Thursday, July 18, 2013

Testing Tubas, a personal perspective.

First some stories: Vince DeRosa was at the Conn factory when a college girl came in to pick out an 8D. “Mr Derosa! What an honor. Would you pick out my horn for me?” He walked over to a display; picked one up at random and handed it to her. Said she,“You don’t understand. I mean play them and tell me which one I should buy.” Said he “You don’t understand, honey. I picked mine out like this and got used to it. You take this one and get used to it.” Note: I met DeRosa at a convention and asked him if that story were true. He said he had never been to the factory but it did sound like something he would have said. Perhaps it was at a music store. This story may have been exaggerated by the time it reached me but I believe the essence is correct. Rafael Mendez was at the Olds factory testing trumpets and did not like any that were presented to him. An engineer stayed back when they went to lunch. He discovered that Mendez’s old trumpet had leaky valves so he lapped some extra play into a new trumpet. When Mendez came back and played the new one he was upset that they let him test all morning when the good one was in the back. Totally factual or not, the point is that instruments are like shoes. Nothing feels as good as the shoes you’ve been wearing. Bob Giardinelli, when he had his famous music store in NYC had many, many Bach Strad trumpets in stock. Customers would ask how many he had, wanting to try them all to find the magic trumpet. More often than not he would declare his inventory to be three or four, knowing that trumpets could be like perfume at the cosmetic counter. After three, the senses become confused. Of course he couldn’t afford to maintain his low prices and clean his entire inventory after each customer. Asked what he did with the dogs, the lemons, he said sooner or later someone would declare it the best instrument he’d ever played. I went to NYC looking for a CC tuba in 1965. There were two for sale. (My how things have changed. Of course I could drink a case of beer back then but you could only get Schlitz, Schaefer, Bud and Pabst. Now there is a plethora of great micro beers and my capacity has shrunk to two. Life isn’t always fair.) Anyway, Bill Bell’s old Cerveny was for sale for $425. The horn with the rubber band on the water key that he played in the NBC Orchestra. You know, the one pictured with him in a tux. I found it too frail for a college student. The other was a Mahillon about which Walter Sear said “Here’s a horn you can take on the Subway.” Not planning to take a tuba on the subway, I passed. Sear did say something relevant to our topic. “When the chips are down, you turn to the horn you’ve played on most of your life.” He was referring to Harvey Phillips and his old Conn and Arnold Jacobs and his famous York.
When I was studying with Mr. Jacobs he had a Conn CC tuba in the basement. He told me Conn had sent it for his appraisal. He found it too small for his use. He said he and Harvey tried each other’s horns and both asked the other “How can you play this thing?” I think in some ways the Conn made Phillips the player he became and the York made Jacobs the player he became. Of course there were other factors as well. Jake used to say we respond to the instrument as a stimulus. Just as we would pull our hand away from a hot oven on a daily basis, if one day the oven were not on, we would still pull our hand away. Mr. Jacobs said we cannot undo a bad habit; we must replace it with another habit. My experience says it takes at least two months of continuous play to let new equipment reform our habits. Personal thoughts: When I test a tuba, I prefer to play loud. Not blastissimo, just loud. I have often heard “Anyone can play loud. It takes talent to play soft.” Not to deny that statement but having had the great fortune to perform as an extra with The Cleveland Orchestra and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, let me say that one reason a professional orchestra sounds as soft as it does in a pianissimo is because it is so very loud in a fortissimo. And the fortissimo is played with a good quality sound. It is partly the contrast that makes a pianissimo sound so soft. So one reason to test loud is because it is a legitimate dynamic. Another reason to test loud is because it is much more difficult to bend a pitch at fortissimo. It is much easier to bend a pitch at pianissimo. If a player is going to play with dynamic contrast, he must tune his instrument where it centers in a fortissimo and train himself to maintain that pitch as he makes a diminuendo. Another technique I use in testing is to slur up to a note from a fourth or fifth; look at the tuner; and then slur down to the note from a fourth or fifth; look at the tuner. If a note has a wide ‘slot’ or wiggle room, it is likely to be lower when approached from above and higher when approached from below. The wider the approach, the larger the difference is likely to be. It is important to test softly for valve or slide action, noise etc. But for finding the center of the pitch, nothing compares to loud. Low on the pitch Horn players tell me that Geyer style horns slot nicely but are hard to humor the pitch. Kruspe style horns have a wider slot, easier to ‘lip’ a note in tune but don’t lock in the pitch for the player. Trumpet v cornet and Trombone v euphonium elicit a similar result. I had a trumpet associate who believed that playing ‘low on the pitch’ was a worthy goal in the pursuit of a big sound. I did not subscribe to the philosophy but did notice that when I played pass-the-horn with my students, I was often pushed in as much as two inches more to match pitch. I did not notice any pitch discrepancy when I played pass-the-horn with Mr. Jacobs. In fact, a friend in Chicago took his tuba to a shop to have the main slide cut. The tech asked if he studied with Mr. Jacobs. Why? “All his students have their slides cut.” Another friend told me the longer he studied with Jake, the more he needed his slide cut. Why? A big air passage, an open throat, and a relaxed approach result in a lower pitch. I’m not saying playing on the low side of a slot is a worthy goal in and of itself. I do suggest that some musicians play differently than others. I do find that there are sometimes partials or individual notes with wider slots than others. I do find, especially on large conical instruments, that ‘tuning C’ (or whatever key the instrument is in) is often the note with the widest slot and therefore not the best note on which to tune the instrument. What can happen if the tuning note has a wide slot and the player plays high on the pitch, he will pull the main slide out thus making the fifth partial, with a narrower slot, difficult to play in tune. The player who plays low in the slot will push the slide in and have a much easier time with the fifth partial. It’s been my experience that trombonists who double on tuba often play higher. Tubists who are trained in mouthpiece solfege and have solid low registers on the mouthpiece alone are often more comfortable with the main slide farther in. Harmonics not in tune. Do NOT expect alternate fingerings to match the pitch of primary fingerings. There is a reason they are alternate fingerings. They elicit the same pitch from different harmonics which are, by law of the open pipe, different. On a CC tuba, open E is the fifth partial which is mathematically 14% flat. Played 1+2 it is fifth partial which is mathematically 2% sharp and combined with a 1+2 fingering can be sharper yet depending on slide lengths. Stuffy instruments: For me, ‘stuffy’ is not a useful word. I have seen trumpet players declare very large instruments ‘stuffy’ whilst others declare very small bore trumpets ‘stuffy’. I have concluded after many years that ‘stuffy’ simply means not an efficient resonator for my concept. F tubas F tubas are a different animal. They take considerable time to get used to. I have had more than one player try the 445 and love the sound and blow but not be able to cope with the intonation. I have had the same player come back and try it a year later after purchasing another brand of F tuba. This time they love it and think I improved it. In fact, they became F tuba players in the interim and now know the tendencies better. F tubas have the harmonics displaced a fourth higher. The E that was flat on the CC tuba is now spot on. The 4th space G that was sharp on the CC tuba is now the flat fifth partial on the F tuba. This is not peculiar to Big Mouth Brass tubas, but some manufacturers have developed instruments that lend to the player’s CC tuba baggage rather than the natural tendencies of the tuba, regardless of the key. If I have succeeded, the 445 blows like a York CC tuba but a fourth higher. Don Harry told me that in performing the John Williams concerto on the 445 he “didn’t pull a slide all night.” Jake once said “Life’s too short to be pulling slides.” Contrast Bill Bell’s slide pulling charts in the King Brochure and later in the MW brochure. Harvey Phillips did a fair amount of slide pulling. Both approaches are right and proper. Adding F tuba to your arsenal requires time and understanding. I intend the 445 to be played with fist slide out an inch or so but pushed in for 3rd space G and pulled for 1+2 when needed. Most have found third and fourth slides best about ¾’ to 1” out. The fifth slide is intended for a perfect low Bb played 4+5 and should be pulled to accommodate. Tuning the main slide on fourth space G with the first pushed in should put the instrument in a good place to play with minimal slide pulling. (These are only my suggestions which when added to a dollar will get you a small cup of coffee at McDonald’s.) Regardless of your approach, it is important to understand the natural tendencies. In a nutshell, on F tuba, fifth line A will be 14% flat if tapers in the instrument are normal. The Ab, and G below it will be just as flat if those slides are set to exact half step and whole step respectively. The Gb will not be as flat because combinations of valves are sharp. If first slide is set for an exact whole step on the F tuba and second is set for an exact half step on the F tuba, together they will NOT make a step and a half. When first valve is down, the second must be longer because it is lowering an Eb tuba a half step. The discrepancy is minor until we reach 1+3 and greater on 1+2+3 which is why we use 4 instead of 1+2+3 and 2+4 instead of 1+2+3. It is then obvious why 1+4 is not adequate for low Bb. Hence 5+4. The horn that’s right for you: There are two ways to see this. One is simple. Get the horn your teacher has. If you want to sound like Arnold Jacobs, get the horn that shaped his development. If you want to sound like Harvey Phillips, get the horn that shaped his development. It’s hard to argue with removing instrument variations from the pedagogical equation. Alternatively, assess your strengths, weaknesses. Factor in your goals and chose a horn that will help you get there. There is no reason to get a BAT if quintets are your goal. No reason to get an F tuba if Brass Bands will play a major role in your future. Do choose a horn that elicits good playing habits. Mr. Jacobs admonished me to blow more freely into the tuba, something I was not able to achieve on my MW1020 and Bach 7 mpc. I brought to a lesson a MW std the Army had on approval. I found the Bach 7 ill suited so switched to a Helleberg. Mr. Jacobs was very complimentary that now I was blowing freely with a great sound. I pointed out that it was different equipment, which he hadn’t even noticed. He assured me it was not the equipment but that I was playing better. After a lengthy discussion about hot stoves and habits, he conceded that the equipment change may have tricked me into better playing. (I bought the tuba.) I don't think it was until I finally acquired my Holton that I truly appreciated what I learned from Mr. Jacobs. Consider that it may take two months or more for the stimulus that is the instrument to impact your playing habits. So factor in sound advice from players you admire. I have endeavored to build instruments that elicit the playing habits and sound that Mr. Jacobs taught. To that end, I am gratified that many fine players that I respect and admire have acknowledged as much and have chosen my tubas.