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11 March 2008

(Real) Women play the tuba - Emma Ptak

Emma_and_tuba_shirt When I was in the sixth grade, as soon as I was eligible, I joined the band.

Girls played flute and clarinet, and boys played trombone and trumpet in those ancient days, long before sliced bread or ball point pens were invented and back when Chicken Pot Pies were New! As Seen on TV! Freeing Moms Everywhere from the Drudgery of Cookery!

Mr. Smith, our band director, would likely have passed a gallstone at the very idea of a GIRL in the low brass section. No, no, it just wouldn't do. And so we stuck to our reed instruments, longing for the day in eighth grade when we could break loose and switch to bass clarinet or the fantastically nasal oboe or the beautiful red bassoon.

Fast forward several hundred years to Emma's entry into the sixth grade band four years ago. "Flute is nice," I said. "And very compact! Easy to transport! You could carry it home in your purple camouflage backpack!" My whole strategy to convince a 12-year-old was evidently based on exclamation points.

"Nah," she said. "I think I'd like to play the trombone."

And then I said it, like that little boy in "A Christmas Story" when the lug nuts from the car tire go flying through the air as his dad is trying to change a flat, and the boy says, in very slow motion, somethin akin to "fudge": "But trombones are so heavy! Girls don't play trombone!" I heard myself say.

She turned to look at me, astonished at what she was hearing after all those evenings of captivity when I pulled out the flip chart and Mr Sketch markers to explain what cultural norms and stereotypes were.

"What?" she asked. "Girls don't do what, exactly?"

"Just kidding," I said, realizing that my gender norms were showing, unable to believe what I had just said. Where did that come from? How unconscious and deep-seated some of our beliefs about normalcy are. "But flutes are so much lighter! Don't you think trombones are awfully heavy? And loud?" This from a woman who decades before had played Pee-Wee football, the carrot-top who beat the boys in the sixth grade softball toss.

I'll admit it--at this point I was in survival mode. Mid-40s, pregnant, new town. Emma was starting band just before I was due to give birth. Screaming infant and trombone. Screaming infant and trombone. Screaming infant and trombone. Call me crazy, but it did not appear to be a match made in heaven.

The sixth grade band tryouts were an interesting ritual. Kids were called up one by one to blow in different mouth pieces, the band director makes a pronouncement, and their fates are sealed. If Emma had squeaked a pitiful little squeak in the trombone mouthpiece, her whole band history would be different.

But she didn't. Shy Emma took to the stage and ripped open a sound that stopped all noise in the band room. Fathers and mothers turned to look, the band director clapped her hands together in surprise and joy, and I dropped my Luna Bar but was too pregnant to bend over and pick it up. "Wow!" the band director exclaimed. "That's impressive! LOW BRASS for you, young lady!"

Emma bowed her head, beaming.

Trombone it was. Turns out that everyone who heard her play talked about what a beautiful, unusual tone she had. The girl was born to play trombone. Until a year later when she was born to play tuba.

Are you the only girl trombone player?" I asked after the first day of band. She rolled her eyes. "Of course not, Mommm."

Of course not.

Emma_in_her_band_beret She joined the marching band in high school, sticking with it after a lot of her friends dropped out, a loyalty I first admired in middle school when she stuck with softball on a team that in two seasons got on base twice, and one of those was when Emma was hit by a ball thrown by a 13-year-old pitcher with obvious anger control issues and a strong fast ball.

Tuba players switch to sousaphones for marching season, those big silver bells sitting atop their heads, seen from great distances on the field. She is a Very Serious Marcher. No joking around for her, eyes forward, back straight, dedication, deep bass sound. She is a force to be reckoned with on field at half time, moving swiftly and surely into formation, an anchor of sound for the band to center itself around.

Have I mentioned once or twice or several hundred dozen times how much I love and respect her?

Emma_and_her_sousaphone Turns out that girls do play trombone. And tuba. And sousaphone. And they become astronauts and astronomers and run for president and hopefully, one day, they will learn to become great, not just good--but great in their own, private, personal definition of great, not society's definition of it. Hopefully, one day, the generation that has been told they can do anything, will--not because they feel they need to measure up, or be a role model for their gender, or because that's the only way they can gain respect, but because they want to, because they simply love the sound of low brass. Hopefully, one day, those who don't remember the days of Old Math (trombones=boys and flutes=girls) will realize that sometimes change starts with a tuba.


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What a fantastic entry today! As a former flute player, who was part of a marching band who indeed had a female tuba/sousaphone player, she rocked! (And was one of the most popular girls in the band, I might add due to her trailblazer attitude.) This one really made me smile. Good for Emma!

Thank you, thank you, thank you for this post! Sure the beginning was great (and way to Emma for doing it your own way) but because I loved the last paragraph and it's been something I've been saying for years.

I'd like to say that as women we've gotten past the point of 'needing' to do certain things in life because we'll feel that if we don't do them we aren't living the life we 'should' be living.

I want to thank every single feminist who came before me for allowing me to make my own CHOICE about what I want my life to look like. Do I want to work outside the house? Do I want to work from my house? Do I want to stay home with my kid? It's a choice that I have the ability to make because of such feminists that have come before me.

Now I just wish some of the current feminists will realize what they were fighting for!

Yaye! Take that girl to New Orleans to witness a second line someday!
Make sure she brings her brass!

I was gleeful the day I told my mother how I was the only one coordinated enough and with a good enough sense of rhythm in our entire class, to be chosen for my favorite instrument- the drums.
Then she and my father burst my bubble explaining that "girls don't play drums"...So, I played the clarinet and didn't get past junior high with it, cause, though I loved music, clarinet wasn't my instrument of passion.

I remember the outrage I felt when we went to Greece and I saw a female drummer in my uncles band! I felt so cheated.

Years later, that outrage transformed into performance art- angry, outrageous performance art about gender discrimination.

and a note for all women who take on jobs that are not traditionally offered to women:

When I was told I could not be a set P.A. because I would have to carry stuff-
I pointed out that I carried toddlers heavier than anything I wouldn't use a dolly for.
In my 20's I cared for my bio and spirit son. As toddlers,
one was 40 lbs, the other 60lbs (he wears a size 16 shoe now and is over 6 ft tall)
so, yeah, that tuba ways less than a toddler and diaper bag combined.

I am so totally, absolutely, tirelessly proud of this young woman. She is all her own, yet she is also her mother's daughter.

Thank you for yet another outstanding post on a very special young woman. (This is turning out to be quite a month). My dear friend who is nearly fifty plays the trumpet so as you can imagine, she can tell stories. I tell her that she gets to announce all the significant events in the musical pieces. About the pride--enjoy every second of it, mom and dad.

When I was in the 5th grade...1957, I started playing the trumpet. Because it was such a small school, I got to play in the High School band (what a treat!) I played trumpet for 13 years, and still occasionally pick it up and am surprised at what I remember, at age 61. When I go back to that little town, people always ask if I still play the trumpet...I was a bit of a legend, and no one ever tried to talk me out of it. Pretty amazing for the times.

I can't imagine there are many loyal 37 Days readers who aren't huge Emma fans--I know I am. Good for her! That first photo of her is unbelievably beautiful--not just because she looks beautiful in it...but because she looks like a young woman who knows

Patti -- we're pretty close in age. You just grew up in the wrong place! I played French Horn starting in fifth grade (and stuck with it through college). And every couple of years, our (male) band director chose a couple of female flute or clarinet players to move to Sousaphone for marching band season, as the regular tuba players were on the football team!

And, 3.5 years ago, when my oldest was in 5th grade, and I was six months pregnant, he came home and announced he was playing drums in the band. Must admit, similar thoughts flew through my head: drums, screaming infant. Drums waking up screaming infant just when Mom is getting a much needed nap! Wasn't a pretty thought. We went with the electronic drum set with the headphones, and everyone was happy.

wow Betsy, a Rosy the Riveter sort of band experience.
While the boys are playing war, the girls get to play Sousaphone...interesting.

Oh, how I remember. My youngest daughter came home from second grade and said she wanted to play soccer, at a time when most places hadn't thought girls might have such an interest. I caught my breath and said, "Whom do I make out the check to for your shirt and insurance?" Living in Soccer Town USA (The National Soccer Hall is two miles away from our house, now) mean numerous city teams for all ages and both sexes, and I wondered where this was getting me as I stood in the rain (and snow) every fall and was timer for the games.

Fast forward, and my daughter graduated from college and was working for an electronics firm. It was still mostly a male field, but when she was sent to Cork, Ireland to help out with their special machine for testing cell phones, she was asked if she could play soccer. They had a 12 hour charity game to raise money for a special charity every Christmas, and they needed more women for the team. She agreed to play for an hour before running out to do Christmas shopping, and the following Monday at work, the general message was "The Yank plays a good game of soccer." It was a really neat contribution to international relations on a very small scale.

I agree with her. I played the flute in high school but oh how I longed to play the tuba or the base drum. Hurray for her.

oh my, this made me teary and made me smile all at the same time. awesome. :-)

I know we're celebrating women this month, but in the interest of celebrating diversity and open-mindedness all around, I would like to commend my brother-in-law who played the flute when we were in high school! This was in the '90's, and of course he was presumed to be gay... he was taunted and avoided because... well, it was just "weird" that a guy played the flute. Thankfully my sister appreciated him for who he was and for the beautiful music he made (he is quite a musician), and more than 11 years later they're still together. Cheers to everyone - no matter what gender - who breaks a cultural norm!

I went to the band tryouts wanting to play flute, and came out a drummer. I'm shocked my parents allowed me (though my mother always sabotaged my practicing) and I became one of the best drummers in my extremely large school. I still play to this day, and every now and then I realize how much of my adult personality comes from playing drums.

Drums taught me how to deal with sexism. They taught me to be assertive. They reinforce my usual desire to be in a support role rather than the star (I did tech theatre too, I plan events, etc. etc.). They let me be loud and obnoxious, and generally awesome.

I still feel the sting of social disapproval, because if anything drums aren't a "pretty" instrument. They aren't demure, or "dignified," and the total opposite of girly. I know I'd feel more accepted if I played something like piano, harp, or flute, but it's just not who I am. I seem to NEED an instrument to hit.

I'm thrilled your daughter plays tuba. I have so much respect for tuba players (sousaphone is the ONLY instrument heavier than drums, thank you very much). Have you seen the University of Illinois drumline/sousa opening? What those people do with their sousa's is amazing.

My baby girl plays ice hockey - with all boys. She owns the rink in pink socks! And yes, I tried to steer her toward the more feminine figure skating, but I've surrendered to the thrill of hockey.

Things have changed in the low brass section! My last year in college the trombone section had 9 women and 3 men. It was rather satisfying to be a part of that section.

I just came across your blog. I love it! I will be back often.

Well, that's a freakin' AWESOME post. And I will take it to heart, as my daughters are soon to start playing instruments.

yay! They made me play flute, too. even though I wanted to play trumpet. But then in high school, we had no low brass at all, and a better band teacher. I volunteered to be trombone, and there was no looking back. It was waaaay better than playing flute. True, it was a pain to lug around. But I didn't mind. Trombones in their cases have gravitas. Three cheers for your daughter.

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