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Lessons from the Back Row

Timothy Todd Anderson | March 2013

    Two months ago, I did something I had not done in over five years. I began playing the tuba again. I pity my fellow musicians in the Florence Community Band of Massachusetts during that first rehearsal. After a half-decade off, my tone was less Harvey Phillips and more in line with the sounds of the River City boys band, during their (in)famous debut in The Music Man. I tried to practice before the rehearsal and was shocked at how tired I became. I do not remember the tuba being such hard work. It was an exercise in futility to hold any note below an A flat for more than two beats. Perhaps something about the physics of the instrument had changed, or maybe my lungs had collapsed and I was just now finding out about it. Admittedly, my tuba playing had never been mistaken for Gene Pokorny, but even average tuba chops would be a step up from where I was now.
    My plan for the first rehearsal was to avoid revealing my day job as a band director. I did not want any advance expectations of how well I would play. Afterward, I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed the experience. After many years of conducting, the role of an instrumentalist was a joy. The communal act of ensemble music making is very fulfilling. It is nearly impossible to put into words, but anyone who has played in a group knows the feeling. Music teachers know this but I think we tend to take it for granted. I know I had.
    I have found that by playing again, I have gained a new perspective as a conductor. For much of this past semester, I found myself frequently chastising the concert band tuba section for falling behind. I do not know if a single rehearsal occurred in which I did not remind them to watch. When I started playing again though, I found myself exactly in their shoes. It turns out that telling someone to watch the conductor is not the magic elixir I had always assumed it to be. Musicians need to know what they are watching are for, and what to do with that information. Likewise, anticipate the beat and play lighter are more difficult for players to implement than I had remembered. I had lost the practitioner’s perspective. Remember, practice what you preach.
    There are numerous examples of things that I now better understand including intonation. Typically, my ensembles tuned during the warm-up portion of our rehearsal. They got a pitch from the first chair tuba and then played a chorale. After that, it was onto the business of rehearsing the music. Returning to the tuba has opened my eyes to how constant the intonation battle is. Being in tune on the concert F and Bb is not the same as being in tune on every chord, nor on every pitch on an instrument. Years ago, when I played tuba regularly as an undergraduate, I assumed I was in tune after the tuning pitch and left it at that. I now have a tuner on the stand, and check every pitch on the horn. As a conductor, I am much more aware of tuning individual chords; that concert B flat only goes so far. From dynamics to articulation, the rediscovered perspective of a player is changing my approach as a conductor.
    The two most important things I have taken from my return to the back row, though, are not related to the physical aspects of playing. The first is rehearsal technique. Many of us go to our students’ honor bands and observe the rehearsals. The guest conductor is typically someone of renown, and the hope is to pick up some of the tricks of the trade. While there is much to be gained from this, you are still an outsider to the ensemble’s experience. Players have a better view of a conductor’s efficacy as they enact the conductor’s comments and translate gestures into sound. We all remember conductors for whom we really enjoyed playing, just as we remember those less than enjoyable experiences. My teaching style is a reflection of the many conductors that I have worked with and played under. When directors stop playing in an ensemble, they lose that resource.
    There is a reason many of the summer conducting symposiums require participation in an ensemble. While this satisfies the basic need of providing enough players to constitute a band, it also provides that valuable player’s perspective. You are not just listening to someone give rehearsal tips; you live it. Since resuming playing, I find each rehearsal becomes a way to evaluate my own teaching. As a player, how involved am I in what is going on? What am I doing while the conductor focuses on the clarinets? When he cuts off the ensemble and makes a correction, do I pay attention or does my mind wander? How often do I find my eyes glancing up at the clock? I use my feelings as a player to evaluate how students experience my teaching in rehearsals.
    I also have realized that there are many reasons why people participate in music. The members of the Florence Community Band range from middle school students to some in their 80s. Everyone has their own reason for joining the group, but what unifies us is that indefinable feeling that comes from making music with an ensemble. This should be at the heart of what we do as music educators.
School directors often pursue public approval, in the form of ratings from judges or the ovation of an audience. These are easily identifiable examples of success, and are recognized as such by our students. If we work hard enough and perform to our best, we will be rewarded. I do not think we always speak enough of music’s intrinsic rewards. Performing groups are a communal activity, and in our quest for excellence, we should always remain open to the possibility of musical wonder. We experienced it at some point; it is why we chose our profession. Be it a jazz band, a brass quintet, a concert band, or a marching group, students should always be aware of just how special making music is. It is an experience I did not quite understand, from only participating at the conductor’s end of the spectrum.
    There are over 1,300 community bands and orchestras in the United States. If you are not currently playing, I encourage you to search for an ensemble. Reconnect with the experiences that motivated you to take up the cause of music in the first place. Thanks to an open tuba spot in the Florence Community Band, I now have a new appreciation of the player’s perspective that helps me as a director and gives new purpose to my teaching. A final word of advice is to stick with it – your lips will come back into shape.