As a band director whose primary instrument is trumpet, there were a lot of things that I took for granted when I started teaching low brass as a young teacher. Yes, brass is brass. However, not all brass is the same. Oftentimes, we underestimate the importance of both, and the pedagogy associated with each instrument.
While tone can vary from person to person, both the euphonium and tuba should have a resonant and warm tone quality. I have been blessed to work with some pretty amazing euphonium and tuba players and teachers over the years. I know my tuba teacher would say that often, too much stress is put on playing with an “open” sound, when really the goal is simply resonance.
To achieve the tone quality that is resonant, the first step is to ensure that students have the correct fundamental set up to make that possible. With both, posture and the angle of the instrument is of the utmost importance. This has to be monitored. As students grow, this has to be adjusted. When you have Euphonium students who are taller, they will need to hold the instrument off their lap or use a cushion or rolled towel to keep it elevated. Some Tuba students might need to use a Tuba stand, move the instrument up and down on their legs or even position it on the chair.
Euphonium Height and Angle
The breath is crucial. Breathing to play an instrument is not like breathing in life. However, getting students to have an airstream that is of a sigh, or air that is free moving, will yield better results. No matter what instrument you teach, all students should have a relaxed and natural body.
Tuba Airstream (“Sigh Airstream”)
With euphonium, the embouchure should be so that the mouthpiece doesn’t sit too low on the embouchure or push too hard into the upper lip. I have learned from some pretty smart teachers that students are most successful when the mouthpiece placement is placed higher than center, allowing for a somewhat downward airstream for all but the lowest notes. The oral cavity should be comfortably round and open. However, students can try to open too much causing tension and fuzziness to creep into the tone quality.
Euphonium Mouthpiece Placement
Euphonium Oral Cavity
In regards to tuba, mouthpiece placement can vary from student to student, but should generally be in the middle or slightly below. The aperture should be tall in the center, with the corners reinforced on the sides. Like with all brass, the chin should be flat and the lips should be flat against the teeth. The inside of the mouth should be open. Like with euphonium, students can try to open too much causing tension and fuzziness to creep into the tone quality.
Tuba Mouthpiece Placement
From my experience, I have learned that most of the time, there is a misconception about how the sound is actually produced, given clarity, and maintained on both of these instruments. Students often confuse playing with a big, resonant sound by creating a tight, pinched buzz. Yes, if you squeeze, the buzz will be loud. However, the tone quality will not be correct and it will not project. A free buzz should be airy, supported with a calm and relaxed column of air. High pitched sounds come from the teeth or lips being too close together or from creating friction too far inside the lips.
Tone and Production Effort
Keep It Simple: Natural Faces and Air
The mirror is the best teacher. I say that constantly in my band hall. I am also a firm believer that demonstrating fundamental skills for young musicians is key, but the importance of teaching students how to think and listen critically, by utilizing practice “tools” like recording themselves, and a regular practice routine are critical ways to reinforce and maintain growth within developing tone quality. Hearing kids play individually is a critical tool used to check in and monitor the development of tone. While some believe there is not enough time to do this, you really do not have time not to hear them.
Demonstration and Teaching Critical Listening
To maintain and grow the players, students need to find the ideal spacing between their lips to allow the air to create a characteristic vibration. It should sound steady and strong but without fuzz or extra noise. My euphonium teacher absolutely loves using pedal tones and lip/pitch bends to help students find a more open spacing between the lips.
In closing, there are a few non-negotiables of playing the instrument that I think are monumental in the success of the student. Remember, the face and the corners should be natural. Never let the posture be compromised when a student is playing any instrument, and monitor their angles as they grow. Mouthpiece placement should be adjusted based on the space between the student’s top lip and nose, as well as how their natural face sits. Feet placement, hand position (playing on the fingerprints of the hand) and articulation are all necessary non-negotiables to monitor for the overall student success on the instrument.
Remember, your students (and yourself) only grow from failure, and failing is proof that one is trying!