Improving your tuba tone

tubaI have begun to firmly believe that it is completely irrelevant how amazing your technique is on the tuba, how fast or high you can play or how loudly (or quietly) you can play.  In fact none of this really truly makes a blind bit of difference, because only one thing really counts, and that is the sound that you make.

The reason I say this is because if you have an amazing technique, but sound like an overly flatulent bovine creature, no one is really ever going to want to hear what you or the tuba can do.

The quality of the sound that you make is, of course, very subjective.  I am referring to the basic sound that you make, as well as achieving a variety of tonal colours and adapting what you do to create a feeling of mood or character.  But to start with I will focus on just the simple, basic tuba sound.

Very often I hear people at rehearsals or just before concerts playing lots of exercises which exist to warm up the muscles and get things physically into shape, but I always wonder when it becomes important to wake up the ears and start focusing on the overall basic tonal quality.

If you have been playing the tuba for some time, maybe it is something that is just taken for granted – when you pick up the instrument the sound kind of just happens now.  You know what it feels like and the sound is vaguely consistent.

For me, the most basic sound that a tuba makes should be warm, rich and have a velvet like quality.  (Of course there will be times when this sound is the last thing that you want, but for getting things working I feel it is the best sound to use.)  

Using this sound allows the possibility of lots of air to be used and leads to an unobstructed tone, rich in natural harmonics.

This sound is best achieved by following these few steps:

1)    Hear the note, and the sound, you want to make;

2)    Breathe in deeply (and do not hold your breath);

3)    Breathe out lots of air (fast = loud & slow = soft) at the same time as;

4)    Allowing the lips to vibrate freely to form the correct note and the;

5)    Tongue to provide a good clean start to the beginning of the note;

6)    Control the air to keep a steady flow and this will stop the note bulging up or down;

7)    Stop the note by stopping the breath – not with the tongue.

tuba tonguing placement

By Badseed. This vector image was created with Inkscape. (Own work, data: see description)

The sound that is created will vary depending on which vowel sound you think of.  I personally prefer ‘Daw’ for creating a rich, sonorous sound and find that Tah or Dah produce a more edgy sound on the tuba.  Using the D consonant allows for a good clean start to the note, but makes the attack gentler in character.

Using this sound for a few basic lip slurs, scales or arpeggios helps me to zone in on the sound that I am producing and provides the opportunity for allowing good quality listening right at the start of my warm-up.

Achieving a variety of tone colours is crucial and it is what makes a performance much more interesting to listen to and gives the performer a real chance to develop their thoughts more musically.

In a practice routine it is sometimes good to spend a little time focusing on the range of tonal colours that you have available and work on producing them on demand.  This is important not only for solo tuba playing but also ensemble playing. In an ensemble, it may be necessary for you to produce a sound quality that you would not instinctively have thought of and has been requested by your section leader or conductor.

On these occasions, even though they may well be fairly rare, it is very important to have a stock of sounds that you can recall and produce when required.  It is, of course, completely impossible to accurately describe different sounds with words, but generally speaking it is possible to define the character, mood or feeling that is required and whether the preferred sound is warm, bright, spiky, smooth and so on.

Tuba sound palletteThe only way that I believe it is really possible to achieve a wide range of tonal colours is through having an intense mood or feeling behind the tonal character you are aiming to create.  For example, if you are trying to create a moment of sublime joy and elation (please avoid happy or sad!), then it is a very good idea to think of an event or time in your life when you experienced those feelings.  With those thoughts in mind, play a C major scale (or which ever key you feel most comfortable with on your tuba) and listen to the tonal quality of your sound.  Try the same thing, but this time change the mood or feeling to one of extreme despair and hopelessness.

Did you notice a difference in the sound?  Hopefully, if you are really experiencing these emotions then you will have.

I have not mentioned anything physical that changes or how you adapt or change the muscles that are used.  I think that focusing on the physical changes will only ever lead to a situation in which analysis turns into paralysis.  Always focus on the sound, tone quality and mood/emotion and let your body do what it needs to in order for that sound to be produced.

This will almost always work very effectively and you will find that if you let your mind go and focus more on the music than the technique required, your body will follow making the technique just happen and produce a more musical performance.

However, there are a few truths that always work and are almost always necessary when playing the tuba! These include:

1)    Always use lots of air – as Jacobs aptly points out wind = song.

2)    To change volume, change the speed of the air not the quantity

3)    Never start the note with your tongue

4)    Never end the note with your tongue (apart from when playing jazz music)

5)    Ensure that you have good posture, and bring the instrument to you. Avoid moving to the instrument and changing good posture.

Emotional TubaI hope that thoughts help with developing not only a range of tonal colours, but also achieving the best basic sound that you can.  Aim to listen to a variety of tuba players such as Sam Pilafian, John Fletcher, Roger BoboOystein Baadsvik or Patrick Sheridan for inspiration as often as you can.  This will help you to work out what you like, and may not like, to emulate in your own playing.
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Improving your tuba tone — 8 Comments

  1. First set of points, 5) Tongue to provide a good clean start to the beginning of the note
    Second set of points, 3) Never start the note with your tongue
    Not being a smarty, just a noob trying to play better.

  2. I’ve been playing tuba for a while, and for me at least the best way to get better is to keep practiveing’ especially popular music that is easily recognizable so you can have a much easier time telling weather you are playing with the correct sound.

    • Thanks for your comment, Ray. Great to hear from you. I think playing popular music is a fantastic idea and definitely can help with producing a range of sounds or tonal colours. Recognising and knowing the music makes all the difference to how you develop your musical style. I completely agree with the idea of keeping practicing!

  3. I’m confused, maybe I’m not getting something. But, which is it ? Do I start the note with my tongue or not ??

    • Thanks for your comment. I understand why you might be feeling a bit confused by this.

      The note, or sound you make, is produced by the flow of air and vibration of the embouchure. It is always about air and the flow of the air and really the air is the thing that starts or stops the note you produce. As Arnold Jacobs said ‘Wind = Song’. The tongue is only used to provide precision, clarity and definition to the sound that you make. The tongue only makes the slightest of movements – all that should be necessary for the start of the note to be clear. It is really important that the tongue does not form a block or stop the flow of air in any way as this can lead to a lack of control and lots of split notes.

      So technically, the tongue is used to control the flow of air and is not really for starting the note. Probably best to think of it as part of the note production process. The main concern is flow of air, precise and definite start to the note and the flow of air.

      Hope that helps – please let me know if things are still not clear and I will try to explain in a different way!


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