Tips for Tuba, TTXIB
by David Porter
It is that time again for school systems everywhere to be thinking about buying new instruments. For many programs, new tubas and sousaphones are on top of the list. But what are directors or band boosters to do? The world of buying tubas can be confusing. The purpose of this article is to offer some practical points for music educators of young tuba students to consider.
Practical point one—do not get caught up in spending extravagant amounts of money thinking it is the only way to get quality, because it is not. Let individual families worry about getting their child an expensive professional model tuba if that is something their child needs for their career. Price ranges for good quality student tubas range from $4,000-$6,000. Professional models range from $8,000 to over $20,000. There are student models ranging from $2,000–$4,000 but more about that later. Added, there are numerous used tubas available in a plethora of shapes, sizes, and keys on the web and in a variety of instrument stores worldwide. The more prominent and well-known dealers advertise in the ITEA Journal.
The next few points all have to do with practical considerations for buying student instruments. I will not be listing recommendations of certain instruments and companies for three reasons. 1) Everyone’s situation, finances, and music program size is different. 2) Locations of music programs around the world sometimes necessitate where to buy. 3) Most of the prominent dealers advertise in the ITEA Journal, and I recommend taking the practical thoughts listed and do some shopping to suit your needs.
Practical point two revolves around sound. This particular topic can be more different worldwide than anything else because it is so subjective. I recommend several ideas. Know what you, the director, want in a tuba sound. Recordings can be helpful, but the absolute best way is to get a professional to play some different tubas for you “live!” The harmonic and frequency resonance of a tuba still cannot be exactly duplicated on a recording and most recordings these days have added EQ. If you do not have access to a professional player or a variety of instruments, I recommend calling someone to ask. Each dealer listed in the Journal has at least one and sometimes two professionals on the payroll and make it their job to try out tubas. With a short description of your desires for sound quality, the store professionals can quickly direct you to some choices. You are welcome to call folks like myself who are active private teachers in the school systems. Most of my experience with ensemble directors find them wanting a tuba sound that is congruent with the bass frequencies around 60 Hz. Tubas (concert and marching) can sometimes put out a bright sound that has a lot of “core” razz in the sound. While these do project, they also can get lost in the percussion and trombone sound. If you want to hear the tubas, listen for the lower harmonic frequencies that you can feel as well as hear.
Practical point three involves the sturdiness and price of instruments. These two points basically go hand in hand. As a general rule, the $4,000–$6,000 tubas are sturdier for the long haul than the lesser range models. However, any instrument at the hands of young students will need repair within about the first three years, so be sure and setup a repair account with the music boosters. Some dealers might even give discounts for buying several tubas at once. My experience has been that the $4,000–$6,000 tubas are sturdier, have more low frequency resonance, have slightly more consistent intonation (the student’s embouchure not withstanding) and still have a playable 3–4 octave range response that allow the students to do solos and chamber work. The lesser expensive tubas can work also, and if that is the best for your situation then go for it.
Practical point four is size. Purchase the 3/4-sized tubas for elementary kids. Even with these, you will need some tuba stands and phone books to get the plane angle correct. Middle school students could use the regular 4/4 tubas because the ensemble will need the sound depth, but tuba stands and phone books are still needed. By high school, most of the students can adjust to the 4/4 tubas by putting the tuba on the chair or holding it on their laps. If the student’s height is in between, one effective idea is to make a support block made out of a towel wrapped in rubber shelf liner that sits on the chair. I use it and it works great!
Practical point five is valves. Three valves are great for elementary children. Their hands are usually not big enough to do more. Four valves for middle and high schoolers are preferable. This will be better for the intonation of the low notes and get the students used to using four valves for the their future. Save the five valve choices for the professional model tubas that individual families buy. Rotors verses pistons: pistons are best if their fingers can reach all the valves. Although it takes longer to oil the valves than rotors, students can be taught this skill quickly. Rotors are easier to reach. Oiling is easier just by putting oil down the top valve slide and swishing the valves back and forth, but you will need a repairperson to clean them. For students, my experience has been that the sound differences are not that distinct. My recommendation is to leave the sound differences up to the professional tubas that individual families buy with the help of a private teacher. Mainly because dealers of the middle line student tubas often have bargains for several tubas at once that have either rotors or pistons, but not always a choice of both. Best price wins.
Practical point six is finish. Use lacquered for young students. Maybe use silver-plated sousaphones. Silver plated brass involves greater upkeep and the difference in sound (if any) is more discernable for professionals than students. The lacquered brass is worth the easier maintenance. If it is simply “looks” about silver, try an old trick I picked up from a good friend in the USAF Ceremonial Brass—Windex. Keeps silver cleaned beautifully.
Practical point seven considers marching instruments. My experience has been that the sound preferred is up to the ensemble director and what they are trying to achieve in their performances. Most directors who choose the sousaphone will have a warm yet powerful sound that lifts the group from the bottom. Metal triumphs over fiberglass, but some situations call for fiberglass as a good alternative. The shoulder instruments tend not to be as warm and powerful but will certainly give a strong punch to the mid-high harmonic in the sound that can cut through for clarity. However, they will make the group sound brighter.
Practical point eight is the mouthpiece. Please verfiy that the mouthpiece shank size is congruent with the mouthpieces you or the students are getting. The dealers know the terminology and you can converse with them what you are doing. If you are buying mouthpieces for the students, do not spend a lot of money. $40–$60 will get you a sturdy mouthpiece that is not too big or small. Most of the dealers offer these as well in these price ranges, but my best success has been the local music store for student mouthpieces.
Practical point nine is what key of instrument to pursue. Please check that the key of the tuba is the one you want. My experience still sees BB-flat as the main one for school systems. I recommend letting individual families get the specialty keys of CC, E-flat or F.
Practical point ten covers maintenance and care. After shopping and making purchases, your absolute best bet for good tuba sound is preventive maintenance and care. This item is really tough with young students. My experience is they think since it is metal, the tuba is indestructible, but we know otherwise. 1) Oil the valves every two days. 2) Grease the slides every two-three months. 3) No rolling on the bell. 4) Prop the tuba against a chair (no free-standing tubas!). When getting new tubas, have a talk session with the students with consequence discussions for damages.
One last final thought. What ever you get, please keep in mind that students and their sounds are what you have to work with. You may even take some students to the testing to see if their sound is as deep and resonant as you would want or if you can hear the potential for the sound you would like to have out of your tuba section. The cool thing about differences of most students’ sounds and the professionals mostly boils down to air. And, yes, the old standby—don’t forget to breathe!