The Accidental Tuba Player

Dick Miller

© 2014 by Dick Miller

October 1, 2014. We were sad to learn of the recent death of Dick Miller. May his stories live on.
Photo of a tuba.

I’ve never had a tuba lesson in my life, but I’ve enjoyed playing the instrument for more than 40 years. It all began by accident.

I was playing bass trombone in the South Shore Community Band on Staten Island, New York. We were rehearsing in preparation for one of our two annual fund-raiser concerts when our only tuba player announced that he was retiring and moving to Florida. There didn’t seem to be a ready replacement, so the band director, Charlie Stieg, asked if anyone in the band knew anyone who could take on the role with the concert approaching. One of the scheduled numbers was “Victory at Sea,” which had a prominent tuba part.

I spoke to Charlie after the rehearsal. “If you can’t find anyone, I might be able to help,” I said. “I don’t own a tuba, but I think I can learn to play one well enough to cover the part in time for the concert. If you’re really desperate, I’m willing to try.” Charlie explained that the band owned the tuba that the previous tubaist had played. I told him that I had learned the valve combinations for the notes when I was learning to play trombone and I thought I could pick it up pretty quickly. In fact, I was playing euphonium, the tenor voice of the tuba family, in rehearsal with the band at the high school where I taught Physics. Charlie said he’d let me know in a couple of days.

Apparently, Charlie’s search proved to be fruitless. He called me to ask if my offer still stood. I assured him that it did, and we made arrangements for me to pick up the band’s tuba and the folio of tuba music so I could start to practice. I brought them home and started in, but something didn’t sound quite right.

Time for a quick music theory lesson:

  1. Trombones, euphoniums, and tubas all read music written in bass clef; one point for me.

  2. Tubas are pitched in a variety of keys: for band use, that’s principally Eb and BBb (read E-flat and double-B-flat).

  3. The deep, rich, more common tuba is pitched in BBb, and its music is exactly one octave below that of the euphonium; one point for me (easy to transpose).

  4. The tuba the band owned was pitched in Eb; a big point against me (transposing is much more difficult, the finger positions I knew were all out the window).

I worked, slaved, cussed, sweated, and struggled. I had just a few weeks to master not only the solo in “Victory at Sea,” but the tuba parts to all the other tunes in the concert program. Rehearsals were less than polished, to put it in the most generous of terms.

The night of the concert came, and I was more than a little nervous. When “Victory at Sea” came up, I managed to pull off the solo without a single mistake. A huge wave of relief swept over me.

I continued to play tuba with the band until Charlie found someone else to take over, and I switched back to bass trombone. But I think I awakened a sleeping giant.

It was several years until I picked up a tuba again. I had changed careers and moved to southern California, where I discovered a phenomenon called Dixieland Jazz Societies. They met once a month, usually on Sunday afternoon, and there were so many that I usually had two or three to choose from on any given Sunday. I had been exposed to the Firehouse Five Plus Two (a jam band that started in the Disney studios during lunch hours and went on to become internationally known recording artists) from my dad’s record collection as well as some classic hot jazz of the 1920s and ‘30s by artists such as Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, and Spike Jones.

I made the round of the societies with my trombone, enjoying myself jamming with some of the best musicians in the area. There are a lot of studio musicians in the LA area who like to blow off a little steam on the weekend, and a huge number of amazingly talented amateurs, so I picked up a lot of tricks of the trade rather quickly.

In conversation with my fellow brass players at one of these meetings, I learned about a music store that was having a closeout sale to clean out their warehouse. I went to check it out, and came home with a very inexpensive tuba. This time, I made sure it was in the key of BBb. No more struggles with an Eb tuba for me!

I started bringing the tuba with me to the jazz society meetings and sitting in on the jam sessions. Before long, I found myself being called for “casuals:” one-time jobs, or “gigs” in musician lingo, for which someone was actually willing to pay me money for having such a good time. It was unbelievable!

I was then invited to join a local band. The leader was a guy who played trombone and tuba, as did I. Whichever horn he chose to play on a particular gig, I played the other. There were a lot of very good bands in the area. We weren’t one of them, but we worked cheap, and the leader worked very hard to get us a few gigs now and then. My experience continued to grow.

There was a club in Santa Monica called “Sterling’s,” just across the street from the famous pier. The owner had a passion for the hot jazz of the 1920s and, one night a week, had a living legend from that era holding forth as host of an open jam session. Not only did the finest studio musicians from all over the LA area come to play, but even bush-leaguers like me were welcome. The host, Rosy McHargue, was a master of the C-melody saxophone (“an ill wind that no one blows good” the old musician’s joke says), but had done so in the company of Bix Beiderbecke, the absolute icon of hot jazz cornet players of the era. Rosy was also a master of the lyrics of some of the most obscure tunes of the 20s and sang them strong and proud in spite of his advanced years. Simply to listen to such a musician was a treat; to have an opportunity to jam with him was one of the highlights of my musical career.

A career move to Silicon Valley brought me to a different situation. There was only one jazz society nearby, but, through that, I connected with Bill Armstrong, former banjoist with Dixieland trombone legend Turk Murphy, and began playing with his Churchill Street Jazz Band. Turk would wander in to our regular Sunday brunch venue from time to time, and I had another chance to meet one of the idols of my youth.

Another career move brought me to the Portland, Oregon area, where I currently reside. I’ve played with a local band, substituted for other local bands, and played a number of casual gigs. It’s also the place where I played some of the most exhausting and strangest gigs of my life.

Any tuba player associated with a school hates Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” with a passion for being arguably the most boring piece of music ever written, at least in the tuba part. The entire song, beginning to end, is a series of quarter notes, one on each beat, never ending, measure after measure. In a band with several tuba players, it’s not so bad: you take turns, so some get to sit out for a while to regain their sanity. The most exhausting gig I played had no such option: I was the only tuba player.

The gig was to accompany the grand processional for a karate tournament. It was a small group of musicians: trumpet, clarinet, drums, and tuba. The trumpet and clarinet could switch off playing the lead, but the drummer and I were there for every beat. There was to be no interruption in the music as the competitors marched in. As we neared he end of one tune, the leader would call out the name and key for the next tune, play a short transition phrase to get us into the right key, and off we went. The string of competitors seemed endless. Finally, after about fifty minutes of this torture, the last team filed into the arena. We wrapped up with a flourish, played the national anthem, and left with our lips in a sling.

The strangest gig occurred when a woman at my church asked me to participate in a worldwide service for peace that was to take place simultaneously around the world on New Year’s Eve morning. For the Portland area, that worked out to 4 AM. She had heard me play tuba in church when I accompanied one of our music directors on a Scott Joplin rag that we did for the special music one Sunday. She asked me if I would be willing to try something a little different. That sounded like it was right up my alley, so we arranged for a rehearsal date.

I showed up with my tuba, and she appeared with a set of three Tibetan temple gongs. These are large bronze bowl-like objects that are played with a cloth-wrapped stick, either by rubbing it around the rim to get a soft resonating sound, or by softly striking the bowl. I checked the notes of each of the gongs, and it turned out that they formed a perfect B-flat major triad (Bb, D, and F), so they would sound good together, even if one were still ringing while she struck another. For the service, she improvised with her gongs and I with my tuba on a B-flat major chord until we felt like we were done. I guess it took about five minutes, but it could have been anywhere from two to twenty.

I continue to be active with music, although I’ve traded in my tuba for a marching trombone. This has the same range as a trombone, uses the same mouthpiece, and reads the same music, but uses valves instead of a slide and sounds a little richer. I lead a group called the Joyful Noise Jazz Band (look for us on YouTube) that plays monthly jam sessions at the assisted living center where I used to reside while I recovered from amputation surgery.

I’ve had a lot of fun playing the tuba over the years, and that’s no accident.