Remembering Mel Culbertson

Remembering Mel Culbertson 

A Man of Superlatives

Mel Culbertson lived a full life brimming with love and laughter. Mel loved his family, his friends and his students, and he received great amounts of love in return.

Mel Culbertson was not as well known in the United States as he was in Europe, but he was certainly well known to students of Arnold Jacobs. When a student would ask Mr. Jacobs for his opinion on who was the best tuba player he had ever heard, he would invariably answer: Mel Culbertson.

Mel Culbertson
Mel Culbertson

Thus when Mel came to hear a concert in Paris that I was playing in 1985, I was very excited to get to meet him. He seemed surprised both by the fact that I had heard of him and also by how I had heard of him! Mel invited me to a restaurant after the concert and we began what was to be a 26-year-long friendship. In all our subsequent meetings and telephone calls we struck up the conversation as if there had been no lapse.

Mel was a man of superlatives–a man of tremendous energy. He was a wonderful tuba player, inspirational teacher, important supporter of new music and composers, tireless supporter of better designs for tubas, mouthpieces, mutes, etc. He was very interested in furthering the state of the art in all its various guises. I’ll never forget the time he excitedly called me to see if I would be interested in helping him develop an Aerophor!

Mel was one of the most generous and caring people I have known. My wife and I stayed with Mel at his beautiful house outside Bordeaux during a vacation in 1995. A mutual friend and former student, Anne Jelle Visser (of the Zurich Opera), was there at the same time. We had a marvelous week of eating, drinking, swimming and general merrymaking. When Mel discovered that Anne Jelle’s girlfriend was on tour to France and was a “mere” eight hours away by car, we all headed off to visit her. Of course, this meant not only several fine meals en route, it also entailed a visit to the city of Cognac. We abducted Anne Jelle’s girlfriend, brought her back to Bordeaux, and Mel drove her back the next day!

Mel was a gourmand and a gourmet. His love of food and wine was infectious, and we shared many an hour at the table together. He introduced me to the glories of Sauternes with foie gras. With all due respect to my grandmothers, his fried gizzards were the only delicious gizzards I have known. Mel inculcated in me a lifelong love of all things duck.

Over the years, Mel and I stayed in contact mostly by telephone, only occasionally seeing each other in Chicago, Lyon, Bordeaux or when serendipity brought us together. I enjoyed all our times together and am sad that they have come to an end. Mel’s students held a retirement celebration after his final day of teaching in Lyon. I couldn’t attend the party, but his students arranged a telephone call so that I could congratulate him. We spoke for a while, and he was of course overflowing with ideas and plans for the future. As usual, he was bursting with energy. He told me of his plans to return to the US and of his plans to open up a concert venue. Years ago, Mel had wanted for Jens Bjørn Larsen and me to join him on a Viking ship cruise, and we rued the fact that this had not yet come to pass.

Of course, any mention of Mel would be incomplete if one failed to mention his students. Mel was not only a tireless supporter of his students, but also a mentor and a friend. His students occupy some of the most prestigious positions in the world, and his students will carry on his teaching philosophy and techniques. Although I never had a lesson with him, I learned a great deal from watching him teach, from listening to his marvelous students, and from our conversations. I admired Mel as a world class musician, tuba player and teacher. I learned very much from him, but had much more to learn.

Mel Culbertson
Mel cooking for his wife Susan’s birthday, 2010

and there is one common thread that runs through all the stories: life. All the stories are overflowing with life and love and laughter. To reminisce about Mel is to become lively and animated. He had this quality of bringing out the life in all those around him.

When I spoke with Sue on the day of Mel’s funeral, we spoke quite a bit about Mel–the Mel she knew and loved and the Mel I knew and loved. That man lives on in the hearts and minds of the ones he loved. I am grateful to have known Mel, to have enjoyed parts of our lives together, to have learned from him, and to have learned to see the world a little differently because of him. I miss him and will miss him.

-Rex Martin

Mel Culbertson
Culbertson with Richard Nahatzki in the Miraphone office.


Experiencing the Musician, Mel Culbertson

I cannot write an obituary for Mel Culbertson, a thing he would have hated anyway, because his achievements speak for themselves. Others will more eloquently extol his undoubted virtues as a musician and teacher. I knew him simply as a friend, one I shall miss.

We first made contact by telephone in 1979, or maybe it was 1980. I was the young new tuba player in the BBC Symphony Orchestra in London. One day, I received a call at home from some American guy I had never heard of, asking if I could come to Paris that week to play second tuba to him in the French Radio Orchestra, to play some piece by someone else I hadn’t heard of. At first, of course, I thought this was a hoax, until he said, ‘John Fletcher can’t do it, and he told me to call the guy that’s stealing all his work…that’s you!..he gave me your number.’ We chatted then for a long time. Eventually I looked at the dates and confirmed what I had suspected: I had to work that week in the BBC. I had to stay in London. “What a shame; why don’t you try Jock Sinclair?; here’s the number.”

Mel Culbertson
With Gerhard Meinl, May 2011

About 10 years later I was invited to perform at the Sapporo ITEC. It was my first ITEC, and I didn’t know a soul apart a fun a team of ‘Brits,’ Steven Mead and the Childs Brothers. Suddenly, a stocky chap with slightly unkempt long hair came up to me and started talking at me. It took me a while to realize that he was talking about Jock Sinclair, and how good he had been in a gig in Paris, and what an awesome low register he had and how fantastic the Eb tuba was. ‘You must be Mel,’ I said. In that moment, it was clear to me that Mel was one of those ‘kindred spirits,’ someone you don’t see for years and with whom you pick up the conversation right where you left off.

I went to his recital. What were most impressive were not particularly the things most players worry about, like playing high, playing low; playing in tune or playing with a flashy technique. That was all there. But he didn’t seem to worry about them. He worried only about the music. You didn’t just listen to Mel Culbertson play, you experienced him play. And in the same way, when he taught, he engaged the student in an incredibly powerful way.

During the years that followed, Mel invited me several times to work with his students at the CNSM in Lyon, France. Each time we would talk and walk, visiting local bars and restaurants all over the old city. Then we would be back the next day in the studio, working with his students who hero-worshipped him.

I later engaged Mel to become International Chair of Brass at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, England. In doing this, I hoped Mel’s passion, enthusiasm and indeed love for playing would rub off on the students. And his passions did rub off although Mel, in his excitement, would sometimes forget where he was and teach entire lessons in French!

Most recently, out of the blue one morning, I received a call. ‘Hi, it’s Mel. I’m in Pittsburgh.’ I asked what he was doing in my new home town, to which he replied ‘buying a church. Let’s go see.’

I went the West End district of the city and there I met Mel and his brother Rick. The church was huge and very lovely. ‘I want to turn it into an kind of arts center to house my tubas, Harvey [Phillips’s] stuff…maybe do concerts and…you could rehearse here with your brass band. I’m going to live here.’ We agreed to proceed with the purchase as partners. It would be the Mel Culbertson/River City Brass Center, a small arts center for brass chamber music and other arts groups.

A few weeks later, I received a message that Mel had passed away. Of course, I added my condolences to all the others expressed on that day. But now, a few weeks later, as I write about him in the past tense for the first time, I’m thinking…buying a church isn’t so difficult. Maybe one day there could be a Mel Culbertson Center: A center of excellence in performance and teaching. He probably would have liked that…especially if there was a good restaurant inside!

James Gourlay

Gayle- if the following bit could go in a text box, perhaps with a shaded background, I think that would be nice, since its length and tone differs from the others.

Australia/New Zealand Misses Mel

Mel Culbertson first came down here for the first TubaMania International Conference in Sydney, 1995.  He returned in 1999 for the same, bringing us also some of his top students form Europe.  Mel’s students quickly raised the bar of expectation for our students down here. His impact on tuba playing in Australia/NZ has been extraordinary, from his muscle-ups exercises to his stunningly passionate and technically amazing performances. Even more, he affected us with his teaching, his warm heart, and the love he gave to all of us in the concert hall, the warm up rooms, and the restaurants and other social gatherings of these events.

Mel Culbertson
Culbertson, Dietrick Unkrodt, and Atsutaro Mizunaka

Many of our Australia/NZ students have since gone to Europe to study further with Culbertson, including my son Raphael.  Mel’s students, including myself, were not only his students but his children.  We learned more from him than just how to play a tuba or euphonium. We admire him, love him, and miss him. 

Thank you, Mel, from all of us Down Under.  You are with us forever.  You are a legacy, a legend, our hero.

-Steve Rosse

Mel CulbertsonMel Culbertson teaching a master class in the Czech Republic, 2010

Charismatic Tuba Professor, Maestro Mel Culbertson

“He passed away.”

July 23rd, 2011. Suddenly we received the shocking, deeply sad news that Mel had passed away. My teacher, Mel Culbertson, one of the greatest tuba players in the world, was only 65 years old.

Culbertson taught at the National Superior Conservatory in Lyon, France, just before his death. His contributions to the field of Tuba have been so significant and his presence so essential to the tuba world in France, in Europe and beyond. He often served as a competition jury member, professor of master classes, and performer of solo concerts. He used to fly around the world so much that it was almost impossible to keep track of his exact trajectory.

A short profile of Maestro Mel Culbertson’s professional life: Mel became tubist of the Ventura State Symphony Orchestra at age 14. He was the first student of Roger Bobo in Los Angeles. During the Vietnam War, he played with the West Point Academy Band. He then studied at the Juilliard School of Music. He also studied with Harvey Phillips and Arnold Jacobs. He organized recitals at Carnegie Hall. Zubin Mehta offered Mel the solo tuba position in his orchestra in Tel Aviv. However, due to the political unrest in the Middle East, Mel decided to go to Europe instead.

Mel CulbertsonOn the road in California and Colombia

Mel held the principal tuba chair with the following Orchestras: The Hague Symphony Orchestra, (Netherlands), France National Radio Philharmonic, and the Bordeaux-Aquitaine National Orchestra. Many other renowned European orchestras also invited him. Herbert von Karajan once claimed that “Mel plays the tuba like a great flutist !”

He taught at many universities and conservatoires across Europe including the National Superior Conservatory in Lyon, the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, England, and the Conservatory of Perpignan, France. He wrote a method book which is unpublished, but we are currently working to publish it with the help of his son David and some of his students in France.

Mel Culbertson
With Harumi Baba

When Mel first arrived in Europe, he came face to face with a very conservative musical culture. His new techniques and his unorthodox musical ideas were at first ridiculed. The education community didn’t accept that one could play the tuba as a solo instrument. He encountered great opposition from the establishment, including slander and even a year-long strike by some very jealous fellow tubists! He quickly became an iconoclast.

Mel made great efforts to commission works; in his lifetime he presented new works from over 50 composers. His latest project was a commission for Italian composer Luigi Nono, but he passed away before the project could begin. The critics of a half a century ago have been completely silenced by Mel’s single-minded passion for music. He left a great body of work that became engraved in the history of our instrument.

“Bring on the praise,” he said often to us, his students.  Or, “Everything is possible.” He always gave us a unique positive energy towards the realization of a dream. He taught lessons in a group. We would go to a cafe for a break, where Mel often started the ‘real’ lesson. One day, he began teaching circular breathing with straws in a beer, unaware it had been replaced with rum! Of course everyone got drunk very quickly. We returned to the Conservatory while lightheaded. “Valkyrie!” Mel bellowed, and we started into orchestral excerpts. If it went well – “GOOD! Let me hear it one more time, da capo!!” If it was bad, “NO da capo!!” It was non-stop work for physical and mental endurance. By the end of the day, we were stone-cold sober. We had a feeling of fullness, like after a completed mission. It was very refreshing.

Mel’s ethnic origins are not entirely clear, but he had told me many times that the Culbertson family had flowing Cherokee blood. Mel certainly had the skin pigment, and a high hooked nose. I once asked his brother Richard about this. Richard responded with a wink, said “probably,” and changed the subject. In any case, Mel embraced the Native American philosophy in his teaching. In many Native American communities, there is a custom to give away or to release. They don’t believe in a love of personal gain; they focus on the spirit of cooperation and the appreciation of their neighbor. There is no doubt that Mel did this in his lessons. He was always giving away- his smile, his music, and his love.

Mel Culbertson
With Fabien Wallerand

It is a rarity, but we can hear Mel performing “Solo Tuba Music” composed by Cort Lippe on the album “Neuma New Music Series Vol. 1.” We hear his sound and his voice on the text, transmitted with a clear sense of theatre. His youthful and energetic performance can still be heard today, fresh and untouched by the fading of time. Unfortunately, almost no other recordings were published. He once confided in me, “I tried but I don’t like my recorded sound – I’ll never say OK.” That’s Mel – he never compromised.

There is a complete set of human anatomy books on Mel’s bookshelf. To increase my efficiency, he always encouraged me to look seriously at how the body works and at what’s required to play the tuba. He also had a great collection of historic musical instruments. Often, as he looked at these instruments arranged around him, he became lost, deep in thought on instrument development. I found some great old instruments in his collection – for example, he had a relic from John Fletcher.

Mel gained fame later as a musical instrument development advisor, achieving success with B&S’s “Apollo” and “Neptune.” It seems that he still had some loose ends – only a few months ago, he told me some amazing ideas. As he is not here today, I will keep these ideas in my heart.

Many, many students visited his house, which is always open. I guess that meant little privacy for his family, but they were no fences and the Culbertsons were great hosts for young students with an excess of energy. He bought a house with a big yard and a pool, because he was thinking of his students. His students have won many international competitions and have achieved great professional successes.  Just a few are Stéphane Labeyrie (Orchestre de Paris), Sergio Finca (Spanish Brass), and Josef Bazinka (Budapest Festival Philharmony).

I was invited to Mel’s house many times. I saw that he cared deeply for his wife Susan, who did a wonderful job juggling his scheduling and management with her own career as a pianist. She was in charge of all that happened in that home. Mel told me laughing happily, “I can’t work without Sue. If all goes well, maybe I will be able to relax some after retirement. Don’t say a word to the Mrs.”

Last year, I was invited to Susan’s birthday with my wife. Mel looked so busy preparing the food and decorating the room, his dog Titan following him and waving his tail happily. My wife said with a smile “Love is full here!” Mel often bragged – “I’m a man that never sleeps.” The Culbertson phone rings yesterday from Spain, today from Britain, tomorrow from Russia. He had an incredible schedule, which sometimes pushed him to his personal limits.

Mel Culbertson and Harvey Phillips
With Harvey Phillips and students, 2002

Mel hated to go to the hospital and he had always said, “I will fall asleep in the garden at home; it will be better than ending up on a hospital bed.” But he spent three days in the hospital before slipping away.  He had enjoyed only two months of retirement.

Mel was not well known to the media because he would only pour his passion into his work. So many people may be able to speak better about Mel, but I am happy to use my words to tell the international community about the wonderful person that I know. We love him like a father who shows pity, like a brother who shows praise, like a teacher who teaches honor. A charismatic professor like Mel is rare, especially with such a warmth of personality. Over the last ten years, we have spoken so many times in restaurants or bars – I can’t remember the taste of the wine or the great food we were eating at that time, but I will remember always the good moments with him.

Mel Culbertson
With Shoichiro Hozakono and students

Finally, I would like to share my personal blessing here as a tribute to the deceased.

Mel, you always had a favorite phrase, “Everything can come true if you wish.” I was often encouraged by your voice when in hard times. You gave us many chances and we made great efforts to fulfill what you desired for us. Our wishes were answered, but Mel, was your wish answered? Your work doesn’t stop today; it will continue on forever from disciple to disciple. Your students demonstrate unanimously your talent as an educator. You reached the point that only the Great Masters reach.

Mel Culbertson
Mel Culbertson, 2010

Mel, thank you very much for everything. Je t’aime.
-Atsutaro Mizunaka
Principal Tuba, Orchestre National de Bordeaux-Aquitaine, France

Translated by:
Christopher Nery
Principal Bass Trombone, RTE Concert Orchestra Dublin, Ireland

Great Thanks to:
Susan & David Culbertson, Gerhard A. Meinl (President & CEO of B&S Groups), Arnaud Boukhitine (Ensemble Intercontemporain de Paris), Florian Coutet, Fabien Wallerand (Opéra de Paris), Sergio Finca (Spanish Brass), Oscar Abella (Orquesta Sinfónica de Euskadi), Ryunosuke Abe, Alisa Portellano, Richard Rimbert.

Mel Culbertson

Mel Culbertson

Mel Culbertson

Mel Culbertson

Editor’s note: For more biographical information and the long, impressive list of Mel Culbertson’s former students, visit www.meltuba.com.

Alan ‘Jock’ Sinclair was a top freelance player in London at the time, and later became principal tuba of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, England.