Steve Dillon, left, Matt Walters and Mike Ruderman get grip on subcontrabass tuba.Steve Dillon, left, Matt Walters and Mike Ruderman get grip on subcontrabass tuba.

In the hierarchy of the classical orchestra, the tuba usually takes a back seat. In a university band, it gets a little more play.

But by this spring's Harvard commencement, the unusually large cousin of the ordinary, deep-throated instrument is expected to be out front -- fully restored to its late-19th-century grandeur.

Helping to guide the 7-foot-high subcontrabass tuba from storeroom to public performance is A. Michael Ruderman of Arlington. Known more for well-crafted Town Meeting speeches, he is also the clerk for the Harvard Band Foundation. As such, he played a role in sending off the tuba this month to the restorer, Dillon Music of Woodbridge, N.J.

Among our many-faceted residents

In an interview, Ruderman was asked: What sound does such a giant instrument make? "Like the deepest pipe on the church organ," he said. That's its signature sound; it has higher ranges.

How low can you go?

The tuba has a lowest (fundamental) pitch of B-flat three octaves below middle C, traditionally referred to as BBBb ("triple B flat"). The same pitch is the second-lowest note on a modern piano keyboard.

A still larger tuba, named Carl and part of the New Jersey Symphony, may be the world’s largest, and is described as sounding like “a jackhammer” or “a helicopter.”  It is owned by Carl Fischer Music of New York and was recently spruced up by Steve Dillon, the New Jersey restorer.

The local giant is owned by the Harvard University Band, but has not been played since the group's 2009 reunion.

Why? Much needs to repaired. For one, a notable flaw needs to be fixed -- a fingertip-sized hole on a valve, which leads to the loss of music-making wind. Further, the pistons inside the valves have nearly seized up, and that makes playing so difficult.

Dents and warps all over lead to weak spots, and the rim of the bell is crushed in places.

Ruderman called this an "enormous repair," involving taking the instrument apart, repairing it and putting all back, piece by piece.

Donations sought; reunion in October

The restoration, expected to be completed in late April or early May, has been undertaken to preserve the instrument and return it to playable condition.

The foundation is doing that by seeking $25,000 to $30,000 in donations. It is expected to be first shown off at commencement and then at band's reunion next October at the Marriott Westin in Cambridge, marking the band's 100th year. From 400 to 500 alumni are expected to return.

Imagine the headline: "What a toot for alums!"

He thought the subcontrabass tuba may have needed repair for as long as 40 years. The band has owned it for since 1948.

Well, at least the band has possessed it that long. Ruderman relayed a story he has heard dating back 71 years: The tuba was found on display at the Carl Fischer music shop, when it was in downtown Boston; it has been in New York since 1872.

The Harvard band needed to rent the instrument for a celebration of a Radcliffe anniversary at Boston Symphony Hall. Fischer's clerk provided the band's rep a sales slip, not one for rental. Thus, Harvard has continued to "own" its rental for all these years.

'Historical passion'

Ruderman called the tuba an "heirloom," so big it had to be transported on a flatbed truck.

The standard tuba is about 3 1/2 feet high, has about 18 feet of tubing and weighs about 20 pounds. Harvard's subcontrabass tuba is double that contains 55 feet of tubing, weighs about 90 pounds and registers a subcontrabass BBBb pitch.

The restoration of Harvard's tuba, put out to bid, drew Four or five responses. Ruderman said Dillon got the job for its "historical passion."

Overseeing the work is its president, Steve. Dillon Music, founded in 1992, counts among its clients members of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, the Saturday Night Live Band and Horniman Museum & Gardens in London. Dillon, who traces his own musical roots to a fifer accompanying the Continental Army in 1776, is a noted historian of brass instruments.

The oddly grand instrument allows Ruderman, a student of history at Harvard, and now, to shrink time, pulling into the present the "great inventing spirit of the 19th century" regarding musical instruments.

He touched on Adolphe Sax, inventor of -- what else? -- the saxophone. (Little did the Belgian imagine its future role in the emergence of jazz.)

He veered to Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore, the legendary mid-19th-century band leader and author of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home." Harvard's subcontrabass tuba was created in 1892 by Besson & Co. (London UK) for Gilmore, just before his death.

At the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Sousa displaced Gilmore as a America's band leader. He brought a new instrument, a tuba that could sound over the band whether its player was seated or marching. That was the sousaphone. He became known known primarily for American military marches.

"I'm a historian at heart," Ruderman said, praising the resources of Robbins Library, its people and holdings.

Ruderman's introduction to the tuba goes back to his freshman year in college. As a band member (he played clarinet), he saw an ad saying "POLISH TUBA PARTY."  He thought it meant beer, sausage and music. On attending, he found the invitation was a humorous bait-and-switch to get some work done but a fun party nonetheless.

Harvard University Band tuba plays at Hatch Shell >> 

What is a subcontrabass tuba >> 

Harvard University Band tuba plays at Hatch Shell >> 

What is a subcontrabass tuba >> 

Dillon Music shows big tuba >> 

New York Times, Sept. 25, 2014: It’s a Giant. It’s a Novelty. It’s a Tuba Named Big Carl.

This news feature was published Friday, Feb. 22, 2019.