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Sousaphones expand their reach in Marching Mizzou

Wednesday, September 28, 2011 | 3:27 p.m. CDT; updated 1:13 p.m. CDT, Thursday, September 29, 2011
Sousaphone section leader Trevor Ramlow plays at rehearsal on Saturday, Aug. 21. Ramlow and two other section leaders lead the first 15 minutes of rehearsal each day for the sousaphones section.

COLUMBIA — The sousaphone players circled, the bells of their gold tubas facing in, standing on hot asphalt under a bright September sun.

Some sported sunglasses. Some held sheet music in one hand, pressing valves with the other. One player was shirtless. All blew a succession of low notes out of their instruments, working their way down the scale.

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Junior Aaron Jasa, the sousaphones' section leader, stood inside the horseshoe-shaped line of tubas. After stopping the warm-up, he clapped out a tempo, shouting, "One, two, ready, go."

At his command, the sousaphone players belted out a portion of "Gonna Fly Now," the theme song to "Rocky." Jasa put his music under his sneaker so he could continue keeping the beat. 

"Crescendo," he yelled. The sousaphones got louder. 

When Marching Mizzou's 325 players take Faurot Field for the band's halftime performance during Missouri home football games, spectators can listen for the deep, resonant tones of the sousaphones.

This year, there are 27 "Mizzousaphones" in the band — nearly double the number of sousaphones in years past, said band director Brad Snow.

The growing popularity of sousaphones might be a national trend.

Jupiter Band Instruments, which supplies Marching Mizzou's sousaphones, is having a "very good sales year" for sousaphones in a year when demand for the relatively rare marching tubas is growing overall, according to an email from Brent Rosborough, Jupiter's wind instrument product manager.

Sousaphone players must audition for Marching Mizzou, so the abundance of tubas was intentional. The sousaphone makes the lowest sound of any instrument in the band. Having more of them gives the group a darker sound and greater presence. 

Snow likens it to experimenting with the bass dial on your car stereo. "It's kind of the same thing," he said. "We've just turned the bass up on the band."

Adding more sousaphones doesn't just change the sound of the band — it also changes the appearance.

"A lot of people kind of listen with their eyes, if that makes sense, so when you see that many sousaphones out there, the whole band looks bigger," Snow said. 

The band had to buy nine new sousaphones to accommodate the additional players, Snow said. These sousaphones are reserved for game day, and are silver instead of gold.

A sousaphone is a wearable brass tuba designed for marching. The player stands inside, with the top of the instrument resting on his or her shoulder. Senior Zachary Mertens, who is in his second year as a sousaphone player, said managing the weight of the 60-pound instrument is one of the most challenging aspects of playing it.

"It's definitely more about your whole entire body movement because anywhere you turn, the whole tuba goes with you, so it's really hard to keep your bell facing forward down the field," he said.

For sophomore Elizabeth Bauer, who's only been a sousaphone player for a few weeks, the most difficult part is playing the notes. 

"I'm a good musician. I know what all this is," she said, gesturing to her sheet music. "But I can't make it come out."  

Once a musician has enough breath support to play the instrument, the challenge becomes making it sound good. It's easy to play loudly, Jasa said, but because the sound is so low, it's important to articulate rhythms. This is an extra challenge with so many tubas.

Bauer had her first experience with a silver sousaphone and with game day in the Tigers' season opener several weeks ago.

"It was, oh my God, crazy. I walked onto the field and was like, holy crap, there are a billion people here," Bauer said. "It was really exciting." 

And because Bauer is a sousaphone player, it's likely many of those people were watching her. 

"There's a couple of instruments that people kind of gravitate towards, especially on game days," Snow said. "They always are just in awe of what the sousaphone looks like. I think it's just because of the enormity of the instrument."

Mertens has noticed the attention.

"Being a sousaphone player is kind of a characteristic in itself because, like, in the stands, whenever people look at the band, all they see is, man, big tuba up in the back," Mertens said. "I mean, anything that we do, if I'm walking around from a distance, people are like, 'Oh, there's a tuba there. What's he doing? He's walking in a circle. Why's he doing that?' It definitely sticks out of a crowd." 

And the sousaphone players know it. They cater to their fans. During games, they'll dance to demonstrate sportsmanship and excitement. The tubas have moves called "swagger;" "elly," which involves imitating an elephant's trunk; and "guillotine," where the sousaphone players lift their instruments so the part that usually goes around the players' shoulders is parallel to the ground, and the bells are facing straight up.

The fun continues once the game ends. Often, the sousaphone players stop on the way back to the band shed and play "Hey Baby" for the tailgaters, a song that has a "really loud, blasty bass line," Jasa said. "That's one of the few songs that we'll actually just cut loose and play as loud as we can on." 

These moments are some of Mertens' favorites as a sousaphone player. 

"One time, I was walking back to the shed, and there was a guy who was quite intoxicated, and he was like, 'Tuba, you rock!'" said Mertens, shooting his hand into the air with two fingers extended, imitating how the tailgater demonstrated his enthusiasm. 

"They cheer us on just because we're tuba players, and that's really satisfying” Jasa said.


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