Miss Colson didn't want me taking junior high band. She just couldn't imagine that one summer of private lessons on any instrument, let alone tuba, would be sufficient to prepare me for the relative rigor of seventh grade band. It may have had something to do with the fact that I had foregone the elementary school orchestra experience: the one that was under her direction. It may have been that she was sincerely concerned for my welfare and future happiness. Or not. Whatever the case, my parents decided that I was a good enough risk, after years of private piano lessons, to give the largest member of the brass family a shot.
What prompted me to choose the tuba? Part of my fascination came from watching the sousaphone players in the high school pep band when I went to a football game with my older brother. They seemed to be the most amusing and the most amused. There was something about them, one in particular: he seemed alternatingly ridiculous and charismatic. I found that combination appealing. Then there was the fact that I was a legacy, of sorts. My father had "played" tuba when he was in high school. More to the point, he had carried the marching version, a sousaphone because it was necessary to have at least seven to spell out "BOULDER" on the bells of the instrument high overhead. He didn't remember much, but one of the other guys showed him that if the first and third valve was pressed at the same time you could get a "C." Or an "F." If you blew at the same time. My dad wasn't that committed.
I was. I took weekly lessons on my parents back patio over the summer from the high school's band director. I understood from him and just about anyone who knew that I was an odd case. Tuba was an instrument that most people eventually came to after mastering other instruments. I knew that I would be playing primarily rhythm. I would be the part of the "oompah" section. That didn't keep me from dreaming of lovely bass melodies.
I grew up listening to the second side of my family's copy of the soundtrack to "Hans Christian Andersen." Side one was music from the film and it was fine and all, but I preferred to listen to Danny Kaye tell the tale of Tubby The Tuba. It told the tale of a tuba that dared to carry a tune. Tubby learns a melody from a frog who is as lonely as he is, and then returns to share it with his orchestra. At first, all the other brass, woodwinds and strings laugh and sneer. Then they hear this beautiful little song, and they are all transported.
And so was I. I spent years sitting in the next to last row, just in front of the percussion, on the conductor's left. I played what was on the page and counted hours of rests waiting for my turn. As I continued to take private lessons and practice at home, I learned songs written expressly for the tuba. I remember my older brother loaning me his copy of Maynard Ferguson's "The Big F" because it had a real boss tuba part on "Night Train." I learned Roger Bobo's name and worshiped at his low brass altar. And still I waited for my big moment.
It never came. There were some challenging parts. I was first chair, and so it fell to me when the other part-time tuba players couldn't cut the big bass mustard, I played those arpeggios and runs while the others were content to lay out until the oompah came back. When I graduated from high school, I was done with the tuba. The great brass relic that I had kept in my parents' house for six years was stuffed up into the crawlspace. When a friend of mine was selling off her childhood flute, it occurred to me that there was probably some money to be made on this great circular mass of tubing. I made seventy-five dollars. The guy told me that it was dinged up enough that he doubted that he could get it back into playing shape. He said he imagined it might end up like a few others he had seen over the years: turned into a whimsical lamp. What a conversation piece.
Every now and then I think about the tuba I don't own anymore. It really was my instrument much more than the piano ever was, even though there was a time when I was certain I wanted to be Elton John. Can you imagine "Candle in the Wind" being played on a tuba? I can.