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Why you need to know Randy Harrison, coordinator of Merry Tuba Christmas Bel Air

Why you need to know Randy Harrison, coordinator of Merry Tuba Christmas Bel Air
Randy Harrison is the conductor and organizer of Merry Tuba Christmas Bel Air. He poses in front of tubas and brass instruments at Baltimore Brass Co. in Catonsville. (Doug Kapustin / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Each December, dozens of tuba players in holiday garb congregate in Bel Air, their euphoniums, sousaphones, helicons and alto horns festooned with decorations for the Merry Tuba Christmas concert. Behind the baton is Essex resident Randy Harrison, the longtime conductor who brought the event to Harford County 10 years ago.

The 65-year-old's musical career spans more than 40 years. He's played tuba for professional orchestras along the East Coast and has been on the faculty at the Maryland Conservatory of Music in Havre de Grace for nine years. In his off hours he contracts, conducts and teaches private lessons, along with playing French horn for the Orchestra Society of Philadelphia.

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But each August, Harrison begins preparing for the event sponsored by the Maryland Conservatory of Music and the town of Bel Air.

We caught up with Harrison as he prepared for this year's concert.

Tuba Christmas is an international series of events. What led you to begin one in Harford County?

I had a superb young tuba student at the Maryland Conservatory of Music. I pulled her mother to the side and said, "You should take [your daughter] down to Tuba Christmas Baltimore and let her experience playing with 300 other tubists. It's fun." She looked at me and said, "Mr. Harrison, can we have a Tuba Christmas here?" And the smart answer would have been no. It's a lot of work and preparations. But every year when we get done with the program, it's well worth it.

What's your favorite part of the experience?

I particularly enjoy meeting all the people who are enthusiastically coming out to play just for the fun of playing. As a matter of fact, they actually pay a $10 registration fee to play. Plus, just meeting the younger players, the older ones, getting to know them, rehearsing them. And then, feeling the audience response when we play, because we just have gotten thunderous rounds of applause every year.

Last year the event pulled in more than 400 people. Why do you think the performance attracts such a strong turnout?

A lot of the attendees … are family members for the people who are playing. So if we have more tubas, we tend to have a bigger audience.

And the thought of hearing a bunch of tubas play Christmas carols probably starts out as a bit of a curiosity for people, of "Are they kidding? Let's go hear this one." And when they get there, the sound is amazing. The tubas sound like a giant low-pitched church organ, and people then go away thinking, "Wow, this is great music." And they come back and tell their friends.

In 2014 you played a solo of "Oh Holy Night" — not what you'd expect to hear played with a tuba. Why do you do pieces like that?

We do pieces like that to prove to the rest of the world that tuba is a real musical instrument and can be played beautifully and expressively. It doesn't just play oom-pahs at an Oktoberfest, which is a typical person's view of a tuba. Harvey Phillips, the founder of Tuba Christmas, that was his lifelong crusade: to let people know that the tuba is a very beautiful musical instrument.

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