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TubaChristmas is celebrating its 50th brassy birthday

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

Every year in hundreds of cities around the country, musicians have been coming together for Tuba Christmas. NPR's Neda Ulaby tells us all about that bass.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: This is the tradition's 50th year.

(SOUNDBITE OF TUBAS PLAYING "JINGLE BELLS")

ULABY: On the very first Tuba Christmas, 300 musicians showed up at the ice-skating rink at New York's Rockefeller Plaza. Since then, Tuba Christmas concerts have popped up in practically every state - Anchorage, Alaska, this year; Tombstone, Ariz.; the Big Island in Hawaii. Here's one at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF TUBAS PLAYING "JINGLE BELLS")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing) In a one-horse open sleigh - hey. Jingle bells, jingle bells...

ULABY: A few years ago, overachievers in Kansas City set a Tuba Christmas world record.

STEPHANIE BRIMHALL: We played "Silent Night" for five straight minutes with 835 tubas.

ULABY: Stephanie Brimhall works with the Kansas City Symphony. I asked her what one word might best describe the experience of hearing hundreds of caroling tubas.

BRIMHALL: Rumbling (laughter) would be one.

(SOUNDBITE OF TUBAS PLAYING "SILENT NIGHT")

MIKE GOLEMO: Enveloping.

ULABY: That's Mike Golemo. He directs the band program at Iowa State University.

GOLEMO: It's this warm, low, organ kind of quality where you can feel food in your lower intestinal tract move because of the vibrations.

ULABY: Golemo says that's a good thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF TUBAS PLAYING "THE FIRST NOEL")

ULABY: So it's a chance for all kinds of members of the tuba family to take the spotlight for a change. Usually those big, fat-toned brass instruments never get to play the melody.

GOLEMO: This year we had a helicon, which is like a Civil War version of a tuba. And somebody had an ophicleide one year. Usually there's a few people that have a double bell euphonium.

ULABY: Less exotic are those white fiberglass sousaphones they play in marching bands.

GOLEMO: We call those Tupperware tubas.

ULABY: That's tuba humor. You'll hear a lot of it.

GOLEMO: We call it the heavy metal concert of the year.

(SOUNDBITE OF TUBAS PLAYING "CAROL OF THE BELLS")

CHARLES ORTEGA: My first Tuba Christmas was when I was in middle school.

ULABY: Charles Ortega has been playing at Tuba Christmases since the 1980s. This year he organized one in Pueblo, Colo. Ortega learned tuba from his father, who used to perform in a polka band in Texas.

ORTEGA: He loved playing the tuba. Even the year that he passed, he was still playing.

ULABY: Some of Ortega's very best Tuba Christmas memories, he says, were the ones where he played with his dad and his teenage son, who also plays the tuba.

ORTEGA: That was amazing. I had one on one side, one on the other, and we were all just beaming. It was great.

ULABY: It's not uncommon now for multiple generations to play in Tuba Christmas concerts. That's what happens when a tradition endures and gets bigger, broader and brassier.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF TUBAS PLAYING "CAROL OF THE BELLS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.