Tidings of comfort and joy
There is something deep inside, a response beyond exact explanation, that results in me crying whenever four or more tubas are played at once. I cannot describe it, most likely it is a physiological response somewhere deep in my ear canals, but I will say the reaction includes a heavy dose of whimsy whenever I hear the deep, rumbling, low vibration of brass instruments.
Tuba Christmas made its way to San Diego this year, and as the first notes of “Joy to the World” wafted into the auditorium—as best they can since tuba notes are important and carry some weight, they don’t just flit into a space — I looked at my husband with tears in my eyes. He smiled politely; he does that a lot when I have an intense emotional reaction to something seemingly benign, which happens more often as we age and catches me off guard as much as it does him. This particular occasion for spontaneous weeping was a gathering of roughly three dozen brass players on stage. There were four marching band tubas — the sexy supermodels of the tuba world, everyone recognizes them — then a smattering of concert tubas with their upright bells and silver and gold-colored euphoniums and baritones, and even a french horn and a baritone sax thrown in for good measure. There were musicians ranging in age from 12 through “Somewhere around 70” according to the older gentleman who shouted out from the third row when the conductor took a survey. Every ability, all ages, men and women, gathered together to entertain an auditorium of family, friends, and a few passionate one-offs such as myself, over the course of an hourlong concert.
I attended my first Tuba Christmas in New York City a dozen years ago, after an executive in my office asked junior assistants who wanted to manage press attending the Tuba Christmas concert on the ice at Rockefeller Center. I caught this executive by surprise when I jumped at the chance to work the event, on a Sunday afternoon when most of my colleagues were nursing hangovers over greasy eggs somewhere around greater Manhattan.
My excitement for this event stems from a single note played 30 years ago, in an elementary school cafetorium in suburban Detroit. That note was played by me, a fourth grader at the time, whose parents brought her late to musical instrument selection night for the school band. The flutes in the front row had been snatched up, as were the clarinets in the second row, and the saxophones, enjoying increased popularity in the late 80s thanks to Lisa Simpson and her animated musical genius, had also escaped my grasp. My parents and I were led to a table with a large black instrument case, the band teacher opened it, pulled out a baritone horn and held it up, then invited me to play a note by blowing into the mouthpiece. I can’t remember if I was skeptical. As love stories go, you often forget if there was even a half moment of hesitation before you fell for someone or something hard, but I know that when that first note came out and wafted across the cafeteria, capturing some onlookers by surprise, I knew I had found my instrument. It was one-of-a-kind, and in that moment I was initiated into the back row of the band.
I sadly only played baritone for seven years. I quit my sophomore year of high school because the band director required musicians in the concert band to play in the marching band as well. Despite my love of performing, I was self conscious, caught in an angsty tug of war between a fierce sense of being unique and doing what I loved and an equally obnoxious sense that I needed to do what seemed cool to make boys like me. I was convinced that wearing a boxy polyester suit with brass buttons and a hat with a poof duster screwed into the top would seal me into a state of nerdiness, like an ant captured in amber, from which I would never be able to release myself and make friends with anyone outside of the band, especially those I had defined as popular. I wished that the tug of war would have been won by the fiercely unique band geek inside me with a sense of calm trust in my individuality and a confidence only matched by what could have been my spectacular musical skills. Instead, it was more of a sloppy draw, me seeking out the trouble makers in the band, causing a ruckus from the back row and fertively changing out of my marching band uniform after a football game before too many people saw me, then trying to score an invite to a [retrospectively lame] party at some kid’s house. In the end, I placed myself in a sort of social limbo, turning high school into a blur of scenes of animated tension from this stupid battle, with very few enduring happy memories that come to mind.
This tug of war continued well into my time in New York after college, more than seven years after I left band behind. The setting had changed, from aching to be invited to [retrospectively lame] house parties to an urge to hang out in [retrospectively unsanitary] bars and mimic the messy romantic life of Carrie Bradshaw.
My unbounded joy to watch Tubas play Christmas Carols on a Sunday afternoon in the middle of Manhattan offered one of those kinds of moments, when I sifted through my confusion of who I wanted to be, and captured a glimpse of what it felt like to follow my gut and by happy.
It wasn’t long after that Tuba Christmas in New York when I moved to Seattle. This isn’t, unfortunately, where the story takes a a triumphant turn and becomes a hero’s tale for the brass-playing community. I won’t be telling you I began playing again and met a nice man in an adult orchestra and that, fast forward eight years, at this year’s event, our two musically-inclined children sat with rapt attention, waiting for each new note. That didn’t happen, my daughter spent most of the concert folded into her chair playing Toca Boca on my phone so she’d stop asking “Is it done?” at the end of every song. So, for that disappointing plot twist, and any undue excitement I might have incited within the brass community, I apologize. I don’t mean to toy with you like that. But, in Seattle I did start acting more like myself and doing what I loved. Eventually, I happened to meet a man, and that man and I would eventually get married and have kids and he would be the man who smiles at me patiently as I tear up listening to tubas in a highschool auditorium. He understands my spontaneous tears aren’t always as unpredicted as they seem , and if I have the time, I’ll unearth an explanation.
There aren’t a lot of brass instruments in a regular school band. In my elementary and middle and high school bands there was a flock of flutes, a full row of clarinets and a tight gaggle of saxophones. There were even a pair or a few trombones. But most often I was the only baritone. It felt weird, loving something that was against what my brain was telling me was the most feminine or attractive or cool instrument. For Pete’s sake, it’s an instrument I chose when I was 8-years-old, why on earth would I already have an idea of whether it was cool or not?!? I imagine those on the stage in San Diego had their own experiences of loneliness, either in the back row of the band or at some point in life, but now they were here, shoulder to shoulder with people like them, perhaps enjoying a sense of a one-of-a-kind having in reality many-of-a-kind to share in a specific joy. Tuba Christmas represents everything I turned against as a young woman in an interest to be cool, like weather-appropriate clothing, driving advice (or really any advice) from my Dad, sensible shoes, and nice guys.
As the Tubas launched into “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” the first notes burrowed into that sacred place deep within my ears, and the hairs on my arms stood up. As the musical phrase accompanying “tidings of comfort and joy” boomed out, it tugged on that single thread that connects the wonder of a fourth grader to the hope of a grown woman who is learning with each passing season how to follow what makes her happy.