There are many ways to hide in the midst of a choir during an end of year school concert. Stand at the back, move your mouth in sync with others around you, but be careful not to make any audible sound. Let the others do the heavy lifting. And should you find yourself playing the recorder in a large group on stage, let your fingers dance confidently over the air holes, and lift and tilt the recorder on the high notes, but resist any temptation to blow into the instrument. No exertion, no pressure; you are not really there at all. No-one, except your parents, will find you dissolved in there among the contributors. Performing solo, on the other hand, is a different ballgame. You’re out there under the spotlight with nowhere to hide. Exposed and alone. A sitting duck.
So imagine someone lowering the largest brass musical instrument in the orchestral family into the arms of the smallest 10 year old boy in my year level, and then pushing him out onto center stage for a solo performance at our end of year concert, way back in 1975. It was terrifying enough to watch from the audience, but through the eyes of such a young and inexperienced musician, the landscape ahead appeared to be very bleak indeed.
The tuba, from most accounts, is played as a background instrument, and has been described by at least one observer as an Orchestra’s “central heating”, as it provides an earthy warmth to the overall harmony. As you can imagine, the tuba is a very difficult instrument to master and an exhausting one to play.
It’s a lung buster. Spirit crusher.
The audience of roughly 500 parents and students were hot, tired, restless, and without humor. They appeared to be thoroughly underwhelmed by the night’s proceedings. Wedged into the large civic hall like sardines and suffering in the sweltering December evening heat, people fanned themselves with their programmes and mathematically calculated how many minutes were left before they could escape. “Let’s see, there are 6 items left, with each lasting roughly 4 minutes, and allowing for people to round up their limp children and evacuate, we could see ourselves in the car park in under 30 minutes.” Other thoughts may have included “I love my son dearly but I’m definitely going to be out of town this time next year”, and perhaps even “I’m going to get myself elected onto the school council and work feverishly to cut the duration of this thing in half!”
Then he came out, and the room suddenly fell silent.
This tiny, skinny, red-headed young boy appeared hesitantly from behind the massive red floor to ceiling curtain, and peered out at the audience, squinting to try and make sense of the mass of eyes that looked straight back at him and up at the monstrosity above him. The crowd gasped, because it looked as though the instrument might slip and pulverize the boy into the stage floor. As he staggered toward the lone stool that was placed at the very front of the stage, onlookers shifted sideways in their seats as if they were trying to remotely guide him safely to his seat. For one moment he appeared to have lost control of this massive brass flowering contraption, and he had to quicken his step to catch up with it. Bending his knees to sit at the stool, he stole a panicked glance at his unseen dispatcher behind the curtain, but what he saw there didn’t seem to reassure him much; in fact this distraction nearly had him missing the chair altogether. There was a moment where one of the stool legs levitated slightly under his uneven downward docking movement, and the crowd caught their breath and shifted sideways again until the stool righted itself and the young fellow was securely seated.
This little boy was petrified, haunted, and alone, under the single spotlight. People in the audience were not sure whether to keep looking at what was about to unfold, or to start studying their shoes.
He arranged the big brass monster on his lap, inserted the mouthpiece, wet his lips, and drew a deep breath. His cheeks ballooned out, and he played his first note.
Whales in the Southern Ocean paused and listened.
The sound that escaped was more like a slow, drawn out guttural yawn. It was followed shortly after by a loud squeak and then a series of flatulent blurts and gurgles. It sounded to me like he was just testing his equipment but it soon became apparent that this was, in fact, the start of his recital. I was now wondering how long it would take for the tow trucks to arrive.
Our little tubist hugged his massive brass flower arrangement; his fingers worked away at the three chubby valves, and his bright red cheeks ballooned and deflated like those of a hyperactive swamp frog. What we heard was not unlike the sounds emitted from hopelessly lost barges in a heavy fog.
But the audience stopped calculating their exits times, and the kids stopped itching and fidgeting.
The young boy stopped playing for a moment, to summon more air, and perhaps to decide whether he should continue, before pressing on once again with more deep groans and high piercing squeaks. Each note must have surprised him, because none of them came out as he intended. The deep ones, however, rumbled along the floorboards and rolled off the end off the stage, triggering vibrations that were felt up the aisle-ways, all the way to the back wall of the room. A small ruddy-faced boy, with a big but peculiar sound.
Next there was a sequence of notes that appeared to form some sort of scale, and the crowd moved with him up the register and then swooned when he missed the top note. But at least now there was something vaguely musical about his arrangement. The audience finally had something to hang on to.
It was the longest and most drawn out recital that you could imagine, but our young tuba player braved it out. His tiny lungs heaved and sagged, his head drooped and then rose again with each note. He was exhausted and excruciatingly embarrassed when he finally finished. His shoulders slumped low after the Tuba’s final trembling utterance.
He was certain that the crowd hated his performance as much as he had.
The applause nearly blew him, and his tuba off the stool. The crowd leapt to their feet and roared. He looked up suddenly, taken aback, and both startled and shocked at the response; he looked around in case the audience was applauding someone else. Maybe Elton John had just walked on stage and everyone was applauding him instead. He couldn’t believe his eyes and ears. Complete bewilderment. The standing ovation went on forever, and when the clapping finally died down, the room continued to buzz for a long time afterwards.
When the tubist walked offstage, he left his instrument on the ground next to the stool. He was so overwhelmed by the crowd’s reaction that he had simply forgotten to take it with him. The Tuba sat there under that single spotlight, inert, a Goliath not tamed, but now respectful. It would have been only fitting if a little white flag had risen up and unfurled itself from within the instrument’s enormous flared bell.
And from the deep Southern Ocean, the whales smiled, gave a silent nod of respect, swished their massive tails, and continued happily on their way.