In 44 years, TubaChristmas has never been canceled, and Herrick Forsyth says nothing — neither snow, rain nor extreme cold — could stop the annual holiday festivity this year.
“We never, ever cancel,” he says. “We actually had a gig where Bill [Clark] and I brought valve oil mixed with vodka so it wouldn't freeze. It worked pretty well for a while, but my horn froze after the first five or ten minutes.
Clark and Forsyth are two of the longest-participating tuba players involved in Denver's TubaChristmas. Since the mid-‘70s, the brass horn-wielding musicians have gathered each December to play carols and enjoy the camaraderie of fellow tubists.
“I started back in ’75 or ’76,” says Clark, a retired University of Denver professor who taught the tuba and plays the instrument in Denver’s Queen City Jazz Band. “I was teaching at DU, and I got a bunch of my students together to go out and just play Christmas carols, like caroling for people we knew. The next year we decided to do a concert down at Larimer Square, and that's how it all got started.”
Ten years after Clark began holding holiday concerts, Denver’s tubists joined a national organization called TubaChristmas that was conceived in 1974 by Harvey Phillips as a tribute to his teacher and mentor William J. Bell, who was born on Christmas Day in 1902. Phillips’s first TubaChristmas event was presented at Rockefeller Plaza ice rink in New York City in 1974. More than four decades later, TubaChristmas concerts are presented throughout the world.
“Once word got out, everyone wanted to do it,” says Clark.
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The format for TubaChristmas is simple, he says. Participants simply show up, horns in tow, at the Denver Performing Arts Complex. There they’re met by scads of other tubists, all ready to bring a little holiday merriment to the expectant crowd.
“It's been the same for years and years,” says Clark. “We have about three hours of prep for it. The first hour is registration for people who are interested. Everyone comes in, signs up, pays ten bucks to participate. After registration, the group rehearses for about two hours, then appears in the Galleria for an hour-long performance.”
Forsyth, a self-taught tubist, played in the very first Denver TubaChristmas. He’s missed a couple of the concerts (“a couple times I was down in Cozumel, so I think that’s a good reason”), but for the most part, he’s all in.
“It becomes like a thing you jones for, that you really want to do every year,” says Forsyth. Bill (Clark) is such a good friend of mine, I really started out helping him with TubaChristmas. Then I started playing in it, and I was like, 'Man this is fun!'”
For the amount of joy the concert brings to participants and spectators alike, he says, it’s a relatively simple event.
“It's one time a year,” says Forsyth. We have a rehearsal and a show and that's it, so it's not like it's eating up a lot of your life. It's fun to see the same people you see every year. I just love it.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge is finding somewhere to play where all the participants will fit. Last year’s TubaChristmas drew more than 300 tubists.
“There are tenor tubas, bass tubas, recording tubas, euphoniums, baritones — every kind of tuba you can imagine is going to be there,” says Forsyth, adding that there are likely to be at least a couple double-bell euphoniums in the mix. “It's gotten so big. We used to play right down in Larimer Square. Last year we played at DCPA, and I would bet there were easily 2,000 people, not including the tubas. It was madness.”
Despite the frantic pace, Clark says the event comes and goes so quickly that there isn’t really any time to get stressed.
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“It used to be kind of a big deal, making phone calls and all that,” says Clark. “But now people just read about it, and we have our own Facebook page. People just show up, and it's over before you know it.”
For spectators, Forsyth says, previous experience with the tuba isn’t necessary. But don’t underestimate the popularity of the event.
“Get there early,” says Forsyth. "Just be prepared for a big, big crowd. Listen for the dulcet sounds of the tuba. I'm sure they'll be able to find it.”
TubaChristmas starts at 11:30 a.m. Sunday, December 22, at the Galleria in the Denver Performing Arts Complex. For more information, go to the TubaChristmas website. Registering to play costs $10; the performance is free.