Reaching higher

I was working on my Eb this past week – and concentrating a lot on the high range.  Not a lot of regular rep for tuba goes up there — i.e. above the staff; Bb and higher.  But those that do are staples of a tuba player’s portfolio — think of Berlioz in much of what he composes; Wagner in Die Meistersinger; the bear solo in Stravinsky’s Petruchka and ‘Bydlo’ from Ravel’s orchestration of Pictures from an Exhibition.  Mind you, many of those I just quoted were composed for smaller tubas.  Smaller than an Eb or F.  Bydlo is normally played on a euphonium by one of the trombone players.  Though I heard it played by the tubist at the San Francisco Symphony.  It was sweet, lemme tell ya.

ok – back on subject here.  I’m working on my high range.  Beyond the general ‘why?’, I’m doing it with Bydlo in mind (with Orchestra Toronto) and the RVW tuba concerto (first movement cadenza, but in general).  The more comfortably I can play a high Ab or Bb, the more ‘at-ease’ Eb, F and G will sound.

So what do I do for this?  Harmonic series!  I think that’s been the foundation of my playing.  Nick Atkinson, my teacher at U of Ottawa, shared with me how important it was, in its various forms:  long tones, slurred, staccato, tenuto, etc.  I think I still have the staff paper he wrote out for me on warming up with the harmonic series.

For those unfamiliar with the harmonic series, it’s the set of tones you can play on a brass instrument without changing fingerings (or slide positions).  Like on a bugle.  I’m not going to get into the science of it here, but let’s say you started with Eb.  The next note would be Eb, up an octave.  Then Bb, a fifth up.  Then Eb above that.  Then G, Bb, (Db), Eb.  Notice the gaps between the notes, and notice that they get smaller and smaller.  Above that high Eb, it goes diatonic – F, G, Ab, Bb, etc.  This is what valveless trumpets and horns had to contend with back before the 1830s-ish.

Stuff above this high Eb doesn’t come easy.  There’s a lot of lip in the mouthpiece and not much difference between high Eb and high F, muscle-wise.  Oddly enough, the lower I work down the harmonic series, the higher I can go, relatively speaking, in the diatonic part of the series.  For instance, getting down to Bb as a starting note, I can play the complete Bb scale in the high range.  I’m not saying it’s necessarily pretty (yet), but it’s there and it’s getting better.

So then I go up one semitone to C and try to play as much of the complete C scale as I can.  And I’m taking my time and going over it multiple times.  I alternate between long tones and shorter repeated notes, like C-C-C-C, D-D-D-D, E-E-E-E, etc.  There’s a lot involved:  I’m telling my embouchure that this is C, this is how it feels and this is how it feels to go from C to D.  All the while, I’m aiming for a good tonal center, clear sound, clear articulation and above all — air air air.  Keep the air moving.

So after working my way back up to Eb, I noticed the effort in playing high Ab and high Bb is reduced.  And consequently, G, F and Eb come much more easily.

I’ll have you yet, Bydlo.


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