Remenbering Mel Culbertson, ITEA journal 2011

Publié le par Sylvain


Tribute: Charismatic Tuba Professor, Maestro Mel Culbertson




"He passed away."


July 23rd, 2011. Suddenly we received the shocking, deeply sad news that

Mel had passed away. My teacher, Mel Culbertson, one of the greatest Tuba

players in the world, was only 65 years old.


He taught at the National Superior Conservatory in Lyon, France just before his

death. His contributions to the field of Tuba have been so significant and his

presence so essential to the tuba world in France, in Europe and beyond. He

often served as a competition jury member, professor of master classes, and

performed in a number of solo concerts. Since he used to fly around the world

so much, it would be almost impossible to keep track of his exact trajectory.

Stephane Labeyrie (Orchestre de Paris), Sergio Finca (Spanish Brass), Josef

Bazinka (Budapest Festival Philharmony), are among his students who are now

active worldwide, winning many international competitions.


This is a short profile of Maestro Mel Culbertson.

Mel became tubist of the Ventura State Symphony Orchestra at age 14. He

was the first student of Roger Bobo in Los Angeles. During the Vietnam War,

he played with the West Point Academy Band. He then studied at the Juilliard

School of Music. He also studied with Harvey Phillips and Arnold Jacobs. He

organized recitals at Carnegie Hall. Zubin Mehta offered Mel the solo tuba

position in his orchestra in Tel Aviv. However, due to the political unrest in the

Middle East, he decided to go to Europe instead.


He has held the principal tuba chair with the following Orchestras : The

Hague Symphony Orchestra, (Netherlands), France National Radio

Philharmonic, and the Bordeaux-Aquitaine National Orchestra. Many other

renowned European orchestras also invited him. Herbert von Karajan once

claimed that "Mel plays the tuba like a great flutist !”


He taught at many Universities and Conservatoires across Europe, including

the National Superior Conservatory in Lyon, the doctoral program at the Royal

Northern College of Music in Manchester, England as well as visiting professor

at the Conservatory of Perpignan, France. His method book is as of yet

unpublished but we are currently working to publish it with the help of his son

David and some of his students in France.


When Mel first arrived in Europe, he came face to face with a very

conservative musical culture. His new techniques, and his unorthodox musical

ideas were at first ridiculed. The education community didn’t accept that one

could play the tuba as a solo instrument. He encountered great opposition

from the establishment, including slander and even a year-long strike by

some very jealous fellow tubists ! He quickly became an iconoclast, taking

great efforts to commission new works – in his lifetime he presented works

from over 50 composers. His latest project was a commission by Italian

composer Luigi Nono, however he passed away before the start of this work.

The critics of a half a century ago have been completely silenced by Mel’s

single-minded passion for music. He left a great body of work that became

engraved in the history of our instrument.


“Bring on the praise”, he said often to the students – or better yet "Everything

is possible." He always gave us a unique positive energy towards the

realization of a dream. His lessons were in a group. We went to a cafĚ for a

break, where Mel often started the ‘real’ lesson. One day, he began teaching

the circular breath with straws in a beer, unaware it was replaced with rum!

Of course everyone got drunk very quickly. Immediately we returned to the

Conservatory while lightheaded. "Valkyrie!" he bellowed, and we started into

orchestral excerpts. If it went well - "GOOD! Let me hear once more time, Da

Capo!!" ; if it was bad "NO! Da Capo!!" It was so on, non-stop work for

physical and mental endurance. By the end of the day, we were stone-cold

sober, and everyone was quite dizzy. However, we had a feeling of fullness,

like after a completed mission. It was very refreshing.


Mel's own origins are unclear, but he had told me many times that the

Culbertson family lineage had flowing American Indian (Cherokee) blood. Mel

certainly had the skin pigment, and his nose was a high hooked nose. I once

asked his brother Richard about this. He responded to me by winking

"probably" and soon changed the subject. In any case, Mel embraced the

Native American philosophy in his teaching. In the American Indian community,

there is a custom to “Give Away” or better yet to "Release". They don’t believe

in a love of personal gain, they don’t forget the spirit of cooperation and the

appreciation of the surrounding peoples. This is a true testimony to their

attitude ; in all circumstances, the American Indian always keeps a smile.

There is no doubt that Mel did this in his lessons. Like the expression “Give

Away” Mel is always sharing a smile with the people around him ; he gives

them his most precious thing – his love. It may be that he was a real American

Indian after all.


It is a rarity, but we can hear Mel performing "Solo Tuba Music" composed by

Cort Lippe on the album "Neuma New Music Series Vol. 1". Here we find his

sound and his voice on the text, transmitted with a clear sense of theatric

realism. His youthful and energetic performance can still be heard today as

fresh and untouched by the fading of time. Unfortunately, almost no other

recordings were published. Once, he confided to me, "I tried but I don’t like

my recording sound - I’ll never say OK." That’s Mel - he never compromised.

Mel has a complete set of human anatomy books in his bookshelf. He

always encouraged me to look seriously at how the body works to increase

efficiency, and at what’s required to play the tuba. He has a great collection of

historic musical instruments. Often, as he overlooked these instruments

arranged around him, he was lost deep in thought on instrument

development. I found some great old instruments - for example, he had a

relic from John Fletcher.


Mel later gained fame as a musical instrument development advisor with the

success of the B & S "Apollo" and "Neptune". However, it seems that he still

had a few loose ends – only a few months ago, he told me some amazing

ideas. As he is not here today, I will keep these ideas in my heart.


Many, many students visited his house which is always open. I guess that it

meant little privacy for his family, but they were no fences and the Culbertsons

were great hosts for young students who had an excess of energy. He bought

a house with a big yard and with a pool, because he was thinking of his



I have been invited to Mel’s house many times. He cared deeply for his wife

Susan who did a wonderful job juggling his scheduling and management with

her own career as a pianist. She was in charge of all that happened in that

home. Mel told me laughing happily, "I can’t work without Sue. If all goes well,

maybe I will be able to relax some after retirement. Don’t say a word to the


Last year, I was invited to Susan's birthday with my wife. Mel looked so busy

preparing the food and decorating the room, his dog Titan following him and

waving his tail happily. My wife said with a smile "Love is full here!"

Mel often bragged - "I'm a man that never sleeps." The Culbertson phone

rang yesterday from Spain, today from Britain, the day after from Russia, etc.

He did have an incredibly overcrowded schedule - sometimes pushing him to

his personal limits.


He hated to go to the hospital and he had always said, "I will fall asleep in

the garden at home ; it will be better than ending up on a hospital bed." But

he slipped away after three days in the hospital after enjoying only two

months of retirement.


He was not well known to the media because he would only pour his

passion into his work. So many people may be able to speak better about

Mel, but I wanted to use my words to introduce the international community to

the natural person that I know. We love him like a father who shows pity, like a

brother who shows praise, like a teacher who teaches honor. A charismatic

professor like Mel is rare, but his personality was very friendly – he had warm

human relations. Over the last ten years 10 years, we have spoken so many

times in restaurants or bars - I can’t even remember the taste of the wine or

the great food we were eating at that time, but I will remember always just a

good moment with him.


Finally, I would like to share my personal blessing here as a tribute to the



Mel, you always had a favorite phrase, "Everything can come true if you wish."

I was often encouraged by your voice when in hard times. You gave us many

chances, we made great efforts to fulfill what you desired. Our wishes were

answered, but Mel, was your wish answered or not?

Your work doesn’t stop today ; it will continue on forever from disciple to

disciple. All your students demonstrate unanimously your talent as an

educator. You have reached the point that only the Great Masters reach - in

the future the only yardstick to evaluate you by will be your wonderful



"Mel, Thank you very much for everything. Je t’aime ."


One of Mel Culbertson’s students,





Edited by :


Principal Tuba, Orchestre National de Bordeaux-Aquitaine, France


Translated by :

Christopher NERY

Principal Bass Trombone, RTE Concert Orchestra Dublin, Ireland


Great Thanks to : 

Susan & David Culbertson, Gerhard A. Meinl (President CEO of B&S Groupes), Arnaud Boukhitine (Ensemble Intercontemporain de Paris), Florian Coutet, Fabien Wallerand (Opéra de Paris), Sergio Finca (Spanish Brass), Oscar Abella (Orquesta Sinfónica de Euskadi), Ryunosuke  Abe, Alisa Portellano, Richard Rimbert.


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