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A Wyoming Tuba Christmas

A man plays a tuba in front of TJ Maxx
Taylar Stagner
Wyoming Public Media
Jerry Barfus warms up on his double bell euphonium at the Rock Springs mall in December 2022. He’s been playing Tuba Christmas events since the 1980s, and this was his ninetieth performance.

In Rock Springs, the mall provided a vaulted ceiling for big echoey resonance for a Christmas music concert. What makes it special is that all the instruments are tubas and euphoniums. The low tones drifted from TJ Maxx to Ross Dress for Less. People listened while getting some holiday shopping done.

Tuba Christmas is a series of national concerts featuring the tuba and euphonium. These concerts happen everywhere this time of year. In Wyoming this year, groups of around a dozen gather to play Christmas carols on a seldom celebrated instrument.

Jerry Barfus has played in 90 Tuba Christmases since the 80s. A scarf hung off his music stand with the yearly buttons he’s collected. He plays a double bell euphonium.

“I've played horns all since grade school. But it wasn't until 1983 when I bought a horn so I could play tuba Christmas,” he said.

He said he will do two to three Tuba Christmas events per year. He’s played everywhere from Rockefeller Center in New York with 350 other tubas and euphoniums to Walmart parking lots with only four other players.

The event started in New York on Dec. 22, 1974, and this year is the 48th anniversary of Tuba Christmas.

“It's a disease. Look at tubachristmas.com on your internet and find out where it's close to you because it's all over the country,” said Barfus.

Wyoming had three Tuba Christmas events this year. They were in Jackson, Sheridan, and Rock Springs.

Tubas can weigh around 30 pounds and have a huge bell and they produce low tones. Euphoniums are smaller and the name in Greek is euphonos meaning “sweet-voiced”. They produce higher tones than the tuba though they look similar.

Playing tuba, Brian Schults said he grew up in Rock Springs. He put on this local event. He said he performed in Jackson, but the event took a break because of the pandemic for a few years.

“So I think this is their opportunity to start building again,” he said.

A group of people sit in folding chairs watching others play tubas and euphoniums in front of TJ Maxx
Taylar Stagner
Wyoming Public Media
A crowd gathers as around 10 tuba and euphonium players of all ages play Christmas carols arranged for the low brass instruments.

The group only meets and rehearses for a couple hours before the performance. Schults said the acoustics in the mall are great for instruments that have their bell turned upward so the sound can go up and echo out.

“It does have a nice sound to an area like this. Not exactly like how a church would be or a concert hall, but at the same time, you'd be surprised it's a mall and yet, you can get some good sound out of it,” he said.

Brian Redman, the conductor for the Rock Springs concert, addressed the crowd with a quick band lesson. He tried to explain the tuba sound as if you couldn’t hear it.

“It's one of those things that you feel it kind of rattling inside you. When you're standing next to somebody that's really cranking and playing on the tuba, you feel the sound inside of your chest. You just feel, like, a kind of rattle everything inside there,” he said.

He said the euphonium is like an operatic male tenor voice.

“It's just got this beautiful kind of soaring sound. In Europe a lot of times they're used for melodies but for American writers, they don't use them nearly as often,” said Redman.

Redman said Tuba Christmas is an excellent time to showcase such wonderful and seldom celebrated instruments.

Taylar Dawn Stagner is a central Wyoming rural and tribal reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. She has degrees in American Studies, a discipline that interrogates the history and culture of America. She was a Native American Journalist Association Fellow in 2019, and won an Edward R. Murrow Award for her Modern West podcast episode about drag queens in rural spaces in 2021. Stagner is Arapaho and Shoshone.
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