Calgary Philharmonic Principal Tuba Tom McCaslin / Photo by Neil Zeller
The tuba isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when we think about solo instruments. Or even the second. Tubas are usually found at back of the orchestra and, although their large size and deep, rich sound makes their presence known, they’re not often in the spotlight.
You might expect Tom McCaslin, the Calgary Phil’s Principal Tuba player, to be slightly offended by that statement, especially considering he has just released a full album of solo music, Chasing Light and Sound: The Tuba Music of Elizabeth Raum. But he just laughs and admits he might have thought the same thing if it wasn’t for the tuba player who visited his elementary school and changed his life.
“It’s rare that tubas get the opportunity to step out and solo with orchestras or band,” he says. “It has a very different sound than people might expect.”
McCaslin started playing in a community band in Saskatchewan when he was in Grade 3. His first instrument was the trombone, which may seem like a more manageable size for a young boy than the tuba, but he couldn’t stretch his arm all the way out to seventh position. A few years later in Grade 6, school band started up and students with experience were encouraged to try different instruments. At the same time, the community band needed players for instruments like bassoon, oboe, and tuba, to help fill all the positions.
“Along with that, they brought in teachers. This gentleman came into the band room and introduced the tuba and played these beautiful melodies,” says McCaslin. “Right away I was hooked.”
At that time, he was about 12 years old and the tuba was barely shorter than him – he used a little cart to wheel it to the bus and back until he was able to keep a second tuba at home for practising. The musician who opened his eyes to the tuba’s potential was John Griffiths, Principal Tuba in the Regina Symphony Orchestra. A couple years later Griffiths became McCaslin’s teacher, and eventually his mentor and friend. “It was through him that I was introduced to all this beautiful music that’s on the recording,” McCaslin says.
Griffiths was close to composer Elizabeth Raum, then Principal Oboe of the Regina Symphony. In 1991, she was commissioned to write a piece for Griffiths, and the young McCaslin attended the premiere. “I was just blown away by the tuba in a solo role,” he says. “I was totally captivated and that’s what led me to wanting to study with him privately.”
Between 1991 and 2002, Raum created several other works showcasing tuba that led to Griffiths being invited to the International Tuba Conference in Italy and gaining recognition on the worldwide stage. “I was his student during all of this and kept hearing these wonderful pieces during my lessons,” says McCaslin. “So I really grew up with all of this and I have a hard time separating solo tuba from the music of Elizabeth Raum because they’re basically synonymous.”
Album cover for Chasing Light and Sound: The Tuba Music of Elizabeth Raum
Those recordings never made it to digital format and Griffiths passed away in 2006, so most people didn’t have the chance to discover them — something McCaslin has long wanted to change. “It’s been the better part of 10 years that I’ve had this itch.”
He finally had the time and opportunity during the pandemic, recording the pieces over a few days with pianist Akiko Tominaga and the help of orchestra colleagues including Dave Reid as producer, Paul Chirka as recording engineer, and Luke Dahlgren as stage manager. Chasing Light and Sound: The Tuba Music of Elizabeth Raum is now streaming everywhere and available for purchase online from the Canadian Music Centre and Amazon, or at Calgary Phil concerts. McCaslin had support from the University of Calgary, Alberta Foundation for the Arts, and the Canada Council for the Arts, which all chipped in to make it happen. The label, Centrediscs, is the distribution arm of the Canadian Music Centre, where Raum is an affiliate composer.
McCaslin feels incredibly fortunate for his experience as a band student, and now he hopes to do the same for a new generation of musicians – whatever instrument they choose. He is part of the Calgary Phil’s upcoming Band Together initiative to support band students at the junior high level by providing access to one-on-one music lessons.
School band programs don’t have the same level of funding they used to, and many shut down during the pandemic. “Kids aren’t getting the same opportunities I had when I was 12,” he adds. “Music is a great, safe place to not only learn how to play an instrument, but also to get comfortable… For some kids it’s the band room where they find their social circles and friends. I’m crossing my fingers that we can do some good.”
By Maureen McNamee
Photography by Neil Zeller