Texas Tech professor has traveled the world spreading the word about...tubas?
The smile is hard to wipe from Kevin Wass's face. This is his element. Always has been.
More than likely when someone tells you they play tuba, it automatically elicits a specific response and a vision of lederhosen.
Wass is used to it. In some ways, he fully embraces it.
“You tell people you're a tuba player and they're like ‘Do you play in a polka band?'” Wass said. “Yes, I do, but I also study music very seriously and have for most of my life now.”
The professor of tuba and euphonium at Texas Tech University's J.T. & Margaret Talkington College of Visual & Performing ArtsSchool of Music has been making noise since his elementary school days and loves to talk shop.
Making Lots of Noise
The love Wass has for music began at an early age. His mother was a music teacher –his father an electrical engineer and an amateur musician playing the baritone in his free time. By the time he was 3, his mother had him actively involved in music at their church while his father sang.
“By the time I was 6, I was subbing in my mom's bell choirs all the time – taking piano lessons,” Wass said. “There was never any question I was going to be in either band or orchestra.”
With an older sister heavily involved in orchestra, band became the obvious path. In junior high, Wass chose to play the instrument that would ultimately change his life.
“We only had a couple tubas and those were for the ones in the top band,” recalled Wass. “But we had sousaphones that the school owned, and they hung on the back wall of the band hall. I remember looking up there and thinking, ‘Oh, yeah, I could make a lot of noise on that.'”
And noise he would make throughout high school into college, where he would earn a bachelor's degree in music education from Dana College, a Master of Music degree from Indiana University and his Doctor of Musical Arts degree from the University of Michigan. His love of playing the tuba has since allowed him to travel the globe.
“We played a brass quintet concert in the lobby of our hotel in Rome,” Wass said. “We talked to the front desk staff, and they say, ‘Yeah that would be great.' So, we just set up around dinner time around the lobby of the hotel and started playing. And all these people started coming in and listening and they thought it was cool.”
During Wass's travels, he noted one constant: “It's not just what you're bringing artistically, it's also in combination with where you are.”
It's not every day a musician can be the first to play their kind of instrument in a building. Wass was fortunate enough to experience this firsthand while playing the tuba in New Mexico.
“One of my favorite places to play is San Miguel Chapel in Santa Fe,” said Wass. “They claim to be the oldest church in the United States. The original foundation was laid in 1610. It's just a fabulous place to be with the history. I don't think anyone would have envisioned playing tuba there. I made this case to the audience that 1610, this instrument wasn't invented until 1835.”
Creativity is a funny thing. Sometimes a person needs a chance to break from the norm and recharge the creative energy. Wass did this in 2015 when he decided to do an eight-week residency at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity in Alberta, Canada. For those who have never traveled to the Banff Centre, the facility and the town sit firmly in the middle of Banff National Park.
“The recital hall has windows across the back so you can kind of see out over the whole valley if you're in the audience,” said Wass. “But more importantly they put windows behind the audience so when you're on stage, perfectly framed in this window is Cascade Mountain which is one of the iconic peaks. The audience never sees it. You have to be on stage to get that view, which I thought was really cool on the part of the architect.”
Playing an instrument such as the tuba has afforded Wass some unique opportunities. While serving as the president of the International Tuba and Euphonium Association, he journeyed to Spain for one of the most interesting ensembles he had ever been a part of.
“We partnered with the Spanish tuba and euphonium association to help them put on their third national conference they had done,” Wass said. “I was invited to attend the conference and I performed. One of the coolest things that they did was put everybody at that conference into a single mass ensemble. I got to conduct this ensemble of 400 tuba and euphonium players from all over Spain, Portugal and France, most of whom I didn't even know.”
Tuba and Euphonium Community
To say the tuba or euphonium community is close-knit would be an understatement. According to Wass it really is a numbers game.
“Right now, there are about 70 people in the country who do what I do – teach full-time at a university,” Wass said. “There are fewer and fewer in the military. But the premiere military bands have three or four tubas, three or four euphoniums. There's probably another 100 that are doing that. And there are about 50 orchestras that support a full-time tuba player. There aren't that many of us that are professional performers and teachers on the instrument.”
Just because they are fewer in size doesn't mean these low brass players don't know how to organize. In 1973, the Tubist Universal Brotherhood Association – TUBA – was formed. Yes, Wass loved the acronym. As time progressed, the organization wanted to be more inclusive of those that play the euphonium, which led to the now International Tuba and Euphonium Association or ITEA. Not as cool sounding as TUBA.
What has amazed Wass's colleagues at Texas Tech and across the music community is how much members of the ITEA relate to one another - how much they appreciate one another.
“I had a colleague from here, Annie Chalex Boyle, who's a violinist, come with me to one of our international conferences,” Wass said. “She was performing with me. She was just blown away. Boyle said ‘I just don't understand this world at all. Violinists all hate each other.' It's not necessarily true, but it is a little harder for them to get along. We were just walking up the stairway and she and I were talking and all of a sudden somebody stopped me and grabbed my arm and I had a little chat with them. And she was like ‘Who was that?' And I said ‘It's the principal tuba from the Chicago symphony.' These are people that I just know because we have a really tight community. We really stick together.”
Polka. Yes, Polka
In the fall of 2022, Wass along with several other faculty members, including Associate Dean for Faculty, Research and Creative Activity Peter Martens took part in assembling and performing in a polka band at a few breweries around Lubbock. It was all part of Oktoberfest celebrations which became known as Oktubafest in 2009 around the School of Music.
“We call it Oktubafest because it's ours,” Wass said. “We're trying to get out into the community with some of the things we do. Friends of Music is a great organization that helps us do that. There's this really popular culture at the breweries in Lubbock and there's new breweries all the time. And we thought what better month than October to really get in on that?”
And get in on it they did, performing at Good Line and Two Docs Brewery during the month of October. Not only did faculty members perform, but so did students studying the tuba and euphonium at Texas Tech.
“I'm always really careful about this,” Wass said. “I want to be able to strike that balance where people don't just think of the tuba as a funny instrument. We were playing a pops concert for Lubbock Symphony Orchestra, and I had a tuba solo and it was timed with a joke in the narration.”
“I think it's about finding your own identity and for me, I try to balance that.”
Should playing the tuba be all about polka, punctuation, and oompa, oompa, or should it be much more than that? Wass is a firm believer in the latter.
“We also have to look at it as opportunity,” Wass said. “It's hard to find opportunities to perform as a tuba player because people don't think about it in small ensembles. We're trying to change that. I'm commissioning a lot of music for chamber groups.”
Part of the process of changing the perception begins at Texas Tech. After outside composers scoffed at the idea or decided an ensemble consisting of a tuba, violin and piano couldn't be done, Wass went a different direction and reached out to composition faculty and students on campus about an idea.
It was the amidst the Covid-19 pandemic and everything across campus was shut down. It got Wass, his wife Susan Wass, a senior lecturer in Collaborative Piano and Boyle thinking: How can they perform their music in an open setting with instruments not traditionally amplified for maximum reach? And what could this group of composers put together with this unique ensemble?
“My wife came up with it,” recalled Wass. “She said ‘What if we perform at different works of public art on the Texas Tech campus?' From there, we went to the composition faculty here and the composition students wrote nine new pieces for our trio.”
The group did just what they set out to do, performing the nine originally composed pieces with their trio. For the students it provided a model for what they can accomplish to push beyond the comfortable into the unique.
“You don't have to write for the same ensembles that everyone's written for,” Wass said. You can write for us as tuba players and we'll find a way to fit in.”
You can watch the trio's performance here.
The Gotcha Moment
Most musicians are looking for a moment. A moment that reaches an audience on a level which would indicate a connection. The moment might be a facial gesture, an emotional response like tears or a smile. And sometimes that moment can be audible like the one Wass experienced while on his eight-week residency at the Banff Centre.
“One of the performances I did in Banff – I did kind of a legendary piece for solo tuba,” recounted Wass. “No accompaniment, just me on stage. Very, very difficult. In fact, when it was first written, people said it was unplayable in the 60s. I got to work with a professional lighting designer. We spent probably four or five hours setting everything and doing rehearsals.”
Wass coordinated with the lighting designer to make sure the moment was not lost on a single audience member. Keep in mind, those who attend a performance are performers, musicians and artists. These people are accustomed to creating those same kind of emotional moments. Included in the group are retirees who fill the town of Banff and are used to seeing some amazing art performed on the stages at the Banff Centre.
“These are people who are super educated,” Wass said. “They know modern music. They know new music. So, there's a spot in there where everything fades out and it goes into silence. And my next entrance is as loud as I can play.”
Wass had instructed the lighting designer after the lights fade, to hit every light and color full as he played.
“We really pulled them in. You could just tell,” he said. “You could get that feeling during the performance the audience was really into what was going on. It got me excited through the fade out. And when I hit that note I heard gasps. It was that connection of music of the visual of just that event that the two of us had worked to set up.”
During the summer of 2022, Wass was teaching a group of 45-50 middle school students at a camp in Austin. These were dedicated young musicians according to Wass, all involved in multiple camps along with preparing for the coming band season.
“I just asked them ‘How many people know all 12 of their major scales?' Like five hands went up,” Wass said. “I said ‘Great, good for you.' And you could see all the other kids looking at the floor like I was going to beat them up.”
Instead of making them feel bad, Wass went a different direction with the students.
“‘You know what? What if this is a room full of flute players? How many hands would have gone up if I said how many people know all 12 of your major scales?'” Wass asked. “And one the kids said, ‘Yeah every hand.' I said, ‘Does that make you mad that people have such low expectations of you as low brass players?' And that's what we're really trying to get out of. For generation upon generation upon generation we've thought those instruments can't be played technically.”
As Wass was quick to mention, the old way of thinking can't be further from the truth. And as he pointed out, it is his and his fellow tuba and euphonium instructors' job to change the perception.
“I used to get kind of offended by it,” recalled Wass. “‘Wow, I didn't know tuba could do that! I thought it was just oompa, oompa.' But why would they know? It's my job to show people there are other things we can do.”
Do What Excites You
Wass began his teaching career with older elementary school students. He loves what he does and wouldn't trade his experiences for the world. But there is just something special about the beginning of someone's musical journey.
“There's nothing like starting something new. It's such a cool feeling,” said Wass. “And as a teacher it's so fun to be a part of that. Seeing a kid pick up an instrument for the first time and make a sound – and it's usually terrible. And they don't care. There's no judgment; there's no, ‘Am I doing this right?' There's just this pure joy in making noise.”
Part of Wass's story is everyone's story – searching for a place to fit in and thrive. Wass has done so through his music. He has connected to audiences by sharing a moment through music however it may sound.
“If that excites you, get after it,” Wass said. “Not everyone is going to become a virtuoso. That's not why music exists. That's not why music education exists. It's to give us all a chance to participate and to connect – connect with each other as we are performing and connect with audiences. You have to get them to feel what we feel by this abstract language of sound. If that's something that excites you, do it.”