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Episode 8: Wah-womp, womp womp?

If you though the only thing tubas are good for were “womp-womp” sound effects, then you haven't heard St. Albert resident Michael Eastep play Simon and Garfunkel or The Pink Panther on one.
0805 TubaDay 2204 km
PLAY "FREEBIRD!" — St. Albert tubist Michael Eastep demonstrates the operation of one of his many tubas in his home on May 4, 2021. The Gazette spoke with him as part of International Tuba Day. KEVIN MA/St. Albert Gazette

Welcome to the eighth episode of the St. Albert Signal, a weekly community podcast about the St. Albert area. Listen to the eighth episode below:

If you kept thinking about pachyderms, game show losers, and root beer on Friday, it’s probably because it was International Tuba Day.  

International Tuba Day is an esoteric holiday celebrated on the first Friday in May, which this year was May 7. Invented by Joel Day in 1979, the event aims to recognize tubists in musical organizations around the world who have to go through the hassle of handling a tuba. 

Michael Eastep, the former Principal Tuba for the Calgary Philharmonic and self-declared Tuba Man of St. Albert, said he is familiar with the day but doesn’t usually celebrate it, as it is typically too cold to play the tuba outdoors in Canada in May. Recently, he’s tried to share his passion for the tuba through the Tubas of St. Albert, which put on a pair of pop-up concerts in St. Albert last summer.  

“The tuba is very often an isolated instrument,” Eastep said, as there is often just one tuba player in any band. 

The tuba is often seen as a joke – associated with lumbering elephants, the “you lose” song from The Price is Right, and the A&W Root Beer Bear. Tubaday.com bemoans the tuba’s image as a decorative item best suited for talentless hacks with big bellies and bigger lungs. 

But the truth is much different, Eastep explained. The best tuba players are not short and fat but tall and fit, as that body shape allows for bigger lungs. And if you though the only thing tubas are good for were “womp-womp” sound effects, then you haven't heard Eastep play Simon and Garfunkel or The Pink Panther on one.  

Playing a tuba makes you feel like a king, said John Bird, a Gibbons-area tubist who played the instrument for decades with the armed forces.  

“I always feel that I’m the foundation for making it all work.” 

The big brass bazooka 

Bird is a member of the Mission Hill Brass and the Tubas of St. Albert. He said he started playing the tuba back in high school band class on a whim. 

“Nobody picked the tuba, and I said, ‘Hey, I want that!’” 

Eastep said he picked up the tuba in around Grade 5, drawn to it by its low tones and his favourite record, Tubby the Tuba. It was a 24-inch sousaphone, and it was so big he needed to put it on a stand to play it.  

“All I had to do was crawl in and blast away.”  

Eastep has several tubas in his home that he practices with for about an hour each day. They weigh close to 30 pounds each — more if you include their carrying cases — and are a pain to get through an airport. 

“You get used to it,” he said of the mass. 

Eastep said the tuba was first invented in around 1835 and was the evolution of the serpent (a really twisty horn) and the ophicleide (really long tuba). Composer Richard Wagner popularized them in the 1850s.  

In operation, the tuba is the inverse of the trumpet, Eastep explained. Both use valves and pipes to modify notes, but while the trumpet requires high pressure and low volume, the tuba uses low pressure and high volume. 

“The main trick in learning to play the tuba is learning to relax,” he said, which frees up your lung capacity. 

While tubas are typically used to set the bass line and rhythm of a band, Bird said you can actually play pretty much any song on them. 

“I’ve heard guys play Flight of the Bumblebee on that thing as fast as a flute player could do it,” he said, and he’s played a few Led Zeppelin songs himself. 

Eastep said tubas have become far more popular in recent decades due to the influence of Mexican and New Orleans musicians, and could now be heard in the backbeat of many songs.  

“The thing with the tuba is so many people have played it at least a little bit,” Eastep said — they might not stick with it, but they never forget it.  

Bird encouraged people to check out tuba performances online to gain new appreciation for the instrument.  


Kevin Ma

About the Author: Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.
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