Tips for Tuba, Summer 2006, Volume VI C
by David Porter, Principal Tuba, The McLean Orchestra
Buzzing the “Bohm”
One of the many challenges young tuba students face is how to deal with what their lips are doing. We have talked about this before (TTVIIIA, Winter 2003, Buzz placement makes a honey of a sound), but I thought I would bring the subject up again with some more thoughts and suggestions. The hardest concept I find for young students to grasp is that the lips are going to move inside the mouthpiece. Most young students have some trouble holding onto a note once they have it. The tuba mouthpiece is so big, and their lips and embouchure so small, it feels like there is no security of ever keeping a note the same or steady. Plus, they are unable to hold their notes to sound like they are making music. This especially applies to young students. Before we begin to talk about ways to help the students with note security and holding the sound, make sure the height relationship between student and tuba is correct (TTVIC, Fall 2001, Plane angle equals air route ratio) and make sure that breathing is covered (Spring-Fall 2002, TTVIIB,C,D, Don’t forget to breathe, Mechanics are not just for cars, & Resistance isn’t acceptance).
I recently had a new tuba student who only weighed 75 lbs and was very short. We used a couple of thick books to get up to the tuba. Fortunately, this student already had an innate sense of needing a lot of air to play the tuba, so teaching breathing was easy. I had another young student who was a very big person and had to raise the tuba up to them and also had a good sense of needing lots of air to play. Both of these students had one common trait—their sound was about the size of a sunflower seed. Both of these students “gripped” notes very tightly with their lips and had problems hitting low notes. In order to get a better sound, I first tried to have them come to a realization of several things. As said above, we talked about how lips are going to move inside the mouthpiece when playing different notes. We covered aperture opening (TTVIIIA), and we covered air stream (TTVIIIB, Spring 2003, Go Vertical!). I remember when one of my teachers, Mr. David Fedderly, Principal Tubist, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, introduced me to buzzing. My buzz aperture at that time was about the size of a pinhole. Even still, I had learned to maneuver my playing enough to win an audition, but I did not have complete control of my playing, and my low register was not as developed as I wanted. With my students, we continued beyond aperture and air stream to talk about two more concepts to think about.
First concept, the lips are going to shape the notes. We start with the universal tuba approach, the “o” vowel (TTVIID). From there, we teach large “o” for low, smaller “o” for mid-range, and “oo” for high range. We practice shaping the lips with the syllables and vowel sounds by speaking and buzzing them without the tuba. We then put the process into the tuba on separate single notes in different ranges. Even at this point, it is important to see and hear how the students shape their syllables and vowels. With everyone being different, speaking differently, and having different ways they perceive themselves, it is important to guide the students visually as well as aurally. When I demonstrate techniques, I am sure my students think I look and sound like a grunting chimpanzee sometimes. They are intrigued, however, when they hear me buzz their music, even without my mouthpiece.
The second concept we talk about is more difficult to comprehend. It involves a comparison of how we sing and play. Many of my students use their lips very statically when playing. I have often sung a passage to them and asked to have it played like I sang. What I get back is a very disjointed, non-flowing version of the music. This is because their lips are having a tough time emulating the ring and flow of the singing voice. When I sing, or have heard other teachers singing instrumental passages, we often use the syllable “bohm.” Using this syllable allows generous expression and shaping of each note, even when sung fast. Student’s lips are not used to doing this inside the mouthpiece.
On a side note I have a couple of theories why teachers use “bohm.” I think it makes those of us who are non-voice majors sound better, because it makes our voice be heard through humming (the sound immediately at the end of the syllable). That sounds better than an open “boh,” and this way we do not have to shape with our vocal chords. To parallel the difficulty a student is facing try singing with a “boh” syllable and sound as good as with a “bohm” syllable. This is intimidating and extremely hard. Likewise, trying to get a young student to shape notes with their lips when they are clinging for dear life to keep their notes can be intimidating and extremely hard.
Back to the student, I try to be encouraging, and we dive into the issue anyway. At first, there is no security for their notes, so we try a couple of tricks to help them. First, I try telling them to play the notes from the back of their face forward. I try having them think of playing their notes with the cheeks, then with the corners, and focus that thought through the lips forward. Second, I try one of my all-time favorites. First, we talk about blowing air through a straw while holding the straw with only the lips. Hard to do, but amazingly it demonstrates how they are currently playing with a tight thin sound. Second, we imagine blowing air through the straw without gripping it with the lips. The straw would naturally fly out of the mouth. That is how we want them to begin opening up to shape the notes. Basically, the lips have to copy what the singer is doing, but it is all done with the vibration. This subject is obviously a little difficult to describe, and maybe somewhat ambiguous. The nice part of the straw exercise is that it helps create a lot of airflow. If they can recreate the aperture opening from the straw exercise in the mouthpiece, they could be well on their way to loosening up their lips (TTVIB, Spring 2006, “Sink the Ship!”) so they can shape their notes to ring in the sound so it is pleasing and flowing. In this exercise, the air moves very well. So well, I almost do not have to remind them (but I do anyway), “don’t forget to breathe!”