March 10, 2011—the first day of the regional tuba conference my brother Kent is hosting at Baylor University, where he is the tuba and euphonium professor. When he asked if I’d come from my home in Virginia to help out with the conference, I figured it would be a great opportunity to see Texas for the first time, visit with my parents (incoming from Ohio), and spend hours pondering the gorgeous stained glass panels in Baylor’s Browning Library.
Think again. I spent the first part of the week completing such tasks as comparison shopping for nametags, and then manually retyping the name and university of each of the nearly 300 participants because it turns out that neither a doctor of musical arts (Kent) nor a master of fine arts (me) has the skill-set necessary to get a Microsoft Word list into Avery’s supposedly simple template. Then there was the time I spent a year in Staples choosing the best labeling method for the conference case check service (like coat check at a museum, only for instrument cases). And the raffle for a grand prize of 30 tuba CDs? Well, I was charged with obtaining the roll of tickets, though I wouldn’t be allowed to enter—if I won, it could seem like quite a conflict of interest. I am Kent’s sister, after all.
So now, here I am, ready to start the conference, and even though I had to get up at the butt crack of dawn, I’m excited to work the registration table. Kent is in his office; my dad is copying programs in the department office; and I’m taking one more satisfied look around my set-up in the foyer of the music building when a shadow passes by.
I look up. Above me a bat is turning mad circles, dipping lower than I would like, then flapping up again into the foyer’s heights. I draw my phone from my pocket faster than Walker Texas Ranger could draw a holstered gun. “Dad!” I say when he answers. “Get over here! There’s a bat!”
I expect him to be as shocked and adrenaline-ridden as I am, but I get only his lazy reply that he’s almost done making copies. I demand to know what I should do, but just then, the first three conference attendees arrive.
“There’s a bat,” I tell them helplessly. They all look up, laugh, and immediately begin propping doors with chairs and chatting with me about the likelihood of the bat finding its way out. I am newly grateful that the majority of tuba players, like these three, are male, large-framed, and friendly. By the time my dad saunters in, the bat has indeed found its way out.
It might seem glamorous to be the younger sister of a tuba artist with an international reputation. Kent’s done some pretty impressive stuff, not only winning multiple international competitions (one on jazz tuba!) but so impressing composer Anthony Plog that Plog dedicated his “Nocturne” to Kent, which Kent subsequently premiered in Budapest, Hungary. These days, I can even download Kent’s latest album from Amazon and iTunes.
But as the younger sister, I’ve been behind the scenes enough that I’m more acquainted with the unglamorous underbelly than with tasting the fruits of fame. It’s a little like the time Kent debuted as a tuba soloist in church. He was twelve at the time, and he’d worked up a piece called “Egotistical Elephant.” Since the title wasn’t going to inspire worshipful attitudes, the music director printed it in the bulletin as “Largo.” So while the rest of the congregation reveled in the lovely legato strains of a largo piece, I sat there hearing the swagger of that saucy egotistical elephant.
The bat incident begins to fade as more registrants appear. Most of the attendees are tuba professors and their tuba/euph students from schools like University of Texas, Louisiana State, and many others. There are also guest soloists and the low brass section of the San Antonio Symphony. The college students are the most fun to watch. It’s easy to tell who’s the flirt, who’s the director’s number two, who’s a marching band worshipper, but they all seem to share an ability to move as a group with unwieldy instrument cases, neat as ants transporting giant crumbs. They’re here to play as ensembles and to listen to other college ensembles play, to hear recitals by distinguished tuba and euphonium professors, and to attend master classes and panel discussions on technicalities of playing and career advice.
My attention is drawn back to the registration table by a woman about my age, late 20s with long dark hair and an air of confidence that shows she’s not one of the students. “Lauren Veronie,” she says, and I dutifully produce her nametag. It’s not until later that I discover she’s a professional euphonium player with the United States Army Field Band. I can hardly believe it. I’ve been working on writing my second novel for several months, and my protagonist is a dark-haired, female euphoniumist in her 20s who wins a spot in the U.S. Army Band. Sometimes life imitates art.
The next fire I have to put out comes at the main stage concert that evening, the kickoff event. Kent is slated to play solo tuba for the first half and Lauren Veronie will play solo euphonium in the second half. Kent will be accompanied on the piano by the “other” Dr. Eshelman: In-Ja Song Eshelman, his wife, my sister-in-law. From a certain remove, it’s very sweet and romantic that Kent married his accompanist. But now that they have a two-year-old, it’s more than slightly inconvenient that In-Ja is an incomparably fine pianist. Here’s why:
My parents and I are on our way to take our seats in the auditorium with little Glenn when we accidentally run into Kent and In-Ja. Glenn does not see a professional tubist and pianist about to go on stage; he sees his mother and father who have been so busy preparing for this conference they’ve hardly had time for him. Of course, he’s had 100% of Grandma’s doting attention, but it doesn’t matter. He bursts into a wail the minute they try to separate from us to go backstage.
This is no single wail. This is an all-out meltdown that keeps going even after my dad and I take him first outdoors, then up to Kent’s office, thinking familiar territory might help. I’m still trying to console Glenn when my dad finally tells me he thinks it’s useless; we just have to let him cry until In-Ja can take over again, which means we’ll miss Kent’s big performance of the weekend.
The irony is, there was once a time where I would have leapt at any excuse to get out of a long boring concert. With two older brothers, both of whom are musicians—Jon, the eldest of us three, is an accomplished jazz pianist—I got dragged to so many concerts I could fill a public library with all the novels I read during their performances. I was well versed in the art of seeking out light sources from aisle runners or doors that didn’t quite latch, allowing a tiny sliver of hallway light into the dusky auditorium. But even with my chapter books in hand, I endured interminable waits while judges tallied scores at solo and ensemble contests my brothers had played in. It might sound glamorous to say that I got to hear Kent compete in and win his first international tuba competition, the Leonard Falcone. But the reality was a stuffy room at a summer camp where I listened to each of the tuba finalists play “Sketches.” I don’t mean to dis a perfectly reputable tuba solo, but the truth is, many tuba solos—just like any instrumental recital pieces—aren’t exactly easy listening. The piano accompaniments are complicated, and the solo line moves through swaths of music that lack a readily singable melody. “Sketches” is one of these. Three renditions. Nine movements. Not exactly a thirteen-year-old’s idea of a fun summer afternoon. It was more exciting to see Kent play in the winner’s concert that evening—but what was he asked to play? “Sketches.” At least Kent came away with a first-place medal; all I took home was a bad case of swimmer’s ear from the hotel pool.
But the worst, the absolute worst, thing about getting dragged along to performances as a younger sibling—especially if you’re a younger sibling who can read music—is that when an accompanist needs a page turner, you will be pressed into service faster than a nineteenth-century American sailor at the hands of the British navy.
In many ways, my heart goes out to accompanists. I’ve witnessed In-Ja prepare as much as Kent for certain performances, but he still gets to be the soloist, she the accompanist. But, at least accompanists get some measure of due. Soloists always acknowledge the accompanist during applause, and accompanists’ names are always given in the program.
Page turners, on the other hand, never get recognition. It’s a horribly nerve-wracking job, from the fear of accidentally turning two pages at once to the pressures of waiting for that all-important head nod from the accompanist that means you should turn the page RIGHT THEN. And that’s another thing: accompanists prefer page turners who read music because they assume you can follow along and foresee the page turn. But I’ve had accompanists give that nod a good five measures in advance, and I hesitate thinking, “Really? Are you sure?” and then I second-guess whether it was indeed a cue or just a twitch. Even if you manage to turn one page properly and at the right time, that damn page sometimes starts falling back again because the book is tightly bound. Then you have to decide how best to correct it, and should you really stand through the whole piece hovering clumsily over the music? I’ve also seen accompanists take a good swat at those errant pages. Pity the page-turner whose hand is on its way to fix the page when the accompanist’s swat lands.
In short, when you’re a page turner, the whole performance rests on you, and what do you get in return? The privilege of lingering awkwardly while both the soloist and the accompanist take their bows.
The next day, after watching over the lifeless gig bags and coffin-like hard cases in the case-check room, I see Kent coming down the hall. Now, if I, as a slim young female, am not the stereotypical image of a tuba player, neither is Kent, a beanpole who quite possibly holds the record for the least pounds per inch of professional American tubists.
“Hey,” Kent says. I can tell he’s in a hurry, shuttling between the panels going on here and the solo contests taking place across campus. “You want to introduce Brian Bowman? I need someone to do it for the master class he’s about to teach.”
“Brian Bowman? Me?” And suddenly, being Kent’s sister is all glamour. How else would I ever get to meet and introduce Brian Bowman, a true legend of a euphonium player?! He was the first euphoniumist to play a recital in Carnegie Hall, but that’s not what has my heart a-flutter; to me, he’s the sound on The Sacred Euphonium, a CD of Bowman on solo euphonium accompanied by organ, playing religious pieces of the kind they just don’t make anymore—"I Walked Today Where Jesus Walked," “The Holy City,” classics that have just the right touch of sentimentality to imbue faith with an appealing warmth.
I want to tell Brian Bowman how much that CD means to me, how I was in a Sacred Euphonium phase during my first semester of teaching English composition at a community college, a semester in which, even though I liked the teaching, I struggled with balancing time between teaching obligations and my own writing. Which is to say that when the drudgery of daily-ness seemed more present than any bigger picture dream, I would listen to his music and marvel at its transcendent beauty.
Transcendent beauty—that’s all I want to tell him, but when Kent introduces me, I find that Dr. Bowman is a cordial, mild-mannered man in his sixties to whom I would feel awkward blathering my star-struck praises. I settle for telling him I’m a big fan. “Especially of Sacred Euphonium,” I add, and he replies with modesty typical of many of the low brass world’s fathers, “Oh, yes, the pieces on that one are very nice, aren’t they?”
The next time I see Brian Bowman, he—along with Lauren Veronie and three others—is a panelist on a discussion about careers in military bands. It’s such fortuitous research for my novel, I can’t believe my good luck to be here. They talk about how the military requires a disciplined personality, but that for people who can play by the rules, the military bands offer some of the best music positions possible. The employment is steady, the benefits are great, and performance opportunities are many. Since the bands are filled with top-notch musicians, these panelists report a unique experience of “locking in” musically with their colleagues. And while it’s true that band members, with the exception of those in the premier Coast Guard and Marine bands, are required to go through basic training, the panel makes it sound as if boot camp is just another bonding point and not a deal-breaker.
Then the anecdotes start, stories of playing in the presidential inaugural parades and of how cold it can be when the band does its dry run of the parade route in the wee hours of the morning a week before the actual inauguration. On inauguration day itself, the band’s call time is 5:00 a.m., but often they don’t play their first note until noon after standing in the cold all that time. Brian Bowman talks of playing for ceremonies surrounding the Challenger explosion and for a visit from the queen of England. When Eisenhower died, Bowman received a call at 10:00 p.m., telling him to report at 5:00 a.m.
Lauren Veronie’s stories are different. She’s in the Army Field Band, which is on the road more than 100 days out of the years, and she talks about how she loves the varied places in which they perform. Sometimes small towns in the middle of nowhere are the most rewarding performances because the audience is so appreciative.
Finally, the group talks about what auditions are like, pushing this discussion to the end as if it is a point of unpleasant obligation. I’m sitting at the back of the auditorium, and suddenly I detect the audience’s own “locking in” to what is being said. Where I’ve been gleefully noting down anecdotes, everyone else now becomes diligent note-takers. So here’s the sore point, the stumbling block—and why shouldn’t it be? Auditions come in many forms, according to our panelists, these days most frequently by individual invitation based on a pre-submitted recording, but sometimes by “cattle-call” where anyone can show up on the specified day and play. And though the atmosphere here at the conference is supportive and mutually admiring, here is another repetition of the truth: there are too many players for too few spots.
You can tell this takes a toll even on someone as accomplished as Veronie. “You get to play your instrument for a living,” she says with relief in her voice and a smile on her face.
I think about this when I watch the Baylor Tuba-Euphonium Ensemble perform—five euphoniums, four tubas, all Kent’s students. Very few of the college musicians here today will end up in performance careers. Some will go into music education and become so wrapped up in busy lives, they’ll no longer perform much; others will face heart-rending decisions, like Kent’s student Zach. He will win the student competition at this conference and later a full ride to study tuba at the graduate level, but he’ll pass it up to go to med school. For today, though, these students are on stage playing a wonderful medley entitled “Tuba Sunday,” which starts with “Amazing Grace” and ends with a canonic rendition of “How Firm a Foundation,” the euphoniums echoing the tubas.
Kent is conducting his students. By now I could point out a few by name: Sarah, the unofficial social chair of the studio as evidenced by how the boys gather around this sole woman among them; Angel, the kind euphoniumist who always has a smile and a word of appreciation that my dad and I are helping out so much. Watching them, I realize this is one of the reasons I came to the conference—to see my brother’s students, the people who get to see Kent on a weekly or daily basis, who watch his quirks and habits and have inside jokes with him. It’s a strange kind of jealousy, if jealousy is even the word. It’s more fascination: Who are they? Do they feel the kind of insider ownership of him that I felt towards some of my mentors in college? Do they appreciate him sufficiently?
March 12, 2011. The conference is almost over; the only thing left is the main stage concert that everyone has been looking forward to, the first half to be played by Benjamin Pierce, the second half by none other than Brian Bowman. I’ve heard Ben Pierce’s name many times over the years; I know he’s one of Kent’s favorite low brass buddies from their days as students in the University of Michigan studio.
Before I take my place in the audience, Kent has one more job for me. For a brief shining moment, I get to be the Vanna White of the tuba world and come out on stage bearing the raffle ticket box. Kent says a few words into the microphone, holds the box high, and I draw out the ticket of the lucky winner.
When the excitement dies down again, Kent takes a minute to publicly thank my parents and me for helping with the conference. As I receive my round of applause under the stage lights, I have the distinct sense that people know who I am. Anonymous page-turner no more, I think.
The concert turns out to be well worth the wait. Ben Pierce plays “Wondrous Starry Night,” which he dedicates to his young daughter in the audience. Brian Bowman talks about his personal history with a piece called “Fantasia Originale,” the piece he won his first military band audition with years ago. As he talks and again as he plays, you can hear that this particular music means a great deal to him, that he loves it and owns it and has spent his life as a steward of it. I didn’t have to say anything to him about transcendent beauty, after all. It’s clear he knows.
Since it’s the last night of the conference, Kent is finally free to hang out with his tuba/euph buddies after the concert. He asks if I want to come too, but first we stop to settle a few details in his office. I poke around the CDs that are left from the sale table and exclaim over two Bowman CDs that are new to me.
“Take them,” he says. “I’ll cover it.”
“Are you sure?” I’ve also picked up a Christmas brass CD.
“Yeah. You’ve more than earned them,” he says.
I thank him and remember out loud Christmas of 1994. We laugh. It was back when Kent was a freshman in the high school marching band, whose show that year was music from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. I never minded being dragged along to marching band shows, entertaining and flashy as they were, and usually my parents would buy me a hot chocolate as I watched from the bleachers on those cool fall evenings, my “I’m a Band Sister” button pinned proudly to my coat. I remember being extra excited that particular Christmas when I had the idea to give Kent the Joseph soundtrack on CD, and I watched eagerly as Kent unwrapped it. I didn’t quite get the reaction I expected; he simply handed me the present he had for me and told me to open it. Turns out, he had gotten me my very own copy of—you guessed it—Joseph. I have a distinct memory of sitting on the living room floor, laughing at our own little Gift of the Magi moment.
These years later, on our way to the bar and grill, Kent and I are once again in high spirits, sharing a feeling like we’ve hosted a great party. We chatter over details, going over how great tonight’s concert was and how glad we are a student won the tuba CD raffle.
When we get to the bar, I witness how popular Kent is among the tuba professors and their students. We tablehop for a bit, and although I can see everyone is happiest to be favored by Kent’s presence, if he gets distracted in a side conversation, the people remaining don’t miss a beat in talking to me with interest. They want to know about my writing and are so supportive that several of them friend me on Facebook the next day. Finally Kent and I settle at a table with Ben Pierce and several of Kent’s peers. I can tell by the way Kent’s manner turns particularly teasing and joking when he talks to Ben that he’s an old favorite. In fact, I recognize in it something of the manner he has with me whenever we’re back home in Ohio on vacation. Suddenly it hits me how glad I am to know the goofy Kent better than the professional Kent. His students have nothing on me there.
Eventually Ben, Kent, and I break into a conversation of our own. It’s mostly Kent and Ben talking, but Ben takes care to include me and to find out a little bit about me. Something in what I say makes him smile. “You two are definitely cut from the same cloth, aren’t you?” he says knowingly.
I’m not sure what exactly has made him say this, but I turn to look at Kent next to me in the booth. He’s nodding in agreement.