Nia Garner remembers the moment she played her first note on a tuba in sixth grade at Centennial Junior High School in Casper. She asked to try the largest instrument in the band room, and the teacher set it her lap.
It looked like a larger version of the baritone she’d spent her fifth-grade year playing. But the mouthpiece was much bigger, and it required a lot more air, she said.
“I could barely get a sound out on it,” Garner said, laughing.
Fifth graders don’t start off on the tuba because they’re too little, and she was still on the small side, she said. But she didn’t want to set it down and play the smaller horn she was used to.
“From there, I just loved it,” she said. “And I never wanted to go back.”
Now Garner leads the Kelly Walsh High School band’s tuba section and has performed in several state and regional honor ensembles. KW band director Brent Rose said she has the necessary skill and dedication as she plans to study music and follow it as her professional career.
One thing she didn’t have was her own tuba. Then in March, she won the Wyoming Symphony Orchestra’s annual instrument giveaway contest, which awards a Wyoming high school student with a professional instrument in partnership with Hill Music Company.
The instrument is one that Garner can take with her into her future, which she said will always include playing tuba.
That’s partly because music has helped Garner endure her father and grandfather’s deaths and her mother’s health problems — something she mentions in her essay for the contest.
“It was one of the only constants, and practicing just makes me feel like happy,” Garner said. “And it gives some enjoyment, and it just kept me on track to keep achieving things.”
‘The jolly old man of instruments’
Garner’s mother told her she was a finalist for a new instrument when they arrived at the Wyoming Symphony Orchestra’s March 30 concert where the winner would be announced. Garner didn’t see any reserved spots other than for her family.
“But I didn’t believe anything until they called my name and then I went out on stage,” she said, “and then when they brought the tuba — I mean, it still hasn’t sunk in that it’s mine and it’s not going anywhere.”
Her mother knew she’d won, but it surprised even her that Garner received the tuba that night. Usually, the winners choose their instrument later. But Rose — who’s tutored and advised Garner since she started tuba and talked with her previously about what her ideal instrument would be — arranged the order.
“It was crazy and a surreal feeling,” Garner said.
“I don’t think with where my family is at we could really afford something like this right now,” Garner said. “So the fact that I was able to get this was awesome.”
The first tuba she’s played was an old instrument beaten up by years of young players.
“And it wasn’t even playing correctly,” she said. “The valves were all messed up and it sounded terrible, but I still loved it.”
A newer tuba she played later first showed her how beautiful the instrument can sound, she said. She cried and even thought of stealing it when she had to leave it behind, she said.
Garner started high school on another clunker with “rotary valves that just clanked with every note,” she said.
Her new nickel Eastman tuba is the nicest instrument she’s played, she said. It’s a demo of a model not yet released in the U.S., Rose said, so as far as they know she’s the only person who owns one in North America.
It’s also a C tuba as opposed to the B-flat tubas students typically play though high school, Rose said. The different key means Garner also has had to learn new fingerings to play the same notes as she did on the school tuba she rented.
“And so she’s really having to almost learn the instrument all over again to play this,” he said. “But it’s widely considered that a C tuba is the professional model. It works better in symphony orchestras.”
Rose told her he spent the better part of two months in a practice room when he made the switch in college.
“And she’s adapted to it really quickly because she’s a smart kid, and she’s figured it out well,” he said.
Garner said it’s worth the adjustment. Her new tuba sounds even better than the one she’s played at school the past two years.
“I like this one much better just because I feel like it’s more open and the tone is even richer,” she said. “Overall I just love this model.”
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Many don’t realize how beautiful the tuba can be, and it gets a reputation as being just a polka instrument, she said. But they can play symphonic and solo work, and they can play pretty fast. Tuba soloist Patrick Sheridan can play “Flight of the Bumblebee,” she said.
“I think the tuba is just a happy instrument,” she said, “It’s like the jolly old man of instruments.”
Love and dedication
Garner’s love for music began in elementary school when she watched her sister, who’s five years older, play trombone in school band concerts.
“Music just kind of stuck with me,” Garner said.
When she reached fifth grade, it was time for her to choose an instrument. She debated between the French horn and baritone.
“I’ve always liked lower-register instruments because their sound is so full and dark and rich,” she said.
So she chose the baritone, which she played for a year and half before switching to tuba.
She’s made All-State Band since her freshman year and has traveled to Portland, Oregon, for All-Northwest among the top 150 band students in the region, Rose said. She traveled to Philadelphia last fall in the Wyoming All-State Marching Band and this summer heads to Europe with the Wyoming Ambassadors of Music, he said. She picked up trombone in junior high for jazz band and now plays it in the top KW jazz band as well as the sousaphone in marching bands, Rose said.
Long before Garner knew about honor groups, she practiced to sound better and because it was fun, she said. In seventh grade she stayed after school almost every day to practice for an hour.
“I do it every single day, and I never really got too bored of it,” she said.
Music meant more to her through the years and helped her through tough times in her life, she said.
Her mother had a stroke when Nia was in fourth grade and spent months in the hospital before a long recovery, she wrote in her essay. Her father was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, or ALS, when she was in seventh grade and died during her sophomore year. She also had to cope with her grandfather’s death and her sister leaving for college.
“It felt like music and the school tuba I played on were challenging me in a way to say, ‘This isn’t it. Your fight doesn’t end here. Keep going,’” Garner wrote in her essay. “Without that feeling and that longing that my instrument gave me to keep going, I honestly don’t know where I’d be.”
The top honor roll student plans to earn a music performance degree from University of Wyoming and pursue a career as a performer, she said.
“I’d love to be in New York someday just playing in the symphony,” she said.
Garner has returned to Centennial Junior High School, where she first fell in love with the tuba, to play along with and give pointers to the band students there. She’s always shown great dedication and the same willingness to help and encourage others, her former teacher Sarah Hanson said in her recommendation letter for the giveaway contest.
She was the teacher who first watched Garner learn to play tuba in her band class.
“In the realm of dedication and practice,” she said in the letter, “I have only had one other student who was willing to challenge themselves without being prompted.”
“She’s a great leader and on top of being successful, she’s also quite humble,” Rose said.
It’s a stereotype that girls don’t play tuba, and three-quarters of the tuba section at Kelly Walsh proves that untrue, Rose said.
“I would say ironically that her personality is quite opposite of the tuba,” Rose said. “She’s kind of quiet and reserved, doesn’t make a big fuss, is very studious.”
It’s scary to think of having to make a decision about the rest of her life, Garner said. She doesn’t like hasty decisions.
“But I think I was shown time and time again how music has just always been there for me,” she said, “and it’s the only thing that’s really a constant.”
Her future plans are following a love of music that’s only grown since she first picked up her instrument.
“I don’t think I could ever give this up or music up in general,” she said, “because it’s been such a big part of my life.”