Flute and Tuba, A Look at a Fascinating Duo

Caitlin Ippolito and Erik Metsger | February 2016

    Flute and tuba are an unusual pairing, but there are people who write for this combination. In September 2001, I had my first flute and tuba playing experience with tuba/euphonium player Erik Metsger. Erik and I are now married and have played recitals, weddings, church services, and social events. Playing in a flute and tuba duo is an interesting and exciting experience. The two instruments have such a wide variety of capabilities that when brought together, some unique material can emerge. Therefore the repertoire is just as varied while accessible and engaging.

    Although the list is not extensive, there are quite a few pieces for flute and tuba, piccolo and tuba, flute and euphonium, flute, tuba and piano and even flute, tuba and marimba. A few years ago Erik made a list from the Tuba Source Book of all the flute and tuba pieces that existed. Here is a list from our collection that we have enjoyed:

Three Miniatures for Two Extremes by Josef Alexander (GunMar Music).
Duet for Flute and Tuba by Walter Hartley (Tenuto Publications).
Six Preludes by Harry Hewitt (TUBA Press).
The Boa-Constrictor and the Bobolink by Quinto Maganini (Edition Musicus).
Duet by Ed Pearsall (Tuba-Euphonium Press).
Singletree Suite I & II for Flute, Tuba, and Marimba by Gary Schocker (Falls House Press).
Forowen, Forowen 2, and Forowen 3 by Glenn Smith (Seesaw Music).
Three Dances in A Minor by Georg Philip Telemann, arranged by Walter Hartley (Ensemble Publications, Inc.).
The Giraffe and the Bear: A Concert Duo for Flute and Tuba by David Uber (Medici Music Press).

    There are other compositions available. Searching through the Flute World Catalog and the Tuba Source Book is a good starting point.
    If for some reason the repertoire of original music for flute and tuba is not enough or is uninteresting, there are other options. Erik and I love to play piano pieces; either original piano pieces or piano reductions will do. We used piano music quite a bit when we first started playing together in college. One of our favorite types of piano music to play is ragtime. For use during the holiday season we transcribed Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. The parts for this piece were highly demanding but extremely rewarding. One of our latest additions to our piano reductions is a collection of Strauss Jr. waltzes. These are so much fun because the music just circles around and around. Often we find enticing music in stacks of old music at antique shops. Another option for repertoire is found in the abundant wealth of Baroque music. The tuba can easily play the basso continuo part to many of the standard flute sonatas: Telemann, Handel, C.P.E. Bach. In college we were featured on the symphonic band concert performing two movements from Robert King’s French Suite for Trumpet and Euphonium that Erik had transcribed. Now we have a stack of original music and other music that pleases us, and even ideas for our own compositions.

Snakes and Birds
    Quinto Maganini’s The Boa-Constrictor and the Bobolink (Humorous Sketch) is an amusing character piece scored for piccolo and tuba. We found it useful to write out the parts as a score. Because the piece is so playful, there is a lot of give and take. Being able to see the other part helped time handing off the line. The piece is essentially a conversation between the piccolo and tuba, albeit a conversation that represents a predator and its prey. The piece is highly characteristic of program music by painting a picture of the bird and snake and their struggle.
    The two parts alternate solo phrases until measure 27, when the parts merge. It is important for the piccolo player to portray the chirping and bird song with the written grace notes while not playing choppy or too crisp on the following quarter note.
    The tuba part should be as slithery as possible. The chromatic triplets should emulate a sly predator sneaking up on its prey unknowing that the prey already sees him coming. It may help for the tuba player to employ an almost blues style to achieve the sneaky, slithery character.
    This piece is fun to practice and perform, and the audience loved it when we used it on a recital. For the players it is useful and entertaining to create a story of what is happening. At times the tuba part has the original material presented in the piccolo part, and at other times the piccolo imitates the tuba. The end represents a struggle about which Erik and I cannot agree on the outcome: Does the bobolink get eaten or does he escape?

Simply a Duet
    Duet for Flute and Tuba by Walter S. Hartley is a wonderful piece consisting of three short movements. The score notes that the composition was written on August 4, 1962. We enjoy this piece for the challenges presented and also because it maintains melodic structure between the two parts. The tuba is used as a partner in the duet, not solely as accompaniment.
    The first movement, Allegretto, is lively and rhythmic with intervallic jumps exceeding an octave for both instruments. It is important for both players to match articulation styles.

Another helpful note is to mark where the beginning comes back at measure 35, because it can sometimes be crashed into rather than carefully placed.
    The second movement, Andante, is intriguing. Although it is only eleven measures long, it achieves a great deal, contrapuntally speaking. The two-bar theme is repeated five times, but each time a detail is changed in both parts, either by shifting the accompaniment rhythm to a different beat or by changing registers in the melody where the first statement did not. It is so interesting to dive in and bring out these changes. At first glance this movement looks simple, but not after a little bit of music theory comes into play.

    The third movement, Vivace, is in 6/8 and feels like a jig. It reminds me of the third dance of Telemann’s Three Dances that Hartley arranged. This movement has consistent motion and the parts alternate bits of the melody at times. Experimenting on how to execute the staccato markings and slurs is a smart idea. Discussing how each articulation is performed on flute versus tuba will bring an understanding to the music, and allow the players to match more easily than two people just playing how they perceive the markings.

Instrument Tendencies
    There are many things to consider when combining two instruments from the opposite ends of the spectrum. The tendencies of both instruments and musicians play a big role in determining the success of the ensemble. Everything about this combo is a wonderful challenge that keeps talented musicians on their toes: intonation, articulation, vibrato, and blend. It is important to discuss the music as well as the concerns of each player, as they will likely be quite different.
    At the top of my list of concerns would be projection. The flute sound may carry over a piano or strings, but can get swallowed up in the swirling, full sound of the tuba. Individual practice while wearing earplugs can help a flutist learn to project. I like to practice facing a window so that I can pretend I am playing to a neighbor across the street.
    Next on my list is matching the tuba timbre and vibrato. Brass players rarely use vibrato, when they do, it is somewhat sparingly but tastefully applied. Flutists tend to use vibrato all the time with varied speeds and amplitudes. I find that less vibrato is better when I am playing with the tuba. It allows the tone quality and timbre of the instruments to meet and blend. I do catch Erik using vibrato on longer notes, especially if the note would benefit from some extra sparkle. Frequently he will try to match my vibrato. It is important for both players to establish a beautiful, clear ensemble sound before experimenting with vibrato or coloring.
    Erik frequently asks if he is playing too loudly. His biggest concern is supporting the flute line and not overpowering it. Even when his part has the melody, he is careful to project the melody without drowning out the flute. Playing scales together at mezzo forte can aid in learning this balance. The goal is to blend. Record the piece before the performance or have someone listen to evaluate the blend.
    Along with the idea of blend is the concern of matching dynamics. Both instruments have limits. On long tones and rhythmic patterns, you might experiment to see how loudly the flute can play without cracking and how soft the tuba can play without sacrificing tone on long tones and rhythmic patterns. Practicing dynamics on a rhythmic pattern is helpful, and the next step can be matching articulations on that pattern. The sound decay of the flute and tuba are different, so the attack should reflect this.
    For both instrumentalists, it may sometimes be difficult to hear the tessitura of the other instrument, and this can cause intonation struggles between the instruments. Playing some warmups together will help the inner ear make that adjustment. Occasionally for this purpose, I will take out Bartok’s Mikrokosmos. The exercises in book one are basic and allow each player to concentrate on the other’s tone, intonation, and timbre in different registers.
    It is important that the flutist stands to the right of the tuba player. For the tuba player the line of sight will be more direct to the music this way and the bell will not interfere with eye contact between the players. This placement also assists in the flute sound going out to the audience rather than behind the tuba player.
    As with any ensemble playing, the give and take of the line is important. In general, whoever has the line first should then be imitated. However, there may be times when the player who gets the line second has a better interpretation of the line. When I find that I like Erik’s way of playing a particular passage, I ask him to play it for me, and then I repeat it back to him until I can imitate his way. This creates a cohesive transfer of the material from part to part. Whatever works best for the piece is what should be the deciding factor.
    For the tuba player: discretion can be used on which instrument to play. Sometimes a CC or BBb instrument is ideal, other times a bass tuba, euphonium, or tenor tuba might be a better choice. Consider the range of the piece, the performance setting, and the flutist’s opinion and tendencies. However if a piece is scored for a specific instrument, abide by the composers decisions.

Performance Settings
    Recitals are the most obvious use for a flute/tuba ensemble. We performed at each other’s senior recitals during college and my graduate recital, on which we performed a C.P.E. Bach Sonate, a Telemann Sonata and James Scott’s Kansas City Rag.
    I perform at church most weekends. When the organist discovered that my husband played tuba, he was excited about using us during holiday Masses. We have played at Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas Eve. We selected an appropriate piece, usually from the Baroque era, as a selection for communion, and we also accompanied the hymns. Erik brings out the bass part of the choir on tuba and I add to the melody and soprano or alto voice on flute. The flute and tuba complement the chord changes and motion in the organ beautifully. The choir especially loves having the low part brought out by the tuba. The congregation is always very appreciative.
    We have even been hired for weddings. The first was while we were stationed in Quantico, Virginia. I received a call about a wedding from a groom who was open to suggestions. I mentioned that my husband was a tuba player with the Quantico Marine Corps Band and that we play together as a duo all the time. He was excited about the idea, although he had never heard of the combination before. Everyone at the wedding absolutely loved the music. We chose a lot of Baroque music for before and after the ceremony, and used the usual wedding music for the procession and recession.
    Last November, some musician friends of ours asked if we would provide music for a birthday luncheon. We chose a handful of German polkas, the Hartley Duet for Flute and Tuba, a handful of James Scott Rags, a bunch a Italian folk songs, and I performed the famous (and much loved by the birthday boy) Intermezzo from Cavelleria Rusticana by Mascagni. The variety was wonderful and appealing to this group because there were many musicians at the gathering.
    Although the combination of flute and tuba is uncommon, we hope more flutists and tuba players will get together to make music. There is definitely enough repertoire out there, and that, coupled with transcribed piano music and doubling a cello part as a tuba part, provides a wide array of possibilities for programming. As people start to hear the combination, they will be even more open to the idea and start seeking that duo for gigs. The challenges involved in this duo are reason enough to try it. The rehearsal will always be interesting and stimulating for finely tuned musicians, and the performance will be even more rewarding.