Brass to the left of me. Brass to the right of me. And brass behind me.
Nearly 500 tuba-family instruments were on stage Saturday at the University of Akron’s E.J. Thomas Hall for the 33rd annual Akron TubaChristmas.
And I, like other Beacon Journal columnists before me, was invited to be a guest soloist.
A few friends were shocked, knowing I can’t sing a note.
Others who don’t know me so well called to apologize that they wouldn’t be able to hear me sing.
Trust me, no one would have wanted to.
However, in this case it meant hitting only eight notes on the tuba, playing Jingle Bells before two packed-house audiences, including 2,850 for the first show and slightly under that for the second.
Akron’s TubaChristmas is such a big deal that it caused a bit of a traffic jam, as those coming to the second show tried to dodge vehicles from the earlier production.
Of course, the real musicians — about 450 of them — were the true attractions in this joy-filled event that truly is a gift to the community.
For starters, it’s free; well, except for the musicians who are charged $5 but rewarded with 40 dozen doughnuts and 16 gallons of apple cider.
Tucker Jolly — who absolutely has the right name — is founder of Akron’s TubaChristmas and a professor of music at UA. It is one of the largest of the 200 TubaChristmases around the world.
“We want to dispel that this elephant-like instrument makes a gross noise,” Jolly said. “We want to make it beautiful and graceful.”
That they did with everything from The First Noel to Come All Ye Faithful to Go Tell It on The Mountain and It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.
A few of the real musicians — including a colleague’s 12-year-old son, Michael Trexler — assured me I nailed the last note. Not so much with the other seven, I’m guessing.
Fans of the tuba
The musicians came from rather diverse backgrounds, from middle and high school students to college music majors, high school band directors and professional musicians.
In addition to all of the beautiful music — a la Christmas carols pouring out of all of the tuba-family instruments (including the euphonium, sousaphone) — those instruments represented big money as I learned a tuba, purchased new, could easily cost between $5,000 and $10,000.
This mega party — and that’s exactly what it is — showcased not only world-class talent, but also some of the jazziest Santa hats around.
Several of the musicians went all out in decorating their monstrous tubas. Some used garland, giant Christmas stockings and murals while other tubas bore lights galore.
Ryan Wallis — who graduated last week from UA with a degree in physical education — wrapped his instrument in more than 1,000 mini lights.
“I just like making a bold statement,” the 24-year-old teased. “Like the Clark Griswold of the tuba!’’
Akron’s Michael Pasko — a Tucker Jolly student back in the day who went on to play in the Air Force Band — distinguished himself this day by not only playing well, but by donning a Browns jersey honoring its one-time quarterback Charlie Frye, who starred on the gridiron at UA.
Akron’s Robin Hershey decorated her tuba in the spirit of the holiday, but with the recent tragedy at Newtown, Conn., weighing heavy on her heart. She attached 26 ribbons — six large ones in the colors of the rainbow, and 20 “little ones” in shades of green.
“Green,” she reminded, “is the color of life.”
One of the highlights was UA music professor and director of bands Robert Jorgensen, who served as guest conductor as he has so many years to an appreciative audience, who sang along with Away in the Manger and more.
Jorgensen — who was attending a huge conference of university band directors in Chicago — left a day early to make it back in time and to thunderous applause.
Jolly — sounding a rah-rah for the importance of school music programs — recognized several high schools who had 10 or more players on stage: Lake, Kenmore, Garfield in Garrettsville, Crestwood, New Philadelphia, Riverside in Painesville, Green and Stow-Munroe Falls.
Denise and Mike Baker — whose son Devin Zenner, a freshman at Kenmore High School and the only tuba player in the school’s band — were there to encourage and cheer him on.
Kevin Tanner of Tallmadge — who is a Mason fresh off the mammoth holiday food basket delivery to low-income families in Northeast Ohio — was happy to partner this day with his 23-year-old son Donovan.
Jim Rogers — who works in the Beacon Journal’s mail room and who studied many years ago under Jolly — played alongside his 16-year-old son Joseph.
Players of all ages
This concert is so popular, it draws participants and audience members alike of all ages and from both near and far.
The oldest player was Akron’s John Ramey — professor emeritus in the School of Social Work at UA. He’s 86. The youngest were two 10-year-olds from Garrettsville.
The farthest traveled was James Evans, who was stationed in the Navy in Naples, Italy.
Daniel Casglow of Akron — a 22-year TubaChristmas player — was overjoyed that his daughter, Air Force Maj. Dahnyell Casglow, could be home on leave to play the tuba with him.
“She drove all the way here from Colorado Springs with her dog, Chloe,” he said.
Several other members of the military, home for the holidays, were also well represented.
Of course, the civilian population traveled great distances to play.
Chuck Hoff of Fairlawn — who lives part time in Florida — said he tries never to miss playing in Akron’s TubaChristmas. So far he’s made it 22 times.
Closer to home, Jack Miller of Kent — who is a rubber technology operator at Goodyear’s Tech Center — has been coming with his tuba for 25 years nonstop “just because it’s so much fun.”
Then there are the tuba players in training ready and willing to sit alongside the veterans of the brass.
This is the third year that Nathan Moore — a junior at Stow-Munroe Falls High School — has been playing. “I love to hear the audience cheering. For me that really brings the Christmas spirit,” Nathan said.
14-year-old Alden Munnerlyn — who plays the tuba at the National Inventors Hall of Fame School —— was in the audience last year.
“I definitely like being on stage much better,” he said.
Before Saturday’s performances, Jim McIntyre of Cuyahoga Falls had already played in four other TubaChristmases. They truly are habit forming, McIntyre said, noting that Ohio is second only to Texas in the number of TubaChristmases.
In the words of Tucker Jolly — who arranged everything and even found the time to give me a few lessons on the tuba — “Let me wish you a happy TubaChristmas!”
Jewell Cardwell can be reached at 330-996-3567 or firstname.lastname@example.org.