchestra went bankrupt in 1988, which was about eight years later. But we survived that bankruptcy. And then the next year the Montreal Symphony opened up. I auditioned and won and we decided that we would move again. It was a fine decision and we have been very happy here. That was 1989.
DZ: Very good! So in Vancouver, you started on your Mirafone. Can you tell me a little bit about the equipment that you are playing on now?
DM: I’m not much an equipment guy…
DZ: Yay! (laughter)
DM:… because I tend to stick with things. I have about a half dozen tubas now. I have an old Alexander which I’ve had since I studied with Jake. I don’t have my original 186 anymore, but I do still own one that I leave at McGill University where I teach, so I don’t have to carry an instrument. My regular instrument in the orchestra is a Hirsbrunner 5/4 rotary valve. That was the first one that Hirsbrunner designed and I’m the first guy in the world ever to own one. I’m the second guy to have ever played one! I was in Sumiswald (Switzerland) with Bob Tucci in the early 70’s and Peter Sr. had just designed this instrument and asked if we’d give it a try. Tucci played it, sounded great, gave me a look, and handed me the horn. We were knocked out immediately and I said, “I’ve got to have one!” A year or so later, Peter brought the prototypes to the TUBA Conference in Champaign-Urbana and I managed to snag one of them. And then a few months later, I got one of the production instruments. So, I’ve been playing the Hirsbrunner since they came out in the mid 70’s. Later I had one of the first York Models as well as a 4/4 rotary. I parted with all of those, including my original 5/4, but I replaced it about 25 years ago with the one I play now.
DZ: I’m not too much of an equipment guy either! My answer when something doesn’t sound good in my playing is “It’s not the horn… it’s you!!” (laughter)
DM: Exactly! You sound like yourself, no matter what! A couple of years ago, I bought a PT-6 because I started having some trouble with the valves on my Hirsbrunner (another story for another day!). That’s a beautiful instrument. The sound is so even and luscious. But I find myself going back to the Hirsbrunner or the Alexander because I like their palette of colors so much more, particularly the Alexander.
DZ: Do you play the Alex in the orchestra?
DM: I don’t play the Alex very often in the orchestra, but I really should. In fact, since I am in my last couple of months as an official member of the Montreal Symphony, I think that I’ll take it in. I am set to retire in several months, so there won’t be that many opportunities in the near future to play it. Would you believe that the last concert that I am scheduled to play as the Principal Tubist of the Montreal Symphony is a program that has Rite of Spring and Pictures at an Exhibition! I will play the “Bydlo” on that!
DZ: Wow! Going out in a blaze of glory!!
DM: I played “Bydlo” on the F Tuba for about the 30 of those 50 years. When I began, I didn’t have an F tuba so I played it on my Alex CC or the Mirafone186. In fact there is a video floating around somewhere in Japan of me playing the “Bydlo” solo on my Alexander CC when the Vancouver Symphony was on tour there. Later I acquired a couple of good F tubas. But in all those years, I always played it on the tuba! Then in the late 90’s, Dutoit asked, (Dennis sports his best Charles Dutoit accent) “Dennis, would you like to play the Bydlo on the ‘petit tuba?’” meaning the euphonium. I always said “No, I like to play it on the F tuba.” He’d continue to ask, and eventually I surprised him by saying “yes!” He said “Wonderful, because we are going to play it on tour next season 25 times!” (laughter!!) So sure enough, Japan and Europe…. 25 times! The first thing I learned is that it is a lot easier on the euphonium!
DZ: That it is!!
Miller warms up beside Shinsuke Tanaka of the Tokyo Symphony at a VSO performance in Tokyo, 1974
DM: The second thing that I learned is that they pay you 50% extra!! (laughter)
DZ: And someone else is handling that bag for you, so there’s not that much stress!
DM: Right! And the third benefit is that since it’s easier on the euphonium, on tour you can actually go out after the concert and enjoy yourself!
DZ: Very good! So, this is news to me about your retirement.
DM: Yes. I tendered my resignation, which will come into effect at the end of August. I’m 68 now. I chose this year for a couple of reasons: one is to finish a fifty year career, the other is because I wanted to go out on my own terms, before I sensed that perhaps my colleagues thought it was time for me to leave! After sixty-something years, your lung capacity is not quite what it once was and you can’t play the low sustained things as you’d like to. Also, I figured that after “playing” around for fifty years, perhaps it is time for me to do something useful with my life! My father was 79 years old when he left our mortal coil. I’m in good health, but you know, after a while the warranty wears out on body parts. So, I thought that it was time. And fifty sounded like a good number. But depending upon when the audition is scheduled, I may play for part of next season. I’ve agreed to stay on until they have the audition.
DZ: Well, congratulations on making it to fifty. That’s fantastic!
DM: Well, thanks very much. I feel fantastic, if you want to know the truth.
DZ: Well, while you’re waiting for your parts to wear out, do you have any big plans for retirement?
DM: I’m not the kind of guy who has very many all-engrossing hobbies. I do have a lot of varied interests, but nothing that could consume me as much as work does. I need a little bit of structure in my life, so I am going to continue teaching at McGill, which I have done since I got here. And I have several things that I have always wanted to do, but could never fit them in between the symphony and the teaching schedules. I think now that I actually am going to “hang up my skates,” as they say here in Quebec, I’ll have more time to take up those language courses, for instance, and to travel more with my wife. But I don’t see myself ending my playing…. I’ll continue to play.