By now, you have a year’s worth of column installments attesting to my love of the tuba and my experience playing it—all of which is true. So it may surprise you to learn that I have always gravitated more naturally towards choir. The farther I went in my education, the more band dropped away. I quit tuba lessons after my sophomore year of college to make room for voice lessons and opera studio in addition to the university’s most rigorous choir, which I’d been in since freshman welcome week. Since then, I haven’t been choir-less for more than a couple months at any point in my adult life, though I had a stretch of seven years with no band.
And so when, earlier this year, I auditioned to sing in the Columbus Symphony Chorus, I figured I had a good shot. I’d prepared diligently; I knew people already in the chorus whom I could sight-sing circles around; I had memorized enough German to ferment a cabbage so I could avoid the amateur mistake of being wedded to the music.
But they didn’t take me.
I was disappointed—though, being a writer, I was well prepared to live with rejection. But what I wasn’t prepared for was the surprise in store for me later that very same week: With absolutely no solicitation or effort on my part, out of the clear blue, I was invited to join a brass band on tuba. And while I was flattered and excited to be asked, glad for the excuse to play, I had to spend a few days first staggering around like Oedipus or Dante or any of the legion psychopomps who spend their terrible interminable lives in the wake of a clear-eyed look at naked Truth. For at last it hit me: I am fated to live with the tuba. I was predestined, yes, by dint of being born into a close-knit tuba family. I was stalked throughout my childhood by the tuba literally lurking in the corner of almost every one of our family photos because my dad kept his Conn Eb between the piano and the couch in the living room. But now, here I am, an adult, fully independent, and time and again I find myself holding down a bassline.
What does it mean, I wondered? How could this be? All I ever wanted was to sing and learn to play the violin, the #1 goal on my bucket list which I didn’t realize early enough to get my foot in the door with the school orchestra. Oh, but wait—I was in the orchestra. I was the tubist.
I began to look around to see if I was the only one so fated. I unearthed an interview with Fritz Kaenzig, the tuba professor at University of Michigan, that revealed he hadn’t set out to play the tuba; he took it up at his middle school music teacher’s suggestion. Kaenzig tells his response this way: “I thought…tuba, huh, well, sure, okay, that sounds interesting and different. […] It was just what I was asked to play and I kind of liked the idea of it and I think it appeals to the non-conformists. I have definitely always been a non-conformist, so it was a nice fit right away.” Not only did the tuba come to Kaenzig, but he accepted it with the same sort of intrigued fascination that draws non-tuba players to come to a TubaChristmas performance, or that compels them to stop and ask whether the obviously large instrument is heavy—that lure of something out of the ordinary.
The actor and comedian Tom Wilson, whom you may know better as Biff from Back to the Future, also cited being a “non-conformist” when Johnny Carson asked him on The Tonight Show why he played the tuba. “It was the non-conformist in me,” he says. “I wanted to be a drummer originally, in the fifth grade, and my mom said, ‘Sure, but everybody plays the drums. Why not something huge that will annoy people?’” Clearly Wilson was going for a laugh—I can’t believe anyone is annoyed by the tuba, especially not in comparison to drums—but his is another case in point: Take anyone with a little rebelliousness in them, suggest they play the tuba, and next thing you know they’re studying the BBb fingering chart.
But had a desire for nonconformity really determined my fate? Although I don’t deny a certain degree of unconventionality among tubists, part of the reason tuba players as a bunch are so appealing is that they tend to be down-to-earth and easy to get along with—in a word, nonconformists who aren’t out to make others uncomfortable or questioned in their conformity. In fact, the great tuba trailblazer Harvey Phillips made a point of encouraging the thousands of players he saw each year as he traveled the TubaChristmas circuit to be polite and courteous to everyone. He reminded us that our behavior represents the instrument and its players, and that we should therefore always comport ourselves in kind, helpful ways. Hardly the message of hard-core nonconformity.
So, I thought, maybe I was onto something: the tuba offers an outlet to those of us who look for ways to be creative, funny, and just a little weird at the same time that we desire to do something pleasing to the public. We are not such nonconformists that we spurn being part of low brass camaraderie; on the contrary, we are average enough that hanging out together over an unassuming beer suits us just fine. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that playing the tuba is the humblest bid for attention possible. Yes, the nonconformist in us longs to stand out, wants to be noticed, but the unwieldy nature of the horn and its longstanding stereotype as the tubby oom-pah instrument ensures that standing out in a crowd will never go to our heads.
Thus I arrived at my answer: the tuba continually appears in my life because it’s the perfect little fix of respectful nonconformity. And yet, no sooner had I reached that conclusion than I heard myself telling people, “I play the tuba,” and quickly adding without fail, “It’s a family thing,” as if to normalize a crazy choice. Why would I consistently present it this way if my goal were to rebel? And more, do I not undercut my own conclusion by suggesting I chose the tuba specifically to conform to my family?
I began to consider that maybe the tuba surfaces in my adult life because the world needs another tuba player. Amateur sopranos are a dime a dozen, but an amateur tubist—now there’s a treasure. I hadn’t been going to my current church for more than a year before the pastor asked if I would accompany a hymn on the tuba along with him, a closet accordion player. The next Sunday there was an audible murmur in the congregation when he removed his surplice to don an accordion, while I, the new soprano, came down from the choir loft to pick up a tuba. We were such a success that by Oktoberfest time (it’s a Lutheran church with a strong German background), we’d put together a little polka band of homegrown talent—two trumpets, a clarinet, a sax, an occasional string, and of course, me on tuba. Our group, which we lovingly refer to as the “Small Cataclysm,” a play on Luther’s Small Catechism, continues to play for special Sundays. The point? The other instrumentalists had been in the congregation all along, but it wasn’t until someone came forward to hold down the bass line that an ensemble was born.
Ennobling and affirming as it is to be needed, I still wasn’t satisfied by this answer. The desire that had been fulfilled was to something other than my own wish. Was there nothing left for me than to humbly submit to this fated path? To ferry from Bb to Bb into eternity, a Charon at my post?
I might have gone on thinking this way except that a few weeks ago I had dinner at my parents’ house. My tuba-pro brother Kent was in town from Texas, and so I, gearing up to write what would become the “Ode to My Tuba” installment, took advantage of the opportunity to sit around the dinner table and talk tubas. I asked Dad and Kent questions I’d never thought to ask before because, until pressed to write about it, I’d taken for granted that I knew what tubas they played and how they felt about them. Those tubas were part of my life too, after all. The iced tea in my glass was nothing but watered down dregs by the time I asked about their memories of the day we went tuba shopping. We remembered it fondly, talked through a few details. Then, feeling a sort of marveling gratitude welling up, I turned to Dad and asked, “What made you decide to buy me a new tuba?” By which I meant, what inspired his amazing generosity in buying me not some old dented thing off eBay, but a beautiful, brand new, German-crafted horn.
“I didn’t buy it for you,” he said. “You bought it.”
I bought it? I was in high school at the time. I’d never earned any income. How could I have bought it?
“Yes,” he went on. “You used part of your mutual fund to pay for it.”
Kent, who had theretofore been commenting on tubas with knowledge appropriate to his doctoral wisdom, spoke up with perfect sibling flair: “Oh, so it was basically Dad’s money anyway.”
Fair point, Kent. Only, it wasn’t Dad’s money—not exactly. Our parents set up a mutual fund for each of us when we were born, but those funds were ours. I had sole discretion when I sold mine recently to help buy a first house. The money from that tuba could still have been in there if I hadn’t used it.
But I did use it because back then, I had never paid a rent check or a utility bill, and I certainly hadn’t ever bought my own food or clothes. What was $4,000 dollars to me? Some abstract concept on a piece of paper I wasn’t responsible for filing. Of course I preferred to take the beautiful shiny tuba I played daily in those days. Besides, only in a tuba-playing family would I be allowed the unquestioned leeway to make a move of such grand prodigality on an instrument I had no designs of ever playing professionally.
So I made that move. And it’s possibly the main reason the tuba continues to surface in my life. You’d be surprised at how many people tell me they used to play tuba in high school, their eyes softening with fondness and even a tinge of regret. When I ask why they don’t anymore, the most frequent answer is that they don’t have a horn.
At last I understood: what I felt as fate is in fact agency. It was my hand that wrote “tuba” on the paper indicating which instrument I wanted to play, all those years ago. I sought out TubaChristmases to participate in when I was geographically distant from my family. I pitched the idea of a tuba column to McSweeney’s in their annual column contest. And yes, I gave myself a gift more generous than my sixteen year-old self could ever have realized, for if she had, she probably wouldn’t have done it. She would have been more practical and told herself she really liked choir more anyway, so why bother?
Instead she saw that life was handing her tubas, so she made music.