Let’s just start by saying that if I were you, I wouldn’t believe a word of what follows. I don’t blame you. I know, however, that every bit of this happened in real life, and then every bit of this was presented to me in the strangest dream ever.
First, I have never had a dream that could have been the script for and Indie Documentary film. Until now, that is. I witnessed a series of vignettes (I couldn’t call them scenes because some were rather brief and disjointed.) The vignettes were a little confusing to me because they did not happen in chronological order. The very end, like in a well-produced film, brought all of the scenes together and made THE POINT. I will try to relate to you, in the dream order, what I witnessed of my life, as seen through the eyes of a tuba.
I see myself on a riverboat, playing tuba in a traditional jazz band. We embarked at a terminal point on the Mississippi River in Davenport, Iowa. We left about 8:00 pm and will return at about 2:00 am. The boat was chartered by the Lions, or the Elks, or some other lodge. It is apparent that they are there simply to drink beer of the cheapest variety. We are the “entertainment.” In my heart I believe we are a surprise, an added and lucky feature.
The audience seemed to like us. One notable gentleman expresses his delight, partway into our round trip, by coming to visit my tuba and me. I find myself totally surprised, and not at all happy, when the gentleman pours most of a pitcher of weak beer into the bell of my tuba. My pique is nothing compared to the feelings expressed by my tuba. Luckily I quickly found the “spit valve” and the tuba relieved himself, there, on the floor.
It is the fall of my sophomore year in college. I am a piano major, of course, but I still enjoy playing my tuba. Fall means marching band. I figured I could handle this task, although “sit-down band” is what I really like. They tell me that if I want to play in a good concert band, I am required to march! When I find myself marching at a football game, in the middle of South Dakota, and in a blizzard, I am somewhat less than a “happy camper.”
When my lips freeze to the mouthpiece of the Sousaphone, I rebel. If you know much about playing a tuba, you know that your mouth interfaces with the mouthpiece in a manner that evokes blowing bubbles in a toilet bowl. This is a not-altogether unpleasant sensation. However, the burning of the chill, the tear of the lip flesh when you try, unsuccessfully, to pry your mouth away, is a distinctly unpleasant experience. Then and there, I decided that my tuba days were done… forever!
My first tuba lesson! Mr. Egli sat the beast on my lap. “Hug it,” he said. If I had not we both would have heard the crash of brass. I was shocked how easy it was for me to get a sound from this huge thing. I wonder if my background of making rude noises and blowing bubbles has prepared me in some way for this life experience. I started tuba as a lark. My sister had expressed interest in joining the band. When she went to the meeting to meet the band director she chose the French horn. My mother came back and told me that Mr. Egli would like me to begin tuba. I felt neither heavily pro, or con, so I assented. I could already read notes, as I had been learning piano for about two years.
I was a little out of my element at the first band rehearsal. I only knew a few notes, and they were semi-reliable at best. The most exciting part of the rehearsal was the end. The tuba and trombone players were required to take the school-owned mouthpieces out of their horns, and dip them into a two-gallon glass jar filled with a disinfectant. I whipped my mouthpiece from my horn, swung it into the jar of purple liquid and shook! Unfortunately the mouthpiece slapped against the inside of the jar. A perfect, circular whole appeared in the jar about 2/3 of the way to the bottom. The purple liquid poured out onto the floor. The scowl of the band director was apparent, and the laughter of almost everyone else echoed in my ears. Still does, evidently. We never did get another jar of disinfectant.
I really am not looking forward to commencement. In the spring, the entire faculty of the university are required to process, complete with cap, gown and the little colorful thingy that makes it look suspiciously like a bad choir robe. Some love the pomp. I didn’t even go to my own commencements, not for any degree. I figured that the actual diplomas were enough. One, I had to go to the Field House to retrieve. The other was mailed unceremoniously. My parents didn’t seem to mind. They came to my degree recitals and were sufficiently entertained, and reminded of my acquired genius! So going to the commencement, as a faculty member, was anathema. I must have mentioned this. Of course I would never complain (where is that sarcasm font?) but I found out that the instrumental faculty played in the commencement band, and they didn’t have to gown.
So, after a few years of not playing the tuba, I held the beast one more time. For rehearsal, and for gig. Somehow I felt that I won, because I didn’t wear the gown. I repeated this quite a few years. Spring Commencement did offer one additional promise… my lips would NOT freeze to the tuba mouthpiece in May in Louisiana.
Oh boy! Here I am, a freshman in high school, and I have just been promoted to 1st Chair. This is obviously a big deal. I had no idea. The entire band had to go through “challenges.” We were all given legal-sized sheets of paper; on each side there were melodies written out in every major and minor key. The rhythms got increasingly complex, and every member of the band were required to play melodies with 16th notes, dotted notes, triplets of varying types, and even changing meters. I was led to believe that these melodies were designed for the armed forces bands. I think they were meant to be used as sight-reading for those musicians. We were given a week to prepare and undergo an audition. The band director would delete one point for each wrong note and one for each wrong rhythm. The seating arrangement for each section was to be determined strictly by this audition.
I took my sheet and practiced every day. I lived across the street from the school, so I could stay after school and make what progress I was able. Of course, with a tuba, your practicing was normally done in the school building. The school owned the instrument, and it was not easy to get permission to take it home, or to even carry the instrument unobtrusively.
I was a little nervous about some of the really tricky keys and rhythms, so I took the trouble to prop a door open in the school after I practiced on Friday. Nobody found it, and I was able to get into the school on both Saturday and Sunday. I had the band room to myself, and my tuba and me communed! I remember running up the steps to the top floor to either get a drink or use the facilities. When I was returning to the band room I took the stairs by twos or threes. Unfortunately, I slipped and sprained my ankle. That day I have invited a couple of my band friends to join me. They just laughed at my enlarged ankle. When my mother spotted my limp I convinced her that I was auditioning for a role in a play that required a limp. I was just practicing.
On audition day I must have done pretty well. When the results were posted, in order of score, I was at the top. I didn’t miss any points. The next in line missed three. She was a junior clarinet player, and she assumed the 1st chair of the clarinet section. Her brother, the son of my former junior high social studies teacher, had been first chair tuba. I don’t remember his score, but he remembers mine to this day. His only comment: “You cheated. You practiced!” So it goes, Randy!
I am in Germany, under the big top of a tent at one of Germany’s ubiquitous beer festivals. Tuba in hand… or, if you prefer, wrapped in my arms. The Army Band I am playing with has been using me as an assistant to the Warrant Officer in charge of the band. I was brought on to keep the top players busy. I acted as the piano accompanist to men playing every conceivable Hindemith Sonata, as well as other literature. I arranged and directed a men’s chorus, using songs that I had learned through Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia professional music fraternity. I played piano in a jazz trio. We gigged at the Officer’s Club, and the Holiday Inn of Sindelfingen, W. Germany. AND… I played tuba in the “German Band” segment of our concerts. We played just about every evening from April through October at some Festival. We offered segments of traditional American band music, specialty segments and our own German Band. I got to play tuba many nights in the German Band. This was really fun. Much to my shock, after I had retired permanently from playing tuba and freezing my lips, I learned the traditional versions of Alte Kammeraden, and other German drinking songs. The greatest fun was smuggling out all of those liter and half-liter ceramic German bier steins in my tuba case. I still have some. I do feel slightly bad, since all of the bier was free to the band. All you wanted, all night long. I came back to the US weighing 190, and brought back many steins! Thank you, tuba. Thank you, Germany!
My high school band director just telephoned my parents. The Superintendent of my high school had called him with some pointed questions. “Why,” he expostulated, “was a school-owned Sousaphone seen being marched down the middle of the street in broad daylight?” Mr. Egli was undoubtedly at a loss for words.
I had been allowed to take my Sousaphone home over the summer. The band director, despite the disinfectant incident, liked me and knew that I would make good use of the instrument. Who would have thought that recruiting your friends, who played trumpet, trombone, clarinet and drums, would NOT make a pleasant noise with their own, personal parade. We played all of the school songs. We marched in straight lines. We played in tune. We were the best musicians in the band. When the Superintendent saw us, he didn’t understand. It now occurs to me that there is no law that prevents a school district from hiring a true Philistine as the Superintendent.
The let me keep the tuba, but we weren’t allowed to march in the streets for the rest of the summer. Bummer!
What, you may ask, is the thrust of this epistle? Why does a mind-mannered piano teacher, a retired college professor, have to do with the tuba as a life-guide? Glad you asked. When I auditioned for my job, ultimately as Associate Professor of Piano at Louisiana Tech University, I was joined by hundreds of other candidates. I prefer to think that I was hired because I simply outplayed all of the rest. There may be a shred of truth in that, but I was told a few years into my tenure that the Department Head put in the deciding vote. He was a brass man, himself, and he told the committee that he didn’t want some “practice room nerd” as a new faculty member. He loved my playing, thought I would contribute to the department as a whole, but the final, deciding factor was… the TUBA. He thought that anyone that played German music, traditional New Orleans Jazz, and the tuba probably had had the rough-edges knocked off. My whole career as a pianist and a piano teacher might very well owe itself to my love for the tuba.
There. If you can’t believe that, I know I’ll never be able to sell you that Brooklyn Bridge.