If I had only realized back in high school that you could make rock ‘n’ roll with a tuba, how different my life would’ve been. I enjoyed the hell out of that instrument, but it never occurred to me that I might have a future as a tuba-playing rock star. Of course I could imagine becoming a polka star, but who wants to become a polka star? I could’ve used the rock star angle to get chicks if I’d only thought of it. A while back I came across someone who has just about pulled that off – Wolff, formerly of Drums & Tuba. Actually he’s not exactly a star just yet. He fears he’s up against something called a “brass ceiling,” that limits how high you can go if you decide to make a career as a tuba-playing rock ‘n’ roller. Whether he makes it past that ceiling or not, he’s definitely created a unique sound and makes some excellent music. In my book he’s already a hero. He’s also got a great sense of humor, which probably helps a lot when you play a tuba for a living.
And now an ode to the tuba, which fed my love of music while providing loads of fun and making me a horrible discipline problem during my last two years of high school…
Growing up, it never even occurred to me that I might not play in the band at school. The only question was what instrument I would play. Our family was very musical. Dad was a band director for many years, a virtuoso on clarinet and proficient at many other instruments. Mom played piano at church and Dad directed the choir. I inherited my love of music from my parents. I did not inherit my dad’s talent for the clarinet. It was the first instrument I tried, naturally, but I sucked at it. Didn’t really matter how much I practiced. There were just too damn many holes and keys on the damn thing. It was like they made it for someone with 100 fingers. Impossible. I know it tore Dad up, hearing me make such horrible noises on his favorite instrument. I stuck with it anyway, but never rose higher than a mediocre third-chair clarinet player. One of those guys the band director (not my dad, I only got him for 6th grade band before he retired) would ask, “Please don’t play between measures D and H” when it got close to contest time.
Fortunately for me, our only tuba player got into a little war with the band director during my junior year. He wanted to quit band and they wouldn’t let him, so he became as big of a pain in the ass as possible, to try to force them to kick him out. He liked to do things like holler, “Excuse me. I got PP on my music!” (pp meaning pianissimo, or play softer) and tell the male band director, “Don’t get your panties all in a ruffle!” Being that he was the only tuba player, the band director was kinda stuck, so the war escalated (and got funnier) every day until the director got desperate. He came to me, I guess because I was the most useless person in band who seemed to actually be trying, and asked me how I would like to become the next tuba player. And I thought, eh, what the hell? And I discovered I had a knack for it. I picked it up really quickly. And I loved it. I became the new tuba player and the old one got to quit band like he wanted.
I also got to be almost as big a pain in the ass as the guy I replaced. Later on we got three more tuba players and we all became partners in crime and made the director’s life difficult. But we could all play, and when it got time for contest, we would practice and get serious, so he put up with us. But we gave him a pretty rough time. We liked to fill our valve oil bottles with water and use them as water guns. We shot spit wads. We made a point of taking our valves apart to lube them just when we knew he was about to call on us to play something. When he tried to get the flute section in tune, we would hum through our tubas so they would sound off key. (Dad did not find that story the slightest bit funny.) We also used a little crutch for brass players called “valve positions” which apparently had been driving band directors nuts for generations. They were little patterns of circles someone would draw on sheet music, open and shaded, that told you where to close a valve and where to open it. We would memorize those and pretty soon, we could sight read any piece of music, but if the band director said, “Play an A,” we couldn’t do it. We’d play whatever random note and he’d say “WHAT?!” and we’d play a few more till we got it. He nearly pulled his hair out over that.
Dad always said drummers were the worst cut-ups in any band. They’re always smacking the drums at the wrong times, won’t listen, don’t want to learn the music. They always know they can quit high school, join a rock band and get rich and famous any time they feel like it, so they’re just humoring the band director at best. The tubas are the second-worst. Like the drummers, they are loud, so you have to put them in the back of the band hall so it’s hard to see what they’re up to. I think Dad called that one pretty well.
But when it came down to the crunch I really was there for the music. I loved the sound of the instrument. Especially the shiny new concert tubas, which had a much sweeter, richer tone than the Sousaphones we used during marching season.
Alas, the tubas were expensive instruments. The school bought them and I just got to use them. When I graduated I didn’t get to take one with me and there was no way I was going back to playing clarinet, so over time I kind of forgot what it was like to play an instrument. Too bad. I could’ve become a defiant almost-rock star like Wolff and beat him to the punch by 10 years. Sigh…
BTW, I wonder if Wolff gets the chicks? I bet he does.