Reminisces of the ‘oom-pa-pa’

I am not a big football fan but on the rare occasions when I have visited a university stadium I love the halftime performances by the college bands. In particular, I enjoy the sousaphones in the bands.

For those who are not tuba aficionados, a sousaphone is the round-belled tuba most common in marching bands as opposed to the upright tubas you see in an orchestra.

The mellow bass notes of the glistening sousaphones in the marching bands or the oom-pa-pa sound of a tuba in a Dixieland or polka band always bring back memories of a brief love affair with the sousaphone when I was in eighth grade.

While I love music, I was not blessed with a strong musical aptitude. Accordingly, I did not take up a musical instrument in earlier grades. In eighth grade, however, I was told there was an old sousaphone available and I could use it if I wanted to join the junior high band.

I met with Mr. Meyers, our band instructor, who gave me a few personal lessons. Within a few weeks I was playing with the junior high band which, I recall, included sixth- through eighth-graders. Please understand, this was not a spectacular feat. In the fall of 1961 there weren’t many junior high musicians at the tiny Kamrar school.

Some of the band members had been playing an instrument for a few years and weren’t too bad. A few had been playing an instrument for a few years and weren’t too good. Then there was the novice tuba player who made them all sound good. We wouldn’t have won any music contests but we sure had a good time.

Practicing on a sousaphone took some real dedication and perspiration. Our band met a couple of times a week. In between those times I carried the old horn (and the chair which went with it) from school to home and back. At that time, fortunately, we lived only a block from school and I still had a good back.

I practiced diligently and never heard a discouraging word from my parents. When our daughter took up the flute in elementary school I appreciated just how understanding my parents were. After listening to a beginning flautist practice the scales and the same songs over and over, I realized the sounds of a beginning tuba player surely did not enhance the ambience of a household with six kids. Imagine a tuba playing “Carnival of Venice” and “Little Brown Jug” over and over in your house.

Though I made progress in several months, I knew I wasn’t ready for the high school band the next year so I gave up the tuba at the end of eighth grade. Over the years when I’ve caught the gleam of a sousaphone in a marching band or heard the tuba’s rich notes in a concert, I’ve remembered the old, dented sousaphone at Kamrar school. It is then that I wonder what would have happened if I had stuck with it. Who knows, maybe I could have played in a Dixieland band. Or I might have been able to play in a polka band, though I would probably have difficulty locating a pair of lederhosen my size.

During my working years there was little time to learn to play a musical instrument. Over the years I taught myself how to plink out a tune on an old piano but harbored no hopes of ever getting past plinking.

At a craft fair in Silver Dollar City years ago I was seriously tempted to purchase a modern-day psaltery, a simple stringed instrument which is played with a bow.

My wife encouraged me to buy the psaltery; she even offered to pay for it. She was always looking for a hobby for me so I wouldn’t drive her crazy when I retired. She was thinking ahead!

A year or two later she gave me a psaltery as a Christmas gift. I enjoyed the instrument and learned it well enough to play some simple tunes. Today the psaltery rests quietly in its black case in a closet. I have picked it up only once or twice since Cindy passed away nearly 11 years ago.

So that’s the extent of my musical experience. I can plink on a piano or fiddle with a psaltery. It’s been so long since I played a tuba I’m not sure if I could pucker up the proper embouchure to make a tuba go “oom-pa-pa.”

Arvid Huisman can be contacted at huismaniowa@gmail.com. ©2023 by Huisman Communications.


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