Yasuhito Sugiyama is Principal Tubist of the Cleveland Orchestra, a position that he won in 2006. Since very few tubists in the United States have had the opportunity to hear the Cleveland Orchestra in person, Yasuhito is a bit of a mystery to our community. I recently had the chance to have a phone conversation with him and catch up with his activities since he has been in the United States. He is a delightful guy who clearly loves music. I hope you will enjoy this look into Yasu’s background and career.
David Zerkel: How long have you been in Cleveland?
Yasuhito Sugiyama: This is my seventh year. I got the job in 2005. Well…I have a story: I didn’t get the job in the audition in July of 2005. I was a finalist, but nobody won the audition. I played services with the orchestra from September of 2005 through January of 2006 and was offered the position in January of 2006.
DZ: Before you were in Cleveland you were in Vienna. What did you do there?
YS: Yes, I played in the Vienna State Opera and the Vienna Philharmonic.
DZ: So let’s go to the beginning of your tuba life! How old were you when you first started the tuba? Was the tuba the first instrument that you played?
YS: I started playing the tuba when I was 13 years old and before that I started on the trumpet when I was nine years old.
DZ: I did the same thing! I started on the trumpet, but I was not a very good trumpet player, so the tuba was a good switch! (laughter)
YS: Yes, the same thing for me! But I was very much interested in playing the drums. There was a brass band in my school and my director asked me if I knew the tuba. I said, “I’m not sure, but I am very interested in playing percussion.” She said, “But the tuba is a very important instrument in the band.” I said, “Okay, I’ll try the tuba.” Then I saw it! It was so big and I was such a skinny kid. So, I tried but it didn’t work so well in the first weeks and months. Eventually it got easier!
DZ: When did you start studying with a tuba teacher in Japan?
YS: I started lessons when I was 16 years old. I was in high school.
DZ: When you started your career, did you take auditions for orchestras in Japan?
YS: My first audition was when I was 22 or 23 for a job with the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra. I was a finalist. After that, I took many auditions for orchestras in Japan, six or seven, but I didn’t win any of those jobs until I was 27 and finally won the Osaka Symphony Orchestra position.
DZ: Interesting. I think that many people assume that players who have won orchestral positions are such great players that they have only taken one or two auditions before they win their gig. Playing auditions really is a learning process where you eventually become more comfortable on stage.
YS: Yes. I have so many stories of when I didn’t get the job. It took a long time.
DZ: Since you’ve been in Cleveland, I imagine that you have gotten to strike up a relationship with Ron Bishop. Have you been able to stay in touch with him?
YS: Yes. Before I won the job, I had a lesson with him. We have a great relationship! We play duets together, go trout fishing together and sometimes we go out for a drink.
DZ: That’s great! Does he still come to many Cleveland Orchestra concerts, or has he had enough?
YS: He comes very often. He is a sweet guy.
DZ: What instruments do you play most frequently in the orchestra?
YS: Most of the time I play my Yorkbrunner. I got that horn when I was 26. I also play a Fafner and a Rudy Meinl 5/4 F tuba. For playing solos, I play a B&S PT-10.
DZ: When you took your audition for Cleveland, were you playing the Yorkbrunner?
YS: Yes, the Yorkbrunner and the Rudy Meinl.
DZ: I think that is interesting, because most people associate the Cleveland Orchestra with one of the most refined sounds among the U.S. orchestras. So, it is notable that you won that specific job playing a 6/4 instrument.
YS: Well, I do play a big tuba, but I am skinny, so I don’t make a big sound! (laughs)
DZ: What do you find to be the most satisfying thing about playing the tuba in the Cleveland Orchestra?
YS: This orchestra plays with a very beautiful sound, like chamber music. I don’t need to play with a big sound, but instead with a very pure and controlled sound. The brass section is in very good condition and I am very comfortable in the ensemble. I have a good relationship with the bass trombonist, Thomas Klaber, and our intonation is very good. This is very important for the orchestra, because if we are playing long tones out of tune, it is very stressful for the rest of the orchestra. It is very comfortable.
DZ: It is a nice feeling, when you don’t have to work hard at matching.
YS: Yes, it is a wonderful thing!
DZ: Are you doing much teaching these days?
YS: I teach at Baldwin-Wallace and Cleveland State University.
DZ: Do you do much teaching away from those universities?
YS: I don’t have much teaching experience in the US. If someone asks to study with me they are welcome, but so far I don’t have many of these students.
DZ: I think that you are a bit of a mystery to people in the United States! I’m not sure that people know you as Yasuhito, but instead as the Japanese fellow who plays in the Cleveland Orchestra! I think that as time goes on, I’m sure that you will have many more students.
YS: Actually, I am very comfortable just practicing and working on my own playing.
DZ: What do you find yourself practicing these days?
YS: Most of the time, maintenance. I practice the repertoire that is upcoming and some solo literature. I just try to stay in shape!
DZ: Have you had the opportunity to do solo recitals since you’ve been in the States?
YS: No, but maybe in the future! I have to say that I am not such a good solo player. I am just okay!
DZ: (laughter) I’m sure you are just being modest and that you are a wonderful solo player!
YS: No, no, no! There are many wonderful tuba soloists! Benjamin Pierce, Øystein Baadsvik, Sergio Carolino. Many great players. While I don’t play many solos, I do play chamber music with members of the orchestra.
DZ: What are your interests outside of music?
YS: I like to exercise. I like to jog and swim… and drink. (laughter!)
DZ: If you were not a musician, what do you think that you would like to do for a living?
YS: If I were not a musician, I’d like to be a coffee master!
DZ: Do have any exciting concerts coming up?
YS: St. Saens Organ Symphony and Til Eulenspiegel are coming up in the next few weeks.
DZ: As part of this new column on orchestral players, we are interested in learning about their priorities and strategies in approaching a specific excerpt from the standard repertoire. Are there any pieces that you’d like to talk about?
YS: Sure, I’d like to talk about Die Walküre! I have noticed with tuba players in particular that they tend to listen only for the tuba playing on recordings. They need to listen more to the important things that the other instruments such as the horns and violins are playing. With the “Ride of the Valkyries,” different conductors will ask for different kinds of energy on the notes that follow the sixteenth note. Some conductors will want the next eighth to be very long, while others will want it short. Some conductors will want the breath to be after the first dotted quarter, while others will want the breath to be on the bar line. (sings) Some conductors will ask for an obvious accent on the downbeat. For auditions, it is really important to keep things very normal or very simple. There is no need to show off, no need to play with a sound that is too big. Do you know what I am saying?
DZ: Yes! I always tell my students that the person who will win the audition will be the one who makes it the easiest for the committee members to hear their own parts in their heads while they are playing. So I agree that keeping it simple is for the best.
DZ: I think that tuba players get in the mindset that they want to play passages such as “The Ride” the way that most tuba players or bass trombone players would like to hear it. This may have absolutely nothing to do with the way that the people who are in a position to hire you would like to hear it played!
YS: Yes. Most tuba players love to play loudly. And then, when they talk to their friends or students in the audience, they say, “Did you hear me? Did my sound get out? How was my sound?” The response they seem to want to hear is “I heard you all the time! You play with such a big sound!” What I would like my friends or students say to me is, “I didn’t always hear your sound, but you blended beautifully with the orchestra!”
DZ: Very good. Well, I really appreciate you spending some time chatting with me today. It was great to learn more about you and I really look forward to hearing you play.
YS: Thank you. It was my pleasure.