Bel Air Tuba Christmas rings in the season with brassy holiday tunes

When Sophia Mohen’s school band sits down to play, she’s the only middle schooler hoisting a tuba to her lips.

But on Sunday she was in good company. Forty tuba, euphonium and other low brass players from the Baltimore region gathered to play a concert of Christmas carols to a nearly full house at Bel Air High School.

Now in its tenth year, Merry Tuba Christmas draws a crowd of holiday sweater-donning musicians with instruments decked in garland and lights, who pay $10 to play. The concert is free to attend.

“It’s just the Christmas spirit, said Mohen, 13, a Tuba Christmas first-timer, who wore a headband with glittery Santa faces.

The seventh-grader at Sudlersville Middle School in Queen Anne’s County came with her music teacher, Ron Demby.

Demby said he wanted to bring Mohen to the concert so she could see what tubas can do.

The size of the instrument, which can weigh 30 pounds when made out of brass, can be intimidating to young musicians, he said.

“Once they start playing and being successful, they start to like it,” Demby said.

Tuba Christmas was started in 1974 by tuba player Harvey Phillips, whom the New York Times once described as the “Titan of Tuba” for his work to elevate the instrument’s status. The event is now replicated in dozens of cities across the United States and around the world.

Randy Harrison, a longtime conductor and musician, introduced the event in Bel Air 10 years ago and on Sunday conducted his last performance.

He said he loves the event because of the sound created by low brass instruments in four-part harmony, which he compared to a “great big low pitch church organ.”

“It’s very gratifying,” Harrison said.

In a traditional band, tubas and other low brass instruments largely serve as a foundation to support melodies played by lighter flutes, clarinets and trumpets.

But Tuba Christmas, they are the stars.

“You have tubas and euphoniums doing things they don’t normally do,” said Frank Wilsey, of Baltimore. “Once in a while we get to have some fun.”

Wilsey and fellow tuba player James Laisure have said they plan to take over the administrative responsibility of Bel Air’s Tuba Christmas, to ensure it continues after Harrison retires from the event. It is sponsored by the Maryland Conservatory of Music and the town of Bel Air.

The group plays many of the same favorites year after year, but always adds in a few new tunes, Harrison said.

He kicked off the concert with “Here We Come A-wassailing,” followed by “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “We Three Kings.”

After playing a verse, the audience was invited to join in and sing the carols.

Santa Claus made an appearance and helped keep beat with his jingle bells.

Thirteen-year-old Jack Perry said he was excited to play with so many other tubas.

“The reason I picked it was I thought it was a cool instrument,” said Perry, a seventh-grader at Bel Air Middle School.

He came to the performance with his cousin, father and grandfather, all of whom play either the tuba or euphonium.

“It’s a fun family time,” said Wayne Perry, Jack’s grandfather.

Mike Wirtanen came to Bel Air for his 97th Tuba Christmas since 1982. The 57-year-old Edgewood resident has played in shows as far away as Maine because he loves the idea of young and old musicians coming together to learn from each other.

Wirtanen collects pins at every stop he makes, and sometimes gives them away to young musicians who seem to need a confidence boost.

He always brings his helicon, which has a circular shape to fit over the player’s shoulder and is permanently decorated for the holidays.

The instrument was decked in an evergreen wreath, complete with a battery-powered string of lights and tree ornaments.

Other musicians wrapped their instruments in garland and one was outfitted with reindeer antlers.

“There are only so many ways you can do Christmas music,” said Wilsey, “but this is different.”

sarah.gantz@baltsun.com

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