Joanna Hersey

Frequently Asked Questions

How did you start playing the tuba?

I started playing tuba during my eighth grade year in a small Vermont town in the mountains, twenty-seven miles from the Canadian border. East Haven, population two hundred and ninety-eight, had two schools, kindergarten through fifth grade in one small building, and sixth through eight grades in one classroom next to the town clerk’s office. During the time I was in school the state of Vermont was organizing the many small, one-room school house school systems across the state, and had hired a band director to start small band programs in various towns in our region. The afternoon came when we were given instrument rental forms to take home and discuss with our parents. I decided that I wanted to play the violin, however, since no high school anywhere nearby had an orchestra, my mother encouraged me to pick a band instrument. Not seeing anything on the list which struck my fancy, I returned to school the next morning having decided not to play anything. However, since we were a small class of about twenty students, our teacher wisely decreed that we all must take part, or there would not be enough players to make up a band. Seeing my lack of enthusiasm for the instrument list, the teacher offered me the chance to play a sousaphone which was not being used in a nearby school. This seemed like a great solution, because I did not know what a sousaphone was.

I figured that this sousaphone of which Mr. Hueling spoke must be like a flutaphone, so I accepted the offer thinking I would become a flute player. Imagine my surprise when the teacher made a special trip out to East Haven to bring me the banged-up white fiberglass sousaphone, taking me out of class into the coatroom for a quick how-to. There we stood, surrounded by wool hats, snowy boots and sturdy parkas, in the chilly coatroom, as he put the sousaphone on my shoulders. A trombone player himself, he was excited about the turn of events, while I was in a complete stupor. This was not the flute I had envisioned, and it was white, plastic and bumpy. “Okay, blow into it,” he instructed. I gave a tentative puff in general the direction of the mouthpiece. Nothing happened. Mr. Hueling uttered the now immortal words, “You’re going to have to blow a lot harder than that if you want to play the tuba.” I took up a large breath and let go with all my might, a large blast rang through the building, students in class looked wildly over their shoulders in alarm, and I had begun to play the tuba.

East Haven was not a wealthy town, and did not provide busing to and from school, so we walked. Since there was only one teacher, the indefatigable Mr. Chip Devenger, if he could get through, school was in session. We rarely closed for a snow day, since snow was so common, as were temperatures dipping to forty below zero on the thermometer. Once a week, before Mr. Hueling’s Wednesday afternoon visit for band rehearsal, I would walk home with the sousaphone to practice. We lived on a major trucking route to Canada, and the big rigs would go roaring past, honking their horns at the girl wearing the sousaphone, plodding home on the snowy road. The rest, as they say, is history…

What are the instruments you play?

I play tuba, trombone, and euphonium, and I am a Yamaha Artist. While I started on tuba, like many students, when I entered high school, there was a need for me to double in the jazz band. In high school I studied with a fabulous band director, Mr. John Padden, who was an Eastman graduate and a jazz saxophonist. I began trombone while in high school, and took private lessons on both tuba and trombone with Jack Ingram, who was a huge infulence on my playing. I even played in the Vermont All-State Jazz Band on trombone my senior year. I currently play on a Bach Stradivarius 42T trombone. The euphonium came into my life when I began private teaching when I was first starting out, and being lucky enough to work with the finest euphonium players in the world I was able to get lots of great advice. I love the euphonium and currently play on a five valve Yamaha 321 euphonium, with a Parker 4G mouthpiece which I also use on the trombone, so I can more easily go back and forth between the instruments. On my solo CDs  I play both tuba and euphonium. I play a 4/4 size Rudolph Meinl CC tuba with five rotary valves, and a Yamaha 621 F tuba, both with my Parker Hersey Model mouthpieces. With Alchemy I always play the large horn on the bottom part.

Who have been your role models in the low brass performance world?

My biggest role models have been my main teachers, Dan Perantoni, Chester Schmitz and Steve Perry. These men accepted me in their studios at a time when young women were rare in powerhouse studios, and did me the honor of pushing me to excel. One important aspect of their teaching is that the tuba can and should be musical, and that clear, accurate technique will free you to do that.

Because of growing up in such a small town, I was not aware of professional women brass players until I became one myself, and was involved with the International Women’s Brass Conference, where I found out about women like Susan Slaughter and Connie Welden, both trendsetters in brass performance. I feel honored to now serve on the IWBC Board of Directors, and assist with the planning of our conferences, to bring more of the history of women in performance to light for the next generations.

How easy is it to make a living in music today?

Making a living in music today is definitely possible, but it is not easy. To do it well takes thousands of hours, and if you are cool with that there will be no problem. For me, there was never any other option and I never considered anything else. The music field has changed a bit from when I was growing up and everyone was going to become an orchestral tuba player full-time. Many of those jobs are gone, and players need to be open to other avenues such as military band performance, overseas performance, arranging, publishing, recording, chamber music, World music styles, etc. The absolute most important thing is that you can envision yourself practicing all your life. There are more players than jobs no matter where you are.

Music performance is not a nine to five job; it means nights and weekends, holidays, getting in late, catching redeye flights, lack of adequate rehearsal time, many miles on the car, and long hours with the horn on the face. Once that is done however, you are doing what you love for your career, and your “day job” is what you would do anyway, simply because you love it. Many people tried to discourage me from going to school for tuba performance, and I was so passionate about it that I totally ignored them and forged ahead without considering another option, and I have been successful. Someone has to win those jobs, make those rehearsals, get hired for the recording sessions, tours, and chamber music series. The musicians that do that are the ones who kept working when it got hard and discouraging, took the time to excel at their craft, and sought out masters in their field for advice and connections.