Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Interview: Jim Self

Jim Self is an amazing free-lance multi-instrumentalist based in Los Angeles, California. In addition to being a studio musician he is also a first call Tubist for many movie composers and plays in many orchestras in addition to teaching private lessons and chamber music at USC. He is a real “jack of all trades” and in reality, a master of them all.

Jim took some time from his busy schedule this weekend to talk to me about movies, equipment and being a free-lance Tuba player.

[questions in BOLD answers in plain type following a “J.S.-”]

I am excited to be speaking to such a great player, especially one who gets to work with John Williams on a regular basis. You have played many works for John Williams and Steven Spielberg. Which one was your favorite?

J.S. - That's a tough one, I've done so many. I have been first call for John Williams for over 20 years now—beginning with Home Alone in 1990. Before that in 1976 I was the “voice of the mothership” on Close Encounters of the Third Kind and it remains probably my most important job. I caught a break on that one.  At that time Tommy Johnson was the first call Tuba player for John, but he was on vacation and couldn't make it so they called me. It was just one of those lucky things.

above: Jim Self, voice of the mothership

Even though it's very simple, one of my favorites is the solo at the end of Jurassic Park.

J.S. - That tritone at the very end of the credits? You know what that means don't you? That means there's going to be a sequel! (and there was, of course)

above: end credits from Jurassic Park. Jim's solo starts around 2:40

What exciting movie projects have you worked on lately?

J.S. - For John Williams I recently finished recording for the film War Horse. It's a war movie so the score has a lot of brass—but it was gentle music often. I just finished The Green Lantern today. It's sci-fi and very brass heavy. The instrumentation is:

8 – French Horns
8 – Trombones (all doubled on Bass Trombone and/or Contra-Bass Trombone)
4 – Trumpets
2 – Tubas (who both doubled on Cimbasso)

above: trailer for the upcoming film, The Green Lantern

Being a free lance Tubist sounds very exciting. What all does being a free lance Tuba player entail?

J.S. - It's extremely difficult to be a free lancer. To make a good living It only really works in Los Angeles and New York--because that is where the jobs are. You have to do many different things, from studio work to concert work to teaching. Every job is an audition. Sometimes it is just word of mouth and the composer will ask you back if he likes you.

When you asked about The Green Lantern, many of those musicians double because they have to. You have to be a very versatile musician. If necessary I can pick up Bass Trombone or Cimbasso or Bass and play it well. You really have to be a good classical musician. I may get hired because I know what a samba feels like. I know how to play the blues. I know dixieland. So often I am the one to call for commercial styles.

For any young student who wants to pursue a career as an orchestral Tubist, what suggestions could you offer for them?

J.S. - Be aware of your chances. It's very rare that there is an opening and there aren't that many jobs. Follow your dreams, but be realistic about it. Only a small fraction of my students have gone on to be professional musicians, but not one has regretted getting a degree studying Tuba. Pursue your dreams, but be realistic.

What advice could you provide for people who are about to audition, students, professionals or otherwise?

J.S. - You have to be flawless technically, rhythmically and in tune. Rhythmic accuracy is paramount. You just can't miss any notes in an audition.

Then sound. You have to have a special sound. If your sound is not warm or dark or whatever they are looking for, then you might not get the job. Work on developing your sound.

CC or BBb? Why?

CC - They are just easier for me to play. Personally I think it is easier and more accurate to play in the higher and lower registers on a CC Tuba. They are also more versatile key wise, especially sharp keys (which are used more often in orchestral playing), but that's just my opinion.

You are known for owning a lot of unique equipment. Can you tell me what inspired the Fluba?

J.S. - I'm a secret jazz musician. The guys I like best are guys like Clark Terry and Art Farmer who were great Flugelhorn players. I really wanted a tuba-sized Flugelhorn. Robb Stewart built it for me. The bell is from a small F Tuba and the valve section is from a Yamaha compensating EEb. The first taper had intonation problems. The final horn was great. I have used it on many of my solo records. I even used it on Petrushka once with the Pacific Symphony.

above: Jim Self playing the Fluba in his music room

On your website, you have as part of your personal collection a Yamaha YCB-826 “Monica” which you describe as"Monica" (pictured at right), 6/4 prototype, silver, 4 piston valves-1 rotary.  A precise copy of the better of Arnold Jacobs' Yorks.” Could you tell me a bit more about this horn?

J.S. - This is one of the original prototypes from the horn that they produce today. I understand that Yamaha took Jake's [Arnold Jacobs] York and put it into an MRI-like scanning machine that could measure detail and even the thickness of the metal throughout the instrument. The metal on Jake's York is quite thin. It has been polished and worked on so much--and this affects the instrument.

The first one was made by Thomas Lubitch in Frankfurt and was great! The next couple they made weren't as good. I tried them all. Then they took another year and produced a three more and “Monica” is one of those. They were much, much better.
above: "Monica" Jim's YCB-826 CC

I am a bit of a Sousaphone geek, so I would kick myself later if I didn't ask you about the “Selfone” your custom made F Sousaphone.

J.S. - That's just a novelty. I really like it, but I don't really play it that often—mostly for jazz too. That is another one that Robb Stewart made for me. Right now it plays a bit flat, so I need Robb to take some length out of it. It is a great playing horn though. I can play Bydlo from Pictures at an Exhibition on it better than I can on my F Tuba—although I doubt if any conductor would go for it!

above: Jim Self's "Selfone" in F

What is your “go-to” equipment? I ask because you have a large collection. What do you rely on the most?

J.S. - It really depends on the job.
For orchestra work I use “Monica.”
On studio jobs I use a custom made Yamaha 4/4 CC prototype that is a copy of my 1938 York CC.
I use a Yamaha 822 F for some other work, but not as often as my Yamaha 4/4 CC. I also play Cimbasso—a lot—on many movie calls and at the LA Opera too.

I really love the Yamaha Custom double Tuba in your collection. Can you tell me a little more about it?

J.S. - It is one of two F/CC custom Tubas made for Tommy Johnson by Robb Stewart. Tommy used them professionally for a while. They were F Tubas that had a CC side for playing the lower notes. I bought one of them after Tommy's passing. The proceeds from the sale of his horns went to Tommy's scholarship fund at USC.  

Was it a really versatile horn? How did it play?

J.S. - Well it is a compromise. I have played many double Tubas and I haven't played one yet that isn't a compromise in some fashion. You can only have a good CC side or a good F side, but it has been my experience that you can't have both. The one I have Tuba is a Yamaha F Tuba with the added CC side, so the F side is very good but the pitch for the CC side isn’t be as good as my 4/4 Yamaha CC.

above: Jim Self's Yamaha double Tuba

above: Tommy Johnson playing one of the Yamaha doubles made by Robb Stewart

Is there any advice in general you can leave with young Tuba players who want to be successful?

J.S. - Do what you say you are going to do and finish what you start. Doing that will help people respect you.

above: Jim Self through his 1916 Keefer sousaphone with his fluba


Jim Self's homepage is at:

You can purchase Jim's recordings and sheet music at:

Jim's faculty profile at USC:

1 comment:

  1. Congratulations. I really enjoyed the interview. Very technical and interesting. A great blog!.

    This is my exclusive blog on John Williams (In Spanish)

    This my brief article on his tuba concerto: