BU Today

Arts & Entertainment

Big Instruments Bring Pleasure—and Pain

CFA musicians share the joys and challenges of playing the tuba, percussion, and double bass

More than three dozen musicians file into the Tsai Performance Center on a late spring afternoon for one last rehearsal before the BU Wind Ensemble’s final performance of the year. For most of these College of Fine Arts School of Music students, their instruments fit in lightweight carrying cases. Some even carry theirs in backpacks. And the pianist shows up with only her sheet music. But for a select few, there’s a considerable challenge in carrying or wheeling their instruments on the T and then across Comm Ave. These musicians play the most imposing (and unwieldy) instruments there are.

Wondering what it’s like for musicians to play an instrument that’s taller or wider than they are, we asked three CFA musicians (two who just graduated) to share what they love about their instruments.

Percussionist Seo Young (Catherine) Lee (CFA’18) says that musicians like her sometimes “have to make our own instruments out of bottles, flowerpots, or saucepans,” but “the good thing about percussion is that we can be as creative as we want. A lot of instruments don’t afford that kind of chance.”

Zack Grass (CFA’21) says that one of the best things about being a tuba player is the opportunity to find new ways to express himself by exploring his instrument’s sonic capabilities. “You can do multiphonics, you can make turntable noises, you can make disk-jockey sounds,” Grass says. “I wouldn’t say that I’m a meditative person, but playing low, fat notes just makes your body feel Zen.” He readily acknowledges that the size and weight of the tuba makes transportation and practicing a challenge, but its rich and unique sound more than compensates for discomfort. “Physically, it’s taxing. But sonically, it’s the most interesting instrument I know…. I would love to be better at something smaller, but the more I have to take care of it, the more I want to pursue it.”

Double bass player Javier Martin Diaz (CFA’18) says that many young musicians are drawn to instruments like the violin or the flute in elementary school and are intimidated by bigger instruments or have misconceptions about them. “Sometimes people think we just play harmony, and that’s not true. Sometimes we have very rhythmic passages, very melodic passages. It would be awesome if more people got to know the bass, so more people would play it,” he says.

While each of these musicians agrees that the physical challenges they face and the stamina required to play such large instruments can be daunting, they wouldn’t have it any other way.

“It’s like running a marathon,” says Martin Diaz, “and I love it.”

Nathan Motulsky can be reached at nnorton@bu.edu. Jason Kimball can be reached at jk16@bu.edu.

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