Tips for Tuba, Vol. IC (David Porter, Principal Tuba, The McLean Orchestra)
Plane Angle Equals Air Route Ratio
Now that the parents, student, and music director have a consensus about starting to play the tuba (see volume 28, no.4, pp. 62-64), there is still a concern to address, even before the student begins to learn to read music. That concern is the physical relationship between the student and the instrument. Although this may seem like a simple item to fix, unchecked form in sitting and holding the tuba can lead to playing problems in the air column and embouchure, as well as permanent health problems years or decades later. Our goal is to set the student up for lifelong comfort and pleasure on tuba, whether they are ultimately an amateur or a professional. As mentioned in this column in the last issue of the Journal, regardless of the physical characteristics of the student, most obstacles can be overcome by desire and determination. This is universal whether the student is large, small, tall, short, or even physically challenged in some unusual way.
Playing tuba is easier for some than others, but there is one connection for all needed adjustments for all players. That connection is the angle of the leadpipe to the student’s mouth. The correct position can be described as follows: the leadpipe needs to be at a right angle to the vertical plane of the fron~ teeth. By vertical plane, I mean the imaginary line drawn vertically from under the nose to the chin. This plane will be different for every person, depending on the amount of “overbite” or “underbite.” Whatever the plane, the leadpipe needs to be a right angle to this plane. Mouthpiece placement can determine whether the leadpipe position is centered on the embouchure, but the leadpipe direction will determine the correct angle to the plane. There certainly are professional and adult amateurs who do not have/use this position and sound fine ~ thus the disclaimer that desire, determination, and listening for good sound can overcome any obstacles. However, we are talking about new tuba players, and we want the quickest and easiest method possible that leads to achieving good sound and good playing habits.
In order for maximum efficiency ratio of air flow to lip buzz, the angle of the air route needs to be as unobtrusive as possible. Starting from the lungs, the air must flow through the throat area, into the mouth, over the tongue, between the front teeth, between the lips, into the mouthpiece, and through the leadpipe. With all of these areas to traverse, the possibilities of disruptions are numerous. Many of the disruptions that occur come distortion, bending, twisting and/or turning of the angle of the leadpipe to the vertical plane of the front teeth. This results from the student not sitting and/or holding the tuba in a way that allows him/her to approach the instrument correctly.
Before showing the student anything about the tuba, have the student sit down and place the tuba on the lap to assess the leadpipe angle. While checking this, there are several areas to adjust to make sure the student will get the angle correct every time. 1) The player should have a straight spinal column, head straight up over the shoulders, and shoulders aligned with the head (not slouching). 2) The instrument should have a leadpipe that is not bent, flattened, or crooked. Be sure that the bell is rounded out (not crumpled or elliptical) which will help balance and handling. 3) The chair needs to be big enough to hold both the seat of the player and the instrument. The chair should be sturdy. A good chair for tubists should have a square~back and hardwood chairs, when available, are nice. 4) The music stand must be adjustable with one hand, yet sturdy, and the height must enable the student to view the music without changing the proper leadpipe angle. 5) The space around a tubist is critical to the comfort of the playing position. Although not always available, it is preferable to give the tubist enough space to be able to put their horn up and down, turn side to side, and move fonvard or backward a few inches – all without bumping the instrument, the player or another player. 6) The sitting height of the player and the tuba need to be adjustable. One can use books, an instrument support stand, a towel, or a piece of wood to adjust the position of the instrument or player (as appropriate) to achieve the correct angle. When all of these areas have been checked, the tuba may still have to be rotated in its held position. Each tuba model has its own unique design relative to the wrap of the lead pipe around the tuba bell, and the instrument has to be rotated to make the angle of approach correct. Don’t forget to be sure that the student moves the music stand to see it clearly without rotating the tuba, or rotating the head, sliding the embouchure to a crooked position or to one side of the mouthpiece.
With all the previous areas to think about, again there is none so important as the angle of the leadpipe to the student’s mouth to get the best quality tone, to achieve the most unobstructed air flow for the best sound resonance and projection, and to provide maximum comfort of the player. In the winter issue column, we will talk about some steps to assure the success of the new tubist, even before we talk about breathing. However, in the mean time remember: Don’t Forget To Breathe!