Thursday, December 30, 2010

MORE Francois Thuillier!

Conn 20K - Sousa Review -

The Conn 20K Sousaphone is one of my favorite instruments ever produced. In the Tuba and Sousaphone world it is a bit of a rarity to exist basically unchanged for as long as the 20K has. During the lifetime of the 20K, many famous models have come and gone, and the 20K is still here...

While it is debatable who actually invented the Sousaphone, C.G. Conn was definitely a leader in development and innovation. In my opinion, the biggest contribution made by C.G.Conn is the Conn 20K. The Conn 20K has been in production since 1934. It has short action valves made possible by squeezing the bore and making the distance between ports on the pistons smaller as seen below:
The valve stems are unique because they are offset. This means they are not centered like most pistons. This allows the larger diameter piston to be used, while maintaining comfortable ergonomics. The valve guide is part of the cap, so the piston is held in position by a metal pin that leads from the cap to the piston. This system reduces the stroke of the piston by 33%! 

The 20K is one of the horns that hasn't changed much as Conn changed hands and production moved around the country. The brief history goes like this; early C.G.Conn Sousaphone production happened in Elkhart, Indiana until the late 1960's when production moved to Abilene, Texas. Then in 1986 production of Sousaphones moved to the Eastlake, Ohio facility as part of C.G. Conn becoming United Musical Instruments or UMI. 

During the UMI change, some models were phased out like the 22K, the short action fiberglass Sousa. Other models changed designs but maintained the same model number. The 14K and 36K became King 2350 and 2370 stencils, or copies of Kings with Conn's name engraved on them. This isn't a bad thing, King Sousaphones are excellent players. Conn's 20K model remained largely unchanged.

The few changes that happened are minor at best in my opinion. In fact, so little has changed that ALL of the parts are interchangeable between new and old production models, except the mouth pipe bracing listed below. They include a change to the bracing of the lower mouth pipe:
There was also a change to "peel - and - stick" guard molding that was used for some time. I think that the idea behind this was to be able to make repairs easier, which it would, but some people found them not to be so durable. Andy Smith, parts manager at Conn-Selmer stated on the Tubenet message board that Conn-Selmer has recently gone back to the metal guards.

Some people have said that the newer 20k's have thinner walls for the tubing. I don't know if this is true. I haven't had any problems with the newer models. In fact, I ordered a 2nd branch from Conn-Selmer and the thickness was perfectly fine. If this is true, I haven't noticed it. 

Overall, the Conn 20K is probably my favorite all metal Sousaphone. I like the way I can get the sound to open up at any dynamic. I can play a very loud fortissimo without splitting the sound or getting a nasty "blat." The last 20K I repaired and played was free blowing and did not require any effort to get a lush, beautiful tone. New or old, a 20K is the way to go.

Bell Diameter: 26"
Bore Size        : 0.734"
Weight            : 30.5 lbs.


Useful links:
C.G. Conn's Website - Conn 20K 
My most recent Conn 20K on eBay

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Francois Thuillier - The best player you've (probably) never heard of

Francois Thuillier
Francois Thuillier is one of my all time favorite Tuba players.  Francois is a famous modern Tuba player in France. He plays a Yamaha YFB-822 F Tuba and a Conn 20K Sousaphone. Please do your self a favor and buy his albums.You won't regret it.

I became familiar with his music when rifling through some used CDs and came across a strange recording called "Frantic Squirrel."

You can find "Frantic Squirrel" here - :Francois Thuillier - "Frantic Squirrel" @

I was immediately floored by his level of technique and style. He plays very effortlessly incorporating feats of technical gymnastics and multi-phonics.  My favorite work from this album is a piece by Andy Emler called, "Tubastone No.1." 

I received a package in the mail on December 24 from a few friends who have a repair shop in France. Enclosed was a signed poster and signed CD from Francois Thuillier! I couldn't have been more excited. The album enclosed was "

Orchestre d'Harmonie de Clermont - "Concerto pour Tuba"

 You can find the album here: Francois Thuillier - Stephane Kregar "Concerto pour Tuba"

Here is a video of Francois on Youtube:

Find Francois on Facebook:Francois Thuillier on Facebook

Find Francois on Myspace:

Francois Thuillier's homepage (in French):

I will post music by Francois in the future. I think more American players need to know about Francois.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

After photos: Conn 20K 533***

Finished yesterday. This is an excellent player. Smooth, easy blowing and a nice rich tone.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Conn 40K Sousaphone

Conn 40K Sousaphone Cluster

(There are more photos at the end of the post)

My shop has come across this excellent and rare gem: A Conn 40K Sousaphone. It is already sold, so keep saving for the next excellent vintage 4 valve Sousaphone that turns up.

The serial number puts the manufacture of this horn in 1924. A Conn catalog from the 1920's has this to say about their Sousaphones:

"The New Wonder Model Sousaphone Grand Basses listed on this page are the largest members of the Sousaphone family. Built in BBb, with either three or four valves, they add a deep and sonorous voice to any ensemble in which they may be used. The splendid impression made by these instruments in point of appearance is a matter of remark everywhere.

Due to the hydraulic expansion of manufacture, these instruments are perfectly proportioned, and accurate intonation is therefore invariably obtained. The inside of all the tubing is smooth as glass, having been 'ironed out' by pressure or 10,000 pounds or more, and as a result the softest pianissimo passages, encountering little resistance, can be played with great effect. This is proof of the easy blowing quality of the Conn Sousaphone Grand Bass.

The adjustable bell has a two-fold advantage. It permits saving of space in packing, with corresponding decrease in liability to damage and also permits the tone of the instrument to be thrown in any desired direction." Page 38. 1926 Conn Catalog.

I love the last line of the description.

The Conn 40K is basically the same design as the 20K or 38K. They all have the same body and bell, that is until the mid 1950's when Conn changed the bell from 24" to 26" and dropped the four valve model. The design is the same with the exception of the fourth valve. Notice that the tubing from the fourth valve leaves the cluster and mirrors the 5th branch. It is a beautiful design.

The specs are:

Bell Diameter: 24"
Weight         : 30 3/4 lbs.
Bore size     : .734"

Why did I post these pictures? Because I am fascinated by 4 valve Sousaphones and their design. I think that other people can appreciate the build of this cluster as much as I do.

Pistons vs. Rotors (or how to beat a dead horse)

Pistons vs. Rotors: an age old debate

This is a question that gets argued frequently. Tuba players will go back and forth with each other on this subject, and I really haven't heard many convincing arguments for one over the other, so today I will try to provide some insight to how each system works and you can make a decision for what is best for you.

1 - "Which is faster?"

This is a trick question. The answer is neither are truly faster when cleaned, adjusted and lubricated properly. Both systems need to be perfectly clean before assembly. Pistons need the proper spring for light quick action without feeling too stiff, and strong enough to avoid "bounce back." Rotors have to have all of the moving parts thoroughly cleaned and lubricated with the proper oil (and there is more than one). Rotors also need to have the linkage mechanism adjusted for proper action and to eliminate lost motion so the rotors are quiet.

Piston vs. Rotors 1: DRAW

2 - "Which is easier to maintain?"

Pistons are easy to take apart. For Tubas and Sousaphones it is as easy as unscrewing the piston top cap. Piston casings need to be swabbed with a clean cloth and oiled regularly. If your horn is going to be put into storage for an extended period of time, it is important to clean the oil from your pistons and casings. You do this because the oil will evaporate leaving a residue which will cause the pistons to stick.

Rotors SHOULD NOT be disassembled by young students without trainging from a tech or an experienced Tuba teacher. There are many different parts, and if they aren't properly reassembled or if they are mixed up, your horn might not work. That being said, once a rotor valve horn has been cleaned and oiled, it needs re-oiling regularly, but rarely requires rotor disassembly. As long as you properly oil your rotors, you will have quick, quiet rotors for a long time.

Pistons vs. Rotors 2: DRAW

3 - "____________ sounds better."

Again, this is a trick question. In the musical instrument retail business, SOUND is kind of a dirty word. This is because sound is ultimately subjective and is different from player to player. People who like rotor horns might argue that the bore remains more consistent with rotors allowing the sound wave easier passage through the horn where as pistons might cause more resistance. I have not seen any convincing evidence in either direction for this argument.

Pistons vs. Rotors 3: DRAW

At the end of the day, the choice is ultimately yours. In my opinion when properly adjusted neither system is faster nor is one system any easier to maintain than another. Many major Tuba manufacturers offer many of their models with piston or rotor options.

What do you prefer and why? Let me know.

(I think the picture is from Dan Schultz's (the Tuba Tinker) collection, but I am unsure.)

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Before: Yamaha YBB - 641

Here we on my list of priorities is a Yamaha YBB-641. This Tuba is one of the earlier models. You can tell because of the "S" shaped rotor linkage arms and the mouth pipe enters the rotor block at an angle.

As you can see, I am missing the number four lever. The replacement part is discontinued, so I will have to retro-fit a modern equivalent. I still have the original linkage bar, so I will try to use the existing piece.

A previous owner had attempted to repair the mouth pipe, which has been ripped in half. It looks like the bell to mouth pipe brace broke and the some torque was applied to the mouth pipe. Whoops...

So somebody put binding wire to hold the parts together, and then put globs of what looks like JB Weld on the pieces to hold them together. It is good news for me that I was going to replace this mouth pipe anyway.

There are some pretty nasty dents on the back of this horn, but I think I can make a significant improvement. I will check back in with my progress. I should be starting this horn soon. I am going to finish a 20K (listed below) and this horn is next. Time to roll up my sleeves!

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Master at Work

This is my daughter the child prodigy play testing a Meinl Weston 182 F Tuba that she has just  thoroughly cleaned. Since the horn is an F, she likes to test it to the first movement of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Tuba Concerto. She is 19 months old today.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Merry Tuba Christmas!!!!!

(video from

Merry Tuba - Christmas!!!!

Tuba Christmas is a series of concerts held all over the country where low brass players get together and play Christmas carols. The first Tuba Christmas was December 22, 1974 and was performed at New York's Rockefeller Center. The first concert was held in honor of William Bell, a famous Tuba teacher and performer.

All you need to participate is: an instrument (Tuba, Sousaphone, Euphonium, Baritone), a music stand or lyre, and an official Tuba Christmas carol book which can be purchased at the registration table. Use original Tuba Christmas books only, do not use photo copies. It costs only $5.00, but it is a small price to pay for such a good time.

Some players go as far as to decorate their instruments for the occasion. 

At the time I write this, it is probably too late to get involved in any Tuba Christmas concerts, but you can always pen it in the calender for next year. Here is how to find a Tuba Christmas event in your area:

Find a Tuba Christmas location

I personally love this picture:

Wherever you are, please try to make it out to the next one. It is great fun, and you might get to meet some low brass players in your community.

Here are a few links, helpful resources and source materials for this article.

The Official Tuba Christmas Website

Tuba Christmas - Wikipedia

Rochester City Newspaper 12/19/2009 - Tuba Christmas Photo 1 - Tuba Christmas Photo 2

Ann Arbor Michigan Tuba Christmas on YouTube

Conn 36K - The Gold Standard

The Conn 36K is one of the best fiberglass Sousaphones, and it should be. The fiberglass Sousaphone was invented by Conn in 1948 (source: New Langwill Index p.70). Through out the history of Sousaphone production, many companies have tried to capitalize on fiberglass Sousaphones, but none are quite as good as the two that Conn produced, the 36K and the 22K. During the 1970's production was moved from Elkhart, Indiana to Abilene, Texas. Some players prefer the Elkhart horns over the Abilene horns, but I think that both are excellent Sousaphones. In 1986, the Abilene plant was closed and production moved to Eastlake, Ohio when United Musical Instruments was formed. Any 36K's manufactured after this time period are actually King 2370 fiberglass Sousaphones.

What separates the 36K from other makes and models is overall quality and durability. The fiberglass that Conn uses for the body and bell spout is extremely durable, especially when compared to its competition. The bell flare is made of an ABS composite that is extremely tough. The bell flare is more likely to chip than it is to crack, which in my opinion is a good thing. When bell flares crack, they can be repaired, but even the best repair is likely to open up again at some point.

The valve section is secured to the body by 3 strap braces. The brass connects to the fiber with 2 rubber O-rings. The valve section is IDENTICAL to a 14K cluster, and parts are interchangeable and abundant because of how many Conn 36Ks and 14Ks exist.

The 36K plays very well. While fiberglass lacks a certain power that you can get from a brass model, a 36K can still produce a rich, warm tone and cut through when you need to be heard. You can still get a big sound even if you are carrying a lighter instrument.

The image in the background is a closeup shot of a 14K valve section.

Bell Flare: 24"

Bore Size: 0.734"
Weight: 16 3/4 lbs

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Sousa Reference Chart - Measurements

(click the image to enlarge)

The chart above has measurements for common Sousaphone parts, bore sizes and weights. It is a great reference for repair techs who need to know the thread size of a particular part.

It is a good tool for a parent or band director if you lose a screw just before the parade and you don't have time to get a replacement from the music shop, you might be able to make a trip to the hardware store and find something that will get you by until you can have the horn properly repaired. Parents, players and band directors can also compare weight if they have younger or smaller students who might not be able to handle something like a Conn 20K.

The list is currently incomplete. I have been putting it together a little every day and taking measurements as I get my hands on horns and parts. I will update the list as new information comes in. This list is also only part of a larger list that will contain RARE Sousaphones like Martins and Jumbos!!! I will post the FULL list at a later date. The list provided only includes common horns in BBb.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

How to choose a new mouthpiece - or the worst advice ever...

Mouthpiece selection is very important and generates great discussion amongst Brass players. However, there is a great deal of misinformation that is also spread. I hope to help people understand how important this is, and how to pick a mouthpiece that is best for them.

The most important thing to understand before you buy a new mouthpiece is that music is very subjective and one player will have far different results than another player using the exact same equipment. Much of this has to do with a players physicality. Other factors that change how you should choose your mouthpiece is your own personal ability.

What Do You Look For On a New Mouthpiece?

There are a few details about each mouthpiece to look for when selecting a new one. They are:

This image is from Bach's Accessory Catalog. It does a good job of illustrating basic design features for mouthpieces. In my opinion, it is a good place to start.

How Should You Choose a Mouthpiece?

First, when trying out new mouthpieces, make sure to always use your main instrument to try new mouthpieces. Mouthpieces will play differently in other instruments. It is best to try new mouthpieces in an instrument you are used to, mostly so you are familiar with the pitch tendencies of your instrument and the limits of your own instruments dynamic ranges.

When trying mouthpieces, play music that you are very familiar with. The goal is to see what mouthpiece is the most comfortable and what you sound best on.  Try not to make a purchase based on the description of what the mouthpiece should sound like alone. Always try before you buy.

How to Select Mouthpieces for Beginners

If you are a very young player and Tuba is your first instrument, you might want to start with a very small cupped mouthpiece, so it is easier to make a sound. If you have experience playing another brass instrument, it may be easier for you to use a mouthpiece with a bigger cup. A local band director, who is also a Tuba player recommends that the students in his district start on a Conn Helleberg 7B.

Below are Bach's Tuba mouthpieces. The image is from Bach's Accessory Catalog. It is a good reference point to start from when selecting a mouthpiece for beginners.

Common Mouthpieces or Boutique Mouthpieces?

What is the truth? Is there a big difference between common mouthpieces made by major manufacturers and custom mouthpieces made by a boutique shop? Yes. Will every player immediately be able to tell the difference between the two? No. Here is why I think this is the case. A young player who doesn't have much experience isn't going to have the ability to discern the subtle differences between a common mouthpiece and a very expensive mouthpiece. Think of it like a student driver trying to maneuver a well tuned sports car. They might be able to make it stop and go, but they won't be able to use it to its full potential. This is also true of fine Tubas as well...

There is a great benefit to using finely made boutique mouthpieces, but if you are a beginner, you might be paying a lot of money but physically unable to reap the benefits of it. 

In Closing...

 In closing, don't get bogged down in details and numbers. Try many different mouthpieces and let your ears do the work. There are many useful charts and spreadsheets, but only playing a new mouthpiece will reveal how well of a fit it truly is. The real answer of how to choose a mouthpiece is try as many as you can, and pick what is best for you.

Useful Resources

Listed below are some links to some mouthpiece comparison charts and potentially useful information.
Tuba Mouthpiece Chart on All Brass

David Werden's Tuba Mouthpiece Comparison Chart

Woodwind and Brasswind Tuba Mouthpiece Comparison Chart

Musician's Friend - How to Select Cup Mouthpieces

PS - The picture at the top of this post is from:

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Stuff Found in Sousaphones - Conn 20K

Today, when removing the 2nd branch from this Conn 20K Sousaphone, I found this. It is a foam football. This is the exact spot I found it. If you are wondering, this does make the horn play "stuffy."

This isn't the first item I have ever found in a Sousaphone or Tuba and it certainly won't be the last. Apparently around the shop I work at I have the best luck finding objects in Sousaphones. So far I have found:

  • A foam football
  • 2 wasps nests
  • pictures of an old house
  • a FULL water bottle
  • sheet music and marching charts 
This is a topic that makes me laugh, so I will probably post more pictures of objects as I find them in horns.

Before Pictures: 533*** Conn 20K Sousa

 So one of my next projects at work is to repair this Conn 20K for stock. I don't know how far I will go with finishing work, but I will let you know as soon as I do. I will remove the dents, hand burnish the bell, thoroughly clean the valve cluster and give the pistons a new alignment before I am done. I will post new photos as I make progress.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Sousa Video: Nat McIntosh - "The Warrior Comes Out To Play"

Nat McIntosh is one of the founding members of the Youngblood Brass Band. He has also performed with the Dallas Brass and the Sotto Voce Quartet. Don't let the silliness of this video fool you, Nat McIntosh can play.

The video above is from one of Nat's performances with the Dallas Brass. The piece is titled, "The Warrior Comes Out To Play."

Nat's Bio @ Sotto Voce's Homepage
The Youngblood Brass Band Homepage

How to Shop on eBay

This may seem like common sense, but let me tell you it isn't. I use eBay on almost a daily basis and think it is a wonderful tool for buying and selling musical instruments.  eBay is a great website for values, but when shopping for musical instruments, it is best to be careful.

There are certain rules to stick to when using eBay that will make sure your experience is a good one.

#1 - The seller - when purchasing a musical instrument on eBay, make sure the seller is reputable. Does the seller have good feedback? Does the seller have a fair return policy? Can you easily communicate with the seller. These are really important things to evaluate because if the seller cannot be reached, a minor problem can turn into a major headache if you need some help and cannot get it.

#2 - Read the listing...carefully - Make sure that you read every detail in the listing. Make sure to look at the pictures to make sure all of the parts of the instrument are there. eBay has many music stores that sell online, but there is also a healthy number of people who have found an instrument in granny's attic and are selling it, maybe not knowing it is missing crucial pieces. Also make note if the seller offers a return policy or warranty.

#3 - Pay close attention to the payment terms - If any seller asks you specifically to go outside of eBay's established payment system, DO NOT BID AND IMMEDIATELY REPORT THEM TO EBAY. eBay has well established systems designed to protect buyers and sellers as long as they remain within that framework. That being said, if you are making an expensive purchase from a well established music store, it would be safe if you call and speak to a sales representative directly, but then you are at the mercy of the music store. If the music store has a good reputation and helpful service, I would feel comfortable doing this. I would not recommend going outside of eBay's system for any individual seller, only well established music stores with good reputations.

#4 - Beware of deals that seem "Too Good to Be True." - Chances are if a deal seems "too good to be true," then it probably is. If you are a parent who is online looking for an instrument for your beginning band student and you are looking for a cheap instrument, eBay is a good place to go, but be careful. There may be damage to the instrument that cannot be seen in the pictures or might be unknown to a lay person. A potential value could cost lots of money in the long run. Again, always check for missing parts, mouthpieces and the like.

#5 - Too Good to Be True 2 - Cheap New Items - If you are looking for a deal on cheap new gear, eBay can also provide good values. An area to be cautious of is inferior quality instruments being sold. These can be hard to spot so do not be afraid to call your local music stores or area band directors and ask if they have ever heard of the instrument in question. The trouble with inferior quality instruments is what initially seems like a good deal may end up costing you money when the instrument begins to give you trouble. Nothing is more frustrating to a young student than trying to practice with an instrument that is constantly out of adjustment. Try and stick to well known, established brands and consult your local music shop or music educators for assistance.

#6 - Pay attention to shipping costs - It doesn't happen very frequently, but sometimes there might be a seller who will purposefully overcharge for shipping to "pad" the cost of the order. eBay has done a fine job curbing this practice by instituting ballpark rates for what most items cost to ship. Sometimes shipping costs are too high because a seller doesn't really know how much it costs to ship an item. If you are ever concerned, don't ever be afraid to ask the seller about the cost.

I will post tips and neat eBay finds in the future. These are my opinions, your results may vary. If I left something out, let me know.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Sousa Video: The Roots: Lovely Love My Family

I was watching the Nick Jr. show Yo Gabba Gabba with my young daughter a few weeks ago and my attention was peaked when I saw something wildly unusual in pop music: Sousaphone.

Yo Gabba Gabba show regularly features popular musicians performing kids songs. In the episode titled "Family" the musical guest is The Roots. They perform a song titled "Lovely Love My Family."

The great and unusual thing about this tune? Sousaphone solo. It is rare for any contemporary popular music to have Sousaphone or Tuba.

The player is Tuba Gooding Jr. His real name is Damon Bryson. He tours regularly with The Roots, and they are the house band on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, where you can see Damon play just about every night.

For those curious, Damon plays a Conn 20K

Friday, December 10, 2010

Welcome to Sousa Central!

Welcome to my new blog "Sousa Central." This is a blog about Sousaphones, Tubas and other low brass instruments. I am going to try to include bits about instruments, education, reviews, history, interviews with players and teachers and anything else I can think of. I want this blog to be as interactive as possible, so please email me with any questions or comments.