Abby Learns to Play the Tuba -Barry Vitcov
There’s that look that my poodle gives when I ask her a question. “Emmy, would you like to solve a math problem? Emmy, what do you think of the current state of politics in our town?” She cocks her head in a way that I suppose all dogs…smart ones like poodles…do when faced with an inquiry that doesn’t involve going for a walk. It’s the same look my wife gave me when I asked, “Abby, what do you think about the two of us taking tuba lessons?” “Huh?” “It would be something we could do together. It might be fun.” Abby and I have been married for seventeen years. We chose to never have children and live our lives filled with adventure and unpredictability. We met shortly after graduating from college, filled with ideals and the visions of perfection, with good jobs, and a passion for each other. We tried to break out of any perceived ruts by signing up for painting, dancing…tango was a disaster…and music appreciation classes. We took vacations that family members questioned: studying fire ants in Texas, archeological digs in Cambodia…watching out for land mines…and adult space camp in Alabama. Neither of us played any musical instruments. “But we’re not musical. And why tuba?” “I thought we could do Oktoberfest in Germany and join an oompah band.” “Seriously?” “Why not?” We found Helga’s Top Brass Music by Googling tuba lessons. The website said that they had instruments and lessons for every age group. We entered and noticed an older gentleman behind the counter. He was a stout fellow and sported an immense gray beard. He greeted us and asked how he might be of assistance. Abby said, “We called about tuba lessons.” He looked us over with an amused expression. Abby is the definition of cute and petite; I am sturdy and small. I had the sense that he didn’t see us as hefty enough to play a large brass instrument, much less lug it around. “Might I interest you in a trumpet or perhaps a French horn. Tubas are quite large and heavy.” “No, we are determined to learn how to play the tuba,” replied Abby. I had always admired Abby’s assertiveness once she made up her mind. When I first broached the idea of tuba lessons, her first response after “seriously?” was to think about it. Less than a few hours later, she proclaimed, “Find us some tubas and an instructor. We’re going to Oktoberfest in two years.” As it turns out Helga was Otto’s mother. She was retired, and Otto had taken over the family business. For the first year of our lessons, he insisted that we learn while remaining seated. We slowly moved beyond what he termed “initial instrument farts,” while learning to read simple music notation and making progress into the tubas deep, sonorous noises and then recognizable sounds. Abby was a quick learner and began making decipherable sounds early on. It took me months before I was able to match the noise with the musical notations. Otto often scratched his wiry head of graying hair in wonderment of Abby’s ability to blow enough air through the tuba’s mouthpiece. My breathing was consistently too shallow, my lips either too tense or too lax and my fingering uncontrollable. Otto would utter, “Abby, you’re getting to oompah, but your husband is barely at oomph!” On a rainy December evening, a little over a year since we began our lessons, Abby asked me if I thought we’d be ready to play publicly at the next Oktoberfest. “Abby, I think you are well on your way. You have real tuba talent. I’m not sure about myself.” I had begun to grasp the idea that my musical talent might be as a listener and not as a player. Yet, giving up was not part of my personality. “Maybe tuba is not your thing. Let’s ask Otto.” At our next lesson, we talked with Otto about options. Knowing that oompah bands typically employ trumpets, trombones, clarinets, tubas, accordions, and drummers, he suggested I take up the tambourine or cowbell. “It would be unusual but refreshing.” The switch to a rhythmic instrument was not easy. It turns out my weak breaths and fumbling fingers on the tuba were not my only musical shortcomings. Apparently, I lacked a basic sense of rhythm. Otto convinced me that playing a simple woodblock was my calling. For the next year, Abby and I rehearsed daily. Otto described the sounds emanating from her tuba playing as, “round, robust, earthy, and resonant.” To me he said, “You are mostly in rhythm, but be gentler with the hammer on the block.” September arrived and Abby had learned several typical Oktoberfest songs. She was confident that she could play simple tunes with an oompah band. What was even more amazing was that Otto believed she had a highly tuned ear and could improvise even when she didn’t know the song. “You're a natural, Abby.” Our plan was to fly to Munich and participate in the festivities by spontaneously joining bands at one of the many so-called pop-up events. We figured that there would be enough beer being hoisted and sausages consumed to keep others from paying much attention to us. Oktoberfest felt like Mardi Gras with lederhosen. We checked into our hotel carrying only backpacks and one tuba. My woodblock fit easily into my backpack. The front desk clerk welcomed us with a broad grin… probably reserved for Americans… and a guide to Munich’s celebratory activities. After a short in-room rehearsal, we were interrupted by a call from the front desk asking us to be respectful of neighboring guests. Abby wiped down her recently purchased tuba treating it as an infant. I left my woodblock on the chair. We went in search of a quiet place for dinner. The front desk clerk suggested a small delicatessen off the beaten track. “You won’t find any revelers there, and the food is moderately priced and very good.” The hotel was amazingly quiet, and we both slept well in spite of the time change. Abby suggested we take a walk and get our bearings, find a place for breakfast, and ask locals where we might want to go for good local oompah music. One thing we found early on was that our inability to speak German was not a barrier to communication. Every German we encountered spoke excellent English. “You want to hear oompah?” “Actually, we came to play.” “Oh, what instruments do you play.” “I play tuba, my husband woodblock.” “Woodblock? There are no woodblocks in oompah bands.” Later that evening, when festivities were liveliest, Abby carried her tuba, and I my not-an-oompah-band woodblock. We returned to a rustic square we had noticed earlier in the day. It was set up with long tables and filled with revelers. We were immediately welcomed by a young woman wearing a traditional dirndl. She recognized us as Americans and asked in her unaccented English, “You are here with the band? The rest of your group will arrive shortly. Sit and I’ll bring you steins.” Then she glanced at the woodblock and added, “I suppose you’ll be watching and listening while your lady friend plays.” Now I was determined to make my woodblock sing. I kept hearing Otto’s voice, “Hold your instrument like a butterfly, feel it’s beautiful wings flapping, and allow rich tones to escape.” The musicians arrived and began playing recognizable Volksmusik that Otto had prepared us for. Abby and I edged behind and joined in. Abby had no problem picking up the rhythms and effortlessly blended in. Several of the band members turned their heads toward Abby smiling with their eyes and nodding approval. At the end of the first song, the other tuba player welcomed Abby with a pat on the back. “You play well for a tiny girl. Please, continue.” Then he turned to me, “There are no percussion instruments like yours in our band, so please enjoy the music from the bench. Also, you still need to work on your rhythm.” I smiled at Abby and encourage her to continue. I was benched just like when I tried out for Little League baseball. The band played a dozen or so songs and then strutted off while continuing to play. Abby marched with them. I trailed behind having left my woodblock behind. When we returned to our hotel room, Abby was ecstatic. She had triumphed and could feel it in her entire being. While I knew I was a failed musician, I was proud of her. She wiped off her tuba and gently set it back in its case. She tenderly embraced me and whispered in my ear, “I am the tuba.”
Barry Vitcov lives in Ashland, Oregon with his wife and two standard poodles. He is a retired educator who recently began submitting poetry and short fiction to various publications, with several poems and short stories already published. He began writing poems in his early teens and fondly remembers his father carrying around a small collection of his poems in his billfold and showing them off to his friends and customers.He has been published in EAP: The Magazine, Literary Yard, Scarlet Leaf Review, Vita Brevis, and The Drabble.