Before Roger Lewis fell head over heels for the tuba, he first fell in love with a woman named Irene.
Today, Lewis is happily married and settled in Sturgis, Michigan, and teaches at Goshen College as an adjunct professor of music specializing in low brass instruments. However, the journey Lewis took to get to where he is now was not easy.
When Lewis graduated high school at the age of 17, he moved from Chester, New Jersey to New York City to attend Mannes College of Music where he met the young woman who changed his life forever.
Irene studied the piano, while Lewis studied the tuba. The two didn’t interact much until Lewis mentioned he was playing in the National Orchestral Association and invited Irene to a concert, as well as to dinner afterwards. Irene agreed.
Unfortunately, Lewis also gave a ticket to a friend, a flautist, who also attended Mannes.
“[His] seat ended up being right next to [Irene’s],” Lewis said. “They ended up getting married six months later. [Irene and I] went out after dinner that night but it ended up being more about [the flautist] than me.”
Months after Irene and the flautist got married, their relationship fell apart. When Lewis heard about the break-up, he called Irene without hesitation.
Lewis said that Irene was “drop dead gorgeous.” She had long dark brown hair, and the figure and grace of a ballerina.
“When she entered a room,” Lewis said, “all eyes were on her. She was perfect.”
Quickly, the two became a couple. Lewis said that he fell head over heels for Irene.
“I was 19 and I think it was the first time I was ever in love,” Lewis said. “She was my first love. I had never felt that like before.”
Lewis described his bond with Irene as being “very close.” The two were young and in love in New York City – he said there was always for the couple to do in the city. He recounts spending hours in museums and walking the streets.
However, after months of a relationship, the two began to drift apart. Lewis lived in New Jersey, working in the auto mechanic industry, building racecars, due to the lack of professional tuba positions in the United States, while Irene lived in the Bronx. Four hours separated the couple and made it difficult to communicate.
Lewis contributes not only the distance to their breakup, but also Irene’s personality.
“She continues to grow,” Lewis said. “The people around her – her boyfriends – stop growing. She’s been married five times, and each time she outgrew the people she married…. She always outgrew people because she has a sensational curiosity to learn new things.”
Lewis then went on to mention Irene’s past hobbies: Indian sand art, playing the harp, rescuing bunnies and more.
When the couple broke up, Lewis was “completely and utterly destroyed.” Lewis describes the time period right after their breakup as dismal – he’d come home from a 10-hour work day and mope around all evening.
“Finally, I sat down and picked up the horn and started practicing, because when I practice the world goes away and it’s all about the music and the sound and the act of making the sound happen,” Lewis said. “So the only thing to distract me from my misery of losing her was to sit down and practice.”
Lewis threw himself into practicing the tuba. He would come home from a 10-hour workday and practice the tuba for 10 hours. He’d then sleep for three hours, wake-up, and then do it all over again. Luckily, Lewis lived at home with his parents and practiced in an insulated basement that allowed little noise to escape.
This obsessive practicing became Lewis’ routine for about three months, until one day when he paused and reflected.
“I sat back and looked at my playing – when you do 10 hours a day, you get a lot accomplished. I got to the point where I looked at myself and I said, ‘I’m playing lightyears better than when I graduated from music school.’ And at that moment, a shift happened where I was no longer practicing to hide from [Irene], I was practicing to see how much better I could get. That became my motivation. I became the player that I am today, and the teacher that I am today, because of that one shift.”
Now, Lewis sends Irene a letter every year on her birthday, October 30 – which is coincidentally four hours before Lewis’ birthday.
“Every year she gets a card that says ‘thank you,’ because that was one of the most defining moments of my life,” Lewis said. “…It was an interesting period where I was totally miserable for three months and then I totally excited to watch how much more I could grow.”
Irene thought the cards were funny, said Lewis.
“She chuckled. She wasn’t expecting it. It took me a little to realize that she turned my whole life around so I didn’t start sending her letters until awhile after we broke up,” he said.
Shortly after Lewis had his realization, he auditioned for the Syracuse Symphony and made it to the finals. Unfortunately, Lewis did not get the spot in the Symphony – however he notes the audition as being one of his best performances.
When Lewis described his audition at Syracuse Symphony, his voice got more intense, he leaned in closer and his eyes lit up.
He first began describing the song he auditioned with – first movement of the CPE Bach A minor unaccompanied flute sonata.
“[The moderator] said ‘flute?’ And I said yes,” Lewis paused. “Flute.”
Lewis noted that he was the only tuba player who auditioned with an entire movement of a work that day.
“They were so flabbergasted that they never stopped me,” Lewis recalled. “So I just kept playing.”
The audition moderator then asked Lewis to play an excerpt from “Ride of the Valkyries.” So Lewis traded his F tuba for his C tuba. The moderator told Lewis that he could warm up with the new instrument – just to make sure he could perform his best. Lewis refused.
“I said, ‘No, I wouldn’t have an opportunity to do that onstage during a performance. I’m just going to play it,’” Lewis said.
The moderator then asked Lewis to perform ‘Till Eulenspiegel’ – a particularly difficult song due to the end.
“There’s a really tough lick towards the end of ‘Till Eulenspiegel’ that just goes on and on and on – you get to a high A and you need to sustain the high A,” Lewis said. “Most people get to the high A and stop and take a breath. well, I have a trick that I do called ‘circle of breathing’ where you can inhale while you’re playing.”
Unfortunately, the first five notes came out rough. Lewis said that he remembered someone in the audience commenting on the mistake.
“I looked at him and thought in my head, ‘Oh yeah? Watch this!’” Lewis said. “And I just tore up the rest of lick – just nailed the heck out of it. Hit the high A, circle breathed on it and made a massive crescendo, hit the stinger.”
Lewis said that he then looked at the audience member who had made a comment and gave them a determined look and nod.
Till Eulenspiegel wrapped up the audition. Lewis picked up his two tubas and walked out of the audition room, only to be met by a hoard of other tuba players huddled by the door, listening in on his audition. As Lewis headed back to his practice room, the mass that had crowded around to listen to Lewis’ audition applauded him.
“These are the guys who are trying to beat me for this gig,” Lewis said. “And they’re applauding what I just did in that room. I just bowed – I didn’t know what to do. I had never experienced anything like that before.”
Lewis continued on to the finals – but unfortunately did not receive the position at the Syracuse Symphony. However, that was the beginning of a life full of prestigious tuba positions. Lewis went on to win the Tanglewood Music Festival and the Principal Tuba position with the Evansville Philharmonic. Lewis now performs as Principal Tuba for multiple ensembles including: The Whiting Park Festival Orchestra, The North American Company brass quintet, The Quintessence Chamber Brass, The Detroit Symphony, the Elkhart Symphony, and more.
Besides teaching at Goshen College, Lewis teaches at Southwestern Michigan College and Indiana University South Bend.
Lewis contributes much of his success to Irene, the girl who broke his heart, yet started his career. In fact, he credits Irene as his “muse.”
“My whole career I owe to Irene,” Lewis said. “We don’t talk very much anymore, but she holds a special place in my heart. She’s my muse – she’s the one responsible for me turning out as good as a player I am.”
Since Irene, Lewis has found love. He met his wife in southern France – both were performing with Indiana University’s orchestra. Throughout their trip, the two bonded and had their first “date” in Paris – during a layover. The couple began officially dating in 1988 and were married in 1992. Now, the couple resides in Sturgis with their two greyhounds and nine cats.
And as for Irene, she’s finally settled down. For the past 25 years she’s been happily living with her partner. Irene also works for an American intelligence agency were she is an interpreter. Unfortunately, due to privacy reasons, she was unavailable to be interviewed and some details were required to be left out.
Irene and Lewis occasionally correspond via email, or by telephone. But Lewis said he doesn’t feel the need to contact Irene any more than that.
“I can contact her whenever I wish, but I try to stay out of it….,” Lewis said. “She was a very significant person in my life and I owe her a lot. And I wanted her to know that she was that significant. I would have probably ended up being a mechanic in New Jersey instead of a professional Tuba player.”