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Curtain Call: Mike Knox finds bliss in the tuba

Mike Knox poses with the CC tuba he plays with the Rogue Valley Symphony Orchestra, just one of several ensembles of which he's a member. Submitted photo

A rough and tumble first experience on the gridiron led Mike Knox to a life of wrestling with big, unwieldy brass band instruments. And loving every minute of it.

Knox, born and raised in Medford, grew up in the 1950s.

“Fourth grade was when football started for boys,” he said. “At the first practice, I got knocked over too many times. So, knowing that band was starting for fourth graders too, I went out for band instead.”

He started out playing the trumpet but didn’t really like it. What he really liked was his “Tubby the Tuba” record, an enchanting tale of a winsome little tuba who tires of playing only oompah-oompah, and decides to go off and find a melody of his own.

“My mother suggested I ask to play tuba,” he said. “The band director, Al Hunteman, resisted, but I persisted. He came up with a small E-flat tuba for me to play, and I’ve played tuba ever since.”

He soon graduated to a bigger version. As a kid, it was a challenge to handle the large instrument. The school district shop solved that problem.

“They built a special stand to hold the Sousaphone (the marching version of a tuba) that I played for fifth and sixth grade,” he explained. “The instrument was cradled by three C-shaped holders and I would scramble inside and sit on a wooden platform.”

He also was encouraged by Medford High School band director Irv Mirick.

“He noticed me and began to mentor me at the summer band camp between fourth and fifth grades,” he said. It was Mirick who switched him to the larger B-flat tuba.

All his band teachers gave him free lessons, and his family was supportive. During the summers, his parents took him to Eugene to the University of Oregon band and orchestra camps.

In high school, he was named principal tuba for the Oregon All-State Band and for the All-Northwest Band.

Today, Knox plays tuba with the Rogue Valley Symphony Orchestra (RVSO), Ashland City Band, Jefferson State Brass, and the Ashland City Band’s Dixieland band. He is the second-generation leader of the Firehouse Five, a Dixieland band that plays on an old fire truck for the Ashland Fourth of July Parade.

The 73-year-old Ashland resident also plays in a German band with Michele Scheffler and friends. He retired from the Rogue Valley Symphonic Brass Quintet just before the pandemic started, and plays in a tuba quartet called the Rogue Tubas. (“We don’t mind our manners.”)

“I also play in a large tuba group we call the Southern Oregon Heavy Metal Society,” he said. “We play Christmas carols nowadays at the Rogue Valley Mall the first Saturday in December.

“I also play with an old timers’ band called The State of Jefferson Sometimes Marching Band. We play for small town parades that never attract other marching bands.”

Knox was the first tuba player for the RVSO, joining the orchestra in 1968.

“Except for 1974 and 1975 when I was in graduate school, I have played continuously for RVSO since then. I think I am the only member who has played under the baton of all our conductors,” he said.

He particularly relishes the music he gets to play this season in the RVSO, none of it saddling him with the dreaded oompah-oompah role. In the season’s first concert the weekend of Sept. 9, Richard Strauss’s “Death and Transfiguration” provided some elegant and intense tuba passages.

Other programs for the 2022-23 season include pieces that he looks forward to playing. Among them are Alexander Borodin’s large-scale Symphony No. 2, Dimitri Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1, Vítzslav Novak’s “In the Tatra Mountains,” and Gustav Holst’s “The Planets.”

“It’s going to be a good season,” he said. “I will miss the Masterworks 5 concert, so I won’t get to play the ‘Night of the Mayas’ by (Silvestre) Revueltas. But I will be in Anarctica, so that’s a fair compensation.”

Knox and his wife, Barbara, also a musician, love to travel. They have been to 45 countries, building their trips around birding and wildlife, native cultures, history and new experiences. “I have skinny-dipped on six continents,” he said.

Knox attended the University of Oregon before finishing at Southern Oregon College. In graduate school at Michigan State University, he studied social work. He retired as a social worker for the VA Domiciliary in White City. Hie wife is a licensed clinical social worker.

Knox played school-owned instruments until he graduated from college. He purchased his own tuba with money he earned from performing in the Green Show at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and from performing as principal tuba with the Britt Festival Orchestra.

“My first tuba, which I still own and play in RVSO concerts, was built in Germany by Alexander Brothers in Mainz,” he said. “It’s a four-valve CC instrument. It cost $800, the case another $400, and air freight from Germany was $400.”

The double “CC” indicates it’s in the key of C and in the lower register, a larger member of the tuba family. A good tuba today can cost from $7,000 to $14,000 and more.

Knox owns tubas in all available keys. The type of tuba he plays depends on what kind of ensemble he’s in.

“In band playing, I play a five-valve Alexander BB-flat, a large tuba that fulfills the bass requirements of a band,” he said. “In orchestra, a CC tuba is preferred.” String playing is easier in the sharp keys, so using a CC tuba allows him to play in those keys with easier fingerings too.

In chamber music, he plays a smaller tuba in F or E-flat, because the sound is lighter and blends better with the smaller ensembles.

“It is not uncommon for me to have two tubas with me at a concert in order to meet the requirements of the music,” he said.

How tough is it to travel with the tuba? When it comes to buying a car, the tuba is a consideration, he admitted.

“I do own a two-seater sports car,” he said, “a Porsche 914/6 with a license plate that reads, OOMPAH. I call it the world’s fastest tuba case.”

Sometimes when he’s traveling and he needs to practice to keep his lip in shape for an upcoming concert, he’ll take along the music, a recording, and just the mouthpiece to buzz into.”

Knox rhapsodizes about the joys of playing the instrument.

“Tuba in an orchestra is often not heard but felt,” he said. “I provide, along with the contrabass viol and bassoons, the foundation upon which the symphony is built.”

If you ask him what he finds is the beauty of the tuba, he’ll get downright scientific with you.

“I think tuba is one of the apexes of physical music technology,” he said. “The way the instrument is fashioned from a flat sheet of brass into a myriad of forms, all brought together at precise positions through the understanding of the physics of sound, enabling vibrating air to course through the tuba, detouring at precisely measured pathways to come out of the bell in a wavelength much longer than the length of the tuba itself.”

One can hardly imagine such compelling language coming from the owner of the tuba’s predecessor, the “serpent,” which was carved from wood and wrapped in leather.

Yes, people sometimes have misconceptions about the tuba.

“The most common one is that it’s a loud instrument,” Knox said. “It’s actually very difficult to play it loud. It takes huge quantities of air.”

Knox enjoys shattering preconceived notions about the instrument.

This summer, due to COVID, they had to cancel the Dixieland band performance before an Ashland City Band concert in Lithia Park.

“So, I took it upon myself to stroll through the audience and play tunes not often heard from a tuba,” he said. “Tunes like ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow,’ ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic,’ ‘Summertime’ and ‘Send in the Clowns.’”

He delights in playing for kids at the RVSO children’s concerts.

“I let them touch the tuba while I play it,” he said. “I teach them that it doesn’t always play loud, let them play the instrument, and, if it’s okay with the parents, teach them how sound waves work by tickling them without touching them.”

His favorite music to play is chamber music.

“There’s no room to hide,” he said. “All at once, you are a soloist and an ensemble player. The music is very technical and challenging, and you must be focused and deliver.”

Besides the tuba, Knox plays all sorts of bass clef instruments: the bass recorder for renaissance music, cimbasso for mid-eighteenth-century Italian classical music, and the ophicleide for mid-eighteenth-century French music.

“I also collect the bass versions of all instrument families,” he said. “I have a large conch shell, a ram’s horn (shofar), and one of every voice of the conical brass family.

Knox still looks back fondly on those formative years in elementary school bands.

“As an adult, I went to visit the widow of my first teacher, Al Hunteman, to pay my respects,” he said. “There, I discovered to my surprise the little E-flat tuba I first played as a fourth grader. It turns out Mr. Hunteman let me play his own tuba!

“And then Mrs. Hunteman gave it to me, along with a hard-cover lesson book Mr. Hunteman used to teach me. So now I own the first tuba I ever played.”

He also still has that “Tubby the Tuba” record. And in a busy schedule of musical performances, travel, volunteer work, family activities, and hobbies of photography and wine making, he finds time to play it now and then. Like Tubby, Knox went off and found a melody of his own.

Reach writer Jim Flint at jimflint.ashland@yahoo.com.