Man uses tuba to navigate life
- Susan Matheny
- Madras Pioneer - Sports
When John Richardson thinks back on his high school days, only two things stick out in his mind. "Sports and band is about all I remember," he admitted.
The reason, he said is because, "They're both a team sort of a thing and you are an important part of it. The bass is a major part of any band."
Football at Madras High was fun, but his early musical experiences were the ones that have followed him through life.
"I played all the way through high school, but didn't realize what it meant to me at the time," he said, adding, "It teaches you a lot of self-confidence and self-motivation."
Under band teacher Deane Jolstead, he started playing trombone in the sixth grade, but switched instruments in junior high.
"I was trying to decide between the French horn or tuba. The French horn has a tiny mouth piece and I was more built for the tuba, so Mr. Jolstead suggested I go with the tuba," said the tall, burly Richardson.
Being a member of the Madras High marching concert and pep bands brought him many new experiences. "Band is something that's got to be fun and Jolstead made it fun. We had a ton of fun," he said, recalling the excitement of playing at state basketball games, trips to band competitions and festivals, and the awards they won.
One highlight was when the MHS band was chosen to be in the Americana Parade -- the warm-up to the Rose Parade -- and marched from Memorial Coliseum, across a bridge and up Sixth Street in downtown Portland. Marching with a tuba is not the most pleasurable thing because it's heavy and bulky, Richardson said, explaining there are several kinds of tubas. A sousaphone that you can pack on your shoulder is used for marching, while the regular tuba, hand-held and balanced on the knees, is for concerts.
"Music is showmanship in a way, and that's why its so exciting," Richardson said, citing the sudden notoriety two years ago when the 160-piece middle school band marched into the school gym playing a rousing patriotic tune. "It was a simple song, but it was really exciting," he observed.
He had done solos at school and festival performances, but it wasn't until he was out of high school that he learned he was a really good tuba player. Even so, Richardson noted, "I always played for myself, not to impress somebody else."
The years went by as he raised a family and worked with his parents at Richardson's Rock Ranch, 15 miles north of Madras, polishing and marketing gems and stones all over the world.
Then in 1989 Tom Shaver formed the Jefferson County Community Band, and Richardson joined using a tuba borrowed from the high school. The big brass instruments are so expensive that schools usually provide them for students, so he had never owned one. But as he got more involved with the Community Band he purchased a used "King" tuba from an outfit in South Dakota and played it until he almost wore it out. In fact it's considered an antique today.
At the Community Band's height, he said its 19-member Jazz Band was drawing members from Christmas Valley, Sisters, Bend and Prineville.
The Community Band played everywhere, at weddings, in parades, dances, even for the funerals of two of its members, Penney Towne and Oscar Lange. Through the band he met Paul Vei, who was visiting his daughter in Warm Springs. Vei was with the Les Brown Band and had been Bob Hope's rhythm guitar player, and Richardson said, "It was a fabulous experience to have him come and play with us for a summer."
Another time, the Community Band arranged for the Central Oregon Community College Band and a band from Portland to all play together in Madras. "We really blew the roof off the school, it was great," he said.
Branching out, he also played with the COCC Concert Band, and donned a tuxedo to perform with the Central Oregon Symphony Band, which he called "a fantastic bunch of world-class musicians.
When life dealt him a blow, his tuba was there to console him.
"The tuba's gotten me through some trying times in life and it's been my pacifier during those times," he said, noting when he went through a divorce several years ago he played four nights a week with different groups.
When he lost the tip of a finger in an accident, he kept playing. Luckily, a tuba has four valves operated with large push-pads, which he could still finger.
Now married to Bonnie, he had his most exciting tuba adventure last December when his parents John and Norma Richardson decided to buy him a new tuba for Christmas. He shopped around on the internet, but couldn't find anyone on the West Coast with tubas. Finally, he located a man in San Jose, Calif., who had 10 tubas and on the spur of the moment he decided to go try them out in person.
"We took a chance. I couldn't get ahold of the guy, so Bonnie and I went anyway, knocked on his door and luckily he was there. I had the chance to sit down and toot around on them," Richardson said.
The one he selected was a Double B-flat, 23-pound, "Miraphone" tuba made in Germany, which sells for $10,000, but he was able to get for $5,000.
Back home at the Madras ranch, he said when he played the powerful instrument "It scared my dog, but every cow within a quarter mile came running." Evidently it sounded like a crooning bull to the cows.
With the shiny new Miraphone Richardson sat in with the MHS and Prineville pep bands, played with the Wall Street Jazz Band in Bend, and Community Jazz Band in Sun River, Eagle Crest, and many other engagements.
"At Christmas time I probably played at least 15 public appearances," he said.
But the biggest debut for his new horn was yet to come. For years he had heard of the Tuba Fest in Salem and Octuba Fest in Idaho and was intrigued. The Salem event was also in December, but he managed to wedge it into his busy schedule.
Hosted by the Salem Concert Band, the Tuba Fest was a tuba players paradise. Since tuba players are few and far between, especially in Central Oregon, the fest was a rare occasion for them to get together to "compare notes" and share comraderie.
On stage was a gathering of 129 tuba players from age 9 to 90, playing tubas of all shapes and sizes, from the baby baritones to the big-bore, deep sounding giants like Richardson's.
"There were little kids there with tubas, and it was interesting to see all the old different kinds of tubas, big and small," he said.
With the energy from that event still lingering, Richardson is eager to get the dwindling Community Band built up again and encouraged people to come to the practices Thursday nights at 6:30 p.m., in the Westside Elementary band room.
He worries about art and music programs being cut in many schools during Oregon's current budget problems, because he knows how important music has been in his life. Many people don't understand the value of art, just like they don't understand tubas.
"The tuba is a misunderstood instrument," Richardson said. "It's not just an oom-pa-pa, but can have a sound that's sweet, not heavy. And when you sit down and play it, everything else just goes away."