This is a lightly edited version of the piece I performed in The Encyclopedia Show's October 16th edition at Kieran's Irish Pub in downtown Minneapolis. This month's theme was "Marching Bands."
As I began 7th grade and moved up to middle school, which would prove to be the longest 2 years of my life, I transitioned from playing the cornet in the school band to playing the tuba. (For those of you wondering what a cornet is, it’s a slightly shorter, stockier trumpet.) This decision was made partly due to periodontal surgery, but mainly because I figured tuba parts were way easier than cornet parts. (I turned out to be right about that.) I wasn’t playing a musical instrument for enjoyment or to better myself. I was playing it to get my mom off my back while putting forth the least amount of effort.
She had tricked me into joining the band in 5th grade, promising that if I didn’t like it, I could quit at the end of the year. This charade played out over the next 5 years. At the end of each year, I’d beg to quit, and every time she’d force me to stick with it.
It’s not that I hated it. There were many times when I liked it, but it was work and, therefore, the enemy. As my hero, role model and personal savior Homer Simpson once said, “TV gives so much and asks so little. It’s a boy’s best friend.” After a thorough cost-benefit analysis, I realized I’d rather be watching TV than practicing. It was the only thing that banished the demons of loneliness and self-doubt that lurked in the shadows of our basement in the evening.
The tuba was a pretty good instrument for someone who didn’t want to stand out and shine, someone who preferred to blend into the background, someone who was scared to death of making a mistake in public. Sure, it was big and loud, but it was clearly a supporting instrument that was rarely exposed by the limelight.
There was a price to pay for such anonymity, of course. I consigned myself to nerd-ery. But I was already painfully insecure and in band; my fate had been sealed long before this choice. I would never get laid. I was in my early teens, though, so I probably shouldn’t have been worrying about that.
To put it bluntly, the tuba is not a chick magnet. It’s not like the guitar, the drums or, for some reason, the tambourine. The only role the tuba might play in your quest to get laid is that of an obstacle.
Adding to the degree of difficulty in my attempt to appear cool was the release of the film Kindergarten Cop, which I’m sure proved to be the bane of adolescent tuba players everywhere. My bandmates could not resist telling me, “It’s not a tuba.” Although the comic appeal of this joke was limited even in its first iteration, they would continue to employ it, driving its comic value into negative territory.
As someone who goes by the nickname “Mickey,” I’m well-acquainted with the phenomenon of people beating a bad joke into the ground. (I think it’s worth noting that the video for Toni Basil’s hit song from 1982, “Mickey,” features a cheerleading theme, rendering this digression germane to the subject of this show. So this is more than just self-indulgent bitterness.)
Since I could count on one hand the number of kids from middle school I ever wanted to see again, I decided to opt out of the public school system and into the nearby Catholic high school, where my mom was a guidance counselor. Her job meant that I, and later my sister, could go there for free.
If I’d gone to the public high school, I might’ve had a lot more to say about marching bands. Their band practiced (seemingly) every day over the summer. You could hear them from our house a mile away. All the Catholic school had was a puny pep band that didn’t march. As a tuba player, pep band allowed me the opportunity to play those cool sousaphones that wrap around your torso with the big bell on top, but eventually they dig into your shoulder and the novelty wears off.
The pep band songs were pretty cool: “Hang On, Sloopy,” “25 or 6 to 4” and other classics from the 60’s and 70’s, although they had all spent enough time in the mainstream to be stripped of their original cultural significance, thereby meeting the Establishment’s standard for appropriate levels of youthful exuberance. They were also performed in the stilted, lazy style of teenagers terrified of being ridiculed for displaying any kind of individuality. We sounded like a pack of insecure, acne-riddled zombies.
After 9th grade, my mom finally let me quit band. It was the end of an era. I was no longer a band nerd. I was now free to be some other kind of nerd. But never again would I know the heady rush of being told, “It’s not a tuba.”