Finding his voice with a tuba

Probably more than any other instrument in an orchestra, the tuba has the sound of authority — big, brassy, deep and imposing.

For the young, struggling John Van Houten, that sound inspired the discipline he needed. The tuba instructor, who began teaching last fall at Concordia University in Irvine, took up the instrument in his early teens and soon found that his overall performance in school increased with his musical proficiency.

Over the ensuing decades, Van Houten went on to play for film and television (he counts "The Simpsons" and "The Incredibles" among his credits) and perform with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and other groups. This year, he's balancing teaching jobs at four campuses: Concordia, Cal State Long Beach, Biola University and Azusa Pacific University.

Wednesday evening, after leading a class at Concordia, the Anaheim native spoke with the Daily Pilot about his history blowing basslines. The following are excerpts from the conversation:


There's that popular video game "Guitar Hero." Did you have any tuba heroes growing up?

Yeah. When I grew up, everything was LPs, and my heroes were Roger Bobo, who played in the L.A. Philharmonic, and Tommy Johnson — he played "Jaws." That's a famous story. But he's the one who's responsible for freelance tuba players in Los Angeles.

He was the first freelance tuba player, which meant that anybody who needed a tuba would call him. And because he was so good, composers started writing specifically for the tuba, and specifically for him. So John Williams, who wrote "Jaws" and "Star Wars," everything like that ... Tommy was always his first-call tuba.

But [we were] very lucky to have those two gentlemen in the town, because they changed tuba. It used to be kind of a background instrument, and it's always been a complementary instrument, but they brought it to the forefront, and they took it where nobody could.

How old were you when you first started playing the tuba?

I was 13, and the way it worked in the Anaheim school district — that's where I grew up — was that you had to ... take either band or choir. There was no [other] option. And no way I was going to do the choir.

I was a little runt, and I was not doing well in school because I was hyperactive. So they put me in all the remedial classes and had even written down, "You will be in jail by this age."

What age was that?

In seventh grade. When you're hyperactive, you need a focus. You know you can do things, but to the average person, they don't know. I love working with hyperactive kids, because I know once they focus, they'll do real well. But most people don't know how to handle them.

So anyway, I had a really good band director, and I saw this thing like a dragon in the back room, and it turned out to be a brass sousaphone. And I said, "That's what I want to play." And so I used to walk it a mile and a half home every day and play it. I didn't know what I was doing, but I played it.

And all of a sudden, I got out of all the remedial classes. It really gave me focus and finally, I could do something well. And then I started taking lessons with a very good friend now, but at the time he was a tuba player. That was very unusual, for a tuba player to be able to study with a tuba player back then.

Does it take a lot of lung capacity to play the tuba?

Yeah, but it's overrated. It's how you use it. It doesn't hurt. I mean, it's always an added plus. But I know a lot of people that don't have quote-unquote a large lung capacity, and they do quite well. I've always said to my students, the art of tuba playing is fast breaths and when to know how to breathe.

So someone like me — five-eight, 150 pounds — I could do it?

You'd do fine. There's an incredible virtuoso [Roland Szentpáli] right now — I mean, this guy's off the charts — he's only 37 years old and, matter of fact, Roger Bobo basically calls him young Mozart. He's a great composer, incredible, I mean, unbelievable tuba player, and he plays ancient instruments.

And he said his lung capacity is about four liters. An average tuba player is about five to six, six and a half.

When you think of all the kids out there who want to play the guitar — want to play the piano, some of the more common instruments — what do you think it is about the tuba that appeals to your students?

I think it's the voice, the sound of the instrument. A lot of people were tricked into playing it or asked to play it, just because of necessity. And then they fell in love with it. Some people were clarinet players and they just weren't doing very well, and they went to tuba all of a sudden, and just did incredible.

And a lot of times, I'm asked to work with young players, and they come from other instruments and they just excel so fast, because they were so used to playing fast notes which they weren't really getting down. At the beginning level, [a tuba player] isn't asked to do 16th notes or even triplets sometimes, at the high school levels. So it becomes easier for them to play, and they catch on faster.

You've been on the soundtracks for a number of movies by now. How did you get your first break in Hollywood?

It was actually a friend. He was an orchestrator. That's the person the composer will write out the music for, and then the orchestrator will go through it and tweak it or thicken it up and will generally conduct the session.

The gentleman I started working for first was Christopher Young. One of the first pictures that brought him into prominence was a movie called "Hellraiser." He was actually responsible for bringing the gothic orchestra back into prominence in horror movies in general, and "Conan" and movies like that. All of a sudden, the big orchestra was needed again.

If I wanted to rent a movie and watch a scene where your playing is really, really prominent, is there one you could recommend?

The opening scene of "Planet of the Apes." I think it was the —

The remake by Tim Burton?

Yeah, Tim Burton. Danny Elfman did the music. We did one, the "Star Trek" with Michael Giacchino. All his movies, he writes really good tuba parts. He did the last two "Star Treks."

I noticed on your website you have a page for tubas on sale. It looks like there are a lot of different people who have tubas that they're selling, and they pass the information on to you. Do you work kind of as a Craigslist for people who need to sell a tuba?

I probably should put more on there. There's a great need for tubas. Unfortunately, you can't rent them.

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