Tips for Tuba: Renewing Practice After Time Off
by Jimmie E. Self
I am and have been for a long time a strong proponent of taking a few days off from playing once or twice a year. I fully believe it can help you not only relax and appreciate so much what life has to offer outside your normal routine of individual practice, group rehearsals and performances, but also gives you a greater understanding and appreciation of your family, friends, and the world around you. So as you plan your vacation, or perhaps are forced into the predicament of having to be off the instrument for an extended period of time, one of the questions you will face is how to go about re-instituting your daily practice routine so you can come out of that down time not only as good as you were before, but hopefully an even better and stronger player.
My first recommendation after going without practice more than three days is to start slowly and focus on fundamentals. This applies to all players of every level. The longer we’ve gone without playing, the slower we should take our first few practices and the more we should turn our attention to those fundamentals we learned (or should have learned) when we first started on the instrument. These re-initiation practices not only get our chops in shape, but also re-evaluate our understanding and use of good brass playing fundamentals and search for any bad habits that may have made their way into our performance. Start on long tones without vibrato on an easy partial. As you play that first note, check posture and breathing.
As a point of posture, are you sitting up straight with your back away from the chair? Is your spine in an upright, non-curvilinear position? Take notice of exactly how you are holding your instrument. Are the fingers that operate the valves curved in a natural position and resting on the pearls/buttons of the piston valve-stems or the paddles/spatulas connected to the rotary valves? A good check for me since I have small hands is to imagine I am holding a regulation size softball in my hand. That gives me the curvature I need to relax my hand and keep the speed of my fingers at their maximum. And as you concentrate on the position of the fingers ask yourself if your fingers are moving up and down as rapidly as possible between pitches even on whole note exercises. Also, is the horn in the proper position and angle to the embouchure? Is your left hand holding the instrument securely with easy access to the slides for proper intonation adjustment?
Use those first few long tones to evaluate your breathing, both inhaling and exhaling. Are your upper chest and skeletal muscles relaxed so your lungs and diaphragm can operate effectively to move air through the horn? Open the oral cavity and the throat as you take in air. The mental image of yawning may help achieve this. Think of filling up with air from the bottom first as if filling a glass with liquid. Try to take in as much air as possible in the very first breath. This will help to “wake up” your lungs for the day and it tells them they are now going to be required to do much more than their normal routine of the past few days.
On exhalation, are you projecting the air through the instrument in a steady column with an unwavering tone? A fellow brass player once said we should “breathe naturally but not normally,” meaning we should take in air in a very natural manner. However, pushing it through the instrument must be done in a manner that is not normal to us as humans, since we have to move a great deal more air than is required to simply exhale air while we are sitting on the couch and watching TV.
Next check your articulation. Are you setting the air against the tongue prior to the release so the note begins instantaneously, and not with a “foo-ah” attack where the tongue moves but there isn’t enough air support to begin the note immediately?
Finally, check your embouchure and the position of your mouthpiece. As you begin adding more notes and exercises to your routine, make sure your air stream and embouchure are working together as you move between notes in slur patterns. Take the time to get a small mirror and place it on the music stand so you can watch your embouchure work. Look for common problems such as a “smile” when trying to reach high notes and a “bunched chin” or “extreme pucker” that give you a tubby tone and cut your range. Also use the mirror to check for proper mouthpiece placement and puffed cheeks. In addition, the mirror will tell you if you are moving the jaw excessively with each articulation, a common bad habit known as “chewing.”
My second recommendation is to use studies and exercises that will allow you to stay focused on fundamentals. I believe the fifty exercises in the “First Studies” section of the Arban’s Book fits this purpose almost exactly. It starts in a moderate range, using half and whole notes, then progresses to quarter and eighth notes. After doing a day or two of these exercises as your endurance will allow, you could then move on to more difficult etudes (i.e. some of the easier Rochut or Tyrell) for a few more days to a couple of weeks before getting back into your full warm-up and practice routines and working on the tough literature. Again, the key is to start slowly, rest frequently between exercises, and allow plenty of time for your embouchure to regain its strength while you concentrate on the fundamentals of brass playing.
So go ahead and plan that vacation and enjoy it without guilt! Be aware that if you are planning on a lifelong career as a performer, you will quite possibly be forced to be off the instrument for an extended time due to some medical problem. But if you approach the renewal of your daily practice routine using the proper etudes with the right attitude and a desire to root out potential problems through self-assessment, you can emerge as a stronger and better player.
Jimmie E. Self holds degrees in music from the University of New Hampshire and the Community College of the Air Force. He retired from the U. S. Air Force in 1998 in the grade of Chief Master Sergeant after a 26-year career as a bandsman. He has performed for four U. S. presidents and many foreign heads of state in over 20 countries. In 2012 Jimmie premiered Mark Harrell’s Concerto for Euphonium and Orchestra, which was commissioned for him by the Lambda Sigma chapter of Phi Mu Alpha. He has taught tuba and euphonium at East Tennessee State University for the past fourteen years and serves as Principal Trombonist with the Symphony of the Mountains. He maintains a large private studio and freelances as a performer and clinician throughout the Southeast.