For a chap who is in love with English literature and always wanted to be a writer, a lifetime spent as a tuba player may seem a bit incongruous. But only before you talk to the man.
And now, that the NAC Orchestra’s Nicholas Atkinson is about to hang up his horn and head into a much deserved retirement in Victoria, B.C., it seemed an appropriate time for ARTSFILE to ask about his journey in music.
“I come from a family of music lovers but nobody played an instrument,” he said.
Atkinson, Nick to his mates, was born in Manchester, England but the family moved to Canada in 1957 when he was a young lad and settled in Toronto.
He was a musical person as a child he said, but there weren’t school music programs in those days except for voice instruction. So he sang in choirs.
“I loved music and I always wanted to play an instrument. And it finally happened almost by accident.”
Nick’s dad met someone at work who happened to be a musician on the side. The chap eventually became a lodger with the Atkinsons and moved with the family to Georgetown, Ontario, very near the small town of Acton, where the lodger took young Nick to band practice one night where he was handed a tuba and shown the fingerings for the Bflat scale.
“I got it quickly. I had a knack for it,” he said. Atkinson joined the Acton community band.
“In those days community bands were quite respectable. There were a lot of them around.” Learning the tuba also offered something else, a ticket out of town.
“I wanted to leave home as quickly as possible and when I finished high school, I joined the army three days later so I could join one of the army bands.”
He was sent to military school in Victoria where he was trained to be a tuba player with the Canadian army band. After two years, Nick “finished up in the Lord Strathcona’s Horse band in Calgary.”
As a young player the only thing Atkinson was thinking was “band, band, band, I wasn’t thinking orchestras. Bands were more interesting. Tuba players get to play all the time in a band.”
So he marched and played across Canada and overseas for a few years, including a memorable tour across Canada in 1967.
But “I soon got itchy feet. I was frankly sick of the army. So I started university late.” He was 22.
He started taking English literature “because that was one of my first loves.” But after a year or so, the tuba came calling.
The head of the University of Calgary’s music department asked Atkinson to do a brass gig and then urged him to switch to music which he did.
Atkinson knew, however, that to really progress on his instrument he needed a mentor, someone who could refine his technique. He wasn’t having any luck in Calgary when a visiting player told him about a man in Chicago named Arnold Jacobs who was playing in the Chicago Symphony and was a respected teacher.
“So I basically phoned him up. He said ‘Come on down’ so my wife and I drove to Chicago. I had a couple of lessons and it was one of those experiences that changes your life. … He got you to think outside the box. … He made you think about the instrument as a vehicle for your musical thoughts. That’s the best way to teach in any case. He was revolutionary.”
At the same time Atkinson was working occasionally with the Calgary Philharmonic. After studying with Jacobs, Atkinson understood what he would need to do to be an orchestral player not just a band player. “I got the bug,” he said.
But fate intervened. His wife became pregnant and Atkinson realized he needed a full-time job. He got one with the RCMP band in Ottawa and the Atkinsons headed east in 1973, where he soon started to pick up spot gigs with the NAC Orchestra.
By 1976, he had joined the brass section as principal tuba player. Fittingly, for a man who has earned his way doing all kinds of gigs, this was essentially a parttime job. “I’m still not full-time,” he says of his status as what he calls a ‘Regular Additional Musician’. There are several RAMs in NACO, he says.
In those days NACO might need a tuba player once a month. So he kept his position with the RCMP band and he started teaching, including at the University of Ottawa and at Queen’s University in Kingston and he also got work as a bass player with dance bands. He had picked up the bass along the way.
“I don’t think I turned a job down until I was 50. Musicians all have the same sort of work ethic. You never know when the next job will come along,” he said. “I would have liked to have been a journalist, but music was where the work was.”
There have been bumps on the road. The orchestra went on strike in 1989. But Atkinson made do. He finished a BA in English and started (and finished) a Master’s at the University of Ottawa. He hooked up with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra for a season and a tour. In the meantime, NACO got back to work. In his time in Ottawa, Atkinson has also been a part of the Rideau Lakes Brass Quintet, Ragtime Brass and Capital Brassworks.
Atkinson says he’s been lucky to have different interests.
“It’s a real brain split for me. Both literature and music convey rhythm and emotion. I love the rhythm of good prose and poetry. … Almost any musician I know is good at something else.
“In 1991, if I had spent one more year with English I might have switched careers but I love playing the tuba. I’m a good teacher too. I enjoy doing it.” He was a coach with the National Youth Orchestra for years having just packed that in this year.
And as Atkinson has grown as a musician, the tuba has grown in stature.
“It can do anything. It’s very versatile. There is a lot of repertoire now for solo tuba. When I started there were very few good solo pieces. There was the Vaughan Williams concerto and the Hindemith sonata. Apart from that there were solos based on large animals such as the Egotistical Elephant.
“But since the 1960s, the level of playing has gone up tremendously and people are writing more and more for the instrument. Today people are making a living as tuba soloists which would have been unthinkable 50 years ago.”
One thing that is notable about the tuba is size. Atkinson says he’s been lucky he’s never hurt himself hoisting his instrument. “You have got to be careful. It’s like carrying baby (maybe a toddler). I remember walking upstairs one time and I fell. I was holding my tuba and I didn’t put a single mark on it. I almost broke both my legs but there wasn’t a mark on my tuba.”
Atkinson has no regrets about retiring. He believes NACO is in good hands and for that he credits Pinchas Zukerman.
“When Zukerman came I thought it was going to be end of the world because I thought it would be Haydn and Mozart forever. But he wanted to expand the orchestra and do more interesting repertoire.
“I finally got a contract with a guaranteed number of weeks. That gave us (RAMs) security. Meanwhile we were playing bigger repertoire and it became a lot more interesting. Pinchas did a lot. You can’t take it away from him.
“And Alexander Shelley’s fantastic. Everyone likes him and he’s a fine musician. I think the orchestra is the best it’s ever been I just hope that they keep moving forward and become a full-time full-sized orchestra and stop buggering about.”
As for Nick, at age 71, and after playing professionally for 53 years, he wants to spend more time travelling and enjoying his five grandchildren.
“I’ve done every kind of work there is to do — orchestras, bands, Chinese funerals, circuses, Broadway shows. What’s not to like about that.”
He’ll play some in Victoria. The habits of a lifetime are hard to give up, but it sounds as if he’ll be happy.
“I feel very lucky. There are a lot of great musicians who never made it (in what is) a very tough business.”