Striving to hit the low notes

Band students at Toledo Jr/Sr High School have their choice of instruments, but a tuba remains out of reach.

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I have never shopped for a tuba, so when I learned that Toledo Jr/Sr High School applied for and received a $1,300 grant earmarked for the instruments, I had to wonder just how many tubas that money would buy. And yes, I admit, I was beyond surprised when I heard: none.

“They are a little spendy,” said Elizabeth Soper, music teacher at the school. “We’re hoping to get one beginning tuba and one intermediate. The cost is a little bit different for each, but one will cost between $6,000 to $8,000. The good news is, if they are well taken care of, they are good for 75 to 100 years.”

"Der Tubaspieler" ("The Tuba Player") by Josef Kinzel, 1892 (oil, 6 by 8 inches, private collection)
“Der Tubaspieler” (“The Tuba Player”) by Josef Kinzel, 1892 (oil, 6 by 8 inches, private collection)

This is the first time in a year and a half that the Toledo school has had a band program.  When Soper, who teaches middle and high school band and choir, as well as a rock history class, signed on in July, one of her first tasks was to take inventory of the musical instruments. She found the usual array — clarinets, saxophones, flutes, trombones – but no tubas. And tubas, it turns out, are quite important.  


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“The tuba is the lowest part of the band,” said Soper, a first-year teacher. “They typically play the bassline. What is so important is that for us to reach our national standards, students need to learn how to balance and listen to other parts of the band. But you don’t have the balanced sound if you don’t have the really low instruments. You don’t have that full sound without the tuba … the sound tends to be very top heavy.”

Girl playing tuba,  postcard, 1928
Girl playing tuba, postcard, 1928

This is the first year each of the band students has played an instrument. The virtual classes started in September, and Soper described them as  awesome, even with the “weird experience of the pandemic.” Students began the year by picking several instruments they’d most like to play. The biggest limitation, Soper said, is if, for example, 10 students wanted flutes — a popular choice thanks to singer, songwriter, rapper, and flutist Lizzo — the school doesn’t have 10 flutes to hand out. But each student did get one of his or her top choices.

In picking their own instruments, Soper said, students tend to identify with a sound that reflects their personality. “Some students are quieter, and just like to blend in, and some like the bright and loud sound of the trumpet and have bright and spirited personalities, as well,” she said. “They get to choose what they want their education to be by picking their instruments.”

In just one term, the band program has doubled in size to 31 students, something Soper attributes to the students having something to do away from the computer.

Soper can play all the band instruments — a requirement for her teaching certificate.  Though admittedly not a professional on all of them, she can at least pick them up and show the students how to play.

If she had to choose?

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"Rabbit Playing the Tuba" by George (?) Tatham, 1863.
“Rabbit Playing the Tuba” by George (?) Tatham, 1863

“My favorite would probably be the bassoon,” she said. “It’s a very quirky instrument,” noting that one thumb is assigned 13 different keys to play. The school has one bassoon, she said, but aspiring bassoonists don’t start on the instrument. “Students start out with simpler instruments, so they can get used to holding it and using their lungs, learning how to consciously use their breathing to make sound.”

Hopefully, those students soon will also have the option of graduating to the tuba. The tuba grant comes from the Mark R. Sponenburgh Memorial Trust, which supports arts education, particularly music, in the schools. Soper is trying to raise $16,000 through grants, community fundraising (limited during these unusual times), and support from the school. If you’d like to help a budding tuba player, you can send a donation to Toledo Jr/Sr High School at 1800 N.E. Sturdevant Road, Toledo, OR 97391.

The students haven’t played in public yet, but the day is coming.

“We have a small auditorium at the school,” she said. “When it is safe, I’m really looking forward to performing.”

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This story is supported in part by a grant from the Oregon Cultural Trust, investing in Oregon’s arts, humanities and heritage, and the Lincoln County Cultural Coalition.

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