A beginning band is a smorgasbord of instruments. A lot of special care and attention are required for every student. I am a young teacher who cannot solve the pedagogy puzzles behind each individual instrument, but, as a dedicated tuba player, I can give you is some insight into your low brass beginners and share tricks that will help them see success in their first few years of playing.
Let’s start with a snapshot of who is playing low brass instruments in your beginning classes.
When doing fittings or giving students the opportunity to choose their instrument, say an enthusiastic “YES!” to those students that show an early passion for the trombone, baritone, or tuba. Growing up among my fellow tuba players, I noticed that many of my friends did not start on the tuba. They started on trumpet, clarinet, and trombone or baritone, and then were coerced by their band director into playing the tuba. There is nothing wrong with convincing one of your 8th grade flute players to save the day and play the tuba for your band. But if you have a young 5th grader who is small and unassuming, but whose eyes light up when they hear the low, enveloping sounds of the tuba, I say let them go for it! The same goes for a future trombonist who can only reach 5th position. You’re not looking for the tallest student, or a student that is physically more adept to carry the larger instruments; you’re looking for the students who want to play them. If they love the sound, they will love learning to play the instrument.
Recruitment- Nurturing that Love for the Sound
Are you experiencing difficulty in finding students who are really passionate about the baritone? That’s okay! Most young 5th and 6th graders have not had much exposure to the lower brass instruments, yet they all understand what a trumpet is. If you want to help them fall in love the low sounds, play some for them! And you don’t have to be a rock star on these instruments either. Show them videos of the greats (such as Deanna Swoboda, Andrew Hitz, Sam Pilafian, and Charles Daellenbach) as well as other low brass videos that may appeal to their current musical sensibilities.
The same rule applies if you are doing a live recruitment concert. On baritone and tuba I play pop hits and movie standards such as “Happy,” “Spider Man,” “The Bare Necessities,” and “Everything is Awesome.” By going a little out of the box from the I-V bass line that typically represents the low brass sound, your student’s ears may be captivated. When in doubt, you can always win fans with “Jaws.”
Proper Playing Position
Just as you would have high expectations of posture for your students playing smaller instruments, it’s important to have the same standards for your young students with larger instruments. I have outlined what to look for from your beginning low brass students and how they should hold their instrument below:
Trombone: Posture is always straight and tall, with the back coming nowhere near the back of the chair. The arms never rest on the knees and the feet never touch the slide. Hold the slide with only the first two fingers, using the thumb as a brace on the opposite side.
Baritone/Tuba: Always hold the instrument up vertically, never lay it horizontally across the student’s lap. The mouthpiece should meet the student’s embouchure at a place where they don’t have to bend lower or reach higher to play it. The bottom of the instrument can either rest on the chair or on the student’s lap, depending on where the mouthpiece reaches on the student. If the mouthpiece is too high for the student when the instrument is resting on their lap, you can rest the bottom of the instrument on a little pillow. The first three fingers are always resting on the correct valves, whether the valves are being played or not.
Always hold the instrument up vertically (seen at right), never lay it horizontally across the student’s lap (left).
Tuba tip: Of course, tuba stands and phone books are always great alternatives for helping the smaller student find success on the tuba! These are much better than laying the instrument horizontally across the student’s lap, where they will have to bend their neck to actually play the instrument. Such posture is very restrictive to productive breathing.
Teach them to Breathe
It’s common for most low brass beginners to not use enough air. I learned an excellent breathing exercise from my professor Jacob Cameron at Western Michigan University that I use in my daily warm-up. It’s called the “Dog Breath.” The purpose of this exercise is to teach you how to keep your tongue relaxed and out of the way, and how to breathe deeply.
Hold the mouthpiece between your thumb and first finger. This lighter grip reduces pressure that is not ideal for brass playing. Now stick out your tongue, just like you are a panting and excited dog. Anchor the mouthpiece on upper lip like you were actually going to buzz, and rest the bottom rim on your tongue. With the mouthpiece in place, take deep breaths in and release them through the mouthpiece. Make sure that you’re breathing outside air, and not breathing in through your mouthpiece. To accomplish this I lift the mouthpiece off of my tongue and take a deep, relaxed “OH” breath, then placing the mouthpiece back on my tongue to direct the air through the mouthpiece.
After 10 or so repetitions of this dog-like breath, you then place your tongue back in mouth but keep it low and out of the way. Now do 10 more repetitions breathing in and blowing air through the mouthpiece. You should hear the same deep breath sound even though your tongue is back in place. Doing this exercise every day will truly help students to open up and use the correct air for playing a low brass instrument.
As a young student I was often told not to breathe “like a girl.” Though it may seem offensive, I now understand even more what my teachers meant when I hear my students breathe. Breathing from the throat only creates a high light and airy sound. Such air will not produce that wonderful deep low brass sound that we are trying to cultivate.
Here are tricks to help your students breathe more efficiently:
- Think the syllable “OH” when you breathe; picture your mouth being wonderfully round and open like the middle of a donut.
- Air push-ups! Place your flat palms against each other and in front of your chest area. Stand with your feet shoulder width apart, and as you inhale, move your elbows behind you until your palms face forward and are in line with your shoulders. Exhaling brings your palms back together. The palms serve as a visual for your students, representing how their air is moving. You can change the tempo faster or slower to mix up the exercise. Kids love it and it’s a great work out!
It’s important to remember that breathing in the low brass world is a life-long learning process. Teaching your students a few of these concepts and exercises will give them a great head start!
Heather Ewer grew up in Arvada, CO and has been happily playing the tuba since the 4th grade. She graduated with a degree in music education from Western Michigan University. Now in her second year teaching band with Mapleton Public Schools, Ms. Ewer enjoys sharing her passion for music with 5th and 6th grade students. After school, Ms. Ewer works with students in the Colorado Honor Band Association and plays her tuba in a variety of community groups-including the Jefferson County Community Band, the Golden Eagle Concert Band, and the Aurora Symphony.
In addition to playing tuba, she loves to hike, ride her bike, watch musical theatre, and curl.