Tag Archives: tuba

Confessions of a Crowd-Sourced Musician

When I first broke the news to my Facebook friends that I was chosen to play tuba onstage with Amanda Palmer and the Grand Theft Orchestra, most of the responses were of the “congratulations!” variety. Several, however, seemed to be far more interested in my financial well-being.

How much are you paying her?” one jokingly inquired. “Make sure she pays you,” urged another. “Hope you’re getting paid,” someone else remarked again.

For the purposes of this blog, let’s side-step the entire idea that it’s no one’s f-ing business whether or not I get paid to do a gig. That’s like asking a co-worker how much she gets paid or someone you just met his age. But the somber reality is that, for many people out there, $$ comes before art.

Amanda Palmer stirred up a hornet’s nest. Her approach to making music and presenting it to listeners breaks all the alleged rules of rockdom. Instead of getting funding from a deep-pocketed empire that puts up walls to control the flow of art in exchange for the lion’s share of the $$, Amanda decided to do it on her own. By engaging directly and honestly with her audience, she was able to win over their hearts, culminating in a Kickstarter campaign that raised over $1.2 million. Raising over ten times her original goal of $100,000, she shattered the music crowdfunding record.


But she didn’t stop there. She wanted to keep finding fresh, inventive ways to keep her listeners moved and entertained; she wanted them to feel involved. When it came time to tour, she announced that, at each stop along her route, she would crowd-source musicians from the local area to perform with her, reaching out in an unprecedented way to introduce these strings and horns players to her audience while giving them the opportunity to collaborate with the band.

This is where controversy struck.

According to her website, this is how musicians would be compensated:

“We will feed you beer, hug/high-five you up and down (pick your poison), give you merch, and thank you mightily for adding to the big noise we are planning to make.”

Some in the blogosphere began to revolt. They began to accuse Palmer of using musicians by refusing to pay them. That when musicians work for free, it somehow devalues what they do.

Look, I get it. Musicians, myself included, work incredibly hard. We’ve trained extensively, and we’ve spent exorbitant amounts of time and money to become proficient at what we do. We deserve to be fairly compensated for our abilities, yet we struggle in a nation where we are constantly expected to work for peanuts and be grateful.

That said, I also think some of us have forgotten why we learned music to begin with. We didn’t pick up our instruments because we thought it would lead to $$ … we picked them up because we thought it would lead to love, art, freedom, therapy, expression, and any number of other intangible rewards.

When I considered the opportunity to join Amanda on stage, I placed more value on being part of a team I greatly admire, performing with folks who make great art and interact with fans as fellow human beings rather than view them as meal-tickets. I wanted to be part of a dream, part of a movement, and part of a revolution. I would have been happy to be paid in hugs and high-fives—and to have been reminded of the spirit of what set me out on my musical journey to begin with.


And then, I got paid.

In response to all the criticism, Amanda managed to shake loose enough money to pay every musician who sat in with the band during the tour.

Performing on that stage before an audience of a thousand excited fans, I felt like a million bucks. I wouldn’t have traded away that feeling for a million in my bank account, and I would volunteer to do it again in a heartbeat. I was welcomed as part of the family, and that welcome was warm, it was honest, and it came from every single person who was part of the tour.

So, to all the people who wanted to know if I got paid, the answer is YES.

And also, I was handed $$.


Photo 1: Photo of the audience with their flashlights, taken from the stage!
Photo 2: Photo of the set opener, including the horns and strings, taken by Melissa Axel from the balcony.
Photo 3: Amanda poses with the vinyl record Melissa Axel and I released, available at http://music.melissaaxel.com
Photo 4: Melissa Axel, Amanda Palmer, and ModernTuba pose after the show.


So It Goes.

Sometimes projects don’t turn out the way you expect them to.

In April 2011, I was hired to record tuba on an alt-rock song for a Church music director, and I was excited about being asked to replace the electric bass part with tuba. After all, it’s my ModernTuba mission to play tuba on songs that don’t usually contain it, like pop, funk, jazz, and even, as in this case, U2-esque Christian rock, even though I’m not religious. Since I had been recommended to the project by a friend, I felt pretty comfortable accepting the gig.

It ended up being a somewhat strange experience.

The music director wanted soft textures with long sustained notes in the chorus sections. He sent over an unfinished recording of the song with a lead sheet that had all the wrong chords (the guitar part was probably played with a capo).  It sounded good, very professional and I transposed the chords and worked out a part. It was two months before I heard from him again, but we finally chatted and set a date to record.

When I arrived, the session was set up in the living room of the album’s producer. We’re not talking a swank studio in the lap of luxury, though—it was more of a cookie cutter apartment in a large 4-floor apartment complex. The producer/engineer was alone, having moved his dog to the bedroom for the occasion, and I sat on the edge of a cushy ottoman to play my part into the microphone that was carefully positioned overhead. Do-It-Yourself production is usually a good experience that really engages the passions of the people involved, and as soon as I was assured that I could get away with playing as loudly as I wanted without regard to the neighbors above or next door, I was ready to go for it.

We had a window of about ninety minutes before his wife would be home, so, mindful of the time, we began to record. After an hour, we had recorded some lush textures in which I had doubled my part and also played harmony lines to fill out the sound. Upon playback, the unmixed tracks sounded rather good against the backdrop of guitar, drums, synthesizers, and processed vocals. Feeling pleased with the results, he moved back the mic, thanked me, and closed down the session as I packed up my instrument.

And then he exclaimed, “Oh no! I accidentally quit the session without saving it!”

Umm, doesn’t Pro Tools usually auto-save? Isn’t it in a backup folder somewhere?

He didn’t know. He didn’t know if it was possible to get it back; and if it was possible, he didn’t know how to do it. I certainly didn’t know anything about it.

We did it again. This time, we had twenty minutes to get it right, so it was a bit of a rush job. He set up the mic, hoping it was in the same relative position as before, and we used first takes only. I felt pretty assured that I nailed each layer but still offered to come back another time, at no extra charge, if need be.

Aside from receiving my check, I heard nothing after the session. Days turned into months. Months turned into a year.

Not every recording session I play on will end up being used or even used the way I expect it to be. I was compensated for the job, did my part, and wished the project well. I never did meet the music director or anyone else involved.

Then today, while doing a search for something else, I came across a Bandcamp page that had my name on it. The link turned out to be this very project, under a band name I’d never heard before, and there was the song in question. The album was released this past April, and, sure enough, it included my credit for playing the tuba.

Eager to hear how it turned out, I listened to the song on my headphones. Twice. It sounded high-quality and had a great groove. In fact, the entire album sounded great— a real U2-esque triumph in honor of their faith.

That said, the tuba part had been replaced by an electric bass.

As Kurt Vonnegut would say, “So it goes.”


Picture from a recording session with a different band.
Photo by Melissa Axel.

ModernTuba Video of the Week! 030611

Back by popular demand (and over a week's worth of travel), it's time for the ModernTuba Video of the Week!

This week we feature a clip from The Price Is Right during which host Drew Carey proudly declares, "If you want to start the party up with some models … play some tuba music!"

I hereby submit the following as the ModernTuba video of the week!

Some videos from the recording process!

For the last nine months, I have been deep into recording Melissa Axel‘s debut record. I’ve participated as a tuba player, as a co-writer on a song (for which I also sang background vocals), as a production assistant, as an executive producer, and [very briefly] as an assistant engineer.

It has been one of the greatest experiences of my life.

On Friday we finally wrapped up the recording, and this week it is being mixed. Needless to say, I’m pretty excited about it! We are just weeks away from the final product (and vinyl will be on its way). The album has gorgeous vocals and beautiful piano, sweeping strings, rockin’ tunes, intimate songs, epic productions, delicate cello and tuba, and many other amazingly creative arrangements.

I thought it would be fun to post a few videos from the sessions to whet the appetites of anyone following this tublog, so enjoy!

Here’s video of our strings recording, featuring Kailin Yong (Kailin Yong Peace Project) on first fiddle, Tom Hagerman (DeVotchKa) on second violin, Mackenzie Gault (Flobots) on viola, Beth Rosbach (Fort Collins Symphony Orchestra) on cello, and Mike Fitzmaurice (Colcannon) on double bass.

This video starts out as a silly tour of Macy Sound Studios in Denver where piano and rhythm section were tracked, and it ends with Melissa rehearsing the instrumental track “Sharper Side” while producer Justin Peacock of The Hook Factory adjusts microphones.

And finally, here’s footage of us recording the song “Every Place Is Home” at Evergroove Studios in Evergreen, CO. The bloke on 12-strings is Irish songwriter Andy White—an incredible writer and performer who has written with such greats as Peter Gabriel, Tim Finn, and Sinead O’ Connor. Andy co-wrote this song with Melissa and me at the WOMAD summer school in Bath, England a couple of summers ago.

More to come, so stay tuned!

Studio Time!


Today we’re back in the studio finishing the song “Merry-Go-Round” by Melissa Axel, which features tuba as well as piano and voice. We just finished editing (comping) and tuning the tuba part with producer Justin Peacock of The Hook Factory. Thankfully, there was practically no tuning necessary, and the track is sounding fantastic!

I’ll be sharing some session videos later, so stay tuned …

Can’t wait to share this record with the world!

Once upon a time.

It should come as no big surprise to anyone reading this blog that I play the tuba, but to this day I still find myself quite surprised to be doing so.

I don’t one hundred percent know why I chose the tuba or why I continue to pursue it. It must be one of those enigmatic “it chose me” situations, because I don’t recall sitting down and plotting it out back in 1985.

Here’s what I did know: 
  • My father was a professional drummer for a while in the ’60s. By the time I came along, it was just a hobby he pursued in our den, playing along to records or just pounding out some solo Samba or Jazz or Rock rhythms. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him perform with any kind of group.
  • My older brother (3.5 years my senior) tried learning the clarinet in middle school for a year—and seemed to hate every second of it, though nowadays he says otherwise. I’m certain it was a very harrowing year. It was for my ears, at the very least.
  • My musical interests were mostly rooted in the top forty ’80s tunes played on the radio: The Human League, The Police, Thomas Dolby, and scores of synthy hits like “The Safety Dance” and “Mr. Roboto.”
So the tuba? Really?

None of my history prior to the sixth grade seemed to musically add up the tuba. To me, the only “heavy metal” I was interested in by that point was a new Quiet Riot or Twisted Sister song, and those don’t even really count as heavy metal.

But then one day I found myself in the middle school band director’s office, faced with the most terrifying question: “So, what instrument do you want to play?”

Believe it or not, I hadn’t really thought about it.

Furthermore, I was already two weeks behind. I only transferred into the class because my two best friends were in it. They were already learning notes and sounds on their chosen instruments, playing hardcore tunes like “Hot Cross Buns” and “Mary Had A Little Lamb” from their super professional looking music books. How could I possibly catch up?

I was practically frozen with indecision. Should I choose the sax so I could wail like that guy in Huey Lewis and the News? No, my friend had chosen that one already. What about the drums? But could I ever live up to my dad’s expectations? I’d already lived through my brother’s squeaky attempts at ear torture, so clarinet was out. There were already too many boys with trumpets, flute was too girly, the trombone was too weird looking, the French horn was too French, and were oboes even real instruments?

The music teacher was a large, sweaty, and very bearded Italian man with round glasses, and he was becoming increasingly impatient. The moment had come, it was time to choose.

And then there it was, sitting on the floor just a few feet behind him, a giant horn clad in gleaming silver. I remember thinking, “Well, it is larger than a trumpet.” A quick panicked look to the band floor revealed an ensemble full of every kind of brass, woodwind, and percussion player possible, chomping at the bit to make music—except for one major instrument.

Swallowing hard, I looked back at the band director and stammered out, “The … tuba?”

Seconds later I had a giant hunk of heavy cold metal in my hands and was being ushered out of the office to my place near the back row.

So, was it divine revelation or just the result of a very complex series of subconscious decisions by a ten year old boy just looking to fit in? Sometimes answers come to you in the most unexpected ways, and I guess along the way you’ve just gotta learn to stop questioning them, lest you spoil the magic.


[Pictured: ModernTuba, circa 1987, two years playing by this point]