I have a bad habit. My college tuba professor first noticed it, and at his exhortation, I’ve tried to break it. Whenever I press down the third valve of my tuba, I use my pinkie finger to help my ring finger push. It doesn’t seem like a big deal, but earlier this year, while practicing up for a brass band competition, I discovered that this little habit holds me back while fingering through fast passages. That pinkie is supposed to be on the fourth valve. If it’s over on the third valve helping its neighbor and the next note requires me to depress the fourth valve, the hiccup of moving it back and forth can make me lag behind the beat.
This made me cognizant of another issue I’ve been in denial about for years: my hand has never been comfortable playing the piston valves on my tuba. I’ve tried adjusting the ring where you hook your thumb to anchor your hand while four fingers manage the four valves, but that hasn’t helped.
Around the same time that I was being reminded of all this, my husband and I were preparing to buy our first house. For a writer (me) and an editor (him), a couple thousand extra dollars would be a big boon in scraping together that down payment. Clearly the time had come for me to sell my $4,000 tuba and buy a more beat-up used horn at a lower price, one with rotary valves (which look like miniature oars; your fingers push on the broad paddle end) that would be more comfortable for me to play. More money, more comfort, better playing.
But I couldn’t do it. The logical reason: if I downgrade tubas, it’s highly unlikely I will ever upgrade again. I’m not a pro. I can’t imagine a day when I’ll be able to justify dropping a couple thousand to get back to the level of horn I have now. And the less logical—some might say entirely illogical—reason: I love my tuba. My tuba, the one that came with me to every one of those college lessons, that has played Tubachristmases with me at the Kennedy Center when I was in grad school, the one whose beautiful lure draws little kids to it whenever I play in church, the one I’ve been with since long before I met my dear husband.
Of course, there are people out there who don’t indulge in such sentimentalism. My dad, for one. When I asked him recently which of his many tubas over the years was his favorite, he didn’t name the little Eb Conn-made “Naked Lady” tuba that his parents bought new for him for $400 in the ‘50s. (Conn really did make a line of instruments with a topless woman engraved on them.) He even claimed he would let go of that one if we didn’t need it to fill out our family quartet at TubaChristmas time. He named instead the Conn 24J monster tuba with the big front-facing bell that he owned for some years until he decided it was too uncomfortable to hold through long band rehearsals and sold it. But as he talked about that old monster, his eyes crinkled with fondness and I sensed that if my ultra-practical dad could get that horn back somehow, he’d have a hard time refusing it.
In fact, I think more tuba players would sympathize with my position than not, as just a small sampling of comments from the Tubenet internet forum suggests. “I will never part with my old King and have left instructions to have it buried with me,” one tubist writes of his King-made tuba. “Now and forever: HB21,” another user writes of his Hirsbrunner-made horn. Of his Rudy Meinl-made tuba, another says, “Couldn’t get that horn back from me unless you pried it from my cold, dead hands. It’s the voice I’d been searching for and I’m so glad I found it.”
There really is something magical in finding the tuba that lets you fulfill your potential, and this is so understood among tuba players that people go out of their way to see others get that dream horn. At an international tuba competition in Markneukirchen, Germany, a student from Lithuania competed on a clunker of a tuba. Any number of things can make a tuba sub-par—intonation problems, a stuffy tone, poor response. Still, this Lithuanian made the best of his horn and played admirably. Though he didn’t win, one of the judges who heard him happened to be the president of Miraphone, one of the best tuba-makers in the world. Then and there at the competition, the president gave the Lithuanian a brand new shiny well-crafted Miraphone tuba. The Lithuanian tearfully accepted it.
The great Harvey Phillips tells a similar story in his autobiography of getting his first tuba. He was a teenager in the circus band in 1947 when an Italian man heard him and was inspired to offer him a brand new King BBb tuba, case, and stand for $100 (a bargain at the time). Phillips would have passed it up for lack of money, but the man insisted he play the new tuba in the show that night. When he did, the bandmaster was so wowed by the sound, he told Phillips to take the offer, advancing him money from future paychecks, interest-free. Phillips concludes the episode with the comment, “I have always felt remiss in not getting the Italian man’s name and address to thank him properly.”
The best tubas are the ones that inspire precisely that kind of awe and gratitude in the player, a sense that it is a privilege to call a particular instrument one’s own. I may be biased, but tubas are awfully good at making you feel that way. With new ones, it’s impossible not to be drawn to the sheer beauty of such a big, shiny instrument. Used ones can give even more reasons to inspire. When I spoke recently to tubist and professor Tony Zilincik, he observed that tubas themselves are a link in the tuba community because tubists often know who owned and played a particular tuba before it came into their hands. If that person was a mentor or an exemplary player, all the more reason to love the tuba. Both new and used tubas can have distinctive traits that give each horn its own character and charm. Take my brother Kent’s tubas, for example: his CC tuba has a unique engraving of the New York City skyline, complete with the Twin Towers since the tuba was in production before 9/11. His F tuba, on the other hand, is the ugliest little tuba I’ve ever seen, thanks to the previous owner removing the gold lacquer from the horn, leaving it a dull matte mess. Removing lacquer isn’t the idle atrocity it sounds; some people contend that a tuba’s finish—whether gold lacquered, silver-plated, or stripped to bare brass—makes a subtle difference to its sound. Sound difference or no, it is a striking visual difference that makes Kent’s tuba immediately recognizable and therefore strangely likable. In a tuba line-up, I could pick out that ugly duckling a mile away and know with certainty that it’s the horn I’ve watched my brother win competitions on.
And then there are used tubas that you can’t help but fall in love with because they are literally living artifacts—models, like the Conn 24J or the almost mythic Holton 345, that aren’t made anymore; rare finds like the French C tuba, whose production has been discontinued and whose existence in orchestral scores is limited to compositions of the early twentieth century; shapes like the upward-pointing “rain-catcher” sousaphone that are practically extinct. Even the mail-order catalogs that the great American instrument makers like Conn, King/White, Holton, and Martin produced from the late nineteenth century on are like works of art with hand-drawn illustrations of the instruments, detailed down to the engraved flourishes on the bell. The copy in those catalogs is nothing short of Manifest Destiny sentiment. Check out the preface to a 1916 Martin Band and Orchestra Instrument catalog:
The Master Idea
I am the power that builds mighty industries.
I am the stuff of victorious armies, conquering nations.
For the lack of me, men have fallen—businesses have failed—organizations have crumbled.
Success goes hand in hand with me; we are inseparable.
I stand for all that is good, all that is decent.
Men demand me—merchants talk of me—manufacturers toil to produce me.
I am The Master Idea—I am QUALITY
If that doesn’t inspire you to purchase a quality Martin instrument, I don’t know what will. Certainly they did their best to generate enthusiasm for tubas… er, excuse me, Wonderphones, as Conn at one time called a line of their instruments that included tubas and helicons. “An instrument of Stately Proportions,” they say. “Striking in Appearance.” “Its great size suggests the cumbersome, but the balance is perfect,” they assure, “so that neither bulk nor weight causes inconvenience.” My favorite page in the 1913 catalog shows two monster tubas, symmetrically arranged with the phrase “The Tuba Grands of America” between them. In 1913, a Conn monster tuba in the most expensive finish cost $165 total on the payment plan, though if you bought a “mammoth” tuba from Martin in 1916, also in the most expensive finish, you’d have shelled out a whopping $260. But times have changed. Not only are those big horns of yesteryear no longer produced, the tuba-world has renamed the ones still in circulation: BATs. Big Ass Tubas.
Even if a particular tuba isn’t especially historical, it’s easy to get attached because you feel your own personal legacy in the horn. One of the bigger threads on the Tubenet with 185 responses spanning almost seven years consists of people listing the make and model of tubas they played from school days on. Sometimes the writer can’t resist a qualitative aside—“fine seafarin’ vessel,” “turd,” “awe-inspiring.” There are also occasional references to how folks have managed the financial sacrifice of purchasing a tuba—paper route and McDonald’s money, understanding wives, social security checks, and personal loans. The sense of having earned a tuba, of having put your treasure into it, ensures your heart is in it also.
I remember well the day I bought my tuba, a decade before The Woodwind & Brasswind would close their brick and mortar shop in South Bend, Indiana, to move their business entirely online. My parents and I met Kent at an appointed spot along the trip—he was in college; I still a high schooler—and together we set out to try horns. I remember the tubas displayed along the wall, all of them shiny and beautiful, and I remember the practice rooms where I was allowed to try them as a salesman got certain ones down and brought them, swapping out the ones I rejected. Thankfully, Dad was helping me with the decision—Kent was distracted trying horns for himself—and we narrowed it down to a 4/4 BBb Miraphone or VMI, both well-crafted German horns, both very similar, impossible to go wrong. Perhaps the romance of nostalgia has filled in a bit where specific memory fails, but I believe I chose the VMI because—well, because I felt more of a connection with it. It responded so easily and well, and it has such a nice, full sound. Plus, I loved the eagle engraved on the bell along with “VMI Manufaktur,” a German word I thought was so cool, I referred to this tuba as “my Manufaktur” for years. I’ve had that VMI ever since, my only tuba.
Even back then, I knew tuba shopping was a one-of-a-kind experience, that I was lucky to have done it and even luckier to come out of it with such a prize. A prize so special, in fact, that a few months later when my 11th grade English teacher assigned us to write a parody of a work by Edgar Allen Poe, “Annabel Lee” immediately sounded to me like “Bass Double B,” bass meaning tuba, double B being the key of my horn.
Could I ever sell my tuba? In answer, I leave you with the words I penned as a tuba-enamored 16 year-old. Tubas, after all, deserve a place in the halls of poetry.
It was many and many a weekend past
At a store in northern Indy
I found an instrument and fell in love fast
With this beautiful bass double B
For one purpose alone was this brass tuba cast
To be played and adored by me.
A coiled shape both slender and wide
Was my beautiful bass double B
And the valves, oh! how smoothly did they glide
Pressed so gently by me
The high notes rang and the low notes sighed
Filling the store in Indy.
I knew it was mine after only a short test
Played on this bass double B
It would whisper and bellow nothing but the best
As long as was played by me
The melodious music that was Heaven blessed
Flowed from my bass double B.
Angels envied so the music that I made
While playing my bass double B
That they sent through teachers heaps of homework each day
To take all my time from me
Thus I sacrifice my practice for a paper and a grade
And miss my bass double B
For this tuba must stay in its case where it’s laid
Far removed from me.
The moon never beams without bringing me dreams
Of my beautiful bass double B
The stars continue to rise but there the tuba lies
Sadly neglected by me
I never get time, try as I might
To play my bass double B
But one homework-free night will surely reunite
I and my bass double B
My beautiful brass double B.