Wednesday, January 2, 2013


This is the way I’m starting the year — with an oompah-pah not a whimper.  For the first post of the new year, I present the large, the loud and the illustrious tuba.

The word tuba originally was the name of a straight-built Roman trumpet and was the medieval Latin word for trumpet.

The serpent, probably invented in 1590 by Edme Guillaume of Auxerre, a French canon, was made of wood in a serpentine curve with a 7- or 8- foot bore and six finger holes.  Originally, it accompanied plainchant (Gregorian chant) in churches but from the eighteenth century was the standard wind bass in military bands.

The invention of the bass tuba by a German instrument builder named Johann Gottfried Moritz in 1835 provided a more reliable and more even brass bass than its predecessors.  This was the bass tuba in F, with five valves.

Richard Wagner, also in the nineteenth century, had special tubas designed to create special effects for his opera cycle, The Ring of the Nibelung.  The Wagner tubas formed a tone between a French horn and a tuba (described as a quieter tone color than both instruments).

Modern military and brass band tubas are of two sizes used together.  Orchestral tubas vary in different countries.  Great Britain and Germany use tubas in the original pitch of F while the US and parts of Europe use large instruments in the C pitch.

Enough of the history of the tuba (use the information three times and it’s yours for a lifetime).  Let’s go to the poems now.

by Robert Phillips

She was a girl
no one ever chose
for teams or clubs,
dances or dates,

so she chose the instrument
no one else wanted:
the tuba.  Big as herself,
heavy as her heart,

its golden tubes
and coils encircled her
like a lover’s embrace.
Its body pressed on hers.

Into its mouthpiece she blew
life, its deep-throated
oompahs, oompahs sounding,
almost, like mating cries.

“Instrument of Choice,” by Robert Phillips, appeared online on The Writer’s Almanac on May 5, 2007.

The second tuba poem is from Scrambled, by Trish Dugger (Garden Oak Press, 2012).  Trish’s book was featured on this blog last year.

LA Times, Dec. 12, 2011

I can’t get those tubas
out of my head.  I imagine
culprits in dark hoods
trying to hide humongous
tubas behind their backs,
bumping into lockers,
knocking over trash cans,
cracking windows.
I’ve never stolen anything
unless you count
Lucy Crane’s boyfriend,
Corky Taylor, and I never
knew a guy who played
the tuba, which I can’t
say I’m sorry about but,
Corky played a wicked
harmonica when we
weren’t making out
behind the bleachers.

    — Trish Dugger

This post’s final tuba poem is from me and appears in my new book, The ABCs of Memory.  (Okay, I’m starting off the new year also with a shameless plug for my book.)


A distant train trundles into the night,
    working hard, going somewhere else.
        It reminds her of the time he explained
how the Doppler Effect was confirmed
    by an Austrian mathematician
        who used a Dutch locomotive,
three separate observing stations
    along the track and fifteen musicians
        on the train playing trumpets.

She’d pictured the coming and going
    with its rising and falling to be more
like a herd of tuba players in a German
    oompah-pah band, exuberant men
in lederhosen and green felt hats,
    their cheeks puffing out, puckering in,
out and in, and all for the love of science.

He maintained they’d played trumpets.
    As the train went past the three stations,
the trumpeters all played the same note
    while musicians with absolute pitch,
posted on the platforms, attempted to catch
    changes in frequency.  In his most forceful
and sonorous tone, he tried to impress
    on her the simple seriousness of science.

As she coasts toward sleep, she considers
    the sad, single note testing and retesting
the returning.  Or was it the leaving?
    And an unsteady recollection he’s said
something or other about Edwin Hubble
    using what the trumpeters had proved
to validate the galaxies racing further

apart.  Red Shift, he’d called it,
    where light from distant stars downshifts
        toward the red end of the spectrum,
to lower frequencies and longer wavelengths.
    So much going somewhere else, a nocturne
        for all the worlds and loved ones leaving.

     — Lenny Lianne

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