June 13, 2010

A Very Large Tattoo

Look what I did yesterday!

Yes, that is a tuba, and though the words and the head of "Neptune" in the middle were already on the horn, all the other frills and lines you see are mine. Mike McCawley, tubist extraordinaire with the Ballet West Orchestra, was brave enough to sit and watch as I scratched up the bell of his beloved instrument. The tuba itself is only seven years old (is it cruel to tattoo a child?) and had been through 2 previous owners (one who played with the President's Own Marine Band) before Mike picked it up.

Before I made my first cut I drew the design on the horn using washable marker and paced around the enormous instrument trying to find a good starting point. Mike was standing over the table when I made the opening slice and was likely a bit relieved (as was I) to see that I hadn't slipped.

That initial cut is always the tough one. From it I know how the hardness, texture, and feel of the lacquer and metal will influence the rest of my engraving...and every horn is a bit different. Even among the Cannonball instruments--with which you'd think I'd have complete familiarity--every individual horn has a unique feel. With some, after the first cut I know the next two hours will be Hell, and with others, that cut is accompanied by a sigh of relief as I know it will be smooth sailing from there on out.

Mike's horn behaved beautifully and though I struggled at times to find good angles from which to approach my lines, I enjoyed this engraving from start to finish. Mike had set up a low table in his garage and left the outside door open. There was a fresh breeze blowing in and I could hear the pattering of rain on the roof: one of my favorite sounds. The setting was quite comfortable and brought to my imagination a possible future engraving workshop of my own.

Mike wandered in and out watching me work. He told me that before he'd majored in music, he'd studied art--specifically sculpture. This was a surprise to me and at first I was a little intimidated to have another artist scrutinizing my work, but Mike is about as amiable a guy as you can imagine and I eventually stopped worrying. Maybe his artistic past was the only reason I was there in the first place...what else would have given him an open enough mind to watch his several-thousand-dollar musical instrument carved up in front of his eyes?!

Everyone knows that tubas are large, but I don't think I'd realized just how immense they are until I'd done this engraving yesterday. I may risk getting myself into trouble by saying this, but the tuba, like the cello or the string bass, is a truly embraceable instrument. As I worked, I steadied the horn and found my balance by holding the tubing or the bell, always making sure I didn't press too hard and push the horn off the edge of the thin table. The curves of the tuba are wide and much more relaxing to my hand than a saxophone. Though I occasionally had to contort myself to reach an effective cutting angle over such a large instrument, it was pleasant to be able to open my frame as I worked. Compare that to crouching low and tight over a soprano saxophone with my hand clenched uncomfortably around its spindly little neck and you might be able to appreciate what I'm saying.

I finished the job in about 2 hours and was quite pleased with the result. I think the new engraving ended up blending nicely with the previous design: as the horn's title is "Neptune", my idea was to create the impression of waves of water being blown by the figurehead in the middle of the bell. Mike seemed thoroughly satisfied as well. He wanted to make sure I got plenty of pictures and couldn't wait to take the horn to his next gig (which happens to be with a classic English style brass band...maybe I'll get some more business outa this!!) and show off his newly decorated instrument.

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