Tips for Tuba Vol. IV-A
David Porter, Associate Editor
“Screeches and Pedals are not frightening”
Junior and senior high school students are fascinating individuals. They are capable of marvelous creativity and, given motivation, can produce amaz-ing results. This most certainly applies to music. Students are motivated by a variety of different sources—teachers, performers, and recordings. What I have learned is that if students do not receive motivation for creativity, they will find it themselves. Along those lines, it would serve a teacher well to keep in touch with what fascinates students. What is it that gets their atten-tion? Over the years the musical trends come and go, but there is one particular area of playing that has always had students’ attention—the ability to play extremely high or extremely low notes.
No matter how young or old, whether a student of the seventies or the 21st century, the interest in this area always seems to exists. In dealing with this fasci-nation, there are two choices to be made. One is to ignore this area as unimportant, since the “money” area of playing does not involve extreme ranges. The other is to embrace it for use as a motivational tool in helping students play better. Here are some thoughts about the first choice.
For young tuba students, the extreme ranges will rarely be played in a musical ensemble. Composers do not have a need for the tuba’s extreme ranges, and they know that young students probably cannot play them anyway. Therefore, it seems logical to concentrate on the notes they can play and make them better. Over a period of time, the student will become better and stronger and then be able to increase their range note by note. The plus to this is that students can keep a good sound while also learning to play better. Usually if a student tries to play beyond the range where they actually sound good, the result is enough to make everyone cringe. Sometimes the teacher may ask students not to try this and stay within the range that maintains a good sound. Additionally, teachers may not know how to help students try these extreme notes without causing possible physical damage (and mental). However, in contrast, preventing students from trying something that interests them may cause them to feel unmotivated about practicing. For students to want to practice, they must have something that makes them believe they are accomplishing something interesting to them and not just the instructor, private teacher, or education system.
This leads me to the second choice in embracing their fascination. In short, helping students learn how to do something that they first find unattainable can help them progress by leaps and bounds, both in their skill and musicality. With regard to extreme ranges, here are some thoughts for approaching this area.
One unique tuba feature is that with the outer ranges the tuba’s range can reach as many as six octaves, depending on the player. My experience has proven that students who hear these ranges become fascinated with trying to hit these notes (either high or low), and if I give them proper instruction on the approach with some exercises, they will begin practicing these notes. My primary purpose is that by increasing their range, even if it does not sound good, their playable range will eventually sound better. I do not mind students trying to make sounds in the extreme ranges that resemble some animal noise, as long as it has purpose. However, I do not favor students making odd noises just to be funny or obnoxious. Without instruction these practices can cause serious bad habits or damage to their embouchures. Here are suggestions for helping students with the extreme ranges in a positive way .
First, make sure they hear some extreme range notes actually played properly, either from a recording or a private teacher. When I demonstrate this on tuba, this step alone helps me get their attention, especially in lessons. Second, have them approach extreme registers from within the middle of the range. I usually do this with scale patterns since they need to learn these anyway. Third, have them slowly progress by note, helping them to first find the correct pitch you are trying to attain and then pointing out when they are on the correct pitch, and then have them try playing it again. We usually will spend a few minutes of each lesson exploring each end of the range by a note or two and THAT’S ALL (Note: these steps apply for either screech or pedal note learning. I never try to push students too quickly for fear of hurting their embouchures).
In our music education geographical area of northern Virginia, knowing all major scales is a requirement for district ensemble tryouts as well for many of the school music programs. Over the years, I have encouraged students to begin playing scales more than one octave as soon as they can. For a beginning student, my goal is to learn one octave by the end of the first semester. Most often students can play a couple of the scales two octaves. By the end of their first year of playing (even for the young junior high school students), the goal is to have attempted all scales two octaves. This means they can actually play all but three or four of the scales two octaves, with high b-flat often being their top note. By the end of their second year, all major scales need to be at two octaves. By the end of their third year, we begin working with a couple of scales playable at three octaves. At this point, the student’s ability usually determines how much further they can progress. I have had a few students who were never able to achieve all scales three octaves, which was usually attributed to lacking practice except during the lesson (we all know how that goes). For the students who were really excited about their range, I have had students play all scales three octaves (and some of them four octaves) by the time they graduate from high school. This becomes somewhat of a healthy competi-tion between the students. All it takes is one student figuring out how to play the extreme ranges to inspire everyone else.
Regarding specific techniques about playing extreme ranges, first please review the article called “Tips for Tuba:: Go Vertical!,” ITEA Journal (30:3). Along with those techniques described, there are a few key points to emphasize. At first, it is okay for the student to have leaking air out the side of the mouth while trying extreme notes. The airflow is of utmost importance (where have we heard that before?). Most of my students try to play their notes first and then apply air. I emphasize air first and then the buzz. This allows the neck muscles to remain relaxed for the high notes and keeps their mouth open for notes in the low range. As comfort increases with these notes, begin encour-aging them to seal the embouchure with the mouthpiece. For some students this will automatically happen, and, for others, I instruct them to do it. Remember to have them blow down and fast for high notes and up and slow for low notes. For extreme high notes, I have them concen-trate on allowing the top lip to overlap and buzz against the bottom lip. I usually have them buzz right in the center of the top lip with focus on the red part of the top lip’s underside. For extreme low notes, I start just trying to get their lips to flutter (like horse lips). We do that to hear what it sounds like. From there, we work on opening their teeth and moving massive amounts of slow, warm air to make the sound open up. The concept of having a student let their lips vibrate slowly is very difficult. Having them collapse their air with a big “sigh” will help, but the name of the game for low playing is relaxation throughout their upper body. To help them learn to move between ranges, have them concentrate on their lip and embouchure position as they attain new notes. When playing scales have them move their lips to those positions as they reach each end of their range. This can seem very difficult, because most students are “locked” onto the mouthpiece as if they were glued to it. Over a period of time with practice, they can learn to slide or move their embouchure up and down as needed for the scales without breaking the seal of the mouthpiece.
All in all, extreme ranges can be fun, exciting, and useful for students. Again, not something I focus all of our attention, but, with students learning more notes, I have found that they can approach more challenging music without being frightened by the range of the piece. Just eliminating the fear of extreme ranges is sometimes enough to help them progress with both basic skills and musicianship. Friendly reminder—many students like to start notes first, then blow air. I always come back to them and say—don’t forget to breathe!
Errata Notice: The Fall issue installment of “Tips for Tuba” was incorrectly titled. The correct title is “Here a pitch, there a pitch…” My apologies to the author and readers for this misprint. ~ J. Smith
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