For many Minnesotans, nothing says Christmas like a tuba concert.
Thousands of Gopher State residents will be taking in TubaChristmas recitals around the state, from Austin to Eveleth. (See the schedule below.) All events are free and open to the public.
The performers, all unpaid volunteers, bring a range of skill levels anyone with a tuba, euphonium or sousaphone is welcome and they have varied in age from 8 to 80-something. What they share is a desire to celebrate the joy and spirit of the holiday season.
And of the instruments themselves.
"I think [tuba music] definitely is happy music," said John Ginocchio, coordinator and conductor of the Dec. 14 concert in Marshall. "But it's also serious music. Harvey wanted the tuba to be taken seriously."
He's referring to Harvey Phillips, who was called a "titan of the tuba" in his New York Times obituary. His Bloomington, Ind.-based foundation coordinates the concerts. The foundation put together a book with 34 arrangements of holiday songs, many of them by the estimable Alec Wilder.
"These are some really fun arrangements," said Carol Jensen, coordinator and conductor for the Twin Cities concert. "For 'Jingle Bells,' he put some of the 'National Emblem' [march] in the middle."
Jensen and Ginocchio both praised the arrangement for the 18th-century French carol "Patapan," a staple of their performances every year.
Playlists generally include many of the same songs from year to year. That certainly helps with regular participants, because the only rehearsal time is the day of the concert.
"A lot of people who perform year after year have their own copies [of the songbook]," Ginocchio said, "so they will pull it out in advance and go over it. For some who only play this one show every year, it gives them a chance to get more comfortable."
The rehearsal provides "newbies" a chance to get relatively comfortable.
"Some are still trying to figure out these big instruments," said Nancy Schnable, coordinator of the show in Austin. "So at these rehearsals, we're like a family helping each other."
Players come from all over.
"We have had them from as far away as Ohio, and they come up from Iowa and Wisconsin and South Dakota," Schnable said.
The resulting ensembles might have a couple dozen horn-blowers in smaller locales ("for a community of this size, 25 is a very good number," Ginocchio said) to as many as 150 in the Twin Cities. Audience turnout is strong everywhere, from a few hundred at Austin's Historic Paramount Theater to a near-capacity 1,200 at St. Paul's Central Presbyterian Church.
That's just the latest in a long, strange site evolution, Jensen said.
In 1988, "Harvey Phillips stalked me into starting one here," she said with a hearty laugh. "The bottom line: He knew a sucker when he saw one."
The initial concert was at Rosedale. Then it was on to Maple Grove, the Mall of America for one year, Apache Plaza for eight years and Har Mar Mall for four years. Things finally changed in 2006.
"The people from Central Presbyterian called and wanted us for free," Jensen said. "We usually had had to pay at other places."
TubaChristmas has been a December staple at the church ever since, with one hiccup.
"In 2012, a major snowstorm locked down the city, nobody was getting anywhere, and we had to cancel," she said. "But fortunately, the facility was available the following week."
One big lure for the musicians is atypical visibility.
"Tuba players are usually in back [in an orchestra setting]," Schnable said. "We put them up front."
Another draw is the opportunity to get, for lack of a better term, in tune with the season.
"We encourage holiday attire," Schnable said. "Some [players] decorate their instruments with lights, and some wear a Santa hat."
In St. Paul, Jensen said, "I bring jingle bells, and we tell a few bad jokes."
But the music is most important. To engage the audience even more, many ensembles do sing-alongs.
In Marshall, that means that with the more familiar songs, "we'll play through it once and then again for them to sing along," Ginocchio said.
In Austin, "we invite the audience to sing along right from the get-go," Schnable said. "We might play one chord so people can their get vocal cords in tune. … It gets so loud that people outside the building can hear it."
And the grand finale?
In Marshall, it's "We Wish You a Merry Christmas."
In St. Paul, though, that greeting comes after some solemnity.
"We usually end with 'Silent Night,' to remind people what Christmas is all about," Jensen said, "and then hold up instruments carefully and say 'Merry Tuba Christmas!'"
And a Happy Tuba New Year to one and all.
All concerts are free. Those interested in performing should visit the TubaChristmas website.
• Austin: 11 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 7, at the Historic Paramount Theatre, 125 NE 4th Ave.
• Northfield: 3 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 7, at the Carleton College Chapel, Winona St.
• St. Paul: 4 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 8, at Central Presbyterian Church, 500 Cedar St.
• St. Cloud: 6 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 10, at Paramount Center for the Arts, 913 W. St. Germain St.
• Bemidji: 7 p.m. Friday, Dec. 13, at Paul Bunyan Mall, 1401 NW Paul Bunyan Dr.
• Eveleth: 1 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 14, at Eveleth City Auditorium, 421 Jackson St.
• Marshall: 1 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 14, at the Southwest Minnesota State University Student Center, 1501 State St.