An Interview with Winston Morris: Pedagogy of the Tuba (and Wind Instruments)
by Michael F. Shaughnessy, Eastern New Mexico University, Portales, New Mexico
The following interview recently appeared in the Latvian journal Problems in Music Pedagogy. Many thanks to editor-in-chief Jelena Davidova for approving reprint in our journal.
Professor Morris, first of all, how long have you been involved with the teaching of music and tuba performance?
I started teaching applied (private) tuba lessons as an undergraduate student in 1959. I took on a number of local junior and high school students. I guess that totals out to a good fifty years trying to figure out the “beast!” If I can somehow squeeze out another fifty years I might begin to understand the challenges of the tuba, which many people consider one of if not the most difficult instruments to play. This is based on the fact that the tuba requires the largest amount of air: four times that of the trumpet and twice that of the trombone. The larger the air column the more difficulty one has manipulating and controlling tone production and intonation. If a trumpet player kicks a slide out a quarter inch on a 1 and 3 combination to get the note in tune the tuba player will probably have to pull a slide two inches to accomplish the same task. One of the other factors that make the tuba such a difficult instrument is that many people have problems hearing pitches in the tuba register. There are other factors, which we won’t go into at this point.
In addition to providing instruction in the tuba, what other instruments do you teach your students and assist in their skill development?
I have been in my current teaching position, Professor of Tuba/Euphonium at Tennessee Technological University, for 43 years now. I am very fortunate (!!!) in that my studio is large enough and has been for all these years (generally anywhere from 20 to 26 students) that I am only required to teach the euphonium and tuba students.
Of course, over the years I “paid my dues” teaching a large number of other classes. I have at one time or another at this institution or elsewhere taught all the brass instruments, brass methods class, music appreciation classes, even percussion and string classes if needed. I have always found my “involvement” in dealing with other instruments to be very beneficial to my understanding of and appreciation of some of the intricacies of performing on the tuba.
What have you encountered as the main problems or difficulties in teaching in your particular area?
To some extent, the answer to this question has changed over the years. We’ll talk about this more later, but I relate the story that when I was a kid in high school (late 1950s) there was only ONE solo tuba recording available. In 1957, Mr. William Bell (Bill Bell), released on Golden Crest label, the FIRST ever recording that featured the solo tuba. Of course there were some Tubby the Tuba recordings and a few other miscellaneous tidbits of tuba here and there. But Mr. Bell’s recording was a complete LP (remember those big black round discs with a small hole in the middle!!!) of “classical” tuba solos. The LP was a fairly new thing itself having just recently taken over from the old 78 rpms. I’ll talk about recordings later but my point here is for many years one of the most difficult aspects of teaching the tuba was that students had no idea how the tuba should sound in the hands of a professional. All the “popular” instruments (do I really have to name them: you know who you are!) could be heard every time you tuned on the radio or TV. Everyone knew what a great trumpet, trombone, sax, clarinet, etc. was supposed to sound like. But the tuba!?
So, the absolute biggest problem 30, 35, 40, or 45 years ago was a complete lack of concept of how the tuba was supposed to sound. So students played the instrument for years (junior high, high school, even college students in those years) with atrocious sounds and were not even aware of how bad they sounded. It was extremely difficult to “re-adjust” a student who had this problem. Primarily (and this would be the next biggest and continuing problem [which is not necessarily specific to tuba]) because we are all subjective about how we sound it is very difficult to make corrections in tone production. This is a matter of mind over matter.
I always ask people if they remember how they sounded to themselves the first time they heard their recorded voices. You are the only person on the planet who hears yourself the way you hear yourself. The closest one can become to being objective about their own playing is to frequently record. This is how everyone else on the planet hears you. Trying to accommodate and deal with this fact is the single most difficult aspect of teaching a proper concept of tone production.
Out of the hundreds of students I have worked with over the years I have had a handful that simply never “got it.” Until this issue is resolved everything else about playing the horn is irrelevant. If you don’t have “great” even “world class” sound no one cares how high, low, fast, etc., you can play. If it takes a semester, a year, two years or longer to resolve this it must be done. Once one acquires a great sound then the work begins in earnest in trying to perform on the instrument without messing up that great sound. Now we get into issues of breathing (remember, the tuba is a major challenge here), articulation, and technique. There are literally hundreds of things that students do incorrectly that obliterate that great sound we spent years developing. That’s where I go to work!!!
How well grounded are your students in theory and transposition?
Of course all college music majors must be thoroughly grounded in all aspects of music theory. This is a “given.” From the freshmen aural techniques class to the more advanced form and analysis a student needs a complete grasp on the structure and organization of the music he/she is attempting to perform. Tubas are built in four keys: F, E-flat, CC and BB-flat. From one instrument to the other, tuba players do not transpose. They simply know their F fingerings, their CC fingerings, their BB flat fingerings, etc. Tuba players do not, to the extent that trumpet and horn players do, transpose.
And 99% of all music they play is in bass clef. So, from a performance perspective, rarely does the tubist have to deal with treble or tenor clef. There are exceptions to this but they are very rare in the U. S. The British brass bands and standard brass band music tuba parts are printed in treble clef, as is all the instruments except the bass trombone. Thus, brass band players only have one set of fingerings to learn and they can easily go from one instrument to the other always using the same fingerings. The part accommodates them.
One other issue that directors, etc., need to understand, is that all the bass clef tuba parts are in concert pitch. They are not transposed. If the tuba part says BB-flat tuba, it is still in concert pitch and can be performed on CC or E-flat tuba. The player uses the fingerings for the instrument that they are performing on. You can have four tubas all in a different key all performing off the same part but using different fingerings. One exception to the concert pitched tuba parts is some of the French tuba parts. The part that says Tuba in Ut is in concert pitch, be sure to perform from this part.
How do you personally go about teaching music interpretation?
Remember that single tuba recording by Bill Bell from 1957? Well now I have several hundred tuba recordings in my studio. You want an interpretation of the Hindemith tuba sonata? There are about a dozen professional recordings of this work for students to listen to. This is a major change from teaching 40 years ago when virtually none of the standard repertoire was recorded. I like for a student to listen to as many different versions of a particular solo as possible then decide for themselves what works best for them. Of course working with orchestral excerpts is now a breeze as compared to many years ago. Which brings us to question number 6.
We are in a rapidly changing technological world. How has this impacted your instruction (if at all?)
The basic precepts of producing a world class sound on the tuba has not changed since the examples set in the 1940s and 1950s by people like Bill Bell and Arnold Jacobs who performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for many years. Students today not only have the benefit of a large number of world class artists on the tuba to learn from via live performance and hundreds of recordings but they also have “tools” that make the challenge a little less daunting. The tuba is the most difficult instrument to play in tune by virtue of it having the largest air column coupled with the extreme range of the instrument. Forty years ago we (the department of music) were so fortunate to acquire a Peterson 12-Wheel Tuner. It “only” cost several thousand dollars!!!
Today, for about twenty dollars a student can purchase a state of the art tuner with a built in metronome! No excuses playing out of tune or behind the beat these days. Of course instruments themselves are much more consistent and of much higher quality than just a few years ago. You can find a professional quality instrument for less than ten thousand dollars but you can also spend over twenty thousand dollars for a tuba.
So, today students have better equipment, access to better role models, and more tools to expedite their development. And, it has all paid off as today’s top students have taken full advantage of all the opportunities afforded them and have indeed continued to raise the bar.
I understand that Public Broadcasting System is running TUBA U: Basso Profundo. How did this come about and what did you accomplish?
The Tennessee Tech Tuba Ensemble (TTTE) is one of if not the most successful performing collegiate ensembles in history. Recognized internationally as the leading group of its kind, the TTTE has an enviable record of twenty-five recording projects, seven Carnegie Hall appearances, two World’s Fairs performances, numerous national and international conference engagements, a forty-year history of performances from Preservation Hall in New Orleans to the Spoleto Festival in Charleston to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D. C. and responsible for the composition and arrangement of more music for the tuba than any other single source. Founded in 1967, the TTTE defined the standards for tuba ensemble performance practices and have inspired the formation of like groups all over the world. The subject of several doctoral dissertations, the TTTE most recently enjoyed wide spread exposure via a nationally broadcast PBS documentary titled TUBA U: Basso Profundo.
Several years ago the tuba/euphonium program and ensemble that we have developed at Tennessee Tech University celebrated its fortieth anniversary: 1967–2007. In conjunction with that celebration, we organized a 40th anniversary all-star alumni tuba/euphonium ensemble comprised of the finest graduates of the program. This group consisted of ten euphoniumists and twelve tubists who teach and perform professionally all over the United States. Funds were raised to commission nine major compositions and performances were presented in Chicago, Washington, D. C., and in New York at Carnegie Hall. The ensemble did record all nine of the commissioned pieces for Mark Records and the CD is titled appropriately Legacy. Award-winning independent television producer and director Todd Jarrell learned of this project and requested to document the recording and performances in his program titled TUBA U: Basso Profundo, which was broadcast nationally on PBS in April 2009 and is “in rotation” to be shown throughout the U. S. over the next five years through local PBS stations. The following Internet links do a nice job of previewing the production: http://www.tubau.org/ and http://www.pbs.org/tubau/.
Tell us what you attempted to accomplish with the Basso Profundo program.
Since this was the idea of the producer/director, Todd Jarrell, I think I will let him answer this with a quote from one of the websites promoting the show:
What inspired Tuba U?
“It seemed like a fresh idea,” said Todd Jarrell. “Twenty-two tubas playing together is different and that attracted me.” However, Todd really fell in love with the story when Winston played him a 1933 song by Bill Bell. The song was called, “When Yuba Played The Rhumba On His Tuba Down In Cuba,” and the piece helped inspire Winston’s career.
“The dedication and the energy that Winston puts into his work is amazing,” said Todd, “but the fact that his life work was inspired by a needle drop on an LP and by that song, that wacky, goofy, wonderful song, is just cool! People find inspiration anyplace and this shows that inspiration comes in all forms and sizes and sounds.”
TUBA U is not just a show about the tuba—it is also about prejudice. “What struck me,” said Todd, “was that when people asked me what I was working on, and I said a show about tubas, nine out of ten people would say, ‘oh, oompapa.’ This is what Winston has been hearing his whole life. Nobody was writing for the tuba because it’s all about oompapa. But really, the tuba is an amazing instrument. Just because it is large and cumbersome and has big bass tones, it is not used strictly for elephant soundtracks. It is a marvelous, agile instrument capable of making beautiful music.”
“The program assures us that some unusual things are worthy of a lifetime of commitment, dispelling assumptions of size, value and ability and addressing prejudice—even if a very quirky one.”
I hear that there is a new book, about to be released documenting your program. Could you give us a brief summary? Who are the authors involved and what is their background?
We are very excited that Scarecrow Press will be publishing a new book late this spring titled: The Tennessee Tech Tuba Ensemble and R. Winston Morris: A 40th Anniversary Retrospective. The book is a complete biography on me and the first 40 years of the TTTE.
The authors are two graduates of the TTTE, Dr. Charles A. McAdams, Dean, College Arts and Sciences, Northwest Missouri State University, and Dr. Richard Perry, Professor of Music, University of Southern Mississippi. The publication will be comprehensive and definitive containing a large number of appendixes documenting specific contributions relative to recordings of and compositions for the TTTE.
How many different genres do you work in with your students? How comfortable are they in terms of shifting from one area or form to another? (e. g. Jazz to marching band to symphony to others)
I can’t speak for other instruments, but the 21st century tubist must be versatile and competent in every area of musical expression if they expect to survive in a professional environment. The aspiring orchestral tubist in the U. S. who wants to spend all their time perfecting orchestral excerpts needs to understand that they have better odds of becoming governor of a state than winning a position in an orchestra that will provide their sole means of support. To the extent possible, contemporary tubists need the broadest possible background and training to make them “marketable.” My students learn how to perform in all genres of music. Over the years the TTTE has participated in twenty-five recording projects. Most of those recordings are still currently available through Mark Records of Clarence, New York. I mention this observation in order to bring attention to the fact that these recordings cover virtually style of music from Play That Funky Tuba Right, Boy! (jazz and pop) to Kings of Brass (serious contemporary) to Phat Bottom Tubas (funk and rock) to Legacy (a documentation of the 40th anniversary commissions including a major contribution by Pulitzer-prize winning composer Gunther Schuller). Sound files on all these recordings are available through the following link:
Our latest recording is titled Christmas Tubas and comes about after many years of prodding by everyone to produce a recording of Christmas music. This CD includes standards as well as pop-oriented arrangements.
Do you ever discuss the historical epoch of the music that you teach? Why would you consider this important?
Many people are surprised when we tell them that the “tuba” is the baby of the orchestra! It is well documented that the first instrument properly referred to as a “tuba” derives from a Prussian patent dated 1835. I have even seen the date (thank you Clifford Bevan) that I believe was September 12, 1835. Regardless of the exact day, all other orchestral instruments predate the birth of the tuba. It wasn’t until the late 1890s that we start finding true tuba parts in orchestral compositions (Wagner, Tchaikovsky, etc.). It took another 60 years (circa mid 1950s) before the first major solo pieces appeared for the tuba (Hindemith, Vaughan-Williams).
So, it has only been in the last 50 to 60 years that we have generated serious repertoire for the tuba. Compare that with any other orchestral instrument. I mention this bit of history in order to explore the fact that if the tubist wishes to become proficient in music composed prior to the mid-20th century, they must perform transcriptions. I recall encountering a really fine young tuba student in my first collegiate teaching job (Mansfield University, Mansfield State Teaching College I think it was in 1965) who was opposed to performing “transcriptions.”
He only wanted to perform original compositions for tuba. Remember, it was only in 1955 that the first serious compositions for the tuba appeared. Previous to that the only original pieces were of a Beelzebub nature! This student was limiting himself to performing music that spanned a ten-year time period. Thus, if the tuba student is to ever experience music of the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic periods they must perform material originally conceived for other instruments.
Tubists these days do this without apology to anyone. To do otherwise is to extremely limit ones first-hand knowledge of the great literature of the past. Tubists everywhere perform music of Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Strauss, etc., etc. In order to do this, the student must understand “performance practice” of all these musical periods.
In terms of your students and their own personal growth and development, what do you endeavor to do? What role does their learning of their instrument play in their own personal and professional development?
In all honesty, I think this question perhaps delves into my major philosophy of “teaching” more than any of the other more specific issues discussed thus far.
Very few people have understood this underlining philosophy of my approach to teaching perhaps because it is not obvious on the surface and it is something that very few people have ever been insightful enough to want to discuss. I have spent over fifty years teaching the tuba. I have generated hundreds and hundreds of compositions and arrangements for the tuba (more than anyone else according to some sources). I have been involved with over fifty recordings featuring the tuba in every style of music.
And I have been responsible since 1965 when Bill Bell and I first wrote a book on the literature of the tuba for documenting all the repertoire ever conceived for the tuba. Thus, it might be a surprise that my major goal with students is not to produce more tuba players but to produce (#1) competent caring individuals who are inspired to expect and demand the very best that they have to offer as individuals in any and all activities that they engage in and (#2) musicians whose top priority is in promoting a love for the art of making music at every level.
My objective, which I hope that I have been relatively successful at, is to above all set an example of this ideal and subsequently expect the same from my students. The “tuba” is merely a means of expressing these philosophical and musical ideals. What is important is not so much “what” we do but “how” we do it.
Please see the New Materials column in this issue for a review of The Tennessee Tech Tuba Ensemble and R. Winston Morris: A 40th Anniversary Retrospective.
Dr. Michael Shaughnessy is currently Professor in Educational Studies and is a Consulting Editor for Gifted Education International and Educational Psychology Review. In addition, he writes for www.educationnews.org and the International Journal of Theory and Research in Education.