34:2 Pedagogy Section
Articulating a few concepts…
By Jason Byrnes
Brass players can make a wide variety of sounds by using their tongues. It can sometimes be difficult for young students to decide on the appropriate sound of various articulations, as models are not as readily accessible as on other musical instruments. Ultimately, euphonium and tuba players must listen and match the articulation made on other instruments or voice, since these are the sounds with which we must blend. Communicating these new concepts of sound efficiently can be done in a number of ways. Early versions of Arban’s Complete Method recommend holding a pencil up to the lips, and striking this pencil with the tongue when articulating. Other methods advocate “spitting the seed,” as one imagines a seed upon the lower lip that one attempts to blow off the lip by releasing the air with the tongue. I have seen both of these methods work for students with particular problems, though I do not advocate these techniques as the first method taught.
I think it makes more sense to initially teach articulation using speech consonants. People have been practicing articulating consonants almost from the time they are born, and through normal development they are capable of producing similar sounds to other speakers of their language(s), even though the size and structure of the tongue and oral cavity is quite variable among individuals. The strength of these spoken consonants corresponds to the strength of the articulations. I generally start beginners using a “toe” articulation, incorporated directly into any breathing exercises they might be doing. By incorporating the articulation into every exhalation, the students are less likely to get in the habit of breath attacks, which can prove to be a difficult habit to break. Also, the “toe” syllable provides a more open oral cavity than the alternatives with the same consonant (“tee,” “tah,” etc.), resulting in greater capacity for a resonant tone. Guided practice (learning a skill through small steps introduced one at a time) can be useful in this process, and could follow a sequence like this:
1) Sing the tune using “toe” for each pitch.
2) Sing the tune using “toe” again, but this time, monitor the chin by holding it with the hand. Make the tongue do the work of articulating by not moving the chin while singing using “toe.”
3) While thinking of the tune and monitoring the chin, now use the same tongue motions of singing “toe,” but blowing wind rather than singing.
4) Play the tune using these motions.
Using syllables in this way provides a level of consistency of articulation not found in a haphazard approach to tonguing, and it is easy to communicate changes in articulation. By using “thoe,” “toe,” “no,” “doe,” “koe,” and “go”, we have a wide range of articulations, ranging from a harder tongue to a softer tongue. In experimenting with these articulations, you will probably find that the closer the tongue strike is to the embouchure, the harder is the articulation. After introducing “toe” to a student, it may be necessary to change syllables as the student’s default articulation to something harder or softer–as in learning any musical skill, the sound should be the first and foremost guide in evaluating and modifying instruction.
One might also notice that different hardnesses of articulation are needed to maintain consistency of articulation throughout registers. For instance, using a “thoe” articulation is often necessary to provide clarity with pitches surrounding the fundamental of the instrument, while a “no” or “doe” above the 8 th harmonic (partial) may provide the same hardness of articulation as “toe” in the middle register. The awareness of the optimal syllable for a high entrance (discovered through trial and error) can add consistency to the attack that could make the difference between winning and losing an audition.
Slurring on brass instruments is often defined as changing notes without the use of valves, but this definition ignores the most important aspect of articulation: how it sounds. More often than not, young tuba and euphonium students use bursts of air or a “go” articulation on lip slurs, which not only does not sound like a slur on other instruments, but does not have the same pedagogical benefits in developing control over the relationship between flow and embouchure. Slurs must be the smoothest transition between two different pitches, and developing this on slow slurs is necessary before tackling the more complex lip slurs that are so common in warm-up routines.
Slurs present a special problem on tuba. Because of the slowness of the air used on tuba, it is easy for the air to back-up and bounce the embouchure around, interrupting the buzz; this is most easily observed when slurring up from a short length of tubing to a much longer length of tubing, for example from the B-flat below the bass clef staff to the B-natural immediately above on a BB-flat tuba. This may sound like several extremely fast articulations, or “bobbles” at the beginning of the note. The solution here is to develop the fluency of the buzz, or maintain the buzz throughout note transitions. Bending the buzz to the new note when slurring, or following the contour of the line with the air direction can develop this fluency. Sometimes reducing mouthpiece pressure on the slur will better engage the musculature of the embouchure, preventing it from being at the mercy of the air-stream backing up.
By experimenting with articulation and finding the perfect front, middle, and end for each and every note, greater variety of style and character is possible in every phrase. Through development of a full complement of articulations, euphonium and tuba players will find themselves able to more effectively perform in a variety of acoustic environments, instrumental combinations, and styles of music.
Jason Byrnes is Assistant Professor of Tuba and Music Education at the University of Northern Colorado. In addition to teaching in the applied tuba and music education areas, he is director of the University Brass Choir and Tuba-Euphonium ensemble, and performs as tubist with the Rocky Mountain Brass Quintet, the Greeley Philharmonic Orchestra, the Rough Riders Dixieland Band, and the 101st Army Band. He currently serves as an editorial advisor for the International Tuba-Euphonium Association Journal.