In Bill Mickelsen’s 40 years as principal tuba with The Florida Orchestra, his toughest audience didn’t sit in a posh concert hall. It lurked in the murky water of a Gatorland swamp.
“At first, these alligators just seemed puzzled,” author Jeff Klinkenberg remembers of their grand experiment in 2007. “But then they came, facing the platform like we were onstage.”
The gators were (mildly) interested in Mickelsen’s ominous serenade in low B-flat, the note that supposedly has the mysterious power to rile up the ancient reptiles like a mating call, spurring the males to bellow. Klinkenberg had called up Mickelsen to see if they could test the theory for the then-St. Petersburg Times, now Tampa Bay Times, where Klinkenberg wrote about Florida culture for nearly four decades.
For 40 minutes in the simmering heat, Mickelsen and his student John Banther blasted low B-flat from the breeding marsh platform at the Gatorland wildlife and adventure park near Orlando. Their reptile audience seemed intrigued but rather bored.
“We weren’t getting any real response,” Mickelsen says. “I was trying to think of some creative way to get closer to them but still be safe. So I finally came up with this idea where we could transfer the frequency through the wood of the platform into the water.” They put the bells of their tubas facedown on the planks. And blew.
“All hell broke loose immediately,” Klinkenberg says. “You could hear them, even male alligators 200 yards away, bellowing.” The marsh erupted. The earth quaked. At one point, it “sounded like T Rex was coming through the wood right under us.”
“And that became my trade secret,” Mickelsen says. When they tried other notes, other octaves, even a digression into the Theme from Jaws, everything shut down. Low B-flat vibrating through the platform was the key.
The story and video went viral around the world and turned into a book title for Klinkenberg, Alligators in B-Flat. For Mickelsen, it led to TV appearances on Penn & Teller’s Secrets of the Universe and a BBC segment. “People still ask me about it all the time,” Mickelsen says.
For once, the tuba player – always the faithful supporting actor – became the star. As Mickelsen retires after 40 years with TFO, it remains one of his defining moments.
He grew up in Berea, Ohio, immersed in classical favorites like Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals spinning in his family’s enormous, 6-foot-long Magnavox turntable console in the family room. His tuba career took off in the fifth grade, when he fell in love with the “big shiny instrument” he saw in The Music Man movie. Mom made him practice every day.
Mickelsen got serious about music when the family moved to Fort Collins, Colo., after his dad retired as a scientist with NASA and started teaching at Colorado State University. In high school, Mickelsen and three others piled into the car once a week and drove 50 miles for private lessons at the University of Northern Colorado, where he later graduated.
His path to The Florida Orchestra included a brass quintet in Vail, Colo. (“just a tiny ski town”), and marriage to a piccolo player that led him to New London, Conn., where he took the train into New York City to study with tuba greats at the New York Philharmonic and New York City Ballet. He got his master’s of music performance at Yale University – where one of his classmates was Jahja Ling, who would later become TFO’s second music director.
Single once again, Mickelsen auditioned in 1979 for what was then the Florida Gulf Coast Symphony (now TFO) in front of future legends: founding Music Director Irwin Hoffman, then-Principal Horn Justine LeBaron (for whom the Young Artist Competition is named), then-Principal Trumpet Don Owen and then-Principal Trombone Dwight Decker, both of whom played with TFO for more than 40 years. He ran through excerpts from Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique among others in the McKay Auditorium in Tampa, where TFO performed before the Straz Center existed.
It was the beginning of a long career of memorable performances, but one stands out: the national anthem with Whitney Houston at Super Bowl XXV in Tampa in 1991. It is still considered one of the most powerful renditions ever, performed shortly after the start of the Persian Gulf War.
“I remember the day. We were all in concert dress, tuxes, on the field,” Mickelsen says. “It was a fabulous arrangement, done in 4/4 time instead of 3/4 to give her extra room to breathe and let her voice resonate. It was a once-in-a-lifetime moment.”
Houston herself made an impression, too. “She was a lovely person. When we were all gathered in this huge waiting area, she came around to each one of us and said, ‘Thank you so much.’ ”
Mickelsen, who was also a founding member of the TFO Brass Quintet in 1979, has played an important role offstage, especially as administrator of the Justine LeBaron Young Artist Competition, sponsored by The Florida Orchestra Musicians Association. He plans to continue as director of the competition, the winner of which performs with the orchestra on a Coffee concert. He also will continue to teach as an adjunct professor at both the University of South Florida and St. Petersburg College.
Retiring from his position as principal tuba is bittersweet. “It’s just what I do. Now it’s not what I do.”
But there’s one thing Mickelsen will not miss: “Getting my 60-pound tuba (with case) in and out of my car, up and down the stairs. When your back is 67 years old, you start to feel it more.”
Now when he is in the concert hall listening to one of his favorite works onstage, perhaps Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 or Prokofiev, it won’t be the same. “I’ll miss the incredible, personal satisfaction you have at the end of a concert, when the audience is clapping. You’ve been a part of creating something beautiful. That’s what I’ll miss the most.”
Through all the ups and downs of the orchestra over the years, one thing remains steady and true. “The musicians really care,” Mickelsen says. “The Florida Orchestra is fabulous and important to our community. It’s worth whatever effort everybody gives to make it work. I will always be part of the family.”