Tips for Tuba, Spring 2004,Volume IVB
David Porter, Principal Tubist, The McLean Orchestra
Power through the woof!
We have talked about many subjects in this column. Often topics are aimed at identifying issues concerning middle and high school tubists and their music directors. This column addresses one of these issues, intensely focusing on actual sound quality rather than generic physical and listening traits. In the international tuba community, there continues to be discussion on what is the “ideal tuba sound.” A short description for such a sound tends to suggest a compactly resonant sound ideal for hearing articulations and moving notes, yet leaving the tone-center free of impure noises. Such a sound can be transferred to any size or keyed tuba with basically the same results. The tuba just amplifies (or not) the sound concept.
This sound concept “does not” resemble the string bass. The sound can play in tune and in time with or like a string bass but does not have the sonorous, warm, milky-rich depth and breadth of a string bass. When multiple tubas are put together with this sound, the result is more tuba sound, but not necessarily more warmth. Let me insert two statements here.
1. When most tubists are listening to themselves or another tubist, they are listening for the higher harmonic characteristics of the tuba sound.
2. Most ensemble directors are listening for the lower harmonic characteristics of the tuba sound.
In a musical ensemble, the frequencies for most tuba-ranges do not have many of the normal characteristics of a tuba sound. Play the 64-hertz low C of a tuba over a stereo system and add in equalization. While the “sound” of a tuba does include the harmonics of its notes (like any instrument), one can quickly figure out what higher and lower harmonics they are listening for by manipulating the equalizer to boost the 60-hertz fader and lower the higher frequency faders. Again, most folks will find themselves wanting to have the higher harmonics in the sound, because it is easier to decipher all of the basics of intonation, clarity, articulation, smoothness, and open or closed sound.
The 60-hertz resonance is characterized in several ways: unclear, too much fuzz around edges, no core, and…maybe the biggest one—”woofy!” That term alone can send chills up a professional player’s spine if used to describe a desirable tuba sound. The term woofy can be applied to both the sound concept and the manner of articulation. Having already described a woofy sound, a woofy articulation can be described as tongued notes bordering on breath attacks for some entrances. Whether the sound is called woofy by others or not, for some large ensembles the desired sound is what I will term in this article as woofy.
Let us briefly comment on the strengths and weaknesses for each type of sound. The strength of the more clear, direct sound is the ease in which we can hear the notes being played. Mostly by the player but also by those in the audience when hearing this sound played as a solo, as a member of a brass quintet, or in brass section orchestral excerpts. This is mostly due to the high harmonics in the sound and especially in the articulation, which enables the listener to hear the low voice quicker. The weakness with this sound is its tendency to blend with higher sounding instruments in a large group. Whether singularly or with multiple tubas (or contrabass bugles in a drum and bugle corps), the clear direct sound does not project a “bass” quality whether in a concert hall or a marching field. Therefore, the bass sound of the low voice in the ensemble does not penetrate through to the listener. The listener will hear more highs than lows.
The strength of the richer, “woofier” sound is its ability to give a huge rock bass to the ensemble. When given enough power either through more air and/or multiple tubas or bugles, this sound can be heard everywhere, literally omni-directional. The result is a powerful bass sound coming through the ensemble. When done properly the sound is gorgeous, and the amount of airflow from the player can only be measured in many multiple liters of air per minute. The weakness of the sound is the lack of clarity with fast notes and the delay of the low harmonic frequencies sounding to the listener, because the notes have no higher harmonic articulation. This lends the desired sound to be preferred, for the most part, with large ensembles—symphonic wind bands, brass bands, drum and bugle corps, or when the tubist is trying to blend with the string basses in an orchestra.
Having said this, the question I run into both professionally and in the music education process is: Does the tuba world want the clear sound or the woofy sound to be the characteristic trademark for tubas? Only time will tell us the answer to that question. But for now, here are a couple of considerations. When we think of characteristic brass sounds, we can quickly pinpoint trumpet, horn, and trombone as having a characteristic that is indigenous to their instrument, regardless of quality. Euphonium/baritone is less easy (maybe even more so than tuba) for most people. Tubas still enjoy (or are plagued, depending on how you look at the issue) a wide range of tone qualities that cause everyone to be in discussion. Currently, the answer to the question is two-fold in direct alignment with the earlier statements. I’ve noticed many professionals drifting to a characteristic clear yet pleasing tuba sound, focusing on higher harmonics for definition. However, many music directors (at least in the middle and high school age) seem to prefer a characteristic warm and sonorous sound that focuses on the lower harmonic frequencies for bass support of the ensemble.With two distinct sound characterizations seeming to exist, what is a tubist to do? The answer is more simple than complex. We have to play to fit the particular job. In the middle and high schools this is especially prevalent, where students tend to gravitate towards the music director’s concept.
I have several suggestions for better communication and thought on the subject.
1. We need to accept the fact that there are two distinct sound concepts for a tubist, and, in order to be a well-rounded tubist, the student must be able to hear the difference and eventually produce those each sound.
2. In the secondary school music programs, private teachers ascertain the music director’s expectation, if any. After all, the director is the one giving the grade.
3. Private teachers, who are usually professional, semi-professional, or very active amateur tubists in some way, often prefer the more clear, definitive sound concept, and they should consult with the ensemble director. Possibly even submit recordings or, better yet, offer to sit in and demonstrate different sounds. This approach will usually result in learning on both sides. If I had done this twenty years ago, I would have understood several issues about sound and instruments sooner than by trial and error and the occasional conversation with the area high school directors. Note: In striving for the larger breadth and depth of sound, sometimes the instruments themselves do not lend to this particular sound very easily. If so,and if the warmer sound is desired, then maybe try a larger mouthpiece for the students. But mostly, get some professional players you know to try different tubas at a convention somewhere. Listen for the 60-hertz resonance. A tuba that reproduces this resonance well will be able to be heard as a bass instrument farther than just the bell. It should be heard and felt in the chest area anywhere from 4 to 16 feet out from the instrument. I try to get my students to listen for the resonance in different parts of the room, besides at the bell. If several of those instruments are put together, then the bass resonance can be heard and felt throughout a performance hall.
4) Teach both sound concepts. Help students learn to fit their sound inside a string bass sound when necessary (sometimes for marches, this sound is not necessarily what the ensemble director wants).
5) Record performances and listen to different sounds. If possible record different tubas and sounds in the ensemble rehearsals to enable a vocabulary of concepts between the director, students, and private teachers.
6) Learn to listen for (and look forward to) the lower harmonics behind the bell. For students, this may be harder than expected. Already, there is a certain amount of lower harmonic resonance behind the bell (no matter how good or bad the tone is), but hearing intonation is difficult for students unless they hear some higher harmonics. The result being they tend to manipulate their embouchures to bring out the higher harmonic. Point: Trying to describe exact differences in embouchures for the two sounds could fill a book. It also involves airflow considerations. For now, let us encourage everyone to experiment by using their ear to align embouchure changes (see earlier columns) with the sound they need. Just pointing this out to them can instigate dramatic differences in how they play.
7) Realize that training students in only one way does not guarantee success in the music world. It creates an opinion for level of appreciation. The more flexible the opinion, the more we can enjoy music for what it is—expressiveness of emotion.
Always, know that the most common element for sound manipulation is airflow. Whether the sound is clear, focused, and direct or warm, rich, and full of breadth, the student must remember—don’t forget to breathe!
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