Dean of American Tuba Players: Michael Moore of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
Michael Moore was born in Blackwell, Oklahoma, and raised in Decatur, Georgia. He joined the Atlanta Symphony in 1968 and at the age of 18 was the youngest tubist in any major symphony. Mr. Moore received a Bachelor of Music Lit. with a minor in Composition from Georgia State University. He now serves on the faculty there as well as at Emory, Morehouse, and Kennesaw State Universities. He teaches tuba and euphonium and coaches and conducts the Emory Brass Ensemble. He has contributed numerous arrangements to the brass quintet and solo electric tuba repertoire. Mr. Moore is the founder of the Atlanta Brass Society and the ABS Press. He has performed Tubby the Tuba hundreds of times, as recently as December, 2007. In April 2005, he performed the Vaughan Williams Tuba Concerto with the ASO, conducted by Robert Spano. In June 2005 and 2006 he was guest artist at Tubilustrium in Cosenza, Italy, and in November at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. He was guest tubist with the Chicago Symphony in 2010. His studies have been with Arnold Jacobs and Ed Kleinhammer of the Chicago Symphony, Ward Fearn of the Philadelphia Orchestra, William Hill, and his father, former ASO tubist, E.W. Moore. This is Mr. Moore’s forty-fouth year as a member of the ASO and ASBQ.
David Zerkel: Considering your role as “Dean of American Tuba Players,” having held your position for 44 years, what do you think has changed about the job since you first began in 1968?
Michael Moore: Well, we have a 52 week season now. The money finally got to a point where you could live on the orchestra salary alone… that happened around 1977. We’re all much busier now, so I’m not able to play as much bass or Dixieland as I was once able to (although I’m still the orchestra’s banjo player). We also used to have a lot more education weeks that would allow me to go up to Chicago right after the second concert for lessons with Arnold Jacobs. I did that a lot! My second year, we had both a Bach and a Mozart festival- lots of time in Chicago. But mostly, we’ve gotten a lot busier and the standards have become much higher. Every time that we hire new people, we get better players than the ones they are replacing.
DZ: Would you say that the way you physically approach the instrument has evolved since you started? Do you find that the orchestra is playing louder or do you feel that it has remained fairly consistent?
MM: I think the orchestra’s volume level has been fairly consistent. In terms of my own volume, I think that I play with much more taste and subtlety than I did in the early years. My studies with hornist Ward Fearn helped me there. I used to blow the [snot] out of it every time!
DZ: I think they call that wisdom, right? (laughter)
MM: (laughter) When I was 18, 19, 20—I thought that that was the way you had to do it! There’s a huge palette of sounds and volume levels I had yet to discover.
DZ: You mentioned going to Chicago and working with Jake. What was the nature of your study with him? Did you study with him for a period of time and how did that come to be?
MM: I studied with him for probably 20 years, on and off—but mostly on! Whenever we had a week off, I would go up there and have a couple of lessons with him. I’d drive up, eleven hours, and have a couple of lessons and then drive back. Sometimes I could ride up with other people like (former Principal Trombonist) Harry Maddox and (trombonist) George Webster. George did the driving once, but when we got to Chicago, Mr. Jacobs only had time to see me as there was a local player in Chicago that he was helping through some chop problems. Obviously, George wasn’t too happy! We’d stay at cheap places; when it was me alone, I’d stay at really cheap places! In the early days we didn’t have a summer season so a few of us from the ASO would always go up for Jake’s master classes. They were awesome. I gained so much from those experiences! I was fortunate to be able to do all of that while still going to Georgia State, with great fellow students such as Harry, Joe Walthall, Brice Andrus, and my best friend, Charlie Vernon.
DZ: So, you were already in the job when you started lessons with him. Were your lessons with him more about advancing your approach to the instrument or more about how to manage the job?
MM: Not so much about the job. More about general tone production, the whole wind and song psychology that he was so great at conveying. There was some talk about the job occasionally and some help with audition preparation. He stressed how important it was to be rhythmically perfect… his ideas on the first measure of the Meistersinger solo have really stuck with me: how absolutely perfect it must be (sings). That has to be absolutely in time, because the audition committee is sitting behind the screen, bored to death, conducting in the air and if it is not in time, you have two strikes against you. It is amazing how hard it is to play that simple figure absolutely in time.
DZ: Oh, I agree! (laughs) It’s hard to play all of that stuff perfectly! In the time that I have known you, you have said two things about auditions that have really stuck in my mind as especially insightful perspectives. The first is that in the hall, there is about 30 feet that separates the sheer terror on the part of the auditionee from the near-total ennui that the committee is experiencing. (Mike laughs, hard!) When you said that, the thing that it made me realize was that when you are on stage, you must do something immediately to engage the committee. I think that this is an aspect that people fail to address.
MM: That’s true! Because, the dirty little secret about auditions is that it’s not necessarily about finding the best player, it’s about eliminating everybody else!
DZ: Right. And then sometimes it becomes about finding the smartest player, right?
MM: Yeah! And for some reason we never hear the players that sound so great warming up downstairs…
DZ: And then the other thing that you said that has stuck with me is that an orchestral audition is nothing more than an excerpt recital.
MM: Right! I was about to say that! That’s what it is. You don’t play the same way that you would play in an orchestra. You don’t necessarily play with the same sound- you try to play with a little more soloistic sound, even though you are playing the excerpts. It’s a little [messed] up! (laughs) But that’s the way that it is, because you are not just playing for brass players; you are playing for string and woodwind players and they have votes too. Tuba and trombone players tend to listen to things differently. But basically, you don’t want to listen to someone slog through something loud like a Shostakovich symphony the way that they would actually play it in the orchestra. That would be hard on the ears. But you still have to provide something special. You’ve got to be smart at auditions!
DZ: I know that you are doing most of your big tuba playing in the orchestra on the Yamaha York copy. Can you tell the story of how you came to choose that tuba and the way that it landed in the ASO?
MM: Okay. I played one at the Cincinnati ITEC and absolutely fell in love with it and said, “I gotta get one of these!” I ordered one on the spot, figuring I’d worry about how to pay for it later. I didn’t really want to spend that much (about $30,000) on a new tuba, as I already have a bunch of horns. So, I thought if I could get a donor to purchase it as a gift for the orchestra, I could play it any time that I want. Accordingly, I schlepped it in a huge Unitech case to the home of a philanthropic friend of ours, who was actually not a donor to the orchestra at that time (but now is a very big donor). So, I took it out of its monster case and said “I want to play this for you. I want you to take a look at this thing of beauty and listen to this sound.” I played for him in his living room. He was impressed with the sound and couldn’t believe that I actually brought it to his house. I had called him and said, “I’d like to talk with you about something” and then I show up with this state-of-the-art tuba! (DZ laughs) Of course, it is a beautiful instrument, and would make the whole ASO sound even better! He agreed. He did find me after a recent concert and asked why I played Bydlo on a little ugly tuba (my Schilke F) when I had the one that he bought sitting right next to me! (laughter) So, sometimes you have to be creative and if you are in a good position to ask a benefactor, it’s worth a shot. I am a Yamaha artist and in addition to playing this exceptional York copy, I have all three Yamaha F tubas and play them all regularly! In the Quintet, I normally play a Conn 3J prototype I bought from Jake. My 1972 Holton York copy is a great horn too, but it’s wearing out and I’ve pretty much blown it apart! There are some spots where the brass is very thin.
DZ: Is the Holton the horn that you played when you started with the orchestra?
MM: I played a Scherzer-Sandner CC that I bought back in 1967. I played in a night club long enough to buy the instrument and then quit so I could concentrate on learning it. In those days, I didn’t know if I was going to be a bass player or a tuba player.
DZ: Do you still play the bass?
MM: Yeah, I do. I don’t play it that often, but I enjoy playing the bass, electric bass and guitar (I played in a rock band in high school).
DZ: Bass used to be a pretty good double! Seems like a double that more people used to do!
MM: Yes. My dad did it. He played both in the ASO in the late 1950s. I had to audition for the ASO on the bass too! But thank goodness my bass audition wasn’t that good, so they said, “Okay—we’ll just have you play the tuba!” I for sure didn’t want to carry all of that around. (laughter)
DZ: Was the bass audition a part of the tuba audition?
MM: It was all at the same time, which [ticked] me off. I didn’t want to go through all of that at once. But, the double comes in really handy. I had the opportunity last year to play the show “Chicago” in Columbus and it is a doubling book. Aside from the time that it takes away from face time, I don’t think that playing the bass creates any problems with my tuba playing. The pizzicato attack and time aspects especially are actually nice for the tuba player to have is his arsenal.
DZ: I agree! It’s a cool thing… this is a fact about you that I did not know!
MM: And I love to play Dixieland! I could do that all day long!
DZ: Have you had much of an outlet to do that in Atlanta?
MM: I have been in a couple of groups and have also filled in as a sub with some other groups. My dad did a lot of that stuff. But he became very sick in Savannah when I was about 15 and I had to quickly take over a lot of his work. It was terrible for him at the time, but it was great for me, and a good way to break in.
DZ: Was your dad a bass player and a tubist?
MM: Yes, he was. He studied at the University of Miami on bass and studied the tuba back in Oklahoma. He was a very good natural player and played in the Army during World War II as part of the 45th Division.
DZ: Very good! I guess on the merits of geography, he was your most influential mentor on the tuba as you were growing up?
MM: Yes, although my mother didn’t want me to become a tuba player. She wanted me to stick with the trumpet and didn’t complain much when I moved to trombone. But my band director needed a tuba player, and just like so many of us, that’s how I got started. My dad was also a band director, so horns were lying around in the basement. When I was little, I would honk on all of them, but was especially drawn to the sousaphones.
DZ: Yeah, well what mother wants their kid to become a tuba player, now that we think of it?! (laughter) Can you think of any times in the orchestra that strike you as stand out moments?
MM: One of the things that I am most proud of is that I have been in the orchestra for 44 years and have never missed a day, except when I suffered an accident or injury. I’ve had detached retinas in both eyes, so I had to take off some time for surgery. I’ve had two bicycle accidents and in each one of them I broke some ribs and a leg, so I needed to be out for weeks. But, for colds or sickness, I’ve always played through.
DZ: You’re kind of the Cal Ripken “Iron Man” of the ASO, then!
MM: That doesn’t mean that I haven’t been sick! I remember once playing Tubby the Tuba and walking off stage and immediately throwing up. We’ve played hundreds of concerts with Tubby over the years for little kids and it has always been fun! One of my most memorable performances was playing the Vaughan Williams with Louis Lane conducting. We played it at the federal penitentiary in Atlanta. We joked that the prisoners claimed that it was cruel and unusual punishment! (laughter) It was great… they searched all our cases for contraband. Quite memorable- the inmates were into it! The following summer I played the Vaughan Williams for 30,000 people at Piedmont Park in Atlanta, and played it again a couple of years ago on our subscription series under Robert Spano.
DZ: Since you entered the profession at such a tender age (18), you probably have never had those moments that the rest of us have had where you had to think, “Well, if this doesn’t work out, what am I going to do?” What are your interests outside of music?
MM: Well, when I was in my early twenties, I had an interest in making a lot of money! (laughter) So, I invested wisely. I took a real estate investment course, bought a duplex around the corner from where I live now for $12,000 and sold it for $17,500. Immediately after the closing I went to the “Real Estate Owned” department at the bank and was able to purchase a 16 unit apartment complex in Buckhead (a prestigious Atlanta neighborhood) for the amount of money that the previous owner was in arrears, which was $6,000. I hired a resident manager and was in the apartment business. A couple of years later I was able to buy a 20 unit property in another neighborhood. So I had 36 apartment units for a while…
DZ: By the time that you were age what?
MM: I was 23 or 24. I was very fortunate to have made a lot of money during those years. It enabled me to do some fairly exotic travel! Between taxes and travel I blew most of it, but I’d do it again! It was great. I still have a nice house with free-standing 2- story studio building in the back, eleven minutes from the Hall by bicycle, that I bought in 1972- my friends call me the “equity king.”
DZ: Are you still in the real estate game at all?
MM: The management part got to be a real pain in the [butt], so I got out. I think that real estate investing is a good thing for tuba players to do, especially if you have a lot of down time. Lots of cheap properties now. I dabble in the stock market and have made some very good investments, including buying Apple at $8.25. I enjoy working with money. I am now the treasurer of ICSOM (International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians) and I’ve been the president and treasurer of the ASO player’s association. I started a small publishing business called the Atlanta Brass Society Press. I also love to conduct- I recently conducted Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat with the Atlanta Chamber Players and had a blast. I also enjoy teaching very, very much. I’m also enjoying being chief arranger and Artistic Director of the Atlanta Symphony Brass Quintet, working with brass ensembles, and learning all I can about early baroque music (my degree is in Music Lit). I’ve had a varied existence. I prefer to think of myself as a musician who plays the tuba rather than a tuba player trying to make music. As a tuba player, I had the luxury of more time, so I took advantage of it/ Much as I love playing the tuba, I like to spend time with my family and all my other interests as well. I could practice eight hours a day, but I don’t sound any better than when I practice two hours a day, so …. (laughter)
DZ: I’ll drink to that! (laughter) Well, I thank you for your time! What has impressed me most about your career is that you have used the combination of your time and your gifts to live a full and varied life. Your involvement in teaching, investing, publishing, conducting and working with management on behalf of your colleagues is inspirational. You are a man of action and have used your time incredibly well. If you hadn’t looked for a donor for the YamaYork on your own, you might still be waiting. Your life has been about as interesting and varied as anyone I know and after 44 years in the orchestra, you are still sounding great!
MM: Well thank you, Dave. I think I’m starting to figure it all out! (laughter) I think that I’m playing as well as I ever have. I’m a lot more accurate than I was ten years ago. Also, the better your colleagues around you are, the easier it is to do your job. The standards of the players around me have gone up, therefore my own standards have risen dramatically. There is never a time to rest on your laurels!