Iberian Tour: A Visit to Spain & Portugal
by Mike Forbes
In elementary or middle school, students often have to decide some important stuff in life: what instrument to play, what language to take, what sport to play, etc. For me, I liked the oddities: the tuba, German, and well, curling. I mention this because—unlike most Americans—I have absolutely no ability to speak Spanish, and I was completely embarrassed by that fact when I was invited (and deeply honored) to be the guest teacher at a “Tuba Course” in Malaga, Spain. The event was an absolute success even with a guest artist who could barely count off in “Español!”
Spain’s Cerveny Quartet with Mike Forbes
The event was hosted by the tuba instructor at the Malaga Superior Conservatory, David Ruiz Paredes. He and his fellow members of the Cerveny Tuba Quartet (Jacinto Fernádez Leiva, Manuel Puche Nuño, and Jose Luis Pérez) along with Professional Conservatory instructors Elohim Porras Ruiz and Ismael Gamero welcomed me with open arms to their city. The meals were exquisite, the drinks were divine, and the playing was absolutely remarkable! And thank goodness also for David’s wife, Helena Rodriguez Ordoñez who served as an excellent translator for me throughout my visit.
The three-day event in March (12–14, 2010) brought over 30 tuba and euphonium players from the south of Spain (Andalusia) to the great city of Malaga for masterclasses, lessons, and ensemble playing. I was overjoyed with the intensity and seriousness each player brought to the festival. From the youngest student, (Paula Varea Azuaga, a 16-year old tubist from the Professional Conservatory of Malaga and a delightful translator) to the most advanced (Sergio Rey Turiegano, the principal tubist of the Malaga Symphony) I was absolutely smitten with the extraordinary talent and relentless work ethic of these Spanish tubists.
While I hope that everyone in the course found my presentations and lessons interesting and valuable, I must say that I felt equally energized while learning a great deal about the music and cultural scene of southern Europe. For one thing, I was delighted with the idea of ciesta—the great nap in the middle of the day. This of course is essential since so many fabulous meals began far past most American’s bedtime. But thanks to jetlag, I didn’t have any trouble simply staying on my American time zone and living the Spanish lifesyle.
Perhaps what was most interesting to me, however, was learning about the Professional and Superior Conservatories and seeing how that shaped a musical culture. As I understand it, in Spain, you may choose (with the help of auditions) to go into music at a relatively young age and begin a serious study of music in a conservatory while most Americans (not counting those in magnet schools or Interlochen) are just deciding what language to study. The Spaniards then find careers in municipal bands, orchestras, freelancing, or teaching. Or they can go on to the Superior Conservatory, where they proceed into the American equivalent of a graduate degree. While academics can debate this system of education at length, it was refreshing to see young players with such a drive and enthusiasm for professional success. Without the general education curriculum required in a typical American liberal arts sequence, students seem to dive deeper into their field and apply greater time to in-depth, serious study and performance. The merits of this type of education are certainly seen in American conservatories as well, but there was something more typical or acceptable about this academic path that I found refreshing. I teach in a liberal arts institution and preach the benefits of it everyday to my students, but there is something very attractive about the European model—especially for European culture.
Mike Forbes and Jacinto Fernádez
The other very interesting element of the symposium was how the lessons were run. I was told by my host, David, that each day there would be a 2-hour clinic followed by a dozen 30–40 minute private lessons. In the evening we all would then play together in a tuba ensemble. What was remarkable to me was that after the opening clinic, nobody left. The private lessons were, well…public. When I saw that everyone was watching me teach each student individually, I immediately turned it into more of a masterclass setting. But then I was told not to address the others but just focus on the student. The others were there to merely observe. I was humbled by the notion that everyone would be hanging out all day listening to the individual instruction of each student. Sure, some folks came and went as the day went on, but for the most part everyone was there all day observing, learning, and sharing ideas of tuba pedagogy. It was just amazing…I will never forget this scenario. In America, it often feels that we’ve always got somewhere to be or somewhere to go. Observing another student’s lesson sounds more like a pedagogy assignment than an enlightened musical choice. If something doesn’t directly involve us specifically, why hang out? It was truly humbling to see the students take such a keen interest in each other’s playing throughout the course. The event was a smashing success, and I wish David and the Cerveny Quartet continued success with their annual Tuba Course.
Immediately following this event, I felt it was time to pay a visit to Sérgio Carolino in Porto, Portugal. For many ITECs we had hung out and talked about potential commissions and visits, and, at last, I was as close to Portugal as I would be for a long time. So I hopped a plane to Porto, and arrived just as Finland’s Harri Lidsle was concluding a visit with Sérgio and his students at the Superior Conservatory of Porto. I had never met Harri before, and it was a great coffee visit at the airport. He spoke of the energy that he gets by visiting Sérgio. I wasn’t sure what that meant at the time, but knew I was in for an exciting visit.
Sérgo Carolino and his Lusophone
Much like my experience in Malaga, Sérgio’s exceptional students welcomed me with open arms as I coached them individually (in public again with most other students hanging out in observance of their colleagues). This “open-forum” for lessons really triggered a unique “family” or cohesiveness to the tuba studio there, as does Sérgio’s formation of his absolutely stunning tuba ensemble, “How Low Can You Go?” The rehearsals were intense, to say the least, and those of you who know Sérgio’s musical intensity and leadership know what I’m talking about. What also was amazing was how the rehearsals rarely had a clearly defined start or end time. The rehearsals would begin in the evening when everyone was through with their meal or coffee. They would end when the music was well prepared…and not a minute earlier: Sérgio made sure of that.
Sérgio pictured with his Yamaha York
I was absolutely honored to solo with the ensemble on John Stevens’ Liberation of Sisyphus and then conduct the ensemble on my Cosmic Voyage and other works. We gave a concert of these works about an hour by car from Porto at a professional conservatory where one of Sérgio’s former students now teaches. The concert was a fabulous success with a very enthusiastic crowd. I couldn’t have been more delighted with the ensemble’s playing and the company of my good friend Sérgio.
A few days later I returned home, but there was something different about my playing…and my teaching. I tried to describe it to my faculty colleagues, but I couldn’t really put it into words. Perhaps it was simply having a honk on Sérgio’s new instrument, the Lusophone (pictured)! I’m not sure what caused it, but I was playing better than ever before in my life, and my teaching seemed somehow more inspired. I thought again about what Harri had said at the airport about how his visits give him energy. I now know exactly what he means, and I hope to cherish this “charge” as long as I can. For now, I’m putting this newfound energy into a new composition for Sérgio and his outstanding ensemble: David and Goliath.
Mike Forbes is the Low Brass Professor and Music Theory Chair at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville. He is also a prolific composer and founding member of the Sotto Voce Quartet.