‘Carol of the Bells’ is my favorite,” said Jax Bukalski, seventh-grader at Brooks Middle School. What seem like ordinary holiday songs represent a special opportunity for a group of musicians at Brooks, as well as Julian Middle School and OPRF High School: Tuba Christmas.
“I played ‘Carol of the Bells’ in elementary school, but I played it on my trumpet,” she said. “Now I get to do it on euphonium!” Bukalski is one of five trumpet players from Brooks who are trying a new instrument, playing euphonium for the annual Tuba Christmas event.
Two other seventh-grade trumpeters chimed in.
“It’s a thrill to play another instrument and you don’t get to play this low.” The other adds, “I could do this every week!” A euphonium is a large tenor brass instrument, whereas a tuba is for playing bass notes. Both are needed at Tuba Christmas to play the different parts of compositions. Brooks’ director of bands, Jayme Barnard, purchased some inexpensive euphoniums on eBay years ago to give more students the chance to participate.
Euphonium and tuba students also get a chance to do something different. As one Brooks eighth-grade tuba player pointed out, they are usually in the background of the band. This concert changes that. As Mitch Brumirski, seventh-grade euphonium player, put it, “It’s really fun because you get to play the melody.”
At the middle schools, the band directors lead the students through practices. At OPRF, the rehearsals are student-led. The group there plays tubas and euphoniums but also baritones, which are the equivalent of a euphonium made for marching. Like the middle schools, this is an opportunity for students who usually play other instruments to join in the fun.
At the high school rehearsal, the drumheads in the band room vibrate with the low brass tones of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” Leading the group are junior Gracie Farnham and senior Lydia Woolley. During rehearsal, the students played and were directed by Farnham while Woolley gave suggestions between pieces. The group is interactive, chiming in on what they want to play next and having a laugh now and then. Farnham, a tuba player, is a longtime participant in Tuba Christmas, having done it for six years. She likes having the chance to lead.
“No matter what level you’re at,” she said, “you can do this and I’ve enjoyed reaching out to musicians at all levels.”
Tuba Christmas is in its 43rd year and is held across the U.S. and internationally. Chicago’s Tuba Christmas is on Saturday, Dec. 17 at the Palmer House Hilton at 12:30 p.m. in the Grand Ballroom. Woolley emphasizes that the room is beautiful and the acoustics are really great.
But for the local musicians, Tuba Christmas starts in Oak Park at the Harlem/Lake Green Line station at 8:30 a.m. From there, the musicians go to area businesses such as Old Navy and The Gap, then on to River Forest to Starbucks, Men’s Warehouse, and Whole Foods, wrapping by 9:15. This is part of what Woolly likes about Tuba Christmas.
“You’re out in the community,” she said, “playing your instrument in Old Navy. Without Tuba Christmas, you’d never do anything like that.”
The idea of playing locally before heading to Chicago started 12 years ago. Anywhere from 30 to 50 local musicians may take part. Besides the students, the band directors also play along, and there are some alums and community members who join in.
Once they spread joy here, they take the el downtown, large instruments in tow, for rehearsal and to perform with, on average, 400 other musicians of all skill levels, including professionals. A retired commander of the U.S. Army Band directs the performance. Farnham lights up at the memory of past concerts at the Palmer House.
“It’s overwhelming performing with that many musicians playing the same instruments, where in band at school, there is usually, a max of two tubas,” she said. “When we’re all playing at Tuba Christmas, I feel the vibration inside. The sound is really gorgeous.”
The concert is free; seating is limited. Non-perishable food donations are requested for the Greater Chicago Food Depository.