Maestro Profondo: Catching up with Roger Bobo…70 years young!
by Tom McCaslin
Interview conducted using Skype on June 20, 2008
In masterclass, Domaine Forget, Canada (2006)
Roger Bobo, simply put, is one of the greatest tubists in the world. For a new generation of tuba players Bobo isn’t as available as he once was. Living far away from his roots makes it difficult to catch up with him. Fortunately, I spent some time this past summer at the Domaine Forget summer camp in St. Ireene, Quebec, Canada and celebrated his 70th birthday with him. The idea for this interview arose then, but we were all having too much fun to get it done! Two weeks later we sat down and used Skype [software for conducting telephone calls over the Internet] to do this interview.
Roger in Drena, Northern Italy (2005, EH)
PLAYING CATCH UP
Tom McCaslin (TM): It’s been a while since I’ve seen you! How is life? What are you up to now for those people who don’t know?
Roger Bobo (RB): Well, I live in Japan. I live in Tokyo, Japan. I had done several guest master classes during my last years in Switzerland at the Musashino Academy of Music (in Tokyo). I enjoyed it so much and they would hire me for three weeks and then three months and then another three months six months later. I just decided to go see the director and present myself as a potential full time faculty member. I actually made a resume with credits, reviews…I had never made a resume before! And presented it to him, and he hired me. So I’ve got this job for as long as I’m operable. I pray that I don’t get ill or slow down. As long as I can keep a clear mind I’ve got this job. It’s wonderful! I really appreciate that. You’re going to ask me about retirement later and maybe I just answered it!
Masterclass in Riva del Garda (2007, EH)
TM: It seems pretty clear you have no intentions of retiring.
RB: Absolutely not! I’m having way too much fun.
TM: 70 is a big birthday! How does it feel? Do you have different perspectives on things than when you were 60? 50? Have things changed that much?
RB: All of those times seem to be major points in my life. When I was 50 I left Los Angeles on a sabbatical from the Los Angeles Philharmonic and decided to move to Europe. Maybe that’s an interesting story. Let me tell it to you very quickly. The Los Angeles Philharmonic started a sabbatical program, and I was the first member of the orchestra to apply for it, and they said yes. I went, and four months later I was in Italy, and I decided I’m not going back to L.A! They were pretty shocked. They told me that I would have to pay back the LAPO sabbatical salary. A few weeks later the executive director called me and said, “No, you don’t have to do that.” Well, I don’t think it was out of the goodness of his heart. I think one of the orchestra lawyers said, “I don’t think you can make him do it.” But they said, “You know you should come back.” But I decided not to. Subsequently, and I’m very proud of this, now everyone (in the LAPO) has to sign the “Bobo Clause” which says that they will return to the orchestra after their sabbatical. I was very lucky and well…I did the right thing. At 60, that’s when I left Italy and moved to Switzerland. There were two years when I lived in Amsterdam, Holland and taught at the Rotterdam Conservatory, the Lausanne Conservatory, the Bern Conservatory, the Fiesole Music School in Italy, and was starting to teach at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester. I was living on airplanes and trains. That was great fun for a while. When Melody, my daughter, graduated high school from the American School in Florence, I left Italy and moved to Lausanne, Switzerland where I lived for nearly ten years. Now at 70, I am settled for good in Japan.
Riva del Garda (2007, EH)
TM: Let’s talk about Domaine Forget a little bit since I just saw you there. What keeps you coming back and traveling all the way from across the globe each summer? What makes it so special?
RB: Ah! I think the first and most obvious thing is that it’s my only North American connection now. If there are any North American students that want to get to know me then I get to meet them there. It’s also nice for me to come to North America, and Domaine Forget is in one of the most extraordinarily beautiful places on the planet. I’ve been blessed by living in beautiful places: Florence, Italy, out in the farm lands in Toscana, Switzerland, next to Lake Geneva out looking across to France, and, then, I’m very happy to come to Domaine Forget. It’s beautiful, and I seem to attract REALLY great students. And sometimes with these students I become lifetime friends. I’m also friends with the faculty. It’s like a second home for me. It’s a summer place I long to go to now on those rare occasions I tire of Tokyo.
Coaching a horn student at the Domaine Forget Festival, Canada (2006, EH)
TM: You are extremely active on your website (www.rogerbobo.com) and www.tubanews.com. What purpose do you see in using the Internet as musicians? Do we use it too much? Do we not rely on it enough?
RB: The web is what we have in life now. It’s an amazing resource that’s there all the time. Let me just say this, I doubt the people selling the Encyclopedia Britannica are making much money anymore! So, my website was a gift from Emily (Harris), my long time friend and manager since, well…1989! She set it up for me as a birthday present. I didn’t even know what a website was! It sort of grew, and I took advantage of it. I can always remember spending time with Arnold Jacobs and him saying, “I have to write a book someday. I want to write all this stuff down. Everyone is telling me to do it so I think I should do it.” I said to myself, “I’m going to DO IT!” This website lets me do that. I’m a closet writer so this allows me to write, to talk about the tuba, to talk about music, to talk about my personal things, and now there’s a huge collection of articles there, which probably would be more than a complete autobiography if someone wanted to organize it, which I will probably never do. But all the information is there. Also, there is Tubanews, which came from being good friends with students (Todd Cranson and Rose Schweikhart) who came to Domaine Forget and then to a master class in Greece. The next year they came back to Greece and while we were sitting on the beach drinking our ouzo and eating slouvakia we came up with this idea and it materialized. The idea is to compile some news network that would supply some good thinking about all things tuba, and it’s evolved from there. Then there’s my blog, bomaestro.blogspot.com. That’s where I write everything. Between the three websites there is a lot of material.
Conducting a brass ensemble, Domaine Forget, Canada (2006, EH)
“…I think that musicality should be the inspiration to become a great tubist. Not to become a great tubist!”
TM: How would you describe your teaching style/technique for those people who have never seen you teach in a master class or lesson?
RB: Well, I teach mostly by trying to give musical ideas and musical impressions for the students to respond to (and hopefully) make their musicality work. Now, I know all about the tuba. I can say the things that need to be said, but I think that musicality should be the inspiration to become a great tubist. Not just to become a great tubist! That’s not interesting. I think musicality has to be the leader.
From an article in Pipers Magazine, Japan (ca. 2002)
TM: Is there an influence that guided you to teach “musically” instead of the “technical” way? Did you used to teach more “tuba-istically” earlier in your life and career?
RB: Well, maybe more. But I always had the idea that musicality should develop good tuba playing or brass playing. Two things here: first of all Arnold Jacobs used to advocate all the time, “Let the musicality guide you,” and then very frequently he’d spend the rest of the lesson with the machines. I mean, measuring vital capacities, air pressure, and things like that. This is incredibly, fabulously interesting. But I decided to take his advice to heart and let musicality be the inspiration for developing the technical skills.
Working with Bobby Shaw, Domaine Forget, Canada (EH)
And then probably the biggest influence in my life was with Robert Marsteller. He was first trombone in the Los Angeles Philharmonic and a euphonium virtuoso when I was a boy. I started studying with him when I was thirteen years old. He was a visionary! The potential that he “saw” in the tuba, over fifty years ago, and he was able to describe this me. In fact, this is pretty much the tuba that has evolved into today’s world. He was an extraordinary musician, and he inspired me to make music, which inspired me to become a good tubist. That’s mainly the reason I take this direction in teaching.
Working with Carol Jantsch, Domaine Forget, Canada (EH)
Working with Danielle Caine, Domaine Forget, Canada (EH)
SCHUMANN’S ADAGIO AND ALLEGRO AND THE VAUGHAN WILLIAMS CONCERTO
Bobo begins every masterclass by asking the audience to think of Robert Schumann’s Adagio and Allegro. He then asks the audience to imagine the world’s greatest horn player performing. He then asks the audience to imagine the world’s greatest cellist playing it. He then asks who prefers the cello and who prefers the horn. The horn has never won….
TM: Can I ask you about the Schumann Adagio and Allegro question?
Pictured with several members of the 2008 tuba/euphonium class at Domaine Forget, Canada (EH)
TM: Where did this come from? How did it develop?
RB: I don’t know! I think it was 30 or 35 years ago. Someplace in the world I was “winging” a master class and I said, “I’m going to ask this.” There are wonderful recordings of this piece played by cellists and horn players. So I asked the question and was AMAZED that in an auditorium full of brass players that about 80% of them raised their hands in favor of the cello. So, I started to ask it all the time, everywhere I went. It was always the same result—about 80% in favor of the cello. Each year I’ve asked that probably over a hundred times and you know…I’d like to discuss why. Why does an audience full of horn players prefer the cello? Is it we don’t think brass players can play that beautifully?
(L-R): Lance Nagels, EH, Roger Bobo, Tom McCaslin, & Dennis Miller at Domaine Forget, Canada (2008, EH)
TM: Do you think it’s the first articulation? Even the world’s best horn player could chip the first note, but the cello starts to vibrate with the vibrato before it starts….
RB: That is a part of it. Vibrato is a big part of it. Look, I love vibrato on tuba and cello but not so on the horn. I can’t answer this question. Sometimes we think of an adagio requiring vibrato to function. I’ve thought the way the string articulates…you know, I’d love to hear a great singer sing the Adagio and Allegro. That would be a great study.
Working with Max Murray at Domaine Forget, Canada (2007, EH)
TM: Speaking of singing—has singing always been a big part of your teaching or did this change over time once you retired from playing the tuba?
RB: Yes, it’s always been a big part of my teaching! It came to me because Marsteller sang to me when I first started studying with him. He got that from his teacher, Emory Remington who sang all the time. Later, I studied contrabass trombone with Emory Remington when I was at Eastman. He sang all the time. You’d walk past studio 310 and he’d be singing. So yes, it came naturally to me from environmental reasons. As time passed I used it in two ways. One, I use it to impose a singing style onto my students. Hopefully with phrases and musicality. Secondly, I guess you’ve heard my voice. It’s not beautiful. It can be very loud and sometimes when you have a player who is not a high-energy player and you start singing at a very loud dynamic six inches from his ear it works a lot better than saying, “Please use more air.” You know? You sit six inches from his ear and sing and he/she will use more air. It’s easy!
TM: Thinking back to the question of the Schumann. Have you heard the recording of Julian Weber, the cellist, playing the “Romanza (second movement)” from the Vaughan Williams Tuba Concerto?
In Kyoto, Japan (2006, EH)
TM: Do you prefer that in any way to the tuba version?
TM: (Laughing)…Upon hearing it did you think back to the “Schumann question?”
RB: No, not really. I have to say that the Vaughan Williams [Concerto] is very evolved in my mind. I don’t know how many performances I did—at least 70. I think perhaps I’ve played it more than anyone else has. It never stopped evolving. Even now it evolves. The cello I think lost some of the intensity, particularly in the second movement, you know we hear this lyricism in the cello and, well, he didn’t “breathe” in the right places, he didn’t crescendo in the right places, and his dynamics were limited. So, the result of having heard that is quite the opposite of the Schumann. I have heard the Schumann by a lot of great cellists, but I should say that the Schumann has also developed so I have my own ideas on it. When do you want to talk about the Vaughan Williams?
TM: Let’s talk about it! Right now.
It should be noted that Roger was given a hand written copy of the score for the Vaughan Williams Tuba Concerto by Vaughan Williams himself at the Interlochen Camp in 1954. Roger Bobo was the first tubist to win the festival’s concerto competition playing the work.
With daughter Melody in Vatera
RB: You asked me, and we’ve discussed my “edition” of the Vaughan Williams. My edition is very close to what was available on the score when I first started playing this piece before Oxford Press printed it. The story I found out is that Dr. Vaughan Williams, when it was done, wanted to make it idiomatically functional for the tuba. The tubist that was chosen was Phillip Catelinet. He was not a tubist. He was a pianist and a euphonium player and a great musician! No disrespect is intended, but perhaps he wasn’t the best choice to edit. The editings that he made were that of non-tuba playing brass bandsman in 1954. Those went into print. Now we have conservative tubists saying, “We must play these markings.” I’m not going to be stuck playing Catelinet’s markings from 1954. I want to play my own. Having the original Vaughan Williams articulations, phrasings and editing’s from his hand written score I made my edition, which ends up being very, very similar. Vaughan Williams did write some phrases that were physically impossible. No one in the world has that much air. I put in breaths. I now have four versions of the Vaughan Williams that I like my students to play. The Catelinet (Oxford Press), the copy of the score (as Vaughan Williams wrote it), mine, which I guess we can call the “Bobo” editions, and a fourth one that has no phrase markings at all—no dynamics and no phrases. The students, if they are evolved enough that far, can make their own decisions.
TM: Can you tell me the differences between the original an your edition?
RB: Very little, just better places to breathe. It’s “tuba realistic.” It’s quite different from what Catelinet did, and I’ve made far fewer changes. I want the spirit of what Vaughan Williams wanted to hold true, and I think the Catelient version comes up short. I run into a lot of resistance because people don’t want to play what’s not written, particularly in Japan! I just heard that one very famous tuba player in Germany said he would not advance anyone in a competition playing my Vaughan Williams because it’s too far away from the Oxford University text. That’s crazy.
Royal Northern College of Music tuba/euphonium class
TM: Any thing else you want to add about the Vaughan Williams?
RB: It’s not one of his greatest pieces, but it’s a beautiful piece and can be very effective. In order to make it effective I feel strongly that we have to depart from the Oxford University “text,” so to speak.
RB: The Oxford University text is just inadequate. It turns it into a second rate piece. I can hardly bare to listen to it when it’s played as printed. It just sounds so much better as originally intended. It can go from a mediocre piece to a beautiful piece.
Students that comprised the Swiss Euphonium-Tuba Ensemble, conducted by Roger Bobo
TM: Sounds like we need someone to record it and challenge all of our thinking on this.
RB: Well, tubists are very reluctant to this. I don’t know why. Perhaps this is my thing, and they’d rather do their thing when they record it. Or maybe they, even the famous, best ones in the world, are reluctant to move away from the text. It always falls very short of its potential and I feel very strongly about that. My biggest regret is that I never recorded it. I wish that I had had the opportunity to record it. I did have the opportunity to record it with a band in Italy, but it was at the time when I was considering to stop playing. It was a time where I didn’t sound good to myself. I practiced more and still didn’t sound any better, and I decided it’s time to quit playing the tuba.
Roger Bobo retired from playing the tuba in 2001 with a spectacular final concert held in Riva del Garda, Italy, home to ITEC 1997 Verso il Millennio.
Pictured with Arnold Jacobs & William Bell
TM: Do you miss it?
RB: Not at all. From the day I quit it my life moved intensely and deeply into teaching. I find teaching a much more satisfying way of dealing in the musical world than playing the tuba. Let me speak a little bit about that. It’s interesting. Whatever we play—piano, tuba, violin or voice. We are limited. We are limited by the physical difficulties to make the instrument operate. And tuba, particularly, is a very physical instrument. It’s an athletic instrument! You need to be a good athlete to play tuba well. And, when we have the brass in our hands, and we’re moving air, and we’re pushing valves, and we’re articulating and hoping that our lips work and all that, there is not the same freedom to consider the music as there is when we put it down. So then we only have the music in our minds.
TM: Right. The song and voice that is unique to our mind.
RB: It becomes my job as a teacher to impart what I hear in my mind’s ear. This is another problem! You have that resistance of communication in the same way as a tuba.
TM: That leads to something else we’ve talked about before—being your own teacher and being a good student. Can everyone be a good student when they take lessons?
RB: Yes. Everyone can be a good student. Can everyone be a good tubist? No! Everyone can be a good student. Sometimes I run across, particularly in North America, a student with some kind of an attitude. They know better than I what the tuba is supposed to sound like—or where to breathe. I find that a complete waste of time to try and teach them. Although, I find that less and less, and I haven’t seen it for a few years now. But it was very frustrating. When the student is open for ideas and ready to learn it’s a wonderful experience to teach. But can everyone play the tuba? No. Look. Look at me? Could I be a ballet dancer?
RB: No matter how much I love ballet. No matter how much I may have wanted to become a great ballet dancer. No matter how many hours I spent at the bar, I mean the ballet bar! You know, stretching my muscles, standing on my toes. I could not have become a ballet dancer. Not everyone can become a tubist. But, there are many people who know a lot about the tuba and adore the tuba and sometimes become great tuba teachers but not great tubists.
TM: Then you don’t have to be a great performer to be a great teacher?
RB: Well that’s a completely different thing; I think that being a great performer is very important in being a great teacher. But, what you’re saying: “A great tubist to be a great teacher?” I don’t think so. It certainly helps. A great performer—yeah, that really helps. Maybe you’re talking about the “Charisma Factor” (a recent blog entry on www.rogerbobo.com). You read that?
RB: That quality that we call charisma is certainly beneficial to teaching. I’m aware that I have it to some degree. I think I get better results because of it.
TM: Let me ask you—what is the most common problem you encounter with students? Whether tuba, horn, or any student? This is supposed to be a tuba interview, but I don’t want to limit your answer to tuba.
RB: Yeah. Now that’s an interesting question. Because, the problem that comes up more than anything else from good tubists, people that are already developed as a tuba player, is that they try to play unrealistically long phrases and they get into that last 33% of their air which is less stable than the first 66%. They come to the end of a phrase and it’s not strong. Whereas, if they take a small breath at some logical point in the phrase then they end up strong and usually the phrase doesn’t suffer because of the breath. So the question is to develop that sense—to be able to make the compromise. As a tubist particularly, because of our physical limitations you know. If all tubists were American basketball stars with 10-liter vital capacities we’d all be able to play longer phrases. But that’s not the case. Is it better to do the macho thing and do the whole phrase or is it better to take a small sip of air at the logical spot and end the phrase with some beauty? There’s no answer to that. You have to do what sounds the best in each separate case. Not what we hope will work but what sounds the best.
With Bill Bell
TM: That is a spectacular answer. Do you want to talk at all about tuba rep and what pieces deserve more playing? It seems like we are still limited on what we play and regurgitate the same material.
RB: Yeah. I don’t want to be too specific but there is a whole genre of pieces from the 1960s. Unaccompanied pieces that are very “ugly,” and there is a small percentage of these which are great and need to be played more, Encounters II being one of them. Music of that genre needs to be examined and discriminated by each player. I don’t think the choice should be made as an academic study. I think we should pick something that we know is going to sound good and that has a sense of sonic drama! Some of the new repertoire is amazing. But still we have to discriminate. Because Harvey Phillips did a great job stirring up an interest in the tuba. We have this MASS of repertoire and it needs to be discriminated with which is good and which is bad.
This is a process that is ongoing. I’m not ready to say this is good and this is bad. We have to evolve with this material. But I will tell you this. I like very much the music of Roland Szentpáli. I like the new music of John Stevens. I like the growing new pieces that Jim Self is writing. Sérgio Carolino in Portugal does amazing things, and I like all the new material that Øystein Baadsvik does. Here are some examples of new music. I think that’s the direction we should look at. Look, I’m old. And I’ve noticed that old people are not really open to new stuff. God help me if I get like that myself! I’m trying to stay open to it. Trying to be aware of it and trying to prescribe this material to my students depending on their level of proficiency. However, we know that some of the old standards are going to be successful. We know the student can play it, and we know that it will be appropriate for their examinations or senior recitals. We know that it will be successful.
TM: Let me ask you something that I’ve been curious about. You’ve had a large influence on the tuba world. Was that a conscious effort or did that evolve naturally?
RB: Both. When I realized I had an influence I decided I was going to use it. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. But when I did it to satisfy my own instincts and not to influence, it went in a much more successful musical direction. It went a better way. Most of that influence you could say was because that’s the way I wanted to play it.
In a lesson with Emily Harris
TM: Can you remember a time when you realized the “influence” you had gained?
RB: I don’t want to be immodest, but, after my recital (in Carnegie Hall) in 1961, I knew I was being watched from that point on.
TM: I think it’s fair to say we will continue to watch! Thanks so much for this Maestro.
RB: Thank you!
Roger Bobo’s latest CD, Rainbo-Bo, is a compilation of three different LP recordings that he made in the years 1978–1981. It is available from Crystal Records. Soon to be released is the anticipated DVD, Tuba Profondo. It is a video masterclass with six different students including tubists and horn players. Watch www.rogerbobo.com for more information on this release as well as all news, blogs, and other musings from the incomparable Roger Bobo.
Tom McCaslin is Assistant Professor of Tuba and Euphonium at East Carolina University. His diverse performing career has taken him across the globe and his currently working on his first solo CD project to be released in 2009. He is a Yamaha Performing artist and currently serves as Historian for the International Tuba and Euphonium Association.
Many thanks to Emily Harris for her assistance with this article!
Editor’s Suggestions for Supplemental Reading:
Official Website: http://www.rogerbobo.com
Roger Bobo’s Blog: http://bomaestro.blogspot.com
Domaine Forget: http://www.domaineforget.com
Additional Writings: http://www.tubanews.com
Bobo, Roger. “And approach the realm of making beautiful music,” Brass Bulletin, 18:2 (1977), p. 27.
Bobo, Roger. “From the pen of Roger Bobo (horn transcription acceptability),” Brass Bulletin, Number 19:3 (1977), pp. 30–1.
Bobo, Roger. “To the 94,” T.U.B.A. Journal, 6:3 (Spring 1979), p. 8.
Bobo, Roger. “Dynamics in the 80’s,” Brass Bulletin, Number 29:1 (1980), p. 23.
Bobo, Roger. “Interview with Arnold Jacobs (Part I),” Brass Bulletin, Number 34:1 (1981).
Bobo, Roger. “Interview with Arnold Jacobs (Part II),” Brass Bulletin, Number 34:2 (1981).
Hepola, Ralph. “Roger Bobo talks tuba,” The Instrumentalist, Volume 32 (November 1977), pp. 60–5.
Holte, Dawn. “A Lesson with a Master: Interviews with Roger Bobo & Steven Mead,” ITEA Journal, 29:3 (2002), pp. 55–6.
Meckna, Michael. “Roger Bobo and the tuba explosion,” ITEA Journal, 19:4 (1992), pp. 42–3.