Rash of Tuba Thefts Plagues Los Angeles
MuseWire COLUMN: The Los Angeles Times recently has carried several stories about a series of tuba thefts that have plagued local area high schools, colleges, bands, orchestras and other performing aggregations. A quick www search reveals that L.A. is not the only jurisdiction victimized by this spate of thievery. On further review it turns out most of the stolen instruments actually are sousaphones, which is a kind of wrap-around tuba with a giant bell at the end, of the sort carried by somebody in a marching band.
Even though they are of the same general type as tubas, they are what might be called a different token. A large tuba is difficult to carry, and is best played sitting down, where its weight can be evenly distributed across one’s legs. This erroneous identification of the missing instruments is problematic and could rise to the level of a category error. A law enforcement officer not versed in the idiosyncrasies of these matters might, for example, consult the dictionary for a definition of “tuba,” then go looking for them, only to pass by the sousaphones.
The miscreants are highly selective. They leave untouched other instruments such as trumpets, trombones, French horns, clarinets, oboes, flutes, violins, etc. They also omit sousaphones with fiberglass bells, purloining only those made completely of brass. They even abandon percussion instruments, which one might think would be popular amongst law breaking types (while I am unaware of any studies actually correlating drummers with predisposition to steal, this is plausible in principle, given the intrinsic nature of drummers and their somewhat oblique personality phenotypes). Astonishingly, a well-appointed sousaphone costs upwards of $6,000.
The most stringent security measures have failed to deter the thefts. Said one administrator: “We have the best doors in the district – the ones with the metal plates on the outside and no handles. They still got in.” Cut locks were strewn about the floor. Next thing you know, instrument storage rooms will have to be protected by more sophisticated alarm systems – possibly of the laser-beam sort that acrobatic ne’er-do-wells seem to specialize in thwarting.
There is an unfortunate note of racism in the coverage of these incidents. Most are attributed to the popularity of banda, a kind of Mexican dance music. While I am not a connoisseur of banda, evidently it uses a lot of tubas to provide it with a heavy bass sound. Banda tuba players are said to make twice as much as their counterpart musicians. It is easy, though, to see how other genres of music also might have use for a stray tuba or two – New Orleans brass, for example. Or, maybe it’s just some orchestra wanting to fortify its lower end.
Put differently, even though banda musicians may use tubas, the Los Angeles Times is at fault for assuming that all tuba thefts are attributable to banda musicians (or their confederates). From a logical perspective, this is similar to the error of affirming the consequent, also known as converse error. If tubas are getting stolen, then it must be by musicians who use tubas. Banda musicians use tubas. Therefore, banda musicians must be the ones stealing them. The tubas, however, could be stolen by just about anybody else.
From a less theoretical standpoint, in my (admittedly, limited) personal experience, many bands comprised of Hispanic musicians use a kind of bass guitar called a guitarron. When played correctly, this makes a pleasing, thumpy-type of sound. Personally, I am not a fan of the type of bass sound produced by a tuba. It lacks definition, a crisp envelope with attack, decay, sustain and release. Actually it sounds kind of flatulent. It doesn’t compare to the sound of, say, a Fender Precision Bass. I can envision how it wouldn’t be too hard to rig up the banda tuba player with a small portable amplifier and a bass guitar. There are several different types of these small amplifiers available. The tuba player might find it preferable. The band also probably would achieve a much better sound overall. Since sousaphones are large and bulky, there would be no net increase in transportation costs, or second-order costs for the bass player, such as potential occupational injury caused by carrying around a large instrument. In fact the bass guitar rig probably takes up less space and is more portable, too.
Another part of this coverage that is problematic is the assertion that banda tuba players make upwards of twice as much as their fellow musicians. Speaking in this case from experience, I can assure the reader this, if true, would cause considerable dissension within the band. Musical artistes must comprise an integral performing unit. Any factor getting in the way of this will reduce group cohesion, invariably causing unsatisfactory results. Differential pay rates are a prime example of a precipitator of this outcome.
It must be even more vexing for other accomplished banda musicians now that the secrets of the banda tuba pay scale are, so to speak, out in the open. They too must purchase their instruments, practice, learn songs, become accomplished players, survive the rigors of securing engagements, touring, etc. Surely there is some kind of demand curve at work here. If the market for tubas achieves pareto optimality at 2x compensation for the tuba player versus a $6,000 instrument, then what about instruments that cost, say, $3,000? Their cost must be amortized, too. They may be harder to learn, and require a greater investment of personal time, effort and energy. All the tuba player has to do is stand there and blow some notes. While of course some artistry is involved, it surely doesn’t seem to be any more than that required to play other instruments, and quite possibly it is less. My point being that it doesn’t really make much sense for the other banda musicians to earn differential compensation that is half as much as the tuba player.
I would like to conclude by saying that, banda or not, there is a bond between the musician and his/her instrument. It is tremendously unfortunate when this link is disrupted. I certainly hope that no further tubas go astray, that all are reunited with their rightful owners, and that the brass bands of the world may continue to play, unconstrained by the worry of the sudden loss of instrumentation.
Article is Copr. © 2012 by David Kronemyer, and originally published on MusicIndustryNewswire-dot-com before the site was revamped as MuseWire.com in March 2015 – all commercial and reprint rights reserved.