Blowing her own horn

Avital Handler proves that woman can play the tuba.

Avital Handler proves that woman can play the tuba. (photo credit: LOUISE GREEN)
Avital Handler proves that woman can play the tuba.
(photo credit: LOUISE GREEN)
There are musical instruments which, by and large, we tend to associate with one gender or the other. It may be a matter of subliminal social conditioning, but while it is easy to imagine a member of either sex playing the piano, most of us consider the harp an exclusively female instrument, while we picture more earthy-sounding instruments, like the tuba, as being played by men only.
Although that may be a totally non- PC assumption, there is some logic to it. The tuba looks definitively unwieldy and probably difficult to play, and there are all those deep notes that come out of it which, listeners assume, could only be produced by a man.
Avital Handler has been showing the world that women can play the tuba, and at the very highest level, for some time now. The 30-something mother of four will provide further evidence of that with her Tuba in the City program, which she will perform at the Kfar Saba Conservatory of Music on October 27, which will be preceded by a master class (at 4:30 p.m.); at the Baruch Rappaport Center of Music auditorium in Or Akiva on October 29 (7 p.m.); and at the Studio Club at Haifa’s Beit Hecht on October 30 (8:30 p.m.).
Female tuba players make for a select bunch. Handler is the only one of her kind in Israel, and there aren’t too many female tuba players on the global scene in general.
“We all know each other,” says Handler.
Handler started out on the piano, when she and her family were living in New Jersey, where her mother was an aliya emissary. The family returned to Israel when Handler was 10, and she was guided towards the basic instrumental order.
“I learned the recorder, like all schoolchildren here,” she recalls.
But things soon changed for the youngster.
“We lived in Migdal Ha’emek at the time, and there was a small band forming,” explains Handler. “A short while before that, my mom had taken me to see the Tubby the Tuba concert. I liked the fact that the tuba was the star of the show because it was this miserable poor thing and didn’t have any solos, and I came away saying I wanted to play the tuba. But everyone told me girls don’t play the tuba. I always felt bad for the miserable souls, and I said I wanted to try out that instrument.”
Handler completed a nice circle a while back.
“The person who played the tuba in that show is now my friend, and a few years ago I played that role in a concert with the Israel Chamber Orchestra.
So I played the same thing. That was nice. After the concert, there were all these girls who came up to me with their moms, and they told me ‘I want to play the tuba.’ I said, ‘Be careful because it may actually happen.’” It certainly happened for Handler who, it seems, is made of sterner stuff.
She persevered with her dream, even though she had to negotiate all kinds of attempts to throw her off course.
“They gave me a [smaller] baritone [tuba] to play because they said I wouldn’t be able to play the [full-sized] tuba and that it wouldn’t work and that it was too big for me,” she recounts.
If the people around Handler were trying to dissuade her from following her instrumental dream, they should have known better than to try to block her path. It soon became clear that this was no youthful caprice and that she was really planning to go the whole hog.
“The idea of playing the tuba really grabbed me, and the fact that everyone said no really grabbed me as well,” she recalls. “If someone says to me ‘You can’t do it,’ there’s a strong chance I’ll give it a go.”
Things have improved in general.
“Today, it’s much more acceptable for women to play tuba than it was 25 years ago,” Handler notes. “If you look at an orchestra, you’ll see a lot more women French horn players, some trumpet players, very few trombone players and very few tuba players.
In America, about five years ago a female tuba player was accepted into one of the main orchestras, and that was a big to-do.”
Even so, the accent in the growing female tuba sector is on individual expression.
“There are many more solo players than orchestral players in the classical world,” says Handler, adding, as is often the case when the odds are stacked against members of a group that has to fight harder to get itself noticed and accepted, that some of her fellow female tuba players are among the best there are.
“There aren’t many of them, but most are really good because they have to be good because it is a male-dominated field,” she says.
IF SOCIAL conditioning weren’t enough, there are physiological obstacles to be overcome, too.
“You need a lot of air capacity to play the tuba, and women are smaller than men, so they make it up for it in different ways. I have met short small tuba players, but in general tuba players are tall and thin or tall and fat, but they are not short and small,” she observes.
Handler is in the latter stature category, so she had her work cut out for her on the corporeal front as well.
And if that weren’t enough, there was the pure mathematical side to deal with at every stage of her professional road. For starters, it was tough getting into the IDF orchestra, as there was only one berth available for a tuba player. It was also tough getting into college as a tuba player, but Handler managed to do a bachelor’s degree in music, psychology and communications at Boston University. She followed that with a master’s degree in music performance at the Manhattan School of Music. Clearly, there is no stopping her once she’s set her mind to something.
With her talent and determination, she landed one of the very few orchestral positions available in this country for her instrument.
“There are only four jobs,” she notes. “I was very lucky and got one of them, with the Israel Symphony Orchestra Rishon Lezion, which is the opera orchestra.”
The field here is growing, although it is not necessarily attracting more female players. But Handler is doing her utmost to keep the gender flag flying, while bringing up her four kids and doing a myriad other things.
Her CD, Tuba and the City, on which she plays alongside pianist Raviv Leibzirer, came out last year. It took a while to complete for very practical reasons. Leibzirer will be on hand for Handler’s concerts in Kfar Saba, Or Akiva and Haifa.
“It took me two years to make because I kept on having babies,” smiles Handler. “In fact, I just ran out of CDs and I’ll have to have some more made, which will give me the opportunity to add the name of my youngest baby, who is now four months old.
I am happy I am able to make a living in Israel as a tuba player. Besides the orchestra, I also play in the Israel Brass Quintet, which is probably the only very active brass quintet in Israel.
There are two trumpets, a French horn, a trombone and a tuba – four men and me. It is very male-dominated and, again, you have to adjust yourself to the people that you’re with.”
Handler says she would be much happier just playing her instrument to the best of her ability without having to contend with gender-related stuff. But she has been around long enough to know it comes with the territory.
“A while ago I played at a festival in Japan, and after the concert a man came up to me and complimented me on my playing. He said he was originally disappointed when he saw there was a female tuba player – the tuba leads the basses – but he said I’d proven him wrong. At the time I wasn’t sure whether he was complimenting me, but now I can see that he was. It’s a stereotype that’s hard to break,” she says.
If anyone can change the image of the female tuba player and make her a fully acceptable member of the music play community – womanhood regardless – it’s Handler.
The Tuba in the City program includes works by Brahms, Schumann, 18th-century Italian composer Benedetto Marcello, contemporary Norwegian composer Trygve Madsen, and an intriguing working of Shlomo Gronich’s pop number “Simple Songs.”
Avital Handler’s performance in Kfar Saba is free. For tickets for the Or Akiva concert, call (04) 610-1968. For Haifa, call (04) 836-3894.