By Molly Weybright
The bright yellow house holds thousands of feet of tubing, tens of thousands of dollars worth of materials and more than 130 years of history. Inside, it smells faintly sweet and metallic – the smell of brass. Soft orchestral music with tuba features plays in the background. If Seuss and Sousa combined their talents to create something beyond a musician’s wildest imagination, the V & E Simonetti Historic Tuba Collection in Durham would be the result.
Different shades of gold, brown and silver overlap, creating a metallic, musical camouflage. Light dances off the lustrous, lacquered tubas and seems to be absorbed by the dull, matte ones. Some of the tubas are simple – designed for function and sound rather than visual appeal. Others are etched with intricate designs, like ivy climbing a wall, and look so wonderfully crafted and delicate that it’s hard to believe they were made for anything other than admiring from afar.
Standing in the main room is like standing in a forest. A metal forest made of curves and loops rather than straight lines and angles. A forest where every facet can be used to create deep, heavy, melodic sounds. The curves blend together and connect until it feels like one massive instrument rather than 300 individual ones.
But every instrument works. Every instrument is functional and serves a purpose. As if Sousa stepped into Seuss’ madness and said, “This is pretty good, but here’s how I can make it better.”
Covering much of the floor, walls and ceiling is one of the most magnificent tuba collections in existence, and one man’s lifetime of stories and treasures. Three hundred and five brass instruments belonging to the tuba family fill the small space. Vince Simonetti sits on a small chair nestled between many intricate and unique types of his favorite instrument – the tuba.
He talks about the instruments in his collection with fervor. The stories of where they came from, the lives the instruments lived before they were his, flow as easily as water over smooth stones. His passion is evident. When asked about his own history with the instrument, his smile widens.
A lifelong passion
Vince first played the tuba in the 1950s as a high school student. In fact, he was a trumpet player until he entered high school. He approached the school’s band director and asked if he could play trumpet in the band.
“We have zillions of trumpets,” the director told Vince. “But I don’t have a tuba player.”
The band director then gestured to this massive instrument, this tuba, and Vince remembers thinking it looked like it had been hit by a truck. But he decided to give it a try, and that was all it took.
“I just became obsessed with it immediately and have been obsessed ever since,” he said. “I used to draw it in study hall.”
That obsession persisted for more than half a century as Vince played with and conducted many orchestras in North Carolina. He founded the Durham Symphony in 1976, conducted the North Carolina Symphony, the Raleigh Symphony and the Raleigh Concert Band. In 1984 he founded The Tuba Exchange, a Durham business that supplies individuals and school bands with brass instruments. But, his pride is his tuba collection.
The collection began in 1965 while he was touring the United States in the orchestra for Russia’s Moiseyev Ballet Company. He found the first tuba in Boston, a 1910 Cerveny helicon, and the Historic Tuba Collection was born.
The collection grows every year as people call Vince and tell him of an instrument they have that he may be interested in. According to Vince, many people have rare instruments that have been passed down from grandparents or great-grandparents simply sitting in their attic, and he is more than happy to take them off their hands. The museum’s newest acquisition was added as recently as January 27.
“Vince is pretty well-known in the tuba community,” said Betty Black, co-owner of The Tuba Exchange, when asked about how people find Vince when looking to sell or donate an instrument.
He and his wife, Ethel, opened up their collection to the public on March 5, 2016 in the little yellow house in Durham. Almost 200 people showed up at the grand opening, to the couple’s surprise and delight. However, only 15 to 20 people can comfortably experience the collection. Vince laughs when he remembers giving tours that day for more than three hours straight.
The collection has been featured locally in The News and Observer and Indy Week but also received some national recognition when it was featured on NPR’s “Unsung Museums.”
Peggy Schaeffer, a former scientific librarian living in Durham, called the museum a “local oddity;” and after passing it many times, she finally went inside and was shocked at the sheer volume of instruments inside the small building.
“I had no idea that they had so many tubas and that they varied so much,” she said.
Vince has been pleased with the public’s response to his collection, and visually, it’s easy to see where the fascination comes from. The size of the collection is incredible, but the real beauty is in the stories.
Rhonda Cohen, a volunteer at the Durham Literacy Center, visited the collection with her husband Jay Cunningham, who plays in several music groups in the Triangle. The Literacy Center is only a few buildings away from the little yellow house and Rhonda often walks past it.
Rhonda said that what truly impressed and delighted her about the experience was the passion that Vince has for his collection, which was evident when describing his many instruments.
“He was like a father glowing about the talents of his children,” she said. “Unlike a father, he definitely has his favorites – whether because of their rarity, sound quality or brilliant design.”
The exuberance with which Vince tells the stories of his tubas is enthralling. It truly is like listening to a proud parent brag about his children – showing off their talents, assets and accomplishments.
“Almost every one of these instruments has a unique story to it,” Vince said. That’s more than 300 backstories and histories, and he knows how to tell them all.
Even if he may not admit it, it is clear that he does, in fact, have favorites; and they’re not always the tubas one would expect. While some of the instruments are grandiose and intricate, his favorites are often the more battered tubas, worn down by years of use. These are the tubas with the stories he likes telling – the tubas with history.
A special collection
He has a tuba that is over 5 feet tall and when placed on its stand, is over 7 feet tall. It was designed for upright string bass players. The musician would play the string bass standing, and when the music called for it, he would switch over to the tuba simply by stepping from one instrument to the other, without having to sit or adjust his positioning.
This type of tuba is incredibly rare because it was only made in the 1930s. Vince has two in the collection.
He has one of the first types of sousaphones, or marching tubas, nicknamed the “rain catcher,” designed by John Philip Sousa himself.
Modern-day sousaphones have the bell pointing forward, so that the sound is aimed at the audience and can be clearly heard. But Sousa designed his original instrument with the bell facing upwards because he wanted the sound to “go over the top of the band like icing on a cake.”
It almost seems as if there is some force driving Vince and the tubas together. As if they are moving on roads parallel to one another for decades only to intersect at the perfect moment.
For example, he has two tubas in his collection that are identical – the only twins in the museum. He usually doesn’t buy duplicates because he says he simply doesn’t have the space to display them. But, when he discovered the second tuba he had to buy it.
Why? Because these two tubas, both made in 1916 and purchased years apart, are one serial number away from each other. These tubas were created back to back and then circulated separately, only to find themselves reunited in the V & E Simonetti Historic Tuba Collection.
For more than 100 years craftsmen have made the instruments Vince Simonetti has in his collection. Each instrument is different, but fits within the museum like a perfect puzzle piece. The museum is heavy with history.
Vince says he wants to keep the collection on display for as long as he can. When the time comes he wants to pass it on to his son John, also a musician. But until that time comes, Vince will continue giving the instrument traditionally found in the back of the band, its time in the spotlight.
Edited by Bridget Dye