Which Students Do I Switch to Tuba?

by Marty Erickson

Originally published to BandDirector.com



This installment of Brass Advantage was written for music teachers faced with the daunting task of choosing students to switch to tuba to facilitate the orchestration of their band as well as tuba players seeking advice and counsel from a professional tuba player to improve their performance qualities. 

Written by Mr. Marty Erickson who is both a fabulous musician (tuba player) and a world-class teacher.


Which Students Do I Switch to Tuba?

This is a question I get asked quite often, and my response is usually greeted with polite laughter, but here it is and here's why I ay it. Pick your most intelligent musician to play tuba! I have witnessed many "failures" in switching players to tuba when the director took their worst trumpet player, or worst French horn player and put them on tuba. Now what they have is a really bad tuba player! I tell band directors to change the student not the instrument. 

Let's look at the qualities you want in a good tuba player. The essential qualities are these: 

  1. Full, rich tone quality 
  2. An excellent sense of pitch 
  3. Superb sense of rhythm 
  4. Clarity of purpose and focus 
  5. An independent, self-assured, take-charge type of person 


The list could continue but this is a very good start. The tone quality is of utmost importance for the backbone of the band. Most teachers will tune the brass from the bottom up. The pitch must be superb in the tuba section to provide a sound fundamental for the rest of the chord. The rhythm must be consistently accurate as a "ground" for the ensemble. (I should say here that it is everyone's responsibility to play with good rhythm not just the tuba and percussion). Clarity of purpose has mostly to do with the ability of the student to maintain focus and concentration over the whole rehearsal or performance without getting easily distracted. A student who is somewhat independent and self-assured is a good choice for the primary reason that that student maybe the only tuba player or perhaps one of two tuba players. A player who is self-confident will not be afraid to take on the responsibilities of the first four responsibilities discussed. 

Another question I am constantly asked is: "Which instrumentalists offer the best results for the switch to tuba"? Once again my answer is usually greeted with laughter or in some cases incredulity. I can say almost without reservation, flute players. They switch easily for several reasons. First of all, they are accustomed to playing with a smooth, fully supported air column. If they are confronted with a cornet or horn they usually are frustrated with the small opening. Flute players have a natural aperture, which is nearly perfect for tuba and they are rarely have the problem of clenching their teeth. The tuba will not restrict their airflow, and as any director knows when a student has immediate success with a concept or an instrument it is easy to keep them interested for the long run. 

If there is a fairly strong euphonium or trombone player who is struggling with the upper range of their instrument but produces good middle and lower range sounds that student too could be a good candidate. My immediate caution to you is that if, barring physical consideration the problems of the player have not been resolved through instruction and a reasonable effort on their present instrument, you may simply be switching the problem to another instrument. This all depends on the student, the director and the private teacher and the degree of frustration and/or willingness to work on the difficulties. 


Physical Considerations

Once again, there is no perfect or one-dimensional student designed to play tuba. Great success has been achieved with limited physical attributes and as many "failures" have come about despite having the so-called perfect embouchure or body style. You may have noticed that I didn't say a word about the size of of a person in the qualities to look for when switching. The biggest student in the band may not necessarily be the perfect tuba player.The smallest student may not be the worst candidate. The only consideration when introducing the students of smaller stature to the tuba is the care in explaining how to distribute the weight properly and how to play and move about without causing injury. There are stands and harnesses and other devices to assist the more diminutive players in handling the large instrument. If there are severe physical concerns such as badly formed teeth or any others related to the performance or handling of the tuba they should be addressed on an individual basis. I guess it's just not a part of my personality to tell any caring student they can't do something. My advice would be to always see possibilities rather than roadblocks


Practical Concepts for Teaching and Playing the Tuba Sound

The issue of sound is placed first in this paper because it should be the first consideration of any musician. Arnold Jacobs will always be remembered for the phrase "Song and Wind." These words are at the heart of sound production. The sound must be rich, dark, free and focused. Some descriptions for younger musicians might be to describe a "velvety chocolate waterfall." I often tell my students to envision painting a room with a huge roller full of the most incredibly beautiful paint imaginable feeling it glide across the surface of the wall. Listen to and imitate good sounds, define those sounds using colors and textures and let the airflow abundantly and freely. Finally ask the student, "do you love your sound?" 


Posture

Proper body posture and instrument positioning are two of the most overlooked yet essential elements for performing the tuba comfortably and playing well. Whether you are starting a new student on the tuba or simply trying to develop better habits for your "veterans" use the following checklist as a guide. 

  1. See that the student is sitting erect with a slight lean forward but not rigid. 
  2. Make sure that the leadpipe/mouthpiece line up with the embouchure so that the student doesn't need to stretch. 
  3. The student must be comfortable in the chair. Many chairs accommodate a student only if the student is a contortionist. 
  4. Check that the hand is comfortable, fingers curved and over each valve. Thumb should not be stretched away from the hand. Many thumb rings are placed awkwardly away from the valves. 
  5. Feet should be flat on the floor and never crossed. It actually causes pressure on some internal organs and in some cases result in a hernia. The student may just be trying to stabilize the horn or just be plain lazy. 


Embouchure

This is the point where the student makes contact with the instrument and produces the essential buzz or vibration of the lips, which is amplified through the tuba. A proper embouchure is necessary for good tone production. It's possible to produce good sounds with many different types of embouchures. But some can slow or even stop progress entirely if not corrected. Here are some points to remember. 

  1. The ear is the best way to determine a good sound Good embouchures produce good sounds. 
  2. The corners of the lips should be fairly firm and mostlt tucked. 
  3. Avoid meaty or smiley corners and try not to allow the cheeks to puff dramatically. Keep the aperture open and relaxed so air may flow freely. 
  4. When possible place the mouthpiece evenly on the lips. Many brass players use a 2/3 upper and 1/3 lower lip placement or half and half but no placement is ideal. Whatever the placement the goal is for the student to be able to produce a good buzz with both lips vibrating on every pitch. 
  5. There should be a total absence of tension thoughout the body including the embouchure. 
  6. No air should fill the lips above or below the mouthpiece. It is a sign that the air is not being directed through the mouthpiece. Notice I said "through" not "at." 


Phillip Farkas' book titled "The Art of Brass Playing" is a good resource for the study of embouchures. There are also other helpful tools available such as the embouchure ring or the "cutaway" mouthpiece. Encourage students to look in the mirror to constantly check their "setup." Arnold Jacobs book titled "Song And Wind" also has a wealth of information about playing and using the body efficiently. 


Read the original publication here

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