Tips for Tuba, Volume V-A
David Porter, Principal Tuba, The McLean Orchestra
Sing, Sound, Tuba!
Most of my articles have dealt with basic skills of the young tubist. The topics I have covered have been geared towards physical traits that are tangible enough for students and directors alike to grasp. For any teacher who has been teaching for a few years, privately or publicly, there will be a few young students who get beyond most of the physical traits. Indeed, in today’s world, the expectations of young students tends to go past the boundaries of just being a good technician on the instrument. This puts tremendous pressure on the young student to go beyond the bell when trying to project and express music from the heart. This article is devoted to presenting ideas for students to help their artistic concepts become more realistically visualized.
First, the biggest challenge is understanding how to produce the sound ideally proposed by the teacher. We ask students to listen to professional recordings. We tell students to choose someone they want to sound like, or we suggest someone they should imitate. Intuitive students follow these steps, even becoming inspired by them. However, for many students, two problems compromise these goals. First, they do not or are unable to record themselves and compare their sound to the professional recordings, and, second, they cannot tell if their sound from behind the bell is actually the sound they want.
Students usually listen to music that’s popular among their peers. With some exceptions, students “may” consider listening to tuba recordings as an assignment, similar to homework. In reality, it is, but needs to be presented in a way that is pleasing to the student. Here are a few ideas: 1) play a recording of someone you are trying to get the student to imitate in tone and musicality, 2) point out specifics while listening that attracts the student’s interest to the recording (tone characteristics, musical phrasing, or relating style characteristics that parallel some popular music), 3) ask parents to obtain recordings as part of music learning, similar to buying ensemble books and study books, and 4) the best way in my opinion, provide parents with a list of recordings for gifts for their children’s innate desire to check into a gift will usually produce at least one listening of the recording.
Obviously, we all hear sound behind the bell one way and our audience hears our sound differently from further away. For superior students without much experience, trying to sound more professional can be very frustrating. As we all know, the better we get the more our improvement slows, yet it takes more time to gain that improvement. Students are impatient folks. They do not have a long list of recital performances or professional recording equipment to offer several years of feedback. Here are suggestions that are aimed at quicker visualization for students: 1) tell students it is sufficient to get feedback from handheld recorders that are not perfect, but with help from the teacher, progress can be observed, 2) when the student plays anything from a single note to several phrases that come out sounding professional, stop immediately and tell them with highest compliments, 3) when complimenting students, have them repeat their achievement, while focusing on sound resonance out away from the bell (if in a large room, otherwise forget this idea), on how their embouchure, head and ears feel, and on what their embouchure is doing.
There is another instruction I hear very often regarding how to produce beautiful sound and musicality–play like they would sing or play like someone who is a professional singer would sing. This is very challenging. 1) Many instrumental students (especially tubists) maybe do not sing, never have, do not want to, and maybe are even afraid to hear their voice. 2) The only relationship they have to singing is music with words, yet we ask them to play like singing, even though the students do not listen to vocal music without words.
The usual approaches are: 1) singing on a syllable (usually “la”) for the student and hoping they can play like what was sung, 2) having students sing and hoping they can apply the lilting style of a singing voice to their lips buzzing out a sound. Probably this is most effective if a student is a singer already. Here are some other thoughts that may help with relating to a young student on these issues: 1) instrumental music can be visualized as music without words (vocalises), 2) that means efforts of expression have to be exaggerated, because there are no words to help the expression–get the students to think how is music interesting without words, and 3) label references of emotional expression to the sound characteristics that exhibit professional sound.
Lastly, maybe draw a connection from singing without words to playing with a linear sound. Sound and parts of that sound, that go somewhere in feeling and expression, need to be discernable only by the ears of the listener. The audience often relies on the total “live” experience for receiving the musical message, but young students may not be adept at that skill. However, if they can make a professional sound, then the young student might be able to use that skill as a first step towards musical expression. There is only one more thing for students to do that helps guarantee success with their sound–not forgetting to breathe!
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