This is a blog about music, photography, history, and culture.
These are photographs from my collection that tell a story about lost time and forgotten music.

Mike Brubaker
{ Click on the image to expand the photo }

Plumbing the Brassy Depths

18 June 2021


Some tubas bend to the right.

Some tubas twist to the left.

While the tubing of other tubas
coils round and around
until it looks like the player
might be strangled by plumbing.

Not to worry.
It's all about the

The left and right tuba pair up
for a nice stereo sound,
while the third in the center
adds the all-important sub-woofer.

But some tubist's pals wish
they'd just leave their bleeping oompahs
back on the parade field.

This is a 4" x 5" photo of three anonymous bandsmen standing in a military encampment, location unknown. Behind them is a row of army issue canvas tents of the type used before 1917. On one side next to a tree are music stands and a snare drum, perhaps the instrument of the man trying to catch a nap inside the tent. 
The chevrons on their sleeves and the stripes on their trousers resemble uniforms of a regimental band assigned to a state militia or national guard. Back in the day, each state in the U.S. typically maintained a number of guard regiments that met every year in the summer for a week or two of army training. The soldiers' drills included a lot of marching for which bands provided the music. Bandsmen might hold an enlisted rank but were excused from participating in the same training as regular guardsmen.
What makes this photo interesting for brass players like myself, is that the trio holds three varieties of  the lowest of the low brass instruments. The players on the left and right have standard piston valve tubas while man in the middle is encircled by a helicon, similar to, but not exactly the same as, a sousaphone. The left tuba is a shorter E-flat, about 17 feet in length including the valve plumbing. The right tuba and the helicon are both, I think, the longer BB-flat basses, so called "monster" tubas to use the popular band instrument term of this era. As two of the men sport fine twisted mustaches and the third is clean-shaven, I think their photo was taken around 1905-10, just about the time that mustaches in America began go out of fashion.

Tuba players and horn players share a fascination with brass plumbing. Both instruments have long conical tubing that amplifies the sound of the player's lips from a whisper to a roar. Both have multiple valve systems and complicated designs to wrap the tubing efficiently. And players of both the tuba and the horn spend a life time figuring out where the condensate water from our breath gets trapped in the instrument. 
Courtesy of the Yamaha Band Instrument Company, here is a short video showing the path of the tuba's sound beginning from the mouthpiece to the bell. For this demonstration all the valves are depressed which gives the tuba the greatest length for its lowest of low notes. It's long. Very long. 

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where a few folks have gone for a ride.



Barbara Rogers said...

Wonderful to have more information about tubas...I do like the oompa oomp pa pa that they give to keep all the other instruments, except maybe drums, in beat!

La Nightingail said...

Ah-ha! Someone else noticed the tents! Every once in a while, I wonder at all the different instruments created. Those with so many twists and turns and loops and round-abouts - I mean, you just have to wonder what their creators thought they were doing? Then again, if all instruments were created the same, there's be no contrast in bands or orchestras which wouldn't be very exciting, so it's a good thing those creators went a little nuts over their designs. :)

smkelly8 said...

Such observant Sepians. You both saw the tents and incorporated them into your posts. I appreciate the information on tubas.

Molly's Canopy said...

Fascinating as always. I imagine that regimental bands had to get the troops up and marching, and what better way than with a booming brass bass -- something still popular with young car drivers around my neighborhood at night :-)

kathy said...

I don't think I would have noticed the man trying to nap if you hadn't pointed him out. Every year in Austin, a Tuba Christmas concert happens at the Capitol. I always think I'll go, but never have. It was cancelled last year, of course. Maybe 2021 will be the year I finally attend.


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