In Memoriam: Ronald Bishop (1934-2013)

September 3, 2013
Erich Burnett

The path that delivered Ron Bishop to Oberlin began with an audition for the Cleveland Orchestra back in 1967.

Already a tubist with the San Francisco Symphony, Bishop had been flown to Cleveland at the behest of the orchestra’s legendary music director, George Szell. Prior to their meeting, Bishop was ordered to fill an index card with whatever details about himself he could fit.

“My audition started with him saying, ‘It says here that you began playing tuba when you were seven. Why?’” Bishop remembered years later.

“I said, ‘I guess I didn’t know any better.’”

No stranger to humility or dry humor, Bishop recalled the story in a 2005 interview with student Michael Roest ’06, on the occasion of Bishop’s retirement from the Cleveland Orchestra after 38 years as principal tubist and soloist.

More than a sensational musician—with the orchestras of Cleveland and San Francisco, as well as the Buffalo Philharmonic and other highly regarded ensembles—Bishop was also a dynamic and inspiring educator in his roles at Oberlin, the Cleveland Institute of Music, and Baldwin-Wallace College.

In one of the most exclusive fraternities among all orchestral instruments, Bishop forever stretched the bounds of tuba music and developed standout talents who went on to excel in orchestras far and wide, and who remained close to their teacher long after their formal lessons had ended.

Just two months before his death this summer at 78, a weakened yet impassioned Bishop still made the rounds twice each week to the campus of Oberlin, where he had been a teacher for nearly 40 years. He gave lessons, held auditions, and invited students to his home for the year-end picnic he had hosted as long as anyone could remember.

On July 25, Bishop was gone, succumbed to twin cancers that had ravaged his body but never seemed to weaken his spirit. That spirit will live on in the generations of students who were fortunate to learn their craft from him.

“He was amazing. I couldn’t have had a better teacher or mentor growing up,” says Roest, the conservatory’s ensemble librarian, who plays on a tuba loaned to him by Bishop.

“He treated his students with a tremendous amount of respect. He was always ‘Mister Bishop,’ and all his students were…‘Mister Roest’” he says, mimicking his mentor’s earnest, deep tone, which was a perfect match to his instrument and an endearing counterpoint to his slight stature. Well-dressed and composed at every turn, Bishop often could be seen bounding up the stairs of Bibbins Hall on his way to a lesson, his tuba in tow.

“He was probably the most energetic person I’ve ever met,” says Roest.

Devoted to tuba from the moment he first played one, Bishop as a young boy would carry his instrument to lessons on the bed of his red wagon.

He went on to earn a bachelor of music degree and performer’s certificate at the Eastman School of Music in his hometown of Rochester, New York, followed by a master of music at the University of Illinois. He was also a standout athlete; a state champion diver, he served as captain of the University of Rochester swim team.

Bishop nearly became a schoolteacher until a successful audition with the Buffalo Philharmonic altered the course of his career. But even as his orchestral life took root, he delighted in visiting schools, where he would portray the character “Tubby the Tuba” and perform for children—on tubas, on conch shells, on vacuum cleaner hoses, and on a host of other oddball “instruments” he would bring with him. Among the numerous groups he played with were the U.S. Army Field Band and, later, Performers and Artists for Nuclear Disarmament. He toured the world with the Cleveland Orchestra, he played on two Grammy Award-winning albums made by the tongue-in-cheek classical performer P.D.Q. Bach, and he contributed to numerous brass publications as a writer and editor.

Far away from the stage lights and students, Ron and Marie Bishop embraced life in a cedar cabin they crafted themselves on Ruxton Island off Canada’s west coast. Discovered by canoe in 1966, the property became their refuge a year later. Each year thereafter, they would spend a month on the island leading up to Ron’s summer season with the Cleveland Orchestra.

“It is not sufficient to say that Ron was an extraordinary gentleman, but he was indeed that,” says Andrea Kalyn, acting dean of the conservatory. “He was a truly great musician and teacher, and a wonderfully warm and caring person. We will all miss him tremendously.”

Bishop was celebrated at an August 18 performance by the Cleveland Orchestra at Blossom Music Center, with family and friends in attendance. He is survived by Marie, his wife of 48 years; his son, Christopher; and his granddaughter, Isabella.

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