Con Sordino, Prestissimo By John Elliot
I have recently completed a lengthy ~ national tour with the Glyndeboume Opera Company, playing Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s The Last Supper. This opera, like so much of Birtwistle’s works, has a very exposed and occasionally very difficult tuba part. It also has some extreme mute change requirements, in the sense that there is very little time to insert or remove the mute. At the first rehearsal, at which Sir Harrison was present, I went “on the attack,” (sometimes the most effective policy), saying that the changes were not possible in the time allowed. Some alterations were made, giving me a little more time where necessary. I felt this to be only half a solution, as the mutings were there with good reason, adding important colorings to short phrases played in dialogue with two contrabassoons and a contrabass clarinet. The woodwinds could not, of course, change their sounds, but the tuba could with mute effects. I began to regret that physical restrictions were reducing the orchestral color palette. .
The obvious answer seemed to be either the use of an assistant to handle the mute, (not a very realistic proposition), or some sort of mute stand. I decided to design a suitable solution.
As a tuba player who doubles on string bass, one of the most useful pieces of kit in my armory is a double bass stand, (See Photo 1) which I bought some years ago. In those days I was playing Sousaphone doubling string bass in the resident band at the Ritz Hotel in London, and often had to leap from one instrument to the other in double quick time. I made life a lot easier for myself by the use of two stands, one for each instrument, designed so that both Sousaphone and the bass were held in playing position. It also took a lot of weight off my left shoulder when playing the Sousaphone for hours on end!
The Sousaphone stand was very functional, but really could only be used for holding a Sousaphone. Reasonable enough! The bass stand, on the other hand, has proved to be versatile beyond my wildest hopes. As well as the job that it was designed for, I have used the base section to hold a tuba playing rest, and the original bass stand is easily reconfigured for use as an ophicleide stand (See Photo 2) without making any permanent modifications.
The cup designed to hold the bass spike even holds the ball on the ophicleide’s bottom bow to prevent it from slipping! It was this stand that once again came to my aid to cure “The Birtwistle Problem.” The
solution was cheap, quick, simple and effective. I bought a length of foam pipe lagging from a hardware store for 39 pence (about 60¢), which simply fit over the arms of the stand, forming a padded hoop into which the mute could be dropped quickly, accurately and silently. (See Photo 3) The stand can also be set high enough for the mute to be near enough to the bell to be similarly inserted into the tuba. It fits all my various sizes of mutes, (See Photos 4 & 5) , but could easily be adjusted if needed.
The stand has been a great success, not only for the Birtwistle opera, but for other pieces requiring fast mute changes.
It is of particular benefit when I play my Besson EEb tuba, as you can’t always play with one hand while grappling with the mute. The stand folds away to a very compact size, and fits in my mute bag. The foam rubber also acts as extra padding for my mutes! A good music store should be able to obtain the original bass stand for you, or it would also be possible to adapt other types of stands, such as those for bass clarinet or snare drum.