Trailblazing Tubist Carol Jantsch’s ‘Weird and Different’ Instrument

Mar 17, 2016

Ask Carol Jantsch, principal tuba player with the Philadelphia Orchestra and the first woman ever to hold the tuba position with a major orchestra, if anyone during the early years of her tuba studies ever discouraged her from playing the tuba because she was a girl, and her answer might surprise you.

“Nope.”

That’s how Jantsch, 30, responded to the question in a recent phone interview. Her unfettered musical upbringing – much of it right here in Ohio – might well have instilled in her the chutzpah to become not only a top-notch musician, but beyond that a trailblazer in the fiercely competitive, overwhelmingly male-dominated world of orchestral tuba playing.

“The whole thing was just incredibly surreal”

Even though no one ever discouraged Jantsch from playing the tuba, Jantsch herself gravitated toward the instrument because it was, in her words, “weird and different.” She was a nine-year-old piano student at the time and taking a class called “Instrument Exploration” during summer camp at Interlochen. Students were encouraged to explore playing various instruments and then to choose one instrument to focus on learning for the rest of the course. Jantsch chose the euphonium, a smaller, higher-pitched cousin of the tuba.

“I just knew I didn’t want a regular-kid instrument,” Jantsch said. “I wanted something weird and different, and so euphonium was pretty perfect for that.”

Three years later, Jantsch and her family moved from Elyria, Ohio, to Columbus, where she switched to tuba and began studying privately with Columbus Symphony Orchestra principal tuba James Akins. Jantsch attended high school at the Interlochen Arts Academy.

It was during her undergraduate years at the University of Michigan, and almost by accident, that Jantsch ended up winning the principal tuba position with the Philadelphia Orchestra. When auditions for the job were announced, Jantsch sent in her resume, which was promptly rejected.

“My resume basically said, ‘Carol’s a junior in college. She’s won some solo competitions and has no orchestral experience,’ so, I mean, it’s totally understandable that they didn’t accept my resume,” Jantsch said. “They had to pare down the resumes somehow.”

Later that year, Jantsch’s application for the prestigious Tanglewood Institute summer program was also rejected. So Jantsch put together an audition tape for Bar Harbor Brass Week, a summer festival that boasts Philadelphia Orchestra trombonists Matthew Vaughan and Blair Bollinger on its faculty.

Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Orchestra didn’t hire anyone from the first round of tuba auditions. A second round of auditions was planned for candidates who had not been invited to play in the first round. Vaughan and Bollinger listened to Jantsch’s festival audition tape and invited her to the second round of auditions for the orchestra.

After that audition, Jantsch was invited to play a few stints with the orchestra as a substitute. During one of those stints, the orchestra held its third round of tuba auditions. Jantsch was declared the winner.

“The whole thing was just incredibly surreal,” Jantsch said of the unlikely chain of events that brought her to the Philadelphia Orchestra. “I went back to school, and it was so strange to be back at Michigan and then thinking, I have this amazing job waiting for me, and is this real? And then moving to Philly and finally starting officially in the summer. It was crazy.” 

Reflections on Reflections on the Mississippi

Crazy? Maybe. A story bearing the mark of destiny? Clearly.

Gaining entry into the prestigious Philadelphia Orchestra was only the beginning for Jantsch, who also now serves on the faculties of Temple University and Yale University. She ended up as the performer for whom Michael Daugherty was commissioned to compose Reflections on the Mississippi basically the same way much of the rest of her career has unfolded – by way of a lucky break.

“This situation was unusual in that I just received a phone call from Temple University saying, ‘We have Michael Daugherty scheduled to write a concerto for us. Can we have him write a concerto for you?’ And it just sort of fell into my lap like that,” Jantsch said.

Jantsch, who like other professional tuba players is serious about expanding the instrument’s solo repertoire, says Daugherty’s work brings out the best of what the tuba can be – an instrument both songful and sporty.

“I’m appreciative that (Daugherty) wrote really nice melodies, because that’s the thing that we don’t have a lot of in the repertoire. And it’s one of my favorite things to do, so being able to play a nice singing melody and then play something impressive afterwards. I think he captured the character and the possibilities of the instrument really well,” Jantsch said.

Beyond the orchestral world, Jantsch and her tuba are at home with three other like-minded pairs in what she describes as a “tuba quartet-slash-cover band,” Tubular. The brand-new group gave its first performance in December 2015 and is seeking to expand its bookings in bars and more traditional concert venues.

“We just want to bring the tuba to the people in a really fun way,” Jantsch said.