How Playing Tuba is and isn’t like riding a bike

When I am further along and in a more thoughtful mood, I’ll write a more complete post explaining why I decided to join a community wind ensemble and play tuba again. This post, however, is just a smattering of reactions from going to my first rehearsal in about 8 years.

Overall, the experience was a lot of fun. It’s amazing that I sat in a room of total strangers and was able to make music as part of a large ensemble. Some things went well. Some things did not go well. Here were the highlights.

Things that were liking riding a bike

1. Hitting notes. I’m probably overestimating how well I did, but in general, I was able to find the intervals fairly well. I tested my range up to 3 octaves, so that’s pretty much all there as well.

2. Rhythms. We got some funky time signatures like 4/2 and 5/8, and for an instrument best known for playing downbeats in a polka-like fashion, we had some strange syncopated rhythms as well. I definitely flubbed some faster sections, but I mostly didn’t get lost.

3. Counting rests. Nothing makes you feel more special in music than counting rests for 20 bars.

4. Hearing tuning problems. During warmup and in a few long notes, I could hear that I was badly out of tune. I actually didn’t even have a tuba when I showed up for rehearsal, and the director fortunately had an extra tuba lying around to lend to me. at least it was a miraphone, which is mostly what I have played. Anyways, I didn’t know the instrument and didn’t get a chance to tune with a machine.

Things that were not like riding a bike

1. Fixing tuning problems. Just because I could hear the issues and knew why they were happening didn’t mean I could fix them. On more than one occasion, I stopped playing because I knew I sounded bad and couldn’t do anything about it.

2. Key signatures. Were it not for the big poster on the wall of the middle school music room with the circle of fifths, I would give myself a 50-50 chance of naming the key I was in at any given measure. I instead relied largely on instinct for whether a note should be sharp or flat based on roughly how many symbols were in the key signature. Many apologies to the tuba player next to me who listened to me miss the same notes over and over.

3. Accidentals. I could not think fast enough for some of the accidentals, especially the weird ones like F-flat. Actually, combined with my uncertainty about the key signature, I probably accidentally played the accidentals correctly. Nevermind. This one went okay.

4. Endurance. This actually didn’t go as badly as I thought it might: the tuba parts were not too difficult, so I made it through a 2 1/2 hour rehearsal without blowing out my chops. However, I felt a lot of tightness in my lips while I was warming up and generally did not play the full dynamic range during rehearsal, so it was a constraint. On a related note, if you have not had tightness in your lips from playing a brass instrument for the first time in a long time, take my word for it that it is extremely bizarre.

5. Reading ledger lines. In my high school music, I was largely spared playing low notes because the music tended not to go that low (maybe an E below the staff). The music we were sightreading, however, was much more challenging in this sense because I was regularly reading 3 or 4 ledger lines below the staff, and I have no idea what any of those notes are. I know I can hit them if I had a fingering written in, but I didn’t, so I just put a lot of fingers down and played low. I think most people are not trained to distinguish notes that low anyways, so I got away with it.

Overall, I thought that the rehearsal went well, and I really enjoyed playing again, even if I missed so many key signatures. I hopefully will write more about the experience soon, but in the meantime, you can check out my view of rehearsal.

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the picture is sideways because I don’t know how to fix the orientation in wordpress

My Stanford-USC Game Day

It’s 8AM, and I don’t want to get up. I’m supposed to be at the Band Shak between 9 and 9:30, so I should leave and bike to Stanford by 8:45. It’ll take maybe 10 minutes to get ready, so I should be done with breakfast by 8:35. And I have oatmeal in the fridge, so maybe another 20 minutes to eat breakfast and digest, which puts me at 8:15. I set my alarm for 8:05 and flop back into my pillow.

I park my bike near the stadium since I know there are spots there and am uncertain whether there are more any closer to the Shak. As I walk over, I check the time and see that I have plenty of time, and other band members still haven’t left for rehearsal. Walking past the bike parking spots beside the Band Shak door, I head up to the second floor to put my backpack down and grab a sousaphone. None of the other “toobz” are there, so I wait to take my instrument off the hook and relax after my bike ride and before the morning rehearsal.

The morning rehearsal is mostly the same as the first rehearsal I went to on Wednesday. We warm up by playing another chart that I have difficulty finding in the flip folder I was given. So far, the music hasn’t been too tough. Playing tuba is actually quite lucky in this circumstance since tubas often get repetitive bass lines, so once I learn the fingerings and rhythms of 2 bars, I can play more than half of a song. A very nice bari sax player keeps me

Giancarlo, the director of the Wind Ensemble, next rehearses the national anthem with us. I witness the trumpet soloist having his focus tested in a very disturbing manner and am only somewhat comforted to know that I have now seen a band tradition happen. We play the national anthem, which mostly goes well. Giancarlo singles out the tubas as slowing down through one measure, insisting that we need to “watch [his] hands, not listen”. Garrett, the section leader, is very confident that he was watching, and from where I am, I agree. Maybe there are some phasing issues since we’re at the back of the band. After he runs through the measure a few times with us, we play it one last time, then move on to rehearsing the show.

Well, almost. The saxes are currently following our drum major around the practice field while seeming to improvise a little diddy. Ben, a former roommate and longtime band member, wanders over and wonders out loud whether they plan these sort of distractions. For coming together spontaneously, they sound really good.

Rehearsing the field show goes roughly like how I remembered. We receive printouts of the formation and move between them as necessary. The obvious difference from high school is that the LSJUMB is a scatter band, not a traditional marching band, so we don’t need to practice marching between the formations as much. Even so, we move, play, move, play, and run the show over a few times to work on details. We get some direction from the guys on top of the tower about staying together as we play, moving people around to make the formations look better, and other details. It all feels pretty familiar.

That is probably also helped by the marching we actually have in this show. The USC Trojan Marching Band is a traditional marching band with all of the unnecessary flourishes. Their band can cover the whole field (and even has reserves because there are so many), sometimes marches knees high, and is led by a guy dressed in armor. As part of our show, half of the band participates in the “Spirit of Stanford” band, which marches onto the field, knees high and instruments swinging, in a box while playing our own take on “Tribute to Troy”. I not very reluctantly offer to participate in this half of the band.

The last run-through is a little rough. We’ve been rehearsing for about 1 1/2 to 2 hours, and I’m remembering all of the aches of playing. My lips are tired, and I’m cracking more notes that I can’t quite hang onto. I’m trying to keep the sousaphone rested on my right shoulder as much as possible so that it hurts the least while playing. I’m skipping most of the playing by now, only playing when it’s an exposed part.

We break and are told to come back in 2 or 3 hours for pre-game activities. I head over to Ike’s to meet up with my usual football-going gang. Although this game is certainly all sold out, we all have season tickets and are very excited for the game. I’m convinced we’re going to lose. More convinced than perhaps ever before. When we weren’t as good when I was an underclassmen, any game could be a pleasant surprise. When I was an upperclassmen, we were good enough to challenge any team. This year, however, we seem to have taken a step back into the 10-25ish range, while USC has a Heisman-hopeful QB and two of the best wide receivers around. We’re good, and I think we’ll challenge them this game, but I don’t see us pulling through. Still, my eggplant sandwich is very good.

Having already picked up my vest after rehearsal, I only need to get a hat and tie to complete my uniform. Garrett hands me an extra tie as I button up my white shirt. The tie has dollar bills printed on it. Did I mention we’re playing USC today?

We walk over to the Alumni Center where we rank up. I expect the toobz to move to the back of the band, but instead, my section seems to be in front of everyone. The bari sax player explains that we give everyone high fives as they march past, then form up behind them. I get lots of high fives, fall in, and move towards the stadium with the rest of the band. This also is very reminiscent: although we aren’t all marching in pairs and precisely in time, there are lots of cheers and small dance moves as we go. Suddenly, Garrett starts counting down, and the section scatters. I begin running too, vaguely following some of the others who are darting in-between (mostly) stopped cars. I keep looking around, hoping I don’t miss the cue to rank up again. I make it back without injury though slightly out of breath.

We form arcs just outside some of the tailgaters and begin playing. The next song is indicated with a signal, often cryptic, just like the flip folder titles. Although I can only find about a fourth of the songs, I manage to make it through anyways by watching the fingers of the other toobz. This, however, becomes much harder when we’re supposed to wander into the crowd. It’s also much harder to improvise my part when there are 5 others around me playing over my mistakes.

We play at another couple tailgates, and it all goes by in a flash. There was another song where we needed to wander into the crowd, though I figured out that part pretty quickly. I miss a lot more notes and play in a few places when I’m not supposed to. I’m beginning to see why the band doesn’t always sound great: people like me legitimately don’t know what’s going on half the time. I guess I can’t complain too much about it, though, now that I’m the problem. Besides, were the band stricter, I couldn’t have joined on a whim and perform a few days later. Amidst all of my confusion, the other toobz help me out a lot, and it’s a ton of fun. There’s a lot of dancing going on, and I try to copy, though I don’t think I quite have all of the moves figured out as the rest of the section does. There’s a lot of energy, and it’s great to be playing again.

After a break, we’ve entered the stadium. The national anthem goes fine, and the Trojan band performs their pregame show first. Watching them on the field, I’m actually not very impressed. Their formations and marching aren’t difficult, and they don’t actually look very good from the sideline. And given their size, their not the wall of sound I was expecting. Meanwhile, the band around me is heckling them. I don’t really get into that but am amused anyways.

We run on for our pregame show. This experience is actually one of the calmer parts of the day because for 10 minutes, I know exactly what is supposed to happen. I actually still don’t know what the show was about, but I get everywhere I’m supposed to be and play the right cuts.

The game is finally starting. After years of lazy days leading up to game time, I can’t believe how much I have already done before kickoff. The first quarter goes by, and it feels fine. The offense doesn’t look great, but our defense appears to hold well, and we’re tied. In the meantime, I think I’ve missed almost every song we play in the stands. I actually have missed at least the beginning of most songs today. The song gets called out, then I need to ask someone what it is, then I put the sousaphone on, then I fish my mouthpiece out of my pocket, then I unsuccessfully look for the music in my flip folder, and look at that: we’ve already 10 bars in. I guess I’ll just watch the fingers of the guy next to me and listen to figure it out.

It’s halftime, and we’re on the field again. There’s another uninspiring performance by the Trojan Band, and then it’s our turn. I march on with the “Spirit of Stanford” band, trying to high step (though I was later told by my friends that I wasn’t doing it close to the same degree as anyone else). At the beginning of the next song with a loud opening for the 3 toobz on the “Spirit of Stanford” side, I horribly crack one of the notes. My lips don’t feel bad, but I’m definitely tired after the morning rehearsal and pregame shenanigans. I resolve to play the rest of the notes with sforzando.

I scatter at the end of the last song, then remember that I was supposed to skip off the field. Whoops.

We form up around the tunnel as the football team reenters the field. The “William Tell Overture” is next, and it’s actually really hard as we’re moving quickly to our corner, and I can’t see our drum major or hear anyone. In the future, I’ll reserve all criticism for how it sounds.

We get food vouchers after half-time, and I get food. While eating the garlic fries, I feel like a normal fan for a few minutes. The game appears to be going well, though it’s been very low scoring.

We have the ball back with about 8 minutes left on the clock and up by a touchdown. The clock cannot possibly count down fast enough, but we’re definitely burning up the rest of the time. We get a few first downs, though we do stall. The Trojans get the ball back deep in their own territory with just a few minutes left.

Sack. Sack. Incomplete pass. I, along with most of the stadium, is freaking out. What I thought was an unwinnable game is looking to end with us on top. So much for Matt Barkley looking for revenge. It’s hard to believe that a class of Stanford students went through 4 years without having lost to USC.

We start playing the victory mix of “All Right Now”. Thankfully, it’s not a hard piece, and I can play it without music. It’s the end of the day, so I’m playing full volume since I don’t have to save it for anything else. We play the alma mater next, then play another set of songs.

Meanwhile, the crowd is on the field, though I don’t really notice them. I’m either trying to watch someone else’s fingerings or fumbling through my flip folder. It does look like there’s a big party going on, though, and I’m absolutely a fan. Right now, though, I can’t imagine a better way to party than playing tuba and dancing as part of a band.

It’s over. Security begins ushering people off of the field, and the band ranks up to leave the stadium. My friends wander over to meet Ben and me and plan our escape. We decide to skip ranking up and head straight for the Shak so we can move on to post-game food at our usual dive.

We’re sitting around, and most of us have burritos. I myself am not very hungry and just have the largest cup of horchata they have and to rehydrate. I had forgotten how much playing takes out of you, though I’m still very amped about the result of the game. We talk over all the details: the amazing scrambles from Nunes, the USC wide receivers, stats from the game, results of the other games, and where might end up in the rankings.

After hanging out a bit longer, I’m back home past midnight. Although I’m quite gross after a day of running around and playing, I can’t quite settle down, so I surf the web. My ears are ringing a bit, and I still have a couple of my parts stuck in my head. Getting a chance to play with the band was amazing after being away from an ensemble and the instrument for about 3 years and away from marching for almost 6 years. With the surprise win over USC, this is definitely one of the most personally fulfilling days I’ve had.

I’m glad I decided to come back to tuba for this one game and have no regrets about it. Maybe this will be a one-and-done experience. Over dinner, someone asked me whether I would do band again. “Maybe,” I said. At the moment, I’m not thinking I will, but having used just about every excuse and reason to avoid it for the 5 years I was still a student at Stanford, maybe is non-zero.

Tuba – Take 2

After dinner last night, I grabbed my tuba and made the 10 minute walk to Dinkelspiel Auditorium (Dink) for rehearsal. I arrived a little late, but rehearsal hadn’t started yet, so I sat down next to the bass trombone and began unpacking. After chatting with Michael, the bass trombone player, and warming up some, we started to rehearse Wagner’s Overture to Tannhauser (include umlaut somewhere in there).

A few weeks ago, I emailed the summer orchestra director wondering if there was a spot I could play in. As far as he knew, their regular tuba player wasn’t going to be around, and he’d be willing to let me get a school instrument to practice before auditioning for the ensemble. This Monday, I went in for my audition with a given excerpt and 2 etudes to play. My audition was pretty bad, but also completely honest; although I think I sounded good, I also cracked a lot of notes and even missed a few fingerings. I had mostly practiced warmups and exercises to condition myself some and not focused so much on actually preparing the pieces I would need to play. It all ended up well, though, and he said he would be able to get me involved. THey hadn’t been planning on having a tuba, but sets can always be changed.

When I got my seating chart yesterday, I saw I would play on 2 of the 6 pieces; there was a brass fanfare and a Wagner, both of which were kindnesses to me. Given the relatively long set and little rehearsal time, we couldn’t spend much time on any one piece, so we skipped the fanfare until sectionals next week and rehearsed the Wagner for about 35 minutes.

It went alright. Key of E meant I missed the fingerings for about 10% of the notes, and I couldn’t find the partial on half of the rest of them. Even so, those maybe 5 minutes that I actually played were so much fun. I’m depending on having immense improvement very quickly as I remember how to tune my instrument and listen and blend into an ensemble, but even playing as I did, I had so much more fun than sitting in a practice room by myself.

I guess the last thing I have to say about it is that I’m glad that this orchestra confirms 2 of my previous beliefs:

1) The low brass section is filled with goof-offs. We talked while rehearsal (even gaining the attention of the conductor for us to quiet down). I’m not sure exactly whether the trombone attracts the silliest people or whether all that slide action makes one lose their senses after playing for too long, but I’m glad to be in good company.

2) No one actually counts. 49 measures is a long time to count, and I got pretty lost. I knew I wasn’t alone, though, when the trombones all sighed in relief after Martin stopped +/- 5 measure from our entrance. I hope that’s a minus, because maybe he stopped since we didn’t start playing?

This should be a fun summer.