Preparing to teach “Low Brass” at the College/University Level: A Primer for Tuba and Euphonium Players, Part Two

Last Friday I gave a brief lecture with the above title at the South Central Regional Tuba-Euphonium Conference, held at Louisiana State University. I was honored by the invitation, and the presentation was fairly well-attended and well-received. My blog entries for both last and this week consist of my notes from this lecture, with a bit of adaptation.

I tend to write my text “word-for-word” when preparing a lecture, and use a bit more conversational style than my usual writing in spite of organizing things with a number of “bullet points.” I do not read the text verbatim, and given last Friday’s time constraints doing so would have been impossible. Still, I tend to speak best when I have a complete, written text before me. While I have edited this material just slightly for use as a blog post, for the most part I have left these notes in their original format.


Continued from last week’s post

V. Understanding the Differences between the Trombone and the Euphonium and Tuba

  • So, now that we’ve talked a bit about how to prepare, let’s discuss actually teaching all of these instruments. After all, between the alto, tenor, and bass trombones, euphonium, and F, Eb, CC, and BBb tubas, the “low brass” teacher might be teaching students playing eight different instruments at any given time, and somehow we have to organize all that information in our heads just to keep up! How do we do that?
  • Broadly speaking, when considering how to approach the low brass instruments it is relatively safe to group the trombones together as having one approach to blowing and tone quality and the euphonium and tuba as having another. This is not to minimize nuances in sound quality and approach between the tenor trombone and the bass trombone or even between bass and contrabass tubas. I mean only to say that there are certain similarities that all of the trombones share and that the conical low brasses (euphonium/tuba) share that can be considered broadly before “branching out” into the peculiarities of each instrument. Again, when you consider that a “low brass” teacher could potentially have to deal with eight or more different instruments (different types of trombones, all of the different tuba “keys”—I have had three of the four in my studio at any given time, including now), any “groupings” that can help the teacher to keep performance and pedagogical concepts “straight” are helpful.
  • What the biggest difference is NOT.
    • The first thing that one must understand when beginning to work with both the trombone and the conical low brasses (and I hinted at this earlier) is that the biggest difference between these does not lie in the “slide versus valves” question. A middle school trombone player can figure out that there is a correlation between the slide positions on his instrument and the valve combinations on the euphonium and tuba, and on that basis experience some rudimentary success on one or both of those instruments. With perhaps a bit more effort, a euphonium or tuba player can do the same with the trombone. Why do I say that? Because I once was that middle school trombone player! At age 13, having never practiced the euphonium or tuba a day in my life, I could pick up either instrument, press the right “buttons,” and play a scale or maybe a couple of exercises. Did it sound good? Of course not—I had a lot to learn before I would be able to produce a characteristic sound, read music effectively, etc. on either instrument (and I’m still not that great at the tuba). Sadly, though, there are those players that declare themselves “doublers” ready for professional work simply because they understand how trombone slide positions and euphonium and tuba valve combinations are related. As you might imagine, the result is almost never good. Understanding this correlation is, of course, necessary, but it is a surface-level understanding that does not mean one is prepared for professional work as a “doubler,” either as a player or as a teacher.
  • The desired tone quality.
    • So if the difference between the trombone slide and the valves on euphonium and tuba is not the most important difference between them, then what is? Let us consider two items that are very closely intertwined yet perhaps best discussed separately. The first has to do with the characteristic tone quality of each instrument. If you’ve ever heard a euphonium or tuba being played by a trombonist that doesn’t understand how a good euphonium or tuba sound differs from a good trombone sound, then you know that the sharp, too-focused, “laser beam” kind of sound that results is quite unpleasant. (Demonstration given, using the “Bydlo” excerpt from PICTURES AT AN EXHIBITION.) Likewise the “woofy,” uncentered sound that euphonium and tuba players sometimes produce on the trombone. (Demonstration given, using Bordogni Vocalise No. 3.) Avoiding these opposing pitfalls requires a solid mental concept of each instrument’s characteristic sound, and how the characteristic sounds of the trombone and of the conical low brasses differ.
    • I find it easiest and most immediately productive to explain these differences with reference to other instruments. When teaching euphonium or tuba players to double on trombone, I sometimes tell them to think of a trumpet sound. As a cylindrical brass instrument like the trumpet (as opposed to conical like the horn, euphonium, or tuba), the trombone should produce a sound that is brighter and more direct than what the euphonium or tuba player is accustomed to producing. A characteristic trombone sound is, of course, not as bright as a trumpet sound, but given “where they’re coming from” it is unlikely that a euphonium or tuba player will produce an excessively bright trombone sound when told to “think of a trumpet.” Instead, this comparison will help to “break” him of playing the trombone with a “woofy” sound and move him toward producing a characteristic trombone sound.
    • For trombone players approaching the euphonium for the first time, I work in the opposite direction, telling players to think of the instrument as a “small tuba” (which it is), with a “tuba-like” sound. This goes a long way toward banishing any “wannabe valve trombone” sounds from the student’s playing. Because the tuba is already at the extreme low end of the spectrum for conical low brass instruments, I don’t have a way to teach its sound quality by comparison to a related instrument “further down the line.” I can, however, teach the student how to “blow” correctly on the tuba, which brings me to my next point.
  • Approach to blowing.
    • Besides the differences in tonal concept between our two groups of instruments, the way that one uses the airstream in order to achieve those tone qualities is also different. When trombone players begin to play the tuba or the euphonium for the first time they tend to play with an airstream that is much too focused and compact. In other words, they change nothing about their way of “blowing” when moving from one instrument group to the other, and the desired tone quality is not achieved. When playing the euphonium or tuba one should think of blowing a relaxed, warm stream of air through the instrument, an airstream that even seems to expand as the conical tubing of the instrument expands. This visualization doesn’t quite match what is actually physically happening, and of course there are times when tuba players especially need to “punch it.” Still, in practice, provided that the individual has a good sound concept as mentioned above, this approach yields pretty good results.
    • The tuba or euphonium player playing the trombone for the first time has the opposite tendency. The habit of blowing a relaxed, even diffuse stream of air through the instrument is difficult to overcome, and when a trombone is “blown” in this way the resulting sound might be superficially pleasing, but not at all characteristic. The trombone is essentially a “big trumpet,” and must be approached in that way, with a method of “blowing” which is free of excessive tension, of course, and yet is energetic, direct, and powerful. Although this is not as prevalent as it was a few years back, for a long time as bass trombonists especially kept moving to larger and larger equipment this “wannabe tuba” sound was common, which sounded neither tuba-like nor trombone-like, but was rather this non-descript unfocused mess of a sound. It has been refreshing to see bass trombonists rediscovering the fact that the bass trombone is indeed still a trombone!
  • There are also differences in articulation between the instruments. To put it very briefly, the conical instruments must be tongued harder for a given articulation than the cylindrical ones. Tonguing on a trombone in the same manner as on the euphonium or tuba will yield a very harsh articulation. Conversely, a trombone-like articulation on the euphonium or tuba will lack definition. Learn and master this difference!
  • Trombone mouthpieces versus euphonium mouthpieces
    • One additional area of difference between the two sets of instruments that deserves mention here is the differences between good trombone mouthpieces and good euphonium mouthpieces. One of the most common questions I receive from high school band directors has to do with a euphonium player that is working hard, practicing, has decent range and technique, but still isn’t producing a warm, full, characteristic sound. My first question for this person is always “what mouthpiece is the student playing?” Almost without fail, the answer is “6.5AL.” Now, for those not familiar with mouthpieces, the Bach 6.5AL (and its various clones) is a fine, “middle of the road” trombone mouthpiece but it is much too shallow to make for a very good euphonium mouthpiece. When speaking with these band directors I suggest a Schilke 51D or 52E2, or one of the Denis Wick SM series mouthpieces. Problem solved.
    • I have occasionally seen the opposite problem with tenor trombone players using excessively deep mouthpieces (like the 51D) and producing an unfocused, “tubby” sound as a result, but the opposite error is more common.
    • Good euphonium mouthpieces tend to be deeper and fuller than good tenor trombone mouthpieces, and vice versa. That the mouthpiece receivers are the same does not mean that the mouthpieces themselves should be!
    • Again, the concepts I have just discussed are in no way a comprehensive listing of the differences between all of these instruments, but hopefully this broad overview will provide a good starting point.

VI. Teaching and Performance Issues Peculiar to the Tenor Trombone

  • Trombonists tend to read in tenor and alto clefs as well as bass clef. The tenor clef is not terribly unusual anymore for euphonium and maybe occasionally tuba. It is also particularly useful for learning to read treble clef euphonium parts.
    • Suggested books for learning the clefs:
      • Brad Edwards: Introductory Studies in Tenor and Alto Clefs “Before Blazhevich”
      • Reginald Fink: Introducing the Tenor Clef, and Introducing the Alto Clef
      • Vladislav Blazhevich: School for Trombone in Clefs
  • Different instruments for “jazz” and “classical” playing
    • It is usually best that tenor trombonists play a small or medium bore instrument for jazz, at least in big band settings. While large-bore instruments are common in bands and orchestras, these instruments don’t quite “cut through” enough in a big band. The smaller instruments also provide a little more flexibility when one is trying to use the rapid doodle-tonguing/slurring technique used by many jazz soloists.
  • Alto trombone doubling
    • Advanced tenor trombonists—particularly performance majors—will need to learn to do some doubling on alto trombone.
    • As is the case with learning new tubas, music for alto trombone is still written in concert pitch, so players have to learn the new set of fingerings.
    • In addition to the clef study books mentioned above, Branimir Slokar’s Method for Alto Trombone is an effective book for learning developing basic facility on that instrument.

VII. Teaching and Performance Issues Peculiar to the Bass Trombone

  • Different valve setups
    • While the first valve on both tenor and bass trombones is an F-attachment that functions in a way roughly analogous to the fourth valve on euphonium or tuba, the second valve can be placed in a  “dependent” setup (where the second valve is mounted on the first valve tubing), or an “independent” setup, where both valves are on the main body of the instrument, and can be used either separately or together.
    • Today the most common tuning of the second valve is G-flat when used alone (in an “independent” setup), and D when combined. A G/E-flat arrangement is sometimes seen, and some players have begun using a D/BBb arrangement of the second valve, with LOTS of extra tubing on the second valve slide.
  • Extreme range requirements
    • Similar to the case with the tuba, bass trombonists are expected to have a great deal more low range and low range facility than tenor trombonists, yet the high range expectations are lessened just barely, if at all. That’s not fair, but that’s how it is.
  • Weight and balance issues
    • Double-valve bass trombones—particularly those with axial-flow valves or F/D/BBb valve setups—are notoriously heavy and poorly-balanced. There are ways to mitigate this, such as using the ErgoBone, the Bullet Brace or similar products, or even a heavier slide. Still, a bit of muscle development for the left arm will be needed, whether gained through practicing only or with the help of some extra weight training.

VIII. Challenges for the Tuba or Euphonium Player as “Low Brass” Teacher

  • Getting the job
    • Even though this is no longer state explicitly in most job announcements, there remains some preference for trombonists among employers over tuba and euphonium players for such jobs, if for no other reason than filling trombone positions in faculty brass ensembles.
    • Advice: Learn to play tenor and/or bass trombone as well as you can, even if only as a doubling instrument. Even better, include one or two tracks of trombone playing on your audition recording. (I give the contrary advice to trombonists—my audition recordings when applying for “low brass” jobs ALWAYS included a couple of tracks of euphonium playing.)
  • Teaching one or more instruments that one does not play professionally
    • It is, of course, best to play as many of the instruments that you teach as you possibly can. Not only will this yield more performance opportunities and a greater variety of such opportunities for you, but you will always be more competent teaching an instrument that you can play well than one that you cannot.
    • Still, most of us lack the practice time, resources, and sheer physical or mental capacity to play all of the low brass instruments well. I perform regularly on alto trombone, tenor trombone, bass trombone, and euphonium, both as a soloist and in ensemble settings. I like to think that listeners can’t tell which of these is my “primary” instrument (sometimes I can hardly tell, myself!). I have on more than one occasions tried to add more tuba playing to the “mix,” but every time I do so it comes at the expense of one or more of the other instruments (particularly alto and tenor trombone).
    • So, I have more or less accepted that tuba playing—at least professionally—is not going to happen for me. This means that I have to take other measures to make sure my tuba teaching is “up to snuff.” Such measures include:
      • Developing my low range so that I can play along with my tuba students on the euphonium (they get pretty mad when I play the Snedecor Low Etudes and then tell them to practice more!).
      • Make sure that I maintain basic familiarity with fingerings and tuning tendencies on all of the tubas. While there are peculiarities of each individual instrument that might be hard to keep up with, knowing the overtone chart for each instrument—and thus in which “partial” a given note lies and the tuning tendencies of that partial—will go a long way toward helping you to keep this information straight.
      • Read books and journal articles, listen to concerts, attend clinics and master classes whenever possible.
      • Learning and performing tuba solo repertoire on the bass trombone.
      • Having tuba guest artists on campus whenever possible. (Of course, having guest artists that play all of the instruments is great, but it is perhaps especially helpful when you have some students that do not get to hear the example of a professional player on their instrument on a regular basis.)
    • These are the things that I do to help me in teaching the instrument that I do not play as well; these methods can and should be modified and adapted to help you with teaching perhaps one of the trombones with which you are less familiar.
  • Repertoire selection
    • Learning repertoire is also a great challenge for the “low brass” teacher, as one has to keep up as well as possible with the ever-growing libraries of performance and instructional repertoire for so many different instruments.
    • Preparing for this hopefully begins before one’s teaching career even starts. As I mentioned, I started compiling graded literature lists for all of the low brass instruments well before I finished graduate school. While these lists have changed over the years (with some works being added and others removed), I was much better off having something “in hand” when I started than I would have had I had to build from scratch when I got my first full-time teaching job.
    • Happily, and as I hinted under the last point, there is a great deal of overlap between the repertoires for the low brass instruments. We tend to play transcriptions of many of the same pieces from the nineteenth century and earlier. The tenor trombone and euphonium share a fair amount of repertoire, as do the bass trombone and tuba. While there are certainly a number of pieces for each instrument that do not need to be played on one or more of the others, this overlap does prevent one from having to “reinvent the wheel” entirely.
    • “Be a sponge.” Listen to recitals at conferences, look at programs in the ITA and ITEA Journals, listen to CDs, read new materials reviews—learn as much as you can about what is available for you and your students. You will never learn everything for one instrument—let alone three or four—but this should never discourage you from growing your knowledge.
  • Recruiting
    • Recruiting new students for the studio is a vital part of any applied music professor’s job, and for one that teaches all of the low brass, sometimes a difficult one, especially when one does not play all of the instruments. I have taken great pains to make sure that I am known to band directors and prospective students as “the trombone teacher” but rather as “the low brass teacher.” That might seem like a question of semantics, but I want my prospective students and their band directors to know that I take seriously the task of training musicians on all of the low brass instruments—that euphonium and tuba are not just an “afterthought” or something “tacked on” to my “real job” teaching trombone.
    • To that end, I try to make sure that I perform on all of my instruments for audiences of high school students. In fact, my first solo appearances with the wind ensembles at Ole Miss and at ULM were euphonium solos played largely for audiences of high school students. This has gone a long way to me developing some credibility with the euphonium and tuba players that I am trying to recruit.
    • Nevertheless, and using my own situation again as an example, the fact remains that I don’t play the tuba professionally, and in that respect I’ll always be at a disadvantage when it comes to recruiting tuba students compared to my colleagues at neighboring schools like Memphis, Southern Miss, or LSU. I have found it best to be frank and honest with these students about what I know about the tuba, how to perform on it, and its repertoire, as well as what I perceive my limitations to be. There is NEVER a good reason to lie about your qualifications and experience to prospective students, prospective employers, or anyone else! I tell prospective students what I know, I tell them about former tuba students that have done well, and I give them a “demo” lesson. They still don’t *all* come to Ole Miss, but those that do have a good idea of what they can expect from lessons with me.

The presentation ended with me directing attendees to a list of resources that I provided on their handouts; the materials referenced there can be found in previous blog entries as well as at my website at Ole Miss. I also invited folks to approach me sometime afterward with questions, as our allotted time had come to an end.

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About Micah Everett

Micah Everett is Associate Professor of Music (Trombone/Low Brass) at the University of Mississippi, Principal Trombonist of the North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra, Bass Trombonist of the Great River Trombone Quartet, Assistant Editor (Audio/Video Reviews) for the International Trombone Association Journal, and an S.E. Shires trombone artist. He is the author of THE LOW BRASS PLAYER'S GUIDE TO DOUBLING, published by Mountain Peak Music, and released his first solo recording, STEPPING STONES FOR BASS TROMBONE, VOL. 1, on the Potenza Music label in 2015. In addition to his professional work, he maintains an avid interest in the study of the Bible and of Reformed theology. He holds doctoral and master's degrees in music from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, a bachelor's degree in music education from Delta State University, and a certificate in systematic theology from Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. The ideas and opinions expressed here are not necessarily shared by the employers and organizations with which the author is associated.
This entry was posted in Alto Trombone, Bass Trombone, Doubling, Ergobrass, Euphonium, Low Brass Resources, Music, Playing Fundamentals, Repertoire, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Tuba. Bookmark the permalink.