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July 2003 The Tuba World of Gene Pokorny, By Thomas Bough

In 1988 Sir Georg Solti appointed Gene Pokorny to succeed the venerable Arnold Jacobs as principal tuba player of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Pokorny previously played with the Israel, Utah, St. Louis, and Los Angeles Orchestras.
   Pokorny says of the audition process, “I first auditioned in Chicago after a previous audition had ended without the position being awarded to anybody. I heard other players practicing the Vaughan-Williams and the first Strauss horn concertos downstairs and assumed they would perform these as their solo pieces. I had decided to play a rather mindless transcription of Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun as a change of pace from the industrial-strength orchestral excerpts I knew I would have to play later in the audition.
   “However, the Debussy father surprised and befuddled the accompanist, who was not expecting to play it that morning. After we had read through it in our rehearsal downstairs, she said I would be better off playing the solo line alone. When I came onstage to pay the solo without an accompanist, Solti got out of his seat in the hall and said, ‘Give the accompaniment to me.’ As he headed up to the stage, the accompanist hurriedly rushed to the piano.”
   Pokorny became seriously interested in tuba playing during high school when he took lessons from Jeffrey Reynolds, the new bass trombonist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Later he studied with Roger Bobo, Larry Johansen at the University of the Redlands, Tommy Johnson at the University of Southern California, and Arnold Jacobs. “I was fortunate to grow up with the sounds of great musicians in my ears, which helped to frame my concept of the ideal tuba sound. I always thought Roger Bobo and Tommy Johnson could get some of the best sounds from the tuba the world has ever heard. I learned from Jacobs that I could produce that sound by working a lot less.”
   Besides being in the Chicago Symphony, Pokorny has played with The Summit Brass for 15 years and teaches music appreciation classes to elementary students as part of the Chicago Symphony Radiothon and through the C.S.O.’s Education Department.

How do you stay focused during the many measures of rest in orchestral tuba parts?
   Before we rehearse and perform a concert I will listen to recordings of the music we perform to the point that I know how the piece goes and am reasonably certain when and where the tuba comes in. During the long periods of rest, I love to sit back and actively listen to my colleagues play. I try to imagine, for instance, how Dale Clevenger will interpret a horn solo before he plays it, then compare this with what I hear. I also imagine what I would play differently if I were the soloist and contrast my version with his. This keeps me going in rehearsals and performances.
   Many of my colleagues have more experience playing solo lines and are better at it than I am. It is a pleasure to listen to them and to learn their little secrets and the nuances that they add.
   When I hear Red Lehr play jazz on the sousaphone, I try to imagine what he is going to do next, but invariably he does something unexpected. It is exciting, surprising, and delightful to hear that creativity unfolding right in front of me in real time. While listening to other members of the orchestra, I observe the personal touches they bring to a solo line.

How do you approach learning and teaching a work that was written for another instrument?

   I encourage students with solos written for another instrument to take a lesson with someone who plays that instrument. A student who wants to learn the unaccompanied Bach Partita for Flute that I recorded on Tuba Tracks should take a lesson from a flute player who has been in the trenches with that piece. Generally players of other instruments have little understanding of the technical problems tubists take for granted. They don’t care how much air a passage takes or which notes tend to be out of tune. By focusing on the flutist’s musical picture, tubists can transcend technical obstacles on the instrument and help them to realize that technique is only a means to an end and not an end in itself. A teacher on another instrument will focus on the musical destination rather than technique, which is a paradigm shift for most tuba players.

How can tuba players act as a sort of grounding force for the orchestra?
   I think it is great for tuba players to study other bass instruments because when learning to play string bass or bass clarinet, tubists will absorb some of the tonal characteristics and technical capabilities of the instruments. This way a tuba player can more accurately imitate the sound and character of the other instruments on the tuba.
   This is especially important for the string bass because they are often paired with the tuba in orchestral literature. It helps to have experienced how the strings feel against the fingerboard and how open-string sounds resonate in comparison with other notes. The texture of sound changes on different strings and ranges. On Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony the basses come to an open-string E with the tuba. Tubists would be more empathic of that particular characteristic if they had studied the string bass.
   Blending with the horns takes one type of sound and attack while matching the trumpets or trombones takes a different type of playing. The contrabassoon and low horns use very little vibrato, at least in this orchestra, but the bass and cello sections use more vibrato. The tuba players must be aware of this difference to blend with these instruments. It would be thoughtless for a tuba player to use vibrato on a Brahms or Tchaikovsky symphony or for Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries when the main point is to blend with the tutti trombone section.

How difficult is it to blend the tuba sound with the other orchestral instruments?
   The composite sound is what is important. The tuba has to adapt to create the ideal blend with the other instruments. In the middle of the Overture to the first act of Tannhauser, the high tuba part is similar to the ophicleide part in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The tuba contribution to this line must be minimal. When the other brass cut out, the tuba is left to glide along with the woodwinds. It takes a small F tuba to produce a sound that blends so well with the woodwinds, particularly the bassoons, that the audience does not know what instrument is playing. The tuba should just add to the color of the sound, rather than increasing the volume.
   I love to play in such an understated way that people have no idea where the sound is coming from. Unless the audience sees my instrument come up for the short tuba solo in the third movement of Mahler’s First Symphony, I don’t want them to know the tuba is playing. The orchestral texture thins out to a chamber ensemble of timpani, double bass, bassoon, and tuba for a mysterious passage that may cause the audience to look around to see what instruments are playing. The tuba sound should not dominate but simply be a part of the low sounds that state the theme.

How do you teach students to overcome the problem of sitting in the back row of an ensemble and playing in the back row of an ensemble and playing in tempo with the conductor?

   After years of playing in bands and orchestras, I have learned to anticipate the beat a little bit. This is a skill to overcome the inevitable delay from the podium to where I sit that can only develop with experience. One of the best ways to fix this problem is for the tuba player to conduct, even if this is for only a few minutes. By standing in front of the group and cueing the tubas, a player will quickly realize that the tubas really are behind the beat. On returning to the back of the band, the tubist will remember how the section sounds from the podium. The illusion is that it seems to take lower sounds a longer time to travel the distance out to the podium.
   There is no inordinate sound delay between the front to the back of the ensemble. Twenty or thirty feet amounts to a negligible difference of 0.03 seconds. However, the tuba sound is much harder to distinguish than the sound of higher-pitched instruments. Even if 16th notes are played a little sloppily on a trumpet they are more readily distinguished than a precise rendition of the same passage two or three octaves lower on a tuba. As I mentioned before, I would encourage a band director who has problems with a chronically late tuba section to invite each one up to the podium to conduct a little and hear how far behind the tuba section can be and how mismatched the balance can be in soft passages.
   On a piece with extra players or choirs, the delay from front to back becomes an even greater problem. When we performed the Berlioz Requiem earlier this past season with brass choirs on all sides of the stage, the sound came at me from all sides. In such a setting if you listen to the sounds of others, you are going to be late. The only way is to rely on the beat of the baton even if the music sounds strange from where the tuba player sits. I simply have to trust the conductor and the element of sight to play what I see and not what I hear. I have to trust that the sounds come together correctly out in the hall.
   Sometimes conductors are deliberately unclear and want a hazy start to a chord. Daniel Barenboim is not so concerned about the togetherness at the start of chords, which is his style. That explains the disparity the orchestra feels between what Solti did and what Barenboim aims for. Solti always sought a snappy unanimity. Some conductors, including Valery Gergiev, look somewhat unclear, but you would never ascertain that fact from listening to his Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg; everything seems clear and together out front. One of the drawbacks of developing the skill of anticipation is the rare occasion when the tuba sits in the front of the orchestra for a solo. This happened to me a few years ago after a career spent anticipating the beat. It took awhile to relax and get accustomed to how the tempo felt at the front of the ensemble.

How did you develop the intonation to blend with the other orchestral instruments?

   On an exposed chorale section, the low brass section in Chicago will identify the chord and which degree of the chord each plays. In other words, we will individually know if we are playing the root, third, fifth, or the seventh. We apply standard mean-tone tuning alterations. For instance we stretch the fifths and compress the major thirds, etc.
   We do not have sectional rehearsals, but rarely a week goes by that we do not take a few minutes during a break or after a rehearsal to figure out some chords or go through a passage that had questionable intonation. Sometimes just the bass trombonist, Charlie Vernon, and I stay. Sometimes it includes the entire trombone section. Generally the trombones and tuba function as a unit. Any tuba player who can go through life in the orchestra exclusively as a soloist and not believe he is part of the trombone section is delusionary.
   I suggest students use a tuning aid developed by Stephen Colley called the Tune-Up System. This C.D. and workbook gives students experience in matching unison pitches and tuning intervals against a drone. Many of my colleagues in the orchestra and I have used this system. As I warm up on stage before a concert, I use a Boss TU12-H tuner to center my pitch. An even more
 effective method to practice intonation is to
 match selected notes of a tuba phrase to notes on
 the piano. Even if the piano is out of tune, this is
 a great exercise because the goal is to match the
 pitch with another instrument whether it is
 exactly in tune or not.
   Working with a tuner is the least effective way to learn to play in tune because no one in an ensemble adjusts the pitch by watching a dial, only by ear. At times during rehearsals there is so much sound onstage that using a tuner with a pick-up is my only option. When I try to play in tune with another person, I assume that my pitch is the one that should change rather than his. Two instruments playing the same note should be in tune no matter what, and egos should never prevent players from adjusting the pitch to play in tune. It doesn’t matter who is right or wrong, only that the pitches match.
   Orchestral playing is the essence of teamwork at the highest level. In orchestral playing everyone has to be willing and able to accommodate the other sounds, not only in the intonation but also the style, volume, tempo, and phrasing. The obligations of being in an orchestra are to listen and adjust in order to play great music at the highest level.

Besides intonation, what are some other priorities for tuba players?

   The low register is much more crucial in studying the tuba than the middle or high registers. My advice to students is to play low now. Don’t make excuses or wait for the right equipment; play low now. A five-valve tuba certainly helps to master the low register, but even a four-valve instrument is sufficient to develop the low register. The book Melodious Etudes for Trombone, Book I by Rochut is an excellent publication. Students can transpose melodies down, not just one octave but two. My entire first lesson with Tommy Johnson was devoted to this, and I can guarantee that such exercises dramatically improve control in the low register. In works with divided tuba parts the best players should play the low part, not the high part.
   Francis McBeth and George Szell both have advocated the concept of a pyramid balance of sound in which a strong sonic foundation is provided by the bass instruments in the ensemble. The tuba section is particularly important in band. I attended a clinic in Anaheim in the 1970s at which McBeth proved how different a chord sounded when it was adequately supported by the lower voices. The proof was mind-boggling and left a lasting impression on me. McBeth explained this concept and the relation between balance and intonation in his book Effective Performance of Band Music.
   Tuba players should always play with a focused sound and good intonation in the low register to provide the support for the group; just getting the notes is not sufficient. I use the syllable toh, which Arnold Jacobs recommended, to open up my sound in the low register. Students should play scales as far into the low register as possible, down to pedal BBK or even lower. They will need to take extra breaths when playing in the low register. This is just a fact of life, but the effect of these breaths can be minimized by staggering the breaths with others in the low-brass section.

Do you think that physical fitness is an important part of learning to play an instrument?
   Being in shape has many benefits for musicians. Aerobic exercise lowers blood pressure, which in turn can help them stay calm during performances. It also increases the efficiency of the air exchange in the lungs, which makes playing wind and brass instruments easier. Exercise also sharpens the mind.
   I have seen students struggle in rehearsals and performances because they lack sufficient warm-up time. Other instrumentalists sound great after a good warm-up, but tuba players often wait through so many long rests that they come in with cold chops. A college student preparing for an audition should pick up the instrument six times a day and play solo excerpts without a warm-up to simulate real concert conditions. This is mind-over-matter practice. The main thought should always be on the musical result, not how cold or stiff the chops feel or how unimaginative you feel at the time. The most important thing is to keep focusing on the music that comes out of the horn.

How would you describe your experience in June 2000 when you premiered 
Journey, A Concerto for Contrabass Tuba by John Stevens, which is nearly 27-minutes long and has a great deal of low register work?
   Performing as a soloist with all the incredible musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra was a dream come true. The wonderful work was written for the contrabass tuba, the BBb or CC instrument used mostly in large ensemble settings, whereas most solo tuba literature is for the smaller bass tuba, pitched in F or Eb The main difficulty in journey was to get the same degree of agility on the large tuba as I would get from the smaller instrument. It also took considerable endurance to play such a long and difficult solo, because it takes so much energy to make the piece sound fresh and colorful after nearly half an hour.

How different is the practice routine of an orchestral tuba player from that of a soloist?

   Solos are usually in a higher register and more difficult than orchestral tuba parts, but it can take an incredible amount of energy to play an intense Bruckner symphony or a Wagner overture. Only regular practice can build up endurance to play so loud for so long. My practice routine for solos is more disciplined because I am the center of attention during the performance; it seems that there are not enough hours in the day when I am working on a solo recital. Four or five hours can go by in the practice room, and it feels like nothing. Often the brain shuts down before the chops do. When I realize that I haven’t heard a note for the last 20 minutes, I know it is time to stop. I record my practice sessions, and this helps me concentrate on the sound rather than trivial thoughts that come to mind. After listening to the tape I have a realistic idea of what the audience will hear.
   Susan Slaughter, principal trumpet player of the St. Louis Symphony, came up with a great practice strategy, in which players go through an excerpt three times after having done the regular routine. They are not allowed to correct any mistakes in between each play-through. The day’s practice session ends after those three times, and if they missed anything, the players have to wait until the next day to redeem themselves. This is not life or death, of course, but it helps to focus the next practice session.

What were your most significant recordings?

   All of my recordings bring back great memories of wonderful times. My first solo recording was Tuba Tracks, and it was an important step in my career, right as I left St. Louis and started playing for Chicago. Big Boy is my most recent release, and the music is more varied than on Tuba Tracks. It includes some original pieces, a Prokofiev transcription, and Skirmish and Dance by Jeffrey Reynolds with the magical C.S.O. trombone section.
   Another recording was a double C.D., Paul Hindemith: Complete Brass Works, that contains all five of his brass sonatas and two chamber works. The Hindemith recording brings back all the memories of the wonderful sound of my Miraphone 186 tuba, a much different instrument than what I use now. I still have that horn, although I don’t play it much anymore. The sound is lighter and less muscular in some ways, with a well-balanced blend of high and low overtones, plus a very adequate amount of fundamental. This is the type of sound I grew up knowing and loving, the remarkable sound I heard from Roger Bobo and Tommy Johnson. Recently Johnson played with me in the C.S.O. on Rite of Spring, and when I heard him warm up, I realized that this is what the tuba should sound like.

Should students listen to recordings to imitate the sound and interpretation of great artists?

   That is a great teaching technique, but sometimes students forget the importance of live performances. For those who cannot regularly attend good concerts in large cities, recordings are a good alternative. In general I think that recordings and performances are merely points of departure for listeners, and each shows only one way of approaching a given excerpt. There is nothing definitive about a single recording, and there are many ways to play a piece of music. When I was preparing the Hindemith recording I debated for a long time about the possible interpretations and which should go on the disc.
   Hindemith himself said that what he wrote on the paper varied greatly from what he would actually love to hear. There is a story that he once rushed backstage after hearing a performance of his viola sonata. The soloist, who had played a very Romantic interpretation of the work, became alarmed and was afraid of the composer’s reaction to all the liberties he had taken. However, Hindemith came up to the violist with tears in his eyes and said, “I’ve never heard anybody actually make a piece of music out of something of mine.” When I recorded Hindemith’s Sonata for Tuba and Piano, I asked myself which of the many ways of looking at the music made the most sense. It was not the only way, but just an intelligent way, and today I might play some passages differently. As my musical tastes develop, my interpretation might change again. 

Would the demonstrations of famous excerpts on the Orchestral Excerpts for Tuba sound different if you recorded them today?

   I think they would. As I stated in my remarks on the C.D., there is no definitive, one-fits-all interpretation. I restate the point that a recording is one way, not the only way. I would even play these excerpts differently with an orchestra, because the recording mainly demonstrates how to play them for auditions. In a concert they could vary quite a bit. For instance the volume level for the battle scene in Ein Heldenleben in a concert is much louder than I would ever play in an audition.
   In concerts I usually work out a breathing plan with Charlie Vernon, and each of us might occasionally leave out a note to get a good breath. The audition judges would certainly not understand such changes.
   If I had a chance to make some changes to that recording, I would go more closely with the big, big contrast in dynamics that was on the original tape. Summit Recordings at the time thought that the soft stuff was too soft and would get lost, so they opted to turn up those soft dynamics. Tuba players should hear how truly soft those parts are played. I would also place the 16th notes in the Bruckner Symphony Scherzo closer to the next beat.

Why did you start playing third clarinet in the Do-It-Yourself Sousa Band?

   I played clarinet in junior high and in high school, so it is familiar ground.
   Playing clarinet is fun and helps my sight-reading on tuba. What I value the most is that the event brings people together, just as TubaChristmas does. Professionals, students, hobbyists, and amateur musicians perform together and entire families make music together.
   Whatever their profession, people step outside of their normal roles and do what is beautiful, wonderful, and important. I would love to see more similar events.

What do you think is the future of classical music?
   Technology can make music more available, but current trends may keep some artists from recording again because of the high costs of putting together, marketing, and distributing C.D.s. If one copy is purchased and passed around on the Internet, the artist will never recoup the costs of production and might decide not to record again.
   All musicians should become advocates of great music in their communities and use any hooks that can bring more audiences into concert halls. Good music will keep listeners interested. Even movie scores can get people excited about classical music or modern composers, just as sing-along versions of Handel’s Messiah draw packed crowds every holiday season.
   Recently I performed at the Midwest Clinic with the Dobyns-Bennett High School Band from Kingsport, Tennessee. The band sounded great, and the atmosphere was incredible. Ten thousand people come to the Midwest Clinic in Chicago every year, and all are excited about good music.
   Walk directly out onto Michigan Avenue, and the man-on-the-street has no interest in bands, orchestras, or serious music. It is up to those of us who are passionate about music to spread that passion among friends and neighbors and to encourage them to attend concerts. Sometimes it only takes one performance to open their eyes and ears to the great music that is 
out there.

   Thomas Bough is assistant director of bands and professor of tuba and euphonium at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. He received masters and doctorate degrees in tuba performance from Arizona State University, where he studied with Sam Pilafian and Dan Perantoni. He directed bands at Westwood High School in Mesa, Arizona, from 1991 to 1999.