“Let there be bass.”
Strong bass isn’t a bad place to start if you’re building up a brand-new band.
When Houston Secondary’s new 22-piece band plays plugged, all the trombones, trumpets, saxes, clarinets and flutes can find their rhythm in the electric bass guitar.
But unplugged? For a big brass sound, nothing touches the tuba.
That kind of volume doesn’t come cheap, however. Quality tubas start at $2,500 and can easily double that.
Luckily, HSS had one hiding in plain sight.
“Our tuba hung in the art room for, I don’t know, possibly up to 15 years?” says band teacher Margaret Letkeman, laughing as she hoists the well-traveled instrument to show off its dents and dings.
“It had a paper maché replica of the art teacher’s face hanging out of it,” she explains.
Letkeman was told the art room tuba was seized up, probably unfixable, kaput.
But she took it down anyhow, dusted it off and—just as students down the hall happened to be writing exams—she sounded out a great big boohrum.
Principal Scott Jackson, who plays baritone and dared to pick up that tuba at a recent band practice, says HSS was missing something before the band started up, and it’s great to hear that sound.
On volume alone, it’s certainly hard to beat a full school band.
Letkeman says the students can push about 90 decibels—something like a melodic subway train.
That big sound comes thanks in part to the tiered choir risers in the band’s practice room. They space out all the sections so that no musician gets muted behind another.
But the volume rose gradually last Friday afternoon, as students filtered in one by one to warm up for what must be their most toe-tapping class.
Up in the back row, right, Nathan Kendall grabbed a seat and unpacked his alto sax. It’s a big venue compared to the one he played before the band struck up in February.
“Well, he played sax in the hallways all the time,” Letkeman said. “He had nowhere else to play.”
For many students, brass and woodwind instruments are entirely new. That can be a challenge, Letkeman says, especially if you’re playing a reed instrument that can squeak and squawk.
” We’ll be playing away, rockin’ it out and then all of a sudden—’whee!'” she says.
“And it’s okay. Nobody gets embarrassed here.”
“These kids are very, very tight.”
Playing together and often has already put the band well ahead of Letkeman’s expectations.
“We’re playing stuff we’re not supposed to be playing,” she said with a smile.
The Entertainer, arranged for multiple sections, will be ready for the HSS Arts Fair, along with a secret crowd pleaser that fans may recognize from a certain film featuring reptile pets turned Renaissance painters.
And looking ahead,Letkeman said she’s impressed the students have gotten so far finding altered notes in trickier blues and chromatic scales.
“By the third week, they knew all that stuff and where to find it,” she said.
Letkeman teaches piano, plays trumpet and the clarinet, but she is modest about her teaching role, noting how many tips and pop covers the students glean on their own time by watching YouTube clips and jamming at each other’s houses.
“Some of the parents have said, ‘Yeah—my kids had some friends over Friday night and they were downstairs playing,” she said. “They’re motivated.”
Along with the art room tuba, the HSS band now has two of its own clarinets and an alto saxophone thanks to generous community donations. Instruments are always welcome, Letkeman said, as it offsets the cost of renting.
The HSS band will play Houston Secondary’s sixth annual Arts Fair, which also features theatre and visual arts, on Thursday April 12. Doors open at 6 p.m. and the performances start at 6:30 p.m.