Teaching The Middle Third and Community Tuba
by Jonathan Deutsch, Ph.D., Kingsborough Community College and CUNY Graduate Center
I’m a good cook—really good. I’ve cooked things that are perfect in terms of doneness and flavor balance that make people’s toes curl. And, as a professor of culinary arts, I’ve found a good way to help others become good cooks—or even great chefs. I love cooking, and I love teaching cooking. My sign that I’ve “made it” as a culinary artist occurs when I envision a dish in my head and can cook it as good as—or better than—I envisioned it.
I’m also an enthusiastic but decidedly mediocre tuba player. My sign that I’ve not made it as a tuba player? I can hear the sound I want to produce in my head, but the sound that comes out of the bell is a very different thing.
To give some context, I did the district, regional, and state competitions in high school but placed low at state. I played in college and actually got a band scholarship—but at Drexel, a university with no tuba program. So I’m okay but by no means good.
I play in a few amateur groups and occasionally for money. And I love it. Rehearsals are the highlight of my week, and I’ve been known to ignore more important obligations to practice for TubaChristmas or drill passages for an upcoming concert. My intonation is pretty good, and I think I’m especially good at blending with an ensemble and musical phrasing, and I’m relatively happy with my tone when I’ve been keeping up my lip. On the other hand my reading is sloppy (oops an A-sharp? Why do these composers have to confuse me like that?), my tonguing is ponderous (double and triple tonguing, don’t even go there) and my mind and my fingers don’t get along when reading technical passages.
Two years ago I started playing tuba again after a ten-year hiatus (work, graduate school, tenure clock). And in addition to finding I’m an even worse tuba player than I remembered, I learned playing again—poorly but enthusiastically—was the best thing I could have done for my teaching.
Let me explain. In the culinary classroom I can handle good students—they’re easy. I can also handle bad students—I insist they change their behavior, and they either step up to the task and become good students or drop out of the program. The students I really struggle with are the middle third: those who have enthusiasm for the topic but just don’t get it. They show up prepared and on time to class, work hard, and seem to just not get there. I find myself intolerant—“How can he not do that—I just showed him how!”
It was when I started playing tuba again that I realized—that’s me! I heard echoes of myself in the voice of my community band conductors—“Tubas you’re dragging. Again.” “Tuba—that needs to be cleaner there. Didn’t we talk about that last week?” I realized that in ensembles I’m that student who shows up each week, ready to work, having drilled and practiced, and just doesn’t quite get it.
What I’ve learned in the past years of playing again is not so much how to play better (though I do think I’m marginally improving), but by looking at my own learning in the tuba section, how to help those challenging players—especially community band players where no grade is involved—who try hard and with enthusiasm but just don’t get it.
I’ve also learned in playing in five ensembles over the past couple of years that many community band directors share my frustration for students like me. To that end I offer some suggestions from the student side of the music stand—and the teaching side of the stove:
- Don’t hoard the sheet music. I’ve had tiffs with a couple of community band music librarians now. They want order, no missing parts, and to observe copyright law—fair enough. My section mates may be able to learn their parts by just showing up to rehearsal, but I need copies to take home and drill. And if the ensemble owns the music, fair use allows for copies to be made for practice (visit http://www.copyright.gov/fls/fl102.html). I can’t imagine a composer or publisher who would prefer a tuba part poorly performed to a photocopy made for practice! Make a “to go” folder for your performers—they may actually surprise you and use it to practice!
- Musical chairs. In a band with principal players or first chairs, move them around the section proximate to weaker players like me. Why does the worst player in the section learn from having the second-worst player’s bell in his ear?
- Show learning. Like cooking, music is a field where it’s impossible to know everything. New pieces are constantly composed, discovered or reprinted; one can always play cleaner or more in tune. Ingredients and recipes are similarly dynamic. Be transparent about your own learning process to show that everyone’s striving to improve. It’s disarming and encouraging to see a conductor practice bringing the band in after a mid-measure fermata while the band warms up.
- Show appreciation. Always. In a community band setting, where no money or course credit is being offered for participation, praise and camaraderie are the only rewards. A “thank you,” “nice job,” or “it’s sounding better,” goes a long way. Struggling players, reuniting with their horns after a number of years, need this kind of feedback—they may move quickly into leading a section.
- Be adults. In a community band setting, some directors have trouble transitioning from the classroom—where they are boss—to being first among their peers. Community members playing for fun may need to sit out a technical passage, get up and stretch, or just listen for a while to see how the parts fit together. Let it happen.
- Differentiate goals. For one tuba player, being a featured soloist may be a goal for the season; for another it will be playing a march at tempo, hitting the right notes, without dragging. Differentiate goals for each player and provide a line of feedback along the way.
- Push comfort level—but don’t blow it up. As players like me continue to develop, start to push their comfort level. Ask the section to play a passage, choose pieces with solo passages, and start to rehearse for perfection. But ease into it. Too early and you lose the player.
Some of these suggestions may be obvious but having seen music educators conduct ensembles in a community setting, I know many struggle with that transition. As a final note, I’d implore directors and performers to do what I did: find something—cooking, bowling, parasailing, fencing—that you love to do but which just doesn’t click for you. Maybe you’re okay but by no means a natural. And keep doing it poorly but with gusto. It will give you a new perspective on players like me.
Jonathan Deutsch, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Tourism and Hospitality at Kingsborough Community College, City University of New York and last chair tuba in the Brooklyn Community Wind Ensemble, Kings County American Legion Headquarters Band, TriBattery Pops, and the surf-rock band Slurp Circle.