Some Tips for Improved Low Range Sound Production on the Tuba
by Sean Greene
Many students, amateurs, and professionals occasionally have difficulty producing a great, consistent tone quality in the extreme low register. Some players produce sounds that are too weak and thin at one extreme or can be too forceful and unfocused at the other extreme, resulting in either a “yoinky” or “blatty” sound quality. In this article I will share a few pointers I have picked up over the years that may help you find greater ease in negotiating the low register on your instrument.
Like any other aspect of tuba playing, the low register requires good, methodical practice to develop and maintain technique. As the saying goes, in order to play (insert type of playing here), you must practice (insert same type of playing here). Come up with a methodical plan and follow through and be honest with yourself. Break things down into small sections, use a recording device to hear what you’re doing, and learn to love the process by which we improve as technicians and musicians.
First, the low register can and should sound as full and rich with a singing quality as the middle and high registers. I hesitate to define the term “low range,” since problem notes will vary from one player to the next and from one instrument to another. In very general terms, this starts somewhere below the G three ledger lines below the bass clef staff for contrabass tuba or below C or B-flat two ledger lines below the staff on a bass tuba, down to the fundamental pitch. Problem notes may start much higher for younger players. It’s important to realize that everyone is different, and we all have different things to work on. Our main goal should be to make the music sound better.
The first thing I would like to mention to promote a better sound in the low register is for notes that are exactly an octave apart, the lower note will require roughly twice as much air to produce the same intensity of sound. Players sometime neglect the increased air volume (amount of air) required to support a great sound in the low register and wonder why their sound isn’t as good as they would like it to be.
Second, in addition to a huge amount of air, the air speed makes a difference in low register tone production. Players should strive to produce slow, warm air in the low range. One could imagine using their breath to fog a mirror with hot air to get the proper air speed for the low register. When a player moves warm, slow air, the throat relaxes, the jaw and tongue drop, the oral cavity opens up and air moves at a much slower speed with less restriction. Many players try to “force” the low register out of an instrument by using air that is too fast or “cold,” accompanied by lots of upper body tension, and, as a result, a less than optimal sound. Learn to erase all tension from your body when you play and you will likely improve your tone quality.
Another way to describe this forced air phenomenon is to equate the forced air with the “gun” attachment on a typical garden hose. When using this kind of hose attachment, the water sprays at a very high rate from the hose. When the gun attachment is removed, the water falls out of the end of the hose. This “falling out” is the kind of air we want to use to play the tuba in the low register. The low range will respond better to a huge quantity of warm air falling out of your lungs than a small amount of air forced from your body at a high rate of speed.
From the discussion of air quantity and speed we move next to the embouchure. An efficient embouchure is relaxed and ready to vibrate. The corners of the mouth are set, and the mouthpiece creates a seal around the mouth firm enough so that no air is escaping around the rim. You should have no more pressure on the face beyond that which is required to make the seal. As the player descends into the lower register, the bottom lip will predominate inside the mouthpiece and the corners of the mouth pull down. Some players practice pivoting their body backwards in the chair to play lower notes. Other players direct the air up in the mouthpiece as they play lower. Use whatever works for you, but remember to use plenty of slow, warm air and listen for proper pitch and tone. Using a recording device will make improving your tone quality in the low range much more efficient.
To make sure your embouchure is functioning as efficiently as possible, try buzzing scales and arpeggios in the low register with and without the mouthpiece, using a keyboard or other pitch source as a reference. You will soon be aware of the amount of air required to produce a solid ‘buzz tone’ in this register is approximately double that of the middle register. An efficient buzz will allow you to create a full, loud “buzzsaw” sound with resonance and control. Remember to take frequent breaks when buzzing because the stress on the facial muscles is much greater when only buzzing the mouthpiece rather than playing it in your tuba. Resting one minute for ever thirty seconds you play your mouthpiece should give your chops enough time to bounce back from heavy duty low register buzzing.
Whenever we discuss embouchure and buzzing, it is important to point out that the tuba only amplifies the sound we create with our “chops” in the mouthpiece. If your embouchure isn’t performing at optimum efficiency, you probably won’t sound as good as you might, regardless of the quality of instrument you play. If your embouchure is tired, rest. Take a break, go for a walk, and come back to the tuba later. Your face muscles need time to heal and rest just like any other muscles in your body.
The mouthpiece is another variable that contributes to your sound production. If you are unhappy with the sound you are making on your mouthpiece, you may be able to improve it with some of the suggestions listed above. If you have tried them and you would like to try a different mouthpiece, go to a conference that will have exhibits with many different models of mouthpieces to try. Try something different, if nothing else, you may find it easier to do certain things on a different mouthpiece. Every player’s face is different and every mouthpiece works differently. Again, a recording device will allow you to hear yourself as others hear you and give you a better idea of where your deficiencies lie and probably let you hear things that sound better than you thought. Like a tuba, your mouthpiece is just a hunk of metal. It cannot hear beautiful music and cannot create a beautiful sound. That creation is the sole responsibility of the musician sitting behind it.
One technique I have found very useful when working on a piece of music is to find a very low passage I have trouble with and play it an octave higher, using the same fingerings I would for the low octave. Practicing in this way, the high octave “teaches” the lower octave how to sound. This technique strengthens my aural perception of pitch and tone in the “easy” range and allows me to practice moving the valves for combinations I will use in the low octave. However you may choose to practice, always work from a position of strength. Find a way to take difficult passages out of context, make them easier, practice them to perfection and then put them back into their original context. Don’t accept things as being impossible and too hard to do. There is always a way to improve and figure things out. Practice and prepare smarter and pay attention to small details.
This article deals mainly with being a tuba technician, but I encourage you to never lose sight of the fact that every note we make on our horns should be great music. Play beautiful melodies, etudes, arias and vocalises every day and strive to make the low register of your horn imitate the most musical singing voice of a great, Russian basso profondo. Listen to great singers and other instrumentalists and strive to imitate them when you play. We are all musicians and developing artists, no matter how long we have been studying the tuba. I hope this article was helpful to you and will help you to enjoy playing the tuba even more. Music is made for sharing, so get out there and perform! Good luck and have fun!
Sean Greene teaches low brass and music theory at Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee. Sean performs with the Knoxville BrassworX Company, the Southern Stars Symphonic Brass Band and is a frequent substitute with the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra. He is the former principal tubist with the Oshkosh Symphony Orchestra and has performed with the Madison, Oak Ridge, Kingsport, Dubuque and Sheboygan Symphony Orchestras and the Orquesta Sinfonica UANL in Monterrey, Mexico. An avid composer and arranger, his work is published by Beautidel Music Press. Sean holds the Doctor of Musical Arts and Master of Music degrees from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Bachelor of Music degree from the University of Tennessee.