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I Like Big Brass And I Cannot Lie
March 28, 2014 7:26 AM   Subscribe

“How do you manage to breathe enough to play that thing?” Good question. It’s one I’ve asked myself a lot lately because until recently, I hadn’t practiced the tuba regularly in—(these are confessions from the tuba world, right?)—a decade, not since I took lessons in college. I’ve continued to play for TubaChristmas, for fun whenever my dad or brother feel like jamming, and for sundry church functions—just enough to warrant owning my own tuba. But, in January, I was asked to join a local British-style brass band for their upcoming competition in April. Not wanting to be the weakest link, as I suspected I was, I instated a weekly practice goal: a minimum of a half hour, four times a week. Let me tell you, a lot of rust accumulates in ten years.
posted by the man of twists and turns (46 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite

 
Part of Confessions From The Tuba World, which also includes:
Poets of the Band
Tuba and euphonium are so much a part of one another socially and professionally, they cannot be rent asunder. Our sections sit next to each other in the band. Since most universities have only one tuba professor, those individuals, with very few exceptions, are expected to teach tuba and euphonium. Many competitions, like the Leonard Falcone International Competition, have tuba and euphonium divisions at the same contest. We share the same professional organization, the International Tuba and Euphonium Association (ITEA), and we blend so well musically that the tuba/euph ensemble is the string quartet of the low brass family.

Still, what the heck is a euphonium?
The Life Of A Tuba Sister
It might seem glamorous to be the younger sister of a tuba artist with an international reputation. Kent’s done some pretty impressive stuff, not only winning multiple international competitions (one on jazz tuba!) but so impressing composer Anthony Plog that Plog dedicated his “Nocturne” to Kent, which Kent subsequently premiered in Budapest, Hungary. These days, I can even download Kent’s latest album from Amazon and iTunes.

But as the younger sister, I’ve been behind the scenes enough that I’m more acquainted with the unglamorous underbelly than with tasting the fruits of fame.
Tuba, Or Not Tuba? That Is The Question
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.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 7:35 AM on March 28 [5 favorites]


That was great.
posted by MartinWisse at 7:38 AM on March 28


I polished my sousaphone in honor of this great post.
posted by whimsicalnymph at 7:46 AM on March 28 [2 favorites]


One reason that early jazz has a two beat feel is the tuba playing the bass line. Switching to the string bass opened up the possibility of playing on all four beats in a measure.
posted by tommasz at 7:47 AM on March 28 [1 favorite]


That was fun!
posted by ocherdraco at 7:47 AM on March 28


That was cool, thanks for posting it.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 7:52 AM on March 28


One reason that early jazz has a two beat feel is the tuba playing the bass line. Switching to the string bass opened up the possibility of playing on all four beats in a measure.

Yeah, no. I know several tuba players who are able to do exactly this with perfect fluency. They can, in fact, play pretty much exactly what they like. It isn't a limitation of the instrument in any way at all. It was a stylistic thing. Before Jimmy Blanton, string basses didn't play four to the bar either.

/bass clef nerd
posted by Wolof at 8:05 AM on March 28 [6 favorites]


I love the tuba. I think it's a fabulous instrument. And I'm gonna self-link here, if the mods and the user base will allow, to my curated gallery of tuba images. Because, hey... tuba.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:17 AM on March 28 [5 favorites]


flapjax at midnite: "I love the tuba. I think it's a fabulous instrument. And I'm gonna self-link here, if the mods and the user base will allow, to my curated gallery of tuba images. Because, hey... tuba."

www.youtuba.com
posted by chavenet at 8:23 AM on March 28 [6 favorites]


Those of us who were in marching band will always have a slight fear of the tuba and true respect for the poor kids who had to whomp out "Sing Sing Sing" while heel-toeing around the 50 yard line. It made my tenor sax seem like a piccolo.

Eons ago on a lark I bought a used trombone at a garage sale, which i mostly just used for scaring my cats. Much respect for the brass instrument embouchere, much harder than a wind instrument.
posted by BlerpityBloop at 8:24 AM on March 28 [2 favorites]


I started my musical journey as a trumpet player, but at one point I doubled on euphonium and loved it. Now I'm thinking about buying one, and maybe a tuba as well! Although I need another horn in the house like I need another hole in my head...
posted by Greg_Ace at 8:26 AM on March 28 [2 favorites]


I started my musical journey as a trumpet player, but at one point I doubled on euphonium and loved it.

Euphonium, and if they're home, they might answer!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:29 AM on March 28 [3 favorites]


TUBACHRISTMAS1 is an event held in cities all over the United States (world?) every December where dozens or even hundreds of tuba and euphonium players get together to play Christmas carols. It is one of the most awesome sounds you can hear - like 10 pipe organs playing only in the lower registers.

1 one word, all caps -- probably so as to not seem disrespectful with a lowercase 'c' on Christmas and because TUBAS
posted by straight at 8:30 AM on March 28 [2 favorites]


Because, hey... tuba.

I think this one may be photoshopped...
posted by Greg_Ace at 8:33 AM on March 28


A man was telling his friend about a great party he went to the previous week. The owners of the house were so rich, they had a golden toilet. Naturally, his friend didn't believe him and wanted to see this for himself. The go to the block where the party was but he couldn't remember which house held the party. They knock on the first door and ask "do you have a golden toilet?". They get the door slammed on them. They knock on the second door and ask "do you have a golden toilet?" and get the door slammed on them again.

They knock on the third door and ask if they have a golden toilet. The kid answering the door shouted "Hey Dad! I think I found the guy who shit in your tuba!".
posted by dr_dank at 8:37 AM on March 28 [11 favorites]


Also, if you get 6 beginning tuba students to all play low Bb* together, they make the sound of a squadron of B-52 bombers in old WWII movies.

*Well...low Bb-ish, since intonation has yet to take hold in young minds and embouchures.
posted by Greg_Ace at 8:37 AM on March 28 [1 favorite]


flapjax, what movie is the still of the woman on the couch (man golfing teeing off coffee table) taken from?
posted by bird internet at 8:38 AM on March 28


bird, google points to the avengers from 1965 (that's diana rigg on the couch, right?)
posted by effbot at 8:56 AM on March 28


When I was a teenager we found a euphonium on the docks (Brooklyn: N 8th street or so, in 1991. Back when the docks were a wasteland of burned out cars, prostitutes, abandoned buildings and, I suppose, large brass instruments, where now all is gloss and finery), and dragged it home to our shitty apartment, where it became a beloved talisman. From time to time one of us would try to play the thing during one of our ridiculous, drunken, "free-hardcore on the roof" jams, but all any of us could do was create a bladder-jiggling low foghorn bellowing. Which was enough! Enough to cut through the rest of that racket, anyway.

Somewhere along the way "eat this tuba" appeared on the bottom of it in precise, green paint-pen letters.
posted by dirtdirt at 8:59 AM on March 28 [5 favorites]




flapjax, what movie is the still of the woman on the couch (man golfing teeing off coffee table) taken from?

I don't know! Perhaps someone else here will!

On edit, I see that perhaps someone does!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 9:09 AM on March 28


all college football fans have seen the script ohio thing that the ohio state band does at halftime, where the tuba guy runs out to dot the "i" at the end. it will be an omen of the impending apocalypse when he trips and he and his tuba sprawl headlong in front of millions of viewers, and because i am occasionally bored, i would like to experience the apocalypse in my lifetime.
posted by bruce at 9:14 AM on March 28


if you get 6 beginning tuba students to all play low Bb* together, they make the sound of a squadron of B-52 bombers in old WWII movies.

Whoops, that should be B-17.
posted by Greg_Ace at 9:14 AM on March 28 [1 favorite]


Yeah, no. I know several tuba players who are able to do exactly this with perfect fluency

That may be so, and I have seen tuba virtuosity, like the guy who used to play in the Saturday Night Live band, who could play like Bird solos on the thing. But the brass band players in the 1920's who played early jazz may not have had the chops that your friends have.

However, I think it wasn't until later, like maybe Jimmy Blanton with Ellington, that string bass players dropped the two feel as the predominant bass concept in jazz.
posted by thelonius at 9:21 AM on March 28


I know I have been told that the early jazz bassists usually also doubled on tuba
posted by thelonius at 9:27 AM on March 28


To this day it's a challenge finding an unplugged instrument that is portable (e.g. for marching) and can produce loud bass. Tubas, sousaphones and bass trombones still rock it in this regard.
posted by iotic at 9:34 AM on March 28 [1 favorite]


That was an amazing look into breathing and breath control. Which, of course, reminds me of Colin Stetson, who plays bass saxophone like the god of circular breathing that he is.

Check out his live performance of Judges on Q. One man, one bass saxophone, some pickup mics and magic. He explains how he does it here.
posted by maudlin at 9:38 AM on March 28 [2 favorites]


Check out his live performance of Judges [yt] on Q.

That's... That's impossible, right? That's not real.
posted by The Bellman at 9:44 AM on March 28


> I polished my sousaphone in honor of this great post.

Is that a euphoniumism?
posted by ardgedee at 9:50 AM on March 28 [7 favorites]


I loved these articles.

"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." (From Tuba or Not Tuba)

One of my favorite things about being a string bassist, especially in orchestras, is that you get so much time where your part is repetitive, droning, or simply silent, that you get all the joy of playing in an ensemble plus all the fun of appreciating an orchestra performance (without having to worry that you'll blow a note). The violins and flutes and whatnot are working too hard to have a chance to really admire the whole. I'm playing two notes for forty measures, I can appreciate the individual artistry of the other musicians and the way the melody chases around the woodwinds. I was always a little disgruntled by things like The Death of Tybalt where I have to work hard and sweat for thirty seconds and people could HEAR me, grumble grumble, instead of just being the steady background.

Also when you're a student musician it's kinda nice when your part is super easily mastered and you can spend rehearsal in the back of the orchestra just dorking around while the trumpets get drilled on the same two measures over and over again. (Although in truth, I learned a ton about music in general and how other instruments work by hours of listening to students in OTHER sections get corrected. String basses are always in demand for accompanying other sorts of ensembles -- choirs, pit orchestras for musicals, etc. -- so you can get a whole musical education just by listening to everybody else get corrections while you wait to play your really basic accompaniment again.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:51 AM on March 28 [5 favorites]


Hey, Metafilter does tubas well!
posted by thelonius at 9:56 AM on March 28 [2 favorites]


Yeah! Not tubad.
posted by wemayfreeze at 10:02 AM on March 28 [8 favorites]


I live in New Orleans, the city with perhaps the highest per-capita rate of tubas in the world. (Mostly sousaphones actually, because who wants to stand/march for hours with the awkward brass anvil that is the traditional tuba?) I have long considered this to be one of the many unremarked fringe benefits of living here; there's just something joyous about walking down the street on a fine spring day and hearing the cheerful "BWOMP, BWOMP, BWOMP!" of a sousaphone being practiced inside a nearby house. It never gets old.
posted by Scientist at 10:21 AM on March 28 [2 favorites]


One thing I love about living in an area with a large Latino/a immigrant population is that you can flip through the radio dial and every third station is geared to a Latino audience. And a lot of those stations play banda music, which is very tuba-heavy. But the more awesome thing is that you'll hear a banda music blaring out of the open window of a passing car (blaring proudly out of the window of a passing car, much like some teenaged white kid from my youth would blast Guns 'n Roses or Metallica), and you know that in that person's world -- today, right now, in 2014 -- tubas are just cool. There is nothing funny about a tuba in that person's mind.

I love that.
posted by mudpuppie at 10:24 AM on March 28


Was it me, or did the main female protagonist in L.A. Story carry a tuba around the city?
posted by ZeusHumms at 10:58 AM on March 28 [2 favorites]


Hey, Metafilter does tubas well!

You wait. It'll descend into a Bb/Eb flame war before long
posted by iotic at 10:58 AM on March 28 [4 favorites]


I played euphonium in high school and we always identified with the trombones much more than the tubas so that is interesting that we were wrong about that from a brass culture perspective. We basically only played trombone parts-it was the rare concert piece that had something explicitly for euphonium. It was substantially easier instrument than the trumpet or violin or piano or guitar, all of which I could play in one limited way or another as a child. I *never* practiced and could get by as an average performer in high school marching and concert band. I read euphonium in treble clef since I started on trumpet (and never practiced to learn to read it in bass clef), this was occasionally awkward.

I just checked and I still muscle-memory all of the three valve fingerings from low C through the high D including sharps and flats even though it's been thirteen years since I played a three valve brass instrument. That's where we spent most of our time but I feel like I should still know the half octaves or so above and below that range and those appear to be gone. Really frustrated about the low B and high E, those are right on the tip of my tongue (right on the ends of my fingers?)
posted by Kwine at 11:05 AM on March 28 [1 favorite]


Aww, man, I miss playing the tuba.
The thing many people don't realize about TUBACHRISTMAS is that it is really largely an opportunity to socialize for the musicians, because there are just not usually very many tuba players in any one group. The year I went, all the adults were either the lone tuba player or one of two in their usual group. They were super weirded out/impressed that our high school had seven tubas in the band. It... was a pretty bass heavy band.
posted by Adridne at 11:09 AM on March 28


I've been to a couple TUBACHRISTMASs (as an audience member) and from that toyed with the idea of learning just enough to participate.
posted by achrise at 12:40 PM on March 28


You wait. It'll descend into a Bb/Eb flame war before long

Whaaa? C Tuba for the win.
posted by LooseFilter at 12:54 PM on March 28


I've played in a few TUBACHRISTMASs, both on tuba an euphonium. It's super fun, and if you're thinking of joining one, you totally can. They have people of all levels of talent, and the parts are generally really easy, so as to encourage kids to come play too. You could definitely go from no musical experience -> able to participate in a year.

I'm pretty sure you can get the scores ahead of time, and I have no doubt the awesome people who show up at TUBACHRISTMAS would help you out.

On another note, one other cool thing about being the sousaphone player in the marching band is that you can sneak stuff into games in the bell.
posted by mrgoat at 12:55 PM on March 28 [2 favorites]


Greg_Ace: "young minds and embouchures"

Is that the long-lost X-rated Ealing Comedy?
posted by chavenet at 12:59 PM on March 28


It would take a lot of brass to be a PR mouthpiece for that script.
posted by Greg_Ace at 3:32 PM on March 28


Great post, thanks. Shared with my brass family and friends.
posted by Red Desk at 4:15 PM on March 28


After spending my youth and college years as a semi-virtuosic tubist, I just inherited a perfectly working sousaphone. And it is kicking my ass. I forgot how much athleticism it took.

I already gig plenty on the electric bass and upright but I'm looking to enhance that by doing some Klezmercore or Dixiestep or some Prairiefunk or whatever throwback style is in as soon as I get my sea lips back.
posted by sourwookie at 6:03 PM on March 28


Man I miss my euphonium. A silver plated, 4-valve, compensating, silver-plated Willson 2900S. That was a freaking piece of art. It even made me sound good.
posted by petrilli at 6:07 PM on March 28 [1 favorite]


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