Holiday horns: Merry Tuba Christmas returns to Bel Air High School on Dec. 16

Tuba players don’t always get the featured music in the band — those playing the instrument are often called upon for the low notes and “offbeat parts.”

But at Merry Tuba Christmas, it’s all about the tuba.

This year’s edition of Merry Tuba Christmas is scheduled for 5 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 16, at Bel Air High School, 100 Heighe St., and will bring together dozens of tuba players to play holiday music specially designed for the instrument.

“It’s great for your Christmas spirit, it’s free, as so few things nowadays are,” said James Laisure, coordinator of this year’s Merry Tuba Christmas concert. “You can come and relax, sing out some Christmas carols with other people and just have a good time.”

In the past, between 35 and 55 tuba players have joined in Bel Air’s Merry Tuba Christmas concert. This year’s performance will be the 11th in Bel Air, and Laisure is hoping for at least 50 musicians to take part.

Merry Tuba Christmas Bel Air started in the Bel Armory, but moved to the Bel Air High auditorium because it drew so many people — last year at the Armory, about 400 people attended.

Founded by the late Harvey Phillips, an emeritus distinguished professor of music at the Indiana University School of Music and former New York freelance artist, the first Merry Tuba Christmas was performed in New York City under Phillips’ direction in 1974.

The event was founded as Phillips’ tribute to his own tuba instructor, William Bell, a player and teacher who performed with John Philip Sousa and with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.

The concert consists of four-part Christmas carols performed by a gathering of local tuba and euphonium players of all ages and skill levels.

“It’s really gotten international,” Laisure said. “It’s huge, and it started with one show in New York City. It’s grown and grown ever since.”

The music is arranged and simple to play, so even relatively new musicians can pick up the songs.

“It blends well and it’s interesting to play,” Laisure said. “As tuba players, we end up with offbeat parts; we never get anything fun,” he said. “This is written around tubas and euphoniums, so you get to shine a little bit.”

Besides being the center of attention, the musicians also enjoy the atmosphere and the spirit of the concert, he said. Some performers go all out in decorating their instruments.

“We have anything from just some garland and lights to one year one guy did his tuba like Rudolph,” said Laisure, who is a member of the Bel Air Community Band. “It just gives it a little more festive atmosphere.”

Laisure, who lives in Essex, has been playing tuba since middle school. He began performing with the Merry Tuba Christmas event in Baltimore in 1986. He plays at Baltimore and Bel Air Tuba Christmas every year, but also tries to play others as well.

He estimates that over the years, he’s performed with 35 to 40 of the Christmas concerts.

“I love to do it. I love the Christmas season and making music for people to enjoy, especially at holidays,” he said. “It gives them time away from the running, hassle, shopping. We can get together for an hour, listen to Christmas carols and be festive.

“You rarely get a chance to see a stage full of tubas … but this is Christmas music, traditional holiday carols,” Laisure said. “It’s four-part harmony. It’s very easy to sing along with and we always have words for carols to sing with.”

Anyone who plays tuba, Sousaphone, baritone horn or euphonium is invited to perform. Registration is from 2:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. the day of the concert, with rehearsal from 3 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.

The performance is scheduled to run from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m.

There is a $10 registration fee for each musician. The concert is free for the public.

Most of the participants are musicians who perform in school or community bands, such as Laisure. Others, though, will be playing with the group for the first time.

Four tuba players from the Bel Air Community Band will be participating in the Merry Tuba Christmas, Laisure said.

The music doesn’t change from year to year, but the 90-minute rehearsal helps get the ensemble balanced, with enough people on each part.

Many are regulars who have been playing in Bel Air from the beginning, but some make one-time appearances. Laisure recalled that one year, a musician from Maine showed up to play in Bel Air as part of a journey down the East Coast to play in as many Tuba Christmas concerts as he could.

For more information on the Bel Air Merry Tuba Christmas, or to register in advance to play, contact Laisure at 443-742-8487 or JLaisure@gmail.com.

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