Collegium Tubum turns festive for holiday performance


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The time has come for hearty sounds of tubas and euphoniums to fill the chilly December air with holiday tunes on the steps of the Old Capitol.

While the “real” Santa isn’t expected to fly in, John Manning, the director of the university’s tuba ensemble Collegium Tubum, will dress up as the holiday icon to conduct the group at 12:30 p.m. Friday. Unwrapped toys will be collected for donation to Toys for Tots during the performance.

“Usually, [the best part is] just seeing the reaction of people watching, and people stopping to listen, and seeing little kids dance around when we play,” said Blaine Cunningham, a Ph.D. candidate in Collegium Tubum.

Holiday Tubas has been a part of the Iowa City December scene since the 1970s. Bob Yates, a former music professor at the UI, began the performances to bring the holiday spirit to campus.

The project is based on a national program called TubaChristmas started by Harvey Phillips, a professional tuba player. He began the event in the ’70s in honor of one of his teachers, William Bell, an Iowan who was one of America’s most famous tuba players. When Bell died in the ’70s, Phillips decided to use TubaChistmas as a way to remember him every year near his birthday, which was on Christmas Day.

The UI Collegium Tubum presents an extension of the event, but it is not an official TubaChristmas group. The difference between the performance in Iowa City and those in other parts of the country is that the local group plays music arranged by students at the UI.

“The kind of music we play for this performance is a lot different because we specifically try to mix some well-known music with some original music, which the audience probably hasn’t heard before,” Cunningham said.

As the tradition continues, Manning said, the fun of the event grows. The only downfall — cold weather.

Manning explained that the low temperatures freeze the instruments’ valves, making playing difficult. The group has tried a technique to counteract this issue: using rubber bands to attach hand warmers to the valves.

“For my students, this is a required performance, and the only thing they don’t like is the cold,” Manning said.

Despite the near freezing temperatures, he and Cunningham said the event is a fun change of pace for the Collegium Tubum.

The ensemble performs numerous concerts during the school year, including Oktubafest, Spooky Tubas, and studio recitals, but Holiday Tubas is the only outdoor event. The music played at Holiday Tubas is also easier for the players because they are joined by amateur musicians including children, alumni, and volunteers.

“Especially for outdoor [performances], people really think tuba has a nice warm sound,” Manning said. “Tuba and euphonium ensembles can surprise you and sound magnificent, because they have a really warm, big sound.”

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