Tips for Tuba, Volume IV-C
David Porter, Principal Tuba, The McLean Orchestra
Face time with the boss!
Who is the boss? For young music students, this question can be a real dilemma. Music ensemble directors, parents, private teachers, academic teachers, other family members, religious preferences and practices, themselves, and of course, their musical instrument. Their lives are divided between such bosses, and they have to somehow make them all happy. Books have been written on how to do this for each “boss,” however in this article we will talk specifically about the ensemble director and private teacher.
First, and foremost, the ensemble director. This is the area I think some private teachers miss. The grade received in school means a lot to parents and ensemble directors–therefore it often means a lot to the student. Most good music programs have implied or written out requirements for the students. The end result is usually subjectively measured in the student’s ability to perform with the ensemble, and objectively measured by annual chair auditions, scale tests, assigned playing exercises and written music tests. For most programs, these methods are very satisfactory in helping students, and as long as they do what the “boss,” says, they will make a good grade, enjoy music and be involved with school at the same time. Those without private teachers, these methods may also work well.
Enter the private teacher and private lessons. Something all ensemble directors say they want for providing their students with more in-depth knowledge; something parents fill obligated to do to help their child do better in music; something the student may or may not want to do depending on how much help they feel they are getting; something the private teacher wants because of imparting hard earned knowledge to others. In many cases, taking private lessons benefits everyone, and the musical progress of the student is greatly enhanced.
However, over the years I have had students tell me that their greatest conflict as a young tuba student was trying to please both the ensemble director and the private teacher. The conflicts are between whose agenda they think is most important. Each approaches the student like it is their way or the highway. Each expects the student to practice their material first. What is a student to do? The solutions for us stubborn adults fall into two categories–communication and non-communication.
The communication category means that ensemble director, parent, private teacher, and student are all talking about the musical methods of the student’s progress. This method is best, but in reality very rare. Ideally, the ensemble director and private teacher would confer regularly about how to teach the student to play, discussing ways to do it, combining the ensemble music with lesson methods to achieve a congruent course of action. The student can benefit greatly in their enjoyment of pleasing all bosses and their face time is something they will eagerly anticipate.
The non-communication category means that no one is spending much time talking to each other and, unfortunately, sometimes such talk is avoided. This makes face time with the boss uncomfortable for the young student and can make musical progress measurable in years rather than weeks or months. What is a student to do? Not much. They are the ones being pinged about like a ping-pong ball. There is one boss that a student can attend to that will help greatly, which is the practice boss. The student needs to please the inner boss that says go practice. This will allow the student to get better and also develop abilities to play requirements from both teachers better–eventually merging the requirements from both because the student has become so good. In the meantime, here are some thoughts for directors and teachers.
First, parents want to see happy children. Most parents are willing to listen to both teachers, but being the ones that live with the students 24-7, the parents are usually the best judge of the student’s happiness level. Second, ensemble directors should be aware that private teachers are indirectly trying to raise the students to a professional level. Their methods are usually designed to be the most efficient way for this, which often leaves out ensemble music because it may be viewed as a side effect of progress–if a student can play all of the private teacher requirements then the student can surely play the ensemble requirements. Although this is not always true, it does has meaning since most private lesson requirements are usually more difficult than ensemble requirements. Third, private teachers need to realize that the primary reason for taking private lessons in grade school is to play the ensemble music better. Ideally, private teachers should incorporate the ensemble music into the lesson, draw parallels to exercises, and talk about how students can use the ensemble hour for reinforcing lesson material. A global thought that keeps me going is that I am helping the world appreciation of music by helping the music programs at a school, by helping the ensemble director have better players, and by helping the students and parents understand what it takes to produce good music. The “music majors will happen all by themselves” do not have to search them out.
The purpose for these articles is to provide a link for the ensemble directors for either category. With that in mind, let us cover a few points about tuba students.
Students: please practice and make it convenient to practice. That is the best thing you can do (Summer issue 2001).
Parents: please help make it convenient for your children to practice.
Private teachers: use the ensemble material in lessons; ask the students what are the requirements from the ensemble director; help the student understand how to achieve that goal; and do not criticize the ensemble director in front of the student or parent. Remember your students do not have much choice about their ensemble director, unlike the choices they may have about a different private teacher. You may have to break down and call the ensemble director for a really huge discrepancy.
Ensemble director: the tuba is not the same as the other brass instruments regarding airflow (Summer 2003). Breathing with a phrase is sometimes necessary. In order to make a good sound, young tubists need to breathe much more often than the other brass instruments. If they try to last on phrases the same as the other brass, the student will compensate by closing up the embouchure to restrict airflow (airflow again–Spring 2002) If you are unsure as to how to help tubists with their frequency of breathing, here are some pointers.
Tubists can breathe after dotted eighth, quarter, and half notes, regular half notes, and whole notes. Only breathe at the times they need to keep a good sound–not every time these rhythms happen, yet not waiting until they are choking on their lack of air either (Spring 2002). If playing with a good sound and breathing properly, the resonance of the tuba will help carry the phrase through these rhythms when they breathe. Articulation speed, range, dynamics, and academic expectations should all be the same as everyone else, if not higher since they are at the back of the ensemble and must project/lead the group from the back (Summer 2001). And of course, you, the ensemble director have the greatest influence on that daily reminder–Don’t forget to breathe!
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