I. Grand Entrance

Friday, April 11, 2014, 10:12 p.m. I am pacing outside a hotel ballroom in Grand Rapids, Michigan, wearing my tuba in its soft case like it’s a giant backpack and tugging at the locked doors to the ballroom in disbelief. This is supposedly where the British-style brass band I belong to is holding a final rehearsal before tomorrow’s contest, which we’ve been working towards since January. My husband, Nat, and I have been in the car for an intense five hours of driving after our workdays, trying to make it here in time for the 9:15 p.m. rehearsal and settling for making it at all before the rehearsal ends at 10:15. At one point in our trip, I managed to fluster poor Nat into such a state of hurrying that he accidentally pulled the gas pump handle, still pumping, from our car, splattering gasoline on the pavement, our hands, and my boots. But we forged on because I couldn’t stand the prospect of letting the band down by not showing up at all, and now I’m here, I’ve made it, tuba and all—only to find the doors locked!

A group of teenagers who are apparently part of some conference at this hotel stand by agog at the spectacle I’m making. Finally it occurs to me to peek through the crack in the doors, and when I do, I see the band sitting far below me. I’m on the wrong floor! I race down the grand lobby steps like some confused version of Cinderella, my tuba bouncing heavily against my back. This time the ballroom door yields just as our conductor has finished saying something. He looks up and quips, “And now we have to do it all over again since we’re all here.” The band laughs. I call out my apologies, but it turns out nobody is mad. They all tell me they’re glad I’m here safely.

In retrospect, I suppose a kind reception shouldn’t have surprised me. Brass bands are all about solidarity; it’s in the very history of the tradition. Most towns in nineteenth-century Britain had brass bands, many of which were supported by the local industry, hence bands like the Grimethorpe Colliery Band and Foden’s Motor Works Band. And this wasn’t an empty marketing move like naming a baseball diamond AT&T Park; the workers at the local coal mine or textile mill or motor works were themselves the musicians.

I have already thought about those workers of yesteryear more than a few times. The week leading up to this contest was the second week of my new job as a copywriter, and the grind of working a full day, then getting across town for a two-hour rehearsal every evening was getting to me. I was tired. Tired from sitting in an office chair producing cute alliterations to sell life’s little luxuries. How did those brass-playing laborers do it, I wondered, especially those coal miners? It’s almost too cruel an oxymoron to think about black lung and tuba playing. And yet, in this past week of contest prep, I have understood perfectly why they did it: to affirm that there is more to life than labor, to affirm feeling and emotion in a world that would otherwise dull us with convention and commerce.

Getting into bed that night, I feel the first twinge of pain in my lower back. Hurrying with a tuba never comes without a price.

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II. Molto Nervioso

Saturday, April 12, 2014. Contest day. I wake up feeling nervous. Not leg-shaking, sick-to-your-stomach nervous, but more a low-grade, lurking awareness of impending trial. In this it resembles the low-grade, lurking headache I have. Nat and I do our best to cull a decent breakfast out of Best Western’s complimentary fare, and when we get back to the room, I take a nice swig of tap water to wash down the Tylenol Nat has blessedly thought to pack.

Since I can’t play my tuba in the hotel for fear of disturbing other guests, I sit on the bed and hum through rehearsal letter GG in “Variations on Laudate Dominum” by Edward Gregson, miming the fingerings while I hum. In a brass band contest, each band plays two pieces: a “test piece,” which is assigned by the contest rules and is the same piece for every band, and an “own choice,” a piece of the individual band’s selection. “Laudate Dominum” is our test piece, and the soli at GG is a light, fast-paced melody played by two tubas (one of them me) and two euphoniums in a totally exposed part of the music—as in, no one else plays. It’s just the four of us, and if we’re off from each other even by a hair, it muddies the sound. And a flubbed note? Unspeakably obvious. I have practiced GG so much at home that Nat easily joins in humming along now as he sits on the other side of the hotel bed, watching Cosby Show reruns.

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III. Enter: The Band

After my tardiness of the previous night, I arrive at the DeVos Performance Hall in downtown Grand Rapids a full half hour before my band’s meeting time. Even so, within the next fifteen minutes, all 30 of us are present and wearing the kelly green dress shirts that, along with a black vest we don onstage, comprise our performance uniform. Though it’s customary for brass bands to wear matching shirts and vests—or in Britain, matching colored blazers—we’re unmistakable, the only bright green band.

In number and instrumentation, however, we are like all the other bands present. Brass bands consist of approximately 28 members total on brass family instruments—cornet, flugelhorn, tenor horn, baritone, euphonium, trombones, and tubas (or, as we’re called in this context, “basses”)—plus percussion. At contests, bands are classified into different levels of ability called “sections,” with Championship Section at the top, First Section next, Second Section after that, and so on. My band is a Second Section band; the score we get from the adjudicator will be compared with scores from other Second Section bands to determine first, second, and third place within the section. The results will be announced at tonight’s award ceremony.

Our band is a mix of ages and professions; most of us, including the conductor, do not make a living from music. In the short time I’ve been in the band, I’ve gotten to know only a handful of people beyond mere acquaintance, but by now, as we follow the contest escort to our warm-up room, all their faces are familiar to me. It’s one advantage of sitting at the back of the band, as tubas always do, though not quite enough to make up for the fact that we lose a little hearing from being so close to the percussion.

We are led to a backstage scene shop with bandsaws and drill presses standing silently by. Show posters line the walls from old productions of hits like Cats. Several bands have warmed up here before us, as evidenced by puddles of other people’s spit on the floor, most obviously present in the tuba section.

I’ve been asked before if I find spit valves gross. For the most part, I don’t dwell on it; it’s just part of playing a brass instrument. And besides, what people call “spit” is mostly condensation that collects on the inside of the tubing as air travels through. Still, when our conductor asks us to scoot closer together to simulate the feeling of the stage, I’m not sorry to leave the foreign spit puddle behind me.

Our conductor tells us some bad news: the room where we’ll be performing is acoustically dry. “What that means,” he explains, “is you will hear yourself more than you hear the ensemble. It will feel like you’re the only one playing. Don’t lose your nerve. The effect from the audience is still the ensemble, not the individual.”

Indeed, when the guide leads us there, the space turns out not to be an auditorium but a conference room with a temporary stage set up. The smattering of audience is easy to see in the institutional drop-ceiling lighting. Rows of chairs have been set up on the flat, carpeted floor, and the panels of the temporary stage are also carpeted. No wonder the room is acoustically dead. A small band shell set up at the back of the stage is a meager gesture towards making this a performance space, but in the moment, I don’t have time to analyze any of these details. I am too focused on getting to my seat, adjusting my music on my stand, making sure my chair is at a comfortable playing angle, and then…

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IV. Go-Time

If you’ve gotten married, you know the oddly significant blankness one experiences when competing in a brass band. Significant because a few spots of time from the Event do stand out with remarkable clarity; blank because concentrated focus on what’s unfolding counteracts one’s ability to analyze and absorb. And yet, I remember distinctly feeling locked in with the band in a good way. I remember feeling like “Laudate Dominum” was going uncommonly well from the first broad, majestic opening pattern that sounds like a clock chime, clear on through the rhythmically challenging portion, and into the lyrical section preceding—GG! I remember the band’s purposeful slowing just before GG, and I remember, too, that right about where I usually start to worry whether I have to burp or maybe I’m out of breath, today I think instead of one word: dancing.

And it does dance! Even in this dead room, the four of us play in tight unison and the music moves forward at such a rate that I don’t get to indulge in any sense of relief until after the piece concludes.

When the applause from “Laudate Dominum” settles, our conductor signals us to emotionally reset for “Resurgam (I Shall Rise Again),” a tone poem by Eric Ball which is our own choice piece. He has talked to us about how the piece could be understood from a Christian perspective of death and resurrection. Or we might hear in it Eric Ball’s own anguish, who wrote this after being asked to step down from the Salvation Army bands with which he’d spent a long career. We are under strict orders from our conductor to choose an interpretation and channel it.

But before I’d ever played a note of the music, I recognized Resurgam as the word on the gravestone of Helen Burns in Jane Eyre. Even if you’ve read the novel, you may not remember much about Helen Burns, Jane’s school friend of her elementary years who dies of consumption at age 14, a minor episode in the overall trajectory of the novel. At best, Helen’s dying might have stuck with you for the sadness of it, or perhaps some English teacher stressed to you how Charlotte Brontë chronicled the poor conditions of charity schools like the one she and her sisters attended. But if you go back and read chapter 9, you’ll find the single most poignant rendering of the human condition in all literature. The chapter begins with a brilliant spring in bloom, and Jane is enjoying herself because a deadly outbreak of typhus has meant that students who remain healthy are relatively unsupervised. She has an inkling the adults are concerned about Helen, but it isn’t until Jane is coming in one evening from enjoying nature’s full bloom that she reflects on how sad it would be to have to die, to simply not be and to miss out on the natural joys of existence. She inquires of one of the teachers how Helen is, and when the teacher replies that Helen will be with them only a little longer, Jane suddenly passes from childhood to adulthood: where a moment before she would have thought Helen was merely going to visit relatives, she understands that the teacher means Helen is dying. Jane sneaks into Helen’s chamber that night. Helen, who is very certain of her faith in Christ and in the resurrection, yet betrays some small doubt, as does Jane in the course of the conversation that ensues between the young girls faced by imminent death. Jane falls asleep and wakes only when she is being carried away from the bed where Helen died in the night.

In the hands of another writer, such a scene would reek of saccharine melodrama. But Brontë is all earnestness and passion—and candor—so that by the time we learn at the end of the chapter that Helen’s grave bears the single word Resurgam, it is a note of utter perfection. And so, as we begin the first quiet phrase of “Resurgam” in this dry conference room in Michigan, I think of two young girls in the verdant English countryside, before disease strikes, before death claims, their faith strong, their doubt human. My own notes are the tenderer for it.

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V. Interlude

Performance over, I reunite with Nat to explore the vendor’s hall where I get to try playing a six-quarter tuba. If a tuba were a t-shirt, this one is size XL. Standard tubas like the one I own are four-quarter size, and the smallest tubas are 3/4. Six-quarter monsters like this one—and they are actually referred to as “monster” tubas—are used primarily for orchestral playing and, as the salesman explains, are best held on a tuba rest like the one in front of me. The tuba rest is a little like a freestanding bicycle seat; the salesman puts the tuba on it, and soon I’m pedaling—tones that is, the pedal notes the lowest a tuba can play. This particular tuba has a fifth valve, a little trigger beneath the thumb, to allow for chromatic pitches in this absurdly low range.

At the Yamaha booth, I read an information sheet about a tuba displayed before us. I point approvingly to the section explaining the ergonomic valve design. Nat points to the almost $17,000 price tag.

As we stroll past the mouthpiece vendor, whose wares are showcased in padded briefcases as if he were an arms dealer, Nat mentions that he’s pretty sure Gregson was present for my band’s performance.

“Edward Gregson?” I stop short. He’s such a good composer that I thought he was long-since dead! As it turns out, he is not only alive but here at this contest, where NABBA will honor him with an award. He also happens to have been the hand that composed GG. Thank heavens I didn’t know he was listening; I almost certainly would have psyched myself into a good burp.

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VI. And You Thought
Wagner Operas Were Long

That evening, we spend four-and-a-half hours listening to the Championship Section bands play their own choice pieces, one band after another in the actual performance hall. Brass bands make for great listening not simply because of the unparalleled warm golden timbre of brass, but also because of the amazing dynamic range they can command. Quiet sections of brass music can be achingly pianissimo so that you almost have to strain to hear it. But then, when these top bands want to unleash some serious sound, they can play with a volume you would think required three times as many players to produce. It’s a sound that’s strong, full, and often intentionally colored by the edginess of the bass trombone. Like a giant trapped bumble bee, his buzzing—there is typically only one bass trombone in the band—is enough to texture the entire ensemble sound.

The percussion, too, puts on quite a show. During one piece, percussionists create an eerie effect by running violin bows up and down the edge of a vibraphone. In another, two percussionists hold a freestanding chime that they strike and then physically lower into a tub of water to make the pitch spiral downward. For me, though, the most attention-grabbing moment of the evening comes in a challenging, jazzy piece during which a tuba player moves to the front of the stage where a chair has been placed for her. She takes her time adjusting the chair and stand, and I’m paralyzed with vicarious nervousness. But solos are part of the brass band tradition, and every piece includes a solo for some instrument, most commonly the euphonium. Tuba solos are rarer, but definitely more frequent in brass band than in any other form of music I know.

The girl on stage watches the conductor for her cue and then begins a ridiculously fast and rhythmically difficult bit on which she is eventually joined by a trombonist. The piece ends, and I’m enthusiastically applauding when Nat leans over to say, “I like how that one was ‘70s cop action instead of Western or superhero.” He hears all these pieces as movie soundtracks, but at this point, I’m not inclined to give him a hard time. He’s stuck with me through three hours of championship bands, and we still have two hours to go before the awards ceremony. Even I’m starting to feel the brass band burn.

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VII. Finale

The last band has played and now comes a lull while the judges tally scores. Such a lull might be unbearable except that David Childs is slated to play a few solos. I’m as excited as if I’m about to see a celebrity!

And in this circle, I am. David Childs is a world-class euphoniumist from Britain who has attended this competition as an adjudicator. I’ve spent many happy minutes listening to him on YouTube, but I never imagined I was going to get to hear him live this weekend! I get even more excited when the band accompanying him strikes up the introduction to the first piece: “Believe Me, If All Those Endearing Young Charms,” the classic of euphonium repertoire. If I were a birdwatcher, I’d keep a life list of euphonium stars I’ve seen play this piece: Earl Louder, Brian Bowman, and now, David Childs!

Between pieces, David talks in his charming British accent to explain that his next selection is a song his father—the illustrious brass bandsman Robert Childs—adapted from a marimba solo for David as a seventeenth birthday present. And here is another reason to love brass band: it is often a family affair. As David finishes playing and the awards ceremony commences, the family aspect again becomes evident: both Edward Gregson and his brother Bramwell Gregson are honored with awards. They have just received their applause when Edward commandeers the microphone.

“My brother, whom I’ve known for a long time now,” he begins humorously, “is turning 80 in June. Since I won’t get to be with him on the actual day, I would like to give him his present now.” Edward turns to the brass band that has quietly appeared onstage. At his cue, they erupt into a grandiose, Edward-Gregson-style opening to variations on “Happy Birthday.” The audience is delighted; Bramwell is touched; and when the applause dies away, it’s Bram’s turn to take the microphone.

“My inspiration produced his finest work,” Bram jibes back before disclosing that Edward’s 70th birthday is also approaching, and he asks the audience to join him in singing happy birthday to “dear Eddie.”

Next come award announcements for solo categories such as “High Brass Slow Melody” and “Low Brass Technical,” followed by placements of the lower section bands. Finally it’s time for the results of the Second Section.

Our band occupies a little area of the balcony, all of us sitting together to hear the third place band announced. It’s not us. I take it as a good sign; perhaps we got second.

But when second place is announced, it’s also not us.

I consult my program to double-check what I already know: a total of four bands competed in the Second Section, and three places will be awarded, which means only one band will go home without anything. That can’t be us, I think, remembering how I felt we’d played better than in rehearsal.

They announce first place. It isn’t us.

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VIII. Poco Triste

The award ceremony over, the band migrates together to the pub where we have planned to celebrate. For the most part, it’s a silent walk.

Things get livelier at the pub. (You knew a pub was bound to surface sooner or later; we’re talking brass bands here.) Still, we don’t say much about the results until someone announces that we missed placing by 0.2 points. I look this up later and find that it’s true. Of the four bands in the Second Section, first place had 93 points, second place 87, third 86.2 compared to our own 86 points.

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IX. Benediction

Sunday, April 13, 2014. 8:45 p.m. Back home and settling in to write an article about NABBA for McSweeney’s, I get distracted by all the Facebook pictures and comments my band mates are posting from the weekend. In my email is a sound file of our performance with Bramwell Gregson, our adjudicator, speaking his comments into a recorder. I can’t resist listening. I have to know what he thought.

He begins by telling us what he’s looking for in a brass band—a good rhythmic pulse, varied character in different sections of the music. He is also good about praising our strengths and even spares a compliment for the tubas: “Good ostinato, basses,” he says at a point in the music where we had frequently struggled in rehearsal. So here is a victory after all. At GG he seems to be too distracted commenting on something else to say anything about the soli, but no matter—I still feel good about it.

As we reset for “Resurgam” on the recording, Bram talks about how Eric Ball wrote the piece when his sister-in-law was gravely ill—a context that I haven’t yet heard. But as I listen to our band begin those first quiet notes in the background, behind Bram’s comments, I am transported to England, yes, with young Jane and Helen, but I am also transported to the first few months of my own life in 2014, and I know, based on experience with pieces from past choirs and bands, that ten, twenty—however many years hence when I hear “Resurgam,” those opening notes will act as a memory trigger more powerful than Proust’s madeleine dipped in tea, and wherever I am and in whatever state of health I might be, I will be 30 years old once more in a kelly green shirt with a tuba in my hand and my husband in the audience and my thoughts of Jane Eyre and key signatures and coal miners. For why, after all, did they play if not for a bit of transcendence?