Often we think of strings—violins, violas, cellos—as capable of producing the most sensual musical sounds. Yet there is only one instrument that fits this criterion by name: the eponymous euphonium, low brass progeny of the improbable late 16th century serpent. Invented (allegedly) in Germany in 1843, the “beautiful sound maker” is largely utilized as a band instrument and is in scarce orchestral demand, forcing professional euphoniumists to work by contract—swooping into orchestras, performing their job, and quickly fleeing the scene, all in relative anonymity. At the highest level—to earn the respect of legendary conductors like Vladimir Ashkenazy and Leonard Slatkin—this requires a curious mix of servility and vainglory.
The euphonium is a valved low brass instrument similar in appearance to a tuba but playing mainly in the tenor range. Euphonium comes from the word euphony, which is Greek for sweet-voiced; euphonium means beautiful sound maker. The Greeks really knew how to name things. Everyone who hears the instrument asks, “What is that?” and so you tell them, “It is a euphonium,” and they ask, “What is that?” and then you have to explain, and then they say it is beautiful and it is a shame it is not heard more often, but the euphonium will never be heard more often, and so the euphonium is a permanent shame.
Not one orchestra on the planet currently employs a euphoniumist because very little of the orchestral repertoire calls for the euphonium. Bands are the only full-time employers. In the U.S., the only professional bands are military bands in Washington, D.C. and Connecticut. There is no New York Philharmonic Band or Chicago Symphony Band. High schools have football teams, and so they have bands. Colleges and universities also have bands, and so they offer degrees in euphonium performance. I have two degrees in euphonium performance and another in tuba performance. The number of professional euphoniumists increases every year, but the job market does not. There are thousands of people for two-dozen jobs. On average, one new job is available every two years. By their mid-twenties, most euphoniumists who have not won a job try something else. I work odd jobs to pay the bills. There are more starting quarterbacks in the NFL than U.S.citizens making a living by playing the euphonium. I am a euphonium assassin, and I am the best there is.
Sometimes, composers like Richard Strauss, Gustav Holst, and Maurice Ravel had euphonium parts for their orchestral compositions. For this reason, these pieces are rarely performed. If they are, the orchestra has to find someone to play the euphonium part. Sometimes one of the trombonists will volunteer. They might get doublers’ pay that week. But not always.
There are about seven pieces that have euphonium. I practice them constantly. My living room walls are the audience. Last summer, part of the ceiling collapsed one day after I finished practicing. Because it was not caused by water or vermin, insurance did not cover the claim.
Euphoniumists hardly ever perform in public, but when the call comes, I gather my equipment, study the target orchestra, and refine my part accordingly. Since the orchestra personnel manager might not have realized euphonium was needed for a certain piece, the call might come quite late. The assassin is ever prepared and never rattled.
A few years ago, I was called by the Detroit Symphony to play the solo in the movement Bydlo from Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, orchestrated by Maurice Ravel and conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy. That is a lot of detail to remember, but assassins have to have perfect recall. You also have to know things in advance, like the fact that Vladimir Ashkenazy also has his own orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition that does not use euphonium. If we were to use that one, why would I be called to such a performance? It could be some kind of trap.
Soon I was told Vladimir Ashkenazy decided to use his version but, for the audience’s sake, wanted to compare some parts of the Ravel orchestration with his own. This call came on a Tuesday for a Friday concert. There was one rehearsal on Thursday. Then Vladimir Ashkenazy cancelled the rehearsal. It sounded more and more like a trap.
My tuxedos are always clean and pressed, and I have a special system so that I know exactly where everything is. Sometimes you need tails and a white tie, sometimes no tails and a black tie, sometimes a white jacket. The assassin has all these items ready at a moment’s notice. I grabbed the garment bag with tails and a white tie and headed to Detroit. The concert started prior to my arrival, so I slipped in the stage door unnoticed. There is no point in showing up for a Rossini overture if you have no part to play.
The assassin does not just sit around.
I warmed up in the basement in a soundproof room and climbed the rear staircase to the backstage area. By this point, it was intermission and the tubist was warming up. He was sitting on a crate and said, “Hey, you have a solo tonight.” This was true. No tuning note, no warm-up overture, just a solo. After intermission, I walked onstage and noticed 2,000 people in the audience.
Vladimir Ashkenazy decided to introduce all of his musical comparisons to those 2,000 people. He told them that he had changed his version of Bydlo because “the solo often sounds comical.” It is actually a tuba solo and is meant to sound like a heavy, ponderous oxcart in a painting by Viktor Hartmann, to whom Mussorgsky’s entire work is dedicated. Mussorgsky hastily wrote the piece after Hartmann died, for piano only, and almost everyone likes the Maurice Ravel orchestration best. The solo starts in an impossibly soft way. The euphonium portrays the oxcart in the g-sharp minor key, far higher in range than a bass or contrabass tuba would want to. The thirteenth note, the first high g-sharp, has ruined many men, left them palsied and unsure of anything for decades. It must be dealt with like blowfish: poison unless handled by a true master.
After Vladimir Ashkenazy told everyone he changed Bydlo so it would not sound comical anymore, he asked me to play the comical version. By then my lips were stiff. (It was in anticipation of this that at random times during the past four nights I’d awoken and played Bydlo with no warm up. This is how an assassin prepares.) Since he had cancelled the rehearsal, I had no idea what tempo he planned to take, or even if he would conduct in two or four. I knew that because I would only have about one-third of a second to determine the tempo and conducting pattern, I had to both watch the conductor intently and listen to the eighth notes played on the cello and bass. It was definitely a trap, I thought. But then I caressed the high g-sharp perfectly, and it teased out into the audience like a rare fragrance. Ashkenazy looked surprised but also pleased.
The solo ended. I sat on the stage for another 30 minutes while the orchestra played the rest of the piece. I received $112.48 by check two weeks later. My name never appeared in the program. Only a top assassin can do this. It is as if I am one of the last people on earth to speak a dying language that nobody knows about or cares is dying.
On June 24, 2009, while cycling I was struck by a car traveling 52 mph. I got dragged under the car and than spat out 73 ft. away. I had a broken right hip, right small finger, two lowermost left ribs, and left arm. I spent six days in the hospital. While there I had my mouthpiece delivered so I could buzz on it. Two weeks later I had surgery to put a plate in my broken arm. Two weeks after that I played my first notes in my living room with the new ceiling. I still knew all seven of my parts from memory.
In another two weeks I was contacted by the Detroit Symphony for two concert series: Richard Strauss’s Don Quixote and Gustav Mahler’s Seventh Symphony, to be performed in September and October. Both have euphonium. I told the personnel manager I had broken my arm but that I could still play. I did not tell him that I had nerve damage and had lost the use of my left hand. They had already tried to trap me once but it didn’t work. I had the advantage.
In mid-August I began experimenting with how to hold the instrument in a performance context with no left hand. I used towels and strange leg angles to prop up the instrument. I developed new techniques for emptying the spit valves using only one hand. I calibrated my tuner to 442 Hz for the note a-natural, since that is the pitch of the Detroit Symphony. The Don Quixote series would have rehearsals, which is beneficial unless there are too many. For professional orchestras, three is generally the sweet spot for the number of rehearsals. Fewer, and things are uncertain. More, and the last rehearsal devolves into bickering with everyone surreptitiously checking their phones.
On the night of the concert, I had a heavy brace on my hand but removed it in the car prior to walking into the building. (The assassin never shows weakness.) This made it difficult to carry my euphonium and the mute that was needed. Only serious euphoniumists have their own mutes. I have four; each makes a different sound.
Playing the role of Sancho Panza, the bass clarinet and euphonium work in tandem during Don Quixote. Often the two sit together for that reason, but not this time. I sat in the back left corner to the left of the tuba. The low brasses sit in order of descending range: trombone, bass trombone, tuba. Due to range, the euphonium should be placed between the trombone and the bass trombone or between the bass trombone and the tuba. But this is never done because the others are all regular members and have developed a chemistry of proximity that cannot be disturbed. So I sit off to the side. Before rehearsal starts, the bass clarinetist gives me a questioning look about why I am so far away, and I wrinkle my forehead, shrugging.
Rehearsal begins, and when our duet arrives, I cannot hear the bass clarinet at all. Leonard Slatkin says the balance is fine. He is tonight’s conductor—he might be the most famed and respected living American conductor—and the orchestra trusts him. Trust is the stock-in-trade of the conductors who really understand the business. Many rich and famous conductors would rather conduct 75 polished mirrors than 75 orchestral musicians. Orchestral musicians are more like fun-house mirrors, and you can never be sure of exactly how they will reflect you. But if they do not trust you, it is certain they will make you look bad.
When the concert was over, Leonard Slatkin gave me the first solo bow. I stashed my instrument under my right arm since I could not hold it with the left.
The next concert was Mahler’s Seventh Symphony, which opens with a tenorhorn solo marked grosser ton by Mahler. Grosser ton means big sound and since there are no tenorhorns anyway, the euphonium gets to play its part. There was only one rehearsal because they did not want to pay all the extra players for two rehearsals. Mahler’s Seventh Symphony has the most extras of any famous piece, even guitar and mandolin. On the night of the final concert, the mandolin player appeared in a white tie and tails, but because the concert was in a suit and tie, he had to borrow suit parts from different persons and ended up looking terrible. He was not an assassin. It was not even a trap and he still fouled.
In the Mahler, the euphonium sits in the back and starts on a loud high f-sharp. This note has caused many aneurisms and must never be attempted by regular people; I wake up in the middle of the night to play this note too. Because the solo starts after the strings have sixty-fourth notes in the first two measures, you have to count to find the tempo. The shorter the notes, the less people agree on how to play them. This is the opposite of logic but true nonetheless; and anyway, it means that sixty-fourth notes are a lousy way to find the tempo. So basically, when you enter you have to tell everyone what the tempo is and play with extraordinary confidence.
This solo is the only one well suited to the predisposition of the euphonium assassin. In every concert, I played it flawlessly and received the first solo bow. Then an odd feeling set in, because after the solo, the rest of the first movement takes ten minutes, and then there are four movements lasting over one hour. At the last concert I sat and watched the mandolin player, who looked terrible in his borrowed suit parts.
During that week, the orchestra announced that it would be staging one of the only other pieces that involve euphonium, The Planets, by Gustav Holst. It was supposed to be conducted by Leonard Slatkin, but he was ill with heart trouble. I still could not use my left hand, but this was not sufficient to stop me.
The Planets is always crowded on stage because there are extra winds plus an organ and choir. The choir is supposed to be offstage, but sometimes there is a video hookup from the stage to the choir instead; there are wires everywhere. The special chemistry of proximity in the low brasses was extended to the trumpets that week, and we all sat in one great arc. I was off to the side and directly behind the organist, who was sitting up on his bench with his highlighter and his magazine propped up on a Plexiglas music stand. He was also a bass player in the orchestra, so he could have gotten doubler’s pay. The trombones asked me if I could see. I said that I couldn’t, but then the conductor started the movement Mars in 5/4 time. If I moved my head sideways, I could see the conductor’s head through the Plexiglas music stand that was on top of the organ. The stand was scratched and made the conductor look like a pirate.
The problem with the solo in Mars is that it happens two bars after a big climax that often has a ritardando leading up to it. Sometimes, after that, the orchestra has trouble getting going again with its unison quarter notes, and so the tempo is unsteady when you are supposed to enter. Usually if this happens, the conductor is far ahead of the orchestra by nearly a full beat, so he cues you before it sounds like you should enter and then stops and tells you that you entered too late. Even though you are not a regular member, you always want to take sides with the orchestra in this case. But I decided to play slightly in between the orchestra and the conductor, which allowed us not to stop, and the next time it was not a problem anymore. I am the only person in the world who can do this sitting directly behind the organist looking through Plexiglas with a numb left hand.
The next day when we arrived, the stage layout had been completely redone so that the organist was at the back of everything. The trap had been set for me but now was sprung on him. This was better for him anyway, due to the magazines. (You don’t want to be caught reading a magazine during the concert; there would be serious repercussions. Therefore, the farther away you are from being seen, the better.) There were four concerts, and I did not receive the first solo bow, but I was near the top, and my part was not as prominent as the other pieces. The tubist said my high C in Uranus was the best he ever heard.
The sound of the euphonium is rare and beautiful, and so when it is heard in the orchestra it is a special sound. Some things are prized only due to rarity. Rarity creates their value. But not the euphonium. The euphonium will not be remembered by history. Because of this, we play each note like it is our last. The violinist will never understand.