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Tuba Survey Results by Gregory Irvine
[Reprinted from Canadian Winds / Vents canadiens with permission, Spring 2006, 93-94.]
When adjudicating at band festivals over the past several years, I have often wondered why some bands had either no tubas or too few for the size of the band. Other bands had lots of tuba players, and this also intrigued me. How is it that some band directors are so successful at recruiting and retaining tuba players while others are not? I have some theories about these issues but I wanted to find out directly from successful band directors what they feel contributes to their success in this regard. Are there any secrets they could share with their less successful colleagues?
The responses to my questionnaire (“Tuba Survey,” published in the Spring 2005 Issue of Canadian Winds / Vents canadiens ) were plentiful and the answers were extremely helpful. Many respondents took the time to write comments, for which I am grateful. Most of the responses confirmed my suspicions. For example, I suspected that many more directors have difficulty recruiting and retaining tuba players than those who don't. Indeed, approximately seventy percent of respondents had difficulty recruiting tuba players, and fifty-eight percent of these had problems keeping the ones they had.
Directors gave a variety of reasons for their tuba recruitment troubles. Among them are size, transportation issues, degree of difficulty, repertoire, ignorance about the instrument, a lack of role models, and the instrument's image. Certainly, the size of the instrument can be an issue affecting comfort and mobility. It also doesn't help that some school boards have banned large instruments from school buses.
Curiously, the degree of difficulty in playing the instrument was given as a recruiting impediment for two diametrically opposed reasons: directors reported that the instrument was perceived as too difficult by some students and too easy by others. The perception that it might be too difficult seemed to relate mainly to the size of the instrument and its large mouthpiece; these factors can make it difficult to get any sound, let alone a good one. Meanwhile, the lack of challenge or “visibility” in tuba parts was identified as an impediment to recruiting players. And it must be admitted that the tuba does not often carry the tune in most band music. Ignorance about the tuba and its capabilities can be a significant impediment to recruiting, especially if students have never heard the instrument played well. Good role models can be important on two levels. As several respondents noted, it is imperative that young or potential tubists hear fine musicians playing the instrument. There are many recordings these days of excellent tuba players. CDs of the Canadian Brass showcase the considerable talents of Chuck Daellenbach playing the tuba in a variety of styles, and recordings of ensembles such as this reveal the important role played by the tuba in instrumental groupings other than the wind band. If students are shown that the tuba can do virtually anything other instruments can do, they are more likely to try it in spite of perceived impediments, such as its size.
Other respondents noted the importance of having good role models within their own programs.
Choosing the right students to play the tuba (and keeping them interested) ideally sets them up to inspire younger ones coming along, thus ensuring continuity. Making astute choices in tuba players can also alleviate the image problem some directors alluded to. To quote one: “It is so important to get the right personality as well physical abilities in tuba players.” If the “right” students play the instrument, any tendency for others to think that only nerds or “fat, pimply-faced boys” play the tuba should be put to rest. Finding potential tuba players who have a good ear and are comfortable in their own skin is important. If you keep them challenged (and thereby interested), these students will persevere and set a good example for others—and not just the tuba players—in your program.
A few of the recruiting problems mentioned above were also cited as retention problems. For example, some respondents blamed the instrument's physical demands and the difficulty of getting a good sound, while others flagged transportation issues. Still more noted the tuba's image problem, even for students who had played it for a while. One director noted that tuba players seem not to get as much peer support as they need. Other factors contributing to attrition among tuba players included “boring” parts, sports, girls, and school scheduling problems. While the last three are likely not confined only to the tuba, the “boring parts” issue is a perennial problem with much band music. Simply put, uninteresting tuba parts are unfortunately the norm in band scores. The tuba is used to contribute harmonic and occasionally rhythmic support, but is seldom given any melodic role. To paraphrase Arnold Jacobs (a legendary tubist, formerly with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra), playing limited parts creates limited musicians. In other words, if you have tuba player who is talented and motivated, keep him/her interested by providing musical challenges greater than those found in most band parts. This will help the student develop into a musician—the ultimate goal we should have for all of our students—not just a tuba player.
A number of respondents had excellent ideas on how to do this, including choosing band repertoire with interesting tuba parts, rewriting boring parts to make them more appealing, devoting some band-rehearsal time to playing unison tutti exercises and tunes, supplementing band literature with solo and ensemble repertoire, and giving tuba players opportunities to be showcased. I believe that keeping young tuba players challenged and interested is of critical importance. They have to know that the tuba can play interesting music, and is not only an accompanying instrument. Solo and chamber-music repertoire are the best vehicles for doing this. A local music festival can provide the impetus for involving your tuba players in ensembles of mixed or like instruments, or as soloists. Such experiences were very important in my early development on the tuba. I was also challenged by playing band transcriptions of orchestral repertoire. The bass part from William Walton's Crown Imperial March really tested me as a thirteen-year-old, and I was enough of a show-off at that age to appreciate the challenge.
Many respondents underlined how crucial it is to help tuba players understand the importance of their role and how no musical ensemble can function without a strong, supporting bass line. Validating their contributions and making sure that others appreciate the importance of the tuba part helps foster a positive attitude in the tuba section, even though they may not have the melody much. Making the tubas the foundation of your tuning process can also reinforce their self-esteem. Encouraging other bands members to “listen down” will emphasize to all the valuable role of the tubas in establishing good intonation throughout the ensemble. Plenty of praise and attention also helps tuba players' confidence and sense of worth.
Returning to recruitment, I was curious to discover via this survey whether or not the method chosen for assigning instruments had any impact on the retention of tuba players. I wondered if directors who claimed not to have difficulty recruiting tuba players for their programs benefitted by allowing the students to select the tuba at the outset. My assumption was that players who were not free to choose their instrument would be less likely to continue with it. This turned out not to be the case. Only thirty-seven percent of respondents who had difficulty recruiting and retaining tuba players assigned instruments to the students, while thirty-eight percent of those who claimed not to have difficulty recruiting and retaining tuba players assigned the instruments. From this it would appear that the issue of student versus teacher choice has no bearing on the recruitment and retention of tuba players.
What inducements to taking up and staying with the tuba were suggested by those directors who did not have problems with recruitment and retention? Are there factors that can help in this regard other than a positive psychological approach and making it as attractive and challenging as possible to play the instrument? According to some, involving tuba players in the jazz band can be a big enticement. Several directors suggested that giving tuba players the option of playing electric bass in a jazz ensemble was a good “hook,” while another proposed giving them auxiliary percussion parts in the jazz band. One respondent pointed out that playing the electric bass can help reinforce pitch sense for young tuba players. That being said, I would suggest adapting bass parts so that they can be played on the tuba. Even fourth trombone parts can be viable for tuba players, if they mainly reinforce the bass line.
Further ideas for recruiting tuba players were as follows:
1. Watching for a player who might benefit from a change of instrument. Sometimes a marginal student can thrive in a new situation.
2. Switching players at the end of their first year. Flute, euphonium, and trombone players all make good candidates. They may be eager to switch if the tuba is promoted and made appealing over the course of the year.
3. If possible, have more tubas available than the number of players, so ideally they can each have a practice instrument at home. This way, they only have to transport the mouthpiece and music back and forth. Depending on the rehearsal schedule of your band(s), you may be able to have players share an instrument at school.
4. Assign the tuba to siblings so they can share a practice tuba at home. They might also be able to play duets, thereby helping (one hopes) to reinforce each other's commitment.
5. Start beginners on euphonium with a tuba book, and after a year switch them to the tuba. They will already be reading, will know the fingerings, and will only need to play an octave lower.
6. Offer the tuba to post-first-year students who appear to be keen but may be up for a new challenge. Because of their great interest, they may stick with the instrument.
Miscellaneous thought for retaining tuba players included:
1. Use larger tubas as something to look forward to for younger players: “Make a big deal about how cool the next-size tuba is going to be to play.”
2. Encourage them to take private lessons. This should keep them challenged.
3. Hire a tuba clinician when hosting workshops. Don't try to pinch pennies by sending the tuba players to the trombone clinic.
4. Encourage tuba players to participate in tuba festivals, where available, such as OcTUBAfest and TUBA Christmas.
5. Treat them well—take them out for lunch!
Finally, I will quote one respondent who excellently summed up the importance of having good (and adequate numbers of) tuba players:
"I've found that so much of the band's sound depends on the ability of the tuba player(s)…Make recruitment, retention, and support of those players a top priority…The tuba player affects tone, balance, time, and intonation. In grades where I've chosen the wrong tuba player, the frustration for me and the band is enormous. Low woodwinds and even bass guitar can help to beef up the bottom of the band but without a competent tuba player, it just doesn't sound like a band to my ear."
Well stated! In closing, my thanks to all who responded to the survey. I hope this synopsis of results will be useful.
Gregory Irvine is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Music Department at the University of Prince Edward Island, where he teaches brass instruments and instrumental conducting. Dr. Irvine has studied with such noted tuba players as Charles Daellenbach at the University of Toronto, and with Rex Martin and Arnold Jacobs at Northwestern University, where he earned both Master's and doctoral degrees. Prior to teaching at UPEI, Dr. Irvine served as principal Tubist of the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra for eleven years.
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