Not long after learning the parts of the tuba and becoming accustomed to the embouchure technique required to make an adequate “buzz” on the mouthpiece, the new tubist is ready to move on to note production and engagement with basic etudes.
Without belaboring the tubist with a litany of techniques that may or may not be helpful given an individual’s playing context, there are a few strategies that seem beneficial to all tubists.
Adopting these universal strategies will provide optimum conditions for sound production, stamina, and intonation.
While mastering appropriate posture is essential to ideal performance, most tuba players neglect posture. Like a kinked water hose struggling to transport liquid to its recipient, a compromised airway will stymie the tuba player’s delivery of air from the lungs to the horn.
Without adequate airflow, the tuba player struggles to “hit” notes in the high and low registers, and often cannot support the notes in the middle range for any sustained period.
One of the best approaches to enhancing posture entails the tubist sliding forward on the seat used in the studio, rehearsal hall, or concert venue.
By sliding forward, the tubist loses the support afforded by the back of the chair, and must use core musculature to stay erect.
Over time, strengthen musculature helps the musician to straighten the slumping and/or curvature of the back. With this unkinked airway in place, note production and endurance grow.
Developing an Ear
Unless the tuba player intends on a career as a soloist – which is really impractical for bass instrumentalists – he or she must learn how to recognize and honor the tuba’s place within the larger ensemble.
Music dictation, especially, is an important skill to hone if one wishes to develop a good ear within the context of the ensemble.
With score paper and pencil in hand, the tuba player should listen to a brief piece of recorded symphonic literature, and then sketch a score based on the fragments of the whole created by the various instruments.
Repeating dictation-specific exercises, the tubist not only enhances his music theory acumen, but also learns how the horn’s harmonic contributions fit within the full expression of the piece.
Keyboard studies, especially with scales, intervals, and the like, will also help the tubist developed a nuanced ear.
As explored elsewhere, mouthpiece work is a necessary task for tubist intent on deepening skills and exploring more complex literature.
Mouthpiece works begins with warming the mouthpiece. Using a cupped hand technique, the tubist should raise a cold mouthpiece above room temperature.
Gently rubbing the mouthpiece for three minutes or more with cupped hands should bring the mouthpiece to a desirable temperature.
Before placing the mouthpiece into the lead pipe of the instrument, the tubist should blow air through the mouthpiece for approximately one minute, then buzz the mouthpiece with the playing embouchure for another three minutes.
Following studio or ensemble work with the tuba, the mouthpiece routine should be reversed. Removing the mouthpiece from the lead pipe, the tubist should buzz for an additional three minutes, and blow air for one minute.
A mouthpiece should be cleaned regularly with a Listerine-type agent to reduce the possibility of mold or bacterial growth.
As a tubist explores a trove of music literature, it becomes apparent that the tuba’s contribution to the score often includes pulsating, heartbeat-type notation that keeps the ensemble from experiencing excessive phasing.
At times, the tuba parts can be heavily syncopated, or crafted in a way that helps the ensemble anticipate the downbeat of the upcoming measure.
Inasmuch, it is helpful for tuba players to learn from their neighbors in the percussion section of the ensemble. Using a clap technique, or “Dot It” procedure, the tubist is encouraged to work through rhythmic sections of the score a few times with hands or voice before blowing through the horn.
Tugging on the ear of the saxophonist on the second row of the ensemble (right in front of the tuba section) could be a helpful move when mastering highly rhythmic sections of the score.
Using the clap technique in concert with an instrumentalist working a more melodic section of the piece (like a saxophonist), the tubist learns the rhythm of her section of sheet music while discovering how her part complements and drives the melody.
Rest is probably the most underutilized tool in the tubist’s reservoir of strategies. For starters, adequate rest insures that the embouchure does not degrade because of swelling or muscle fatigue.
When a tubist is working a highly demanding peace of literature, “the lips” should be rested two hours for every hour of direct engagement with the music.
In this context, rest could mean focusing on rhythm work instead of playing notes. Rest may also include the application of a cold compress or rag to lips to contain swelling that is already underway because of overwork.
Giving the lungs and fingers a rest is also vital. Stepping away from the instrument from time to time will counter the potential of burnout or unintended medical consequences.
If the music becomes a physiological strain instead of a joyful pursuit, it is time to take an extended break from the horn.
Novice tuba players often look at instrument mastery as some sort of Olympic pursuit. In a quest to produce the lowest notes, the most precise staccato passage, or the longest musical expression between breathes of oxygen, the newbie fails to realize that the “subtle things,” not the superlatives, nurture musicianship growth.
Good posture, ear development, mouthpiece work, rhythm exercises, and rest are simple strategies that promote the enhanced health and playing acumen of an artist performing at any level.
That said, these five strategies are by no means exhaustive. All tubists, all musicians for the matter, should seek out the living masters for guidance, teaching, and troubleshooting when musicianship plateaus or the joy is slipping.
Likewise, when the tubist gets it – really gets it – she helps the community of bassists by passing on those things that work for her. Above all, enjoy the music!