Tips for Missing Fewer Notes in Performances
by Sean Greene
What is involved in becoming a more accurate performer? Everyone misses notes at some time or another, but there are those who seem to never miss notes when they perform. Do these players have a “super chop” gene that allows them to play without missing notes? Did they buy the “right” mouthpiece that never misses pitches? The answer to both of these questions is decidedly no. In all likelihood, those who consistently play without missing pitches have learned how to 1) efficiently hear what they want to play in their head before it comes out of their horn and 2) have developed an efficient, disciplined practice routine that allows them to make excellence a normal occurrence in their playing. Pitch accuracy, therefore, comes with diligent preparation and focus and a commitment to the task at hand, making great music.
The following list is a collection of habits that can contribute to improving pitch accuracy and consistency while allowing us to better serve the musical purpose of our performance.
1. Nervousness or stage fright is one of the most common things that can affect a performance and have the most damaging effect on how we play. I could write an entire article on this subject alone, and I may in the future. Some of us are more affected than others by feelings of panic, self-doubt, or worry when we perform, causing physical reactions, which include shortness of breath, dry mouth, shakes, etc. These physical manifestations of our nervousness cause us to miss notes and keep us from playing our best.
There are many who take beta-blockers or use other techniques to treat these symptoms of “bad nerves.” One technique that has worked well for me and I recommend to my students is to focus more on the music. Once we start worrying about things we cannot control—like what people will think of us if we play badly or how we sound out in the room—the focus is shifted from the music to ourselves. And it’s not about us it’s about the music. Your mind is the most powerful tool you have as a performer. It’s stronger than your ears and it’s much stronger than your chops. I have often heard the phrase “You become what you tell yourself most often.” I believe this to be a fact. If you tell yourself that you are the greatest performer in the world over and over again, you will start believing it and it will affect your playing for the better. Of course, the opposite is true as well. So get rid of those negative thoughts and start focusing on the music
2. Come up with a daily routine that covers every kind of playing you are likely to encounter. Hold yourself to a very high standard of performance and don’t let yourself get by with playing your fundamental exercises and etudes the wrong way with sloppy technique. Practice breathing and playing every tempo. Play in every key and every tessitura. Practice every dynamic and articulation. Work to maintain sameness in your playing in all registers. Do it the same way, sit in the same chair in the same place, and hold your horn in the same way every time you practice. If you create a routine of excellence, you are setting yourself up to perform from a position of strength instead of a position of weakness. A routine will train our chops and our brain to realize that performance is nothing out of the ordinary. The venue may change, but the playing position, range, dynamics, etc. we perform are the same thing we do every day. This will help keep your nerves in check so you may better focus on the task of making great music. Some players have formed habits of moving their eyebrows, puffing their cheeks and making weird faces while they play. I think extraneous movements are harmful because the only thing that affects changing notes, truly, is what’s going on inside the mouthpiece. That’s all. If you are moving your face around, it’s taking energy away from the music and is probably creating tension somewhere else, which has the potential to damage your tone quality. Also, making exaggerated facial movements may cause an “overcompensating” phenomenon where a player uses too much movement to achieve an interval than is necessary. Keep a small locker-sized mirror on your music stand to observe and try to relax any extraneous facial movement from your buzzing. 3. Breath support and breathing are crucial to pitch accuracy. You must play with enough air in your lungs to control your sound. If you take shallow breaths and try to play with a minimal amount of air you will not be able to control your playing as well as if you take a big breath. This phenomenon shows up when we become nervous and get short of breath. What happens? We miss notes. Make breathing a part of your daily routine so that you may make “big breathing” normal and easier to combat stage fright. Also, it is really important to plan and write in your breaths when you practice so you are used to breathing in the same places in the same way every time you play that music.
4. Slow fingers can make you miss notes. If your fingers aren’t getting the valves aligned before you want the note to happen, the proper length of tubing won’t be available for that note and you will either miss the attack or a “fluddutt” sound will result. Think of the trombonist. From very early on in their development, the trombone student realizes that if the slide is not in the correct, stationary position when they want to play a note, a glissando will occur. Mechanically, it’s the same for us. Our tubing must be lined up a split-second before we want the note to sound. “Popping” your fingers down or making sure they are down before you want the note to come out will cut down on split attacks, make your legato smoother, and your marcato cleaner. Another technique you can use to better coordinate your fingers with your chops is to buzz your mouthpiece in your left hand while practicing the fingerings at the same time in the right hand. This technique will better coordinate your fingers with your ears and help improve your pitch accuracy
5. Know exactly how your part fits into the whole musical texture. If you are unsure of the balance or function of your part, if you suddenly feel like you’re playing by yourself because of a sudden change in the texture you may not play as well. Great musicians will familiarize themselves with the musical score to make sure they are “fitting in” in just the right way. Always make it a goal to be a great musician who just happens to play the tuba. Learn to connect your ears directly to your chops. Your ears are stronger than your face will ever be. If you can hear an interval in your head and know how it’s supposed to sound, you will be able to play it on your horn. If you see a major sixth printed on the page and you have no idea how it should sound, you’re going to have a hard time recreating that interval on your instrument. Singing a passage along with a pitch reference such as a piano or keyboard will help get the pitches in your head. Then buzz the same passage on your mouthpiece. The instrument only amplifies what happens in your mouthpiece, so if you have an efficient buzz guided by a strong ear, you will improve your accuracy immensely. Practice playing simple melodies by ear every day. Once you get more comfortable with this, try playing those melodies in all the keys.
6. This goes along with the first point, but the more often you can perform for an audience, the easier it will be to establish a routine of performing well. Many of us, when preparing for a recital in school would work for months and months to prepare an hour of music, perform it once and then never play it again. Consistency comes from repetition of positive behaviors. When you prepare a recital, set up as many performances of it as you can. If you are preparing a degree recital, try to perform your recital at least three times before your scheduled recital at school. Look for venues that will appreciate good music: churches, retirement communities, and elementary schools all come to mind. If you are having trouble with pitch accuracy on a short passage of music, take it out of context. A tricky lick can be broken down, transposed into an easier key, an easier tessitura, etc. Always work from a position of strength. Find out how to make the hard parts easier, master them completely and then put them back into context. 7. Lastly, if you’re having trouble “nailing” pitches, is there something wrong with your tuba? I have played a few instruments that have pitches that just aren’t there, no matter how hard I tried to find them. I can think of a particular tuba where the A-flat at the top of the staff just doesn’t come out. Or another horn where the low G three ledger lines below the staff doesn’t want to come out. Sometimes there are ways to overcome the limitations of instruments, but sometimes there just aren’t. Have a trusted colleague or teacher try the same thing on your instrument. Can they do it? If not, it may be the horn.
We are lucky to have a wide array of professional quality instruments that are continually improved upon with help from great performers. Also, there is probably a psychological confidence boost when you play a horn with a very even response that is easy to slot and play in tune. When you feel like you are playing an instrument that fits you well and “won’t let you down” in a performance, it is easier to concentrate on the task at hand: making great music.
Dr. Sean Greene is Assistant Professor of Music at Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, TN and Adjunct Instructor of Tuba and Euphonium at Carson-Newman College in Jefferson City, TN. 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-Knoxville. He has studied tuba with John Stevens, Sande MacMorran, Dan Perantoni and Winston Morris. Sean lives in Knoxville, Tennessee with his wife and their two daughters.