how to play the Tuba
Have you identified yet how to have fun with the Tuba?
Hopefully, by this point, you’ve bought a tuba. The next step will be to actually work out how to play the tuba! And luckily for you, this specific part of our ‘Beginner’s Guide To Learning the Tuba’ may help you get started.
Valves and Fingers
As a beginner, you may well have an E flat Tuba with just three valves. Which valve is which? Hopefully, the images below will help you identify the valves. The images have been taken of the front of a small E flat Tuba, a full-size four-valve E flat Tuba and a C Tuba with five valves.
Take your time to get used to holding your instrument, sitting up straight with your feet on the floor. Keep your head straight when playing to avoid straining any muscles in your back or neck. Also, get used to picking the instrument up and putting it down again. Brass is a soft mixture of metals and can damage easily so mind those chair legs!
If you progress to a larger instrument, you will have a fourth valve which allows you to play lower notes. The fourth valve is also used instead of combining the first and third valve. This applies to moving to a bigger E flat or B flat bass in the brass band world.
The first valve is closest to you as the hold the instrument and play, the third valve furthest away. The right hand operates the valves with the index finger operating valve 1, middle finger valve 2 and the third finger operates valve 3. Where a fourth valve is available, the left-hand index or middle finger presses this valve when needed.
The C Tuba requires you to become familiar with five valves. Interestingly, it is the low notes which require some finger gymnastics. Other than that, you can recycle finger patterns used in brass band fingering on the E flat or B flat bass as a youngster. There is more information about brass band instrument differences below.
Finding your ‘buzz’ to make a sound
Before even playing the instrument seriously, we need to understand how to make a sound. The Tuba is the largest of all the instruments which make up the brass family. It still works in the same way as the smaller brass cousins so we need to put vibrations through our Tubas in order to create a sound.
We ‘buzz’ our lips into the cup shaped mouthpiece which connects us to the Tuba. To begin our buzz, we firstly breathe and then blow with our lips kept together by our mouth muscles. Inside the mouth, our tongue works exactly as it does when we say the word ‘Daaaaaah’.
This releases the air, creating an ‘on switch’ to start our buzzing cleanly. This is also called the front of the note. Blowing different length streams of air creates different length vibrations which control the length of each note. To play consecutive sounds, we breathe, then blow continuously, using the ‘Dahh’ tongue movement to start each sound.
There are many buzzing exercises which build strength in our embouchure. Originating from the French term ‘to put to the mouth’, the embouchure in the musical sense is the word we use to describe the way we use our mouth, facial muscles and also the tongue to create a sound on wind or brass instrument.
If you just blow through the instrument, you may be surprised that nothing happens. Don’t panic! Your Tuba isn’t broken. Remember, we need vibrations and we create these by blowing air through our lips, using the muscles around our mouth to keep our lips close together. The faster the buzzing, the higher in pitch the note goes. With a slower buzzing, we create low pitched notes.
Our lips do not vibrate on their own. It is by BREATHING and then BLOWING that we create this buzz. Over time, we build muscle memory so that we can create precise notes on demand, be they high, low, loud, quiet, long or short sounds. Similar to when singing (organised shouting!), loud notes require more air than quiet notes.
Keep your cheeks in, tongue out of the way (once a note has started) and if your buzzing is at the same particular pitch which matches the fingers required on the valves of the Tuba, you will produce a clear, precise note. It is a very strange way to make a sound on an instrument, but after a while, it does feel very normal!
Help from the Piano
Now you are making a sound, you need to pin down exactly what pitches you are making. Always be in control of the sounds you are making by aiming carefully. To help with this, basic knowledge of the Piano keyboard is very useful but not essential. We cannot see or ‘touch’ notes when playing on a brass instrument.
On the Piano, however, a map of all the notes we have available is in front of our very eyes. This lets us see what pitches we are playing and also clearly shows the gaps between notes. These jumps between notes are called INTERVALS. Understanding the distance between notes is vital on a brass instrument. Our notes are like stepping stones across a river and we cannot slip over!
If you look closely at the Piano keyboard, you’ll see there is a pattern; the twelve keys repeat themselves in the same configuration up and down the instrument. We call this sequence of twelve keys an ‘Octave’.
Learning to identify this pattern is crucial for finding your way around the keyboard. Understanding a ‘map’ of notes available can be a secret weapon for brass players.
To help you find your starting point, look at the black keys. You will notice an alternating pattern: groups of two and three black keys.
The keys are named after letters of the alphabet. Every white key immediately to the left of a group of two black keys is a C. Find the middle of the keyboard, and the C to the left of the group of two black keys. This is what we call middle C.
Once you have found middle C, place your right thumb on it. Now put the rest of your fingers on the keys up from middle C, assigning one finger to each of the next four white keys. These are D, E, F, and G.
The black keys are sharps and flats. These lower a pitch/note name by half a step (semitone) or raise it by half a step depending on which direction you travel on the keyboard.
The two notes below C, heading down the Piano, are A and B. Since there are only seven different white keys, we only use the first seven letters in the alphabet: A to G. In other words, the white key that comes after G is an A. The whole sequence then starts again.
To aid your Tuba playing and to develop your memory of pitches and how they relate to other notes, use garage band on iPad/iPhone or even a free Piano keyboard app. You do not need a keyboard or expensive grand Piano at home to learn the Tuba, but make use of it if you do have one!
This system of following the alphabet to label pitches is called the ‘English notation system’. It is the standard used today across most of the world. However, you will always find some countries and people using a different system.
Scales are the building blocks of all the tunes we play. Now that you know the layout or ‘map’ of the notes we use, you can apply your learning to play a C major scale. The C major scale consists of eight notes from C to the C.
As you begin to build muscle memory and develop your ‘buzz’, it is worth playing a pitch on the Piano, singing it with your most fantastic voice (!) and then buzzing that pitch on the mouthpiece (without the Tuba). Music is a language and therefore we need to learn what the notes/pitches sound like before making them ourselves.
Due to the pattern of notes your Tuba plays without any fingers pressing any valves down, you will most probably begin by progressing through the five notes from E flat to B flat in your early-stage lessons. If learning in a brass band, this will be known to you as C to G. Much more on brass band differences later!
Which valves do I use for each note?
Throughout the length of the tube that we buzz down, the vibrations are amplified and our brass instrument sounds come out of the other end (the bell). By pressing no valves down and gradually playing higher notes step by step, you will eventually be able to play a pattern called the harmonic series.
With a three-valve Tuba, there are seven valve combinations:
No valves (also called ‘open’), 2nd valve only, 1st only, 1st and 2nd, 2nd and 3rd, 1st and 3rd, all three together.
Each combination has its own specific climbing series of notes available (the harmonic series). We simply mix and match the speed of vibration, usage of air and specific valves to give us the notes we need. Just like an artist has access to different brushes and colours of oil paints to create a varied image.
At the end of this section, there is a useful set of valve patterns or what we know as fingering charts. The correct fingers are crucial but REMEMBER! We play pitches, not fingerings. Further on in this guide, there is an explanation of how to read printed music from the stave. To help further, try to hear the notes in your head as you play.
If a Tuba is pitched in E flat, the harmonic series of that instrument starts on E flat. Because of this, no valves are used to play any notes from that climbing pattern (E flat, B flat, E flat, G, B flat, D flat, E flat, F, G)
If a Tuba is pitched in C, the harmonic series of that Tuba begins on C. Similarly to above, no valves are used to play notes from this pattern (C, G, C, E, G, B flat, C, D, E). Notice how the notes get closer together at the higher end of the pattern. Higher pitched notes on a Tuba can often borrow fingerings from other notes. These are called ‘false’ fingerings.
Brass Band v Concert pitch
If you are learning in a brass band, you will learn in treble clef. Historically, only the treble clef was taught to a group of brass players who formed the factory/workplace band. Members could then play different instruments in the band making use of that one clef. Even now, many of the best Tuba players begin in bands up and down the country.
Please realise that in a brass band, your ‘C’ will actually sound like an E FLAT on a Piano. When an instrument plays notes which make exactly the same sound on the Piano, as well as what is written in the music, we call this CONCERT PITCH.
Tubas in orchestras and the vast majority of wind bands play from the BASS CLEF in CONCERT PITCH. A written C sounds like a C on the Tuba and also on a Piano. In brass band pitch, an E flat bass ‘C’ is actually sounding as an E Flat on the Piano. B flat basses playing their ‘C’ actually produce a B flat sound from the Piano.
If you learn in a brass band, be aware of this but certainly not afraid of it. As you progress, your solo music will gradually be only written in bass clef, so work with your teacher to read and understand both clefs. This is similar to going from one Playstation game to another. The controller is the same but the buttons are a little different!
Here are some fingering charts for reference, starting with the treble clef brass band fingerings. Brass bands are incredibly important culturally and musically, with the E flat band instrument ending up as the Tuba of choice in many orchestras by the 1960s.
Don’t be baffled by the following information either! Take your time and just do your best. You will soon pick these fingerings or ‘controls’ up just like getting used to a new phone or playing a new computer game!
How To Play the Tuba - Summary
By now, you should be able to:
- Understand that vibration/buzzing comes from the air we blow through our lips.
- Recognise the Piano keyboard layout. This ‘sound map’ will help you visualise the pitches you are aiming for when playing the Tuba.
Know every single note name available to you on the Tuba.
Now it’s time to improve your technique…
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