John Stevens Tackles “The Fourth Valve” tm

A bracelet inscribed with the motto “Been there, done that!” was said to be among the possessions most prized by the then recently retired opera star Beverly Sills. When asked if she might not miss some of the excitement of her former career, she was reminded of her accomplishment by the response inscribed on the bracelet.

While comparing a soprano to a tubist may seem a sonic stretch to some, few things could be more apt than the motto of Sills’ bracelet in describing the recent retirement of tubist, composer and educator John Stevens.

From a solo feature in Broadway’s “Barnum”, to performances with the top Brass Quintets and more-tubist John Stevens has “been there”. As a celebrated professor at distinguished universities, and a composer of a rich body of work which includes a concerto for tuba commissioned by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra-John Stevens has “done that”! “The Fourth Valve” tm is privileged to present the amazing John Stevens as the first respondent of our second set of four interviews on

1. How do you conceive of, describe or imagine the ideal tuba sound?
A given note should be about 98% tone and 2% articulation. Articulation is created by consonants (just like in speech) and tone is created by vowels. We tend to use “T” for our articulations, but I’m a big fan of “D” on the tuba, especially in the lower register when we usually want our tongue to be a bit lower and more rounded (less pointed) – which is most easily achieved by simply thinking “D” rather than making the mistake of trying to think about and micro-manage the tongue. Any vowel syllable that results in an open oral cavity is desirable. I prefer “OH”, with a gradual shift more to “OOH” as we move into the upper register. Very important to use a “small” but precise articulation even when playing in a loud dynamic range. Thus, the syllable “tOH” (small “t”, big “OH”) helps us get the kind of sound we want.

Here are some words I like to think of to achieve the ideal tuba sound (in no particular order): round, rich, resonant, thick, warm, ringing, singing, big, dark… I use hundreds of analogies in my teaching, and one I’ve used for years is chocolate bunnies. We all know the disappointment of biting into a chocolate bunny (usually around Easter) and finding it to be hollow. It’s much more satisfying to bite into a solid chocolate bunny. Try to sound like a solid chocolate bunny looks and feels (see many of the words mentioned above.) A sound should always be projected, regardless of dynamic (dynamics are more of a quality than a quantity anyway). To maintain a good sound in softer dynamics, add intensity to your sound as you get softer (think about a stage whisper). Quality of sound is about the most important thing for us. No matter what else you do well, nobody is going to want to listen to you if you don’t “sing” with a good sound.

How far from this ideal have you traveled (on purpose), during performances?
Occasionally one is required, or desires, to make a sound that is edgier, nastier or has other qualities. Multiphonics in a variety of styles (Encounters II, Fnugg, etc.) are obvious examples. When playing jazz a “grittier” sound is sometimes desirable. I think that players should solidly establish their ideal sound as a kind of home base so that they can divert from it when appropriate but always return to it for “typical” playing.

2. What did you learn from composing “Journey” and how much did Eugene Pokorny’s musical personality inform your choices?
I always learn a great deal from composing every piece of music. JOURNEY was an exceptional opportunity and collaboration, primarily with Gene of course, but eventually with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the conductors involved. I sat down with Gene and had some substantial conversations before I began to compose JOURNEY. I wanted to know what was important to him for the piece, favorite composers and works of his, and other musical considerations. But beyond that, even though I knew Gene pretty well already, I wanted to have a better idea of what made him tick. The last thing either of us wanted to do was to create a work that would only be suitable for him to perform, but I wanted to make it a piece that he would really love and embrace. Via the collaborative process of working rather closely together throughout the compositional process I believe we accomplished that.
john-stevens-writingA few specifics that I learned or that were reinforced by composing this work:
– The collaborative process (the human element, if you will), of any composition project is the most important thing.
– Leave an orchestrational “window” for the solo tuba, keeping the instruments of the orchestra higher and lower than the soloist (range-wise) so that the solo tuba can always be heard clearly.
– Use a lot of dialogue between the solo tuba and the sections of the orchestra (or the whole orchestra) – again, so the solo part can be clearly heard. The tuba produces a diffuse sound and is not really as “loud” as people imagine, so clarity of the solo part to the audience is a big consideration.

JOURNEY was my first commission for orchestra, and I still pinch myself that it came from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. As I said earlier, it provided me with the opportunity of a lifetime – to create a major work for one of the all-time greatest tubists (and one of my favorite people, by the way) and one of the world’s great orchestras. I will always be grateful for that opportunity!

3. What recollections do you have regarding the ABQ, and being in New York during a time when brass quintets became so popular?
Well, first of all, as an undergraduate at the Eastman School of Music, playing in a brass quintet was one of my primary musical activities. As a freshman I played in an excellent group with older students. Then 5 of us formed a quintet that remained very active together for the next three years under the guidance of horn professor Verne Reynolds. We performed regular recitals of all the big works that were around at the time – Arnold, Bozza, Schuller, Etler, Verne’s Centones and other early music arrangements, etc. – and also did quite a lot of “Young Audiences” work in the schools. More than I realized at the time, Verne was also providing me wight the role model of the performer/teacher/composer that I later became.

Then I went to Yale for my MM and played in another very active quintet for my two years there, working to some degree with all the members of the New York Brass Quintet. By the time I moved to NYC in 1975, I was a very avid and experienced quintet player and chamber music had firmly established itself as my favorite performing medium.

Right about this time the American Brass Quintet began performing Civil War era brass band music, and theytu92 really needed to add a tuba to make the group a sextet to successfully render that music. They were also making the Boehme Sextet a staple of their repertoire. At any rate, they invited me to join them for both of those endeavors, in part because I got to know them very well because I had already been one of the professional tubists performing in Aspen during the summers. I played many concerts with the ABQ in and around NYC during the year and in Colorado during the summers. What a joy that was – in every way. We also did two LP recordings of Civil War era music. The first was just the six of us, recorded in the middle of the night at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We scheduled the sessions then in part because it was quiet, but mostly because we were all busy and that was the only time we could count on everyone being able to be there. A couple of years later, the ABQ put together a larger group (14 or so players – brass and percussion) for a recording that would more closely depict the band size and sound of the era. Toby Hanks and I were the two tubists. I should mention that we performed all the Civil War music on period instruments. Those that weren’t owned by the players were borrowed from either the Metropolitan Museum or a local private collector. I was always playing an over-the-shoulder Eb bass. They were great fun to play but a real challenge to play in tune!

Rehearsing, performing and recording with the ABQ was one of the real highlights of my New York years, not only because it was so musically satisfying but because it created lifelong friendships with wonderful people.

4. What was your typical warm-up routine like as an undergrad as compared to later in your career?
As a freshman at Eastman in 1969, I immediately came under the spell and indirect influence of the great trombone pedagogue Emory Remington. Although I never worked directly under his guidance (and he passed away midway through my junior year), my teacher Donald Knaub had been his student and certainly espoused the same fundamentals. I am, by nature, a pretty organized and methodical person, so I quickly got into a routine of doing a regular, Remington warm-up to begin each day. I would actually differentiate a bit between “warm-up” and “daily routine” – both of which are important. The variety of exercises in my daily routine take some time to get through, but I am really warmed up long before I complete them. Some days I would work on the routine, taking perhaps 45 minutes or so. Other days I would just play straight through it (maybe 20 minutes) and move on to etudes, solos or excerpts. That has been the approach I have encouraged my students to use throughout my teaching career.

IMG_6717As I got older, and life got busier with teaching, composing, administrative work and other career issues – not to mention family life in general – I had to become more efficient with my practice time. I eventually boiled my warm-up down to a routine that would prepare me for the performing day as quickly as possible. Constants over the years for me have been long tones, flexibility exercises and pattern scales. I have also remained religious about starting in the middle and lower register before moving into higher playing. I would also say that, over the years, I learned that extensive work in the low register is important for both low and high range playing.

5. When did you really begin to devote yourself to composition, and how has it informed your tuba playing?
I never really studied composition. I studied jazz arranging with Rayburn Wright at Eastman, but when I got to Yale I didn’t really have an outlet for that and decided to begin composing for my own instrument. This was largely because I felt we had a great need for new repertoire for the tuba. I wanted to compose music that performers would find meaningful to play and audiences would find meaningful to hear – and that is still my overriding goal with each work I compose. During graduate school I composed SUITE NO. 1 for unaccompanied tuba, and POWER, MUSIC 4 TUBAS and DANCES for ensemble. I didn’t really realize at the time that, along with my tuba colleagues at Yale, I was kind of on the cutting edge of creating chamber music for tubas. By the way, I premiered DANCES on my Masters recital and it was the solo public performance on the F tuba of my entire career.
I always say that as a composer I think like a performer, and as a performer I think like a composer. It has always been very important to me to be as complete a musician as possible, and composing has been a huge part of that process. When composing a piece of music, I am thinking about every aspect of the work – from the big picture to the smallest details. That approach certainly translates to how I think as a perfumer.

john-stevens-with-tuba-16. What do you see as the major pedagogical points which:
a.) need the most attention yet &
b.) have had the greatest impact?

Without question, RHYTHM!!!! I feel strongly that rhythm, and what we jazz musicians would call “time” is very underemphasized in the teaching of young students. I always say that the right note in the wrong place is a wrong note. Counting, subdividing, pulsing (the heartbeat of the music) and grooving are all so important… By grooving, I mean that it is not enough to just play “correct” rhythms in steady tempos. Players should strive to be “in the pocket”, with rhythms being correct and steady but also having the right feel (or groove), which changes a bit depending on the style of the music. This is an especially important issue for tubists because we so often play a rhythmic role.

The other big one for me is the need to emphasize music first, then playing. Focus on the product and the technique will evolve to create the music in a successful way. Focusing on the technique will not necessarily result in good music making. I always tell my students that if someone sees them after a performance and says “That was really great playing.”, that’s certainly fine. But if they say “That was really great music.”… then you’ve done something…

7. What is the best tuba playing you have ever heard?
Oh my, I’ve heard so much wonderful playing from so many people in so many styles. I shouldn’t name names, because I’ll surely leave out some folks who I really admire, but I’m going to take a chance and do it anyway… by trying to put them into a context and perhaps focus a bit on players of my own age or older. The big early influences on me are typical of my generation – Roger Bobo and Harvey Phillips. Orchestral playing has been epitomized by Arnold Jacobs, Gene Pokorny and many others. Toby Hanks was a huge influence on me, not only as a teacher, but as a tubist I wanted to emulate – especially as a chamber musician. Great jazz playing… Sam Pilafian and Marty Erickson stand out. As a soloist, I must mention Pat Sheridan, who has played many of my all-time favorite performances – but there are many others who I could name as well. The level of playing just keeps going up, which means there are so many fantastic players out there “today” that I don’t even want to get started. Actually, I’ve been fortunate to have many students over the years who have made a big impact on me with their music. With one exception I’m not going to name names – you know who you are. That one exception is Nat McIntosh. The creative work that Nat has done, especially on the sousaphone, stands out as some of the most incredible and innovative playing it’s been my privilege to hear.

8. What is the best tuba playing you have ever done?
Oh man… you should have heard it in the practice room!!! :^) I’m pretty sure this is the first time I’ve ever been asked this question. Like most of us, I feel that my prime as a player was probably when I was pretty young-during my NYC years in the late ’70’s. Again, I think most of us become better musicians as we age, evolve and (hopefully) mature. For me, the most important thing has always been to “say something” musically – as opposed to focusing on the tuba playing as the primary thing.

I guess I would have to say that my 2005 “Reverie” CD is an example of that. I guess I feel that my greatest skills were oriented toward “getting the job done” in a wide variety of styles and media – chamber music, orchestral, solo work, jazz, Broadway and other commercial styles, improvising, sight-reading. As I said earlier, for me, being a good tuba player has been one part of being a good musician.

Now I’m comfortable with putting that part largely aside and focusing on my life as a composer.

c. 2014 David William Brubeck All Rights Reserved.

Interested in more “The Fourth Valve” tm Interviews?
Don Harry
John Stevens
Jim Self
John Van Houten
Demondrae Thurman
Deanna Swoboda
R. Winston Morris
Beth Wiese
Aaron Tindall
Marty Erickson
Beth Mitchell
Chitate Kagawa
Aaron McCalla

Images from the University of Wisconsin and

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