Any fool can play the tuba.
That’s a phrase Associate Professor of Tuba Don Harry has been known to tout. “He means that anyone can approach the tuba, but also, anyone can play it, so what makes you special,” says Michael Witt, one of the senior tuba players in Harry’s studio, who conducts the Tuba Mirum ensemble.
Harry is not just any tuba-playing fool. He’s led a major career: principal tuba of the Buffalo Philharmonic for 43 years, faculty at the Juilliard School for over 10 years, and a professor at the Eastman School of Music since 1990. After nearly 33 years as part of the Eastman community, Harry retires at the end of the spring semester.
His career will be celebrated this weekend with two concerts. Members of the tuba studio organized a concert for Saturday, March 18 at 1 p.m. in the Ray Wright Room at Eastman, collaborating with student composers to present new music for tuba and euphonium, an effort to expand the repertoire that Harry always encouraged. The concert on Sunday, March 19, at 1 p.m. in Kilbourn Hall, features Tuba Mirum, a group comprised of the tuba and euphonium studios, which will perform two world premieres by established composers Rob Deemer and Elizabeth Raum ’66E. Alumni will be present and even join on stage.
Although the tuba’s history does extend back to the 1800s, its prominence and literature did not develop significantly until the twentieth century. It was players like Harry who helped build the instrument’s status and repertoire through the twentieth and twenty-first century, including works centered around his Native American heritage. Harry often shares stories with his students about studying with the original tuba greats: William Bell, Harvey Phillips, and Arnold Jacobs.
“Don Harry is a preeminent voice for American tuba playing and teaching. Drawing from the influences of his teachers such as William Rose and William Bell, Don has been a major figure in modernizing the virtuosity and expectations of the tuba over the last 50 years,” says trombonist Mark Kellogg, the chair of Eastman’s Wind, Brass, and Percussion department. “As a teacher at Juilliard and Eastman, Don has occupied an important position to influence the next generations of tuba players and teachers.”
It was Harry’s legacy that made student Michael Witt nervous to take a lesson with Harry as a prospective Eastman student. Witt remembers when Harry, who is big enough to seem imposing, came lumbering down the hall to meet him. But all anxiety quickly dissipated when Harry put his hand out as if to shake, grabbed Witt’s hand, and said, “I’m going to thumb wrestle you for your tuba.” Witt remembers: “A giant thumb comes down on my finger and I stood no chance. And he was like, ‘mine now.’ And then we went and had my lesson.” As for the lesson, “it was just having fun and learning about the tuba. I think it shows not only his humor but how he approaches and leads life. He’s always people first.”
It’s an approach that also led him to help students develop personal voices and styles on the tuba. As the phrase goes, “Any fool can play the tuba,” but it’s their individuality that makes them stand out.
Harry’s Eastman colleagues also cite his great humor. Sharing a studio with trombonist Kellogg for 15 years, Harry placed a can of SPAM on the door casing above the studio door. When Kellogg asked about it, Harry answered, “Whoever is the last one to move out of the studio has to open it.”
“This is emblematic of Don’s quick wit, as well as his quirky, idiosyncratic sense of humor,” says Kellogg. “All I can say is that I will, of course, miss his presence at Eastman. And if he needs a can opener, he can let me know!”
-Written by Anna Reguero, Senior Writer & Editorial Manager