J.c. Sherman will be the solo tubist for the Ralph Vaughan Williams tuba concerto at our next performance. We asked J.c. five questions during an interview. He was nice enough to give us his thoughts on these questions.
- When did you start playing music and when did you start playing the tuba specifically?
- When did you know that you wanted to head in toward being a musician as a profession and what drove that for you?
- You have a connection with the orchestra. What is your connection besides guest soloist?
- The Vaughan Williams is probably the most well-known tuba concerto. What’s your take on it?
- You also repair instruments and build them from scratch. They are beautiful. Which gives you more satisfaction playing or building instruments?
When did you start playing music and when did you start playing the tuba specifically?
I started when I was ten with piano lessons; my first band instrument was the flute. I took flute lessons for six years. The tuba came into the picture from the lack of social acceptance of being a male flautist, and at a certain point – around 8th grade – I went to the band director and begged for anything else. She handed me a “baritone,” a nice little Olds euphonium.
When we moved to Washington, I already knew how to play a flute, some clarinet from my sister, a little saxophone, a little horn, a little euphonium… so when the band director asked, “what do you play?” I answered “what do you want?” And my mom backhanded me for being cocky.
But he gave me a small tuba YBB-103 (Yamaha) tuba. I locked myself in a room to practice for a few days. I started to realize that the kid who was helping me wasn’t really going to be of that much help. I didn’t have any preconceived notions about the tuba; I kinda liked it. The first kid I knew who played tuba when I lived in California, before moving to Washington, was a great player for his age. I was one of the better flute players in the band to start, and I had every reason to expect that I should come out playing the tuba at the same level I played the flute. And – apparently – that was novel idea.
I didn’t come out of the practice room until I could do everything on the tuba that I could do on the flute. Nobody gave me any preconceived notion that the tuba is anything but an absolute equal to the flute.
Apparently, that is a unique opportunity that I was given.
When did you know that you wanted to head in toward being a musician as a profession and what drove that for you?
In the end of my junior year, in Woodinville, Washington. A group of schools put together a trip to Europe every few years. My little sister and I went on the trip. At the time, I was entertaining the idea that I would be an architect or something of that nature.
I was already playing in the Everett Symphony [now Philharmonic] with Paul-Elliott Cobbs. And I had the occasional gig in a big band here and there. But for whatever reason my brain didn’t consider it.
When we were traveling in Hamburg, I forgot my comb on a little boat that we took on a tour of the canals. I ran back to get my comb, the most inexpensive and useless thing to go back for, and the bus left without me.
One of the conductors realized that I hadn’t made the bus and got off to come get me. His name was Tam Osborne. I don’t know if he is still working in the area, but I got to ask him questions like “Why did you decide to be a professional musician?” And he gave me the best answer, “You don’t go into music because you want to. You go in because you have to!”
I hadn’t really thought of that in those terms. I had also just come from having one of the most moving musical moments ever, seeing an actual mass at Notre Dame (cathedral) in Paris with a full choir and the congregation singing, and that amazing pipe organ of Notre Dame ripping my hair out by the follicles! Getting to hear this music and thinking about how hard wired for music I am… my father sang around me all the time, there was music around me all the time… I realized I’m not going to be happy unless I do this!
It just had never entered my mind, but getting to ask Tam Osborne, “Why did you do this? Are you glad you did it,” was a turning point. From then on, I got a good horn. I focused more. And with a lot of help, I got into Oberlin.
You have a connection with the orchestra. What is your connection besides guest soloist?
Matt Stoecker (1st trombone KCO). We met at Oberlin where he was year ahead of me. He was a microbiology and trombone major. I went to and played on his senior recital; he came to my junior recital.
Kirkland (the city) I remember because it’s right down the street from Woodinville, where I went to junior high and high school. It was Northshore Junior High School, but the last time I was in the area it seemed to be razed. There may be a new junior high now. Kirkland was one of our focal points. My father loves Izumi Sushi so I know the area well.
But Matt Stoecker and I have known each other since 1989 and shortly thereafter he managed to get me to buy a J.W. Pepper “Surprise” trombone from him. We both had this love for old instruments. If you know Stoecker as I know you do, you know that he is a persuasive man!
He’s the only person I know who had 40 people on his senior recital! He played Thomas Tallis’ Spem in Alium, which is a 40-part motet. Matt arranged it for 16 trumpets, 16 trombones and 8 tubas. In the tiny little town of Oberlin, whose tuba studio consisted of 3 people, getting 8 tuba players together … not only did he just assume he could, but he did! We’re talking alumni, the electronic music teacher, my teacher, an English student… he found all these people and managed to materialize an ensemble twice the size of the conservatory’s resources for his recital.
Matt has heard me play the Vaughan Williams when I was a rehearsal tubist for Dave Stull (current president of the San Francisco Conservatory). He had won a concerto competition for the symphonic band at Oberlin. Matt always remembered it. He loves all things brass and he and I have been dear friends forever.
At one point, he said “we have to get you out here.” He had told me about the Microsoft Orchestra for years. Matt mentioned that Jim Truher really likes English music, and again “we really need to get you out here.” I said that I would love it. I love the Vaughan Williams. I’d happily do that.
I credit Matt’s powers of persuasion.
The Vaughan Williams is probably the most well-known tuba concerto. What’s your take on it?
I’ll never understand the ire that people leveled upon it initially for having written the piece for tuba; they were almost mad at him for the second movement. Why he didn’t write it for a different instrument? But he was a capitalist, and also said that you can play it on cello and bassoon.
The second movement is definitely a highlight for me; it is just so lyrical! And as I am preparing it this time, I made a switch. Normally I play it on an Eb tuba; I’m a weird person and I always played it on that instrument. But I usually tour with my F tuba, and it’s written for F tuba, and this would give me a chance to take a fresh look at a piece that I have known since 1987. It was time to have a fresh look at it!
Looking at the second movement again, every recording I have is actually slower than the marked tempo. When you up it just a bit, you get something that is much more like an English Folk song, like someone who is almost singing with abandon with increasing passion, and I love that!
There’s an article written by the great Philip Catelinet, who premiered the work. It was published in T.U.B.A. magazine way back when. He talks about the jocular nature of the beginning. He said that the beginning tells its own story. In the beginning: yes, it’s a tuba concerto. You’re going to laugh, but it’s ok to do so. He very smartly takes that and slowly draws us into a more and more serious vein.
The last movement is something that is almost a difficult sell. It’s almost ferocious. It is incredibly technical, incredibly fast. More importantly, it is tiring due the range that it sits in. But, being in that range, it makes the tuba more clear, more tactile. It allows us to display our virtuosity with a little bit more facility for a listener to make out all the notes. It’s really brilliant in that.
The second movement is the highlight. Re-examining the piece all over again when I switched tubas, I’m picking slightly different tempi than I’ve done in the past. I’m really finding a new place for his usual folk song approach to it and not just in the second movement. The first and last movements have these moments where you can just burst into song. And it’s fun!
Switching tubas has made it a lot more fun to practice now.
You also repair instruments and build them from scratch. They are beautiful. Which gives you more satisfaction playing or building instruments?
I play almost all the ones I build. There is a certain joy to making an instrument speak for the first time, when you’ve made it. They are different kinds of satisfaction in some ways, but they are both art; they’re both personal expression.
Most of the instruments I make… occasionally I make them to order (somebody asks for an alto flugelhorn or a contrabass trombone – I’ve made many of those!). But when I get to say “I want to make something,” those are really, really rewarding moments because it brings both things to life.
I get the opportunity to be the first person to play this thing, and I am holding something that I, most likely, burned myself and bled into. Given my own nature in the shop, I seem to cut myself and burn myself regularly.
Many people would compare it to “this is my baby; I’ve brought a child forth,” or something. It’s a little bit different. I think it’s got to be akin to being able to sort of physically experiencing a painting you just made. You just created this thing from nothing. And then you get to go a step further. That’s really rewarding!
But admittedly, and in the next two weeks my wife will be able to verify, that I’m a bit of a diva when it comes time to perform. I love playing. I love being a solo tubist almost more than anything.
It’s funny; I play a lot of different instruments in an orchestra. In an orchestra, I almost prefer bass trombone, though most of my work is on tuba. But, my solo voice has always been the tuba. Ironically, it’s eventually why I faded away from the flute. I still love playing the flute; I still have several. Probably my most important influence as a tuba player is Jean-Pierre Rampal, the flautist, but now I express myself on the tuba instead of flute.
Every time you perform as a soloist on the tuba, it’s like you got something off your chest that you didn’t have any other way to say.
Interview on March 1, 2017
by Francis X. Langlois – “regular” tuba player in the KCO