John Griffiths (1948–2007): A True Original
by Tom McCaslin
Sitting in Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor, Michigan on the morning of July 12th, I received one of those phone calls that you dread. During the initial shock following the phone call my thought was: “Jeez, John loved breakfast from this place!” In fact, years earlier John had convinced me to attend the University of Michigan by saying: “Look, if you really don’t like being that far from home and living in the U.S.A. at least you’ll have Zingerman’s.” I know John would have appreciated the fact that on the worst possible of mornings I still had a great breakfast. John was kind of funny like that. Oh, was John funny.
Like many kids in Regina, Saskatchewan, I met John Griffiths for the first time when he walked into my elementary school band room. He gave wonderful clinics on the tuba and promoted it to anyone who would listen. He sat down and said, “Hi, call me John. This is the tuba. and I’d like to introduce it you and encourage you to try it.” In many ways when he took the International stage in Riva Del Garda, Italy (ITEC 1997) he said the same thing to the entire tuba world. During the ten years that followed John was finally unleashed on the world outside of Canada. Tubists, composers, musicians, and fans of good music were exposed to his virtuosity, humor, humility, and passion. John’s take on the tuba, the way he lived his life, and his incomparable humor were different from the status quo.
John was born in Southhampton, England in 1948 and immigrated to Canada with his parents and siblings in 1952. They settled in Pointe Claire Quebec on the Island of Montreal. He attended Lindsay Place High School in Pointe Claire. Unlike most tuba players John began playing the tuba at an early age, not switching from trumpet or trombone. He showed prowess early and blossomed during high school. His teachers were his band director, famed composer Morley Calvert, and Bob Rÿker, who at that time was principal tubist in the Montreal Symphony. John’s early influences greatly influenced his original style and technical approaches on the tuba. He loved the Salvation Army Brass Band tradition from England and greatly admired the virtuosic cornet and euphonium soloists from the turn of the century. In John’s last commercial recording he recorded Jenny Jones, which was a piece that he had remembered hearing at a very young age.
John decided not to attend college and entered into the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Band directly out of high school. Similar to the United States Military Bands, the RCMP band was filled with amazingly talented musicians. Basic training took place in Regina, SK (where all RCMP members train), and he was then stationed with the band in Ottawa. John loved being in the band and was very proud of the fact that he was “Mountie.” He had a great picture of himself in the band that hung in his office. However, life became frustrating being part of the military. Nadine Griffiths explains:
“John became increasingly unhappy in the RCMP Band. The military aspect, the repertoire of music, the traveling, the constant talk of the impending dismantling of the band, and, together with his own ambition, all became overwhelming, and we jointly made the decision to move to Regina (where they had met during his training). John decided that he needed to play trombone in order to expand his horizons and quickly bought a trombone in Ottawa. He would practice at home, endlessly! When we watched television he would have the trombone next to him and play during the commercials. The trombone was always close at hand. Why Regina you might ask? We could live more cheaply than in Ottawa, lots of playing opportunities, the symphony was hiring a lot of new people, and I was from Regina and knew it well. John was never an academic, seeing education as a means to an end. Needless to say he did very well in his undergraduate degree, B.MusEd., though still not enough, he knew he didn’t want to teach high school. Abe Torchinsky was always a hero of his, and he was fortunate to become his graduate assistant and complete his Master of Music Performance at the University of Michigan.”
The Regina Symphony Brass Quintet (circa 1985).
Mr. Abe Torchinsky remembers teaching John was a complete joy:
“Teaching John was easy and a pleasure. He wanted to expand his knowledge of the orchestral repertoire, which was very important to me. It was and still is my point of view that gaining a position in an orchestra is the most preferred way to gain employment as a tubist. John was very interested in solo repertoire and never needed any help with it. He performed Encounters II in U of M’s [University of Michigan’s] annual collage concert, which I still remember.”
Don Harry, Elizabeth Raum, and John after premiere following the premiere of Requiem for a Wounded Knee at the Eastman School of Music.
John loved Mr. T (as his students affectionately called him) and recounted several Mr. T stories during my years of study with him. One I heard many times was about John playing Reveultas’ Sensemaya for Mr. T. While John was playing, Mr. T fell asleep. John finished the excerpt, carefully packed up his bags, and, as he left the studio, slammed the door as hard as he could. As he walked down the hall he heard Mr. T yell, “Sounds great Grif!”
(L-R): ITEA Executive Committee members Jim Shearer, Tim Northcut, Velvet Brown, Dennis AsKew, and John at ITEC 2006, Denver, Colorado. John, having serving as International Vice-President, was at this time serving as ITEA Vice-President, President-Elect before having to resign shortly after due to health concerns. Photo by Jason Smith.
While at the University of Michigan John studied alongside such tubists as Richard Watson and Steve Seward and also took trombone lessons from Glen P. Smith. He played in a summer concert band under the direction of William Revelli but really loved working with the famed conductor Gustav Meir while being a member of the University Symphony Orchestra.
Photo by Alan Hood.
After completion of his Master’s degree, John and his growing family decided to relocate to Regina, SK. As Nadine puts it:
“Upon graduation from Michigan another chapter began, I was pregnant with Kelly! We had to make some quick decisions and decided we had to return to Canada. We would have preferred to remain in the U.S. and work there for a while, but it was difficult to get a working visa and John felt he needed a job immediately because of the impending birth of Kelly. Hence back we came.”
Regina: The “homebase”
Like most music students, John’s transition from being a full-time music student to making a living as musician was not without its hurdles. John worked as a salesman for Yamaha and traveled from town to town in western Canada. John hated being a salesman. He did not enjoy finances getting in the way of kids playing instruments, joining band, and making music. This did however begin the relationship with the Yamaha Corporation that lasted John’s entire career.
The last photo taken of John (circa 2007).
Eventually John would begin teaching at the University of Regina. His duties included more than just tuba and trombone. He taught the jazz band and other music classes designated by the school. He also gained a very unique position with the Regina Symphony. There was a tuba and bass trombone opening the same year. John won both auditions and became principal tuba and bass trombone with the orchestra. When there with pieces with three trombones John would play tuba and when there was no tuba John would play bass trombone. I know of no other tubist in the modern era who held positions like this in a symphony orchestra.
John eventually segued into an administrative role that he held for many years, eventually serving as Director of the Conservatory of Music and Dance and later serving as Acting Dean of Extension for the University Regina at the Regina Conservatory for Music and Dance. The university’s School of Music was housed and integrated with the local conservatory. John organized all rehearsal spaces, teaching studios, and budgets and essentially kept the whole thing running. John served in this capacity until the late nineties with the building of new facilities on campus for the university. At this time John moved to teaching tuba, euphonium, and music appreciation for non-majors without the administrative responsibilities.
John pictured with Nevsky.
In 1980 John wrote an extremely important text, The Low Brass Guide (now published by E. Williams Music Publishing). It encompasses all of John’s thoughts on playing, starting beginner students, and instrument maintenance. Many professionals used this book for years without really knowing the author. Jerry Young recounts, “I’ve known “about” John Griffiths since I was in undergraduate school. I bought his low brass method book and just sort of wondered who in the heck this really together guy was.” It has now received a second publication and is available from most music outlets.
Until 1997 John remained relatively unknown to the rest of the tuba community. He only took one other professional symphony audition (for the Houston Symphony, which he described as “everything that’s wrong with music”) and moved to Toronto for one year in the early 80s to teach at the Humber School of Music. He and his family much preferred living in western Canada and returned to Regina the following summer.
Dan Perantoni and John co-presenting a pedagogy clinic at ITEC 2006. Photo by Alan Hood.
Photo by Jason Smith.
The First Two Commissions
Several events lead to John’s rise in the global tuba and instrumental community. In 1990 he commissioned Betsy Raum to compose a concerto for him to premiere with the Regina Symphony. Ms Raum remembers:
“That was a long time ago, but I believe John had been asked to play a concerto with the Regina Symphony, and he asked me if I would write something specifically for him. I agreed to do this and spent the next couple of weeks trying to decide what I would write. Dick (Richard Raum, Betsy’s husband and principal trombone of the Regina Symphony Orchestra) came up with the idea of the Lur, which was an ancient Scandinavian signaling instrument. I have a wonderful book of legends and myths, and when we looked up the Lur we came upon the Legend of Heimdall. It seemed like a natural for the tuba. The piece is very programmatic, as is much of my music. Also, John wanted a piece he could play the C tuba for the outside movements and the F tuba in the middle movement. However, most tuba players now use only the F tuba.
As I got into the concerto, the CBC became very interested and ended up making the piece a CBC commission!”
A short two years later John was asked to be a soloist with the Regina Lions “B” Band for their performance at the Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic in Chicago, Illinois. He decided to go back to Betsy for another piece and she came up T for Tuba:
“John had been asked to come with them to Chicago as a soloist, so he again asked me to write him a solo. I wrote two versions…one for student tuba and one for professional, which John played. There was a cadenza where he used multi-phonics, and he slipped in a phrase from Oh, Canada into the cadenza! Tom [you] must remember that as he was there. I guess he was a huge hit, as always!”
These two commissions occurred in my own formative years. I was in the third row for the Heimdall premiere and was in the back of the band playing tuba for the Midwest performance. I began taking private lessons from John in fall 1991. He would bring in these pieces as they started as sketches given to him from Betsy all the way until their eventual premieres. What a treat to be a “fly on the wall” while two amazing musicians collaborated.
These two commissions along with the opportunity to play bass trombone in the touring production of Phantom of the Opera, spurred the desire for John to do more outside of his day job and symphony commitments. I feel that it’s important to note how difficult this was for John. It takes a lot of time to push oneself when you’ve been settled for any length of time.
Photo by Alan Hood.
In 1996 John responded to an email looking for Canadian tubists who might be interested in performing on a recital. He didn’t realize that it was Emily Harris who was anonymously searching on behalf of Roger Bobo for the ITEC in Riva Del Garda, Italy. John sent a copy of a recital that he had recently given in Regina (half on CC tuba and half on F). John received an invite and was ecstatic. By this time John had amassed enough commissions for his first CD, Canadian Chops, and he had the finished version along with him for distribution when he got Italy. When reviewed in the ITEA Journal it received this praise: “… a wonderful album by an incredibly talented tubist, a master of the instrument… an album that should be in every tubist’s library.”
Tuba icon Sam Pilafian said that composer Elizabeth Raum and Griffiths were “creating an entirely new voice and language for the instrument!” Needless to say, his recital in Riva was a huge success and finally introduced him to the audience that he deserved.
Following the Riva Del Garda conference, John was able to perform worldwide in many international venues. He performed at six consecutive ITECs (Minneapolis, Regina (also host/planner), Finland, Greensboro, Budapest, and Denver). He recorded his second solo album, “The Legend of Heimdall”: three Raum concertos with the Orchestra of the Capella of St. Petersburg (Russia) in summer of 2000. Tom Allen of CBC’s “Music and Company” said the CD presented a “brilliant tuba soloist” with a “monster sound and great, full low range….” Jurgen Gothe of “Disc Drive” said the “cadenzas were ‘Jimi Hendrixian….’” Dr. Mark Nelson, writing in the ITEA Journal, raved and called the CD a “must buy.”
John with Brenda Calder and his “Honda.”
John’s third solo CD, Extreme Tuba, was finished shortly before his passing. It includes more commissions and hopefully will receive wide distribution. Of a demo, Jim Self said “I think you are really an alien—who has come down here to make the rest of us feel average—or to inspire us.”
John also embarked on ambitious tours of North America and performed at most major Universities including: Eastman, Michigan, Michigan State, Cincinnati Conservatory, Indiana, Arizona State, McGill, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, UCLA, and the University of British Columbia. John became a regular guest artist at the Eastman School of Music, McGill, and University of Toronto among other institutions. John was a guest artist with the United States Army Band (Pershing’s Own”) in Washington D.C. (the only Canadian artist to ever be featured with the band) where he premiered a new concerto, the eighth of fifteen major works that have been written for his playing. He judged international solo competitions in Russia, Italy, and Hungary.
His performances received rave reviews and spontaneous standing ovations wherever he played. John received praise not only for his amazing pyrotechnic quality, sound, and musicality but also for his gifted abilities as an entertainer.
Lessons from a Master
I started to study weekly with John in the fall of 1991. I was motivated to take it very seriously. John was very reluctant to teach me because of my age (12) but agreed after several phone calls from my mother.
John started EVERY lesson by having me sight-read duets with him. Not only did they get progressively more difficult, but he was relentless about learning how to sight-read, and how to challenge myself without letting frustration take over. From the first lesson with John he talked about how to use air effectively. He emphasized the size, speed, and direction of the air, and it worked. I literally was able to expand my high register by an octave in this lesson.
John had a firm belief that all great artists had a common thread: they did simple things extremely well. At the majority of lessons he either played and/or demonstrated simple concepts to achieve the desired results. It was this way of thinking and this simple approach that gave John his most unique and perhaps revered playing quality: the high register.
John played with very little mouthpiece pressure and relied on his air stream to give him the range and endurance that he needed. His mouthpiece (Yamaha’s John Griffiths model) was based on a bored out Bach model that is designed for kids with braces. But the reality is that John could play as easily in the high register on any equipment. I think it’s a tragedy that hardly anyone has heard John’s proficient and amazing solo performances on CC tuba. The demo CD that he sent for consideration to perform in Riva included the Bozza Sonatine and Encounters II on a small CC. Betsy Raum exploited the high register in her commissions because she thought it was easy. That’s just how John made it sound.
Studying with John was a pure joy. I looked forward to lessons every week and he made learning how to play and teach a fun thing to do. John was never negative and always found ways to deal with technical issues through musical ideas. It’s interesting that the first time I read his book I realized the depth of knowledge that he had. John kept a lot of the technical information to himself. He didn’t overwhelm me with information. John relied on working on simple concepts without allowing himself to rely on technical explanations of embouchure or physical set ups.
John’s biggest lesson was to follow your heart in all decisions and ventures. If music is what you truly loved, then attack it with all the passion and vigor you can muster. Most importantly he passed along how you must find interests that keep you passionate, challenged, and engaged. Motor cycles, sailboats, home renovation, home made wine, playing with large puppies, and re-building cars were just some of John’s passions. He knew people from all walks of life who had no knowledge of his prowess as a tubist. Everyone loved John.
John pictured with other University of Michigan alumni and current students with mentor Abe Torchinsky. Photo by Alan Hood.
John was my mentor, and he gave me all the tools to be successful and competitive in the music world and more importantly in life. Over the last ten years he always responded to my emails, sent countless letters of recommendation, and was brutally honest with his opinion on my career and life decisions. Most tubists know him specifically as a performer but his dedication to his students, friends, and colleagues is truly what made John the treasure that we’ve lost. John was a unique voice that was silenced much too early. Fortunately we have his writings and recordings to remind us of how effortless mastery comes from keeping things simple and being able to laugh at your self. Enjoy this passage from John’s essay from one of his trips to Russia:
“My friend Vyachislav had generously offered to put my tuba and suitcase on board while I was bidding farewell. He’d wedged my large slippery-sided tuba case into the upper storage area. As we sat reading, the train went over a bump and out flew my tuba like a wet lima bean being squeezed, landing five feet down on my head. That surprised the Hell out of both of us and really hurt [me]. I thought surely I would be bleeding on a Russian train in the middle of nowhere. Fortunately not but my neck is still stiff. That night I had a call from a woman, and I understood nothing of what she said. She spoke louder, and I still didn’t understand. She yelled, and still I understood nothing. She hung up. My interpreter later told me that she (and another woman who called at 10 to 6 one morning) were probably practitioners of ‘the world’s oldest profession.’”
It’s impossible to write down everything that I will miss and have learned from John. It does make me smile that the following thoughts would have embarrassed John, and he most likely would’ve made some sort of disparaging comment about himself. I gladly pass along these thoughts, words, and tributes from his friends, colleagues, and admirers:
“John Griffiths was not only a great tuba player, he was a unique tuba player. He had an unusual way of playing that allowed him to play without pressure. Most people try this and the sound goes, but John was able to keep a good tuba sound throughout a huge range. Combined with his technique and impeccable ears, he could play music that few others could emulate. I only got to hear him live one time and was astounded. Thankfully we have recordings (and the new music that he inspired) to remember his extraordinary talent. John and I became “email” friends and shared jokes on line. His sense of humor was droll and sharp. We lost a giant much too early, but are fortunate that he enriched our lives with his art, generosity, warm personality, and his energy for music.”
~Jim Self, Los Angeles, August 26, 2007
“I just mainly have memories of John’s gregariousness, wit, generosity, intelligence, incredible playing (especially the crazy upper register), etc. I can’t remember the piece he was playing to end his recital at the U.M., but the “shtick” that he did with reading the newspaper while the pianist had his variation sticks with me.”
“I have known John Griffiths for many years and as a fellow big man, we always got a kick out of standing side by size when ever we met. John was also a big man with a big heart. He was passionate about tuba playing and about life. His collaboration with composer Elizabeth Raum that produced an unparalleled collection of new music for the tuba is one of his many legacies. I have been privileged to hear him perform on several occasions in addition to listening to his amazing recorded performances. At his live performances, John was interested in spinning the story about the music from a personal viewpoint, which always enhanced the actual performance. He could also tell a good joke and in his wry way, serve up the punch line in a way that seemed to just be an innocent and casual remark until laughing broke out all around. I will miss John, his good humor, and his personal charm.”
John working on his sailboat
“John was a great tubist and he was an original, he was a perfect example of having the courage to be different; he did things his own way, and they worked great. Personally, I owe a lot to him, he got me a job playing the Raum Concerto Garda with the Regina Symphony, and, a few years later, I found myself conducting a concert of tuba concertos with that same orchestra for the 2002 ITEC plus taking STUBA, the Lausanne Conservatory tuba ensemble. I will miss him.”
“John was a wonderful individual, filled with passion and joy for his music, and he was also tremendously supportive of the music of others. His warmth and generosity were unsurpassed, as were his wit and humor. I will always remember his tremendous kindness to me in his support of my own music, and also the skill and expertise that he brought to my own writing. When I played with him as a pianist, he was one of those rare individuals that truly listens to his chamber music partners, adjusts and then instinctively gives back both musically and emotionally to anyone he was working with. To say that he was both a passionate individual and player is to still fall short of adequately describing the gifts that he had or the energy that he shared. He had greatness both in his talents and abilities and also in his generosity to others. We will all miss John, and we will also feel immensely privileged to have known and worked with him. He will be hard to replace, but thanks to his teaching and his unfailing mentorship of others, his legacy will go on.”
When Roger Bobo really brought John into the consciousness of the larger euphonium and tuba community, he did all of us a huge favor to considerably understate the case. It was so very wonderful to get to know this very special man who had no pretense or “fakeness” about him as a human being or as a musician. He was a master artist and a master human being. Although his prowess as an artist was immense, he was a person who cared for and about his students and his colleagues and who was never embarrassed to show his caring. His humor and larger-than-life personality are “the icing on the cake,” and I’ll leave that topic to others. John Griffiths was a special gift to our profession, and his legacy will live on through the music he commissioned, performed, and recorded, as well as (and perhaps more importantly) through his very devoted students. I celebrate his life and will never forget him.
~Jerry A. Young
My first awareness of John Griffiths was given to me by Steven Butterworth of Yamaha Canada. The recording Canadian Chops was an amazing thing to hear for the first time. I found out where he was, and he agreed to come to Eastman for the first of several visits. The energy in his playing was stunning to encounter and his complete command of the instrument was that of a great musician not just a great tuba player. When the first experience is a recording, it is a fascinating thing to this huge guy play such a small instrument as the Yamaha 621 F. The total relaxation and five octave range was a wonderful demonstration for me and the students of where the instrument could go. In subsequent visits Elizabeth Raum wrote Requiem for a Wounded Knee for us, which we premiered at Eastman. I remember that in one of our rehearsals with John which doubled as a master class in Kilbourn Hall, I told the students to remember the day they heard two old geezers playing lip trills on “a” above the staff. He had many simple and excellent ways of teaching the basic concepts, which when combined with his gift for accents and his command of the English language got the point across quickly and humorously. He was always willing to come down and perform, and our pathetic school budget was never an obstacle.
His love of music and life were the things that guided him. The post-concert fun was just as fascinating. Having survived the Bill Bell experience, I have never seen a funnier non-drinker. It is my hope that someone somewhere has a video of the “Duck Joke.” If not it is a goner since no one could ever reproduce it or would be willing to fall down on the floor of any bar floor no matter how dirty to complete the effect. I always told him that the British Isles missed one of the potentially greatest soccer hooligans whoever lived and that his giant energy went to good things. There will be a final recording of John and I doing Wounded Knee, which we recorded in Buffalo and will be a small part of his legacy. My last photo of him and my last sight of the good giant were at the ITEC in Denver with him and his beloved motorcycle. I never had the chance to adopt him into the Delaware Nation, but I know that his journey will be a pleasant one.
~Don Harry, October 13th 2007
Tom McCaslin is currently Assistant Professor of Tuba and Euphonium at East Carolina University. He is a proud student of John Griffiths.