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Band-room burglaries target tubas

Is there a 'black market for tubas'? Thieves hit a low note at South Los Angeles County high schools when they steal marching bands' most valuable instruments.

By Giselle Smith Dec 13, 2011 3:26PM

When I was in high school, band wasn't exactly cool. And the bigger the instrument, well, the bigger the band geek. So who would want to steal a tuba?


A lot of people, it turns out -- at least in Southern California right now. A rash of tuba thefts has impacted high schools in southeast Los Angeles County, the Los Angeles Times reported.


Band teachers blame the thefts on the current popularity of Mexican banda music, which is played by brass and woodwind instruments and features the tuba. They also point to the high cost of tubas, which teachers told the LA Times could be more than $5,000 for a high quality tuba and as much as $2,000 for even a well-used instrument. A "badly dented" tuba is worth "hundreds of dollars" in scrap metal, according to The Independent in London.


The stolen tubas include upright concert tubas and sousaphones, which are specifically designed for use in marching bands.


"I really think there's a black market for tubas," said Ruben Gonzalez Jr., a music teacher at South Gate High, Fox News Latino reported. "Whether it be in this state or another state, or down south in Mexico."


Because the schools from which the tubas were stolen are in different cities and school districts, an exact number hasn't been published. Some of the schools have been hit more than once.


South Gate High School lost three tubas in September and two more in December, when burglars pried open a door and tore apart the band room. The five tubas stolen this semester were worth a total of $30,000, Gonzalez said. One of them, an upright concert tuba, was given to the school last spring by the nonprofit Manilow Music Project, run by singer Barry Manilow. Post continues below.

Here are some other thefts reported in the LA Times:
  • Fremont High School in Florence: 13 sousaphones stolen over the past 10 years
  • Huntington Park High School: 2 tubas
  • Jordan High School in Watts: 1 tuba stolen last spring
  • Centennial High School in Compton: 8 sousaphones stolen several weeks ago
Blame it on the job market

Banda musicians told the LA Times that tuba players can earn more than $100 an hour. Akiko Tanaka, the band director at Fremont High School, which has lost a number of other brass instruments in addition to its marching-band tubas, said he has tracked down some of the missing instruments in the hands of current and former students:

"Some of them have taken them to pawn shops. Some are using them in college, some are in bandas. It's a trend that students are working in bandas."

"[Tuba players] are paid a lot to play," South Gate High's Gonzalez told ABC News. "Buying a tuba is almost like buying a used car; people want it but can’t afford it."


Music programs lose their oompah

No arrests have been made, but wherever the tubas are now, the result is a blow to the already-hard-hit music programs at public high schools.


Tubas are often a band's most valuable instruments, and replacing them is not an option for programs that may have an annual budget as small as $500, according to the LA Times.


The website Sousaphone.net lists a number of new sousaphones for sale for between $2,749.99 and $7,229.


The band may play on -- but perhaps without its lowest notes.


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