Monday, May 4, 2009


In the 1890s, march king Phillip Sousa was looking to replace the hélicon--an outdated small-bore instrument in common band usage at the time. Sousa wanted a beefy instrument with the range of the tuba and a massive horn that blasted deep sound over the top of the other musicians. In outdoor use, the original Sousaphone had an upright bell that was good only at catching rain or tossed peanuts. But manufacturers responded to Sousa's request for a bell that pointed forward, toward the audience--a change that revolutionized marching music, enabling the player to carry the weight of the tuba on his shoulder as he (or today, she) plowed along a parade route.

The sousaphone has a bell with a 26-inch diameter, is played by buzzing your lips into a huge metal mouthpiece, and you change notes by pressing a combination of three piston valves. Consequently, the horn eventually fills with moisture from condensation, which the musician can drain by opening a small valve called a "water key" at the bottom of the curve where the horn wraps around the body.

The b-flat sousaphone I carried weighed close to 30 pounds and after you marched five miles in a parade, your left shoulder hung noticeably lower than your right and it had a wicked throb. If you actually played the horn--which I could not do--the circular end of the mouthpiece left a red ring about your lips, as if you had spent hours French-kissing a harpy.

I had been in the San Fernando Valley Youth Band, an independent collection of kids from junior high age to college, who practiced Monday nights on difficult classical orchestral charts that had been arranged for brass band, then we went outside the last half hour and marched in place while blasting out Sousa marches. We held an annual, formal concert playing overtures and symphonies by Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Shostakovitch, Holst, and others; but the balance of the year we performed at Christmas festivals, played for July Fourth celebrations, and marched in parades around California.

The trademark performance in the street was a Texas squaredance where the band separated into two facing lines while the sousaphone players skipped between like mad dervishes, wheeling about as the music rose to its finale. Unfortunately, there weren't enough trained tuba players to handle all the squaredance parts for the marching band, so tall and stocky woodwind players were pressed into "ringer" duty. That meant carrying that lacquered brass monster like a heroin habit for hours in parade formation, pretending to operate the valves, and wheeling around in the squaredance on asphalt roads covered with slick, green horseshit.

I didn't mind the attention it brought me--relished it, rather--but, frankly, the horn created a metallic vacuum around your face when you put your lips to the mouthpiece. I knew not a note, but blew into it anyway. The sousaphone had an odor of its own, a hint of iron and years of spit, and an alchemy of sour chemical tastes I had never since experienced.

We sousaphones marched in the last row of the band, musical pariahs in the fashion of today's exiled cigarette smokers. We were the last to know about a turn in the road, last to hear the drum major's whistle over the din of the percussion, the only musicians who went bare headed in the mid-day sun of so many summer's parades. But five or six times over the length of march, we strutted to the center of the squaredance formation and spun like behemoths from the iron age.

And, blissfully, no one was ever hurt. We fell plenty of times, denting the bells or earning a bruise the shape of the horn on our obliques and backs, or simply plopping on our asses, legs spraddled on the ground, the horn still coiled about us like a cobra, the bell glinting in the sun. In all my time as a ringer, I never saw anyone truly embarrassed, for it was all perfectly wonderful theater in its sheer idiocy.

Sometimes I think of my dance partners. I wonder if Matt Garbutt, now a symphony conductor in tails and tux, ever recounts the squaredance to his peers. I wonder what happened to Russ Quisenberry, too, after he went to Silicon Valley with his family to work in technology.

After the marching season ended and we were seated again on the orchestra risers, I took my place among the clarinets and, one Monday evening during a ferocious symphonic passage, I looked up in time to see Russ, red faced and blowing his heart out, topple backwards, his sousaphone bell leading the way as he plunged off the riser and onto the floor with an ugly clatter and bang.

Undaunted, we roared towards the finale as he struggled to his feet, playing like life depended on volume, chasing the final notes with the unleashed fury of lovers.


A Cuban In London said...

I must admit that I had never heard of this instrument before? Even after reading your opening sentence I wondered whether it was a science tool you were going about? And 30 pounds? My God, mate, you're really a devoted person!

Loved the tale and the ambience. And the pain. I could that pain on your left shoulder. Many thanks.

Greetings from London.

Gabby said...

Yep. The left shoulder. You read it just as I was writing it, before I checked my memories... Thanks for your comments as always!

Char said...

that is dedication for sure. 30 pounds...whew

dutchbaby said...

This is truly impressive: 30 pounds, 5 miles while square-dancing and marching. Lordy, I can't imagine that more than one person signed up for this. And that poor old Russ tumbling backwards!

It's a beautiful instrument, but how do you store it?

Is the sound significantly different from a tuba?

Gabby said...

To the untrained ear, it sounds just like a tuba. Same range. Not as rich a tone, ultimately. It stores more easily than you think, since the bell unscrews and fits easily inside the coil of the body...and it all can go into a hard case or slipcover.

Yoli said...

Gabby that is quite hefty! I would love to hear how it sounds.

dutchbaby said...

Hey Gabby,
I would like to invite you over to dutchbaby; we are having a small party there.

Jennifer said...

My two favorite lines: "the mouthpiece left a red ring about your lips, as if you had spend hours French-kissing a harpy" and "That meant carrying that lacquered brass monster like a heroin habit."