34:2 Pedagogy Section
Tips for Tuba, Volume VI D
David Porter, Principal Tuba, The McLean Orchestra
Little player, BIG TUBA
During the past years, the average age of my students ranges from 12 to 17. Recently I have had several students start playing tuba and taking lessons as young as age 9, with several in the 10 to 12 year old category. Playing tuba at that age can be a real challenge logistically, physically, and mentally. This article is dedicated to going over two of the basic tuba playing skills for the directors of very young wind ensembles that are blessed with tuba players. I think everyone will agree that setting students up for success on their instruments at a young age can be key to these students playing well the rest of their lives. My experience is the very young tubist is missing out on embouchure angle and breathing concepts. I do think that ensemble directors try to cover these areas but may not have time to enforce the correct skills day after day, or, in some cases, do not teach the skills completely correct at the beginning.
Most of my teaching is centered on students who have been playing 2 to 3 years. By then, they have learned some basic music skills, and they also have their embouchure and breathing habits set in steel. By then, the young tubist has maneuvered the tuba, manipulated their embouchure, and measured their air to guarantee getting the right notes and phrase lengths out for their ensemble and the director. This is not necessarily a bad thing in some ways. Young students need incentive to produce results. Also true are that many ensemble directors try to show young tubists how to sit, how to hold, how to breathe, and how to produce a sound on the tuba. Sometimes they may even show them how to produce higher or lower pitches. The problem is young tuba students have to be dealt with on a regular basis. The ensemble director may not have time, but, in reality, I think some insistence during the first few days could be very helpful. Most young tubists will not, on their own, always try to hold proper position and do proper breathing with a tuba without some insistent reminding to do so. The instrument is just too big for them to maintain the desire for correctness. Here are some thoughts for young tubists and ensemble directors to remember.
1. Lead pipe angle to embouchure
We have covered this issue in an entire article (Volume One C, Fall 2001, “Plane Angle Equals Air Route Ratio”). In a condensed version, the lead pipe has to be at a right angle to the vertical plane of the front teeth. Since most people have an overbite, this means the lead pipe will come away from the face at a downward angle. THIS MEANS the tuba lead pipe has to be slightly lower than the player. Two ways to accomplish this—lower the tuba or raise the player. Since most young tubists are barely bigger than the tuba, it is an absolute necessity. This has been my number one problem with lead pipe angle. I would like to say that some of my young students play at the wrong angle with the tuba lead pipe above them angling down and back to them only in lessons. Yet, when I correct the angle, the students invariably move to play with the tuba above them and lead pipe angled down. They keep trying to find the position they are used to with their embouchure attached to a lead pipe that has been above them. This reveals that the ensemble director has not been able to keep them corrected from the back row. Usually, they are sticking their lower jaw out so far it is almost falling out of socket in order to meet a mouthpiece that is above them. Just imagine the horrible ways that a young student is connecting with the mouthpiece, especially with the mouthpiece being so big. I correct them and keep doing so through every minute of every lesson. The sound results are usually less than desirable for a while, and they are used to gripping their notes and hearing themselves produce a tight, nasal sound that feels very secure.
In moving their lead pipe angle, it first produces a breathy sound that feels insecure. I only work with them on individual notes in the beginning. After practicing this during the lesson, where I can watch and correct, my instructions for playing in ensemble are as follows: only think about this and try to correct it on the whole notes. The whole notes are easier to play and give the student time to think about their embouchure angle. I would not want them to think about the angle 100% of the time and then miss every note on the page. This would cause the ensemble director to be very anxious, and the goal is to help the student correct themselves without taking away from the ensemble.
2. Breathing concepts
With young students, we go over the mechanics of breathing. I have simplified this into four points of expansion.
Point 1: the abdomen expands out breathing in, deflates inward breathing out
Point 2: the collarbone area expands up breathing in, deflates down breathing out
Point 3: the ribs expand out breathing in, deflate down breathing out
Point 4: the ribs in the back expand backwards breathing in, deflate forward breathing out.
I remind them to avoid letting their shoulders rise up or become tense, yet I do not try to muscularly keep the shoulders down either. As they continue to breathe in lessons, I remind them to let these entire areas move freely. Friendly reminder, do not touch the students and do not refer to the collarbone area using the term “chest area” with young female students (hence, the reason I use the term collarbone—works just fine for the purpose of expansion). Show the body part areas by putting your hands on yourself, and have them put their hands on themselves. This works just fine for understanding and keeps many a teacher out of trouble with student, teacher, and parent relationships. As they work on moving with breathing, it improves dramatically in a short amount of time.
A huge problem with young students is that they are often trying to play phrases the same as the smaller brass instruments. This practice automatically closes their embouchure and causes tension in their breathing area, which leads to overall tightness that inhibits their expanding ability. My number one piece of advice for ensemble directors of young students is please do not make the tuba students play phrases as long as the trumpet and flute players. This practice, once locked in, is very difficult to change as they get older. Sometimes they develop an innate competitive sense about them, always trying to out do the higher instruments in phrasing. Remember that tubists must move about four more times the amount of air than a trumpet per minute in order to produce a good sound. Anything less is probably causing a small, thin tight sound.
Again, this article is directed at very young students. The older students that already have these problems locked into their permanent habits are the result of the articles over the past five years. If we insist that the very young students correct their habits, it will change for the better over a period of 5 to 6 months. At the same time, keep helping them play their ensemble music better, give them studies and scales, and encourage them to play solos. My youngest students love attention, and any young tubist that can play a solo by themselves will get attention.
Use that to help them be enthused about proper angle and breathing. It looks more pleasing to the eye and sounds better too. Most of my youngest students hear results after a couple of months and are able to start distinguishing between good and bad sound based on their embouchure angle and breathing frequency and expansion. At the same time, my youngest students are the ones that are easily distracted, and more often than not, get the phrase, “don’t forget to breathe!”