The early years
OK, you clicked on wanting to know more about me! Just remember, you asked for it!
I’ll skip the part about when I was born – I was there, but I don’t remember a thing about it! Apparently, I was a “breech birth”, that is, I came into the world “butt first”. That would explain a lot……
As far as I’m concerned, I didn’t really discover music until Beatlemania hit North America in the early ’60’s. My Mother would have begged to differ and told you that as a baby in the ’50’s, I would crawl to wherever music was in the home, (usually the radio or TV), sit in front of it and bounce! We did have a piano in the house but just about the time I was turning 3, Mom gave it away to her Brother, who had 2 girls. It was her feeling that girls take piano lessons, not boys. And, as my older Brother had shown zero interest in it, I suppose that she was justified in her actions. (I really regret that decision – I have a feeling that I would have been at it as soon as I could reach the keyboard!) I do recall having the opportunity to take stringed instruments in Public School, but as only the nerds and geeks did that sort of thing, I chose not to participate.
So it took The Beatles (musical influence #1), to “awaken” (OK, “reawaken”) the music thing within me. I immediately bugged my parents for a guitar, and duly took lessons. I would have been around 10 years of age at the time, and while I didn’t exactly end up sounding like my hero, John Lennon, I did find that music “spoke” to me in ways that other things couldn’t. At a Toronto Symphony Student Concert a couple of years later, (in Grade 8, I think), music didn’t just “speak” to me, it practically “screamed” at me! The sound of a full symphony orchestra was the most incredible thing I had ever experienced up to that time. Therefore, there was no question whatsoever that I was going to take the instrumental music elective when I entered high school a year later.
I was not blessed with a very good sense of direction. All of my friends and family know this. Consequently, not being able to find the music room at Mimico High School on the first day of classes played a large part in my choice of instrument – the tuba was the only thing left! I took to it quickly, and was thrust right into the Band after a couple of months by my music teacher, Christopher Kitts, (musical influence #2). Sounds impressive, but at that time the Band had 18 people in it, and 9 of them were flutes – let’s just say that the Band needed me as much as I needed them! Because we weren’t terribly advanced, the repertoire was fairly easy for the tuba. Endless whole notes were the order of the day, not to mention the greatest of all tuba parts: note, rest, note, rest (repeat as necessary!).
The ennui from this caused me one day to ask Mr. Kitts if the Band Library had any Sousa marches in it. The reason? I had a Sousa march LP, and I thought that it would be cool to play along with it. (For those young readers out there, an LP is one of those black discs with a hole in the middle that you might see at your Grandparents’ house.) This was a great idea for many reasons: Firstly, it got me practising a lot, and secondly, the marches for which I didn’t have the music became ear training exercises because I would try to play along with them anyway. Later I attempted playing along by ear with other records – Polka, Dixieland – anything with a tuba in it! I also recall attempting to compose and arrange (without much success) around this time. I even drew my own manuscript paper — I didn’t know you could buy it! (The impressions on Mom’s kitchen table from drawing the lines are probably still visible today!) Little did I know it at the time, but I was setting the stage for my career in music.
Yes, the music thing was going well. Well enough that I decided to major in it at University. There was no opposition from my family, as my Mother’s Father had been quite a good amateur Euphonium player in Barrie, Ontario and I figure that Mom thought I could live out
his dreams, or something. Early on, I checked into the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music requirements and discovered that they expected piano proficiency. Uh ohh! Ma, you should have kept that piano! Well, we got another one and I took lessons with Rebecca Wang, (who, to this day never forgets my birthday!), and I managed to get my Grade 6 in about 3 years. I also took Theory and Harmony lessons with Lawrence Goodwill at that time as well, and remember really enjoying them.
One other thing that I did was to change high schools in my final year. Mr. Kitts had left to go on to a great career at Birchmount Park Collegiate Institute and unfortunately, his replacement was not qualified to teach Grade 13 music. Undaunted, I transferred to Royal York Collegiate Institute (now called Etobicoke School of the Arts) and was that ever a good move! It was there that I met musical influence #3. And it wasn’t the new music teacher as you might expect, (although he was a pretty cool guy), it was one of my new classmates, Gary Kulesha. You might know that name. Gary has become one of Canada’s most performed composers of concert music. When I first met him, he was playing viola in the school orchestra, baritone sax in the stage band, oboe in the concert band, and was working on his Grade 10 piano! He also composed music back then as well. At one of our first meetings, I challenged him to write me something, so he asked me my range and said he’d think about it. A Sonatina for Tuba and Piano appeared on my desk in the chemistry lab about 2 weeks later. Over the years, many other pieces have appeared. Gary and I have kept in very close contact through the over 40 years that we have known one another. The most important year was the one after Grade 13. Gary had chosen not to go to university, and instead had decided to pursue composition lessons at the Royal Conservatory of Music with Samuel Dolin, (more on him, later). I was planning on going to the University of Toronto, but had neglected to send in a transcript of my final marks. So I ended up “bumming the year”. Well, not true, really. I took tuba lessons with a local Toronto player, Kent Mason, and was continuing my piano, theory and harmony lessons. I was also playing in every community group that I could find. And you can be sure that Gary and I spent a lot of time together, talking about music, our careers, and life.
I applied to the University of Toronto again, and this time I remembered to send in my transcript! I was accepted and entered the music education programme. My tuba teacher was Dr. Charles Daellenbach, (musical influence #4). You may have heard of him, too! The Canadian Brass were just starting out at this time, so Chuck was teaching at U of T. While there, I got some fantastic training from Chuck, and had lots of opportunities to play in the various ensembles. I even got to play a tuba concerto (badly!) with the Wind Symphony. And I really enjoyed the Music Materials class with Oskar Morawetz and Counterpoint with Godfrey Ridout — two of Canada’s finest composers. Even with the sometimes hectic University schedule, I was still going out to every community orchestra and band in town.
And so it begins…
Then one day, in my 2nd year at U of T, I got a phone call. It was from a guitar/banjo player who was putting together a Dixieland Band for a steady gig in a downtown Toronto bar. (I think he got my name from one of the tuba players that I played with in one of those community bands.) He asked me, (rather bluntly, as I recall) if I could play Dixieland. I told him that I had a few Dixie records and played along with them regularly. He also asked if I played Electric Bass. I told him that I had 3 years of Guitar lessons, and I knew that the 4 strings of the bass were like the bottom 4 strings of the guitar. This seemed to satisfy him, so I went to his house and tried out with the Band. I think they were desperate, because the next Monday I joined the Musicians’ Union and that night I was playing my first professional gig (9PM-1AM, six nights a week) with the Hogtown City Slickers (for $140 a week).
I didn’t let this early success go to my head, though. I remember telling the leader that I would really like Thursdays off so I could go and play (for free!) with one of the community orchestras that I particularly enjoyed. (This wasn’t a problem, because the guy he REALLY wanted for the Band, didn’t want a steady gig, but was willing to come in and sub on Thursdays.) Another smart move on my part, because the man that conducted that community orchestra was William McCauley. He was a noted composer, (any Canadians around my age will remember a hockey song he wrote called “Clear the Track, Here Comes Shack”) and he also contracted professional orchestras for the O’Keefe Centre, (later called the Hummingbird Centre, now called the Sony Centre). Also, other Dixie Band leaders were hearing about me through the grapevine. It wasn’t long before I was getting some theatre work, and lots more Dixie gigs. There were two Bands that predominated at that time; Professor Futz and his Band of Nutz , (yes, that was the name!)
Borgy’s Band was a lot of fun. I should mention that I had previously met Borgy while I was still in High School, when the Etobicoke Youth Orchestra played at a function at the Skyline Hotel. Borgy was working there in one of the bars, namely Diamond Lil’s, and a few of us (who were of drinking age, of course!) checked the place out after we were done. I remember being VERY impressed with his tuba player at that time, Don Trigg. This guy played great solos, laid down fantastic bass lines, and even sang a couple of numbers! When Borgy called me years later, little did I know that he had been keeping an eye on me. He remembered me from that first meeting, and he knew that I had been working around town recently. I played a lot with him over the 15+ years that I was in his band. My colleagues in True North Brass have often wondered how I am able to get up to the microphone in our concerts and talk to the audience with apparent ease. I tell them to look no further than the time I spent in Borgy’s Banjo Reunion. I’d probably still be in that band if I hadn’t gotten too busy with other work, and Borgy hadn’t retired to Victoria, BC.
So there I was, doing a music education degree by day, and working at night, (and sometimes having to cut classes to do it!). I have to admit that, except for lessons with Chuck, university was starting to take a back seat to my performing activities. It was tough getting home at 2AM, and then getting up at 7AM in time to get to a 9AM Brass Choir rehearsal, with my tuba still smelling of stale cigarette smoke from the night before. I was Class of ’77 when I went in, but I finally graduated with the Class of ’89, after I found the time to complete an arts course that had been hanging over my head!
And now another signpost: The Canadian Brass was becoming famous. Good for Chuck! Better for me! At that time, there was a fair amount of recording studio work in Toronto, and I found that I was “inheriting” it, as Chuck, (who, as you’d expect, was the #1 call tuba player in Toronto), was out of town for long periods of time with the CB. My background in classical music and commercial playing proved to be invaluable here — the writers really like to know that coping with any musical style they throw at you is not going to be a problem. And I got to work a lot with some of the best musicians on the planet – Guido Basso, Moe Koffman, Rob McConnell, Erica Goodman – I could go on! Also around this time, I was having great fun commissioning solo tuba works through funds available from the Ontario Arts Council. That aforementioned U of T professor, Oskar Morawetz wrote a Sonata for me in 1983, (I remember bugging him a lot about the idea of writing one when I was in his class 10 years previously), and of course, I got several more works out of Gary and a few other composers that way as well.
And in 1984, I found myself in the pit for the Canadian Opera Company. It was, at that time, a freelance gig, and the new contractor, who had heard me in the studios, wanted me there. After True North Brass, I consider the COC Orchestra to be my favourite place to play. It’s a great orchestra with a great opera house in which to perform! I really enjoyed playing the Ring Cycle by Richard Wagner back in 2006 when we opened the hall. To celebrate, I bought a huge tuba, just for the Ring!
In the late ’70’s, at Gary’s urging, I started composition lessons with his teacher, Dr. Samuel Dolin, (musical influence #5). Sam knew EVERYTHING about classical music. I did 2 years study of Renaissance Counterpoint with him, and wow, did that ever open up my eyes and ears to music. Anyway, after 7 years of study with Sam, I started writing pieces on my own. It was helpful that I was now playing in ensembles like the Hannaford Street Silver Band and much later of course, True North Brass, who were willing victims to my musings! Of my compositions, I particularly like Aubade for Trumpet and Organ (composed in 1989 for Stuart Laughton), Awakenings for Brass Band (a CBC Commission for the Hannaford Street Silver Band) and Meditations on a Huron Carol (composed for our Christmas CD, “A True North Christmas”). I enjoy arranging other people’s music as well, and I like to think that I have given Canadian Composers like Sir Ernest MacMillan, John Weinzweig and Godfrey Ridout a bigger audience by arranging their works for the Hannaford Street Silver Band and True North Brass.
It’s strange though. I have to say that as I get older, I have become more and more attracted to the string quartet repertoire – certainly not as a player (obviously!), and not as a composer (at least, not yet), but as a listener. This stuff is great! The works for strings by Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms are amongst the finest musical creations we have. And there are some staggering 20th century string quartet works by Bartok, Shostakovich and Schnittke as well. It’s getting to be a joke with my string playing colleagues in the COC Orchestra. They will often come to me with questions about repertoire for their instruments! By the way, my all time favourite piece in the universe is Schubert’s String Quintet in C Major, D956, and an extremely close second is Beethoven’s String Quartet in A Minor, op. 132 – check them out, if you dare!
That pretty well says it all. Lots of gigs. Lots of variety. Anything from playing elephant music for Sharon, Lois and Bram, to solo tuba pieces by Oskar Morawetz, John Weinzweig, and of course, Gary Kulesha. Playing with a clown band on Mr. Dressup, to playing with accordionist Joe Macerollo as the warm-up act for the Royal Canadian Air Farce. Playing a Murray Schafer spectacle around a lake at 4:00 AM, to jamming with Guitarist/Artist Mendelson Joe UNTIL 4:00 AM. Performing The Rite of Spring with the Toronto Symphony in Carnegie Hall, or playing Bartok and Stravinsky with the Canadian Opera Company at the Edinburgh International Festival, to playing for huge audiences with True North Brass in China. Writing a Horn Concerto for my Joaner, to writing a Fanfare for the groundbreaking ceremony of the new opera house for the COC. Or maybe just going to a concert of Beethoven and Shostakovich featuring the Emerson Quartet. What’s next? Beats me! I’m just having a great time doing this!