Tubist’s low notes take high honors

McWilliams finishes first in student division of Leonard Falcone competition.

As the top medalist and prize winner in the student tuba division of the 2020 Leonard Falcone International Euphonium and Tuba Festival and Competition, sophomore Ben McWilliams is hailed by Professor Phil Sinder as "someone at the top of his game."

Ben McWilliams didn’t set out to play the tuba. In fact, his 7th-grade band teacher decided for him when she swapped his trombone for a tuba and said they needed a tubist in the school’s concert band.

“I kinda just went with it,” said McWilliams. “I had never seen anything other than a sousaphone, so didn’t really know what playing tuba would be like.”

Although he wasn’t enamored at first, McWilliams grew to love the 20-pound brass instrument with a resounding bass voice and surprising range for classical repertoire. Today, the 19-year-old majors in tuba performance at the MSU College of Music. He also finished as the top medalist and prize winner in the student tuba division of the 2020 Leonard Falcone International Euphonium and Tuba Festival  and Competition, held in early August at the Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp.

For 35 years, the Falcone festival has been a standard-bearer for aspiring and accomplished artists to celebrate the brass family’s lowest pitched and largest instruments. McWilliams himself had known of the revered competition since his high school days in Augusta, Michigan. In between private lessons and summers at Interlochen, McWilliams set his sights on competing in the annual summer event named for Leonard Falcone—an iconic brass musician who served as director of MSU bands for four decades.

“I was pretty excited, and honestly felt good about simply getting past that first round,” said McWilliams of his first-place finish. “I had no expectations for anything about how it would run and how I would stack up. Just making it to the semi-finals and finals was a treat.”

Virtual challenges

Because of the public health crisis, festival organizers decided in early spring to run the competition virtually. For competitors like McWilliams, that meant hours of solitary practice in bedrooms or basements, as well as the arduous task of recording every round of competition for a panel of remote judges.

The biggest challenge, McWilliams said, was performing repertoire intended for accompaniment without it. The other stress was the lack of in-person feedback, and having to rely on the limitations of Skype or Zoom sessions with his teacher.

“Sometimes it was hard to know if I was doing the right things and improving,” he said. “I just tried not to let it get to me and to be as musical as I could.”

Professor of Tuba and Euphonium Phil Sinder said McWilliams’ drive and artistry placed him squarely in the 2020 winner’s circle.

“His combination of talent, work ethic and leadership makes him stand out,” said Sinder, who has mentored McWilliams since high school. “He also has tremendous perseverance.”

Sinder said McWilliams is making his mark at a young age in the world of classical performance. Before coming to MSU, McWilliams had been a member of the National Youth Orchestra. As a freshman Spartan, McWilliams performed with the College’s Honors Brass Quintet Program, with the MSU Wind Symphony, and was a member of Sinder’s tuba and euphonium studio.

“Ben is someone at the top of his game for his age, and on track to secure a job as a professional player in an orchestra or band,” said Sinder. “He’s representative of a lot of our brass students whose talents and accomplishments help make us a leading destination for the study of music.”

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