'Tuba Raids' Plague Schools in California
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BELL, Calif. -- When thieves broke into the high school music room here this week, they cut through the bolts on all the storage lockers and ripped two doors off their frames. But they didn't touch the computer or the projector or even the trumpets.
"It was strictly a tuba raid," said Rolph Janssen, an assistant principal.
Bell High School is only the most recent victim in a string of tuba thefts from music departments. In the last few months, dozens of brass sousaphones -- smaller tubas used in marching bands -- were taken from schools in Southern California.
Though the police have not made any arrests, music teachers say the thefts are motivated by the growing popularity of banda, a traditional Mexican music form in which tubas play a dominant role.
Teachers point to the targeted pattern of the burglaries: the expensive brass tubas and sousaphones, which cost $2,000 to $7,000, are pilfered, while electronics, cheaper fiberglass tubas and other brass instruments are usually left behind.
"Frankly, I don't think somebody would go through all that trouble just to take some brass to go to the salvage lot," said Ligia Chaves-Rasas, the music teacher at Bell High School. "Banda is very popular in this area of Southern California, and people will pay top dollar for a banda with a sousaphone player. Now, I have kids coming up to me saying they want to learn the tuba so they can be in a banda."
Tubas are not exactly sexy instruments -- they are big and awkward and often obscure the player's face. But over the last decade, as banda music has become increasingly popular in Southern California, so has the tuba.
Raul Campos, a D.J. at the local public radio station KCRW, said that when he was growing up in Southern California, young Latinos did not want live 12-person bandas at their parties.
"But banda has really grown," Mr. Campos said. "It's like a new, cool trend with young people. It's now cool to have a live band with a tuba, or to be a tuba player."
As a result, sousaphones have made work in bandas more lucrative. A banda can make at least $3,000 for a night's work at a wedding or quinceañera, said J. D. Salas, who teaches tuba at Steven F. Austin State University in Texas.
And the tuba player, who is often the leader of the group, usually gets the largest share.
At first, the thefts were confined to an area of southern Los Angeles County where there is a large Latino population. In recent months, however, farther flung schools have also been hit: four brass sousaphones were stolen in January from Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach, an affluent Los Angeles suburb; and Sycamore Junior High in Anaheim lost 20 instruments, including all its tubas, in a theft at the end of December that will cost the school in excess of $20,000.
The Los Angeles school police did not respond to requests for comment, but none of the instruments have been recovered.
And wherever the stolen instruments are now, the thefts have left local marching bands in a lurch. Some schools have secured donations from local businesses to help replace the missing tubas, but others have had to borrow instruments from nearby schools, or simply soldier on without sousaphones.
"It really hurt us for a while, with kids sitting in class not playing instruments," said Rich Gordon, the music teacher at Sycamore Junior High. "And we can't perform a concert if we don't have any tubas."
First Published February 10, 2012 12:01 am