Bob Whaley Looks Back On 50 Years As KSO Principal Tubist

May 16, 2016

Robert Whaley, tubist who joined the Kalamazoo Symphony in 1966.

Tubist Robert Whaley has performed for 50 of the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra's 95 seasons, and he's looking forward to season 96. In a conversation with Cara Lieurance, he marked the occasion by telling stories about some of the experiences he's had over the years as a symphony musician.


One thing Whaley has seen change over the years is the audition process. Today, applicants are placed behind screens, and their names and gender are not revealed to the evaluators. But when he joined the Kalamazoo Symphony, his audition was held in the living room of conductor Gregory Millar's home. Millar was so pleased with his audition piece that he programmed it that season. In his first season with the orchestra, he played the Concerto for Tuba by Ralph Vaughan Williams. 

In the anything-goes 1970s, Whaley says the KSO sported colorful stage clothes that included sporty frills on the men's shirts. Seeing more women performers join the brass sections of orchestras has been a positive trend, he says.

According to Whaley, it requires smart practicing to keep one's range. Whaley has been inspired by several musical colleagues to maintain a high level of performance, singling out trumpeter Scott Thornburg particularly. He noticed early on that WMU trombonist Russell Brown's tendency to warm up with students during a lesson helped Brown keep his range on the instrument for his entire life. When asked about his days as a member of the Western Brass Quintet, which was established when he joined the Western Michigan University faculty in 1966, he shares memories about all of the original members. 

At a meeting of the Local 228 of the American Federation of Musicians on April 21, Whaley was honored for 50 years of continuous membership in the AFM. At the season-closing concert on April 23rd, he was presented by the musicians of the Kalamazoo Symphony with a framed photograph, covered with his colleagues' signatures, of Whaley warming up in the dressing room at Miller Auditorium.