Introductory text THE EARLY YEARS
Mel Culbertson Jr. was born on April 9, 1946, in Wheeling, West Virginia, USA, the second of five children. The Culbertson family can trace their ancestry back to Scottish, German, and Cherokee origins. His father, a construction specialist and master mechanic, filled the Culbertsons' home with beautiful music that he played on violin, mandolin, and guitar. Young Mel learned to play by ear the melodies he heard on all these popular instruments. He began studying piano at the age of six and took up the trumpet three years later, studying with an uncle and a local music teacher. Mel became intrigued with the sousaphone after seeing fanfares and parades and begged his music teacher to study this instrument. His teacher discouraged him and told him that his lips were too thin for the large mouthpiece. It wasn't until the family moved to Ventura, California that Mel had a chance to satisfy her curiosity. Fortunately for Mel, her new music teacher (and assistant wrestling coach) Robert Barnum also had great love and respect for this king of the bass wind instruments and recognized the talent his young student possessed. Mr. Barnum planted the seed of musical curiosity in the determined twelve-year-old and steered him in the right direction.
Mel became a soloist on tuba with the Ventura County Symphony Orchestra at the age of 14 and still in high school. He also performed under the baton of Lucas Foss in the Ojai Festival Orchestra. Mel's high school years, under the direction of Larry Weiss, Mel held the position of solo tuba in Ventura County for three years, and at age 17 he was again voted first All-State tuba. High School Honor Band. He was, at this early age, one of the founding members of the Ventura County and Los Angeles County brass ensembles. Also, most Sundays, Mel and her younger brother Richard could be heard singing from the community church for live radio broadcasts! Mel graduated from Ventura High School and received the honor of Best Senior Band Artist. He was elected to the Hall of Fame at Ventura High, and his picture still hangs in the entryway. Through his efforts, a music analysis class was created at his high school, a variation of which is still taught today.
Mel also received second and subsequent first prize in the Musical Instrument Competition (Phi Mu Alpha) competing with candidates from across the state of California. He received a personal invitation and scholarship to perform with the Idyllwild Music Camp Orchestra, which resulted in him being voted the most outstanding musician by its members. Later he was selected to participate in a Scandinavian tour with the same group.
Having received numerous scholarships in both music and wrestling, Mel chose to attend the University of California at Long Beach and began taking private tuba lessons with Roger Bobo, a tubaist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. While in college, he played with the Long Beach Municipal Band and where he was offered the position of tuba. Mel also performed at the Long Beach Symphony concerts.
The war in Vietnam pressured Mel into military service and his service was fulfilled by being accepted into the elite band at the West Point Military Academy. While at West Point, he performed in numerous chamber music series and premiered Alec Wilder's Jessie Suite. Mel always took every opportunity to study, so she enrolled in the Juilliard School of Music in New York City, which was very close to West Point.
On weekends I attended concerts at Carnegie Hall to hear visiting international orchestras, chamber ensembles and musicals. Mel performed the second tuba recital at Carnegie Hall. During this period he also traveled to Chicago to study with Arnold Jacobs, the world-renowned Chicago Symphony tubaist and woodwind pedagogue. It was also in New York that Mel met Harvey Phillips, the most in-demand tuba player on the East Coast. Following his studies at Juilliard, Mr. Phillips persuaded Mel to move to Boston and continue his education at the New England Conservatory of Music. He studied with Harvey Phillips and Chester Schmitz, professor of tuba at the conservatory and tubaist with the Boston Symphony and also Mr. Schmitz's colleague and principal bassoonist, Sherman Walt.
In addition to Roger Bobo and Tommy Johnson, Mel became a tuba tester for the Los Angeles-based company Mirafone run by Howard Lockie.
Zubin Mehta, director of the Israel Philharmonic at the time, invited Mel to audition for him at the New York Metropolitan Opera and, as a result, offered him the position of solo tuba in his orchestra in Tel Aviv. However, due to political unrest in the Middle East, newly married and eager to travel to Europe, he declined that position. Mel followed her intuition and returned to California for a short time to work at the Hollywood Film Studio while preparing for a trip to Germany.