Pedagogy Section: Euph Talk
by Matt Tropman
“Issues, ideas, and strategies for euphonium players”
First, let me say a quick hello and thanks to ITEA members and Journal readers. Following the great ITEC conference last June, I was pretty excited about all things tuba and euphonium. As a way of putting my positive energy to use, I have started writing down some thoughts about low brass playing that I hope may be helpful, or that will at the least get us all thinking about issues of particular pertinence to euphonium players. I do not suppose I have any especially groundbreaking ideas to share; indeed I learned everything I know from the many great teachers with whom I have been privileged to study over the years. However, I always feel that the more perspectives we have, the better. As we all know, sometimes the same thing stated just a bit differently “clicks” for us or our students. So, my hope is that this new column for the ITEA Journal may lead to a few “clicks” for some of us.
I also hope that you will help me with future such endeavors by writing me with your questions. Anything related to euphonium or low brass playing is fair game. As I receive responses, I’ll pick one or two questions to address in future columns. Thanks for your thoughts, and thanks for reading.
LOW RANGE – why should I be doing this?
Many of us hear something like the following from our teachers: “You need to practice low register studies. They’re good for you.”
While we dutifully carry out the orders of our teachers, most of us have also wondered at some point “why am I doing this?” I have had this question cross my mind as well, and since I do spend a lot of time playing in the low register, I have been considering this question for many years. Since we are all short on time these days, it can be a valid concern that taking the time to play in a register that is not often called for in the repertoire is, at least potentially, an inefficient use of our time. If we have a major concerto to learn, what is the point of taking extra time to work in the low range when our concerto may not call for much low register work? We have all heard that “low blowing” is good for us. This is an idea with which I very much agree, so I’d like to take a stab at making a specific case for why low register playing is recommended so ubiquitously.
I have outlined below what I consider to be the two main benefits of low range playing, relaxation, and airflow. These are related, and it is my belief that we cannot have one without the other. I will discuss how I believe low range playing helps each area, as well as how to use low range playing with a practical example.
1. Tension be gone
My first, and most important reason for working in the low register is that it helps eliminate tension. I have always been taught that it is impossible to play with a good sound when we carry too much tension in our playing. Most of us, at least sometimes, play with too much tension. Of course, we could spend a lifetime trying to identify the differences between necessary physical force required to play a low brass instrument and unnecessary tension. In fact, I spend a good bit of time in lessons observing my students, both visually and aurally, for signs of tension. However, I think we all know intuitively that unnecessary tension, however that may be exactly defined, sometimes creeps into our playing, and it can be hard to notice unless someone else points it out. In some cases, we see examples of extreme tension, which can make playing even the simplest tunes and exercises very difficult.
The best reason, to me, for playing in the low register is that it is a naturally tension-free, or at least tension-limiting endeavor. Take a moment to think about the “super tense” approach we have all experienced while going for some high note at the end of a long solo. Now, see if you can simulate that physical tension and play something low, such as a B-flat scale from low pedal b-flat. In my experience, it just will not work. No sound will come out of your instrument if you attempt to play with tension in the low register. This may not seem like a big deal, but to me it is crucial. I have yet to meet the player who does not exhibit some sort of tension while playing. Further, when we have the opportunity to see and hear some of the world’s great performers (on any instrument) in a live setting, we usually come away with the impression that the performance looked easy and tension-free. Working in the low register is a way of practicing tension-free playing. So, in a sense, it is a self-policing activity with respect to tension. If you begin to tense up, you will not be able to play much of anything in the low register. The more time we can spend playing without tension, the more likely this ease of playing is to be present in our performances. For almost all of us, eliminating tension is a lifelong endeavor, so any sort of playing where tension naturally does not occur is something we can easily enjoy. I like to start my day in the low register, and make many frequent visits during the playing day to relax my chops, body, and mind. If the playing day starts in a relaxed way, it is more likely to stay that way.
2. Air flow is a good thing
As we all know, the low register takes quite a bit of air. I am certain someone has measured exactly how much, but I have always been taught to roughly double my concept of how much air I need when playing any given note or passage down an octave, and that seems about right to me. I am a firm believer that you cannot have “too much air,” despite the fact that we do indeed need faster air for higher notes. From time to time, most of us tend not to use enough air. Like eliminating tension, using lots of air is something easier said than done at times. Certainly, relaxed playing is a prerequisite for using enough air (or is it the other way around?) and, here again, low register playing is self-policing with respect to air use: if you aren’t using enough air, you will not make any sound.
Most of us have been told at some point to “fill up” the horn as we play. I myself ask my students to do this, and I try to “fill up” the horn as I play. Of course, I do not think our instruments actually know whether or not they are “filled up” or not (is there not always air inside them?), but this concept is helpful for many of us in using plenty of air as we play. And, here again, low register playing forces us to fill up the horn.
Theory in practice
The points I discussed above all “flow” together and interrelate. Low register playing naturally makes us relaxed, makes us use a lot of air, and makes us “fill up” the instrument. It is worth asking why we cannot simply focus on these concepts in other types of playing. Of course, we can and we should keep all of these points in mind no matter what we are playing. The difference with low register, and the reason I like it so much as a training tool is that these things happen automatically in the low register. I am sure some will disagree, and I do believe that the more viewpoints we have, the better. Sure, we can play badly in the low register if we try hard enough, but in my experience the low register demands relaxation, lots of air, and a “filling up” concept, which are all very good habits for low brass players. To me, it is always worthwhile to employ training tools that make us play how we have been taught to play. Of course, I am thinking about relaxation and good air use no matter what I play, but the more time spent in a register where these concepts are a precondition for sound to occur, the more likely these healthy playing habits are to spread to more areas of your playing. Think of it this way: would you rather tell yourself over and over to play relaxed, or would you rather play in a register that only permits relaxed playing?
Brief Case Study: Martin Ellerby Euphonium Concerto, 3rd movement
For those familiar with the Ellerby Concerto the beautiful third movement is often a favorite. It is also very difficult to play, especially in context of the entire concerto. The tessitura demands are substantial, with the player extending up to high d-natural. It is not just the high d but also the overall register of the movement, as some might say where it “hangs,” is quite high and tiring. As a result, in performance this movement often leaves me wanting, both in my own performances and those I hear from others.
I can often hear and almost feel the tension in this music, when what we really want is a relaxed, easy style so that we can express what we feel the message of the music to be. What’s more, this movement is difficult to practice since it is so tiring. So, why not practice this movement down one (or how about two) octaves? I do not just mean once or twice, but how about making this movement, played 8vb, your first low range exercise of the day?
With the tension and chop-withering demands now gone, you are free to focus on the music you want to make with this movement, not the range issues which always seem to interfere. Since partials are much farther apart in this low octave, you are also far less likely to miss notes, giving your ear a chance to really learn the intervals without having to wonder, “Is this the right pitch?” By the time you are truly comfortable with this music in the lower octave, playing it in the printed range will feel like the rewarding melodic experience it should—with a relaxed style and great air flow.
As a further benefit, your air will last much longer in the printed octave, giving you some phrasing options you may not have had in the 8vb work. Most importantly, you have spent a lot of time playing this music without tension whereas many of us think of this movement as one which tends to create tension. Of course, tension is often what shuts down the fast air we need in the upper register. So, I will go so far as to say that I believe low register playing can help high register playing—not in the sense of building embouchure strength—but in the sense of allowing our bodies to produce the fast, relaxed air that high-register tension often chokes off.
Cautions and Conclusions
I hope I have not created the impression that low register playing is any sort of cure-all, but I do think it is a natural way to address many issues that we all face in playing the euphonium or any low brass instrument. Low register playing helps eliminate tension and promote good use of air leading to the relaxed “filling up” our teachers all ask for. But, beyond my single example, you may ask what to play and if there are any dangers involved. I think that there are many books which work the low register very well, and I have chosen a few which are listed below. As far as anything to be concerned about, I would merely caution that you should perhaps occasionally glance into a mirror as you play, and of course let your teacher know if you are substantially changing anything that you do or have been asked to do. I have not met the player who was harmed by too much low register work, but I suppose it is possible to contort the embouchure in such a way that negative effects are possible if you or your teacher are not keeping an eye on things. As a general rule, if you have to do anything painful to make a note sound, it probably is not a good idea.
From a young age, I was told that low register playing should be a part of my daily practice, but I was never quite sure why. Now that I have had some time to think about it, I hope my perspective on the matter provides something for us to consider.
In the meantime, please drop me an email (email@example.com) with your thoughts on this or any other musical matters, as well please feel free to submit any questions you would like me to address in future installments of this column. Visit me on the web at www.Spitvalve.org.
Two Suggested Low Register Studies:
Gregoriev, Boris. 78 Studies
Blazhevich, Vladislav. Studies for Tuba
Matt Tropman currently serves as adjunct professor in low brass at Eastern Michigan University and Executive Director of the Brass Band of Battle Creek. As a former member of the U.S. Marine Band (President’s Own) Matt performed frequently at The White House and as a soloist in the D.C. area and throughout the U.S. He is an active clinician and recitalist, having performed and taught throughout the U.S., as well as engagements in Spain, Finland, Germany, Great Britain, and Canada. He has given master classes and served as guest faculty at countless institutions and has performed with the Detroit Symphony on concerts requiring euphonium under conductors such as Leonard Slatkin, Neeme Jarvi and Vladimir Ashkenazy. Matt performs exclusively on Meinl-Weston euphoniums and tubas.