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Remembering Harvey Phillips

Josh Harris • Archives • November 5, 2010

There are scant few people who come along in the music world and become bigger than life, whose accomplishments transcend what could be imagined of only one human being. One of those rare individuals is Harvey Phillips, a man who probably did more for the tuba than nearly anyone in the history of the instrument. He was a big man with a big heart and a big instrument, and he brought the world a tremendous amount of joy and friendship, as well as a very clear understanding that the tuba can do far more than “Oom Pah.” He was called the Heifetz and Paganini of the Tuba by many highly regarded sources. Harvey died on Wednesday, October 20 at the age of 80, but his legacy in the tuba world and beyond will only become greater as time goes on.

Many non-musicians and musicians had a pre-conceived notion of the capabilities of the tuba, until they heard Harvey play. Pieces that were unimaginable on such a large and “low” instrument he could play with great facility, delicacy, intensity, and musicality. According to the Indiana University Newsroom Nov. 27, 2007, “Harvey Phillips changed the way the world sees the tuba and revolutionized the brass idiom,” said Daniel Perantoni, who succeeded Phillips as tuba professor at the Jacobs School of Music. “Through his tireless efforts, he is responsible for the vast expansion of the tuba literature and increased awareness of the tuba as a musical instrument.”

Marketing is not a word that is normally associated with musicians and educators, but Harvey was a great marketer of the tuba. His promotion of the instrument was global, especially with his development of the OcTubafest and Tuba Christmas. These events, featuring hundreds of tuba players dressed up in Santa Claus suits playing Jingle Bells or some other uplifting holiday tunes, could often be seen on many morning news shows from Rockefeller Center. People who may have played tuba at one time or another during their lives would pull out their big horns, polish them up, and make their way to these annual gatherings. It didn’t matter how good a player you were, it just mattered that you would be willing to join with other folks who enjoy some time together playing music.

Phillips maintained the “Tuba Ranch” at his home near the campus of Indiana University, and that was the scene of many exciting tuba-oriented occasions. There was an old barn on the property, and of course it had an old tuba hanging below the gable to let folks know that they had arrived at the right place. Although I didn’t know Harvey personally during my time at IU, many of my tuba-playing friends would come back with some great stories of the enjoyment that they had at the “Ranch.”

It’s difficult to mention all of Harvey’s accomplishments in one short article, but he was elected to the American Classical Music Hall of Fame, an honor mostly given to conductors and string players, he commissioned dozens of new pieces for the tuba in order to add a quality passel of works to the previously limited solo repertoire, he founded the New York Brass Quintet, and performed with luminary classical and jazz musicians throughout the world. Though the tuba world has lost their greatest proponent, no doubt Harvey’s influence has given this instrument much greater respect and understanding among all musicians and music lovers.

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