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Grey Sparrow Journal

Issue 30, July 31, 2017
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Tuba Dreams

 

by Timothy Reilly


 

 

Years after his music career had ended Gabe dreamed he was playing the tuba again.  The dream started out, naturally enough, with the warm-up routine he would have done before any rehearsal or performance.  The dream was highly tactile: he remembered exactly how the notes felt: their responses to different attacks, lip slurs—all the intonation quirks and other anomalies.  But then a message from the waking world seeped in and reminded him that he had not played the tuba for well over twenty years.  The music on the stand was the overture to Wagner’s Die Meistersinger, and there was no way in hell he would have either the chops or the endurance to handle that pieceBut, as in all dreams, he had no choice: he would have to pool all his dormant and/or lost skills and try to somehow get through it.  As he tested the music’s heroic theme, his embouchure returned to the condition that had ended his career: the dull pain in his left jaw, the weakness and fatigue, the slight tremor in holding a note in place. 


The oboe sounded a tuning A and the orchestra replied.  The dream-despair felt like the real thing.  He awoke before the downbeat. 


During breakfast his wife, Carol, urged him to talk about what was causing him to stare blankly into his oatmeal.  She listened patiently while he described his dream.  When he was done talking she took hold of his hand and said she wished she had known him when he was a member of a symphony orchestra. 


Gabe had long ago come to terms with the loss of his career.  At first, in the early stages, he would try to explain to people why he had to quit playing the tuba.  Not knowing the actual cause of his affliction, he would stumble with the words: sounding as if he were making excuses or even lying about the fact that he had once been a professional musician.  He felt like Terry Malone, from On the Waterfront, talking about having been a contender before getting a one-way-ticket to Palookaville: a has-been trying to cope with a current run of menial jobs.  But after a few years in Palookaville, he simply decided that he was who he was, and he owed no explanation to strangers.


It was not as if the masses had ever accepted the tuba as a legitimate musical instrument.  Just mentioning the word, tuba, to most people, conjures images of “oompah bands”: chubby men in lederhosen, puffing their cheeks on sousaphones while pumping shallow knee-bends to the off-beats. The standard barb—Why-on-earth d’ya pick the tuba?—is always delivered in a tone of disbelief, as if the tubist had made the most absurd choice possible.  The canned wisecracks come with exhausting predictability.


Once, on a flight to a doomed audition in Phoenix, Gabe got stuck sitting next to a talkative, well-dressed businessman. It was his first audition, and his confidence was fragile to nonexistent. 

  

“Name’s Charles,” the businessman announced in a stagy baritone.  “You are . . .?”


“Gabe.”


“Please to meet you, Abe.  First trip to Phoenix?”


“No.”


“Hope you like the heat.  I’m headed there on business.  I’m a financial advisor.  What is it you do for a living?”


“I’m a tubist. I play the tuba.”  He pulled a magazine from a seat pocket.


“You’re kidding.  You can make a living doing that?”


“I’m not kidding.”


“You mean that big metal thing that wraps around you?”


 “You’re thinking of a sousaphone.  That’s for marching bands.  I play an upright tuba. For orchestral use.  Sits on the lap.”


“Oompah-oompah-oompha.” The businessman puffed his cheeks like a bullfrog.  “That thing heavy?”


“What thing?”


“The tuba.”


“Weighs about thirty pounds or so.”


“I’ll bet you wish you’d picked the piccolo.”


“That’s not what I wish.” 


 “So why on Earth did you pick the tuba?”


Gabe sheltered behind his magazine and closed the conversation with: “Because it’s there.”  But what he really wanted to say was that the tuba is an incredible musical instrument—both lyrical and agile—endowed with a practical range of about four octaves, a fortissimo to rattle chandeliers, and an otherworldly pianissimo: so soft, the notes are more felt than heard.  He wanted to explain, to anyone who would listen, how the tuba represents damnations and redemptions, Grail Knights and Norse gods, dancing bears and doomed puppets, the bombastic and the melodious, the comic and the marvelous. . . 


He could go a considerable distance with his defense.  He could actually trace his “proto-tubist” origins to his ninth or tenth year: when he first buzzed his lips into a segment of hose that his father used for siphoning gasoline from the family automobile to a power lawnmower.  It was then he discovered the harmonic overtone series: invisible and precisely-spaced musical notes trapped inside the hose—like a tree-imprisoned Ariel—waiting to be released by someone with the right magic.  He remembered having fashioned a  primitive corno da caccia—complete with a funnel/bell—and in just a few minutes, he sounded Taps and then worked his way up to a slow but recognizable Reveille.  His lips tickled and swelled and took on the appearance of a parrot’s beak.  He panicked a little, fearing that he would be permanently disfigured, but when the “beak” returned to its former lip self, he was back at the bugle calls.


A few years later, he enrolled for junior high band without knowing which instrument he would choose.  On the first day, as he surveyed the band room, the percussion instruments seemed intriguing; but when he noticed a group of boys clutching sticks and mallets, arms folded like German sailors posing for a photograph on the deck of a surfaced U-boat, he was scared off from that possibility.  But then something in a far corner caught his eye.  It looked like an ancient suit of armor, tarnished and heavily dented, and no one else seemed to notice it.  As he drew nearer, he discovered that it was an old tuba—a sousaphone, actually—and he sensed an immediate kinship.  The band instructor jumped at the opportunity and dubbed him The Tuba Player. 

 

Gabe ceremoniously hoisted the instrument over his head and onto his left shoulder, resting the circular bulk diagonally around his upper torso.  He then buzzed his lips into the large cupped mouthpiece and instantly produced the fourth overtone (second line B-flat).  The band instructor was impressed.  He had Gabe come in after school, and in less than twenty minutes instruction, he was playing ascending and descending B-flat major scales.  He was given a bottle of smelly valve oil, a band method book, and was told never to puff his cheeks or pop the mouthpiece with his hand. 


                He continued studying the tuba through high school and college. After several years of free-lancing, and a near-dozen auditions, he was finally skilled enough and lucky enough to stand out from a battalion of over a hundred candidates, and was offered the chair in a symphony orchestra of modest repute. 


For the next two years, Gabe was the orchestra’s principle tubist.  It was, for him, a dream gig, and he never wanted to do anything else.  But then something horrible happened.  There were no warning signs: it struck hard and all at once—like some kind of voodoo curse.  It happened during a performance of Mahler’s First Symphony.


He loved this symphony: its beauty, its girth, its metaphysical yearning.  He loved the third movement’s macabre sense of humor: its dream-like tilt: inspired, in part, by a woodcut illustration depicting a nighttime funeral procession in the forest: with animals—some weeping, a few playing musical instruments, others holding torches—accompanying a pyre bearing a dead hunter.  The music is based on the children’s folksong, “Brother John,” transposed from its major tonality, to a solemn d-minor.  The form is a dirge-like cannon; beginning with a solo double bass, followed by a solo bassoon, and then capped by the solo tuba.  It was during the last four measures of Gabe’s turn at the theme (the octave A’s to be precise) that his embouchure was attacked by a malevolent force.  A dull pain, weakness, fatigue, and a sporadic lip-quiver took hold. To make matters worse, after stating the theme, the music calls for the tuba to sustain a pianissimo third-line D: for ten slow measures.  He was able—with the usual tricks of snatching breath—to hold the note its full duration, but there was the remainder of the movement and another whole movement to get through.  He leaned in toward the bass trombonist. 


“Something’s happened to my chops,” he whispered.  “You’ll have to help me sandbag the rest of the way.”


Like all professional symphonic musicians, the bass trombonist was familiar with the orchestral score—he knew something of what Mahler had in mind—and  was prepared to do some on-the-spot editing of his own part: switching octaves, doubling the tuba (where possible), and, in general, propping up his wounded colleague through the more exposed passages.  It was an impressive bit of juggling; and although the music suffered a little, Gabe was able to limp the rest of the way without the audience knowing that a tragedy had occurred before their eyes and ears.  But in spite of the successful (and valid) deception, he was overwhelmed with anxiety and despair.


After the concert, he decided to take a two week hiatus from playing the tuba, hoping that the mysterious ailment was merely a freak muscle strain, and that convalescence would restore his abilities.  He thought back to some of his boyhood injuries: jammed fingers, sprained ankles, countless bumps and bruises, all sorts of muscle pulls.  For injuries, rest and a little ice seemed to do the trick.  But a voice in the back of his head told him that no amount of rest or ice could help whatever it was that ailed him now; this condition came from someplace else. 


He tried hard to still that voice.  It took an enormous effort not to unpack his horn before the end of his self-prescribed recuperation.  When the time did come for a test, he started out with a short buzzing exercise on the mouthpiece alone.  He could tell with just the mouthpiece that something was still not right; but he continued with a cautious warm-up on the instrument, until it became apparent that the problem remained unchanged, and it was time to make an appointment to see a doctor. 

  

He had no criteria for choosing a doctor; he simply picked a professional-sounding name from the phonebook.  At his appointment, he explained to the doctor his situation.  The doctor seemed sympathetic to his plight and was honest enough to admit that he had no idea what could have caused such a thing—other  than Gabe’s own theory involving muscle strain.  The doctor checked his ears and throat, listened to his heart and lungs, and took his blood pressure.  He then wrote out a prescription for Valium.  He said that the Valium was a “muscle relaxant.”  But Gabe knew better: he had the pulse of a hummingbird, and anyone in a white jacket could tell that he was on the brink of a panic attack. 


He thanked Dr. Gillespie for his efforts, and followed his advice (difficult as it was) to stay off the tuba for an extended period of a month or more.  He also thought he might as well try to enjoy the buzz from the prescribed “legitimate” drug.  The problem was he didn’t enjoy anything about Valium; it turned him into a sleepwalker.  After a week of “relaxing his muscles,” he tossed the remainder of the Valium down the toilet.  After a month and a day had gone by, he tried again to play the tuba, and, again, there was no improvement.


He eventually had to give up his position with the orchestra.  It was devastating.  But he continued an increasingly desperate search for medical help—or at least a diagnosis labeling a credible cause.  He went to a chiropractor, an herbalist, and some nut who wanted him to sleep under a Tinkertoy pyramid.  An appointment with his regular dentist seemed to be the most helpful.  The dentist told him he might have something called TMJ—which was a good-enough acronym to get him on State Disability.  The dentist referred him to an oral surgeon, who, for some reason, decided to yank out all four of his impacted wisdom teeth.  He fully recovered from that procedure, but his embouchure problem remained the same.  The oral surgeon set him up with an appointment to see a neurologist at a local university medical center. 


On the day of his neurological examination, he was seated in a waiting room packed with all sorts of patients—including a row of shackled convicts in orange jumper suits.  When his name was called, he was led to a harshly lighted room, strapped to a table, and bombarded with x-rays from a machine called a tomograph.  The machine consisted of an x-ray camera mounted on a robotic arm, orbiting a few feet above his head, like a nightmare insect.  The tomograph’s camera, he was told, was capturing layered images of his entire skull.  While the strange device flitted above him, a blurry white cluster of dark-haired androgynous beings with clipboards entered the room and gathered round his restrained form.  The scene reminded him of an alien abduction.  In the next moment, the neurologist made a regal kind of entrance.  He did not have a clipboard, and, in keeping with the alien theme, referred to Gabe in the third person, as if he were a lab rat or cadaver.  The neurologist’s students followed his lead and did not speak to him directly, nor acknowledge the possibility that he might be embarrassed or suffering or a species similar to themselves.


A little later, as Gabe sat in a chair, the neurologist gave him his personal once-over: poking his face, checking his eyes, testing his reflexes, and, at one ironic point, doing something with a tuning fork.  He then had his face wired-up like a telephone switchboard: hooking him to a device that responded with Geiger-counter noises to the movements of his facial muscles.  After pondering the results of all these fancy tests, the neurologist proclaimed that he couldn’t find a thing wrong with him.  Nothing.  Perhaps it was psychosomatic.


Gabe was exhausted and extremely depressed.  “But what can I do?”  he pleaded.


The neurologist got a funny look on his face; he could not hide his anticipated satisfaction from a punch-line he had apparently waited his whole life to deliver: “You could take up the violin.”


The neurologist cheerfully left the room, followed in close step by his student entourage.  Gabe sat there stunned, until a nurse came in and said, “You’re done here.”


Hope and State Disability Insurance soon dried up. For a time, he couldn’t bear to hear the tuba: he would listen only to music composed before 1830.  But the worst part was not knowing the cause or name of his malady. The voice in the back of his head had a field day with “psychosomatic”: Why would you sabotage your own career? Are you afraid of success? afraid of happiness? 


He couldn’t rid himself completely of the voice, but he learned to ignore the little bastard.  Time would whittle down the grief. 


* * *


Twenty-eight years later, Gabe was in the reference section of a public library, browsing randomly through magazines and journals, when he stumbled upon a music journal for brass players.  A refrain from his recent tuba dream stalled him for a moment, but something deeper lured him on.  He pulled the issue from the rack and found a quiet table in a corner to read. 


He entered the pages of the magazine like Rip Van Winkle returning to his altered village.  The advertisements for tubas revealed a marked change from the makes and models popular during the time of his professional involvement.  He was thrilled by the bounty of choice now available to tubists.  He was also a little envious.  But his prime emotion was a passion revisited.  He scanned articles dealing with technique and interpretation.  There was a current Who’s-Who and an essay on preparing for auditions.  He felt a strange sense of discovery when he came to an article entitled “Focal Task-Specific Embouchure Dystonia.”  He had to stop and mouth the title several times before he could untie his tongue.  He then began to read about a mysterious disease that can attack, with an almost supernatural cruelty, musicians of every ilk.  He read that Dystonia, in its various adaptations, strikes right where it hurts: the musician’s physical means of making music.  With the pianist and string player, it hits the hands; with brass and woodwind players, the embouchure is targeted.  The article cited a number of cases involving accomplished brass players, including some renowned tubists, whose professional careers were cut short by the disease.  It also mentioned the fact that, until relatively recently, embouchure dystonia had been consistently misdiagnosed, if diagnosed at all.  Gabe recognized his own experience in the descriptions.  After reading the full catalog of symptoms, he knew for certain what had knocked him down and out. 


“Psychosomatic my ass,” he said aloud, slapping his hand on the table.


When he returned home, he was crying and laughing and clutching an unopened bottle of champagne.


“Are you alright?” Carol asked.  “What’s happened?”


“I’m not nuts!” he said.


“I’ll need some proof.”


Gabe handed her a photocopy of the magazine article and then went to fetch wine glasses.

       

The following week, Gabe and Carol attended a Los Angeles Philharmonic performance of Richard Strauss tone poems.  Moments before the houselights dimmed, an ancient little woman—a complete stranger—tugged Gabe’s sleeve as if signaling for a bus stop.


“What’s that big shiny thing in the back?” she said, pointing.


“That’s the tuba,” Gabe said.  He felt a renewed sense of belonging; he was authorized to say tuba.

    

The woman made a face like the animal of the fur she was wearing.  “That’s not a tuba,” she snipped.


The next morning, at breakfast, Carol told Gabe that he had been singing in his sleep like Glenn Gould.  Was he having a nightmare?


“What was I singing?” he asked.


“Who can tell with Glenn Gould?”


He told her that he was not having a nightmare; he was playing the tuba in a dream.  The music was Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration.  He awoke before completing the performance.