Durham's Tuba Exchange shares one family's story in valves and tubes | Music Feature | Indy Week
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Durham's Tuba Exchange shares one family's story in valves and tubes 

Twisted metal

Click for larger image • Vince Simonetti, sounding a sousaphone while standing among 250 tubas and variations thereof in the front parlor of Durham's Tuba Exchange.

Photo by D.L. Anderson

Click for larger image • Vince Simonetti, sounding a sousaphone while standing among 250 tubas and variations thereof in the front parlor of Durham's Tuba Exchange.

Ring the bell at 1825 Chapel Hill Road in Durham, and Vince Simonetti will meet you at the door. His professional dress and a small brown splotch of a cranial birthmark suggest Mikhail Gorbachev if he were from New Jersey. Inside, glinting metallic shapes resolve behind him.

Simonetti's complex of bright lemon buildings with white trim and burgundy shutters stands out amid a landscape of crumbling brick, old wood and dingy prefabricated storefronts. Its five buildings are arrayed on two sides of a lane that's barely wide enough for the massive trucks that deliver tubas and their cases—Simonetti's passion—to pass. The building where Simonetti greets visitors houses used instruments for sale alongside a private collection of historic ones, with office space in the back. There's also a service department, a warehouse, a shipment-receiving building and Simonetti's home.

These buildings comprise the Tuba Exchange, which has specialized in tuba trade, repair and distribution for a quarter-century. Because of it, Durham is something of a tuba mecca. The business engages in lively international commerce from its humble post here, specializing in high quality at low prices. In fact, it is (as far as the Simonettis know) the only business of its kind in the country, specializing only in tubas and accepting trade-ins.

Still, it remains a family affair: Vince Simonetti, 66, is the tuba expert and owner. His wife and co-owner, Ethel, handles finance. His son, John, is the sales manager and helps with shipping, as does John's wife, Alicia Poe. The only non-family member is Mike Morse, a technician, who repairs tubas onsite in a former ceramics workshop.

The parlor housing Vince's private collection of rare instruments is one of the most interesting visual spaces in the Triangle. No glass cases or velvet ropes here—the walls, floor and ceiling are laden with hundreds of feet of twisty nickel, brass, silver and gold, some gleaming, some tarnished. It resembles an art installation about taxonomical variations in some exotic species of insect.

And there aren't just regular tubas: There are sousaphones, euphoniums, helicons and countless obscure or obsolete variations. You can trace the entire history of the tuba through Vince's assortment. On the left side of the room is an ophicleide, a French tuba precursor that resembles a saxophone with a bell-shaped mouthpiece instead of a reed. (In typical nationalist-contrarian fashion, French composers continued to score for it well into the 20th century.) "Ophicleide" means "keyed serpent," a reference to its own predecessor, the serpent, an S-shaped wooden instrument with a brass mouthpiece.

"One tube can only produce seven or eight pitches, like a bugle," Vince explains. "To play all the notes in the chromatic scale, you have to change the length of the tube somehow. The first way they did it successfully on a brass instrument was the trombone." There are, however, no trombones in Vince's collection: His allegiance is unalloyed.

"When I do this," he continues, pressing a valve, "I'm adding this length of tube, you see. Around 1813, they figured out how to make airtight piston valves, like these," gesturing to a weathered J.B. Schmidt F-tuba manufactured in Copenhagen in 1845. The first patent for a tuba was awarded to the Prussians Wilhelm Friedrich Wieprecht and Carl Moritz just 10 years earlier. That's how deep Vince's tuba allegiance runs.

The overlapping instruments create accidental patterns of startling complexity that change as you move through the room. "I used to draw tubas in school all the time," Vince recalls. "The shapes fascinated me. The trumpet was small, but the tuba was large and had all this variation—as you can see," he says, encompassing the room with a swept arm. Just as you can trace the entire history of the tuba in this room, you can trace all of Vince's personal history here, too, compressed like a mass of coiled tubing.

Click for larger image • Lee MacDowell tests his new instrument at the Tuba Exchange. - PHOTO BY D.L. ANDERSON

Lee MacDowell traveled to the Tuba Exchange in Durham from Newport, R.I., where he is stationed as a member of Navy Band Northeast. His official classification in the Navy is MU-2, or musician second class. MacDowell was on his own time, seeking out the perfect tuba for his purposes. (If you cannot see the audio player below, download the free Flash Player.)

Ethel Simonetti has pale, close-cropped hair and bright, alert eyes. She's thin, of a practical dress and a bearing that radiates brisk efficiency. She describes herself as "very business and protocol minded," and her husband as "the innovator" (although, truth be told, it was Ethel who designed the facility's striking color scheme). A former social worker and Presbyterian minister in Asheboro, she met Vince in 1984, in a church choir.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the recession, it's been a busy year for Ethel—people are unloading old tubas for extra cash. New customers are availing themselves of Tuba Exchange's comparatively low prices. Bulk orders for school bands supply much of Tuba Exchange's business, and their acceptance of trade-ins makes them attractive to band directors with little money.

Ethel sits in a back office, clicking away on a desktop computer, surrounded by pictures that document her husband's long, varied musical career. He studied trumpet and piano until his high school years in New Jersey: "My high school needed tubas, not trumpets, so I thought, why not?" he recalls. His father, a pianist and professional audio recorder, was initially displeased that Vince chose the tuba.

Vince grew up in the back of his father's studio, where he met many professional musicians. He was first-chair in the New Jersey All-State Orchestra and studied with Bill Bell—the New York Philharmonic's world-renowned tuba player, not the mayor of Durham—at his studio in Carnegie Hall. While learning tuba and music education at the Manhattan School of Music on a full scholarship, Vince visited Durham for the first time while touring with the traveling orchestra of legendary dancer and choreographer Martha Graham.

Here, on the corkboard above Ethel's desk, is a picture of Vince with the North Carolina Symphony Orchestra, the organization he moved to the state to join in 1967. And here's a picture of Vince with the Durham Symphony, which he founded (as a conductor) in 1976, after several local classical musicians at a New Year's Eve party bemoaned the lack of an orchestra in Durham. Vince stopped conducting the Durham Symphony in 1983. He returned as a tuba player in 1991, and he still plays with the symphony.

Just outside of Ethel's office, there's an upright piano. It's the sole remnant of Vince's pre-Tuba Exchange business, the Simonetti Piano Company. He founded it in 1972, in the same building that now houses the Tuba Exchange's historic collection. While the dividing wall has long since been knocked down, the building used to be a duplex, which Simonetti shared with a bakery. "The smell of those cakes used to drive me crazy," Vince remembers.

Ethel married Vince in 1985, when he was thinking about shifting from pianos to tubas. They traveled around the country together, attending trade shows. In Chicago, they met Rudolf Meinl, a renowned tuba manufacturer. Vince was astonished to discover that Meinl's American distributor marked up his instruments by 150 percent. He decided that he could sell high-quality tubas at a more accessible price. Meinl agreed to let Simonetti distribute his instruments.

He was loathe to give up the piano business because he enjoyed going to his customers' homes and building relationships with them. The pianos stayed in the front room, the tubas in the back. Then came the tipping point: "I was tuning a lady's piano for $50 and got a call from a band director in Texas who wanted to buy $10,000 worth of tubas," he says. "I called my secretary and said, 'That's it. Cancel my appointments.'" Ethel became the co-owner of the business, and the Tuba Exchange was born—in fits and starts—between 1984 and 1986 and officially incorporated as such in 1993.

Expansion has continued steadily over the years. The Simonettis gradually acquired the buildings around the original one to use as warehouse, receiving and workshop spaces. The shipment-receiving building used to house Sugar Hill Records, run by friend Barry Poss; Vince recalls the Red Clay Ramblers coming in for a helicon during a recording session. The Simonettis inaugurated their own line of "Tuba Exchange" instruments in the early 2000s, visiting factories all over the world before settling on a manufacturer in Shanghai. The instruments are made to the Exchange's specs—sturdy enough to sustain use in school systems, at competitive prices.

But even as the Tuba Exchange grows outward, its center remains stable—hands-on small business at its most sustainable. As Ethel diligently organizes records in her office, Mike Morse sends videos and pictures to the factory in Shanghai. In the receiving building, Vince and John Simonetti check out a shipment of back-mounted soft cases designed by Vince himself, and test a new sousaphone.

They work together in a practiced, comfortable father-son way, blowing deep notes from the instrument while making those pop-eyed tuba-faces, praising its sound quality but questioning its balance. In those notes, you can hear all the pitches of a life, bent and compacted into a harmonious and fantastic shape.

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