Before my grandfather died, he bought me a new tuba. I was in a period in my life where I was stepping out beyond my comfort zone to to ask for what I wanted. My wife had often said to me, “It never hurts to ask.” But I had long since believed, and still believe, that it can hurt to ask. It hurts a relationship what you put someone in the awkward position to have to say no. I was also worried what the rest of my generation of family would think. It was an extravagant request. But I decided to take a chance.
Daddy Boots had moved to Norman to be close to my family. I’m sure my parents had talked him into it. He was living in a ghost house in a ghost town where he had built a family long ago. His wife, my Granny, had died many years before. He was living by himself in an old house that was gathering more and more dust.
I wrote him an email. I told him that I had never owned my own tuba and I would never expect another Christmas present again. To my surprise, he consented. We worked out a budget and when it came time to get the horn out in Weatherford, we made a road trip out of it in his old Cadillac. It will always be a special memory. When he got through all of his old conversations that I had heard a dozen times, we actually got down to a real conversation about the present. He wanted to know if I knew any Muslims. What were they really like. Were they really all that bad? I assured him that my experience was that they were not bad at all. My Muslim friends were just regular people. I got the sense that he was in some way relieved to hear it. I suppose it had been a concern for him since 9/11. It was a memorable trip. He died soon after. I held his hand and spoke words of peace and release as he breathed his last breath. Perhaps I’ll tell the story sometime.
I was thrilled because it had been ages since I’d played and I really missed it. My aspiration was to play in an orchestra. I’d been longing to do this again since high school. I had no illusions about my playing. I was not even close to being a professional. I was setting my sights lower. I just wanted to be a part of a community orchestra of some sort.
Enter the OU Civic Orchestra. It’s an orchestra for both students and community members. I thought Surely I can get into this orchestra if I practice hard enough. I contacted the director and he said that he would need a tuba player in the spring. The audition would be in January. Good, I have a few months to prepare. I looked at their website for the audition requirements: Two two-octave scales to be played slurred on the ascending scale and articulated on the descending. Plus one two-octave chromatic scale. And finally, two short etudes or orchestral excerpts.
Surely, I thought, I can pull this off. I’d practiced a fair share of scales and arpeggios in high school. Heck, I even made 1st alternate in the all-state band. I HAD THIS. But when I sat down for the first time, I realized that I had NEVER in fact played a 2-octave scale, much less slurred. This may give you some idea of my skill level. It was far more difficult than I imagined. I couldn’t bridge the gaps between low, middle, and high registers. I’d been dancing around it all this time.
So what does one do when one has such a problem? I proceeded immediately to YouTube. What I learned is that I needed to adjust my emboucher (the way the lips meet the mouthpiece). I needed to make a change. After 20 years, I needed to make a change. It was difficult at first. I struggled for two months, trying to make the necessary adjustments. But finally, I mastered it. Wow, I actually grew as a tuba player! I was ready for this audition.
I was very nervous the day of the audition. My daughter wanted to come with me and I was grateful for the company. I was supposed to meet the director at the university near the music admin offices. So while I was sitting in the waiting area this kid walked by and kind of stared at me. It was the director. And I thought, how old am I when a grad student looks like a kid? He left me in a cramped office for a warmup. The office was tiny, but they still managed to squeeze a baby grand piano in. There was just enough room in the center of the room for me to lay down my tuba case and pull out my instrument. I ran my scales. My daughter sang along and made tuba player faces. She had heard my audition a hundred times. My fingers were fumbling and my palms were sweaty. He stepped in. We chatted for a moment.
Then he said, “Ok, so what to you have for me?” And I was thinking 3 scales, 1 easy etude and another that I sometimes flub. And I’d really rather not attempt the scales at all.
“Just play whatever you want. No big deal.”
So I picked the easy etude and played. I played fairly well.
“Ok. That’s just fine. So our registration is tomorrow. You’re the first tuba player who’s shown any interest who actually owns a tuba, so….”
So that was that. All of the energy I had put into it. All of my anxiety. All that it took me to prepare this audition, and I could’ve played Mary Had a Lamb. The results would have been the same: “Ok, that’s just fine. So our registration is…”
You never really know how these things are going to turn out. I was excited, though. We were going to play Rimsky-Korsokov; one of my favorite orchestral composers. And I would play on my tuba, which I had named “Boots” after my grandfather. Although he never got to hear me play it, I think of him when I sit the instrument in my lap, and once in awhile, I sense that he is nearby.