“About my playing the tuba. Seems like a lot of fuss has been made about that. If a man’s crazy just because he plays the tuba, then somebody’d better look into it, because there are a lot of tuba players running around loose. ‘Course, I don’t see any harm in it.”
— Longfellow Deeds, played by Gary Cooper in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town
Boys. That was the primary reason why, in sixth grade, when I was handed a form with three blanks where I could list the instruments I wanted to play—any instrument, the whole band open to me—I put down “tuba” on the first line. I knew tuba players were historically male and stereotypically awkward, and as a girl who hadn’t yet lost her baby fat, I figured this just might bring me in contact with someone attainable. The band director was thrilled by my choice. He had no other volunteers for tuba and he wasn’t going to second-guess me because the other main reason I wrote down tuba was:
Birthright. It started with my dad. Summit, New Jersey, 1956: my grandmother looked out the front window to see her fourth-grade son sitting on the curb, playing notes on a school-owned tuba. Don’t ask me what kind of band director would put a tuba in the hands of a fourth grader and send him out into the world with it, but that day marked the beginning of my dad’s love for the tuba, a love that he eventually passed on to me, my tuba-professor brother, and even my parents’ central-Ohio house, which includes a “tuba room”—so named because when Dad’s tuba collection overflowed, he began hanging tubas from the ceiling with industrial hooks.
Not normal. But then, what is normal about the tuba? Pop culture, when it pays any mind to the low brass world at all, reaches to the tuba for comic effect. As far back as the 1936 screwball comedy Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Hollywood discovered that giving a character a tuba automatically makes him funny, quirky, and (dare I say it?) offbeat. And when Paul Tripp and George Kleinsinger decided to write an orchestral piece with narration championing the plight of the tuba—a piece that would subsequently inspire animated shorts and be translated into 30 languages—they chose the decidedly unheroic name “Tubby” for the titular tuba.
The tuba is big. It weighs a lot. You run the risk of having a police officer stop you and question you about what’s in the box when you’re dressed in concert tails and innocently wheeling your tuba case along the sidewalk en route to your orchestra job, as happened to my college tuba professor.
And in truth, you put up with a lot of boring musical parts. While the rest of the band or orchestra minces away with eighth notes, you befriend the whole note. Play just about any march or polka and you’ll see where the oom-pah stereotype comes from (though I will say, Sousa marches, like “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” also afford some real challenges). Further, the Ohio State University equivalent for Chinese water torture could well be the tuba part to “Hang On Sloopy”: Everyone else goes on with “Haaaang on Sloopy, Sloopy hang on!” but the tubas are stuck hanging on to the same introductory pattern for the entire song. Worse, you, as a tubist, often don’t get to play at all for measures and pages at a time. Tacet and its non-music variation, tacit, are in my vocabulary because I lettered in high school orchestra, where scores frequently instruct the tubas to shut up by using this one gentle word.
So then, why are there so many tuba players running around loose?
Think of how children love shiny pennies. Multiply that by a thousand and you have the lure of the physical tuba. It’s beautiful and eye-catching, whether it’s a low-end $2,000 Amati or a top-of-the-line $40,000 Yamaha, of which only a few are crafted each year. I realize that the horn my dad took home from school probably didn’t have much luster. School tubas, at least the ones I started on, tend to be dented and scratched, the inside of the leadpipe (pronounced leedpipe) green from the verdigris of aging brass and possibly from years of band class taking place directly after lunch period. But wait until you graduate to a better tuba, one that comes in a velvet-lined hard case that will make you feel like you’re removing a priceless jewel every time you draw out your instrument. If you like Salvador Dali, you’ll love the distorted reflections that stretch along the main tube and double-back along the bell. With the right tuba and the right positioning it on your lap, you can make the reflection look as if you are your own conjoined twin, connected at the top of your head(s).
It’s easy to joke about tacet markings and the predictable bass lines that tubists must bear, but when a tuba takes the melody, or even a counter-melody, it’s ineffable. The tuba’s tone can be so dark and haunting, like the relief of a thick patch of shade on a sunny day. I encourage you to listen to the first phrase of Holst’s “Suite No. 1 in E Flat.” Go ahead, YouTube it. Several bass voices play that opening line, but listen to the one on the very bottom—that’s the tuba. The piece is for military band, but for some reason, when I hear that line, the tuba voice makes me think of how the ocean was once known as “the deep,” that lovely, lulling undertow.
Any serious tuba player can tell you that about seven minutes into Wagner’s Die Meistersinger overture, the tuba plays the melody as a soli—and what a soli! What a thrill to hear that familiar theme plucked from the whirling strings and placed squarely in the warm, full timbre of the tuba.
So who, exactly, are these tuba players running around? The crème de la crème include such characters as Norwegian soloist Oystein Baadsvik, who travels the globe giving concerts and classes, and performing his signature “Fnugg,” a song he composed that includes beat-boxing and humming while playing for a delightful effect (definitely worth a Youtube watch). Then there’s Jim Self, whose playing I can almost guarantee you’ve heard. If you saw Jurassic Park, Home Alone, or Avatar, or if you remember the voice of the mothership in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, you’ve heard him, as he’s made his career playing Hollywood soundtracks. He’s also recorded CDs with unlikely partners—jazz harmonica on one, a baying Basset Hound on another. And let’s not get started on Patrick Sheridan’s clever album covers in which he sports lollipops or bon bons from his bald pate. That he resembles Kelsey Grammer makes things even a shade weirder than they already are. There’s also the unexpected tubist, Carol Jantsch, who rocked the orchestra world when she won the spot of principal tubist in the Philadelphia Orchestra at the age of 21—the first woman to hold the spot of principal tuba in a major orchestra.
We’ve barely scratched the surface. Just about every major university offers both undergraduate and graduate-level tuba instruction, and tuba studios include anywhere from a few to a dozen or more tubists. For all these accomplished players, there are only a handful of full-time performance jobs, primarily in major orchestras or in the premier military bands (Army, Marines, Air Force, Navy, and Coast Guard each boast at least one). An orchestra typically has only one tuba position; military bands require a slightly larger section.
And yet, despite all the competition for a few spots, it’s no accident that the former name of the tuba association was Tubists Universal Brotherhood Association. The name had to change because of the gendered language and the exclusion of euphoniumists (we’ll get to the euphonium in a future column), but as a female tubist myself, I must say that “brotherhood” perfectly describes the bond between tuba players. There’s a shared relief when one encounters a fellow tubist, a sense of “Ah, you too! You know what it’s like.” There’s a shared repertory and a shared vocabulary, a shared enthusiasm for a particularly good performance—and, of course, a shared sense of humor. Most tuba players, like their instrument, are quirky, though in chicken-and-egg fashion it’s impossible to say if the tuba makes its players quirky, or if quirky people adopt the tuba.
By the way, my original reason for playing the tuba proved null. I’m married now to a man who enjoyed a brief stint as a bassoonist in middle school before he dropped out of the music scene entirely. I never dated a tuba player, although I had crushes on all the tuba boys in high school, except two. But while the pleasures I foresaw proved elusive, others have taken their place—listening to Bach Cello Suites played on tuba, for example, or enjoying unusual popularity around Oktoberfest time. Or, best of all, playing tuba duets with my brother or dad down in the tuba room where those tubas still hang from the ceiling. ‘Course, I don’t see any harm in it.