Tips for Tuba, Vol. 111B by David Porter, Principal Tuba, The McLean Orchestra
Just when you thought 1was done talking about air, back it blows. We have covered several basic air concepts and several aspects of body movement from the waist up. I feel it necessary to talk about one air concept a little further. I mentioned in the Summer 2002, V II C, that for low or soft music, use slower air movement and for high or loud music, use faster air movement. Now let’s turn those thoughts into some points about air direction. First, let’s establish a basic disclaimer for low and high notes regarding lip placement. For mid-range notes, the lips are about 50/50 inside the mouthpiece. For low-range, the bottom lip projects out into the mouthpiece further than the top lip. For high-range, the bottom lip comes back under the top lip. The top lip does most of the buzzing, the bottom lip does most of the range changing. and the air speed and direction do most of the work determining the buzz speed, which determines the range of the note. Most of my colleagues approach their range this way regarding lip placement.
Second, let’s establish some general guide lines for air direction inside the tubist’s mouthpiece: blow air up for low notes, and blow down for high notes. Most tubists I have observed, whether professional or amateur, do indeed direct their air in the manner described. However, most of those same people have two very different approaches to accomplishing the air direction. Both approaches are successful, but one is more popular than the other. The two approaches involve the head/embouchure/mouthpiece placement. Both approaches can be used regardless of overbite or underbite. The more popular approach is to dip one’s head vertically when playing in the mid- to low-range of the tuba and raise one’s head vertically when playing in the mid- to high-range. This method causes the bottom lip to move in and out of the mouthpiece, sliding back and forth under the top lip, thereby causing the air to go up or down in the mouthpiece.
The other approach is just the opposite. For mid-range to low-range, the tubist slightly elevates his/her head vertically, and for mid-range to high-range, the tubist slightly moves his/her head down vertically. Again, this method results in the same lip placements and the same air direction tis the other approach.
The big difference is the preference of the player’s head direction for the sound they want to get. The first approach is definitely easier, seems more natural, and usually produces a very clear, well-projected sound in the low register and a smooth, velvety tone in the high register. TTie second approach is more difficult and not as natural, but produces a very warm sound in the low register and a more clear, projecting sound in the high register. The second approach also allows more movement to go higher in the range, since there is space between the mouthpiece and the nose for vertical movement of the head. For extreme ranges such as pedal tones or screech notes, there are a myriad of ways to achieve them, and 1 venture to say that none is perfect. For our discussion on air direction, let’s assume a basic three and a half octave range.
I use a combination of these approaches depending on the type of sound 1want to achieve. My point for young students and music ensemble directors is that most students will develop one approach or the other. The descriptions above are designed to offer ways the director can help students understand what the air direction should do, and how to get that direction to happen depending on what the students are doing with their bodies as they play in all registers.
I have one preferred way to help students understand how the bottom lip movement affects air dijgction:
1. Have them hold their arm in front of their face, bent at the elbow 90 degrees, with their palm turned toward their face.
2. If they are wearing long sleeves, have them pull their sleeves so their skin is exposed from their hand to their elbow.
3.Have them position their arm about six to eight inches from their face, with their mouth directed at the center point between the tip of their third finger to the inside crook of their elbow.
4. Next have them blow air straight ahead (middle-range).
5.Then have them move their bottom lips in and out as they are blowing the air, and notice which direction the air moves up and down their arm. As the bottom lip projects out, the air should travel up the arm toward their nose (low-range). As the bottom lip comes back under the top lip, the air direction should travel down the arm toward their chin (high-range). With very little practice, students can make their air direction move up and down their arm rapidly.
6. Next on their tubas, have them take a deep breath, and then blow air without any sound the same directions inside the mouthpiece.
7. Finally, to complete the simulation, have them hold all oftheir valves down, take a deep breath, then, adding buzzing to the blowing, do the same thing. With all the valves down, they will be able to make high and low noises, although not actual resonant notes.
This exercise is significant because it enables students to go from visual practice to aural practice with their air direction and sound relationship. This should give most students an idea of what to do to achieve some range on their tuba.
In the last article, I mentioned getting into air direction, air pressure, and pitch finding. Sometimes there is not enough space to explore every subject at once. In the next article 1will move into a discussion about air pressure. One word of caution: With all of this analysis of moving parts for breathing and playing processes, it is very easy for a student to become too self- conscious to be able to play. I always tell my students not to try and change the way they are doing something overnight. I encourage them to use each new thing they learn in their lessons cautiously in their ensemble rehearsals on easy passages, like whole notes and half notes. Then as they get comfortable working with something new, begin to try it on more difficult passages. And above all, they should keep remembering…don’t forget to breathe!