Stolen: A cautionary tale by William Russell

William Russell

I had always believed that I had a well-gauged sense of the risks associated with leaving my instrument unguarded in a publically accessible place. Frankly it’s a bad idea and I try to avoid doing so at all costs.

Sousaphone theft (seriously, who steals a sousaphone?!) has been a real and documented concern in the past few years. In 2012, so-called “Banda Bandits” stole dozens of tubas from Southern California public schools presumably with the intent of selling to musicians in the region’s thriving Mexican banda scene. Maybe your instrument isn’t a hot commodity on the black market, but musical instruments, regardless of size, disappear from places as varied as college practice rooms and parked cars all the time. Whether or not you live in an area with high rates of automobile theft and vandalism, leaving your instrument in your car or other easily visible public place is always a big no-no.

With that in mind, enjoy the following brief, unsettling, and eventually humorous story of how my sousaphone almost walked off, never to be found again.


Read On...

I was attending a daytime rehearsal in a private building full of music studios. Chicago is home to several of these studios which are often in old warehouses that have been converted into space for artists. As expected these buildings tend to be situated in the kind of blighted industrial neighborhoods where defunct warehouses would not be a surprising sight. With consideration to the setting and the hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment stored within, access to private studios of this sort is restricted to members with key cards while on-site staff monitor security.

As we reached a break in our rehearsal I stepped into the hallway with my sousaphone to allow my band mates egress from the hot, cramped studio. To avoid taking up too much space I leaned my instrument in a corner of the hallway not 10 feet from our rehearsal space. With 7 other band members milling around this seemed a reasonable place to leave a massive instrument while we took a quick breather. Live and learn, I suppose.

As I returned from our break, I noticed the sousa was no longer perched in its corner. In the past I’ve had colleagues assume that it’s okay to move my instrument if needed, so it was a reasonable assumption that a fellow band mate had moved it back to the studio. A quick search showed that this was not the case.

But where could it have gone? Surely someone was about to walk up to me and say, “It’s right over here.”

With the whole band now alerted to my missing instrument and the possibility of criminal intent in the forefront of our minds, a cry sprang forth from one action-minded friend: “TO THE STREETS!!!”

And so in a panic we poured out the nearest exit with the naïve hope of catching a theft in progress. When you run out the door in this way, the futility of your situation becomes instantly apparent. When you think about it, a thief needs very little time to make what is surely a planned getaway, and a thief can leave the scene in almost any direction, assuming they have left at all. But I burst into a quick jog nonetheless. I made it only halfway down the block when my phone lit up with a comforting text message: “GOT IT."

I was relieved but baffled. How was it found so quickly? Surely a Jack Baueresque action sequence was involved. The band regrouped and the heroic finder related his tale.

It turns out that while we had all stepped outside for our short break, a custodial worker making his rounds through the building had spotted my instrument leaning in the corner. What I didn’t mention before is that I had left the sousaphone leaning rather close to some garbage bins. Apparently this was enough for this sanitation-minded man to reach the conclusion that my fully assembled sousaphone was intended for nothing short of the rubbish heap, and so in an instant when no eyes were on him he had hoisted my horn and hauled it off through a rear exit. Then instead of taking my instrument directly to a dumpster, in a merciful fit of common sense he dropped it off next door at the building’s front desk.

I would have never imagined this was possible. Here I was, in a secure, guarded building dedicated entirely to the practice of music, having my instrument taken out with the garbage. I probably shouldn’t have left my instrument where I did, but I still haven’t been able to fathom the very special leap of logic that got my tuba confused for trash.

In the end I am glad to say that I’ve never had instruments or equipment stolen, but it has probably happened to someone you know, or to you personally. Is there a moral to my weird story? On one hand we can go with the cliché that the price for security is eternal vigilance. On the other hand maybe the universe is just telling me that I should get that pile of scrap I call a sousaphone polished every once in a while. I’d probably be wise to follow both lines of reasoning.