A Brassy Gift

Danielle Dreilinger
July 12, 2008

Leaving high school for Berklee offered a lot to tuba player William Wells, but it also took one important item away: his tuba.

The second-semester film scoring and MP&E major excelled at the tuba in high school, becoming first chair in the All South Jersey Orchestra and All South Jersey Wind Ensemble, as well as the Olympic Conference Honors Band. Though he chose to make piano his principal instrument at Berklee, he wanted to continue on brass as well.

However, he had to leave his beat-up high school tuba—a three-valve student instrument tuned to Bb—in Jersey.

What to do? Drummers can bang on a can, but there's no substitute for a 35-pound hunk of brass. Decent ones start at $5,000 and can easily range to $15–20,000, Wells said: "It's like buying a car."

Wells could use Berklee's single loaner tuba only one day a week, when he rehearsed with the new Berklee Contemporary Symphony Orchestra. That meant he had no time with the instrument to practice. To top it off, that horn had valve trouble. "Nobody else knew" about his situation, he said. "I was embarrassed—they were like, 'What's wrong with him?'"

Enter Dr. Eli Newberger, a doctor, author, Berklee trustee—and tuba player. He knew Wells's quandary firsthand, having relied on loaned instruments himself.

"My beloved tuba teacher [William Bell] lent me one of his professional-level horns when I was 14, and the Yale band bought one for me when I entered as a freshman in 1958. It wasn't until 1961 that I was able to afford to buy my first horn," he wrote in an email.

"For me it's an issue of giving back. . . I've always had my eye out for instruments that might do for young players what William Bell's Conn tuba did for me." 

He decided to donate his Holton horn—the second tuba he'd given the college—for Wells's use.

The generosity bowled Wells over. He was "kind of shocked. . . it was kind of like perfect timing."

While administrators worked out logistics, Wells gave the horn a few tries in the Institutional Advancement office. Not only did staff not mind the music, Debbie Bieri, senior vice president for institutional advancement, asked him to play.

"It was a beautiful horn. Perfect," he said.

In fact, he had to catch up to it: the professional-level Holton had four valves and was tuned to C. It was "like learning a whole new instrument," Wells said.

He saw Dr. Newberger's own prowess on the instrument firsthand at a reception the trustee hosted at his house for tubists from several music colleges. "He's an amazing tuba player," Wells praised.

It's a good thing Wells got his hands on (or arms around) a tuba, because other students need him. With barely a handful of tuba players at the college, "I get a lot of good opportunities," he said. "I feel like this is something I can kind of take and run with."