Even if you’re a hard core classical music enthusiast, you probably haven’t spent very much time thinking about one of the more unusual of St. Cecilia’s servants; the tuba. The tuba didn’t even come into being as an instrument until around 150 years ago and since that time has evolved considerably; the photo below depicts only a few of the many variety of contemporary tuba designs.
It serves as the bass voice for an entire ensemble, orchestras and bands, but it has been steadily growing in popularity among professional musicians and throughout recent years its solo repertoire has grown exponentially.
One musician has the current distinction as being the only full time professional tuba soloist in the entire world; Patrick Sheridan. Recently, I interviewed Patrick via telephone from his home in the sunny Southwest about life as a musician, entertainer, and comedian.
Q. Drew McManus: How did you get started on the tuba?
A. Patrick Sheridan: My mother insisted that my brother and both take piano lessons, and for me they started at age five and continued through high school, she thought music was important and wanted it to be a part of our lives. At the end of 3rd grade I had an opportunity to join our public school band, at that time all of the students were called down in alphabetical order to meet the band director in order to select an instrument to study.
I wanted to play drums but since my last name fell at the end of the alphabet all of the drum positions were taken. So the band director convinced me that if I started off on the tuba for a year and stuck with it he would let me switch to drums after that. He gave me a sousaphone (a version of the tuba designed for marching) to take home for the summer so I could get started.
My family typically went away for the summers and we had a fairly small car, so taking the entire sousaphone wasn’t a viable option. As a result we left the biggest part behind, the bell, and just took the rest of the instrument along with us.
During the Christmas season of the following school year my mother thought it would be a nice gift for the band director if I went to his office and played Silent Night with my mom accompanying me on the piano. That event ended up being the beginning of my solo career and my personal fascination with standing up in front of an audience as an entertainer.
My band director was so pleased with his personal solo concert that he had me play it for the upcoming Christmas band concert. I remember being this little kid with this big horn walking out on stage, after playing the crowd went crazy (I knew they were laughing at this stereotypical situation as much as with me but I didn’t care), it was there that I realized it wasn’t necessarily the music which reached me but having the opportunity to perform and the responsibility to take an audience somewhere that appealed to me.
Q. Drew McManus: What were your formative years as a musician like?
A. Patrick Sheridan: By Junior High School I entered the Greater Twin Cities Youth Symphony program; I also entered numerous talent shows and started to dress up in costumes while performing. I knew I played a funny instrument so trying to shy away from the natural comedic side was going to be counterproductive.
The tuba comes with a built in capacity for comedy but that natural capacity is also disarming, allowing folks to really listen to what I play. It didn’t take long for me to discover that I could also play something beautiful and really reach them in a way that would have otherwise been much more difficult without the natural disarming effect. Although I knew the girl with loads of makeup and stuffed into a cocktail dress singing New York, New York would always win those talent shows, I learned that my real ability lied with entertaining people.
Later on, I ended up attending several serious summer music camps and after High School enrolled in Northwestern University to study with Chicago Symphony Orchestra tubist, Arnold Jacobs for two years and then transferred to Arizona State University to study with Dan Perantoni. While studying at ASU I won a position in the United States Marine Band and took the job, which moved me to the Washington D.C. area.
Q. Drew McManus: What made you decide to leave a steady ensemble job and try to earn a living as a soloist?
A. Patrick Sheridan: Living in the D.C. area allowed me to be exposed to a very large number of fine tuba players. This tight concentration of talent helped push my desire to perform as a soloist, but at that time my problem was that there was no precedent to being a tuba soloist without also being a full time orchestra/band musician or collegiate professor.
I was quickly discovering that I wasn’t fulfilled being only an ensemble player so, at age 24, I decided to leave the Marine Band. At that time I couldn’t even fathom trying to be a professional soloist so I made the decision to leave the music business entirely and get an MBA.
I enrolled in the University of Michigan MBA program and ended up getting a job in the Chicago trade market. While in Chicago, I frequently attended Chicago Symphony Orchestra concerts which made me really miss performing.
That’s when the wheels in my head started turning. In the UofM MBA program we learned that 95% of all new businesses fail within the first five years. I also learned that the average age of MBA graduates was about 31 and at that time I was 26.
I put 2+2 together (actually, I subtracted 26 from 31) and figured out that I had five years of my life left before I reached the age most of my MBA counterparts in the business world. So I decided what the heck, the timing is perfect for me to establish a solo career; I now had all of the business knowledge necessary to set up a business plan so why not give it a try.
In the first few years I had to teach a number of private lessons to get by, but now this is the 11th year of my business and things are going well; I feel like I’ve beat the odds.
Q. Drew McManus: What non artistic issues have you had to lean about the business of being a soloist?
A. Patrick Sheridan: Working around some of the preconceived notions which drives most of this business such as designing programming for the perceived tastes of only a small segment of the overall potential audience; I call damaging tactic “mortgaging your business to the tastes of the few”. I had to determine what my “product” was; I couldn’t expect people to be interested in what I was playing just because it was music with some sort of “entitlement”.
It’s the creative force in the business world which gets rewarded so I’ve had to learn how to sell myself and continuously tweak my product until what works comes into focus. If I have a piece which doesn’t do well with audiences after two performances, then I get rid of it; gone.
As a result, I’m energized and enthused that I can present myself in so many different venues. My show material and personality are always the same; I can play 500 year old music or brand new works and make it all great, it doesn’t matter.
Q. Drew McManus: What accomplishments are most satisfying to you at this point in your career?
A. Patrick Sheridan: I’ve found the level of direct control over the show and even in the concert itself is a great benefit. The ability to talk to the audience in order to tie everything in, the comedy, the beautiful music, etc., is infinitely satisfying. I also enjoy playing on people’s preconceptions and taking that chance to turn around their image of the tuba [Media File] in their minds is a great thing.
Q. Drew McManus: Are there any goals left unfulfilled?
A. Patrick Sheridan: I would love to see the day where the stereotype about the tuba is known as a stereotype. I would also like to see put into place a wind instrument pedagogy that allows instrumental music teachers to have better success as teachers.
Another passion of mine is to make “amateur” ensemble playing the United States reach the same status it has in Europe. I would like patrons to see that the only real distinction between most “amateur” and “professional” musicians is one earns their living at the occupation the other doesn’t, rather than some predetermined standard of quality ( pro equals good and amateur equals bad).
Q. Drew McManus: There’s quite a bit of discussion in the media about a rapid decline of interest in classical music. Do you think the classical music industry will be very different 20 years from now, and if so, what sort of future do you see?
A. Patrick Sheridan: Personally, I would hate to have my children grow up without the opportunities to listen to live music the way I did 20 years ago. But I think classical music has painted itself into a corner with having to behave a certain way.
For those that are trying to run things traditionally, I don’t have to rush in and tell them how wrong they are even though I do believe that it has to be done differently than the way it is now.
I’ve learned how to build an audience and develop a flexible product. I can perform with everything from high college bands through professional orchestras so for every customer the traditionalists turn away it just means more audience for me.