Sam Green: Teacher, Tubist and Friend
by Tom Coffey
Until it changed hands in May of 2005, Swamy’s Mayura was the only Indian restaurant in Cincinnati with its own resident tubist. The Cincinnati landmark featured the image of a peacock in a stained glass window (Mayura means “peacock” in the Indian dialect spoken by founder Swamy Sunkara) and terrifically spicy original Indian food inside. But the Mayura was famous among brass players in Cincinnati for a different reason. On any given night of the week, Sam Green, legendary tubist of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra from 1943 to 1978, and a fifty year member of the adjunct faculty of the College-Conservatory of Music, was likely to be holding court at the bar in the restaurant’s front room.
On the credenza near the front door, visitors were greeted by a newly colorized picture of Mr. Green with his Sander tuba. The original picture was taken for publicity purposes in the 1940s and colorized by Mayura regular David Crislip a few years ago. The original tuba was made in Wolfstein Pfaltz, Germany by Rudolph Sander in 1903. The original tubist, however, defies any sort of summary written description. Sam Green is the sort of character who inspires respect, admiration, envy, and the endless “re-tellings,” mostly by former orchestra colleagues and students, of some of the most interesting stories of musical life ever to emerge from the back row of a major orchestra.
Sam is eighty-five years old now, having been born in Oregon in 1920. He doesn’t look like the stereotypical tuba player, which is appropriate, because Sam is not “typical” in any sense of the word. First of all, Sam is rather diminutive for a master of the largest horn in the brass family, standing now at about 5’2”. He is still recuperating from surgery to repair a bleeding ulcer in 2004, and he sometimes uses a walker to get around, although he resents this intrusion on his mobility. He no longer needs the thick glasses he wore for most of his life, because eye surgery for cataracts a few years ago left him, for the first time in his adult life, with nearly perfect vision. But more than anything else, Sam is notable for the incredible verve with which he lives every moment.
Sam Green pictured with his niece
Sam has always been direct to the point of bluntness, and many of his students can attest to his habit of calling things as he saw (or heard) them. He peppers his speech with the kind of descriptive adjectives that make the timid blanch and cause the experienced to chuckle. But more than anything, Sam is the embodiment of a real rarity: the person who lives every moment to the fullest, treats everyone as his friend, and has precious few regrets.
Starting in Music
Sam moved from Oregon, a place he loved, to New York City when he was thirteen years old. Sam’s father was no longer in the picture, and money was very scarce in 1933. Sam had few opportunities to enjoy his teenage years in New York, because economic survival was always tenuous.
However, Sam had an incredible desire to play music. He learned the euphonium at school, and met Simone Mantia, principal trombonist of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, through a friend. Mantia listened to Sam play, and told him he would have a great career in a military band. When Sam said the military did not appeal to him, Mantia recommended that he become an orchestral tubist.
Sam pictured with an unknown colleague
Sam attended the High School of Commerce near the present site of The Juilliard School. The band director there encouraged Sam to borrow the school’s E-flat tuba. Sam asked the director to get him the music for the Mozart Third Horn Concerto in E-flat. The director was so impressed with Sam’s playing of this piece that he arranged for Sam to play it during an audition at Juilliard.
Sam was accepted at Juilliard and studied with Fred “Fritz” Geib. However, he also met and studied with Bill Bell. Mr. Bell taught Sam on credit, and when Sam won the Cincinnati Symphony job, he faithfully repaid Mr. Bell from his earnings. Mr. Bell, of course, had held that same chair in Cincinnati several years prior to Sam’s appointment, and Sam was especially honored to fill his teacher’s old position for thirty-five years.
Sam Green pictured at Riverfront Stadium (Cincinnati, Ohio)
Sam has worked with a cavalcade of American musical giants. One of his first paying gigs was playing second tuba in a performance, without a rehearsal, of Berlioz’s Symphony Fantastique. The orchestra was the NBC Symphony Orchestra. The principal tubist was Sam’s teacher and friend, Bill Bell. The conductor was Arturo Toscanini. Another distinction in Sam’s career was being the very first tubist to play Aaron Copeland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, which was commissioned by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and premiered during Sam’s first season with the Orchestra.
One of many banquets held for CSO contributors-supporters
Such moments seem incredible to those of us who were not around to witness that kind of musical history firsthand. However, the path to those opportunities was full of obstacles and unexpected problems. Sam literally almost died before auditioning for his first full time orchestra job.
Near the end of his stay at Juilliard, Sam became very ill from working constantly to make ends meet. Money for medicine was scarce, and an alert nurse saved his life by getting the medicine he needed into his hands. A good friend then arranged for Sam to get out of the city and recover while working at the Concord Hotel in the Catskill Mountains, playing string bass in the hotel band.
CSO promotional postcard
This should have been a great job, but it did not turn out that way. Sam was matinee-star handsome, and in fact bore a striking resemblance to Clark Gable. The owner of the hotel frequently took Sam off the bandstand to dance with the single female hotel guests, which embarrassed him greatly. Worse, the hotel’s resident entertainer, a cross-dressing female impersonator, developed a huge and unrequited crush on Sam. The other musicians thought it was hilarious to watch the actor chase Sam around the hotel, trying to kiss him! Sam was not amused, and went back to New York City.
Former principal players of the
CSO (Eugene Blee, trumpet, Michael
Hatfield, horn, Tony Chipurn, trombone,
Sam Green, tuba
The day he returned to the city, he stopped in at the Musician’s Union Hall to see what gigs might be had. The secretary said “Sam, what are you doing here? Eugene Goosens is auditioning tuba players for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra over at Carnegie Hall.”
Sam got his horn and rushed to Carnegie, hoping to be allowed to play. There were too many players on the list, and Sam was told to return the next day. Goosens asked Sam to play many excerpts from memory, which was a common audition practice at the time. Near the end of the session, he asked Sam to play as softly as possible. He then asked Sam to play very loudly, which he did.
Finally, Goosens asked Sam to play even louder. Sam thought that Goosens was certain to follow this with a further request for even more volume, so he held back a little sound in reserve. In his thick British accent, Goosens said “Thank heavens––for a moment I thought you were going to blast!” At age 23, Sam Green was hired as principal tubist of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.
Life in the Orchestra
World War II was in progress, and the Orchestra was a tense place. More than half of the Cincinnati musicians were German, and many spoke German at work. A sizeable minority of the musicians were French, adding to the wartime hostility in the ranks. In this already difficult atmosphere, Sam suffered mightily as “that little wise guy from New York.” This was a slap at Sam’s youth, his presumed Jewish heritage, and his sense of humor. Some of the musicians circulated nasty rumors about Sam’s supposed contempt for the musical standards of certain players, and caused the young tubist a lot of anxious moments.
Sam is quite the dog-lover, pictured
However, Sam’s high musical standards and unique point of view eventually won him many loyal friends in the orchestra. A clarinetist who sold cars convinced Sam to buy a car when he was thirty-five, and taught him to drive as part of the bargain. Sam played in the Goldman Band in New York in the summers at first, and then with the Cincinnati Opera, which imported singers from the Met. He taught at the College of Music (later the College-Conservatory of Music) and played in concert bands and quintets. Life was steadily improving, and Sam had a number of girlfriends, eventually including his steady companion, Edie Dearth, who died in 1984.
Sam pictured with Marie Speziale (trumpet) during a CSO tour in Greece
(Trumpeter Gene Blee approaching with trumpet)
Sam had several notable adventures on tour with the Orchestra, including playing the Pan Am theme for a television commercial in 1969. The commercial touted the airline’s selection as the official air carrier for the Orchestra’s world tour, because “it never missed a detail.” The last image was of Sam, sitting alone on the tarmac and playing the Pan Am theme music as the announcer intoned “well, almost never missed a detail.”
Sam’s physique was
Sam pictured with an unknown companion
A particularly well-known story about Sam has appeared in print before, but no article about Sam would be complete without it. The Orchestra was on tour in Texas, traveling by train. The train was delayed, the Orchestra was hours late to town, and there was no food to be had. The concert didn’t start until the Orchestra disembarked after nine o’clock, and Sam was ravenously hungry.
Sam with Sam Pilafian at Mayura’s in Cincinnati, Ohio (1993)
Sam’s appetite has always exceeded all reasonable bounds, and he was determined to be first out of the concert hall and into a restaurant. The encore was the Dvorak Symphonic Dances, which does not have a tuba part. Sam left the stage, sat his beloved Sander tuba down, and took off his tuxedo pants to change clothes and put his tux in his case under the horn.
At that moment, backstage and pantsless, Sam heard the Orchestra launch into its unannounced second encore: Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin. This, of course, featured the tuba extensively, but there was no time to replace the pants before the solo. Seizing the day, and the curtain, Sam inserted the bell of the horn through a gap in the drapery and played the part from memory, at tremendous volume, while standing backstage in his tails, black shoes and socks, and boxer shorts. The stagehands, and several of Sam’s colleagues, were convulsed with laughter, and the oldtimers have reveled in the retelling for years. The best part is that it is true!
Sam Green as a Teacher
Sam’s teaching was heavily dominated by the concepts of resonant tone quality and singing style. Sam demanded a perfectly resonant tone at all times. He played frequently during lessons, and it was the rare student who could ever play as resonantly as the teacher. Consequently, Sam Green’s playing could cut through the Orchestra with ease, even on his compact Sander CC tuba. Sam nearly never used the F tuba, but had a tremendously high range on the Sander.
Several students, including the author of this article, were required to play only one note for a week or more in our first lessons, to focus on open tone quality and rich, dark sound. After one full week of B-flat for two hours or more per day, the privilege of adding F to the repertoire was indescribably wonderful. For many of us, this paid dividends later in full-time or part-time professional work.
Sam, as a teacher, was obsessed with the concept of melody and the art of singing. His playing was modeled closely on the art of opera singing. Sam has an exceptionally resonant voice, and he always insisted that his students sing difficult parts before playing them. Phrasing, breathing, and expression were all to be modeled on the human voice. Sam’s teaching focused far more on song than on wind.
Sam believes in leaving no space between notes. He also believes in tremendous variations in volume, attack, and intensity to create interest in the music. Sam required all of his students to play the simple melodies in the Arban trumpet method expressively, especially the operatic excerpts. He cared far more about the ability to play these melodies convincingly than about the “tu tu ka tut” technique of the themes with variations. However, Sam was also an expert at teaching the double and triple tonguing style made famous by Bill Bell.
CSO publicity photos
Many of Sam’s students have gone into distinguished playing and teaching careers. Notable examples include Scott Watson, Jamie Hafner, Paul Conrad, Bruce Knapp, Kim Trytten, Tim Olt, Bob Bass, David Freedy, and current Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra tubist Mike Thornton, each of who is known for fine playing and tremendous teaching. Sam also taught former Cleveland Opera and Ballet Orchestra tubist John Tabeling, Dayton tubist Steve Winteregg, Cincinnati Symphony Bass Trombonist Pete Norton, Cleveland Orchestra Bass Trombonist Tom Klaber, and Conservatory of Music theory professor Bob Zieroff.
Sam insisted that his students play aggressively, but treat each other as friends and colleagues. Sam is as proud of his students’ generosity and collegiality as he is of their playing acumen. Former students such as David Borosvold, who went on to a distinguished conducting career, often credit Sam with instilling a sense of musicality that transcended the instrument itself. Almost twenty tubists attended Sam’s eighty-fifth birthday party in Cincinnati, and many former students renewed old friendships there.
Sam was, until quite recently, an excellent tennis player. He has always been physically fit and very active. The close friendship he formed with Swamy Sunkara, the creative force behind the Mayura restaurant, was formed on the tennis court and has brought Sam a renewed sense of family. Swamy and his wife, Sally, who is also a well-known Cincinnati restaurateur, include Sam in the active life of their family, and he is a proud partner in the Cactus Pear North Restaurant.
Sam counts Abe Torchinksy (another student of Bill Bell and a contemporary of Sam’s), Paul Krywswicki, Don Harry, and Herb Weksellblat all as good friends. Sam is a great admirer of Gene Pokorny of the Chicago Symphony and cherishes phone calls with Gene. Sam also knew Arnold Jacobs, August Helleberg, and many other significant American tubists.
One of Sam’s closest friends is his former colleague, Betty Glover. Mrs. Glover, who now lives in France, was the bass trombonist in the Cincinnati Symphony for most of Sam’s tenure. They shared similar concepts of sound and musicality, and prized teamwork as coanchors of the low brass. Same shared many of his memories of the orchestra with historian Carole Nowicke, whose oral histories of Sam and other great players are available at Indiana University and ITEA’s website (www.iteaonline.org).
The author of this article studied with Sam as a high school student in 1975–1977, as a college student from 1977–1981, and again as an adult professional in 2000–2004. Focal dystonia ended my tuba playing, but cannot diminish the lessons about music and life I learned at Sam’s side. To play on a level acceptable to Sam ultimately required knowledge of life and the human condition that illuminated and informed the musician far beyond the technical basics of playing the horn.
From Sam, my contemporaries and I learned about friendship, decency, compassion, dedication, persistence, disappointment, redemption, and grace under pressure. Sam taught us the value of humor and the importance of perspective. At age eighty-five, Sam still inspires his students, encourages his friends, and patiently explains that the dotted eighth note must get its full value every time, even if the sixteenth note after it is harder to play that way. In every detail, Sam finds a lot of life to be lived. No one could ask for a better example, a more dedicated mentor, or a truer friend.
Here’s to you, Sam Green: May each day be an octave better than the one before it, and may each of us walk a little of our own path in your illustrious footsteps!
About the Author… Thomas W. Coffey is a 1981 graduate of the College-Conservatory of Music in Cincinnati. He is a member of AFM Local #1 in Cincinnati. He is also a lawyer who heads the bankruptcy practice at Tucker Ellis & West LLP in Cleveland, Ohio. Mr. Coffey studied tuba with Sam Green and Gene Pokorny. back to top
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