Rock ‘n’ roll tuba… Who woulda thunk it?

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.

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22 Comments

Filed under commentary, humor, indie, indie rock

22 responses to “Rock ‘n’ roll tuba… Who woulda thunk it?

    • Domitype

      Couple of things – the Tuba was essential in the development of Jazz and New Orleans music, and both of those elements lead (not exactly directly, but with many elements to Rock music. )

      Also, there are many, maybe hundreds of alternative rock bands around the USA these days that use tubas and/or Sousaphones (with or without Bass Guitars ) – just look at the house band of Jimmy Kimmel’s show “Roots” with Sousaphone in full effect. It is not just one tuba guy against the world – there are many of us!

      • That’s great to know. Maybe there’s hope for me yet. Wonder how much tubas sell for these days? And actually, I can think of a bunch of other examples of great rockin’ tuba playing although it’s not exactly “rock.” In particular, the tuba playing in Balkan Gypsy brass bands kicks all kinds of ass.

  1. Domitype

    Yes, Balkan Brass is outstanding! There are bands from every city and town in the region – huge festivals and many of the better bands have been touring around the world – Boban Marcovic Orchestar most notably.

    Another place tubas are featured is in groups that go by the term “Street Brass” – look at the websites for the Honk! Festivals in Boston and Seattle. ( honkfest.org and honkfestwest.com ) It is a growing movement with a variety of styles in music. relevantmusic.org is a good reference point for all of this.

    Tubas and Sousaphones are selling new in the $2K to $10K range, but you can find very good used horns for much less that. There are several web forums for tuba players – I like TubeNet, but Tubanews is also good.

  2. Domitype

    I meant to write that The Roots are on Jimmy Fallon’s TV show – as far as I know, Jimmy Kimmel does not have a tuba player 😉

    • Now you’ve definitely got me curious. Do you play professionally?

      • Domitype

        I get paid to play, sometimes. I mostly play tuba for fun in several different bands around the San Francisco Bay Area. I also have been a broadcast alternative non-commercial radio DJ for about 25 years, mostly playing new and old jazz and “roots” music – with an emphasis on brass bands of all sorts.

      • Awesome. I definitely want to talk more about all of that. Love your city. Just went there in October. Got to see the sea lions before they went away. I guess you know the Dirty Dozen Brass Band? I saw them live a couple years ago. Very, very good.

      • Domitype

        They played at a local festival called “New Orleans by the Bay” several times and also the Concord Jazz Festival – one of my bands played in a parade with them and we all ended up on the main stage, playing different tunes (at once!) I have been listening to them since the early 1980s when I saw them at Jazzfest.

        You also might want to check out Youngblood Brass Band ( youngbloodbrassband.com ) and the New Orleans Nightcrawlers (their website is broken right now but myspace.com/neworleansnightcrawlersbrassband is still good) for some killer Sousaphone work. Also, Bonerama has 5 T-bones and Sousaphone and they are wild! ( boneramamusic.com )

        Around SF, one of the most interesting bands with tuba has to be Rube Waddell ( rubewaddell.org ) and Extra Action Marching Band ( extra-action.com ) is also quite something…

        here are some other kinds of tuba “alt.rock” bands: bellowhead.co.uk and bornagainfloozies.com and from France: fanfarelesnob.com (site is in French but does sort of translate with Google.)

      • At some point I’ll have to do a tuba special and feature a bunch of those bands.

      • Domitype

        Great! Just remember that the tuba has been “pumpin’ up de bass” for well over 150 years* and there are a lot of us blowers who know about it!

        *many more than that when the Serpent and Ophicleide players are in the mix, but that is a whole ‘nother story… (look it up 😉

      • Serpent I’ve heard of, but I’ll have to school myself on the Ophicleide. Is that the horn from the Ricola commercial?

      • Domitype

        No, that is The Alp Horn.
        The Ophicleide is mostly like a Saxophone with a Trombone mouthpiece – and it is a very tricky instrument! The invention of the Tuba made it almost obsolete, but there were some who mastered the beast.

        For many other low brass (and low woodwind) instruments – contrabass.com also check out the current leading Ophicleide player here: http://www.ophicleide.com

        But I didn’t want to get lost in ancient history! The Tuba is not unusual, not rare, not an “outsider” in music. Tuba players have been involved in all sorts of music for many years and should not be thought of as “oddities.” Just because the instrument is much larger than a trumpet, violin, or guitar should not make it to be a strange thing. Tubas have been around for over 150 years and an important part of our musical culture for most of that time – don’t make it out to be anything less!

      • Yup. Tuba is not unusual, except maybe unusually awesome 😉

        And btw, what do you think of Mexican banda music?
        Check this out:

  3. domitype

    Oh yes! Sousaphone players in Bandas kick it! I often hear that music when I am driving in San Jose
    – it is all over the radio,
    and even in Seattle you can hear that Brass Bass sound on the FM dial!
    Like I posted earlier, the World Brass is becoming much more obvious…

  4. Domitype

    Oh Yeah! Banda is very popular around California – I hear it pounding out of car radios and taco joints all the time. The Sousaphone players in Bandas have a very intense way of playing and they keep it going for hours! The music comes mostly from German immigrants to Mexico in the 1800s but there are other influences.

  5. Great article — Wolff was just added to the lineup (That 1 Guy & Sxip Shirey) on 3/9 at Sullivan Hall in NYC, and now I’m really looking forward to the show.

    TX for the video!

  6. Nelnor Smaggasbladl

    Great site, musicmissionary! Please keep going, I’m hooked!
    DrNS

  7. Pingback: Another realm for the tuba: Tom Heasley’s beautiful dark soundscapes | The MusicMissionary

  8. Zofia

    Have you ever heard Badfinger’s “We’re for the Dark”? Wonderful tuba.

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