Sunday, August 31, 2008


A few weeks ago, I played in a band that appears at the bullfights in Tijuana, Mexico. I had a very peculiar incident down there, so I wanted to share it with other musicians, and hear your thoughts about it. After my initial writing of this experience, I’ll share some responses from some of my friends, and friends of theirs.

At this point, the only people that I know are the trumpet player and a trombone player from my band back in the states. Sheets of music are handed out and collected one piece at a time. When the first piece is left on my stand, I am still warming up. So, even before my first song, a clarinet player comes up to me and says,

“This note here, it is one and three,” and demonstrates the fingering.

Now, the note he is pointing to is a D in the staff. Since he is a clarinet player, so obviously misguided, I feel comfortable saying,

“Uh, ... no. That’s open.”

“We play it one.”

Now, as you will soon be able to tell by my descriptions if you have not been able to discern already, I am NOT very knowledgable on my music theory. There is also the language barrier to consider, but I DO speak Tuba, and I know a D when I see one. (I had hoped.) At that point, I decide that this guy is nuckin futz, and decide to speak the same language.

“When I see that note on the paper, I play TOOT and to play TOOT I have to either play it open, or one and two. If I play one, TOOT or one and three TOOT, I get that note, the note below the one you are pointing to,” and I’m tooting away, so he can hear what I believe I am supposed to hear when I see the D on paper.”

“We do it differently here.”

Do it differently? There is no “differently.” Music is supposed to be universal. At this point, I am torn between stealing the “There is no crying in baseball” routine from Tom Hanks, and panicing because I have fallen down Alice’s rabbithole into a tuba hell. To console myself, I think that maybe the language barrier is still in effect, because the older tuba player keeps telling me to play it up. Also, since I rode with somebody else, and four hours to kill, what do I have to lose by beating my head against a musical brickwall? I am going to just listen across, and hear what I am supposed to hear, and in turn, be rescued from The Twilight Zone.

To my left, is the older guy, and to my right, is a younger guy. We play the first song, and sure enough, they’re playing every note two half steps down. In addition to having to transpose, the other two players played most of the music an octave down, intermittantly mixing in the proper octave, which played even more havoc with my chances of following along. After the first song, I felt tricked and abandoned. The music was fantastic, but I could only play some of it. If you have ever gone to a friend’s rehearsal, and could only listen and not play, then you understand some of my frustration.

At this point, the clarinet player approached me again, and said, “We play it two half-steps down because your horn has three valves, and so does the trumpet. So, we write it with the trumpet and the clairnet. In America, your part is written along side the string bass. Doesn’t that make more sense this way?”

Fortunately, I am so frustrated and caught off guard, that I cannot be snake charmed. I told him, “Right now, I’m not going to argue which system is best. Right now, I really want my system. It’s the one I know.” I found it very very strange that he would state that their way was the one true way, but also argue in its defense. Very suspicious,indeed.

He takes off, and the young player tells me, “In America, it’s different. This is how it is done in Mexico. Most of the world does it this way. America is about the only one that plays it like that.”

All I can think about is how I know people and I cannot wait to get back home and have this checked out. I just could not imagine that after all these years, that I was playing some sort of Secret American Tubage. I went to my trombone and trumpet friends, and said, “Hey, is your sheet music the same here as in America?”

“They’re not playing what’s written?”

“No, they’re taking two half steps off of each note.”

“No way! That’s bullshit.”

“Well, they’re playing the notes that fit the song. Somebody just wrote everything up two half steps on paper.”

So, I go back to my corner, thinking thinking thinking. Something had to be up, because they can’t just screw with one part. I could see if it was written from the view of another instrument entirely, but two half steps down? Music is math. It is a formula ranging from soprano to bass, and you can’t just relocate something because it suits you. I do not know why the rules are there, but I do know they exist, and need to be followed. Similar to a recipe, but stricter.

Oh, and in case things get too easy, most of the music was two sharps. We brass players LUUUUVVVV sharps. Did I mention that there was only one sheet of music for two sousaphone players and one tuba player to share? Did I mention that there were songs that the other sections had sheet music for, but the tubas had in their head? It was killing me. I was feeling very “intermediate band.” In spite of all that, every once in a while, I would get a part down, and let everyone know I had it.

At the break, I needed help. I saw beer, and as every good tuba player knows, beer = help. I should not have moved. On my way back, this VERY drunk man gets ahold of me, and starts joking on how the white boy stands out. Without warning, he switches to his wife that just recently died, how he did not have much longer, and how I was a young pup. Crikey, I was busy hating everybody and everything, and I have to have a conversation! I had two hands. Why didn’t I have two beers? That second beer could have gotten me into the conversation. Finally, the next song was starting, and I got to run away.

As we start playing, I notice that what I consider to be an Eb, they consider it to be an E. My Bb, is their B. Then, two things hit me. One, they had written a bass clef part, but adjusted it to a trumpet’s rules. I was reading some sort of bass trumpet part. Two, that there would be no immediate resolution of this problem. That my only way out was the other side.

From time to time, maybe once every other piece, I would get a section down, and go at it. Unfortunately, it was never an entire song, so I could never really relax.

Next break, next puzzle piece. The older tuba player showed me a newspaper clipping of himself playing in that very same band in 1978. (Mexico had button fly collars. Seems that we have some cultural apologizing to do, too.) At this point, the group moved into the arena, and took our seats to play for the bulls. Over the next six hours, I struggled to understand an hammer out a theory as to what was going on musically. My friends kept saying, “They’re not playing what’s written. That’s crazy,” and I would have to go back and explain that yes, they were playing what was written, AND they were playing the notes that fit with the rest of the music. It was just their sheet music that was off.

What I really struggled was for an analogy that would put it in perspective for other musicians, and even non-musicians alike. This is what I came up with. If you and I spoke English, and I said, “How are you?” I would say it in English, you would hear it in English, and we would both agree on what that phrase meant. Then, you wrote down “Glerble blah, maw maw,” and read that as “How are you?” You and I could talk to each other (as I did in toots earlier) but we could not write to each other. This would be the case whenever I played with this band at the bullfights.

Here is my final guestimate as to why I was seeing what I was seeing. Long long long time ago, it was probably the same director that scored these pieces. His knowledge of trumpet scripture was much more advanced than his knowledge of bass scripture. To me, it would take a much more educated man to come up with a bass trumpet part than to learn a bass clef part, but that seems to be what happened. Since it is a mathematical system consistent within itself, it works. As for the reasons why everyone around me was acting like Stepford wives, at that time the music was written out, the clarinet player, at a young age, was convinced of the logic of this way of writing music, and took it as THEE way. He himself, became a music teacher and taught his students to think this way. One of these students was the young tuba player, who currently has graduated.

Tuba Conspiracy.

Like I said before, this is only a guess, since nobody would give me a straight story. All of you Star Trek fans will understand the line, “You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.” That is exactly what it felt like.

Now, had someone been straight with me, I probably could have relaxed, and accepted the situation for what it was. Like I said before, it is my horn, and I love it. I have been playing it for twenty years now, and if someone is going to tell me that I have been in the dark for two decades, I am going to, as you can see, investigate the situation very seriously.

I would like to make one last point, as a musician, and as an American. WE are originally from everyplace else. We brought our concept of musicianship to the new country from Europe. At the time, up until jazz, playing like people did in Europe was considered the ideal. It was the way to be “truly sophisticated.” So, you cannot tell me that we kept every aspect of music the same except the concept of writing the tuba’s part from the standpoint of the three valve instrument, while no other instrument’s part was dicked with whatsoever. Either all the parts evolved, or it all remained constant.

Anyway, if anyone can help me with this, I would be interested in listening. As I stated earlier, I am far from being a music major. I only became an amateur Sherlock Horns to get answers.

Have I missed something this big all my musical life?

response from friend

OK. Checked with my firends, my tuba specialists, AND my "Mexican Connections". Obviously, tubas read bass clef in every country including
Mexico. Come on.....certainly you've played your share of German Polkas. What clef were they in? If you want to prove it to the guy, just get online and order a piece of tuba music from a Mexican company in Mexico to be delivered to a Mexican Tuba player in Mexico. It will not come in treble clef. therefore, if Mexican music comes in bass clef for Mexican players your point has been proven.

Most of my friends chuckled when I told them your story, but one of the Mexican teachers (who actually teaches down in TJ also) actually got angry. He was angry because this guy was making all of
Mexico look bad. He asked me to tell you that not all of Mexico is like that. It's like when we got those two-for-one beers from that resturant. (Two beers for one guy, not two beers for the price of one.) Also, TJ doesn't not have music teachers in the public schools. (They can hardly afford teachers) He's problably just volunteering his time or working like a marching coach would at an American high school. Anyway, all of my friends agreed.........if he truly is serious, don't be too hard on him. He's doing the best he can with what little education he's recieved, and since very few tuba players grow up to be professionals, at least he's bringing joy to some kids life for a little while. Because in Mexico most of their playing is by ear anyhow. He's probably just trying to save face in front of his students.

Next time charge you friend a lot more beer for the performance.

Tuba case closed.

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