Northwest College receives rare donation — of tubas

POWELL — A donation of 20 rare brass instruments to Northwest College may bring a new sound to the Trapper music department. The tubas, helicons and sousaphones — some more than 130 years old — are a gift that will continue to give to the Powell community for decades to come. 

But first, the instruments need some love. 

The collection was donated to the college by Dr. Fred Feinsold, a geriatrician previously from Colorado Springs. 

He was trying to sell the lot prior to a move to the East Coast when he met Tristan Eggener, NWC’s assistant professor of music theory, low brass, jazz, and composition. Eggener wanted a particular four-valve E-flat sousaphone, but ended up buying four of the instruments on their first meeting. 

The tuba is the lowest-pitched musical instrument in the brass family. It was invented in the 1830s, making it one of the newest instruments used in orchestras and concert bands. 

The sousaphone originated with American composer and conductor, John Philip Sousa. He first conceived of it as a replacement for tubas and helicons, which are impractical for use in marching bands. The helicon wraps around the player’s shoulder, like a sousaphone, but the bell points straight up, like the tuba. 

To say Eggener is obsessed with the brass instruments would be a gross understatement. Dare turn the conversation to the behemoths and he’ll light up like an elaborate Christmas display. 

Feinsold continued to call Eggener, knowing the instruments would be cared for properly by the tuba enthusiast. 

“He kept emailing me and was like, ‘Hey, I have 20 more for sale,’” Eggener recalled. “I said, absolutely not. I don’t personally need that many tubas.” 

But as time passed and Feinsold’s move neared, Eggener employed his skills of persuasion, telling the good doctor he could always donate the collection to the school. He returned to Colorado Springs with a van and trailer soon after Feinsold decided to gift the instruments, worth about $14,000. 

“He told me the story of each instrument,” Eggener said. “He was crying as he handed me an Imperial from the Great Lakes.” 

They wrapped each instrument in blankets and carefully loaded them for the return trip to Powell. While each is in wonderful condition considering its age, they must go through a “mild” acid bath to kill bacteria left by previous players and small rodents who made a home in a few of the larger tubas and to clean out dust. 

The valves, some of which are made with cork, will be reworked with the help of Tom Bibbey, a brass repair expert. 

While Eggener hopes to make all the donated instruments playable, Bibbey isn’t sure all are salvageable. The tubas are rare and finding replacement parts may be impossible, Bibbey said. 

But Eggener, who is not the sort to give up on his dream of a concert involving all the instruments, said he was looking into new technology. 

“I want to utilize our 3-D printers on campus to make the parts,” he said. 

Though NWC’s new collection is large, it has a long way to go to compete with the top tuba collections in the U.S. 

The Vincent and Ethel Simonetti Historic Tuba Collection, located in Durham, North Carolina, has 300-plus instruments. Yet the Simonetti’s expansive collection pales in comparison to the R. Winston Morris Tuba Collection Museum at the Tennessee Technological University in Cookeville, Tennessee. The Guinness Book of World Records recognizes the collection of more than 2,000 unique items, which includes tubas, sousaphones and helicons collected over a 41-year period ranging from 1975 to 2016. 

Until NWC’s collection is cleaned and repaired, some of the instruments are being used as Christmas decorations at the Nelson Performing Arts Center. 

Eggener’s hope is to eventually recruit a large group of musicians to join his “marching band.” 

“If we had an army playing these,” he said, “it would turn any float into a magical event.”