Improve Your Tuba Technique
The guidelines on how to strengthen your tuba technique
Do you wish to play the tuba better? Technique is the building blocks of any instrumentalist, and so as to develop proficiency and safeguard yourself from injury, a sound technique isn’t optional; it’s an absolute must. As part of our ‘Beginner’s Guide To Learning The Tuba’ range, this post will give you the beginning, fundamental advice you’ll need to begin improving instantly.
Many exercises are essential to gain a proper technique. Once you master these exercises, you’ll be able to play almost anything. That sounds like a grand statement – but don’t underestimate the word ‘master’!
Also set goals. You may want to be a professional one day but have obstacles in your way such as not being able to play very low pitched notes or high, quiet music. ‘Persistence in pursuit of a vision creates a genius’ is what I once read in a book which was too difficult for me to understand. Stick with it and you’ll get there in the end!
If you work enough, you’ll be able to look at a section of music and be confident enough to learn it quickly. For each exercise, there is a specific way to practice it. Your practice is only as good as your form while you practice. So be disciplined about it, as practising exercises wrong is a complete waste of time! We have three key exercise categories that will help you…
Throughout this guide are front covers of some fantastic and time-proven method books. Some focus on scales, some on technical areas. Others have borrowed operatic studies and repackaged them for the Tuba to help us develop a beautiful melodious sound. These publications are a bit ‘old skool’ in some cases, but a must.
1. Warm Up
Scales are those things that all musicians love to hate. When I grew up, I thought the only thing that was worse than practicing scales, was practicing arpeggios. And the only thing worse than that, included a bee sting, a broken ankle and a dogs water bowl (don’t ask!).
So what happens when a child becomes a professional musician? Why do they suddenly forget their hatred for scales and enforce it on their students?
Possibly because scales are the one thing that can make or break you as a pianist. Almost every melody is made up in parts, from a scale. Almost every bass line follows a scale at some point. Almost every harmonic progression is built around scales. So you may not realise it, but listening to music means listening to many different scales. That means playing music means playing many different scales. It really is that important.
By knowing your scales well, your muscle memory will instinctively know what scale is part of what melody, bass line or harmony – and you’ll be able to play it easier and more accurately knowing this.
Every piece is set in a ‘key’. Every key has a different number of sharps or flats, and to start with it can be tricky to remember all the configurations. Scales help with this; every scale is different BECAUSE of the sharps and flats, so once you know the scales, you should know the keys. This then gives you a sixth sense where you can feel your way around the piano, and know which notes are likely to be right, and which are likely to be wrong.
Have you ever seen someone sightread a complicated piece and wondered ‘how did they do that?’ The answer is patterns. When reading music, we end up reading a series of patterns, not each individual note. It’s exactly the same reading this pargaraph. Did you realise I swapped the G and A around in the middle of the word ‘paragraph’? Thought not!
Kopprasch Technical studies suitable for all Tubas despite the title
Bordogni operatic studies to work at lyrical musicality after a technical workout
Scales are those things that all musicians love to hate. This is because we are often taught this at a young age and we then agree with a teacher without having experienced them. On each step of a scale, you can place rhythms as part of a warm-up.
Using syllables from your favourite food, football team, underground station – anything you like – will provide all kinds of rhythm patterns. These rhythm patterns will create ways for you to repeat notes many times within one game. This reinforces the front of your notes and builds confidence.
Scales or ‘keys’ are the building blocks of all the bass lines, melodies, songs and tunes you will ever hear. Major scales sound happy, minor scales sound sad. As simple as that sounds, it is very complex and leads to moods and atmospheres of particular music being defined for us.
A simple key change from major to minor in a film soundtrack can be incredibly powerful, often helping narrate a film for us. Think about this next time you watch your favourite film. Where is the music trying to take you? What piece of music is played each time a particular character appears?
By knowing your scales well, your muscle memory will instinctively know what scale is part of what melody, bassline or harmony – and you’ll be able to play it easier and more accurately knowing this.
Every key has a different number of sharps or flats, and to start with it can be tricky to remember all the configurations. Scales help with this; every scale is different BECAUSE of the sharps and flats, so once you know the scales, you should know the keys. This then gives you a sixth sense where you can ‘feel’ your way around the Tuba, and know which notes are likely to be right, and which are likely to be wrong.
Have you ever seen someone sightread a complicated piece and wondered ‘how did they do that?’ The answer is patterns. When reading music, we end up reading a series of patterns, not each individual note. It’s exactly the same reading this paragraph. Did you realise I swapped the G and A around in the middle of the word ‘paragraph’? Thought not!
The second most common tool in compositions is arpeggiated figures. Look at any melody; you’ll see either a mini-scale or a mini-arpeggio. Just like scales, if you know your arpeggios well, you’ll already know all these little snippets before you even practice the piece!
Arpeggios also strengthen your ability to negotiate intervals. Try slurring (playing smoothly) between these notes. This is a fantastic way of building strength and stamina. When you play a number of notes without changing fingers, these are called harmonic slurs or lip slurs.
Wrong technique makes playing more challenging and tiring. Incorrect seat positioning or posture can cause pain in the shoulders, neck and back. Awkward hand positions can give you stiff fingers and limit your dexterity. Make sure you are not pressing your mouth against the mouthpiece. Also, keep your wrists in comfortable positions.
Fixing a bad technique can be tricky, so it’s essential to acquire good habits from the start!
General Tuba Technique
It doesn’t matter what you sit on as long as it is comfortable and the correct height. The best choice is a sturdy chair with some cushioning. A deck chair will just result in an unfortunate accident.
Sit with your back and neck straight and your feet flat on the floor, You’re potentially going to be sitting for a long time, so you may as well be comfortable
You may not know this, but your entire body is involved in playing the Tuba. The Tuba doesn’t allow us to be overly mobile when playing so get used to the most balanced and comfortable position you can. Play in front of large mirrors if possible to let you check that you are not leaning to one side or sitting in a strange way.
Sit upright, back straight. Sitting like this may be tiring at first, don’t worry, your core will get stronger very quickly.
Relax your shoulders. Fight the urge to hunch or curve your spine. If you hold tension in your shoulders as many people do, roll them over and back a few times. Tension destroys the freedom of our breathing so stay relaxed at all times. Sound is our goal, beautiful sound so focus on enjoying making that!
Unlike guitarists or pianists, we only have a few valves to press down compared to a multitude of keys or strings. Often we have many notes in a row not even needing us to use different valves! Hand placement should be obvious, so just make sure that your third finger doesn’t fall or slip off the third valve. You have three valves for the right hand on E flat Tubas/basses and B flat basses. Keep three fingers on the valves!
C Tuba playing requires fine-tuning of the slides (tubes) which connect to each valve. Moving these whilst playing should feel relaxed and not forced. Keep slides greased and valves oiled to avoid any forced movements. This can damage the player and instrument!
Keep your fingers in line with your forearm. Your hands will often have to be in one position for a long time, so don’t do anything to put unnecessary pressure on your wrist joints.
If you can, you should try and sight-read every time you practice.
When sight-reading, it’s advised that you read something just under your current playing level. This way, it’s a challenge, but not too much of a challenge…
Just don’t fall into the trap of reading something that’s too easy – your sight-reading won’t improve if everything is a walk in the park!
And I know this sounds obvious, but remember; for it to be sight-reading; it needs to be a piece of music you have never seen or practised before.
Finally…Listen to great music of all types
Listen, listen, listen. Listen to great orchestral film soundtracks, watch the great performances from Live Aid in 1985, listen to great artists such as David Bowie or Nina Simone – the list is endless and access to the great music of all kinds has never been easier.
Learn why great music is so great. Learn how great bands such as The Beatles worked as perfectionists in the studio to create the sound they wanted. Instruments can eventually seem boring to learn in a one dimensional way. Bring your hard work to life and enjoy making your instrument relevant to you!
Improve Your Tuba Technique - Summary
Most things in life work well when you take the time to plan them. Playing the Tuba, and improving your technique, is no different. Challenge yourself on a daily basis – and remember that building a strong technique is the foundation of your playing. The time taken here will make your life easier down the road…
About the Author
Have You Any Idea What Goes On On A Friday?
Every week, on a Friday, I send out the 4 Feature Friday e-mail. It’s a very simple idea that contains 4 fantastic things I”ve uncovered that week.
Provided that it has something connected to music, it can end up in the email. Consider it as a musical pandora’s box!
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Read the next post in this series: