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UWRF alumnus a world renowned tuba player

November 13, 2008

“In eighth grade, the band director needed a big kid to play tuba, so I switched to tuba [from drums] and have been playing it ever since,” Gary Bird, UW-River Falls alumnus, said. “My first school horn was a King sousaphone, but as I advanced in ability I was allowed to play a new Olds sousaphone.”

It was this one simple act, a band teacher’s request for Bird to fill a vacancy within the band, which started Bird down the path to becoming a world-renowned tuba player. He has since become a preeminent music instructor, played concerts around the world and published a book on tuba program notes.

The seeds of Bird’s career in music, although planted in middle school, really came to fruition during his time studying music at UWRF. Bird has gone on to be one of the University’s most accomplished alumni, recognized as a brilliant artist by the faculty here at UWRF.

“He is a fabulous tuba player and world renowned,” said Dan McGinty, director of the UWRF Foundation.

But it was not always music that caught Bird’s eye. As a child, he was interested in baseball.

“I was fascinated by throwing, catching and hitting a baseball,” Bird said in an e-mail interview. “We had a large wall on the farm house with no windows, and I would throw the ball against the wall and catch it until the paint chipped off.”

Bird said he can still vividly remember when the Milwaukee Braves beat the New York Yankees in the World Series. He began playing organized ball when he was 10 years old, and continued on through high school. He lettered in baseball, as well as football and wrestling.

Even though Bird was fascinated by baseball, music played an important role in his life as a child growing up on a Wisconsin dairy farm. Bird’s parents had six children, Bird being the fifth.

“As each of [the children] neared high school age, they began playing instruments,” Bird said. “This eventually led to a family polka band, in which I was the drummer. I was about nine at the time.”

The Bird family toured around western Wisconsin playing gigs at PTA meetings, Farmer’s Union meetings and at town dance halls.

“Every weekend for about 10 years my mother and dad transported the six of us from town to town and dance hall to dance hall playing polkas, waltzes, schottisches and fox trots,” Bird said. “One can only imagine the time and effort on the part of our parents to do all of this while running two dairy farms, milking cows, plowing and planting, harvesting hay, oats and corn and raising six sons.”

After high school, Bird attended UWRF, then called Wisconsin State University-River Falls. During his time here, Bird studied tuba with Conrad DeJong and Charles Dalkert and saxophone with Robert Samarotto.

Bird auditioned for, and played in, every ensemble that needed tuba. Bird also played four years in the jazz bands, first on bari sax and then on tenor.

“Much of my spending money was made playing saxophone with a combo at the Steamboat Inn in nearby Prescott,” Bird said.

While attending UWRF, Bird purchased his first tuba, a Miraphone 186 CC, for $750.00.

“The year was 1966 and I still have the instrument and play it occasionally,” Bird said.

After receiving his Bachelor of Arts in music education from UWRF in 1968, Bird attended the University of North Texas, where, in 1971, he got his masters of music in tuba performance. From there, Bird received his doctorate in music from Indiana University, Bloomington in 1992.

During the course of his career, Bird has been honored and privileged to study with many great musical artists.

“In 1970 I entered North Texas State University to study tuba with David Kuehn,” Bird said. “He was a great influence on me and my subsequent teaching style. He was a wonderful role model for me.”

Bird also engaged in instruction with Harvey Phillips. Under Phillips, Bird learned a new philosophy towards music: to interpret pieces in such a way as to bring to life the intent of the composer. Phillips always focused on the musical message delivered through playing, and the subject of many discussions between the two men was centered around the interpretation of musical phrases.

“He is the quintessential visionary, and when people were in his presence for any length of time they would begin to see the myriad of ideas he had,” Bird said. “Nearly everything he did had something to do with the future of music in its totality.”

One of Bird’s most important lessons he learned from Conrad DeJong during his time at UWRF.

“He told me to play the tuba like a flute,” Bird said. “I often remember that statement when I start playing too heavy and ponderous. The metaphor works.”

Although integral to Bird’s success, Phillips also indirectly inspired Bird’s co-formation of the Colonial Tuba Quartet. The group was comprised of Mary Ann Craig on the euphonium, Jay Hildebrandt, also on euphonium, Gregory Fritze on E-flat tuba and Bird on the F tuba. The four members met at a show put on by Phillips at New York’s Carnegie Hall. All of them had, at different times, studied under Phillips.

“The four of us… became acquainted with each other, usually over a few beers and pizza following the performances,” Bird said.

In 1990, the international tuba conference was held in Sapporo, Japan, and the four formed a quartet.

“We concertized for about 10 years, performing at tuba conferences in Sapporo, Japan, Riva del Garda, Italy, Lexington, Ky., U.S. Army Band Conference in Washington, DC and hundreds of schools,” Bird said.

The name Colonial Tuba Quartet is derived from the fact that when the quartet was formed, all the members taught in schools within states of the original 13 colonies: Craig at College of St. Rose in Albany, Ny.; Hildebrandt at University of Delaware; Fritze at Berkley College of Music in Boston; and Bird at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

In 1994, Bird published a book entitled “Program Notes for the Solo Tuba.” The book is a compilation of pieces for solo tuba, tuba and piano and tuba with various other accompaniments. Along with each piece is a complete publication data, a history of the piece, its instrumentation and movements and a description of its musical structure and characteristics. The majority of pieces also have production notes written by the composers themselves.

“These notes will inspire tubists to more definitive interpretations and give audiences a better understanding and enjoyment of the music performed,” Phillips wrote in the forward of the book.

There is also a series of homages made to five different influential composers in the book. Short biographies by colleagues accompany each composer.

In 1972, Bird began teaching at IUP. His duties there included the teaching of tuba and euphonium, the IUP Tubaphonium Ensemble, the IUP Brass Ensemble, teaching introduction to music and playing tuba with the Hoodlebug Brass, IUP’s Brass Quintet. Bird has also been the conductor for several IUP music and theater department productions, including, but not limited to, West Side Story, Jesus Christ Superstar, The Pirates of Penzance, My Fair Lady, Hair and Cabaret.

Of all his accomplishments and experiences, Bird places one above all else: playing in the brass quintet.

“I love playing all kinds of music and rarely turn down the opportunity to play. However, the intimacy of quintet playing, the teamwork, the camaraderie seems to rise to the top of my preferences,” Bird said. “As a member of the IUP Brass Quintet, the HoodleBug Brass, I played in a terrific quintet for many years. The members of that quintet were not only great players, but good friends who helped create lasting musical memories.”

Bird retired from IUP in May of 2007. He and his wife, Kaye, moved back to western Wisconsin, purchasing a 20-acre plot with 12 acres of it wooded, complete with walking paths and wild animals, as well as a field for corn and soybeans. Bird plays tuba in the Sheldon Theater Brass Band out of Red Wing, Minn. He also teaches one day a week at St. Cloud State University.

In June, Bird accompanied the UWRF band on their trip to Prague in the Czech Republic.

Although Bird is officially retired, he has no plans to stop playing and teaching. The deadlines of teaching at St. Cloud keep Bird happy, productive and organized, but the once-a-week schedule also gives him the freedom to travel, play golf, woodwork and visit his children and grandchildren.

“Deadlines and expectancies are necessary for me to be happy and productive,” Bird said. “I do not see complete retirement in the near future and frankly, that does not appeal to me.”