Durham’s Best (OK, Only) Rare Tuba Museum Opens to the Public | Arts Feature | Indy Week
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Durham’s Best (OK, Only) Rare Tuba Museum Opens to the Public 

Tooting his own horn: Vincent Simonetti

Photos by Alex Boerner

Tooting his own horn: Vincent Simonetti

You're in a cage of liquid gold and flashing silver, shot through with mossy greens, deep vermilions, mottled ochres and pewters—seemingly every increment of yellow and gray and brown. Circles hover everywhere, in the forms of bells and loops, as brass coils encircle you like a great intestine.

It takes a moment to process what you're looking at because you've almost certainly never seen so many tubas, with family members such as the euphonium and the helicon, in such close quarters. The lemon-yellow house on Durham's Chapel Hill Road contains hundreds of them, in all shapes and sizes, some plain and battered, others glossy and engraved with flowing white script. Each has a tag identifying its make and manufacture; some of the instruments date to the early 1800s.

Horns armor every inch of wall and ceiling, and most of the floor. They mass in serried ranks like brazen armies, bristling behind velvet ropes on poles in matching brass, their spherical capitals shining. The history of an instrument and the story of a family's life are densely packed into these thousands of feet of tubing.

The collection of the V&E Simonetti Historical Tuba Museum in Durham. - PHOTO BY ALEX BOERNER
  • Photo by Alex Boerner
  • The collection of the V&E Simonetti Historical Tuba Museum in Durham.

The space—formerly a tuba retail business, now the V&E Simonetti Historic Tuba Collection—has been tended by three generations of Simonettis for nearly three decades. Ten days before Saturday's grand opening, where there will be tours from two to five p.m. (sign up at the website for a free ticket), the family is busy preparing the museum for the party.

Ethel Simonetti, the "E" of "V&E," is working on nonprofit applications and property maintenance. She says people she meets doing volunteer work often ask if the Tuba Exchange was a front. It's not an unreasonable question. But the business was quite real, not to mention successful, servicing school bands across the country. The collection has been there for decades. Until now, you just had to know to look for it.

Nearby, the museum's nineteen-year-old curator, Aiyana Simonetti-Poe, is at the computer, drumming up business for Saturday. Though she isn't a musician, she is attracted to all things vintage, and she's been surrounded by tubas her entire life. Her parents used to work at the Tuba Exchange, and her father, a professional musician, is currently performing in The Lion King at DPAC.

"He plays the part with Pumbaa when he lets out a big fart," Aiyana says with a laugh, summing up the tuba's reputation. It looks and sounds like plumbing, and is consequently often thought of as a comical, even slapstick, orchestral voice. Silver trumpets get the songs of angels; tubas get flatulence.

Simonetti with museum curator (and his granddaughter) Aiyana Simonetti-Poe - PHOTOS BY ALEX BOERNER
  • Photos by Alex Boerner
  • Simonetti with museum curator (and his granddaughter) Aiyana Simonetti-Poe

An oompah sound can be heard from the next room, where Aiyana's grandfather, Vincent Simonetti, is putting a big bass tuba through its paces. It's he who has been building this collection since 1965, when he picked up his first, a B-flat helicon, while on tour with Russia's Moiseyev Dance Company.

Almost all of his horns are in working condition, though he doesn't let anyone else play them, except for professional musicians performing scores that call for archaic instruments. He points out a custom-made double tuba he lent to a Philadelphia Orchestra player for a program built around Pictures at an Exhibition, and a rare two-headed alto horn from the nineteenth century, with one bell pointing upward and one facing outward. His instruments aren't for sale unless he finds the same one in better condition, though it isn't clear where he intends to put any more.

Vincent didn't choose the tuba; it chose him. His devotion to it is almost exclusive. The only non-tuba-family instrument in the museum is a French-horn-like mellophone that represents a maker he didn't have. After all these years, his origin story is as polished as his collection, and he hits the same beats I heard when I first visited seven years ago.

He fell for the tuba after a school band director implored him to switch from trumpet. He loved its complex structure and obsessively sketched it in study hall. He attended the Manhattan School of Music on a full scholarship, performed with the N.C. Symphony from 1967 to 1975, and then founded the Durham Symphony as a conductor.

When he bought the yellow building in 1979, he had a piano-tuning business and dealt tubas on the side. At a trade show in Chicago five years later, he met Rudolf Meinl, a top German tuba dealer, and became his American distributor. When Vincent started getting $10,000 tuba orders, that was it for piano tuning.

The collection of the V&E Simonetti Historical Tuba Museum in Durham. - PHOTO BY ALEX BOERNER
  • Photo by Alex Boerner
  • The collection of the V&E Simonetti Historical Tuba Museum in Durham.

By 2011, the Simonettis were in their late sixties, and they decided to retire. They kept the building, which still housed the collection, and sold the business. But they couldn't get away from tubas. When the current owner moved the Tuba Exchange to a new Durham location last fall, Vincent felt free to officially open his collection to the public.

He'll tell you about all this readily enough if you ask, but what he really likes is talking about tubas, at length and in great detail—the finer points of piston valves, the historical contexts of period oddities. He'll do so on free drop-in tours from two to five p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays for the foreseeable future. Right now, he's telling me about the sousaphone, named for the famed American bandmaster John Philip Sousa.

"Sousa became disenchanted with the helicon," Vincent explains. "He wanted an instrument with the bell going straight up like a concert tuba, so the sound, the quote goes, would go over the top of the band like frosting on a cake." Sousa had the clout to get the instrument, which became known as "the rain-catcher," manufactured, but it more or less passed away with him in the 1930s.

But not at the V&E Simonetti Historic Tuba Collection, where time moves slower than it does outside, traveling through so many twisted tubes. Though sometimes Vincent spends considerable money to fill a hole in his collection, he often finds his pieces of the past in piles of parts owned by people who don't know what they have. Then he adds them to his family's nest of brass, a gilt cage that he loves.

This article appears in print with the headline "The Brass Menagerie."

  • The V&E Simonetti Historic Tuba Collection has its grand opening Saturday, March 5.

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