So, I've probably talked about this around here before at some point, but what the hell, it's my website, I'll repeat myself if I want to.
When I was in the fourth grade, toward the end of the school year, the teachers rounded us all up and put us on buses to go over to another of the three elementary schools we had here in town at the time. We were pretty used to that kind of thing at Katahdin Avenue School at the time, since of the three K-5 schools, only Granite Street had a proper gym, so we had to bus over there twice a week for phys ed class anyway.*
The reason for this particular trip was not gym class, although our destination was still the gym. Rather, we were going there because it was the only room in the school system big enough to get all six classes of fourth-graders into at once for assembly purposes.
This particular assembly was to introduce us to the idea of joining the school band, which was a thing that started in fifth grade in those days. In retrospect, the way they did it makes more sense to me now than it did at the time. At the time I thought it was odd that they'd have a school band for only one year at the elementary level (since the schools here ran, and still run, K-5, 6-8, 9-12), but now I understand that it was to weed out the kids who wouldn't stick with it before they got to sixth grade, so that the middle school band director would only have to deal with students who were at least slightly taking it seriously.
Anyway. Sorry, I digress. Late in fourth grade, there we all were in the gym over at Granite Street, while the music teacher (we'll call her Mrs. Nash, on account of that's her name) explained the school band, introduced the various instruments we could choose from, and asked anyone who was interested in signing up to stay at the end. Once the crowd was down to just the kids who wanted to join, she went around asking each of us what instrument we'd like to learn, and there was a guy on hand from the music supply place the school system had a contract with who would hook us (read: our parents) up with a rental instrument and so on.
There's an important detail you need to know, which is this: very shortly before this assembly, the school department had a new rubberized floor installed in the Granite Street gym. So shortly that, when we went there for the band assembly, the place still reeked of the glue they'd used to stick it down.
I've always been vulnerable to solvents for whatever reason, so by the time the end of the assembly rolled around, I was high as a damn kite.
This is probably why, when Mrs. Nash asked what instrument I wanted to learn, I told her, "Baritone, definitely."
I mean, who ever heard of the baritone horn? Not me, until that assembly. I went in there planning to pick the saxophone so I could be a Cool Jazz Dude. Instead, on the spur of the moment, I chose an instrument unknown to laypersons outside of English colliery brass bands and German-American oompah bars. Other kids got to be Cool Jazz Dudes. I embraced my inner Bavarian.
(OK, to be fair, in high school I did also take up the trombone to play in the jazz band. If you didn't know, the common-or-garden tenor trombone plays in the same dynamic range as the baritone, with sheet music written the same way and using the same mouthpiece, so it's a reasonably easy transition apart from learning the slide positions as opposed to valve fingerings. But still.)
The strategy in having the assembly at the end of fourth grade was that we'd all have the summer with our shiny new rented/borrowed instruments and the introductory music book we were issued by the school, to learn the fundamentals on our own recognizance, and then we could get stuck right in on learning the ensemble part once we were all together for fifth grade in the fall.
This worked out about as well as you would expect with a pack of fifth-graders, but still, we had a good time.
Anyway, I played the baritone in the schools' concert band for the next seven years, and the pep band in high school. (You didn't really have a choice about being in the pep band if you were in the concert band. They were the same thing. This was kind of a special purgatory for me, since I couldn't be arsed with either football or basketball, and suddenly I had to go to all the home games. And gods forbid we should make it to the state tournament, which still happened most years back in those days. Fun fact: my high school alma mater used to be a Sports Powerhouse renowned throughout the state, and that was still echoing in the late '80s when I was there, though even then the writing was on the wall in re the shrinkage of the community and consequent drying up of the talent pool as far as student athletes went.)
I had been using an instrument borrowed from the school system the whole time—most kids had to rent their instruments, but those of us who chose the bigger and less common ones could borrow them from the school—until for Christmas my junior year, my father bought me a euphonium. A euphonium is like a baritone that went to college.
Well, OK, that's mostly a joke. The real difference is mainly down to the bore geometry—baritones are mostly cylindrical, where euphonia have a markedly conical bore—which makes the sound of a baritone brighter and "brassier", though they have identical frequency ranges. Euphonia sound more "orchestral" and baritones more sort of marching band-y, if that makes any sense.
Most, but not all, euphonia also have a fourth valve, which most, but not all, baritones lack. This is used to access lower pitches, giving the euphonium more overlap with the range of the tuba so that the band can have a richer low-end sound. (I had to look that up, because in the time I owned that euphonium I never actually had occasion to use the fourth valve.)
The euphonium and I had a couple of adventures my senior year, including a state-wide invitational music festival in which I was chosen to play second chair, and then we were off to college. Things kind of fell apart then. Partly that was my fault—I got distracted from basically everything at WPI, including, um, the actual school part—but partly it was not. You see, the year I arrived at WPI, Alden Hall, the building that housed the performing arts department, was being renovated, which meant the Institute's concert band didn't have access to its normal practice space.
Instead, it had been banished to a dismal storeroom in the basement of the George C. Gordon Library, where—and this is the really important part—there was no secure storage for instruments. This meant that every time the band gathered to rehearse, which happened in the evenings, I had to carry the instrument about half a mile across campus from Morgan Hall to the library, and then back again when rehearsal was over.
A euphonium, if you are not aware, is not a lightweight musical instrument. Including its (really quite lovely) hardwood case, which was the size of a biggish stereo speaker of the period, mine must have weighed at least 20 pounds, probably closer to 25. Dragging this a mile round-trip at night in the fall and winter in New England gets old... pretty fast. So I stopped going, and stopped playing (because who plays solo euphonium?), and the next summer allowed the instrument to be sold to defray some of the expenses incurred during my (from an academic standpoint, and my father's) completely wasted year at WPI.
And that, well, that was the end of that.
Until the other day, when this arrived at my door.
This, gentlepersons, is a 1974 Besson three-valve compensating euphonium, and it has seen some shit.
(NOTE: The photo above is one I took with my phone when the instrument arrived; the rest below (and others in that folder) are from the eBay listing I bought it from.)
You will note that it has zero lacquer finish remaining, and that it doesn't quite go with that case. Oddly, in the auction listing, it's shown in a different case, which it also didn't quite match with. Why the switch, I don't know.
Apart from the condition of its finish, or lack thereof, the most arresting of this horn's battle scars is this one:
It looks like at some point, someone had to replace a whole slice of the instrument's bell. Whoever it was did a good job; you can clearly see it, but the surface is smooth there. If you run your finger across it, you can't feel the seam.
Interestingly, although this is only a three-valve instrument, it is a compensating one, which I've never had the opportunity to play before.
That means it has those extra little loops of tubing on the Nos. 2 and 3 valves, which are there to compensate for their tendency to play a little sharp in the low registers. It also has bottom-sprung valves, which is cool. Every other horn I've ever played has had valves with concentric springs, which makes the cylinders shorter, but doesn't have quite as smooth an action. And despite the fact that this instrument is battered and worn, the valves still work perfectly (or they did once I oiled No. 1).
All the tuning slides work, too, even the little one on No. 2 valve (and those things are always stuck).
Now, for about the same money I paid for this, I could have bought a brand-shiny-new baritone or euphonium, non-compensating but with four valves. I chose not to do this and go for an old warhorse like this one for a few reasons. One is that I like my things to have a bit of history, even if I don't know what it is, the same as with my gun collection. Another is that I have no idea what sort of quality to expect from new-construction student-grade band instruments these days,** and anything costing less than, say, a thousand bucks will have been made overseas. Although I am not a rabid "buy American-made" guy, I do think things like musical instruments should be sourced from factories that only make musical instruments, and not, say, musical instruments, industrial plumbing supplies, and tractor parts.
So anyway. I've got me a euphonium again. I also bought a collapsible music stand and the first volume of Hal Leonard Band Essentials for baritone (because, probably for reasons of cost, virtually nobody starts out on the euphonium; they almost always do what I did and start on the baritone, then switch it up later if they want to go upmarket). And on Monday, I sat down and made the first noises I've made with a euphonium in 29 years.
They were, of course, terrible. Oh my God fugeddaboudit, as Jay Leno would say. Surprisingly, I still remember most of the basics—I can still (kind of) read (bass clef) music, and my fingers remember most of the fingerings even if I don't. I can still, after all this time, play a B♭ major scale without having to think about it. But my wind and my embouchure have both gone completely to shit. I have effectively zero attack and no control over my intonation. I sound like, well, like I did in the fifth grade.
This was fully expected.
I had no illusions that I would be able to just pick up a horn after 29 years and sound like I did at my best, or even my not-so-best. I entirely expected to suck, and to do so for quite some time. This presents a problem, because one of my worst psychological quirks is the fact that I hate being bad at things, to the point where I would very much rather just not do them if that's the alternative.
But, dang it... I miss it. Even though I'm not in a band, have no prospect of ever being in a band, and really don't want the logistical tsuris of all that anyway, and even though the euphonium is not what you would call a radiantly soloist-oriented instrument, I miss being able to Do the Thing. In some other world where I was less risk-averse about my career prospects, and/or forewarned that they would be a smoldering shambles anyway for most of my adult life, I would have gone somewhere with a proper music program, possibly even majoring in music. I might even have learned to play the piano, too.
Oh yes, the piano. We'll get to that some other time as well.
So, anyway, kind of a shaggy dog story because that's as far as it goes: I bought an old euphonium, which I am terrible at playing, and which my agèd and decrepit body finds tiring even to play badly for more than 15 or 20 minutes at a time. But I'm giving it a go, anyway, and may the gods have mercy on my neighbors.
NOTE: I am not going to be putting my efforts on YouTube. I'm not that brave. :)
* Katahdin Avenue had what they called "the All-Purpose Room", which was just a big empty bit of the basement, and for the first couple of years I was a student at that school, they tried to do PE in there. Trouble was, it wasn't quite an empty room, because the building dated to the 1920s and they hadn't really worked out how to have big basement rooms in brick buildings without a support column every 10 feet or so. Have you ever tried to hold a gym class in grades K-5 in a room that has a reinforced concrete pillar every 10 feet? Even with ridiculous padding wrapped around all the columns, it didn't go well. Like, at all. They stopped doing it partway through my third-grade year.
** Actually this is only semi-true. I did buy a new-construction trombone recently, which I'll get into in another post later on, and it was junk. I admit I'm not exactly a concert-grade trombonist myself any longer, but even so, trombones should not feel so flimsy you're afraid you might break them trying to put them together, and this thing did. It went back to the seller tour de suite and I'm trying again.
Benjamin D. Hutchins, Co-Founder, Editor-in-Chief, & Forum Mod
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited http://www.eyrie-productions.com/
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