APO Principal Tuba Tak Chun Lai talks to Phil News about his instrument. Just don't ask him to play Ride of the Valkyries.
How did you come to play the tuba?
I didn’t start with the tuba. I started with a euphonium when I was 11 years old, and I played that for two years. Then when I got to high school I had the chance to audition for the school band. This school band had quite a big history, a really good reputation in Hong Kong. The teacher, who was a trumpet player himself, actually examined my mouth and said “I think you should play the tuba”. I suppose it’s because I have bigger lips than most Hong Kongese people. Even though I wanted to play the euphonium, the teacher said it was either the tuba or nothing; I think he needed someone to fill the position of tuba. Before the euphonium and tuba I played recorder.
You don’t resemble what many people would imagine as a typical tuba player. How do you keep physically fit for such a taxing instrument?
When I first started playing the tuba I was short and fat! I used to run a lot and swim a lot, although not this year – I should really get back into it. I also played soccer together with my father growing up.
Tell us about your current tuba.
I have a few, but the one I play on with the APO most of the time is a C tuba, it produces a big deep sound so you can blend in with the double bass. I think the type of tuba an orchestra requires is a tradition thing, in England they used to only use an E flat tuba, and in Germany they use a B flat tuba, in America and most of Asian countries they use the C tuba. I change tubas depending on the repertoire, for example for early Wagner or Berlioz I use an F tuba, to give a lighter sound.
My F tuba is my favourite, because I can change the sound quite a lot – I can produce an angry sound or sweet sounds. With the bigger instruments like the C tuba there are some limitations to changing the sound. My C tuba is a German brand, a Walter Nirschl, but it’s an American model; a York model which actually originated in Chicago.
What is your favourite piece of music for tuba?
For me it would be the Respighi’s Fountains of Rome – I used to hate it a lot, when I first started in music school I couldn’t play it, it was just so demanding. But after many years of practice now it’s one of my favourite excerpts for orchestral tuba.
Do you often get asked to play Ride of the Valkyries?
All the time! I have a funny story about that actually. I was studying music in Iceland, and there was a contemporary art gallery opening next to our music school, it had been under construction for a while, and I used to practise right next door. When the gallery opened they asked me if I wanted to come down and play at their opening. I asked them what they wanted me to play, they said “play the Ride of the Valkyries,” so I played it. Then when I finished they asked me to play it again. And again.
I must have played Ride of the Valkyries at least 20 times in 15 minutes, I remember I had such a sore jaw. Afterwards I asked them why they wanted me to play the Ride, and they said they had heard me and my friend practise it every day next door for a year, and they wanted to hear it live, in the gallery to bring back the memories.
Is a road cone a possible substitute for a tuba mute?
Even though they’re about the same size, I can’t use a traffic cone for a tuba mute – the opening is at the wrong end. I could probably modify one though – the traffic cone looks more attractive than my current mute.
This article was first published in the 2016 Summer Edition of Phil News