Priceonomics

If a man's crazy just because he plays the tuba, then somebody'd better look into it, because there are a lot of tuba players running around loose.

-- Longfellow Deeds, Mister Deeds Goes to Town

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When Andres Trujillo fell in love for the first time, he fell in love with the tuba.

He was in a middle school pep band, playing the euphonium -- the symphonic tuba’s diminutive cousin. One day, the band director approached him and asked if he’d be interested in trying the tuba. When that went well, the director suggested he switch instruments and join the school orchestra.

“I think I said, ‘Yeah, sure, I could do that,’” Trujillo remembers. “The instrument basically found me, probably because they didn’t have any tuba players at that middle school.”

In the years that followed, Trujillo’s tuba playing became a passion. He started playing outside of his school’s orchestra, got into jazz, wrote and arranged his own compositions. He picked up other instruments, too -- bass, keyboard, guitar. But first and foremost, he remained a tubist. He was convinced he had found his calling. “It came to this point where I couldn’t imagine doing anything else,” he says.

This lead him down an unusually difficult career path only suited to the very talented, the very passionate, or the very stupid. Because, while the world of professional classical musicianship is insanely competitive in general, it turns out that it’s even worse for tubists than it is for other musicians. The reason lies in the numbers.

There are far fewer professional symphony orchestras out there than there are middle school orchestras, but as orchestras get more professional, most of their sections also get bigger. The most dramatic example of this is the strings section.  This author remembers there being four violinists in her middle school orchestra, and two violas (one of whom was also one of the violinists). Professional symphony orchestras have 30 violins, and 12 violas.

The tuba section, unfortunately, does not scale-up as much. In fact, it doesn’t scale up at all: middle school orchestras have one tuba, and professional orchestras have one tuba. So, while getting a job as a professional violinist is difficult, the ratio of professionals to amateurs is higher than is the case for tubists. There are simply too many tubists out there; many more than the market can accommodate.

The Tubist, the Passionate

Trujillo and his tuba

Trujillo says he still can’t imagine a life outside of tuba-playing. “I have to do things to subsist, but I don’t really have plans to go into anything else for at least another four or five years.”

By “go into anything else,” he means pursue a career outside playing the tuba.

His origin story is typical among serious tubists. Whenever a middle school tubist graduates, the school’s music director sets out to recruit a student out of a different section. From then on, that tubist is the tubist in their orchestra. They’re the only person playing the tuba part, and the tuba part is loud. When they mess up, people notice -- no more hiding in their section, behind the principal chair. This extra responsibility and power -- and, for some, the magical, seductive quality of the tuba itself -- turns kids who were just in the band to please their parents into true musicians.

Now, Trujillo is 25. Last May, he graduated with his master’s degree in tuba performance from the San Francisco Conservatory, one of the best music schools in the country. When he spoke with us, he was applying for a day job as an administrative assistant. “I’m looking for something more stable than my current set-up.”

His “current set-up” is pretty piecemeal. He teaches music, mostly tuba, both privately and through an institute. Some nights, he gigs with his brass band, Brass Band Mission. Other nights, he’ll back up touring rock groups, or play with a symphony when their tubist needs a sub.

He says he knows other players who make a living playing part time with several minor symphonies in the area, playing the so-called “Freeway Philharmonic.” They’ll play in Santa Rosa one night, Fremont the next, burn gas going back and forth between recitals, and also sub with the San Francisco symphony whenever they can get the work. Trujillo says this is an exhausting set-up, through which the musicians earn a lot of valuable orchestral experience, but they “can’t do it forever.”

Trujillo dreams of someday getting “the big gig,” which, in the world of classical music means becoming a tenured chair in a major symphony. But for that to happen, some professional tubist somewhere probably needs to die, or at least feel the sting of their mortality and retire. and that could take a while.

Big Baby Brass

Japanese "war tubas", circa WWI (not actually tubas)

There’s a very good reason most orchestras only have one tuba.

First of all, the tuba is in the family of brass instruments. Brass instruments are the loudest family of acoustic instruments. This has to do with being made of metal -- a hard and reflective material. The science behind the acoustics of volume and perceived volume is actually pretty complicated.

Second of all, tubas are deep.

On a basic level, this is how brass instruments work: The musician raspberries, or buzzes, into a mouthpiece, which is at the small end of an elaborate tube. The pitch of the sound that comes out of the wide end of the tube, known as the bell, partially depends on the way they buzz. The tubist can control the pitch by adjusting what is known as their embouchure: relaxing or constricting their lips as they buzz, similar to vocal chords.

Separate from embouchure, the pitch a musician produces through a brass insrument is determined by the length of its tube. Most modern brass instruments have valves which switch in tubing extensions of different lengths to allow musicians to play different pitches (one exception is the common trombones, which lets its players change the tube’s length with a continuous slide). But each instrument has a maximum length. Tubas come in several sizes and pitches. But in general the tuba is the lowest-pitched brass, because its tube, which is coiled up, is the longest -- at about twice the length of a trombone’s.

Put another way: if an orchestra was a speaker set-up, the tuba would be the subwoofer, and its dial would go to 11. Orchestras need 30 violins to keep things balanced, or else, when the tuba played forte, they’d be drowned out by the instrument’s hypnotic, booming, brassy moan. Or its rhythmic “oom-pah-pah,” depending on the piece.

The One and Only

The distorted world of professional tuba

But having only one of your instrument in an orchestra has its drawbacks.

Say there’s a .1% chance of any given tuba chair turning over in a year, and a .1% chance of any given violin chair turning over, and there are 100 major symphony orchestras. There are 30 violinists in an orchestra, so there are 3,000 violin chairs out there, thus a 95% (1 minus the probability of none of the 3,000 chairs turning over, i.e. 1 - .999^3000) chance a chair will open up. But there’s only one tubist in each of those orchestras, thus only a 10% (1 - .999^100)chance of a chair opening up.

That means, in this hypothetical, that even if you were the best tubist in the world there’d be only a 10% chance you’d even have a chance to apply to audition for a major symphony orchestra this year. An extremely virtuosic violinist would know he’d get to audition several times in his twenties. A tubist wouldn’t. They could sit around for a decade, twiddling their thumbs, tutoring middle schoolers.

The odds aren't quite that bad -- an orchestral tuba position that pays a living wage opens up about two to three times a year. But the tougher job market does mean tubists are less likely to leave their chairs than other instrumentalists. If someone’s lucky enough to win a symphony chair, he or she typically sits in it for life. Carol Janstch, tubist for the Philadelphia Philharmonic, called actually being allowed to audition in a major symphony a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

“As luck would have it,” says Roger Bobo, former tubist for the L.A. Philharmonic, most of the people holding tuba chairs in major orchestras are “young and very good players.”