Constable: College kid dominates in Final Four, turns pro … in tuba
It's that time of year when the best of the student performers leave college early for the pros. That's what University of Illinois All-American guard Ayo Dosunmu is expected to do, having seen his Illini knocked out of the NCAA tournament by the Loyola Ramblers.
Vernon Hills' Robert Black knows what that is like.
"I was thinking about dropping out to play my first season," says Black, a sophomore attending Rice University remotely from his apartment in Milwaukee while he does his professional job as the principal tubist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.
At age 18, Black skipped Vernon Hills High School's senior award day to travel to Milwaukee to audition. Black distinguished himself among more than five dozen tuba players and made the cut for the Final Four. In the months before the final audition, that group grew to about 20. Even so, Black won the position in January 2020 to become one of the youngest tubists ever hired by a major orchestra.
"I was sitting in the practice room and the personnel manager came in and told me I had won," Black remembers. He played a Christmas concert on the street in December 2020 as part of the MSO Winter Quintet, performed his first full concert earlier this month a couple of days before he turned 20, and is preparing for another performance with the MSO in May.
It's not quite the NBA, as the Milwaukee Bucks pay Giannis Antetokounmpo more than $27 million a year, while Black's annual salary is in five figures.
But the Milwaukee Bucks have five guys on the roster who play the guard positions, and the MSO has only one guy who plays the tuba.
Achieving such success so early was a surprise.
"I had no clue," Black says, admitting he auditioned just for the experience and didn't think it would be the start of his professional career. "This is definitely my wildest dream."
He had planned to spend four years studying at Rice University's Shepherd School of Music with professor David Kirk, the principal tubist with the Houston Symphony, and then go to graduate school while he auditioned for professional groups.
"None of us were particularly surprised, which is amazing, given his age," says Kirk, whose career followed a similar trajectory, as he won his professional audition in Houston during his last year as a music student at The Juilliard School. "He has an incredible amount of innate talent. When people start to hear him play, it will belie his age and experience."
As director of bands at Vernon Hills High School, Randy Sundell knew Black would make it. "He had almost won that job before he graduated high school," Sundell says. "I knew that with some time in college he would refine his auditioning skills and eventually get a symphony job."
Black grew up in a musical family and was encouraged at an early age by his parents, Marry and Greg Black. He and his older sisters, Margy and Abigail, took piano lessons. His mom taught band at what was then called Woodland Junior High School in Gages Lake and currently plays the horn in the North Suburban Wind Ensemble. Margy was a percussionist in high school and Abigail plays horn with the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, the Millar Brass Ensemble and the Milwaukee Ballet.
Black's godfather, who died when the boy was too young to remember him, left the family a small tuba, which Black started playing at age 4. "I would just try to play notes on it while I was lying on the floor because I couldn't pick it up," he says. By the time he joined the Townline Elementary School band as a fourth-grader, he already knew how to play the scales.
Studying with Scott Tegge, a tubist who teaches at DePaul University, Northern Illinois University, the University of Illinois at Chicago, Carthage College and North Central College, Black moved his way up in the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestras and won many competitions, including the 2018 Leonard Falcone International Tuba Student Solo competition, 2018 Marine Band concerto competition, and 2019 International Tuba and Euphonium Conference competition.
The tuba generally lags behind guitars, saxophones and keyboards in popularity, but Black won over some of his peers by producing the haunting bass on his rental tuba to play Darth Vader's theme song, "The Imperial March," from "Star Wars." He realized he wanted to be a tubist.
"In eighth grade, I purchased my first horn," Black says, recalling how his parents agreed to spend about $12,000 to buy him a used Meinl Weston model called "Thor."
"That's the instrument I played to get through my college auditions," he says, adding that he's upgraded for his pro career to a tuba that is slightly larger than most and has a bigger bell. "You need to be able to put a lot more air into that instrument."
At Vernon Hills High School, he sang in the concert choir and was a tenor in the chamber choir. He also earned Eagle Scout and had one memorable trip where he participated in a tuba competition, caught a flight and then put his tuba in temporary storage before camping with his fellow Scouts. Of course, he played in ensembles, the wind ensemble, the symphony orchestra, pep band and jazz band (where he often played bass guitar), and was in the pit orchestra for the school musicals.
"It was fun to sit in the stands at football games and just start blasting," Black says. "The tuba certainly is good at that kind of music."
With the MSO, Black says he enjoys the subtle parts in classical music and some pop, where his tuba adds the low tones to a rich musical menu. "Generally, my goal is to promote the tuba as an intricate instrument, and not just oompah," he says.
Black is still taking weekly Zoom lessons with Kirk and participating in studio classes at Rice. Kirk says he tells all students that "they will never stop being a student of mine, if they run into a jam or have a piece they're having trouble with."
Even with the pandemic restrictions lingering and Black being the new kid, he says he's loving playing with the MSO.
"There's a bit of a gap. It feels like it's filled with established adults," says Black, who has gotten a kind reception from his fellow brass pros. "Everybody in the orchestra has been incredibly welcoming."
The demands of his career might force him to transfer to a school closer to Milwaukee, or just quit college for now.
"We're fine with that. Musicians are kind of like athletes," says his mom, noting that the goal for the best is to play professionally someday. "If you get there before you finish college -- yippee."