The Ins and Outs of Buying Tubas

Jason Bouchard | September 2011

   Tubas are expensive, and most band directors will have to buy several during their career. Because tubas are not uniform in size, shape, or number and type of valves from one maker to the next, the choice can be difficult. It can be difficult to find one tuba to try at a local music store, let alone several brands and sizes of tuba. This often leads to purchases made with inadequate information. Band directors should consider bell and bore sizes, instrument length and width, valve set-up, and key when buying a tuba.

Elementary School
   A tuba for an elementary student should be in the key of BBb with three upright valves and a bell no bigger than 15" across. Upright valves work best for younger students because they make the instrument easier to balance and protect the valves if the instrument is dropped. The bore size should be no larger than .670, and the instrument length should be no longer than 32", which produces an instrument width of 14-16" across. These types of tubas will be listed as three-quarter-sized tubas, and some makers at one time even made half-size tubas with smaller dimensions. Get a hard case to help protect the instrument; most come with wheels to help students transport the tuba. The stock mouthpiece that comes with the instrument should work fine. The majority of tubas appropriate for elementary students will be from American makers, who usually make instruments with three or four piston valves. European and Asian makers will use piston or rotary valves or a combination of the two, and their instruments have three to five valves.

Middle School
   Middle school directors should have tubas of different sizes to accommodate students as they grow in size and progress musically. Sixth-grade players should still use the same BBb tuba as in the elementary program. This familiar instrument feels comfortable and allows them to continue their musical growth without the distraction of a new instrument.
   Most seventh and eighth grade students hit a growth spurt. For them it is ideal to have small tubas similar to what a sixth grader would use, as well as a larger instrument with front-action valves. I recommend a BBb tuba with three piston valves, a bore no bigger than .690, and a bell no bigger than 18". The body length should be no longer than 36". Piston valves are more durable than rotary valves. Rotary valves are easier to use but have more moving parts for students to hit, damage, and lose. Many American and Asian tuba makers manufacture three-valve, front-action tubas; European makers are more likely to offer rotary-valve or upright-piston tubas. Nice four-valve instruments may be tempting, but students this age usually lack the pinky strength to use a fourth valve well. A three-valve instrument lets students focus on holding the tuba and moving valve tuning slides to adjust pitch.

High School
   High school directors should own at least two three-quarter tubas and two four- or five-quarter tubas. The biggest mistake I often see is a five-foot-tall student with a 40" tall, five-quarter tuba that has a 20" bell. Such a student will not just struggle to play an instrument this big, he will struggle to get it through the door. When a tuba is too big and unwieldy for a student, it is difficult to play the instrument comfortably, let alone play with a good sound.
   A good small high school BBb tuba should be 34-36" long with a 15- or 16-inch bell and a bore size of .709. High school students, even the smaller ones, should be able to handle a four-valve instrument. At this level rotary valves are a good choice; they have a quick response and smooth valve movement, and the finger paddles are close together, making it easy for students with small hands to play. Directors who opt for piston-valve tubas should choose a model with the valves arranged in a curved setup to help with the ergonomics of playing. Front action valves make a tuba easier to hold and free the left hand to adjust pitch by pulling tuning slides.
   Four- and five-quarter BBb tubas will be 36-40" long with bells ranging from 16-20". The bore size will be between .740 to .850, and it is worth noting that the larger bore on these instruments will produce a bigger sound that will surprise students coming off a three-quarter tuba at first. Such instruments with piston valves will have larger valves placed farther apart because of the increased bore size. Rotary valves on these tubas are also available and are easier to damage than even those on a three-quarter tuba. Given how much tubas cost, it may be better to get one with piston valves.

Marching Band
   High school directors looking for an option for marching band can choose convertible tubas or sousaphones. Convertible tubas offer two tubas for the price of one; the leadpipe is detachable and can be set for concert band or marching. The instruments are usually well-made and extremely durable, and students can use the same instrument all year. However, these instruments usually come with only three valves, are made in one size, and are sometimes difficult to hold in either the concert set up or in the marching set up.
   The sousaphone adds an expense of providing two instruments for every student. Sousaphones can be used in concert band, but this is usually frowned upon. Sousaphones are easy for students of any size to hold, and the option to buy brass, silver, or fiberglass instruments offers a couple of weight choices. Another added benefit of sousaphones is that when marching season is over these instruments can be taken home and used as practice instruments.

Advising Parents
   When the parents of a tuba player ask what that should buy for their child, and there is no private teacher to consult, I recommend a four-valve BBb  tuba, unless the student is planning to major in music. In this case it might be good to consider a CC tuba. A student who plays on a piston tuba should stay with pistons, and if he plays a rotary tuba, he should stay with rotary valves.
   Make sure that the student works with a music store while shopping for a tuba. This will allow a student to try instruments before buying one and makes it easy to handle problems that arise before, during, or after the purchase. Once you have an idea about the student’s budget and whether he would like a new or used instrument, and the local music store is on board, students should try at least three instruments of various sizes from one maker. Once a size has been chosen the student should try that maker’s instrument against two others of the same size. This is a good way to narrow down the choice.
   Tubas are one of the few instruments with numerous variations between valve set-ups, piston or rotary, bore size, bell size, key, new or used, or to choose a maker, stencil, or clone. No other instrument offers more variation on the way an instrument is made or set-up. This makes the tuba a misunderstood instrument by many. Knowing the basics of why the sizes, different valves, and number of valves exist helps you to pick the right type of tuba for your music program.              

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Tuba Sizes:Tubas come in BBb, Eb, CC, and F. The most common key for tubas in American schools is BBb, but tubas from the early 1900s are likely to be in Eb. In Europe Eb tubas are just as common as those in BBb. Tubas in CC and F professional tubas are used in orchestras across the country. The CC tuba is the primary choice of professional musicians, music students, and teachers.

Maker: the company that makes the instrument.
Stencil: a tuba made by a maker who was paid to put a different name on it. This can be for a music store wanting its own line of instruments. Marketing agreements in different countries may forbid one brand from being sold in multiple stores, so a stencil gives makers an opportunity to sell instruments in different places. These instruments are usually the same quality as the makers and sometimes even come from the same factory with different names stamped on them.
Clone: a copy of another maker’s tuba. This company generally does not stamp their name on the instruments, but puts the names of other stores or importers there instead. Companies that clone instruments do not develop new instruments, whereas makers research new styles, sizes, metal combinations, bore sizes, and bell sizes.