To the ears of a musical novice, the tuba ranks lowest in the family of instruments – an oafish cousin with a voice like a bullfrog. It lacks the flash of a saxophone, the brashness of a trumpet or the showiness of a piccolo – the melodic equivalent of a St. Bernard, warbling from the orchestra’s back row.
Playing one requires crawling inside 19 feet of pistons and pipes that coil like a brass intestine, then wrapping one’s lips around a mouthpiece the size of a soup bowl. The stereotypical tubist thrives on bratwurst, beer and extra-large lederhosen.
But to Vince Simonetti, who has collected 310 tubas and euphoniums, the biggest birds play the prettiest songs. The tuba and its triumphant bluster provide the load-bearing beam to hold up a symphony. And after a lifetime of heavy-brass infatuation, he invites the world to tour his assortment of fat and boisterous horns, likely the world’s largest private collection, now assembled in their own museum.
Inside a canary yellow house on Chapel Hill Road, Simonetti and his wife Ethel have created a band geek’s wonderland with sousaphones crowded into every corner, eager to oom-pah. They hang from the ceiling and cover the walls: a “rain-catcher” with its bell pointed upward, an ophicleide with keys instead of valves, an entire chorus of tubas made by C.G. Conn, the colorful 19th-century craftsman who invented a rubber-rimmed mouthpiece after he busted his lip in a saloon brawl.
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On his free tours, which start at the March 5 grand opening, Simonetti will gesture lovingly to the first tuba he ever bought, a BB-flat Helicon with four rotary valves and scroll work on the bell, hand-crafted in Königgratz circa 1910. Then he’ll show off the Stradivarius of his collection: the Alexander model 163, made in Mainz in 1953, favored by professional tubists everywhere.
“I could go on for days about tubas,” said Simonetti, 72. “You can see I’m obsessed. I like the fact that it’s not as popular as other brass instruments. It’s sort of got a forlorn history.”
I’d always known about The Tuba Exchange, the Durham store the Simonettis opened in 1984, supplying high school bands from Barrow, Alaska, to Brownsville, Texas. But I’d never stepped inside, despite my fondness for Sousa marches and proud membership in the Oakwood Second Line, Raleigh’s finest and as far as I know only neighborhood marching band.
The Simonettis sold the store in 2011, and it has since departed for a new location on Alston Avenue, leaving only the historic collection behind in the original yellow tuba roost. And now that I’ve gotten a preview tour, I can only rave about the experience and compare the sight of 300 tubas in one place to the view at Yosemite Valley or Cadillac Mountain in Maine. And as a bonus, Simonetti called up YouTube to add a soundtrack for my visit: Norwegian tubist Øystein Baadsvik playing “Carnival in Venice.”
As we toured, Simonetti confessed that he actually began his musical life as a trumpet player until his ninth-grade music teacher at Hawthorne High in New Jersey told him, “I have a zillion trumpets. I need somebody to play tuba.”
A love affair began. Simonetti embraced his weighty new friend with vigor that has yet to wane. He took first place in the all-state competition. “In study hall,” he said, “I would draw pictures.”
Then in 1967, Simonetti arrived in Raleigh to play tuba with the N.C. Symphony, and to supplement his income from what amounted to a seasonal music job, he began tuning pianos without really knowing how. Way led onto way, and Simonetti met famed tuba maker Rudolf Meinl at a conference in Chicago. He arranged to buy a small shipment of instruments, building his tuba inventory gradually until 1988, when a band director called wanting $10,000 worth.
“From then on,” Simonetti said, “it was all tubas.”
He enthusiastically explains that the tuba’s plumbing is conical. Unlike a trumpet or trombone, its piping grows gradually wider, making its sound more mellow but also more insistent. To me, a tuba forms the cornerstone of any band, the nail that holds the carpentry together, the pavement on which the other instruments can roll. If this review sounds too exuberant, if the metaphors are starting to strain, it is only because I have spent so many recent hours in the company of this majestic instrument for which the Simonettis have kindly built a home, doting on every valve.
The Durham museum housing the Simonetti tuba collection will have a grand opening on March 5 from 2 to 5 p.m. Admission is free, but visitors are asked to RSVP in advance. For more information and ticket instructions, see simonettitubacollection.com.