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Tuning the Tuba

Thomas Bough | February 2018

    A strong tuba section with a great sound contains all of the overtones necessary to align the intonation of the entire band and give the band a sonic anchor on tone quality and dynamic contrast as well. A weak or tiny tuba section cannot do this. Fortunately, the tone quality and intonation of a tuba section or the individuals therein can often be dramatically improved in minutes. Here is how to help tubists play better “in tone and in tune,” to quote Eugene Corporon in Teaching Music Through Performance in Band. 

Sound Quality

    The first step in intonation for the tuba, or any other instrument, is the ability to produce a characteristic tone. Producing a sound is not nearly the same as producing the right sound. Certainly, there is variation within the parameters of what professional players would consider an acceptable tone quality, but in my clinics and guest conducting I frequently encounter tuba players who produce a thin, unsupported sound. A poor sound might be in tune, but it cannot help the tone quality and intonation of the ensemble. 
    To produce a great sound, the first objective is to hear a great sound. This concept applies equally for all instruments. When I was teaching high school band, I would devote a few minutes of each class to listening to recordings or in-person demonstrations of outstanding players on each instrument. I wanted my band to recognize professional tone quality on every instrument. There are many recordings available, or videos on YouTube, that demonstrate the warmth, resonance, and focus of a professional tuba sound, as demonstrated by great players from around the world. 
    Once that aural image of a great tuba sound is in their ears, I am firmly convinced that producing a professional tone quality (or nearly so) is within the grasp of most tuba players, regardless of their level of experience. I have presented a workshop entitled Starting Tubas at Any Age at the Midwest Clinic, the International Society for Music Education, and nearly a dozen state music education conventions around the country. At these events, people who have never played tuba or euphonium produced a characteristic tone in a matter of minutes.
    The next step is to take a relaxed, open and full breath. There is no substitute for moving a lot of air at a relatively slow speed. If you watch a great string bass player play descending scale patterns, you will notice that the speed of the bow decreases substantially as the notes near the bottom range of the instrument. Physics confirms this observation; the very nature of a low frequency means that the string (or the lips for a brass player) are moving relatively slowly. The only way to achieve this low vibration is to have the speed of the bow or the speed of the air move slowly as well. Like many tuba players, I strongly recommend the Breathing Gym Daily Exercises DVD and workbook to help learn breathing skills and relaxation techniques to help improve airflow on the tuba.
    It is easy to demonstrate the slow exhale required for tuba by asking students to move air as if warming your hands on a cold day. This image leads students to the open mouth, open throat, and slow airflow required to produce a vibrant low frequency sound on the tuba. Brass pedagogue Arnold Jacobs firmly believed that if a student had the right concept of sound in their head, their body would make the proper adjustments to produce that sound. I have seen his concepts validated hundreds of times when working with students of all ages. Teach the sound you want your students to get by demonstrating that sound. 

    If we expect our students to play with a characteristic tone, we also must make sure they have instruments that work; this will encourage students to practice and give them the best chance to succeed. If, on the school’s tuba, the slides may not move, the valves may not work very well, and there is a high probability of some unpleasant odors lurking in the bottom of the horn, I doubt that the student assigned to this instrument will be motivated to practice. Equipment does make a difference. 
    On all brass instruments, the mouthpiece makes a difference as well. Older students guided by a qualified tuba teacher have a wide range of mouthpieces available to suit the shape of their teeth, the shape and density of their lips, and the demands of the music they are playing. For students with less experience, I recommend the Yamaha 67C4 or the Bach 24AW mouthpiece. Both have a wide rim to help with endurance combined with a reasonable amount of space in the cup of the mouthpiece to help produce a characteristic sound. A bigger mouthpiece does not always produce better results. Ideally, the mouthpiece should be fitted to the player, based on the make and model of instrument, the physical characteristics of the player, and the music being played.
    Make sure the shank of the mouthpiece is free from dents and free from obstructions. As a clinician, one of my first steps is to use a mouthpiece truing tool and rawhide mallet to straighten the shanks of all the brass mouthpieces. This step alone will improve the sound of the band. A mouthpiece brush, aided by a little soap and water, can be a big help, too. Again, physics is our friend. If the airflow out of a mouthpiece is impeded by dents or by layers of grime, less air gets through, thus less sound is produced. More air equals more sound.

Tuning Slides
    Once students can produce a characteristic sound, the most commonly overlooked factor in tuba intonation is how the tuning slides are set. Because most students play BBb tubas, the musical examples will reflect tubas in that key. Those who play CC, F, or Eb tuba should transpose the examples accordingly. The first step is to identify and adjust the main tuning slide. Generally speaking, this slide will be the last slide after the valve section, as the tubing enters the main body of the instrument. The main tuning slide often has a water key. If the student is playing with a characteristic sound, and is playing on a mouthpiece that fits both the player and the instrument reasonably well, the tuning slide should only need to be adjusted an inch or two, or possibly less. My tuba is pictured at the top of the next column, with the tuning slide set to its proper position. 
    A tuning slide that must be pulled out four inches or more to produce the desired frequency is a sure sign that something is wrong. Likely causes include playing with the teeth clenched together, using shallow air support, having the wrong mouthpiece, or some combination of these three. The student may need to review a good tuba sound and practice imitating it. It is difficult, if not impossible, to tune a poor sound. 
    Adjusting any tuning slide on a brass instrument involves a series of compromises, because multiple notes of the overtone series can be played on any given valve combination. Thus, adjusting the length of a tuning slide will affect numerous notes. A high-quality instrument will minimize the number of compromises required, but setting the appropriate length for each tuning slide on even the best instruments involves some give and take. Professional brass players improve intonation on every note through either adjusting their lips or adjusting their slides. Slide adjustments fall into two categories: general settings that are suitable for most notes and note-specific adjustments. 
    I like to set the length of my slides for general settings by playing against a drone, because this also trains the ears. Sometimes, I will use both a drone and a visual tuner at the same time, to allow my eyes (via the visual tuner) to verify what my ears have already learned from the drone. For example, for a BBb tuba, I would set the drone to produce Bb1, F2, and Bb2 at the same time. Because my goal is to play in tune with other musicians, I use a drone that allows me to play in just intonation, rather than equal-tempered pitch. 
    In generic terms, an equal-tempered scale divides an octave into twelve half-steps of equal size. This is very helpful for Western Classical music, which for over 300 years has assumed the ability to play in any key signature. Equal temperament was discussed as early as the late 1500s but needed time to be refined, developed, and adopted by the makers of a variety of keyboard instruments. Bach responded to the development of a keyboard able to play in any key using equal temperament by writing The Well-Tempered Clavier in 1722. 
    Many electronic tuners today assume this concept of equal temperament. However, physics dictates otherwise. For instance, for the root and fifth of a chord to be in tune, the fifth must be stretched or raised roughly three-tenths of a half step to sound in tune. Just intonation focuses on how the notes sound to be perceived as in tune. Fretless string instruments and singers utilize just intonation when they perform, because they are not constrained by the fixed tuning of a keyboard instrument. Woodwind and brass players are able to play either equal temperament or just intonation, by utilizing a combination of altering their embouchure, tuning mechanisms, and airstream. I use the Yamaha Harmony Director to produce the desired drone to set the length of my tuning slides. The Harmony Director switches easily between equal temperament and just intonation, and can quickly transpose to any key. The setup of the keyboard is intuitive and easy to learn. Richard Floyd advocates the use of this device for full ensemble rehearsal, as well as to help train individual players in his book The Artistry of Teaching and Making Music, published by GIA. The popular iPhone tuning app Tonal Energy has a similar feature, to allow for tuning in just intonation. Regardless of the tool you choose, make sure that students learn to tune fifths and octaves that acoustically sound in tune, rather than merely producing the frequency specified by an electronic tuner.
    With the drone sounding Bb1, F2, and Bb2, I play those corresponding notes on the tuba. Some players might find it easier to sound the notes on the drone on octave higher, where they are easier to hear. In either case, the notes played by the tuba are as follows:

    As I play, I want to find the center of each note, that is, where the instrument responds the most easily. I am primarily concerned with the intonation of the two Bbs, because the F is drawn from the third partial, which is typically sharp on a brass instrument. The two Bbs in this case are drawn from partials (or harmonics) that tend to be well in tune, so I rely on them more to set the length of my tuning slide. One of the notes might be a little sharp or flat, in which case I will adjust the tuning slide. The primary goal is to minimize the number of adjustments I will need to make with my lips, so it is perfectly appropriate to need to lip one note up or down slightly.
    Once the open notes on the horn are in tune, one can now adjust the tuning slides in descending chromatic order, starting with the second valve. When brass instruments are designed, the second valve slide is built after the overall length of the instrument is established. For this reason, the second valve slide has the best chance of being the most in tune. It represents the smallest change in the length of the instrument, thus it always has the shortest adjustment slide. 
    Adjust the length of the second valve slide using the notes A1-E2-A2, pictured below. Remember that the E is drawn from the third harmonic, which is inherently sharp, so focus your attention on the outer two notes. 

    As shown in the first picture below, my tuba plays well in tune with no adjustment of the second valve slide.

This fortunate circumstance is a combination of fine craftsmanship, a great mouthpiece, the shape of my teeth, the density of my lips, and other physiological factors. Another player on the same instrument might need to make a small adjustment, to account for their physical characteristics. However, there is seldom an acoustical reason to pull a second valve slide all the way out, as seen in the second picture. Mathematically, it makes no sense to nearly double the length of the second valve by extending the slide out all the way. However, I see second valve tuning slides extended all the way out on tubas played by students all across the country. Check all the other factors first, especially that the main tuning slide has been set correctly. Distortions in the setting of one slide create even more problems once other slides are put into use, so proceed with wisdom and a great ear. 

    After adjusting the main tuning slide, and making small adjustments in the second valve slide, turn to the first valve slide, using Ab1, Eb2, and Ab2 to set the length of the slides, focusing on the octave Abs. Set the length of the first valve slide such that the octave Abs are as closely in tune as possible, with a minimum of lip adjustments.

    Those planning to buy new tubas soon should make sure to purchase a model on which the first valve tuning slide is within reach of the player. Advanced players will often make adjustments in the length of the first valve slide while playing to refine their intonation even more, based on the intonation tendencies of the instrument and the need to match pitch with other players. 
    When trying to tune valves used in combination, even more thought and compromises are necessary. Valves used in combination are always sharp, because of flaws inherent in the design of a brass instrument. When first and second valve are used together, most of the resulting notes are a bit sharp. Advanced players with a high-quality instrument will often simply pull the first valve slide to adjust the pitch of a note played with first and second valves together. This is one of the most frequent note-specific adjustments, and it should be practiced so the player memorizes both how far out to move the slide and the distance back to the original position. These repetitions should be guided by a drone to ensure that the tuning slide adjustments are made quickly and accurately. This also assumes that the instrument and the tuning slides are well enough maintained to move with ease. 
    Students should make tuning adjustments based on how the note sounds, compared to the inner ear and to the other musicians in the ensemble, rather than simply pulling the slides. All sorts of factors can affect pitch, including temperature, altitude, the time of day, and the player’s general health. If all the factors described above are in place, the first and second valve combination should be tunable with the lips, as well as the movement of the slides. In some cases, the player may want to consider making small adjustments to the default position of the first valve slide, the second valve slide, or both to bring the first and second combination closer in tune. This is fine as long as the adjustment does not distort the intonation of the notes that use just one of these valves. Making these sorts of decisions are exactly the sort of compromises necessary to help your instrument play as well in tune as possible.
    Another way to improve intonation on this valve combination is to use the third valve as an alternate fingering. In some cases, this will produce a note that is better in tune, because the third valve slide is relatively long. The notes that use this valve combination – G1, D2, and G2 – occur frequently in band music, so it is worthwhile to check the intonation tendencies of all of them. 

    Setting the length of the third valve slide requires more compromises on a three-valve tuba, because the length of the third valve affects the notes from three sets of the harmonic series. 

    Longer combinations of valves increase the length of adjustment necessary to compensate for the inherent sharpness of the valve combination. On the three-valve tuba, the lowest valve combination of 1-2-3 should produce a Bn1. However, this combination can be almost an entire half step sharp without substantial adjustment. Even a skilled player will have to make all sorts of adjustments in airspeed and embouchure to maneuver this note to play in tune. Young players will have to work even harder.
    The combination of first and third valves should produce a C2. This note is extremely sharp as well, although slightly less so than the Bn. To bring both notes close to an accurate representation of the desired pitch ,a long extension of the third valve tuning slide will probably be necessary. However, making this long extension will distort the intonation of the 2-3 combination. 
    Both problems can be solved with a four-valve tuba. The length of the fourth valve is intentionally extended to correct the intonation of both B1 and C2 and lowers the pitch of these otherwise sharp notes without distorting the notes produced by the 2-3 combination. Air tends to flow more easily through the fourth valve, making it easier to produce a resonant, relaxed sound on these notes as well. The fourth valve also extends the low range of the tuba, making it possible to play in tune nearly as low as the fundamental pitch of the instrument, that is, Bb0.
    If a three-valve instrument is the only tuba available, adjust the third valve slide to get the best intonation on Bn1 and C2. Although the length of slide extension required to get these two notes in tune will probably drop the pitch of the Gb and Db produced by the 2-3 valve combination a bit too low, the higher priority is normally to keep the pitch down for the B and C. High school bands often encounter key signatures that require tuba players to perform the low Bn using a 1-2-3 or 2-4 valve combination, and low C is commonly seen. Typically, these notes are doubled an octave higher in the low woodwind instruments, who are not burdened with the mechanical intonation challenges faced by the tuba section. Thus, the director must beware of the potential for a substantial discrepancy in intonation between the tubas and the low reeds when these notes occur in the score.

    The bottom line for the bottom of the band is that tone quality and intonation are not separate concerns. Rather, they are inseparable components of being a good musician. All the notes of a major chord are contained within the harmonic series of the fundamental note of the chord. If the tuba section is able to produce a professional quality of sound and fine-tune it through thoughtful manipulation of the valve slides the whole band will benefit.