Just southeast of Duke University winds Chapel Hill Road, a street lined with sprawling Maplewood Cemetery, many faded pastel homes and one single-story house that Ronald McDonald could have painted.
That glaring yellow and red rambler houses the V & E Simonetti Historic Tuba Collection, the world’s largest privately owned tuba museum, says owner Vince Simonetti.
Simonetti is patriarch of the collection’s tuba family that numbers 330. He’s got Berliner Pumpens, Ophicleides, and Saxhorns. Some made by Conn, Wurlitzer, and Vocedalek. He even has a serpent instrument, a black woodwind that truly looks just like an anaconda, that dates to 1830.
Simonetti’s tuba collection is an offspring of the Tuba Exchange, which once sold new and used tubas. He and his wife Ethel Simonetti ran the business in that same house for 27 years before selling it in 2011.
“We had a very good business,” he says.
Regrettably, Simonetti says, he was getting too old to run it. But reaching his seventies could not force him to sever all ties with the tubas. “I just couldn’t part with them,” Simonetti says.
So he kept hundreds and has purchased more for his collection, which he welcomes others to visit and enjoy.
Tubas through time
The museum is a no-frills enterprise. Simonetti doesn’t pay curators or shoulder high utility costs, as evidenced recently by the broken central heating and 65-degree chill. Instead, he spends his money on more instruments from Russia, from China, from Germany, from America.
Tubas line the walls and the floors. Ceilings too. They look like, well, a lot of plumbing. Some form rows. Others rest on hangers screwed to walls. One’s dead weight appears to have opened a hairline crack on the wall.
Some tubas appear to be aging along with Simonetti. Their brass shimmer fades as they lie dormant. But Simonetti breathes life into many. Not only does he play their conical tubes, he knows where they were made, their bell positioning, how many valves each carries, and the shape of their valve ports.
Visit and he’ll deliver an hour-and-a-half rehearsed presentation of tuba history and minor variations among instruments. His nasal voice fills the museum, which otherwise is silent save for creaky floors and cars rolling by.
“These are called piston valves.” Simonetti says, pointing to a button-looking tuba part. “There is another type of valve used on a brass instrument. If you press this key, it turns instead of going up and down like the piston of a car. But if you press this, it adds this much tubing to the overall length.”
Simonetti’s fascination with the tuba is more about its distinctive design than its mellow sound. When he first saw a tuba as a 13-years-old in Hawthorne, N.J., he thought it looked like it had been hit by a truck.
“I instantly became infatuated with it,” Simonetti says. “I used to draw pictures of it in study hall.”
Sharing the wealth
Open to the public only from 3 to 6 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays, the collection attracts about five or six visitors per week, Simonetti says. That’s fortunate. Not many more would fit in around the rows and rows of tubas.
Local, well-mannered preschoolers have visited. So has the brass section of London’s Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. Meg Hourigan, a saxophonist with the all-female You’re Not Listening Brass Band, came upon the Simonetti collection while surfing the web to learn more about her rare 1920s sousaphone.
What she found was probably the internet’s “most detailed list” of sousaphone models, she says. So she drove to Durham during a North Carolina road trip in August 2017.
“I was in North Carolina to see the eclipse in the western part of the state. A five-hour detour was a drop in the bucket,” says Ms. Hourigan, who lives in Connecticut.
When not educating visitors, Simonetti spends hours polishing tubas, reading tuba history in Clifford Bevan’s “The Tuba Family,” or recruiting new tubas to his collection. He raves about his most recent get, the 1830 serpent he bought for 2,000 pounds from Scotland.
Next he wants a seven-foot pit tuba and a triple C or triple B flat tuba, he says. But he has a problem: The collection is running out of space. Admission is getting more selective than the Ivy League. He can take five, maybe six each year.
“The tuba would have to be something totally unique,” he says.
Just as unique as a tuba collection in the middle of Durham.
(Photo at top by Katie Nelson)