All beginning tubists want to play the “good stuff” within weeks of picking up the instrument for the first time. With Holtz and Verdi out on the horizon, along with fun, contemporary pieces, who really wants to slog through scales studies and 100 variations of Hot Cross Buns?
In reality, the masterwork pieces remain inaccessible until the novice begins to truly master the horn. Mastery? It requires patience, humility, practice, a dash of talent, and a willingness to endure constructive criticism if the criticism stokes steady improvement.
Getting to Know the Instrument
As discussed elsewhere, no two tubas are alike. Because of variations in size, construction materials, and valve design, every tuba projects a unique tone quality, register range, and other sound production characteristics.
The first, best thing a novice should do when learning how to play the instrument, is know the intricacies of the tuba.
Are the valves sensitive to slight manipulation, or do they require a little more force to manipulate? Does the bore size create a lot of “resistance” in the horn, or is there always an expansive, steady airflow?
The novice is also well served by learning about the tuning characteristics of the tuba, recognizing that some instruments require minimal adjustments in the tuning domain, while others require a more substantive approach and touch. Getting to know a tuba also implies that the musician learn how to properly care for the instrument.
Cleaning, oiling, and greasing are code words for brass instrument care that all beginners should explore and practice daily. Proper storage of the tuba is vital!
When an instrument is erected on its bell and parked in the corner of the band room or some nook in the studio, the risk of damage grows.
An exposed tuba that falls on a hard surface could have more than a few dings and scratches. Damages to valve casings, tuning slides, or lead pipes could mean costly repairs and an “out-of-service” horn.
When the tubist is ready to hold the instrument and begin note production, adjustments in musician seating and instrument placement may become necessary. Small-statured musicians may need a pillow or two to raise their bodies to lead pipe height.
Similarly, a strap may be needed to keep the instrument close and secure to the musician. Larger players may not be well-suited for 3/4 instruments.
If the instrument is too small for the musician, the resultant “bending and shaping” needed to align the embouchure with the mouthpiece may mean diminished airflow and sound quality.
Before a novice inserts the mouthpiece into the horn and begins belting notes, she should work with the mouthpiece alone.
Buzzing and airflow exercises offer the beginner an opportunity to become comfortable with embouchure formation/placement, as well as the airflow characteristics of the mouthpiece.
Assuming that the instrumentalist is learning how to read music while enjoying those first engagements with the tuba, it might be helpful to “bop” through some notes, that is, use the mouthpiece to practice the embouchure adjustments needed to work through the various notes in the repertoire.
As many middle school musicians are adjusting to corrective dental work (braces) while learning an instrument, it may be helpful to discuss embouchure considerations with a dental professional.
Dental wax and similar agents and appliances may be useful in protecting dental work and soft tissues from the pressure and friction produced with the embouchure.
Warmup, Cool Down
As is the case with all wind instruments, a substantial “warmup” procedure is necessary for good sound production.
Scale studies, especially, enable the tubist an opportunity to work through a variety of long notes without the endurance required by the etude or the full ensemble’s literature.
While a lengthy and thorough warmup procedure at the beginning of a lesson or rehearsal is helpful, it should not preclude the intermingling of additional flexibility/rest procedures throughout the course of the lesson or rehearsal.
From a physiological frame, warmups prepare the body – especially the embouchure – for the stresses of sustained note production.
Similarly, a cool down procedure is a vital component of the novice’s routine. Ending a rehearsal with long, low-register notes, affords the musician an opportunity to loosen the embouchure and address swelling of the soft tissues if the rehearsal, study, or performance has inflamed lips, gums, etc.
Occasionally, a cool damp rag may be applied to soft tissues to combat inflammation, pain, and discomfort.
Patience and Practice
There is an obvious correlation between time progression and instrumental aptitude. Unless a budding virtuoso is sitting in the 6th grade beginner band, practice hours will be the key to enhancing the ability of the novice.
Beginners who are just learning how to read music may become especially impatient with their slow progress on the horn. Studies focused on key and time signatures, musical terms, syncopation, and the like will stretch the newbies’ cognitive capabilities.
The good news? With every scale study, clapping exercise, and terms test, more and more information is locked into the instrumentalist’s rote memory.
When substantive music arrives, even something as ho-hum as a pop music for the marching band, the beginner’s repetitive, rote work has him prepared to take the next steps.
The musical hooks – engaging, challenging, exhilarating compositions – will keep the beginner yearning for more.
The beginning movements of tuba engagement can seem monotonous and irrelevant. Who wants to spend 20 minutes exploring the C concert scale? Who wants to say “triplet, triplet” a thousand times over?
Similarly, unwholesome tasks like keeping a giant, germ-incubator of an instrument clean, can be boring and downright gross. These tasks, as uninteresting as they seem, create a foundation for the growing instrumentalist.
Like learning how to drive a car, the tubist begins to have fun when the core tasks are locked into muscle and cognitive memory. In the meantime, patience is the key word.
Eventually, the hours of warmups, cool downs, bopping and buzzing will enable the tuba player to walk with Verdi and Holtz!