Tuesday, 8 September 2009

The Tuba Lesson - Tallinn September 2009

The leader of the blind orchestra of Tallinn heard me play some clarinet and when I told him I was interested in learning tuba he agreed to give me some introductory lessons. He lives in Uus Maailm which translates as New World - a very intergalatic title for a quite regular residential district of Tallinn, a little outside the medeival city walls of the old town. In times of yore a inn stood with the exotic name of America. Slowly over the years as it became safe to live outside the city walls houses were built on the fields and bogs and ponds around the inn and the suburb of Tallinn was named New World after that inn. Now it is a mixture of Estonian decaying wooden two story flats and Soviet apartments. The older Estonian homes are usually painted a dull yellow or a snotty green with a great deal of peeled paint and cranky rooves and surrounded by spacious gardens and some wicked wicket fences. The soviet buildings are generally five or six story concrete erections in different shades of grey with lush green community lawns outside which belong to everyone in the house and they probably dont talk to each other so much so no-one touches it except the official town gardeners who mow the lawn and chop the branches off obstructive trees. These gardens lack the person touch of the private gardens. I strolled down Koidu (sunrise) street, turned right at Videviku (twilight) street and then along Luha (meadow) street past a schoolyard. Kids were rushing around screaming and jumping or hanging on climbing frames like monkeys in jackets. The last house on the Luha was an old two story custard yellow number, the high gate was unlocked and opening it reveiled a long low garage to the left of a beautiful garden full of blooming flowers and fruit trees. A few steps led up to the house door on the right which was also unlocked so I went in and found myself in a little corridor with a staircase going up and an old daguerotype of a couple in their old age snarling at the camera like two trapped wolves in lace. I heard the sound of a trumpet behind the door so I rang the bell and waited. After no reaction I rang it again and once more a little later. I heard feet approaching and the door opened and the old fellow was in the doorway and beckoned me in. I offered my hand and he took it with a look of mild surprise and shook it out of politeness. I guess it was a bit foreign for him. He loped down a long low corridor like a mole and I followed him. The walls on both sides were covered with posters for different orchestral shows: a performance in 1997 with the blind orchestra - I recognised a few characters but none of them seemed to have aged much over the last 12 years. Another poster from 1997 showed a larger orchestra in more modish costumes sporting very Soviet Eastern European costumes. The ladies had large hairdos like thatched blond heads and I noticed several of the women were very slim and pale and had mouse-like timid expressions. Some Soviet cartoons showed jolly musicians prancing about with their horns and brass and an other showed a collection of caricature heads of composers, conductors, sopranos and other musical maestros from back in the day with my host somewhere there among them.
At the end of the corridor a little bench showed where my shoes had to be removed and he invited me to put on a pair of felt house slippers. His previous student was playing American Spirituals from a Russian music book and he motioned me to sit on the Russian style sofa-bed then pulled his large body over to the piano and started playing the backing. I had heard them all before: 'Nobody knows the trouble I've seen', 'Hello Dolly' and 'Swing low sweet chariot' but it was strange to hear that soulful music played from a book. I sat on the sofa and looked around. The piano had a few squeaky notes where the key seemed not to be hitting a string but a rusty metal matrass or a broken gong across the street. The teacher squeaked and groaned out to express how the song should be played and would yell over the music with canon-like lungs commands that I could not understand but seemed to register with the pupil who played on unperturbed. I inspected the cushion next to me which had a tasteful old print of some town in Germany with a modern building in the centre and some forests and churches and old houses on the sides. The other cushions had Estonian patterns on them. I turned my attention to the book shelf and found a book by Billy Graham in Estonian which I took down to copy the Durer-like Apocolyptic print on the cover. I copied the face of the manic horse of some deathly old man while the lesson came to an end. After the pupil had played the last piece the teacher waved his hands and she went to sit by the table in front of a little bowel of sweets and eat them as he took a tuba out from behind a curtain near the piano where a harem of brass instruments were hanging on nails, sitting on the floor or lying on shelves. He showed me two tubas and said that one was deeper and heavier than the other but he only had a mouthpiece for the lighter specimen, the Eb tuba and since that was what the Dixieland band of St Petersberg had and it looked a lot lighter than the other one it was decided I would learn that (it has three keys with trumpet fingering unlike the 4 keyed Bb tuba I think he said). The young girl translated into English between mouth-fulls of sweets what his gestures and my poor Estonian did not gather. 

A drawing Triin did of me during my first tuba lesson 
with Esimene Tund written in the top left (Estonian for 'first lesson')

By the end of the class I managed to play the Eb scale but I think I learned much more Estonian than tuba. He told me he could not lend me an instrument to practice on but maybe he had one at the blind orchestra practice room which I could borrow. We got up to leave but he struggled over to a doorway and came back with a plastic bag. The girl told me we were going to his garden to collect plums from his tree. I got outside and started filling the bag with windfallen purple plums but he told me not to bother until he had shook the tree. He trundled over to the trunk and held it with his sausage fingered grip and shook it for a few seconds and ripe plums fell like spilled buttons from on high. I gathered the fruit from between the flower beds while he paced over to the apple tree and came back like tortoise a few minutes later with his hands full of small pale apples with black spots and worm-nibbles. He pulled a few more out of his deep trouser pockets and put them with the plums in our plastic bag. I thanked him and shook his hand at the gate which seemed to surprise him again. The gate shut behind me as I strolled back down Luha and past the school yard which was now empty of children.