Practical Considerations for the Prospective Tuba Student - Part 2

Teaching Tips - Prospective Tuba Student - Part 2



Barton Cummings


You have heard the old phrase "practice makes perfect" applied to music. This is only partially true. It is "perfect practice that makes perfect". You must practice regularly and with specific goals in mind each time you sit down with your tuba. It is not just what is practiced but how it is practiced that is important.

To practice effectively, you need to design a practice session routine. This means that you must decide what it is you are going to attempt during your practice session. It is not wise to set more than three goals for any practice session. It may be that you will only be able to accomplish one of your goals because during your practice session you will need to rest and relax not only your embouchure but your mind.

The first step to a well-designed practice session is the warm-up routine. This period of time is used to prepare for the requirements of the practice session, rehearsal or performance that is to take place. It is also a time when you can review those skills already a part of your technique so that they will remain in readiness.

No musical activity should ever be attempted unless you are well rested and free from illness and injury. You will only aggravate the conditions from which you may be suffering if you attempt to play when you are not at your best.
Your warm up should begin with tones in the middle register at a soft dynamic level. These may be in the form of long tones, but long tones can also cause your lips to become stiff and inflexible. Use them only for a short period of time and only in the middle register at a soft dynamic level. Never attempt to play loud, high and fast without first working in the middle register. This can cause severe damage to your embouchure.

Many teachers advocate the use of mouthpiece buzzing as a means to develop the embouchure and the surrounding facial muscles as well as an aid to centering pitch, correcting faulty intonation and assisting in ear training. All of these areas can be helped by lip buzzing if done in small doses. Too much lip buzzing can be the source of the tone quality becoming hard and brittle.

Long tones are placed in the same category as lip buzzing. They are helpful when done sparingly. The same results take place when long tones are used as a lengthy prelude to actual playing. Beginners are often encouraged to use long tones excessively and develop some bad habits that carry over for many years. Severe lip trauma has been directly linked to over use of long tones, so you must be cautious in your early development and not over do in this area.

After you have warmed up your lips, proceed to simple interval studies that are both articulated and slurred. Remain only in the first octave of the tuba. Proceed from this point into the upper and lower registers using scales, arpeggios and different dynamic levels. When you are able to play without cracking or splitting notes, you can venture into your practice session materials.

During your warm up session, check to make sure that you are holding your tuba correctly, have your fingers in the right place, the correct embouchure and mouthpiece placement and that your breathing process is letting you do what you want to do.

You should always practice at the same time every day. This helps your body to adjust to its new routine and it creates in you a feeling of responsibility. It will help you establish a regular schedule and yet allow you to engage in other activities. You will soon come to realize that you are ready to practice at that time and will expect to do so.

Whenever you practice you need to set a schedule. You must proceed slowly and methodically and not repeat mistakes. We learn through trial and error and repetition. You should not practice anything that does not relate or contribute to the goals you have set for the practice session.

Your practice session can include:

  1. WARM-UP: any and all items that will help you prepare to practice.
  2. LESSON MATERIAL: etudes, solos and supplementary materials assigned by your teacher.
  3. ENSEMBLE MUSIC: go over the difficult passages, slowly until accurate.
  4. SOLO MUSIC: What you are currently studying for future performance or materials you wish to learn.
  5. WARM-DOWN: a time to relax and yet continue to play, it should be the reverse of the warm-up period.

A time limit cannot be accurately placed on a warm-up routine, practice session, or warm-down session. Only you can tell how much time is needed on each of these activities. The amount of time you spend practicing will be the determining factor in how proficient you become as a tuba player. Use your time wisely and be prepared to spend time in order to receive any gains. There is not, and never will be, any substitute for daily, systematic practice.


Intonation simply means whether you are playing "in tune" or "out of tune". "In tune" playing is "good intonation" and "out of tune" playing is "bad intonation". The pitch level of A=440 cycles per second has been established as the "standard tuning frequency" at which all musical instruments are manufactured.

Your tuba has a number of slides that can be pulled out. By pulling these slides a certain amount, you can adjust the pitch of your tuba so that you can play in tune. You also have the ability to lip pitch up or lip it down and this can help you to play in tune.

As a tuba player, you will establish the pitch foundation for the groups you perform in. To be effective at this chore, you need to begin a course of "ear training". Ear Training is an activity you will practice for the rest of your days as a musician. There are several ways to do this and include:

  1. Using a piano, play notes in your voice range and attempt to match them with your voice. Do this over and over until you are able to correctly match whatever pitch you choose. If you have a private teacher, this person will be able to work with you in this area and should as a matter of course.
  2. After spending time vocalizing, do the same exercise using your tuba instead of your voice. At this point, you should begin to hear beats between the piano notes and your tuba notes. This is natural and you should not be alarmed. It does not mean your tuba is out of tune and you need a new one. It means that you have to make some adjustments. First, play the keynote of your instrument and if you are lucky, it will be sharp, or high in pitch. Pull your main tuning slide and try it again. You may have to make several adjustments until you find the right spot for the slide. You should then proceed through the chromatic scale and listen for beats on each note. It is impossible to pull and push slides while playing, so this is the time you should explore the "lipping" technique. If you find flat notes, close a bit and do the opposite for sharp notes. You will soon learn to adjust automatically each pitch you play. You should not get the idea that every note on your horn will need adjustment because they won't. Just a few in each octave. Also remember that you still have much muscle development to gain.

If you can arrange to bring a musician friend, especially an experienced tuba player, to the music dealer when you take delivery of your tuba, this person can play it and you may discover that your keynote is flat. If so, refuse delivery and request a replacement. A tuba that is flat on its keynote is unacceptable and your dealer will know this.

There are several reasons for playing out of tune and they include: 1. Temperature indoors and out 2. Poor posture and/or holding position 3. Poor /Weak embouchure formation 4. Improper use of the tongue 5. Insufficient breath and /or poor support and control 6. Under developed dynamic control 7. Lack of ear training 8. Poor mouthpiece placement 9. Damaged instrument, improper mouthpiece, corrosion inside of instrument, leaks, missing water key corks, stuck slides, and poor quality instrument 10. Playing off the standard tuning frequency. 11. Notes inherently out of tune on the instrument

The tuba, like all brass instruments, has certain notes that are inherently out of tune. This is because of the acoustical properties in the design of the tuba and the "partials" or "overtones" of the "overtone series". A musical tone is made up of many partials, but we are concerned with those that are the most audible, which gives us our "fundamental frequencies".

As a tuba player, you will be concerned with the first twelve partials of the overtone series and the notes used. These notes begin with the pedal Bb and continue through the F above the staff and are shown below. It is possible to play all of these notes without using any valves, but the sixth and seventh tones are so flat that they are never played as open tones.

The other partials fall into place as follows: 1, 2, 4, and 8 are usually in tune, although 8 can be a bit flat depending on the particular tuba, while 3 and 6 can be either flat or sharp depending on the design of the tuba, with partial 5 being flat and requiring the use of alternate fingerings which are given in the fingering chart in Part. You will have to work with a reliable tuning device to discover which notes are affected and how much adjustment will be needed to place them in tune.

Notes played with the following valve combinations are usually found to produce intonation problems in the following manner:

  1. 1st and 2nd valves - moderately sharp
  2. 1st and 3rd valves - very sharp
  3. 1st, 2nd and 3rd valves - extremely sharp
  4. 2nd and 3rd valves - slightly flat

If you have purchased a tuba with a fourth valve, you will be able to correct the 1st and 3rd combination and the 1st, 2nd and 3rd combination by substituting just the fourth valve for the 1st and 3rd combination and substituting the 2nd and 4th valves for the 1st, 2nd and 3rd combination. If you do not have a fourth valve, be very certain to lip the notes played with the troublesome combinations down and tune your valves carefully. In any case, a three-valve tuba will cause serious defects in your playing.

There are certain notes played without valves that are problematic and these are the third line D, which will be slightly flat on the BBb tuba, and on the CC tuba, it will be the third space E. The Eb tuba fourth space G will be slightly flat. The corresponding flat notes will also be slightly flat. The correction for these notes is in the natural case to use the 1st and 2nd valves and in the flat case to use the 2nd and 3rd valves. These substitutions raise the pitch level of these notes up.

Another piece of standard equipment you will want to invest in is a small electronic tuner. It is, like the metronome, a necessary piece of your standard equipment.


Endurance is the ability to sustain your playing for long periods of time. Problems with endurance plague every brass, woodwind, string and percussion player. The muscles used in the embouchure are strained from the rigorous requirements placed upon them through constant contact with the mouthpiece. It is possible to build endurance over a period of time through careful and systematic practice.

To build endurance, you will need to structure a logical practice routine that will allow you to pace yourself throughout the session with the idea that you will place sustained periods of rest for your embouchure. These periods of rest are important in order for you to conserve the needed strength to complete your practice session, rehearsal or performance.
It is a contradiction, yet true, that endurance is actually built when your embouchure muscles are a bit fatigued, but still able to respond well. The best time to work on endurance building is at the end of your practice session. A good program of endurance building will include long tones, slurs, articulation studies and flexibility exercises in the middle register at a "mezzo-forte" dynamic level.


Vibrato on the tuba is a natural phenomenon, and one that you need to learn. Nothing adds to the tone of the tuba like a well-developed and intelligently applied vibrato. It adds beauty and depth to the sound and enhances the overall musical presentation.

There are four types of vibrato that tuba players can generate and they are the "jaw-lip", "diaphragm", "head", and "throat". For tuba players the best vibrato is the "jaw-lip" because it is the nearest to the source of the tone, the vibrating lips. It also directly affects the airflow where with the other types of vibrato, the distance from the tone source and air stream becomes greater and greater. It is obvious that excessive head and hand movements can cause great distortions to the tone and air stream, as well as causing much fatigue.

Moving the jaw up and down slightly bending the pitch without distortion or causing intonation problems produces the "jaw-lip" vibrato. Take care that you do not move your jaw from side to side.

When you first begin your approach to vibrato, begin in the middle register at a "mezzo-forte" dynamic level and over-do the up and down motion. Be aware of the large pitch fluctuations and the loss of intonation. You may even go so far as to change the pitch entirely. This is fine since your goal is to experience the movement of the jaw.

When you can successfully move your pitch up and down, without breaking the tone, begin to relax your jaw and narrow the distance it moves. Use your mirror to check just how much jaw movement you are creating. Vibrato will always cause some jaw movement, but the object is to refine the movement to the smallest possible point.

As you become more proficient, you must begin to incorporate the following ideas:

  1. In the upper registers the speed of the vibrato increases.
  2. In the lower registers the speed gets slower.
  3. Vibrato will change according the emotion and character of the music.
  4. Certain music will require no vibrato.

When and if you will use vibrato will be your choice. There are those who would insist on no vibrato under any circumstances and others who feel that vibrato is part of the standard performance practice of playing a musical instrument. So long as your vibrato is effective and does not detract from the musical performance, then it should be used.


Tuba players often like to add an extra depth to an ensemble chord, or in some cases, are called upon to produce these tones as part of a composition.
Many teachers feel that the study of pedal tones serve to strengthen the embouchure and to enhance ease in producing the upper registers. Both of these concepts are essentially true.

Pedal tones must be practiced daily and will require patience. You must approach the pedal register with the same concepts as any of the other registers. In your initial approach to pedal tones, be sure to work with your teacher. Many bad habits can be formed if you do not have the proper guidance. A firm yet relaxed embouchure, good breath support and control and a good ear.