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Tips for Tuba, Volume V-B
David Porter, Principal Tuba, The McLean Orchestra
“Tubastroke––not a boat stroke”
One of the most rewarding aspects from teaching students is learning from them as much as we are teaching them. Although at first my approach is generic to each student, the lessons quickly dissipate into encyclopedias of discussion, playing material, and most importantly techniques that each student can begin to collect unique to them. This is also when I wind up learning from the students. As each variation of a technique is formed, I sometimes suddenly figure out something that will help my own playing. To arrive at solutions, we basically keep trying experiments until something works. The solutions we work on together help both of us in our ability to play the tuba.
First, I will address a word about young students and tuba valve strokes. Everyone knows this, but just to get it out loud— the tuba valve stroke is, for the most part, the longest, widest and heaviest of all the brass instruments. Many times students do try to move their fingers at the same speed as their tongue and air, but the fingers just cannot keep up the stroke hitting fast enough or soon enough. Unlike a crew boat that has a caller to pinpoint your paddle stroke for maximum impact, tubists must use their own devices. With that in mind, the following ideas about finger and strength coordination playing fast notes were discovered during lessons with three different students.
Play the notes with the fingers. Our challenge: the student was playing the notes in their mind, through their eyes and out with the air, but the fast notes still sounded very awkward, slow, or not speaking. We tried having the student “play” the notes with fingers only—no sound, no buzzing. The student had no trouble keeping up rhythm of the notes with the fingers. This caused the focus to shift to the bottom of the down strokes for the note starting. We then began adding back in tonguing and singing, then tonguing with air, then tonguing with buzzing, then playing the horn— each time trying to retain the original focus of the fingers helping play the notes. Our exercise was successful. Now, whenever the student has trouble, this technique helps with the fast playing.
Curve the fingers over the valves. Our challenge: the student had trouble pressing the valves down fast enough to keep up with the music, especially in the third and fourth valves. We realized that the student’s fingers were not real strong yet, and they were playing with their fingers straight and flat on the valves. This last problem sometimes caused the student’s fingers to curve below flat causing much stress on the joints. We tried having the student curve their fingers over the valves with fingertips resting more vertically on the valve caps. More like holding their hand around a tennis ball to reach the valves. This helped the student have more strength in their finger movements and clarity of notes.
Move the fingers from the knuckles. Our challenge: the student was moving their entire wrist up and down for every valve. This caused a huge block to playing fast notes. The student’s hand was stiff and rigid. We began to resolve this by visualizing a piano keyboard. The student did not play piano, but knew what a keyboard looked like. We visualized looking at the keyboard on the same plane as the keys—in other words putting our eyes at the same level as the keys. Now visualize looking from one end of the keyboard. As you look down the keyboard, their white keys create a solid surface. When keys are pressed up and down, that surface is broken, but ever so slightly and quickly. Likewise, if you hold your hand out flat at eye level, curve your fingers and wiggle them, a motion is created very similar to the keyboard plane being broken. We noticed that in order to be quick the fingers moved naturally from the knuckle joint, not the wrist. The next step was to apply this movement to the valves to see if the fingers could push the valves just as quick. Sure enough, they could. From there, we worked on holding our hand still while moving the valves from the knuckle joints. We discovered this was not as hard as it first seemed.
Admittedly, the above ideas may have been put into practice by many modern tubists in college. I can only assume this because of the blazing technique so many of the new tubists are able to accomplish when playing. For young students who do not have many hours to practice and need some very direct guidance to help them, perhaps these suggestions will be of some help. To summarize, the lessons learned from these three students could be put into one sentence. Play the notes from the knuckle joint, curved through the finger tip into the valve stroke connecting the bottom of the down stroke with the tongue releasing air to buzz the lips into instant sound.
One area I have barely covered with students is strengthening the finger and hand muscles. Most music students are not into weight lifting, resistance or strength training. Therefore, to increase finger strength, I have recommended for elementary and junior high tubists they practice squeezing a racket ball and for high school tubists a tennis ball. On a personal note, resistance and strength training with weights is what helps me keep the “tendonitis” pain out of my elbows, wrists, hands, and fingers.
I am sure that there are many more ways to help students with their coordination challenges. Add to the dilemma that all of our hands and fingers are shaped different, all of our tubas are shaped different, and some like rotors and some like pistons. The suggestions in this article will hopefully stimulate thoughts on many more solutions. As usual, by the end of a lesson focusing on something physical, like finger coordination and movement, thoughts about breathing are sometimes dormant. I have to add a friendly reminder every now and then…don’t forget to breathe!
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