Lesson with Nick Atkinson

So during my trip to Ottawa from March 25 to 28, I was able to get a lesson with Nick Atkinson – my teacher from when I was going to the University of Ottawa.  At the time, he was the tubist for the National Arts Centre Orchestra, the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra, the Rideau Lakes Brass Quintet, and conductor of the UofO wind ensemble.  Today, he continues to play with the NACO, Rideau Lakes and now the Capital Brassworks (which didn’t exist back when I was going to school).  He no longer teaches at UofO, nor does he play with the OSO – both of those positions are taken up by Martin Labrosse, who was a student of Nick’s way back when.  Nick jokes that he’s getting old, but he’s as lively as ever — and sounds as good as ever.  That man is master of the Eb tuba.

So Nick and I met up at his place for the lesson.  I took out my C and we took a look at the tuba part for ‘Symphonic Metamorphosis’ by Hindemith.  I played that with Orchestra Toronto back in February, but I wanted to revisit it with Nick to get help on breathing, articulation, etc.  Well, I wasn’t sat down for 5 minutes before Nick had me try a few mouthpieces (well, I did mention wanting to go to Custom Music to try out mouthpieces a few days beforehand).  I think I tried 5 or 6 of them before settling on a Denis Wick 2.5CC.  What a difference it made in resonance coming from my PT-72.

So then, once we really started out, one of his first comments was that I was trying to0 hard.  The articulation has too much attack and it’s killing the phrasing.  We worked on the first two bars of this for a little while:

First part of the soli in the Turandot movement

Accounting for the over-arching melodic line for the full four-bar phrase, there are three mini phrases:  1) the first complete bar; 2) the first three quarters of the second bar; and 3) the remaining notes from the eighth-note D to the last two quarter A’s.

So Nick had me take the mouthpiece from the butt end and blow the rhythm of the first 2 mini-phrases.  Nice and relaxed.  Then turn it around and buzz the rhythm – no need for melody just yet – and one a reasonably low note.  Then pick up the horn (‘tuba’) and try again.  AHHHHH — just effortless.  And the mini phrasing is coming through.  So easy eh?  Here’s the key —  The blowing and buzzing reminds you (brain, lungs, lips, etc) to blow freely.  Forget that there’s a huge piece of metal hanging off your face and let your air go free.  That really is it.  If you work hard, you’ll sound like you’re working hard and not musical.  My favourite quote from lessons with Nick:  “You look like you’re trying to take a sh*t.”

Next, we moved on to the next two bars, with the D and F pick ups.  This is challenging.  How to stay nimble at the speed this should be going at, but still moving air efficiently and maintain a rich and full buzz from mid-range to low-range.  One of the problems I work on avoiding is degradation of tone quality in the low range and just getting muffly.  Nick suggested practicing the passage slower and without the slurs.  It’s often very helpful to practice a slurred section articulated, and an articulated passage slurred.  He also suggested I use false harmonics for the low E’s and F near the end.  I’d forgotten about those and have never really explored them.  Well, lemme tell ya!  They take a lot less air than the “true” fingerings, but the embouchure takes a little to get used to.  And they are more useful/available on C and Bb tubas.  F and Eb tubas, not so much, though I did find it on my Eb — but just doesn’t have the same ‘ring’, so it’s not as useful.

So, I had a fantastic lesson with Nick.  I bought the mouthpiece from him that he helped me pick out, I have false harmonics to explore and I’ve regained my appreciation for blowing and buzzing (and just backing off a bit too).  I think that I was trying too hard because I was worried about my “woa-woa” habit.  Four points he said stuck with me:  wind, buzz, articulation, and…  dammit!  Well, I think I can safely fill in “song” there.


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