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Fine Arts Brass tips for tuba players everywhere

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Note lengths - a few thoughts by Richard Sandland
The late great John Fletcher, in one of the few lessons he gave me (he only came to the Royal College of Music when the (equally great, as far as I am concerned) John Jenkins was away with the Philharmonia) looked at the piece I was playing - William Presser's Second Sonatina, I believe - and said "yes, all very well, you're playing all of the notes but where's the music?"

This lodged itself in my memory; and occasionally in my career I heard brass players playing stuff and thought the very same thing. I am proud that I never thought this of any players in FABE, but some supposedly top ranking players did just what Fletch complained of - dazzling technique and no communication. But how do you communicate on a tuba? With exceptional difficulty, and of course in some reverberant acoustics you simply can't - if people can't hear the start and end of your notes clearly you have no chance of communicating. My favourite acoustic was Jersey Arts Centre; dead as a Dodo (designed with speech in mind, I guess) but you could hear every note. But in a chamber group with a bell as wide as a tuba bell, you have to accept that for the most part you will have to compromise - to break a few 'rules'.

So what can you do? Well, there is only one option; you have to edit your sound at source. It is imperative to develop an extreme, sec, staccato - but one that still leaves some flesh on the note. I used to hate hearing people play staccato on tuba; invariably it was merely pecked, that horrible dry, one dimensional sound that, it seemed, comprised all start and no middle. All notes, unless otherwise specifically directed, must be three-dimensional; they must, if you like, have an 'internal structure' - Pecked notes have just an 'external structure'. The secret is to find a way of tongue stopping - a necessary piece of rule breaking (how else could I possibly play, for instance, staccato chords in the 4th movement of Julian Phillips's Brass Studies as short as Simon Lenton could?) - that still allows a fleshed-out note. How? Fantastically quick airspeed (blow it, in other words); to get a fleshed staccato, you need to get a large volume of air out before you cut the note off. Simple as that. Jim Gourlay can do it. Copy him. The late David Randolph could too - you should find out his CDs if you want to hear some really musical tuba playing - but I've heard lots who can't.

This airspeed is just one facet of what I came to regard as the basic difference between those I regarded as 'bad' and 'good' tuba players. It was symptomatic of whether they were active or passive in their approach, and, by extension, attitude. It even extends to posture - I always felt you should lean into the instrument, to go to it rather than to bring it to you; you should be approaching the mouthpiece from above, and in all that you do, you should attack the note. I guess if I were to try to clarify what I mean, it's the difference between a player who plays right on top of the beat and one who doesn't - the active, attacking (and therefore interesting) player is pushing the beat (not rushing) - is always keeping the ensemble driving forward. If you do this the other four can just play. If you are a passive, defensive player who plays at the bottom of the beat, then you are a member of a group who by definition must always be waiting for each other - so are not really worth listening to. The passive player has a slow tongue, tends to be flat at the top and sharp at the bottom (due to lack of embouchure change), tends to think slowly - tends, too, in my experience, to have almost insurmountable problems with asymmetric measures (especially 5 and 7), even has problems with sharp key signatures. The passive player also tends to think wholly orchestrally - everything they do is on that scale, all notes sound like they should be in a Mahler symphony (God help us!) rather than a piece of chamber music. The active player has none of this - but probably tends to split more notes. I'd rather have the splits.

The passive player is a nightmare to play with. One group I played with had a player who continually played behind the beat; who couldn't get to and from 5/8 and similar; who made a huge, immoveable orchestral sound. Used to drive me mad. The real advantage that the active player has, and which reflects in his playing, is that he has the ability to read and remember two or three notes ahead of those notes that they are actually playing - their attitude to music emphasises the horizontal aspect of music, the fact that, for the most part, music is either travelling to or arriving at somewhere - that music is a fluid, evolving entity, not a stone monument. The chamber tuba player must above all be active - playing that is nimble, alert, driving, agile, engaged, questioning. John Fletcher was right then - playing the notes is the easy bit - it's what you do with them that counts, and if you don't do anything with them, you shouldn't really call yourself a musician. And no, having a large instrument really is NO excuse!

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