I Like Big Brass and I Cannot Lie: Confessions from the Tuba World
Elizabeth Eshelman grew up in a family of tuba players and staged her grand rebellion by majoring in English instead of music. It was too late, though; by college, she’d already been playing the tuba for six years, and now, several years out from an MFA in fiction, she’s at work on a novel about love, vocation, the meaning of life, and—the tuba world. She can’t help it. It’s genetic.
Riding the Air Stream.
The single most frequently asked question I get as a tuba player is, “Is that heavy?” Yes, the tuba is heavy, but you get used to managing it. I usually reply this way because it’s more polite than “duh,” and because I understand such inquirers are simply intrigued by the instrument. But if people really wanted to discover the heart of physical challenge with the tuba, they’d ask, “How do you manage to breathe enough to play that thing?”
Good question. It’s one I’ve asked myself a lot lately because until recently, I hadn’t practiced the tuba regularly in—(these are confessions from the tuba world, right?)—a decade, not since I took lessons in college. I’ve continued to play for TubaChristmas, for fun whenever my dad or brother feel like jamming, and for sundry church functions—just enough to warrant owning my own tuba. But, in January, I was asked to join a local British-style brass band for their upcoming competition in April. Not wanting to be the weakest link, as I suspected I was, I instated a weekly practice goal: a minimum of a half hour, four times a week.
Let me tell you, a lot of rust accumulates in ten years. There was the expected decline in my chops, the muscles around the mouth which, like any muscles, tire quickly if they haven’t been kept conditioned. The result is that an hour into the band’s two-and-a-half hour rehearsals, my pitch accuracy goes the way of a whoopee cushion. Some less expected hurdles also presented themselves. My poor metronome’s battery had long since died. My tuba slides required Herculean strength to unstick. Also, I had a tuba but no music stand. I rigged up an ingenious contraption, if I do say so myself, involving a carry-on suitcase propping open the lid of a laundry hamper to which I affixed my music with potato chip clips. My husband was not as charmed by this as I was; I sensed that if I didn’t do something soon, my Valentine’s Day gift was going to be a music stand, and while technically that might qualify as something shiny, I pre-empted the gesture by raiding my dad’s stash of old stands. I even managed to find one pocked with sympathizing rust.
Having thus snapped the fetters that would hold me back, I was soon reminded of a challenge not so easily mastered: breathing. I say “reminded” because there’s something about sitting between a talented section leader and a doctoral tuba candidate that makes me more conscious of my little Shirley Temple-sized intakes than when I’m the only standard. Left to myself, I’m actually not a bad standard: For all the years that I was inactive on tuba, I was very active in choirs, and I know from being in both good choirs and beset choirs that all it takes to successfully sing through a phrase is being mindful of taking a full breath in the first place. But where I excel as a chorister, I come up short as a bandsman. Why?
To find out, I decided to turn to the guru of breathing in tuba pedagogy, Arnold Jacobs. Jacobs was the principal tubist in the Chicago Symphony for 44 years, and although he died in 1998, his influential teaching is alive and well. He summarized his approach to the tuba as song and wind. Song, he believed, meant that the performer ought to think in simple terms about the music he or she wanted to convey to the audience, rather than suffer “paralysis by analysis” and overthink the complex bodily systems that go into playing. Wind is the engine that powers the whole operation via vibration of the lips.
Jacobs took wind so seriously that he became an expert in the physical process of respiration. He audited medical courses and was an asset to the medical field because his understanding of normal breathing processes often surpassed that of doctors whose primary focus was on dysfunction in breathing. Of course, being a tuba player, he didn’t lose his sense of humor; in order to get students to breathe using both their abdomen and their chest, he’d say, “Think of Dolly Parton and allow the upper chest to expand.”
The tuba, along with the flute, is at the top of the list for instruments that take the most air to play. To put it in a brass context, tuba uses air three times faster than the trumpet or French horn, and the lower you play within the tuba’s range, the more air it takes. Jacobs concluded that not much can be done to change an individual’s lung capacity, but musicians can train to improve the percentage of their capacity that they use in playing. According to a chart in Brian Frederiksen’s Arnold Jacobs: Song and Wind, I, as a 5’9” 30 year-old female, have a lung capacity of 3.5 liters. Compare that to my brass band section mates who on the chart for males would have capacities of 4.7 and 4.2 liters. Average musicians use less than 50% of their overall capacity to play, whereas trained musicians can use up to 80%. So, assuming my section mates breathe more effectively than I do while playing, they could be using 2 liters more air with every breath.
Then there’s Chuck Norris, who uses 99% of his 51.8-liter lung capacity when he plays tuba. And he’s never taken lessons.
Since we can’t recruit Chuck Norris into our brass band, we have to make do. In brass bands, there are two tuba parts, one that plays a generally more active upper register (the E flat tuba part) and one that provides extra ballast with the lower register (the B flat part). In our band, we have two on each part for a total of four tubas. Here’s how the first exchange went with my stand partner on the day we met in advance of my first rehearsal: “Hi, I’m Pat. Do you want to breathe on the bar line or not on the bar line?”
I chose the bar line, figuring the visual demarcation between measures would be a good reminder to breathe. We have stuck to this agreement ever since, which means that if I neglect to breathe on the bar line and we’re two beats into a measure with a molto ritardando, I’m screwed. I have to squeeze out those last bits of air and pretend I’m holding the now sorry-sounding note at a soft volume on purpose. Or else I cut off early and leave a gaping hole in the sound while I breathe in anticipation of the next bar line. Not a good solution.
Sometimes we encounter sections where both of us are playing at our biggest breath capacity—for example, the triple forte “Dies Irae” (Day of Wrath; you’d recognize it if you heard it) on whole notes embedded partway through one of our contest pieces. To avoid any gap in the sound, we write into our music who gets to breathe where, and then we have to be vigilant to uphold our end of the bargain.
To really measure what’s going on breath-wise in demanding passages like these, you’d have to use machines like the ones researchers at University of Chicago used on Jacobs to measure the volume of air traveling through his lungs as he played. The result? He should have been suffering from massive hyperventilation! But he wasn’t. And tuba players don’t routinely hyperventilate, even though we take in large amounts of oxygen. Hyperventilation, roughly put, is caused by too much oxygen and not enough carbon dioxide in the body. By taking breaths near his tuba mouthpiece, as one necessarily does while playing, Jacobs was inhaling the carbon dioxide-rich air that he had just exhaled, thereby keeping a semblance of the usual balance. In Jacobs’s own words, “When I get into these huge, massive blowing episodes, like The Great Gate of Kiev at the end of Pictures at an Exhibition, I will deliberately take the air back through the instrument to forestall hyperventilation.”
Now, before you mothers get ready to pull Junior out of the tuba section, please consider that I have never hyperventilated while playing, nor have I witnessed such a thing happen to my compatriots. But if you really want to help your band kid learn more than you ever imagined could be done with breathing, get him a copy of The Breathing Gym, a book with an accompanying DVD that features two middle-aged goofballs doing what looks like bad interpretive dance. In fact, those goofballs are Patrick Sheridan and Sam Pilafian, both major American tubists, and their “dance” is a series of breathing exercises. If you want a taste of tuba personality, watch a sample of them here.
I would bet money that the farthest reach Patrick Sheridan and Sam Pilafian imagined for their tuba pedagogy would be to, say, soprano vocalists. But it turns out their exercises have possible applications for—surprise!—postmenopausal cancer patients. The Breathing Gym was studied in research funded by a $1 million grant from the National Cancer Institute as a possible non-pharmaceutical solution to hot flashes, which is especially important for women undergoing cancer treatments who can’t take the usual regimen of drugs to alleviate them. And now we’ve come strangely and inversely full circle back to Jacobs, who studied breathing in child birth as one of the instances in which the body seals off air in order to create internal pressure.
The exercises in The Breathing Gym aim for the opposite of such clenching and sealing off. They are geared towards helping the musician to relax the body, to be mindful of the quality and the timing of inhaling and exhaling, and to take a big, full breath with a properly-shaped mouth—or as I was always taught, “Poe backwards.” Poe backwards simply means inhaling as if you were saying “Poe” to keep the oral cavity open, the mouth roundly shaped, and to allow that whoosh of air to inflate both the abdomen and the chest. The real purpose of all such exercises is to establish such good habits that full breathing becomes part of your usual playing mechanism when you go to produce song, that ultimate goal.
Long before Sam Pilafian would ever don the persona of a silly but effective personal trainer or get involved in potential medical wonders, he appeared on an episode of the Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood that introduced viewers to brass instruments. Even back then, young and 1980s-clad, Pilafian placed the tuba in Mr. Rogers’ lap to let him try playing it with this one piece of advice: “Remember that you have to take a big breath to blow it.”
After, of course, giving a gentle warning about the tuba itself: “I told you, it’s heavy.”
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