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Be very, very frightened if I ever again play a Sousaphone

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POSTED November 4, 2013 12:00 a.m.

Daniel Baughman was a saint.

The man was the seventh and eighth grade band instructor at Glen Edwards School in Lincoln.

For some reason that still eludes me today I thought it would be cool to be a part of the school band. It unfortunately required me to play an instrument.

It was even more unfortunate for Mr. Baughman.

To say I’m musically inclined qualifies as a vast overstatement equivalent to the “peace in our time” words muttered by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in 1938 who thought he had sealed the deal to avoid what ended up being World War II.

I can’t sing. I can’t dance. And rest assured Mr. Baughman knows I can’t play an instrument either.

I had never picked up an instrument until the day as a seventh grader I walked into Mr. Baughman’s class. He was short saxophone players. After having me try to master the basics of the saxophone for three weeks he was still short saxophone players. A number of instruments later he finally settled on one he thought I might be able to at least come close to playing and I’m sure he astutely guessed I’d never master it — the Sousaphone.

Looking back, this was funny for a couple of reasons. I wouldn’t be carrying an instrument home to practice with as other band members did. Instead, the custodian delivered a practice sousaphone to my home in a pickup truck. It wasn’t exactly the lightest instrument to march with although most of the weight rests on your shoulder. Given the fact I had reached 320 pounds that school year I was a living caricature of the chunky kid with the Sousaphone.

If you have never heard a kid with no ear for music practice notes on a Sousaphone let’s just say Bullwinkle would even run for the hills. A neighbor described it as a cross between a moose bellowing out in pain and a flat foghorn.

After three days of practicing at home after school my mom — I’m sure after neighbors called since she was at work — suggested I do so with the windows closed.

It took me close to a month, if not more, to semi-master the scales on the sousaphone. That’s after Mr. Baughman — apparently driven to the edge — spent two entire class sessions trying to get me to breathe right instead of puffing up my cheeks and blowing.

I never really nailed the breathing but it did get to the point where the neighborhood mice wouldn’t scatter and dogs stopped howling.

Fortunately most concert pieces Mr. Baughman selected had minimum need for Sousaphones. In all honesty I suspected years later that the real reason grammar school bands had Sousaphones was to have the least musically talented play them.

That’s not to say the Sousaphone doesn’t sound beautiful and isn’t featured in a lot of marching scores along with its cousin the tuba. It’s just you can do without it if needed in a grammar school performance.

It was a challenge to make sure that I didn’t do damage to a number while at the same time trying not to embarrass myself.

But if Mr. Baughman thought trying to teach me how to get a minimum grasp of playing the  Sousaphone was a challenge, my ability to march in a manner that didn’t resemble a disorientated sailor staggering back to his ship after a four day drunk would have tested the patience of Job.

I don’t know who dreaded the annual Holy Ghost parade — the highlight for the marching band component of the band class — more, Mr. Baughman or me.

The annual celebration in Lincoln drew close to 10,000 people. It always took place in May. So after eight months in band I had come to the realization that if John Philip Sousa were alive he’d probably be suing the school district for even letting me pick up the instrument he created.

Not only could I not play the instrument and not march but after they struggled to find a band uniform large enough for me I had to find white plants with a 42-inch waist to wear with them.

I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to this day every time I put on white or light colors that I don’t think I look 100 or so pounds overweight. White isn’t a slimming color for a kid weighting 320 pounds.

But in the end, everything worked out fine. No, I didn’t learn to play the sousaphone even a quarter of the way like it is supposed to be played. No, I didn’t become coordinated enough not to make a fool of myself marching down the streets of Lincoln lugging a sousaphone that I had difficultly holding right.

Instead something rare happened. It rained the Sunday of the Holy Ghost celebration.

Needless to say I didn’t re-up for band the next year thus saving Mr. Baughman the need to ponder early retirement.

The entire experience taught me two things. One, the only musical talent show I had a fighting chance at getting on was the Gong Show. And two, I learned to appreciate music as long as I wasn’t playing an instrument or singing.



This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.  He can be contacted at dwyatt@mantecabulletin.com or 209-249-3519.

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