I'm With The Band

I'm With The Band

This is the final article from my fundraiser last May (and, like all of those articles, it is unlocked and free for anyone to read). In exchange for a donation to my dad's scholarship, I stated that I would write an article of your choice. I completed most of them last summer but this one took a bit longer to come together. The request from a subscriber named Steve: that I write about the tubas in the band.

The original request was for an article during football season, but that proved difficult to do with all that I have going on during a football Saturday. So I asked Steve if it was OK to write his article during basketball season. And I asked this after football season was already finished so he couldn't say no. With Tyler covering the Iowa game on Saturday, I could finally concentrate on more important things: sousaphones.

(All of those articles are unlocked and free to read, by the way. I tagged them all with PMP23 so there should be a list of them at the bottom of this article.)

Why tubas? Well, I need to give you a quick refresher on the scholarship, the fundraiser, and my dad. Don't worry - I'm not going to ask you to donate. The next fundraiser will happen in May.

After my father passed away in 1993, a friend of his started a scholarship at my high school (which was also his high school) in his name. The scholarship is in place to support students who want to continue to pursue music in college (but not necessarily as a music major). Continuing with marching band or symphonic band (or choir) can get expensive, so the scholarship exists to support students who want to continue their music education. It is awarded to a graduating senior at my high school every year.

The reason for the scholarship was my father's love of music. Specifically, the tuba. I'm a Landscape Architect who quit his job after 25 years to cover the Illini full time; my father was an Optometrist who, if given an honest moment, would have likely told you that he wanted to quit his job after 25 years to play the tuba full time.

I mean, he wasn't going to quit his job. I'm just saying that I had this dream in the back of my mind and life circumstances in 2020 allowed me to chase it. He had a dream in the back of his mind and, in his short 48 years on this earth, life never allowed him to chase it. But if he could have been anyone or done anything, he would have wanted to replace Gene Pokorny when Gene left the St. Louis Symphony to become principal tuba with the Chicago Symphony.

I told this entire story when I announced the fundraiser last May. One donor asked that I write about the Marching Illini, which I did. Steve S. asked that I write about the tubas, which I'm doing now. I had originally hoped to work it out with Barry Houser for the Rutgers game a few weeks ago, but we kept missing each other. With a Saturday afternoon game, though, Tyler could sit in press row and cover the game and I could sit with the band.

I'm perfectly comfortable sitting with the band, of course. My high school basketball routine was as follows:

  1. Put on my snare drum and play "Wipeout" and "Shadows Of The Night" with the pep band before the game.
  2. Take my snare drum off, go over to the scorers table, and hop on the mic as the PA announcer during the game (had this deep voice all the way back then).
  3. Return to the pep band for the halftime show (probably a combo of "Hip To Be Square" and "Birdland").

As I said in the scholarship article last May, the reason I was voted Most Talented in the yearbook didn't have anything to do with athletics. It was because I could play the piano, the drums, and sing in the musical. I was Troy Bolton without the jump shot.

His father who pushed him towards athletics. My father pushed me towards music (well, and tennis). My strong belief that music education is vital to any child's education comes from growing up in a family where that was overemphasized. My sister played the flute (still does), I played the drums (tympani was my favorite), and my dad played the tuba. My mom... listened.

So sitting with the band? Dude, I know how to sit with the band. I'm way more comfortable with the band than I would be sitting with Krush (or even sitting on press row). I watched most every high school football and basketball game while sitting with the band.

And being surrounded by the low brass? Brother, let me tell you, I absolutely know how to be surrounded by low brass. My father lived for low brass. Not only did we have season tickets to the St. Louis Symphony, he would drag us to Canadian Brass concerts, Summit Brass concerts, and drum and bugle corps shows. I still attend drum corps shows to this day, usually by myself. Sure, the marching is OK, and of course I like a good snare line, but mostly I love walking around the parking lot listening to low brass warming up.

I can feel a few of you giving me the "wait, really? are you overselling this?" I am not. Let's just go to my phone. Summer of 2018. Drum Corps show in St. Louis that I attended by myself. I'm filming the Bluecoats (a corps from Canton, Ohio) as they warm up outside the dome in downtown STL. If you're wondering why they move around like that it's because their warmup needs to match their body movements with their marching their show in the stadium later, so they mimic those movements while standing in place. And if you want confirmation that this as actually filmed by me, the sound I make at the very end after the final chord is the exact same sound I made after Moretti's second three dropped on Saturday:

There you have it. My band bonafides. I'm the perfect person to sit with the band and write this article.

And, being me, I immediately nerded out. At first I'm seated next to Josh on the end of the sousaphones, and I'm trying to get deep into the brass knowledge. The row between the trombones and tubas - do we have mellophones and baritones here or do we have mellophones, euphoniums, and baritones? Are all of the mellos (sorry, us cool kids call them "mellos") French horn players in symphonic band or do some play a different instrument? Josh points out that one of the mellophones plays his French horn mouthpiece with a mello adapter and I go full "can I see it?", asking for a comparison with a normal mello mouthpiece.

So yes, I'm completely at home standing in the row of sousaphones. Sorry, I guess I should do a little explainer here. A sousaphone is just a tuba for marching that wraps around your body and has a bell that opens up towards the front. Let me grab two quick photos. Tuba:


This has been Low Brass Lessons With Robert. Join us next time when Robert teaches you about Matt Harloff and the Carolina Crown brass.

I should probably write about... what I came here to write about. And that's my experience on Saturday being embedded with the band. A few general thoughts first:

  • The band plays way less than I realized. Call it the "I didn't realize how long commercial breaks were until I went to an NFL game and just stood around waiting for the game to start again" phenomenon but I didn't realize how many "name things that are orange and win a prize pack" promotions were happening until I stood there with the band watching them and wishing the band would get to play again.
  • There was a feeling of... history (?) standing there? The entire arena is different now, but the band is in the exact same spot (just west of the tunnel). The camera angle has changed sides, the benches have flipped to the other side of the court, Krush has moved all over the place over the years (and especially after the renovation), but the music still comes from the same location.
  • The band is in. to. the. game. (Wait, should it be "into"? I can't ever remember when to use "in to" and when to use "into." I'm leaving it.) I've mentioned before that as a card-carrying Old (like, AARP sent me stuff after my 50th birthday), the "individualism" of my kids cheering at a game is hard to process. So it was great to sit with Illini fans who still cheer as a collective unit.

To wit: when the Illini make a free throw, here's what they say...

If I have this right, it's "whoosh {stomp stomp stomp} go Illinois {clap clap} naaaiiled it yes (high pitched voice) buckets."

I miss college.

And I miss band, too. I have to tell you, I was leaning hard into my band days. I mean, I got so caught up in everything that I recorded this video and saved it on my laptop as "TUBA CAM." Who here wants some TUBA CAM? You do? Well turn it up...

That was the moment I was looking forward to the most. I mean, they literally call the tune "Low Brass." Had my father been able to play a sousaphone in that moment he would have never stopped talking about it.

(Side note: the video below is what I think about every single time I hear the band play Low Brass. Donovonn Young was the single greatest Illini Football entertainer and I'll never shut up about it. If you've ever received an email from me and you've seen that the little avatar is an Illini football player wearing #5, it's Donovonn Young, and this is why.)

(The video at the homeless shelter in San Francisco before the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in 2011? Also Donovonn Young.)

I should probably talk about some of the dudes I met, because my specific assignment here was that I get to know some tubas in the band. For the first half I talked to Josh and Kaiden; for the second half I moved down by Zac and Tyler. (Apologies to the two guys on the very end for never getting all the way down there.) Near the end of the half, when I was asking for all of their last names, I learned that Josh's last name is... Rosenthal. I believe my (embarrassing) response was "Brother? Wait, ARE YOU MY SON?"

It was so fun to talk tuba with these guys. It was like one of those "watch the waiter's reaction when I order my food speaking perfect Mandarin" TikTok videos, except really actually nothing like that. I simply asked some of them if they had ever played in Tuba Christmas and if they knew Gene Pokorny. Tyler told me that Gene had just been here on Thursday evening playing with the CSO at Krannert. My first thought was "how did I miss this?", but then I realized that I had looked up the CSO concert and it wouldn't have fit with my trip to Penn State. I made the wrong choice.

I probably talked the most tuba with Zac Gilbertson. He's a tuba performance major so I'm including his full name for when you see him performing with some famous orchestra some day. I absolutely had to tell him that he was living my father's dream. There was great synergy in that conversation (is that the right word?). Let me see if I can explain:

The Dr. Robert L. Rosenthal Scholarship at my high school is for students who want to continue pursuing music beyond high school. I used to raise funds for the scholarship with a golf tournament, but now that I've left my job to pursue writing full time (something my father would have done with his tuba given the right opportunity), I raise funds by offering to write any article people want to read. A subscriber named Steve asked that I write about the tuba section in the band. So here I am, at the game, embedded with the sousaphones, talking to Zac about how my father loved being an eye doctor but would have given anything to perform on stage with a great orchestra, something Zac will start pursuing professionally in May.

I mean, I got to tell Zac that my dad had a Miraphone tuba and Zac knew what that was. My dad's prized possession in life was his Miraphone tuba. Getting to talk about the brand of tuba my dad played filled my soul. And then Nico Moretti hit a three pointer literally seconds later and I was filled all the way up.

Things are a lot different now than when my dad was playing the tuba, of course. I mean, when my dad was playing his sousaphone in the high school band, he wasn't holding the sheet music on his smartphone like my son Josh is doing here:

And that reminds me - lyres have completely changed since I was in school. When you're marching with an instrument, the lyre is the thing that would hold your music (at least that's what we called them in the late 80's). Now, as you can see for the mellophone directly in front of Josh in the photo above, the modern lyre is just a phone holder. Instead of a flip book to change pages, they now just swipe to the next page. Modern society marches on.

Oh, and I did catch a lyre fail on video (maybe they just call them "phone holders"?). Watch the trombone on the right at the 20 second mark....

God, that low brass sound at the end is so great, right? Sousaphones either side of me, mellos to my right, baris to my left, trombone version of the Freebird guitar solo below. 🤟

My favorite part of the day? Runaway Baby, of course. Let me see if I can set this up for you.

Bruno Mars' "Runaway Baby" has become, at least in my opinion, the quintessential Illini gameday song (apart from all of the school songs, of course). When I'm on the road and I hear the Michigan band play it, I mumble "thieves" under my breath. It's the song that Krush loves more than any other (Block I would probably vote for William Tell).

Above all, it feels like the Assembly Hall/State Farm Center. I encourage you to watch this entire video. Look around at the Orange Out. A sold-out SFC, finally getting a string of Saturday afternoon games after three years of awful schedules, nervous about the close game but really excited to see what this line-change lineup of Moretti-Harmon-Goode-Hansberry-Dainja can do.

I need you to understand how much the band is part of that. Watch, and listen, and feel...

Yes, I did. At the "Barry Houser Is My Dad" part, you can hear me turn to my son Josh (he's not really my son) and say "I'll do it." And I said it. "Barry Houser is my dad" (he's not really my dad).

That would be Dr. Robert L. Rosenthal. Optometrist. Tubist.

Illini fan.