Faculty Feature: Ken Amis, Tuba

Ken Amis, Tuba

Ken Amis, Lecturer in Music, Tuba. Photos by Steve Emery, Terence Kirchgessner

World-renowned composer-performer Ken Amis (Lecturer in Music, Tuba) reflects on his journey to the tuba, the adrenaline rush of music-making, and his career tapestry of performing, teaching, and composing music. His piece Islero will be performed by BU Wind Ensemble as a part of BU Alumni Weekend 2020 Reimagined, available for audiences virtually on Sunday, October 4, 2020. Find more details below.


Join the College of Fine Arts for a free Sunday afternoon concert! Student soloists auditioned in a fall 2019 competition for the opportunity to perform their pieces in Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall scheduled to be held in March 2020. Due to COVID-19, the performance was unfortunately cancelled. We are thrilled to present some of these performances as part of this year’s alumni weekend. School of Music large ensembles will also offer some samples of their fall 2020 music-making.


CFA’s Faculty Feature series spotlights the exceptional faculty from across Boston University College of Fine Arts. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

What first drew you to the tuba?

I had no interest in playing the tuba. When I entered high school I chose the trombone and was quite happy with it. Two weeks into the term the tuba player in my class decided that he had had enough of dealing with the big instrument and he dropped out of the music class. Our teacher needed another tuba player in the band and I was, visually, the closest person to the empty chair that my schoolmate had unceremoniously abandoned so I was “volunteered” into filling the vacancy.

What is it about music-making that made you want to pursue it as a career?

It is about the adrenaline rush that you get when everything goes right. It’s both physical and emotional. I think a lot of musicians feel this. I enjoy sports as well, but music is different. Everyone can win at a musical event, and you can also have a deeply musical and meaningful experience all by yourself. After having a little taste of that ambrosia, who wouldn’t want to make it their living?

How would you describe yourself as a teacher? What tools do you equip your students with in order for them to be successful in their practice?

I’m pretty Socratic as a teacher. I’m constantly asking my students questions in order to help them discover relevant answers for themselves and to show them how dissecting a negative or positive mystery into smaller inquiries can help them to understand it more deeply. It also helps me to get to know my students better, which leads to even better questions and discoveries.  

How has being a part of the BU and CFA communities impacted you personally and professionally?

I married and had two kids with someone I met while attending BU. That’s a pretty big impact on my personal life. Professionally, I still work with people I first met in the BU community back in the 80s and 90s. BU, with its large and diverse community, is a great place to establish lifelong positive connections.

What is your favorite aspect of BU’s brass performance program and the School of Music here at CFA?

The students are always interesting to work with at BU. Being in a major city at a large school gives them a wide perspective…sooner or later…and it’s great to see them grow in that way. They mature as performers and artists in a way that keeps them grounded in reality.

What was it like being a part of Empire Brass?

Empire Brass stopped concertizing a few years ago when the leader and founder of the group passed away. I was the tuba player for 22 years and it provided a constant source of improvement in so many facets of my life. Playing my instrument is the most obvious area, but I found that each day I had to become a better traveler, negotiator, standup comedian, schmoozer, pedagogue, planner, arranger, salesman, improviser, and family man.

The BU Wind Ensemble is performing your piece Islero in a concert as part of BU Alumni Weekend 2020. Can you describe your inspiration, your starting point, for Islero? 

My inspiration for Islero was the other pieces that were programmed on the concert in which my piece was to premiere. The music of Arriaga, Lilla-Lobos, and Rodrigo was going to be performed, so I drew my inspiration for those composers. The piece wound up being much more aggressive than I had originally imagined it would be.

Listen to Islero, a fanfare commissioned by the Boston Classical Orchestra.

Is there any particular piece you have composed that resonates the most with you? Does that change over time?

There is no particular piece that resonates the most with me. Although, pieces that I compose quickly tend to continue to surprise me the most.

This year of teaching and performing looks very different than past years. How are you adapting?

I’m embracing the challenge. Trying to find ways to keep myself and my students engaged with all the limitations opens up opportunities for creativity, ingenuity and practical growth.

Explore more of Ken Amis’s work

Learn more about Woodwinds, Brass, and Percussion at BU

World-renowned composer-performer Kenneth Amis enjoys an international career of high acclaim. Amis began his musical exploits in his home country of Bermuda. He started playing the piano at a young age and upon entering high school took up the tuba and developed an interest in performing and writing music. A Suite for Bass Tuba, composed when he was only 15, marked his first published work. A year later, at age 16, he enrolled in Boston University where he majored in composition. After graduating from Boston University he attended the New England Conservatory of Music where he received his Master of Music Degree in Composition.

An active composer, Amis has received commissions from several institutions and music organizations. He has undertaken residencies with educational institutions ranging from middle schools through the collegiate level and was a founding member and on the Board of Directors for the American Composers Forum New England Chapter. In 2007 he was the Composer-in-Residence at the South Shore Conservatory in Massachusetts.

Audiences around the world have enjoyed Amis’s music through performances by such groups as the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Academy of Music Symphonic Winds, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and the National Arts Center Orchestra of Ottawa. In 2003, Amis became the youngest recipient of New England Conservatory of Music’s “Outstanding Alumni Award.”

As a tuba player, Amis has performed as a soloist with the English Chamber Orchestra and has been a member of the Tanglewood Festival Orchestra and the New World Symphony Orchestra. His performance skills are showcased on many commercial records distributed internationally.

Amis is presently the tuba player of the Empire Brass and the Palm Beach Opera Orchestra, a performing artist for Besson instruments, the assistant conductor for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Wind Ensemble, and serves on the faculty at Boston University, Boston Conservatory, the Conservatory at Lynn University, Longy School of Music, and the New England Conservatory of Music.

Learn more about Ken Amis at www.amismusicalcircle.com and www.kennethamis.com.

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