Sunday, March 6, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Melinda Bargreen

Whatever's Happening, Ed The Tuba Man Sets The Tone

You've seen Ed the Tuba Man, puffing out the stately, deep tones of his instrument outside the Kingdome, Opera House, Coliseum.

You've heard him playing a mournful "Taps" for dejected fans on those rare occasions when the Huskies, or the Thunderbirds or the Sonics, should happen to lose.

Maybe you've even heard him serenading Seattle Symphony fans with bits of Brahms and Mozart, even on those evenings when your breath turns to frost in midair. Neither rain, nor sleet, nor the Big Freeze of December 1990 can keep Ed McMichael from one of his three tubas (Large, Jumbo or Giant Economy Size) and his appointed rounds of that noble calling, street musician.

"This is the job," he will tell you; "I can't let the weather influence it."

In person, Ed the Tuba Man cuts an imposing, tuba-sized figure. He is substantially upholstered, bearing a full and bushy beard on a face that might have been designed to play Santa Claus. There is an innate dignity to McMichael and his tuba that raises him above certain crass comments that are sometimes called out as he plies his trade.

"In the eyes of more than a few," Ed says in his measured, well-considered manner, "the only place for a tuba is the back row of an orchestra. I'm trying to change that image.

"There are those who occasionally compare my low octave to the releasing of gas. I find that offensive. My range is three and a half octaves, from a pedal A to a high E-flat. Those deep tones are the most beautiful."

A method to this minstrelsy

McMichael knows the area around every venue like the back of his tuba mouthpiece, and he knows where all the street parking for his van is located. He is the kind of strategist who plans for all contingencies: If the Sonics don't go into overtime, he'll have time to transport the tuba down to the Opera House to play the exit there, too.

The repertoire there will not include "Beer Barrel Polka" or any other undignified selections. McMichael likes to serenade ingoing concertgoers with a taste of what they'll hear inside, and exiting patrons get one last memory to take with them. On one recent occasion, McMichael chose a theme from the slow movement of Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 2; never mind that it was not written for the tuba. He knows it anyway.

Sometimes his audiences, appreciative or unappreciative, will try to toss objects into the bell of his tuba. To certain events, such as Thunderbird games, McMichael has learned to wear a yellow hard hat to protect himself from flying coins (his favorite form of airborne assault).

Ed is disdainful of claims that street musicians are little more than panhandlers. He doesn't ask anybody for anything. If those he serenades are moved to put some money into the cookpot he brings with him, so much the better.

In Ed's eyes, and those of his fans, street music has its own form of honor: His "employers" get to decide exactly what, and if, they pay him.

Orchestra veteran

How do you end up as a street tubist? In McMichael's case, you do quite a bit of training first; he has played in orchestras and bands from high school to the Seattle Youth Symphony, Cascade Symphony Orchestra, Bellevue Philharmonic, Bremerton Symphony, Civic Light Opera and Federal Way Philharmonic. Conductors of the Cascade and Federal Way, where he still plays, will give the tubist time off from rehearsals to make some of his street-engagement entrances and exits.

Street music, for Ed, is the last and most satisfactory of many jobs, from newspaper deliverer to security guard to pizza maker. His conclusion: "You can't last long at a job if you don't enjoy it. I enjoy this."

Playing to the crowd

He first ventured forth with his tuba in 1988, on an evening when it was "past Thanksgiving, so Christmas music was in order." Since then, he has built quite a clientele, and he scores the occasional ticket, too. He has learned how to gauge the atmosphere among patrons, responding with everything from "Hail to the Victors" to "Dies Irae" from Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantastique."

"Some people think I should play the national anthem at center court," McMichael observes.

"If asked, I would accept. I also would accept certain commercial opportunities."

Which brings us to the money question. Which patrons are most generous, and what can McMichael net with his tuba on a given evening?

After some musing, he reports that the Thunderbirds fans are most likely to give him more than a hockey puck. On a thin night, he makes "under $20"; on an excellent night, the take climbs "into the $170s."

Does he fear encroachment by other street musicians?

"May I just say, not in my lifetime. We all have our areas."

Besides, you don't really want to wind up crowned by one of those tubas, do you? Ed would probably be really nice about it. He might even play "Taps" or the Chopin Funeral March for you.

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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