Tips for Tuba, Volume IV-D
David Porter, Principal Tuba, The McLean Orchestra
The tuba part is my melody.
We have covered many areas of basic skills in our efforts to help students to play the tuba better. I have not covered much about musicianship, because many music ensemble directors already get that training through the various music education degrees. Needless to say, for young tubists, playing the tuba music may not leave them with a complete appreciation of how their part is so very important. Parallel to that, the tuba part may be the only way they recognize the music they are playing. In turn, ensemble directors are not always naturally focused on the tubas but on one super important item in all music—the melody! Without the melody, we cannot really expect our audiences (especially student parents and families) to go away “humming the songs.” If we are to expect our audience to support music education, educators and their students have to enjoy what they are doing. Therefore, melody is the most important part for influencing the audience, since that is what they consciously hear. Question: how important is melody to young tubists? I mean, really, there they are honking out rhythms and notes that do not usually resemble something to hum about. Ensemble directors can appeal from the podium to all students about musicianship, listening for the melody, listening across the ensemble, and other grand terms. On behalf of all young tubists, let us take a moment to view things from behind the tuba bell.
Young tubists have a few obstacles to overcome. First, in order to see the ensemble director for musical guidance, the student will probably be seeing fully with one eye and partially with the other, since the tuba bell usually blocks partial vision. The two ways that students try to solve this may also yield disastrous results over time in their playing. One way is to pivot their body and the tuba sideways while their head stays forward, thus allowing them to see with both eyes. This usually results in their embouchure becoming off center to the mouthpiece—not ideal at all. The other solution might be to lay the tuba sideways more across their lap, holding it like a large stuffed animal. This might result in embouchure displacement but even more will result in the bell being turned sideways. Even though the bass frequency we cherish from tubas is omni-directional, some of the higher clarifying harmonics coming out of the bell could be muffled if not pointed up more towards the ceiling. A further complication might be over use of the “holding arm” from constantly holding 15–20 lbs. of metal.
Second, when any wind instrument student plays, there are sympathetic vibrations going on inside the student’s head that affect how they hear. For young tubists, the vibrations sometimes are making their whole head vibrate. Example: when playing their tuba, have your student look at a digital clock. If they are playing with a good sound (this is a must), then the lower they play, the more the digital clock numbers will appear to be shaking. When I first observed this, I thought my “powerful” sound was physically shaking the clock. Nope, it was “literally” all in my head (after getting a second party to look at the clock while I played and tell me that the numbers were not shaking, therefore it was my eyes that were shaking). This “head” resonance has a profound effect on the student’s view of what they are hearing.
The challenge is to get young tubists to be excited about the musical influence that the ensemble is offering. Additionally, the student has to be excited, even while knowing that their particular part is not necessarily what everyone will go away humming. Here are some suggestions to meet the challenge.
Up front, the ensemble director may feel that the tuba part is only a supportive line musically. Most important point—please do not let the students feel like they are only supportive. They already have the heaviest instruments and are making some sacrifices. We need to make them feel important and their addition worthy to the musical influence of their ensemble. Even though the ensemble may be told to listen across, young tubists (and most young students) have to pay a lot of attention to their part. Their part becomes their melody to know and recognize the music they are playing. In order to sound good, they need to play their part with such confidence that it sounds like it is their melody.
Second, take a moment of score study to come up with creative ways to show the tubas how their line and the composer’s melody line have an intertwining relationship. Point out places in the music where the melody instrument sections and the tubas need to focus on each other and why. This could lead to real emotional input from the tubas towards influence for the audience. We want the tubas to feel that they are connecting past their music stand and past the music ensemble director to the ultimate customer—the audience. A second suggestion to help with this connection is to point out dynamic contrast influence to the tubas. The tuba dynamic directly affects the audience’s perception of the whole ensemble dynamic. This is a tremendous responsibility for the tubas. Especially for musical direction through dimuendos and crescendos, the tuba or bass line has the most impact on the audience perception that this is happening.
Thirdly, on a more egotistical approach, the ensemble director can appeal to the tuba part being the “power” part. Sometimes, a comment or two about the need for power from the tubas can make the students excited about their importance to the product.
Fourthly, a director can help tubas relate to the popular music of the day. Get them to imagine for a moment listening to popular songs with just the melody and no bass. How pleasant would that be? Even more, how long would a song have staying power on the charts without a bass line?
Lastly, I revert back to the first point in this section. Please give the tubas some positive attention, since they are students who are usually cast into a supportive role by the instrument they play. On the occasion the tubas do have the melody, please make a gigantic deal about the event.
Getting a tuba student excited about the larger picture can go a long way towards the enthusiasm of the whole ensemble. Indeed, worldwide, some of the influential people in musical ensembles, community organizations, and other careers aside from music are students who were/are successful tuba players. The ethic we learn as tubists in middle and high school gives us the ethic to succeed in all walks of life. Along with a large picture focus, we learn to focus intrinsically on remembering little details because in order to play tuba really, really well, we have to constantly remind ourselves—don’t forget to breathe!
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