Though over the course of several decades I have had the opportunity to observe the many subspecies of low brassmen, the high-minded orchestra types, the unusually tenacious and inward marching band types, the salt of the earth amateurs in their Dixieland, church, and community bands, and that entire sprawling inchoate mass of questionability known as “students,” yet have I to locate a precise description of qualities common to these several varieties of the same species. Certainly it is beyond the scope of the abstract offered here to question the very origin of this species, but it seemed to me that facts ought to be collected as to how, in moments of crises, mistakes, embarrassment, and outright malfunction the low brassman fares—whether he flourish or perish, whether he play or fall tacet. To that end, I put forth a call on the tuba forum, known popularly as the Tubenet, for incidents of performance gaffes. The data having been thus collected and allowances made for the incomprehensive nature of the experiment, I here present to you Principles of the Species as learned from their mistakes.
Firstly, we can observe that resourcefulness matters more to this species than being prepared in the first place. Consider, for instance, a euphoniumist who goes to play a solo in a competition, only to spend the first minute of the challenging “Horovitz Concerto” puzzling over the rotten sound coming from his horn. Rather than give up, he pauses in his play and discovers a polishing rag has been stuffed in the bell and left there, likely by his own hand. He pulls out the rag, carries on with the remainder of the piece—and advances in the competition. Or the tubist who, sabotaged by a janitor, a mop, and a staircase, takes a bad fall shortly before a performance with the tuba in a gig bag on his back (a means of conveyance common among tuba players and most resembling a gargantuan backpack). He picks himself up, determines the tuba is not damaged, and goes to his performance. But something isn’t right, he discovers in rehearsal. The water key, known in vulgar parlance as the “spit valve,” the small cap that covers a hole in the tubing whose express purpose is to relieve the horn of condensation that collects as warm air from the player passes through the cold brass tubing—the water key has been knocked whopperjawed, rendering that portion of the tuba about as playable as a balloon with a hole is inflatable. Does he throw up his hands and relinquish his solo in “American in Paris” to the piccolo? By no means! He puts a call for help on Facebook, scrounges up a vendor friend, and, so assisted, manages to jury-rig a solution that alters his fifth valve only a little, allowing him to play the performance. Finally we turn our attention to the tuba section whose valves froze from cold during a marching band performance. In wondrous phenomenon, one of them had his valves freeze open, one had the first valve freeze depressed, and another had his second valve freeze depressed, such that as a section they managed to continue covering the part, each playing only the notes that required his particular fingering. Whether such a thing could actually work or is the product of braggadocio, we must look at the ingenuity of the scenario to conclude that indeed the species is given to singular resourcefulness.
I confess that, in comparison to the first, the next principle is a bit baffling, explained, perhaps, by the peculiar size of the instrument. And yet the instances I am about to relate are not entirely dependent on size so much as they are indicative of the distinct life and character a tuba or euphonium takes on as if it were its own being, for the player fears the tuba as much as the tuba must fear the player.
Firstly, the player’s fear of the instrument. The body of any tuba or euphonium is made of various and distinct moving parts—not just the valves used to create different pitches, but also the top and bottom limits of the tubing. These pieces are referred to as “slides” and can be pulled out or pushed in by the player to affect the intonation of a particular note. But betimes the tuba ejects a slide, whether because the amount of grease applied to the slide is not to the tuba’s liking, or perhaps the tuba simply gets tired of supporting the amount of air necessary to make it sing. Whatever the case, the tuba has been known to spit out, as it were, a slide, and become defiantly silent as its rejectamentum clatters to the stage. Meanwhile, the poor unsuspecting player is left holding an unplayable instrument. This has been observed to occur in performance scenarios including a doctoral recital, an orchestra performance, and an audition.
Similar cases of tubal defiance have occurred when, for example, during the NATO change of command ceremony in Germany a euphonium balked at the extreme heat and swelled its valves, effectively making them stick. The euphoniumist was put in the awkward position of marching the rebellious instrument through ranks of hundreds of soldiers, hoping none of them played a brass instrument to call his bluff. In another case, a tuba literally lost its head—viz. the detachable bell came off when the tubist went to carry it on stage at a gala concert, leaving the tubist to juggle the bell, the body, and his tuba rest.
Instances of instrument-inflicted grief are, however, tame compared to how the instrument must fear the player. An entire genre of stories exists of people running over their own instruments with their cars. In most cases, the player has simply set down his or her horn by the car, forgotten it’s there after running inside to retrieve something, and then backed over it. In one unfortunate case, purposeful ruination was inflicted in just such an automobilic manner by an ex-wife exacting revenge on her former husband. Whatever the circumstances, however, this genre of disaster is not restricted to the low brass species, though the reaction manifests itself differently in other musicians. It is not for me to here analyze the female saxophone player who backed over her instrument in its case and then sat crying in her car until someone found her because she thought she had run over her dog and was too scared to get out and look. Unlike its distant relatives, however, the tuba is uniquely endangered by travel travails since it is too big to count as carry-on luggage when flying. The resulting happenstances tend to be like the time members of a central Ohio brass band watched helplessly from the terminal as tarmac luggage handlers allowed a band member’s personal tuba to fall several feet.
Even if a player gives the instrument every indication it is a prized possession, that instrument must still be on guard against such doofus moves as the following: a man promised to play his helicon (Family: tuba. Genus: sousaphone. Distinctive trait: bell is straight, rather than curved to point forward.) for a particular gig. He prided himself on the historic instrument, cleaned it meticulously, made sure it was ready to play, leaned it gently against the sofa—in a word, gave the helicon every indication it could trust the owner’s care and affection. Imagine, then, the shock to that hapless helicon when the man stepped back from zipping his overnight bag, forgetting the horn was there and catching his foot in it, knocking it over with such force that the leadpipe came off.
In many data points, it is difficult to tell which is more injurious to which—the professional player who falls off risers onto his extremely costly Yorkbrunner tuba, the man who faints from exhaustion while marching a sousaphone and rolls down a hill locked in his instrument, or the oft-watched World Wide Web example of an entire line of marching band sousaphones tumbling backwards, one into the other, like dominoes. If, by some odd desire, you would gladly be privy to witnessing such a sight, I would direct your eyes here.
Perhaps, in some small part, the aforementioned difficulties of getting the large instrument to behave suggest our penultimate conclusion: that we ought never to take the low brassman’s appearance for granted, for he is likely to be fashionably late, if he appear at all. Recorded in the personal annals of Harvey Phillips, founder of TubaChristmas, is an incredible story of being called last minute to play in the pit for The King and I on an extremely snowy night in New York. When, after a harrowing taxi ride, he at last made it to the venue, stagehands were ready to take his coat and tuba case and usher him to the pit where the performance was already in progress. Allow us to listen to this next part in the man’s own words: “As I looked around seeking help, the flute player sitting next to me pointed at the tuba book. I then realized he had turned the tuba pages as the show progressed. Suddenly it was panic time as he pointed to a part marked ‘TUBA SOLO’ while closing the thumb and fingers of his left hand, indicating the number of measures left before I was supposed to play: five… four… three… two… one… TUBA SOLO. Fortunately, it went well.”
It didn’t go quite as well for the high school student new to marching band who, sporting a sousaphone for the first time, was told to join the rest of the band in the bandroom where the director was delivering his opening speech of the year. In the haste of tardiness, the student was walking at a good clip and went to enter the bandroom when—BANG!—his sousaphone crashed perforce into the doorframe, making the once-rapt band turn and laugh, to the consternation of the director.
The more airheaded among the species are prone not to appear at all, like the tuba professor who was slated to play one piece in the second half of a concert with an audience of several hundred people. Calculating that he had plenty of time with intermission and several pieces ahead of him, he was warming up in his office when his cell phone rang. It was the chair of the department. “You’re on,” the chair said. “Next?” the professor said, still unconcerned. “Right now,” the chair replied, and the professor scrambled to get to the auditorium where he found the audience had been waiting in silence for several minutes.
Though I have sifted through disparate cases to bring to you these few unifying principles, there is really only one conclusion that is to be made from all the data. Despite that I titled my call for stories on the Tubenet “Performance Gaffes” and that I importuned my specimens to recount “the time you messed up,” with the exception of one reported brain fart while playing a memorized passage, only two data points—I repeat, only two had directly to do with a mistake in performance. In one, a high school jazz trombonist was distracted from his part by a dancer of the fairer sex who was performing to the music. Not only did he stop playing; in his distraction, he allowed the slide to fall off the instrument. In another—and this is a veritable “performance gaffe”—a brass quintet set to play the Hallelujah Chorus had music in a different key from the organ accompaniment. In rehearsal the organist pushed the automatic transpose button and the problem was solved. But in performance, the organist neglected to push the button, eventually realized she was playing in D major while the quintet went on in Bb major, became vexed, ceased playing, and managed to recover only later in the piece. Note, however, that in both of these cases, it was because of an outside agent—the dancer, the organist—that the gaffe occurred, leaving me to conclude, as indeed I suspected from the outset, that, given a properly functioning instrument, low brassmen play perfectly, mellifluously, and beautifully at all times. Such a conclusion is, admittedly, difficult to explain but having arrived at it through such scientific observation and analysis, applying only the most careful and thoroughly examined logic, I remain convinced that this final principle is, above all others, inerrant, indubitable, and most certainly true.