Norm Pearson of the Los Angeles Philharmonic
Norm Pearson can be found week in and week out as the rock solid foundation of the Los Angeles Philharmonic brass section. If you get the chance to talk to him, you’ll find him to be a soft spoken and humble guy that’s still excited to do what he does for a living. Since the early 1980s Norm has recorded for movie scores, performed as a freelancer all over Southern California, taught collegiate tubists, and as of 1993, been the Principal Tubist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. One of the heroes of the tuba world, Pearson is perfectly content to play his part in the back row of the orchestra (like a champion I might add) and continue on as a great teacher and family man. Norm and I recently found an afternoon to sit down and talk about his life in music.
Blake Cooper: Thank you for agreeing to do this with me, Norm. Let’s start at the beginning. How did you get into music and why the tuba?
Norm Pearson: Music was something that was very important to my family. My parents were amateur musicians; my mother played the piano and my father was a singer. He sang tenor in the church choir. He had taken voice lessons as a child and sang in the Pasadena Boys Choir. There were seven children in my family and we spent quite a few evenings singing and playing instruments around the piano with my parents. My mother made sure we all started piano lessons in kindergarten so I literally learned to read music as I was learning to read. When I was in second grade one of my older sisters started to play the string bass and the school let her take one home to practice on. She never really liked to practice so the bass usually sat unused in the corner of the dining room. A large unused instrument is quite a temptation for a seven-year-old boy so I started messing around with the bass and figured out the different notes on it. In school we could start a band instrument in the fourth grade but could start a string instrument in the third grade. Of course I chose the bass.
In my school district all of the elementary kids had band class at the high school. The band played a lot of traditional music and the band director liked to include a string bass in the band so in the sixth grade I was invited to participate. When I was playing in band I would always look at the tuba player and think, “Man! That looks like a lot of fun.” It just seemed to make a lot more noise than the bass. (laughs) I asked the band director about playing the tuba. He said he needed me to play bass in the band for the rest of the year but he would talk to the junior high school band director about me playing tuba the next year. And that’s when I started playing tuba. I took an old York BBb sousaphone home over the summer between 6th and 7th grades. The band director gave me one of those band builder books. I taught myself the fingerings and that fall I started playing tuba in the band.
Norm Pearson, 1980
BC: Did you always know you wanted to play the tuba professionally?
NP: My original plan wasn’t necessarily to become a professional musician, mostly because I realized how competitive it would be. My father had a tool and die shop, and I’d work for him after school and during summer vacations. I was thinking that was going to be my career path- maybe take over his business someday.
BC: So how did you end up studying music in college?
NP: There was a really great student teacher at my high school, Gary Scott, who’s now teaching at Long Beach City College. He heard me playing at school one day and asked me what I was going to do after graduation. I told him I’d be going to Pasadena City College and probably enroll in the machine shop apprenticeship program. He said, “No, I don’t think so, we’re going to see what we can do for you.” My band director and Gary talked to William (Bill) Hill over at Cal State LA about me. Mr. Hill came over to clinic our band while we were playing Holst’s Second Suite for Military Band. After the rehearsal my band director called me into the office and said, “Bill was very impressed with your playing, and if you want to go to Cal State LA, he will consider this rehearsal your audition.” I applied for Cal State LA and was accepted. I started as a music education major with two major instruments: tuba and string bass. The bass teacher at that time was Los Angeles Philharmonic member John Schiavo and as luck would have it that was the second year Jim Self was teaching there.
BC: That’s pretty lucky! What was your first lesson with Jim like?
Los Angeles Philharmonic Low Brass, 1986
NP: I had never had a tuba lesson before. The school gave me Jim’s number and I set up a lesson. I was playing a Mirafone BBb tuba that Cal State LA owned. I remember driving up the road in the Hollywood hills, trying to find the house. I parked in his driveway, got my tuba out, and went into his studio and waited for him patiently. He comes out and says, “Ok, so what do you have?” And I said, “I don’t really have anything.” He says “oh really? Play me an F scale.” So I play the scale and Jim says, “How did you get into college?” (laughs) He asked me if I’d ever taken lessons before and then told me to get a bunch of stuff. The Rubank Advanced Method, the Rochut Melodious Etudes, a C4 mouthpiece… “Try to find a CC tuba at school,” he said. I don’t think he was expecting much out of me.
The next week I came in and had all my major scales 2 octaves, I had a Rochut and few things out of the Rubank. He seemed impressed with what I accomplished in a week. He really inspired me to work hard and want to become a tuba player. Jim really pushed me, or as he would say, “I really kicked his ass.” (laughs)
BC: Then how did you become a student of Tommy Johnson?
L-R Pearson, Fritz Kaenzig, and Gene Pokorny
NP: I always had in the back of my mind that someday, I’d like to study with him. During my second year of college my cousin, who was a very fine oboe player at Cal State LA, decided she wanted to transfer to USC. I was talking to Jim about it and he said that it would be a really good idea for me too. He felt it would be a good place for me because the competition was at a very high level, the school had great ensembles, and I would be exposed to great playing every day.
I waited a year but ultimately transferred to USC. I auditioned for Tommy Johnson and was accepted into the USC tuba class. It was a different world at USC. Brass teachers like Tom Stevens, Jim Decker, and Vince DeRosa, and great students on all the instruments. USC had 10 tuba majors at that time. John Van Houton was a student there, Fred Greene had just started that fall, and Doug Tornquist started my second year at USC. It was a terrific tuba class.
BC: How did Tommy Johnson impact you and the rest of his students as a teacher and person?
NP: Tommy Johnson was really the best teacher I could have imagined. He loved his students and we loved him. His teaching style was simple and direct; he could analyze any problem down to the bare nuts and always seemed to have the right answers. He was a stickler for clarity in the sound and demanded that we play musically and with good time. I’m a shy person by nature and always felt uncomfortable playing solos in front of people. Tommy really helped me to come out of my shell and just go for it. He made me play harder rep and encouraged me to enter competitions and take auditions. He told me to keep it simple and to not think about anything except the music when I played. He always made me feel like I was his special student, but he was that way with all of his students. We were all special. Tommy was crazy busy in those days, sometimes playing two or three sessions a day, but there was always time for his students. For Tommy teaching wasn’t a sideline. He was a teacher first. There is no way I would be doing what I do today if it were not for Tommy Johnson. I feel blessed that he was a part of my life. I miss him.
BC: I know from some previous conversations with you that you also studied with Roger Bobo. That had to be intense!
NP: During my third year at USC Tommy thought it would be a good idea to “go up the hill” and study with Roger Bobo. (laughs) Tommy encouraged a lot of us to study with Roger because he could offer a different perspective. I was a somewhat undisciplined brass player and Roger helped to get me more focused on daily routines. But the main focus of our lessons was on the music. I thought I was pretty good at turning a phrase but he challenged me to think about what I was trying to say with the music. At my lessons he’d fill my head with so much information it would just be spinning. Driving back down the hill I would feel dizzy like I’d been hit by a board, but not in a bad way. It was like “SWAT! That hurt, but may I have another?!”
BC: You’ve made your career here in the Southland, but people may not know you’ve also spent some time performing abroad. Where did you play and how was the experience?
NP: In November 1980, fall semester of my last year at USC, I got a call from Mr. Johnson about an opening in an orchestra in South America. He asked me to meet him at the Mirafone factory in Sun Valley the next day. There was going to be an audition for a the Orquesta Filarmonica de Caracas, Venezuela. The next morning we met at the factory for the audition. Luckily I had some excerpts already prepared because we were always doing mock auditions at USC. The orchestra had asked Steve Ostro (Orquesta Filarmonica de Caracas principal trombone) to find a tuba player from the USA, so several of us played for he and Tommy, and I was offered the job. It was a fine orchestra mostly made up of Eastern Europeans, young Americans just out of College or Conservatory, and interestingly only a few Venezuelans. I had never been out of the country before and for the most part it was a great experience. It taught me what it was like to be a professional musician. It also got me focused on “I want to do this for a living!” We played great repertoire at a very high level to mostly sold out houses and got a nice paycheck to boot. I ended up only staying for one year. It was a great experience but I decided to come back and finish my degree.
BC: Similar to some other big symphony players like Warren Deck and Alan Baer, you were at one time a “Tuba Wrench.” What did you do, who’d you work for, and what was your experience?
NP: Well as I told you before, I had a machine shop background. I grew up from a young age working with my hands and around machinery. I never worked on instruments, but I did get into mouthpiece making. In 1983 I met Joe Marcinkiewicz through a mutual friend. Joe’s mentor was Burt Herrick, who was a very well-known mouthpiece maker around L.A. Burt had passed away the year before and Joe inherited all of Burt’s equipment and essentially all of his customers as well. Joe learned how to make mouthpieces the old fashioned way with hand scrapers, dentist tools, and lead templates. Completely by hand! Joe was just starting up, working out of his garage in Tujunga and needed some help. The job requirement was for a young, not too busy brass player who knew how to operate a lathe. I talked to Joe, stopped to help out for a day, and he offered me a job. I made hundreds of custom mouthpieces over a six year period, some with the aid of a hydraulic tracer, but many completely by hand. One day I mentioned to Joe that we ought to make some tuba mouthpieces. I talked to Tommy Johnson and he was interested in helping out so Joe and I worked with him on a line of tuba mouthpieces. That became the N series, including the Tommy Johnson Signature model.
I worked on a studio call a few weeks after making Tommy’s mouthpiece, and trombone player Charlie Loper was on the call. We got to talking and he found out I was working for Joe and was interested in coming over. All of a sudden I’m starting to talk to all the trombone and trumpet players about mouthpieces.
The three things I got out of that experience were 1) I gained an understanding of how different mouthpieces work on different instruments, 2) I got a career boost as a freelancer through making positive connections with other brass players, and 3) I became a real mouthpiece junkie (laughs), as you’re aware!
BC: What was your first movie call?
NP: In early spring of 1982 Tommy called saying “I have a movie call I won’t be able to play. Jim (Self) is on it and there are two tubas. I’ve given the contractors your name and they’re going to call you.” The composer was Jerry Goldsmith; the movie was Poltergeist. It was my last semester at USC and this was my first big time Union job. It was nice to have Jim Self there because he helped me to stay relaxed. I’m glad it was a two tuba call.
A couple of weeks later I got another studio call, this time for John Williams. It was the LP release for the movie E.T. Usually they use the music they recorded for the film when releasing the album but John changed some endings to make it work better for album release. I don’t think the movie had been released yet, so I had no idea what the movie was even about.
BC: When was your first experience playing with the LA Philharmonic?
It was a couple of weeks after Poltergeist. I got a call from Joe Fishman, who was the personnel manager for the LA Phil at the time. He said Roger gave him my name and he wanted to know if I’d like to play 2nd tuba on The Rite of Spring with Simon Rattle. Tommy and Jim were busy that week with movie calls, so Roger decided to give me a shot. It was a great week! I got to hang with the brass guys and play the Rite of Spring for the first time with that orchestra. It was an amazing experience. That was 30 years ago this past March.
BC: You teach at a few schools in Los Angeles- can you tell us where?
NP: Right now I’m teaching at the Colburn School and with Jim Self at USC. I also have one student at Cal State Long Beach. I try to keep it to USC and Colburn if I can because of the time constraints of the orchestra and my family. I want to have a family life.
BC: That was actually going to be my next question. Is it hard to balance teaching, performing, and being a father and good husband?
NP: It can be, but my number one priority is my family. I know many colleagues who teach 10-20 students and have full time orchestra jobs. My hat’s off to them; I don’t know how they do it. I just don’t have the energy to do that and also keep myself in good condition playing wise. Plus, I want to spend time with my wife and son. My son’s getting ready to go into high school so I only have a few years left where I’m going to be able to hang out with him before he’s out of the house. To me, that’s my number one obligation.
However, I do really enjoy teaching; it’s actually kind of addictive. Sometimes I enjoy it more then playing (laughs). What really makes it worth it to me is seeing the light bulb go off when a student figures something out for the first time. That really makes it worthwhile.
BC: Take us through a typical work day with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
NP: After dropping my son off at school I usually get to the hall about an hour and a half early and try to get some practice time on the CC tuba. I am the tuba player after all so most of my time on stage is spent counting rests. If I don’t get some face time in before rehearsal it may not be enough playing to keep me in shape. Of course, that all depends on the rep for any particular week. Rehearsals are usually two and a half hours in the morning. We’ll have a one hour lunch break and come back in the afternoon for 2 more hours if we have a double rehearsal. On concert days we usually have one rehearsal in the morning and the afternoon off. The best parts of my days are the rehearsals and concerts because I get to go to work and play great music with great musicians and get paid for it!
I typically try to get teaching in on a free day or at the end of my work day, but sometimes it won’t work out. I have several students that I have to get in on Friday afternoons, so a typical Friday afternoon would be going to rehearsal until 12:30 and then going home and grabbing some lunch, followed by some errands and chores. Then I drive to the Colburn School to teach for a couple hours. I usually take an hour off before I play the concert.
BC: The LA Phil plays in two amazing venues, Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Hollywood Bowl. Can you give us a comparison and contrast of the two spaces?
NP: Marching Season and Concert Season. (Laughs) That’s about the best equation I can give you. Disney Hall is a fabulous venue and what I really enjoy about playing there is although it’s a large room, about 2400, it’s a very intimate space. It’s like a theater in the round so we have audience members behind the orchestra. It brings us a lot closer to the audience and we feel like we’re partners in the music; we feel really connected to them. It’s great! Many times I have a section of tuba fans sitting directly behind me.
The Hollywood Bowl holds 18,000 people. On a Tuesday or Thursday classical night we’ll have between 7,000 and 13,000 people in the audience. Playing a classical music concert for that many people is very inspiring. On a Friday or Saturday night we’ll often have a capacity crowd. When there are 18,000 people in the audience it doesn’t really seem real. You look out into the crowd and it’s just a sea of humanity. We are extremely lucky in Los Angeles to have a large and loyal audience base and they are why we do what we do. They appreciate us and we appreciate them.
BC: What equipment are you playing these days?
NP: Right now I’m playing a Meinl Weston 6450/2 Baer CC Tuba, a Meinl Weston 2250 F, the Meinl Weston 4460 F, a Yamaha YFB-822 F, and a Rudolph Meinl cimbasso in F… oh and an Alp Horn in Eb (laughs) that used to belong to Roger Bobo.
BC: You have been a part of many audition committees in your time with the Philharmonic. Do you have a small bit of advice to give to aspiring orchestral tubists and other brass players?
NP: Record, record , record! Record your practice sessions whenever you are preparing for anything as important as an audition. Also it’s not just about the recording but what to listen to in your recordings. Make sure you are playing with good rhythm, pitch, and style. Time is one of the biggest issues most candidates have at auditions so record yourself with the metronome and listen to see if you are actually playing with it. Record yourself without the metronome and run the metronome along with the recording to see if you are actually keeping steady time. Your metronome should be your best friend when preparing for an audition.
Know the intonation tendencies of your particular instrument. If the fifth partials are flat on your f tuba, don’t expect the audition committee to give you a break when the Mahler 1 solo is out of tune. Figure out how to get it in tune, even if you have to push slides, use alternate fingerings or whatever. Most audition committees include string players and believe me, they can hear the grass grow. After the first group of candidates played the prelims on a recent trombone audition, one of the violin players asked the brass players, semi seriously, if trombone players’ intonation should be graded on a curve. Don’t play out of tune!
Be very meticulous and make sure every note length, articulation, and dynamic is followed exactly. Plan every breath. Don’t leave anything to chance. And the most important thing is make music! Berlioz, Brahms, and Mahler should not sound the same. Make it sound like you know what you’re doing. At most auditions I don’t hear too many missed notes. And a lot of people play like that’s the most important thing- “don’t miss at any cost.” In the end it’s all about the music. When someone plays an excerpt and you hear the whole orchestra in your head, that’s the person you want sitting next to you for 20 plus years.
Sensemaya- caption- Revueltas- Sensemaya
The number one issue when I hear students play Sensemaya is rhythm. Be careful to play the sixteenth notes exactly in time; many people have a tendency to play the sixteenths too fast. Count the tied notes very carefully. It’s easy to cut them short or hold them too long if you are not paying attention. Look at bars 9 and 10 for instance, the tie from the last sixteenth into a dotted eighth. If you are not counting very carefully it’s easy to drop an eighth note and come in too early on the eighth note at the end of bar 10. Also be careful about the relationship between the eighths and triplets; don’t make the triplets sound like eighths and vice versa. Going into bar 11 make sure the eighth note pickup is not played like a triplet. Practicing this excerpt with the metronome set to an eighth note click is a no brainer. If you have a metronome or a computer program that will allow you to accentuate the strong beats, that will certainly help. When I was preparing this piece for a recording with the LA Phil a few years back I entered the part into Finale and made a click track. That way I could listen and play along and be sure that I was counting and feeling where every note was supposed to go. That made the preparation super easy.
One more thing- when playing Sensemaya, make it as musical as possible. The solo is marked espressivo-misterioso so it should have an element of mystery and surprise to it. Don’t ignore the accents or the crescendi and decrescendi. Also, each time the solo comes in it is a different dynamic. If you are asked to play the whole first page, by all means make an audible difference between the differing marked dynamic levels.
Mahler 6: IV Finale
Mahler 6 Caption: Mahler Symphony No. 6, Finale
The solo from the 4th movement of Mahler’s 6th Symphony has a few things to be aware of. At 104 the first note should just appear out of nowhere out of the low string pizzicato. Try to start the note without an accent. Don’t get too lazy with the 16th notes; if you are not careful the dotted 8th/16th pattern will end up sounding like triplets. It must be subdivided very carefully. Also notice that all of the 16th notes before number 105 have staccato markings on them. The 16ths from 105 to 106 are not staccato. The tempo at 104 is marked Etwas schleppened, meaning somewhat slow or somewhat dragged. In spite of this marking the solo still has to have forward momentum, like a slow march.
Musically, I like to think that this solo should be sad and somber but still have a glimmer of hope. Sometimes when I play it I feel like the Grim Reaper on a slow death march. Although the dynamic markings are sparse it shouldn’t be static. The dynamics have to move forward with the music. For example, there is no crescendo written between the octave As in the first measure but it is totally appropriate. A slight crescendo and diminuendo in the third and fourth bars of the solo would also be appropriate. Try to get a mental image of what you are saying with the solo and make music.
P. Blake Cooper serves as Adjunct Professor of Tuba at California State University, Northridge (CSUN). Blake also serves as Brass Faculty Head and Wind Ensemble Director for the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Youth Orchestra LA at Heart of Los Angeles Youth Center, locally known as YOLA@HOLA. He is also freelance performer and recording artist on tuba, cimbasso and electric bass in the greater Los Angeles area.