I am not sure why, in seventh grade, I chose to play the tuba. Perhaps it was due to a lack of confidence in spelling the words “Alto Saxophone” or “Piccolo.” Or maybe it was like my decision to study Mandarin over Spanish and I wanted to challenge myself. More likely, I was trying to compensate for being the second shortest boy in my class. Regardless of the reason, after a year of practicing every other day and smiling politely whenever I was asked if I could fit in the case, I found myself at the end-of-year concert sitting on two reams of colorful printer paper so that I could reach the mouthpiece. I played with pride.
For the remainder of my time at middle school, I was the best (and only) tubist in the school. On the first day at my high school of thirty-two hundred students, however, I became one of six tuba players in my band alone. Luckily for me, I found that playing the tuba was more than being the best, especially in December. The beginning of winter is exciting for the band when we switch from Bach and Sousa to upbeat, nostalgic holiday music. Furthermore, while tubas are often overlooked in compositions, our school’s annual selection features several tuba pieces. The holiday concert begins each year with the tubas playing “You’re a Mean One, Mister Grinch” as our conductor approaches the podium.
Another tuba tradition is rehearsing “Hark the Herald Tubas Sing,” wherein the tubas play the melody. The first time we attempted it, the other tuba players dropped out quickly. I, however, had planned ahead and rehearsed the piece on my own time, so I knew the solo perfectly. I played on. I was thrilled to have all eyes on me, until the second-chair tubist whispered, “It’s all you, Ely.” This revelation, combined with the absurdity of the piece, led me to laugh uncontrollably. The piece soon fell apart as the sound of amplified laughter through a tuba was too funny for the other one hundred twenty musicians. Less than a minute later, the band was back on track. At that moment I realized that no matter how much work and pride I put into something, I will always be able to laugh at myself.
The more I play, the more I appreciate the lessons of the instrument beyond how to read music and which buttons to press. Rehearsing the same piece over and over again, whether it be Raider’s March or The Crown Imperial, has taught me the value of tenacity and patience. Furthermore, tubas are often neglected by composers, and the base line is often not as fast or flashy as the melodies. Despite this, the tubas, along with the percussionists, are charged with controlling the tempo of the piece. Leadership through collaboration, along with taking on behind-the-scenes responsibilities, are among my defining traits. These traits surface when I complete paperwork as captain of my school’s Ultimate Frisbee team, debug a group computer science project, or carry leaky water bottles to make sure eight-year-old campers don’t get dehydrated on a hot summer day.
Now, when I tell people that I play the tuba, they no longer ask if I can fit in the case, but they do tend to smile. I am still not sure why I chose to play the tuba, but my intuition has served me well. Playing the tuba has never been all I am, but it is part of who I am: A person who seeks the biggest challenge, a person who works hard in everything he does, and a person who does not take himself too seriously.