At Christmas, The Tubas Finally Get The Melody

In more than 270 cities this year, all around the world, special concerts will present Christmas music down at the low end of the musical scale. It's called "Tuba Christmas," and we hear a bit of it from a performance in Washington, D.C.

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Holiday music: Bing, "Silver Bells," Nat, evening carolers, and, of course, tubas. Well, maybe not. But hundreds of thousands of tubas oom-pah-pah their way through holiday standards in annual concerts every year, all around the world. It's called Tuba Christmas and this is its 40th year. NPR's Gabrielle Emanuel swung by the Washington, D.C. event this week.

GABRIELLE EMANUEL, BYLINE: The Grand Foyer at the Kennedy Center is so big the Washington Monument could fit in sideways with a few extra feet to spare. But right now it's crowded with tuba players. And they're warming up.


EMANUEL: Sitting in the middle of all this is Lucas Edmunds. He's a ninth grader from Hilton High School in Woodbridge, Virginia. His tuba is lit up with red Christmas lights. The room is all ornaments and brass, and deep, deep noise.

LUCAS EDMUNDS: It's like listening to a thunderstorm that's in tune. It looks like a forest of brass really. There's short ones and tall ones and all shapes and sizes, just like there are trees.

EMANUEL: Musicians eight to 89 have come from all over the country for this instrument's big day.

SHARON DOOLEY: It's like the only time that tubas get to play the melody, and tubas get to shine. So, this is awesome.

EMANUEL: That's Sharon Dooley from Alexandria, Virginia. Her daughter Maddie is playing in today's concert. Before the show even starts, families have staked out their piece of carpet. The conductor, Colonel Timothy Holtan, is standing at the front.

COLONEL TIMOTHY HOLTAN: You know, they're not supposed to have food and drinks but here come the blankets and the food and they're sure enthusiastic.

EMANUEL: Finally, with 1,200 listeners and nearly 400 tubas, Matt Kattenburg of the Kennedy Center has the crowd fired up.

MATT KATTENBURG: If you guys want to hear some tubas, let me hear you scream.


KATTENBURG: All right.

EMANUEL: Over the course of 14 carols, the massive hall vibrates in harmony. The big Christmas hits are all here: "Joy to the World"...


EMANUEL: ..."Deck the Halls"...


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Singing) Deck the halls with boughs of holly...

EMANUEL: ...and "Jingle Tubas"?


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Singing) Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle...

EMANUEL: Tuba Christmas goes back to the late Harvey Phillips, a famous tuba player. He wanted to memorialize his teacher and make sure tubas got the respect they were due. Now, four decades later, the concerts are held in close to 300 cities worldwide.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) a one-horse open sleigh.


EMANUEL: This year, D.C. had its biggest turnout yet. And ninth grader Lucas Edmunds says it went pretty well.

EDMUNDS: It sounded great, that's for sure. While I was sitting there, I could feel the rumblings in the air.

EMANUEL: Yes, Christmas is in the air - not just bells and snowflakes, but tubas too. For NPR News, I'm Gabrielle Emanuel.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Singing) Santa wants a tuba for Christmas. It's all that he ever asked for...

SIMON: It's NPR News.

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