Tips for Tuba, Volume TTIXC: “Tis’ the season!”
by David Porter
Tis’ the season again, students giddy with excitement, the warm friendship of people getting together, frolicking and laughing, potluck dinners, fundraisers, and everyone enjoying the spirit of the moment. Sounds like Christmas right? Well, I do enjoy Christmas, although more because of the celebration of the birth of Jesus than anything, but I am talking about marching band season. Yea, alright! Woohoo, let’s practice blowing loud music till our faces fall off, our lips turn inside out, and our teeth cave in—sounds accurate right? Wrong! While that may be how some folks see the marching band purpose, my vision is far different. At my alma mater, Alcoa High School, Alcoa, Tenn., I was blessed to have a high school music director named Roy Holder (currently band director at Lake Braddock Secondary School, Burke, Va.) who taught me that while marching band is a must do item for school activities, it can be used to our advantage to improve the music program. A good friend and former student, Dr. Michael Nickens, Athletic Music Director, George Mason University, Fairfax, Va., takes the philosophy even further by using the music he arranges and performs as teaching tools about music history, theory and ear training, style, and theological and emotional connection with what influence is being used for a particular audience reaction. I write this article about young tuba students in the hopes of offering ways to think about protecting them and at the same time helping them have a truly grand musical experience. Let’s divide up the discussion into three areas: musicality, playing skills, and safety.
I realize that many folks in the professional classical music world have a dim view of marching band musicality. However, let us think for a moment. There is no use in making the marching band music “easy” just to be loud or make it easy to do. This will soon bore the students to tears, turn off the audience, and will not help the students learn anything musically. Why not consider making use of the mandatory time to build up the student’s skills and help the program? Here are a few suggestions when it comes to young tuba students.
- Make the marching band music hard enough that the best players have to practice it for about a week of band camp before they can even start memorizing it
- Give them some different dynamics in the music and insist they play them
- Give them challenging phrases and insist they play them
- Teach them breathing into the phrases
- Teach them inflection of the style and how to make it heard from 50 yards away as a section—this can even be more effective in marching band because the style (and dynamics) have to be exaggerated
- Of course, teach tempo—plenty of room here to develop everyone’s sense of inner pulse to stay together
These suggestions will help them have fun, not get bored, and allow us to have plenty of reasons to keep working on the music throughout the season.
This is a big area that is extremely practical and hands on for students understanding. If student’s can be taught to play marching band music with good breathing techniques, proper embouchure, and mostly be able to judge the amount of pressure on the mouthpiece, then they have accomplished something for the season. Each season in high school can be used for further development. Here are some skills unique to improvement by the marching band experience.
- Breathing can be hugely expanded with constant reminders about breathing techniques, not getting tense, and airflow—coupled with getting students to project sound over many yards without hurting themselves
- Embouchure placement is a must to think about and should be individually looked at everyday with each student and their sousaphone or marching tuba—pay particular attention to the angle of the lead pipe and condition of the mouthpiece; teeth width is a favorite to work on during this season, because without doing it, student’s can’t move air—cool thing is that they get excited about moving air during marching music and can really practice keeping their teeth more open since it takes more air when this happens
- Mouthpiece pressure is an absolute issue of both playing well and safety—pay close attention that students are not pushing their faces into the mouthpiece so much that it is leaving a red ring around their mouth too much or causing their faces to collapse around the mouthpiece; they should be keeping a firm forward focused embouchure that allows a seal around the mouthpiece but not visible signs of embouchure tissue being stressed or damaged
All basic playing skills can really be dug into during marching season because of the student’s excitement. When the student’s are excited about playing, they will try harder and provide a teacher with the ideal platform to constantly remind them about proper skills daily.
Mostly pertaining to carrying heavy instruments, this is a challenging area with young students, especially if they are trying to be “tough” in front of their peers. For starters, with the weight of marching tubas and sousaphones being anywhere from 18 lbs to over 27 lbs, young students have much to deal with in their shoulders and backs. I remember getting “callused” with a sousaphone and felt I could carry it forever. For the here and now, we really can’t avoid having students carry these instruments, and the problem is that they don’t have muscles and bones that have matured to carrying heavy weights yet (no matter how big they are as a high school student). Yes, we still need plenty of students playing these instruments, as we need lots of bass sound. So here are a few thoughts to try on students. On this area, I would welcome any thoughts about getting students to pay even closer attention to their health and safety.
- Have student’s put foam and towels between the metal and shoulders
- Have them wear back safety belts
- Have student’s regularly stretch during the season
- Give them some lessons in posture and body mapping (might be able to bring in an Alexander technique person to help with this)
- Have them lift some weights (under supervision)
- Make them take off the instruments when not playing
- Give anyone weighing less than 100 lbs a fiberglass model to practice with and the metal one for the show
- Give them stories of how to be safe based on your own experience
- Show them ways to protect their mouthpieces from falling out on the ground
I do not mean to sound trite. I am actually a fan of marching band and outdoor music (marching band, drum and bugle corps). The truth is, in order to keep our bodies completely safe in marching band, we would all have to have personal fitness trainers and make an hour a day a fitness hour. However, that is not going to happen, so my suggestion is to use verbal reminders to at least get the students thinking about safety and perhaps they will do a few things. Remember that at least they are young, and younger bodies can bounce a little easier than older ones. Pay close personal attention to the physical well being of each student during the training camp, including heat related problems. Be prepared as a teacher to talk with parents, as they will be turning to you for advice when their child is complaining at home because of back or shoulder pain. Sometimes flexibility can be offered in the program as students get used to the instruments. And sometimes there is a little trick that can be offered to take their mind off of the instruments and can actually help them support the instruments as they carry them. “Don’t forget to breathe!”
David Porter serves as Principal Tuba with The McLean Orchestra and performs as a member of the Camerata Brass Quintet. He is also faculty on The Masterworks Festival and Director of Youth and Youth Music at Fairlington United Methodist Church.