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Starting Young Players on Tuba

Rodney Workman | July 2009

Most problems directors have with recruiting and retaining good tuba players can be solved simply by starting the right student on tuba at the same time everyone else starts. Picking the wrong student to start on tuba or picking the right student too late causes several common problems. These students do not read as well as other students, are frequently lost, and cannot produce a characteristic sound.
    It is a common practice to take students who do poorly on one instrument and give them a fresh start on tuba, with the idea that because the parts are easier the student will do better. Although this may be true for a hardworking student with a range problem on another brass instrument, in general, a student who is not performing well on one instrument will hardly do better switching instruments and having to make up many missed skills.
    Some directors may ask a student who plays an instrument well to switch to tuba in junior high or high school. Although this is likely to work better than switching a student who performs poorly, there are still drawbacks. No matter how talented a student is, it will take some time for him to get used to playing tuba. This can be a frustrating time for a student who goes from being proficient on one instrument to mildly lost on another and for a director who has to hear many wrong notes for a few months while the student tries to catch up.
    If left unattended, this is the point when such bad habits as writing note names and fingerings in parts and watching other students’ fingers creep in. Although these actions are a capital offense in most band rooms, it is difficult to blame a student who has been thrown into a sink or swim situation.

Recruiting the Right Students
    Of every 100 fifth graders, I can find at least 10 who can make a great low sound on the tuba or the tuba mouthpiece the first time. After speaking with general music and classroom teachers, I can usually find six of these who will take care of the instruments and are likely to stick with it through high school. The ideal pick to play tuba is a bright student who may have financial problems; a smart child who gets a good sound on tuba and good reports from teachers and may not have another chance to be in band is a good fit.
    Although the instrument looks intimidating, students’ eyes light up when they get an easy sound from the big shiny horn. To explain that the bass sound is the fundamental sound of the band, I ask whether students typically turn up the bass or the treble knob when listening to music, and this wins them over. Explaining that it is the most expensive instrument in band and that it actually takes less air to play than the flute will usually seal the deal.
    When parents see what I am doing they look on in horror and immediately come over to ask whether they have to buy such a big instrument. I require students to buy only a mouthpiece, and I also offer optional free lessons during the summer break; when parents hear this they flock to the instrument.
    Some parents ask whether it sounds good or if it can play real songs, which is usually their way of saying they thought it was just an oom-pah instrument. Playing something familiar will convince them quickly.

A Good Start
   Give tuba players the same start, with the same expectations, as everyone else. Learning to read low-register bass clef and play “Hot Cross Buns” in unison with the rest of the band makes a world of difference. Tuba students will be able to develop sight reading and aural skills from the beginning, whereas it would take students who switch years to catch up. By the end of sixth grade it is likely that tuba students will be able to read melodies more difficult than the parts they play in concert band.
    When concert music becomes too easy for tuba players, I give them solos from county, district, and state lists. There are also a number of section features for tubas or all low instruments available from any music publisher.

Tuba Myths
    One common apprehension students have is that the instrument is too big. However, tubas, like violins, come in sizes; compact 3⁄4-size tubas are quite easy for 10-12 year olds to handle. These instruments are actually more comfortable for some beginners than trombone and are also moderately priced.
    Students are also worried they have to have a second tuba at home for practice, but I find this unnecessary. I can usually convince homeroom tea­chers to let tubists practice during this time. Some of my students will also practice for 20-30 minutes after school rather than wait in the car line. There are times in every school’s day during which students are simply waiting, whether waiting for school to begin or waiting to be picked up, and these are great times for practice.
    Sometimes directors are hesitant to start more tuba players than they have instruments for. If my school owned three tubas I would aim for three players in 6th grade, three in 7th grade, and three in 8th grade, with each student having his own mouthpiece. This is by no means ideal but can work. Having students share an instrument can also be motivation for boosters or administrators to step in and purchase more instruments. Although the ideal situation is for each tuba player to have an instrument at school and an instrument at home, until that happens I prefer not to let the balance of my band suffer.
    The cost of the instrument is another factor in people avoiding the tuba. Although new tubas are extremely expensive, used instruments are not. There are a great many used instruments for sale in music stores and on eBay in the $600-1,200 range. They are rarely beautiful, but they will work. Having an old three-valve, 3⁄4-size instrument available at home for practice is something a tuba player could use all the way through high school. After graduation, it can be sold to another 6th grader for the same purpose.
    If attention is not paid to starting good students on tuba in beginning band, the deficiency will only become more obvious over time. No other instrument in band can substitute for the tuba voice, but careful recruiting and teaching will produce a tuba section that can more than keep up with the rest of the band.