A brassy tradition


They peered from their hotel rooms, from the deck of the Constellation and from balconies up and down the Harborplace complex, people drawn to the sight - and sound - of more than 200 tubas and other brass instruments in one place.

"It's fun and a little funny," said Mike Sohng, 25, who was warming up his baritone tuba just minutes before the start of the annual Merry Tuba Christmas concert yesterday outside the Light Street Pavilion.

He said the curious onlookers "get something kind of strange. They kind of enjoy it, too."

Several hundred people encircled the mass of musicians from across the region who volunteered to play at the event, similar to ones also being held annually around the world.

High school students, music teachers, retired military players and the Marching Ravens were among those who participated in the 21st annual event yesterday in Baltimore.

The age of the participants yesterday ranged from 10 to 72.

Tuba players are always considered an endangered species, with just one or two in most bands. So when the chance arises to congregate in great numbers, these players jump at the chance.

Mike Wirtanen, 44, of Jarrettsville was playing in his 45th Merry Tuba Christmas concert.

Wirtanen, a project manager for a construction management firm, he has traveled up and down the East Coast in recent years to get to more events.

"It's serious. We play out of respect for the instrument," said Andrew Toll, 25. "We are the tuba family."

Harvey Phillips, considered the pre-eminent tuba teacher in the United States, started Merry Tuba Christmas in 1974 in New York as a way to honor his teacher, the late William J. Bell.

This tuba celebration takes place annually in more than 200 cities worldwide this year.

There wasn't much time to practice yesterday before the hourlong performance of mostly Christmas music. The players spent an hour in the upstairs of the former Planet Hollywood restaurant before filing down to play.

Holiday shoppers stopped to watch and sing right along to many of the carols.

Parents held their small children up to catch a glimpse of the brass arsenal. Laura Whitney, 12, of Columbia picked up a 6-month-old puppy named Trish to give her a peek.

Laura and her mother, Karen Whitney, had taken Trish downtown to acclimate the future seeing-eye dog to the sounds of the city.

"The tubas are something new," Whitney said.

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