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Tuba players get their annual chance to shine

More than 100 tuba players showed up for Tuba Christmas Los Angeles, the oldest Tuba Christmas in California.
More than 100 tuba players showed up for Tuba Christmas Los Angeles, the oldest Tuba Christmas in California.
Susan Valot/KQED

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If you don't play tuba or know a tuba player, you may not know that in the month of December, California hosts nine "Tuba Christmas" events. The Tuba Christmas at Disney is the biggest, but the one in LA is the oldest. That's the one Susan Valot took in for the California Report.

You can’t miss Linda McLaurin. She’s wearing an elf hat, complete with pointy ears. The former tuba player just picked up the instrument again about six months ago. And on a recent Sunday in Los Angeles, she took part in her first concert: Tuba Christmas Los Angeles.

“Even if I mess up, you’re not going to hear it. If I’m out of tune, you’re not going to hear it,” McLaurin said as she sat on an auditorium stage amid tubas warming up. “It’s a really good way to get back in on ensemble playing somehow, but realizing, ‘You know, if I make a mistake, it’s not bad because I’m not going to be the only one.’ But people are here to have fun, and that’s what I’m out to do is have fun.”

McLaurin said she likes the fact that Tuba Christmas puts tubas in the spotlight.

“A lot of people think it’s not very popular and this and that, but when you come in here and see the camaraderie of a lot of people and everybody hunking away on their super-low instruments, it’s just no real way to describe it,” McLaurin said. “A lot of people don’t even realize what you can get out of a tuba because I think they’re so programmed to thinking you just play Souza marches and play the ups and downs like a string bass or something, not realizing the potential of it.”

Famous tuba player Harvey Phillips started Tuba Christmas with the first concert at Rockefeller Center in New York City in 1974. There are now more than 200 Tuba Christmas concerts nationwide, including nine in California.

Tuba Christmas L.A. is the oldest in California. It started two years after the original Tuba Christmas.

“Part of the core reason that Harvey Phillips started Tuba Christmas is because he realized that the tuba is not that popular, that the tuba player in the orchestra typically sits there for measures of rest and measures of rest and finally gets a note,” said Tuba Christmas L.A. leader Scott Wilkinson with a laugh. “And that’s what Tuba Christmas is about – to liberate the soul of the tuba at this time of year.”

Wilkinson said tubas create a mellow, “glorious” sound that teams well with Christmas songs.

“It’s unlike any other instrument,” Wilkinson said. “For example, I can’t imagine ‘Oboe Christmas’ or ‘Flute Christmas.’  It just wouldn’t be the same.  There’s a mellowness and a majesty to the tuba.”

More than 100 tubas of all shapes and sizes filled the stage -- some draped with glittery garland and even one wrapped up like a present.

They launch into one familiar Christmas tune after another, playing each one twice. The first time is only tubas. The second time, a singer leads the crowd in a sing-along with the tubas.

Bob Beecher sits in the front row, wearing a Christmas tree hat, green scarf and red shirt.

“It’s just fun to get together and play,” Beecher said. “And the fact that it’s a free concert for everybody to come in.  The audience gets to sing along. It’s just a great, joyous kind of concert to play.”

Beecher has played more than a half dozen Tuba Christmases over the years.

“When we’re all together, it’s kind of a thunderous, wonderful sound,” he said. “If we get off, it’s something else. It sounds like stampeding elephants almost.”

Jeff Hutchins and his 80-year-old dad have been coming to Tuba Christmas L.A. every year since it started, after Jeff came home with a flyer from school about the concert.

“When I first started, I was … eight, nine years old, and I was just overwhelmed by the sound when we were practicing of all these huge tubas around me, and I said, ‘This is amazing. I’ve never heard anything like this,’” Hutchins said. “So here we are.”

Last year, Jeff Hutchins started bringing his son, who’s now 10-years-old. The three generations play together.

“It’s always fun every year,” the younger Dylan Hutchins said. “I love playing my tuba.”

Stephen Klein leads the Tuba Hanukkah portion of the show each year.  It’s something that’s been included since Tuba Christmas L.A. began.

“There are people who’ve been coming to this for many, many years – generations of families who come to this to listen,” Klein said. “You know, it’s become part of L.A. tradition.”

Eureka, Fresno, Riverside, Sacramento, San Pedro (L.A.), Santa Barbara and Ventura all hosted Tuba Christmases earlier this month.

Anaheim will host the largest in the state December 22 and expected to attract about 500 tuba players to Downtown Disney for an outdoor concert.

Tuba Christmas L.A. is the only one of the Tuba Christmases nationwide to have top professional players join in. Many have links to Hollywood.

“It was really surprising,” said Mary Batenhorst, whose husband persuaded her to come watch the show with some friends. “I just thought, ‘Oh my gosh! They really sound like an orchestra.’ I couldn’t get over that!”

Wilkinson says this year’s show was bittersweet, given this month’s deadly school shooting in Connecticut.

“I’ve gotten a number of emails from people who’ve said, ‘I’m so glad you’re doing this. I’m going to come because I need to feel something positive, some hope, some happiness in the face of this horrible thing that happened,’” Wilkinson said. “What I hope people come away with from Tuba Christmas this year is a sense of hope.”

Wilkinson mentioned the shooting during the concert, talking about the healing power of music.

Tuba Christmas volunteer Cheryl McMillan -- who’s playing in her 34th Tuba Christmas L.A. -- says with that hope comes friendships and traditions that are renewed every year.

“Even though we don’t have anything else, we have this in common.  And it’s just an amazing thing to feel like you’re part of something big,” McMillan said.

“And we get to see Santa Claus every year, too. Santa does play the tuba!  Nobody knew!” McMillan laughs.