Tips for Tuba Mark Thiele
Three Simple Steps to Better Practicing
Students are always asking me questions like, “How do I play higher (insert lower, faster, louder, etc.)?,” or, “I’m having trouble with this one section, what do I do to make it better?” My answer is almost always the same…practice. I don’t believe that there is some secret formula or technique for doing the things that are difficult for us other than dedicating ourselves to the problem and practicing the right way. But how do you go about working through these obstacles on instruments like the tuba and the euphonium? How do young students know how to create a good sound or practice a difficult section of music?
The first thing I want to encourage all students and teachers to do is to listen to music. Listen to professional tuba and euphonium players every day. Listen to soloists, brass quintets, tuba/euphonium quartets, bands, orchestras, brass bands, and anything else that has a good low brass sound. How do you know how your instrument is supposed to sound if you never hear it? It’s like learning how to talk by reading about how to form sounds. You can’t do it. Other instruments don’t have the problem that we have. We hear pianos, violins, saxophones, flutes, trumpets, guitars, and even clarinets and horns all the time. We don’t usually hear tubas and euphoniums during the course of our day. Go out of your way and find great players and listen to them. Get the sound in your head and imitate it. If you don’t know where to begin, look through this Journal and find some names, then go from there. After that, listen to other instruments too. You never know, you might even learn something!
Once we get a sound in our head, the second thing I encourage everyone to do is a technique I like to call “The Big Three” It’s nothing new or innovative, but I have found that it is a simple way for students to work through sections of music and improve their sound and their technique at the same time. There are three simple steps: Blow, Buzz, and Play.
Let’s say that you have a section of music with which you are struggling or you are working on just sounding better on your band music or a solo. Isolate the section and blow through it with no sound (this should be a very short section). You can do it both through your instrument and outside your instrument. Make sure that you are using the correct articulations for the music you are working on and try and use all of the fingerings as you are blowing through your horn. Don’t save your air here! Waste it, it’s free! Breathe wherever you need to breathe, and blow air far away from you. Imagine that you are trying to blow out a candle that is 30 feet away. Use a “Toh” sound and keep your teeth open through the whole thing. Avoid using “Poo” or “Ho”while tonguing notes. It’s ok if you get a little dizzy; that means that you are doing it right. If you do get dizzy or light headed, stop and take a break. Then try it again.
Next, take the same passage of music and buzz it on your mouthpiece. You may have to play the first note to get the right starting pitch or use a piano. This is not a new concept, but I don’t think enough people use it because it’s hard to get used to if you haven’t done it very much. The more you do it, the better it will get, I promise. The mouthpiece is where the magic happens; the instrument is an amplifier. If you can buzz it, using close to the correct pitches, then you can play it. Be sure to use the same amount of wind that you used while you were blowing with no buzz sound. Try and create a big, fat buzzing sound. If it sounds thin and weak, work at changing the sound of the buzz and waste your wind! It is important that you don’t make the mouthpiece put too much pressure on your face. You should be able to keep buzzing if you take the mouthpiece away from your lips. If you can’t keep buzzing, you are either pressing the mouthpiece too hard against your face, or pressing your lips too hard together. Back off of the pressure and let the wind do the work. I like to hold the mouthpiece for my students and have them buzz into it. It’s a great exercise to get them used to buzzing without all of the pressure.
The last thing to do is to play the section of music that you have just blown and buzzed. Listen to the sound you are making. Do you like it? Is it clear? Is it beautiful? Does it resemble the great sound you have in your head? Ask yourself these questions as you play. If the answer is no, then go back to the first step. Unfortunately, you have to think while you are playing in order to improve your playing. I know what you are saying: “I have to think and play at the same time?!” Yes, you do. I tell my students that if you don’t think about the sound you are making, then all you are doing is making obnoxious noises into your instrument. Don’t do that. Take pride in your sound and the fact that you play a great instrument. Make every note a great performance and you will always improve.
Mark Thiele is an active performer and teacher in the Washington D.C. area where he is a tuba player with “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band. When not performing with the band, he is teaching between 25 and 30 private students a week in the Northern Virginia area, where he grew up. Mark earned his Bachelor’s degree in Music Education from James Madison University in Harrisonburg, VA and his Master’s Degree in Tuba Performance from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, MI. His teachers have included Kevin Stees, Fritz Kaenzig, Bob LeBlanc, and David Bragunier. Before joining the Marine Band, Mark performed with The Tubafours, a professional tuba/euphonium quartet at Walt Disney World, where he performed for thousands of guests from around the world.