The YouTube videos make us cringe.
An unnamed Sousaphonist back stepping beyond the rear hash mark slips and falls, beginning a catastrophic wreck in the middle of the marching band’s form.
Sousaphonist after sousaphonist collapse into the growing pile with horrific clangs of brass and an outpouring of expletives firing from the falling musicians.
In the distance, spectators observing the grotesque scene offer a collective gasp.
The drum major must halt the music and restart the band. The embarrassed sousaphonist whose misstep initiated the chain reaction will never play the horn again.
Tuba playing is challenging enough without the additional grind of box drills, body torqueing, and the sweaty rehearsals that come with participation in the outdoor, competitive ensembles.
That said, the thrill of performing a drum corps or marching band repertoire to an audience of tens of thousands is the hook that pulls many into the band long before they have the sophistication to appreciate what Mahler offers over Michael Jackson.
Assuming you read this piece because the adrenaline of the outdoor ensemble grabs hold of you and your tuba, consider the following advice as a bit of wisdom for the journey.
Insisting on the Right Horn
Whether you make the purchasing decisions for marching tubas or not, it is important to reflect on the stature and abilities of ensemble members when instruments are selected for use by instrumentalists.
Size and weight of the instrument must be the first consideration.
While modern sousaphones can weigh thirty pounds or less, older instruments may weigh upwards of fifty pounds.
With awkward, top-heavy bells, a sousaphone may be unwieldy for a small person or an individual with motor-coordination difficulties.
Sousaphone construction materials should be a consideration, as well.
Although fiberglass sousaphones offer a reduction in weight when compared to all metal varieties, tone quality is compromised.
The airy, shallow tone produced by most fiberglass horns is no substitute for the rich, dark sound of a brass instrument.
For the ensemble using contrabass bugles or convertible concert tubas, weight is again a consideration.
For example, a 5/4 concert instrument with a conversion option sounds wonderful on the field, but is too massive for all but the largest tubists.
Drum Corps “contras” produce lush, exotic sound in a lightweight package. That said, contras tend to be priced out-of-reach of most ensembles.
A word about key. Stick with instruments keyed in BBb. While instruments keyed in G or even C afford an ensemble some interesting tone dynamics, they require hefty transposition work on the part of the tubist(s).
Contrabass bugles keyed in G tend to offer the instrumentalist only one or two valves. With this limited valve apparatus, the chromatic ability of the instrument is stymied.
Stick with brass construction, a BBb keying, and a horn appropriately sized for the performer.
Prepare Your Body
The toil of marching while playing seems to be especially arduous for the tuba player. Producing enough airflow to bear both rapid foot movement and sustained low notes may be the most demanding expectation of all the facets of the marching arts.
Inasmuch, the tubist must prepare the body for marching season long before the ensemble steps on the practice field for the first rehearsal.
Acclimation to heat, humidity, and physical demand mark the core of the tubist’s preseason preparation.
As most expressions of the marching arts entail summer and early fall scheduling, acclimation should entail strenuous exercise in direct sunlight.
Vigorous walking or jogging with a weighted backpack (thirty pounds or more) helps to simulate the demand of carrying a large instrument while moving through drill sets.
As the tubist’s stamina improves, he or she may want to carry a mouthpiece on walk/runs, to practice airflow and bopping exercises.
Weight training offers the tubist an opportunity to enhance core and upper extremity strength prior to the marching season.
For those playing contras and converted horns, weight training nurtures the strength needed to constantly move an instrument from parade rest, attention, and playing positions.
That said, too much emphasis on musculature will diminish the musician’s flexibility and endurance, necessities of the marching arts.
Unlike concert ensembles, marching bands and drum corps demand that musicians memorize music.
While sheet music is available and accessible for indoor rehearsals and clinics, the on field performance requires a rote recapitulation of opener, closer, and ballad.
Although memory work is quite easy for some performers, the bulk of musicians struggle with this important task.
What to do?
When beginning memory work, break the piece into “licks,” that is, smaller phrases of music.
Concentrate on memorizing the individual licks – give or take 20 measures of score – and then adding licks to memory.
It is always helpful to see how the tubist’s notation fits within the music of the larger ensemble.
Exposed, melodic tuba parts should be prioritized for memorization over “walking bass” and other harmonic notations that are commonly duplicated in percussion and euphonium scores.
Similarly, modern drill design requires significant memorization of form placement and body movements. The key to drill-specific memorization is determining the tuba player’s placement within the larger drill set (image).
The tuba player’s job is not to land on the same spot with ever drill set, but rather he or she must remain within the form of the drill set.
This means “covering” down, left, and right at all times, recognizing that a drill set compromised of a hundred or more performers will never form to the precise coordinates indicated in the drill book.
The marching arts are an exhilarating, relational, and catechetical component of band performance.
Most novice performers live for the arrival of summer rehearsals and competition seasons.
However, for the tubist, marching band and drum corps activities require substantial physical, mental, and emotional demands.
Conversations between performers and directors about instrumentation, preparation, and time expectations should occur long before drills and scores are written.
The tubist should also discern if his or her abilities can realistically meet the demand required at the nexus of tuba playing and modern, sophisticated drill design.
With this preplanning in place, an enjoyable and rewarding foray into the marching arts awaits the tubist.