In the past few months I have had several students at both the college and high school levels ask me for guidance regarding purchasing their first tubas. Given the state of the national economy generally and Mississippi’s perennial status as an economically depressed state, both the relative ease of finding quality used instruments today and the rising quality of low to moderately-priced Asian imports make this a somewhat less frightening undertaking than it was 10-15 years ago. Nevertheless, there are still certain questions which must be answered at the outset of one’s search, including whether the student prefers piston or rotary valves and whether a bass or contrabass tuba is required. Of these questions, the first can be decided purely based upon personal preference, or perhaps by the selection of available instruments in a given price range. The second can almost always be answered in favor of contrabass tubas. While a smaller bass tuba is great for solo and chamber work, a contrabass tuba is the one called for most often in large ensembles and in whatever freelancing type of jobs most of my students will one day be able to undertake “on the side,” so that is my usual suggestion for these students. Having settled upon purchasing a contrabass tuba, the student must then decide whether he or she wishes to purchase a BB-flat or CC tuba.
Regarding this sometimes contentious question, I’ll say at the outset that I don’t care which one the student purchases as long as he or she practices regularly and plays well. Ideally, students will play-test as many examples of both as possible and then choose the best instruments for them regardless of key. However, the question is rarely that simple. On the one hand, the BB-flat tuba is the instrument of choice in American school bands. This is the type of instrument that almost every student plays when first learning the tuba, and I have known many band directors who actively discourage students from purchasing CC tubas and even forbid the use of these instruments in their bands. The tuning tendencies of the BB-flat and CC are largely similar so conflicts in that regard are infrequent, but directors have an understandable desire to not have their ensembles suffer while a tubist masters new fingerings and sometimes resist the introduction of an instrument whose fingerings and tuning tendencies are unfamiliar to them. Additionally, the student who purchases a CC tuba will need to retain proficiency with BB-flat fingerings for use with marching instruments, and mixups are not uncommon. While these arguments in favor of the BB-flat tuba are largely arguments of convenience, it is also true that a large BB-flat tuba is capable of a depth and gravity of sound matched by few CC instruments.
On the other hand, while the BB-flat tuba is common among professional players in some parts of the world, in the United States the overwhelming majority of high-level players use and prefer the CC tuba. Some college and university professors even require that music majors switch to CC tuba and in some cases require the purchase of such an instrument for admission to the studio. While BB-flat tubas are not unknown on the professional scene, they are rare in some circles, and students who play the BB-flat can expect to encounter a certain amount of “snark” if they arrive at a gig or audition with that instrument. These factors are unimportant for those not seeking to establish full-time playing careers and whose teachers have no bias against the BB-flat tuba, but if a student is even considering pursuing a significant playing career I typically advise a switch to CC. The avoidance of negative attitudes toward the BB-flat is not the only reason to prefer CC, however. Because its main bugle is two feet shorter (with correspondingly shortened tubing elsewhere), players often find that the CC tuba feels more nimble than the BB-flat with little loss with regard to depth of sound. Additionally, because CC tubas have dominated the high-end market for so many years there are more available models with advanced upgrades such as the addition of fifth valves for improved low register tuning and the use of various alloys to achieve particular colors of sound. The argument is sometimes made that CC tuba fingerings lend themselves better to sharp keys (and vice versa for BB-flat tuba fingerings), but this is a weaker argument to me—a diligent student will learn to play well in every key on whatever instrument is chosen.
Remember, finally, that audiences will rarely notice a difference in sound from the same player on a BB-flat tuba or a CC tuba; the primary reason to choose a particular instrument will ideally be to promote the greatest ease in producing your desired sound. If you sound great, you will be welcome in my studio regardless of the type of tuba you play, and ultimately you will be able to find a place in the professional world, as well. The above thoughts will be worth considering, however, as you choose an instrument to purchase.
Appendix: A closing thought for band directors unfamiliar with the CC tuba.
I have visited with many high school students over the years that wanted to purchase a tuba and were told by their band directors that they would not be allowed to play CC tuba in their ensembles. While there are good reasons for an ensemble director to not want to have an advanced student learning new fingerings when preparing for concerts and especially contests, there are also good reasons that a student might wish to consider a CC tuba. If the CC tuba is unfamiliar to you, you might consider this roundabout way of thinking about it. The CC tuba’s fingerings and tuning tendencies are essentially the same as those for the written notes on trumpet (or treble-clef euphonium), only two octaves lower. The only real difference is that tuba players will want to use the fourth valve or 2-4 in place of the 1-3 and 1-2-3 combinations, respectively. While some instruments have a fifth valve for use in the extreme lower register, this part of the range rarely appears in band music. Additionally, I have published fingering and overtone series charts for the CC tuba here.