by Andrew Pelletier
Horn technicians and builders tend to be highly original, maybe even quirky, individuals; but I have not experienced one quite as unique and fascinating as Bruce Tubbs, of Ottawa Lake, Michigan. Just about 30 minutes from Toledo, Ohio, a trip to his 1870s farmhouse to see his “shop” (and also the extensive shop of his wife, Ann, who is an artisan potter) is always an event to remember. I use quotes around the word “shop” as Bruce has converted the tiny root cellar of the house into his shop, hanging bells and horns from the rafters to make the most of the limited floor space.
Bruce came to his trade late, and from an interesting and meandering path. Raised in Lansing MI, Bruce studied with Doug Campbell at Michigan State University, graduating with a Bachelor of Science in 1966. He went into the Peace Corps for a year, and then found himself teaching junior high school in inner city Detroit in 1967, the year of the riots − his school was, indeed, set on fire during one of them. From there, he taught in Saginaw MI, Washington DC, cofounded Spring Elementary School in Boulder CO, and then cofounded the Upland Hill Farm School in Oxford MI. He and Anne then moved to Connecticut, where Bruce worked as a carpenter, and was a self-employed artisan cabinet-maker.
In 1979, they moved back to the Midwest, this time to Toledo, where Bruce was building furniture and working as a building supervisor in Ann Arbor MI. Then, quite unexpectedly, Bruce began to suffer severe pain due to Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and had to change careers. He went back to teaching, joining the faculty at Maumee Valley Country Day School, in Toledo, in 1990. Of great importance to us horn players, he rediscovered his love for the horn in 1992 when he found his old cherished Reynolds Chambers model in Chicago at a friend’s repair shop. He started “fooling around” (his words) with repair and customization in 1995, and when he retired from teaching in 2010, threw himself into full-time horn repair work and custom building.
So, what does he do, now? Bruce has a love of 1950-60s-era American horns (Conn, Holton, King, Olds, H. N. White, and Reynolds, in particular) and enjoys restoring damaged horns to playing condition. Offering his horns for very reasonable prices, Bruce serves the horn community by providing great quality horns for the high school/collegiate and amateur horn market. He is a wizard at cutting bells to save a horn with a crushed or torn flare, and has a huge storage shed full of horns for bells, parts, or future projects.
Beyond his restoration work, Bruce also does all of the work that one would expect from a repair shop: chemical cleanings, dent work, water key installation, valve seating and alignment, etc. In recent years, Bruce has taken on horn building, especially making 5-valve B-flat single horns (B-flat-A+-F) from existing 4-valve models. He currently makes them in the Sansone style, with the F valve for the 4th finger, but is working on a configuration using two thumb valves, like the Alexander 97. Some of his most interesting work has been for injured or disabled players who needed a right-handed instrument to be able to keep playing. He has made a few of these horns, from existing left-handed models, and he really enjoyed the challenge of creating them.
Working down in his root cellar, with minimal tooling, almost no room to work, and no buffing room or lacquering room, I am constantly amazed at the playing quality of his creations. He is the first to admit that his horns would not win many beauty prizes, but I know more than a few professionals who have purchased horns for their students who ended up keeping them for themselves because they played so well. He’s a great guy, wonderful conversationalist, and his inventory is always worth checking out. He’s always got a gem of a horn hanging about, or some interesting restoration job on the workbench.