Anything can be achieved on our instrument, so long as we practice incrementally. If you’ve been following along with the last few Denis Wick blogs you already heard examples of this from Chris O’Hara where he describes how the achievement of high speed trumpet playing has to start with accuracy at slow tempos. I’ve always called this style of practice “incremental,” because it describes how we improve our skills by one unit at a time in an organized linear way. And it’s exactly the mindset you should proceed with when trying to play lower.
Like any skill on your instrument, playing low in and of itself is not too difficult. However, playing low and doing it FASTER, STRONGER, BETTER, etc? That’s the full package we’re all after. If we take the right strategy into the practice room, we can make our improvements stick and make our performances more consistent.
What does it mean to practice incrementally?
Incremental practice is more about HOW to practice than WHAT to practice, and if the following sounds a bit like a thinly veiled sermon on how to organize your practice time and set goals, you’d be right about that too.
Incremental practice begins by starting in our most comfortable range, at our most comfortable dynamic, where we sound our best.
- It means we need to expand our range chromatically. That means we need to start in our comfortable range and proceed downward in half steps, so go grab your fingering chart and/or your favorite book of chromatic scale studies.
- It means that as we advance into the low range of our instrument, we need to copy the qualities of our best notes (beauty of tone, steadiness of pitch, good intonation), and attempt to clone those qualities in our new notes.
- It means we have to practice the low extremes of our range every day. If we skip a day of practice our so-called incremental progress is erased. Remember, we’re not only practicing our range, our goal is practicing how to reproduce it consistently.
- It means that when things aren’t working, we go back and fix problems before proceeding lower. If a previously secure low note becomes unstable, we need to have the patience to go back and work on it.
- It means that when we’re done working there are no gaps in our range, no weak notes, no sour notes.
Low Range Troubleshooting (Especially For New Tuba Players)
Still feel like you are banging your head against the wall? Or maybe you don’t have a private teacher you can talk to? Let’s look at some common issues:
1. Do you puff your cheeks when you attempt low notes? Try keeping the corners of your lips firm and your cheeks unpuffed. It’s easier said than done, so maybe try this with a mirror in front of you.
2. Where is your tongue in relation to the roof of your mouth? Try keeping the tongue low in the mouth. To achieve a good position for the tongue I like to imagine that I have just put the world’s hottest piece of pizza in my mouth. If you can imagine that, then you will instinctively know what to do with your tongue.
3. Are your teeth clenched? Your front teeth should be apart when playing. How far apart? Try biting your pinky finger for a quick and dirty measurement.
4. Where is the mouthpiece situated on your face? Grab your mirror again and make sure your mouthpiece is vertically and horizontally centered on your lips.
5. How hard are you blowing, and how much air? Playing in the low range requires the most difficult combination: Slow, steady air, and lots of it!. Try fogging up your mirror with your breath to see what I’m talking about.
The Long and Short of It
Practicing your extreme ranges without a plan can lead to bad habits, and in my experience the best way to avoid and correct those problems is by taking things slow and working chromatically. For a long time I had an inconsistent low range, but daily incremental practice not only helped me repair those problems, it allowed me to train my low range to be predictable and reproducible. If you are a brass player your low range is the heart of your tone production; practicing it slowly and thoroughly will keep you out of trouble and save you difficulty in the long run.
William Russell has been a local asset to tuba sections across the Midwest since he moved to Chicago in 2006. While currently in Chicago, William has studied with some of the best teachers around the country, including Sam Palafian, Mike Roylance, Floyd Cooley, Steve Layman, and Kevin Stees.
He has been a regular substitute with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra since 2007, and has performed with the CSO in Europe and at New York’s Carnegie Hall. He can be heard playing on the ensemble’s Grammy-winning recording of Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony with Bernhard Haitnik
In addition to being the Tubist of a touring brass quintet, The Alliance Brass, William plays as a freelance musician around the Chicago area and enjoys jamming with Chicago's newest funk and hip-hop sensation: J-Livi & the Party.