It’s Tuba-tastic! Holiday Tuba Concert on the University of Iowa Pentacrest

Tubists bundle up for the annual tuba celebration on the University of Iowa Pentacrest. (Photo: YouTube Dec. 13, 2010)

Tubas and Christmas and Hawkeyes, oh my! It’s time for the annual Holiday Tuba Concert, a beloved Iowa City tradition dating back to the 1970s that brings the University of Iowa Tuba and Euphonium Ensemble to the steps of the Old Capitol Museum.

At this year’s concert, on Friday, December 7, at 12:30-1 p.m., you’ll hear new takes on traditional favorites such as “Frosty the Snowman” and “Its Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,”  plus a jolly Iowa-themed mash-up and favorites from holiday movies. The concert is free, but visitors are invited to bring a new, unwrapped toy to donate to a local charity. Following the performance, visitors are invited to warm up inside the museum to enjoy cider and cookies.

John Manning, associate professor of tuba and euphonium at the University of Iowa and ringleader of the annual event, kindly answered our questions.

Tell us how the tuba concert tradition began.

Robert Yeats, my predecessor, started the tradition of performing an outdoor concert on the last day of the fall semester on the steps of the Old Capitol Building. I’m not sure what prompted the idea, but I seem to recall him telling me he was inspired by some outdoor concerts at Eastman School of Music. There is also a long-standing tradition in the tuba community called “Tuba Christmas,” which was founded by Harvey Phillips in honor of his teacher William Bell, who was born on December 25 in Creston, Iowa, and went on to play in the New York Philharmonic.

Tubist with gloves (Photo: YouTube Dec. 13, 2010)

I inherited Holiday Tubas in 2004, which included music arranged by former Iowa students, so since it didn’t use the “Tuba Christmas” music, it was never affiliated with that tradition. Although we respect it, and some of my students also participate in some of the Tuba Christmas events in the area, we are also quite proud of our unique Iowa City tradition of gathering on the Pentacrest to hear “Holiday Tubas.”

Are there that many tuba players in Iowa City? Where do all the musicians come from?

The tuba and euphonium studio usually consists of between 8-12 students, and they comprise the core of the ensemble. We welcome any tuba, euphonium, or sousaphone players to join us, including members of the Iowa City community and alumni. Most of the musicians are local, and several players have been participating for 20 or more years.

Do you rehearse beforehand?

The University of Iowa tuba/euphonium ensemble (called Collegium Tubum) rehearses once or twice, but anyone is welcome to just show up and sightread the music.

Do you play the same carols each year, or do you add new songs? Anything special on the program this year?

We play most of the same music each year. Over the past 14 years, my students and I have made some small changes to old arrangements and have arranged new pieces that have become a permanent part of our repertoire.

Holiday Tuba Concert: the view from the steps. (Photo: YouTube Dec. 13, 2010)

Last year the alum who had arranged most of the original music tragically passed away, so I arranged a beautiful slow song called “The Beautiful Day” from the musical Scrooge and dedicated it to his memory.

For the past few years, we’ve been starting with a mash-up of the “Iowa Fight Song” and “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” which were both written by Iowa composer Meredith Wilson. We also play a mash-up which combines “The Dreydl Song” with “Jingle Bells.” My favorite is “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.”

Does the event raise funds for a charity?

A few years ago we started requesting our audience to bring toys to donate to charity, and this year we are partnering with the Domestic Violence Intervention Project and will be donating the toys to their Holiday Shop.

How difficult is it to play the tuba? What is it like to play a large, booming instrument like that? Why are musicians drawn to it?

Compared to the other brass instruments, the tuba and euphonium are a little easier because the mouthpiece is larger, although they require a lot of air. Playing the tuba is fun; it can provide the bass line, the harmony, or the melody, and it often serves as the foundation for the rest of the band or orchestra. I think initially everyone is drawn to the tuba for the visual impact of its size and shininess.

How do the musicians stay warm? The high on Friday is only 24 degrees. Is there a certain temperature below which you just can’t play?

There have been a few years where it was extremely cold and windy, which of course makes it a challenge just to stand outside. But at extreme temperatures close to zero, the valves can freeze and render the instrument fairly useless. When it is very cold, we rotate going back inside the Old Capital Museum to warm up and thaw out the valves and go back outside for the next tune.

Who has more fun, the musicians or the audience?

I like to think that everyone has fun. It’s always so nice to see so many people turn out to listen, especially when families bring children.