Tips for Tuba, Volume TTXA: “Muffy and Woofled”
by David Porter
Recently, I was helping a young student try to develop a bigger sound on the tuba. As we played and talked, I began to realize that the student resisted producing a bigger sound, although agreeing to work for it by breathing deeper, collapsing more air, and opening the embouchure. However, it turns out the student simply did not like the resulting sound because to his ear it was not as pleasing and clear. This is a good student who practices well and actually makes a clear, pleasing sound. But the sound lacked resonance, thinning in the high register and sounding nasal in the lower register. Our efforts to improve were developing the middle register into a larger, more resonant sound that amplified more lower frequency harmonics. As I realized the student’s opinion on this sound, I said, “So, you think the sound is ‘muffy’ and ‘woofled’?” The student looked at me quizzically, and I started laughing. Then I corrected myself, “I meant to say muffled and ‘woofy’!” Then we both had a good laugh. The student agreed with the problem, so we talked and worked on the solution.
In reality, am I trying to get my students to play with a muffled and woofy sound? The answer is no. However, I am trying to get my students to develop a basic concept of a deep, sonorous tuba sound that resonates the lower harmonic frequencies first. From that concept, they can easily shape or change how they play and get good quality tones for orchestra, wind ensemble, outdoor ensemble, brass choir, brass quintet, chamber group, and solo. With each of these categories of playing, I think most professionals will use a variety of techniques for adapting their sound to best fit, support, and lead the musical expression and performance.
Before suggesting ways to develop this concept in young students, allow me to share a little history of why students may think I am striving towards “muffled and woofy” at first. When most young tuba students begin playing tuba, teacher expectations usually center on getting a student to make a sound and find the right note no matter how they are doing it or how good the sound. I know that most ensemble directors will try to suggest ways to make a good sound, especially for all beginners. A first consideration is a student’s size and playing experience. After several decades of teaching, I have come to the conclusion that 10, 11, and 12-year old students have difficulty trying to make a professional sounding tone. The earliest age a developed, beautiful sound is about 13–14 years of age, and only if they have been taking lessons for two or three years. I have had occasional students who somehow had a great sound from the start. While this has been a blessing, they still get instruction about posture, breathing, range, and how to listen for their sound. A second consideration about student progress is if there is private instruction available. In many situations there is not and then the lengthy task of teaching correct ways to produce good tones on all instruments is left to the ensemble director. Ensemble directors are going to try their best, but reality dictates that time is limited for quick success (like within first two years). Also, the availability of ensemble directors who know about tuba embouchures can be limiting to student progress. Here are some suggestions for helping young students develop their sound into a basic deep, sonorous sound.
First—posture (Tips for Tuba, Fall 2001, “Plane Angle Equals Air Route Ratio”). I have gone to great, consistent insistence in the last couple of years with a young student’s posture to include using books, tuba stands, and sometimes chairs to make absolutely sure they are in the correct plane angle
Second—breathing (Tips for Tuba, Spring 2002, “Don’t forget to breathe!” & Tips for Tuba, Summer 2002, “Mechanics are not just for cars”). Without taking a full breath, most young sounds will not resonate the lower frequency harmonics, no matter what the embouchure is doing.
Third—the embouchure (Tips for Tuba, Fall 2002, “Resistance Isn’t Acceptance”). Instructing and checking to make sure that a student’s airway is clear from tension and that tongue and lips are optimal for best sound. This all gets better with age, but start the instruction early on how to correctly think of and control neck, throat, and mouth areas so that students will develop a concept of correct approach.
Fourth—how to listen for the sound (Tips for Tuba, Spring 2004, “Power through the woof!” & Tips for Tuba, Fall 2007, “The World Behind the Bell”). Students have to develop both their aural skills to hear the sound needed, and, to a lesser extent, learning terminology that will help them verbalize what they need to hear.
There are thousands of ways to describe a good quality sound. For the purposes of this article concept, I will try to put into words the sound description my student said was “muffled and woofy.” This sound is particular to the middle and low register. I am listening for the frequency resonance that goes with frequency vibration of the range. The way I developed my listening concept was two ways. One way was having a chance to hear a sine wave demonstration. When I heard the sound of a 60hz frequency (at two octaves below middle C on the piano), and, even knowing that the sound had no harmonics in it, I was amazed at how rumbled, muffled, and woofy the sound was. The second way was participating in an ear-training course for sound engineers. In this course, pink noise and musical examples were used with various frequencies being identified and then subtracted or added for listening skill development. The sine wave demonstration and the ear-training course made me realize that the carrying power of a tuba sound was more about amplifying the frequency resonance than the higher harmonics of the sound. Having said all of that, I am encouraging listening for a warm, low, resonating sound that they “feel” more than they hear. I ask them to search for the feeling in their ears, their hearts and their chairs and for a possible sound pressure feeling on their ears. This is easier done in a room that resonates where frequencies can be heard in a ring out of the room. When this sound is heard from an audience perspective, it is amplified as a low, deep sub-bass type sound underneath the higher instruments. This sound takes enormous amounts of air and, when done correctly, takes having many tuba players to amplify enough to balance an ensemble. Hence, maybe why orchestra tubas are so big (tradition is only needing one) and maybe why wind ensemble and chamber group tubas are smaller (tradition is needing several)—all dependant on the frequency amplification of low resonance needed for the sound in each situation.
At this point in my teaching career, I believe that if students can develop a basic dark, deep sonorous sound, they will be set for life enjoyment of playing the tuba. Indeed, if you ever ask someone what they like or do not like about a tubist’s playing, the first comment we commonly say is “they sound good” or “they do not sound good.” For contrabass and bass tubas, more often than not, this comment may refer to the sound pressure resonance we hear in the middle to low register. For young students, this requires a tremendous amount of air. I can honestly say that I am using the word “breathing” with every count off when working on sound quality. This goes hand in hand with my once a lesson reminder to each student—“don’t forget to breathe!”
David Porter serves as Principal Tuba with The McLean Orchestra and performs as a member of the Camerata Brass Quintet. He is also faculty on The Masterworks Festival and Director of Youth and Youth Music at Fairlington United Methodist Church.