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.