Saturday, June 15, 2019

The Tuba in Brass Quintet

Last week I was privileged to have attended a concert in Tokyo of Les Vents Françes, a woodwind quintet with an extraordinary list of personnel. It starts with Emmanuel Pahud, first Flute with the Berlin Philharmonic and the list continues with equally prestigious artists: François Leleux, Oboe, Paul Meyer, Clarinet, Gilbert Audin, Bassoon and Radovan Vlatkovic, Horn. The concert was one of the greatest ensembles I’ve ever heard, not only because of its prestigious individual members but because it was simply an extraordinary ensemble of the highest musical quality.

Slovenian horn soloist, Radovan Vlatkovic, especially impressed me. I had worked with Radovan several times in various European venues and I was aware he was a great horn player but in this concert it was singularly the best horn playing I have ever heard; it had the beauty of sound that I was used to from the great horn players in the film industry in Hollywood but with a little bit of “bite” that I sometimes missed in Hollywood. The sound was even and stable in all registers, it was dynamically alive and Radovan was always beautifully musical. It also occasionally overpowered the other four instruments, not frequently but enough to take note.

Of course, that’s not the first time I’ve heard a horn overpower the other instruments in a woodwind quintet, it happens all the time; the horn is very different from the other four instruments in a woodwind quintet and there is always that possibility that it could over balance the other four. But this in not a review of Les Vents Français, if it was I could write pages on how excellent it was.

In the very interesting thread on TubeNews of the last two months regarding the use and idiosyncrasies of various instruments, someone asked the question why does the tuba frequently sound too loud in brass quintets; a very astute question.

It’s very much the same reason that we so frequently hear horn sounding louder that the other instruments in a woodwind quintet; it’s different from the other instruments, except for two things. Unlike horn in a woodwind quintet, tuba in a brass quintet, is definitely another brass instrument and, unlike horn, tuba has the possibility of a large verity of instruments from which to choose to blend in a brass quintet.

The tuba is blessed (or damned) with the biggest sound of any instrument in the symphony orchestra family. This is not just the opinion of one enthusiastic tubist but it is a fact. Examine the sound produced by the tuba compared to other traditional instruments on an oscilloscope and it is easy to see that the sign wave made by the tuba is considerably larger. If the tubist uses an instrument that produces a sound too much larger than the other four instruments in a brass quintet he will not blend and most likely be too heavy for the other four.

This was proven many times to me while judging brass ensemble and particularly brass quintet competitions. From those experiences it was evident that BB and large CC tubas did not work well, and large Etubas also leaned clearly in that heavy direction. The instruments the judges noticed were particulerly outstanding were smaller CC tubas (we’ve all heard how the small Yamaha CC Chuck Daellenbach plays in the Canadian Brass Quintet blends very well), The smaller Besson BE980 E♭ and a number of F tubas, especially the Yamaha 822 and the original B&S. There was one other remarkable quintet F tuba we heard, which was a small B&S made especially for the son of Hungarian tubist Josef Bashinka. Perhaps it could be said it was an appropriately small tuba for a growing young man but it was also a very acoustically sophisticated and perfect quintet tuba. 

Equally important to the amplitude of the tuba sound, it’s also important and necessary to discuss the tone quality, the timbre of the sound. To blend with the other brass instruments we need an instrument that has sufficient overtones to avoid sounding like a sonic misfit in the quintet setting. The instruments mentioned above as working well in quintet, although they all have quite different timbres, all have the richness of higher overtones to blend well with the other brass.

Years ago while playing with the Los Angeles Brass Quintet, in order to find the right instrument for early music, particularly Italian renaissance music and more particularly Gabrieli, I learned some very interesting things. First of all my CC tuba did not sound right. Although it was a small CC it seemed to me to be much too thick and heavy for that music so I switched to F tuba. It was better but again it did not fit the style and this caused me to start experimenting. When the trombonist in our quintet switched to bass trumpet he sounded much more homogeneous with the trumpets but caused the F tuba to sound even more foreign to the rest of the group. It was clear; I needed something cylindrical to fit in. For a short period I used my contrabass trombone but the tessitura of most of that repertoire was too high for BB contrabass trombone. In that period of time, also to better blend with the cylindrical brass, the horn player bought and learned how to play an E♭ alto trumpet, which worked beautifully. 

At that point logic told me I had to get a contrabass trumpet in F to do Gabrieli justice; if only one was available! Short story, I organized all the parts and had one built, it worked very well and some of the Italian renaissance music we recorded 35 (Now 50) years ago still sounds very right to me today. Retrospectively, I think a good cimbasso might have been at least equal to the contrabass trumpet but in the 70s very little was known in the States about cimbassi.

Choosing the correct instrument for any situation is like planning a dinner: for example if you are going to serve an elegant Japanese meal you would not serve pizza as one of the courses, even though pizza is great!

November 1, 2005, Tokyo, Japan.

Republished June 15, 2019, Oaxaca, Mexico.

Thursday, May 02, 2019

Living With Time

Friday, March 08, 2019

Recently there has been a lot of discussion on the Internet regarding the pros and cons of mouthpiece buzzing. I can offer no definitive opinion but I can share 66 years of observation and some history.
On the west coast of the USA, Los Angeles, California, where I grew up and where I began my life in brass music, there were two very major teachers at the time: James Stamp, who was a trumpet teacher and Robert Marsteller who taught trombone and tuba. Both men were great and beloved by their students and have to this day left a legacy among their students and their student’s students.
 Mr. Stamp was the culmination of generations of brass basics, which he modified and which have been collected into what many feel is the essential collection of brass basics, included in this collection are numerous exercises to be played just on the mouthpiece. Brass players all over the world use these exercises today.
Mr. Marsteller, on the other hand held the opinion that mouthpiece exercises were harmful and lead to stiff non-fluid playing. I, being a Marsteller student, followed his doctrine for several decades. In that period I had the pleasure to teach Christian Lindberg who had come to Los Angeles for a year to study with Ralph Sauer and me. When the question of mouthpiece practice came up in a lesson I recommended that mouthpiece playing could have negative results. In a recent short online discussion on mouthpiece practice, Christian demonstrated very convincingly, by playing the same passage before and after buzzing, that buzzing had a negative effect on his sound quality. I don’t know how much my advice of 40 years ago influenced his opinion but I am sure that his very clear opinion today was reached through carful thought.
In my last years with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra I began working with the mouthpiece and found the benefits were very little and that stiffness was apparent, but there was something more that is very important. Quite simply, buzzing is not beautiful; it makes a sound that is not dissimilar to the buzzy sound we hear when an oboist or a bassoonist make squawks on their reeds; there is no resonance, or at most very little resonance, on the mouthpiece alone. The beauty of our sound is dependent on resonance and the micro-adjustments we make seeking that resonance are the same adjustments we need to develop an efficient embouchure.
By adding a little extra length to the mouthpiece, 2 to 4 inches (5 to 10 centimeters) will create significantly more resonance. Similar to adding a little extra tubing is a devise called the BERP. It is available for all brass instruments and the resistance is adjustable, which, in fact, also adjusts the resonance. 
Whether buzzing is benificial or not it's up to each player to determan for him or herself. After 66 years of experiminting I have personally come to the conclusion that it is not. I urdge all players to not take my word for it. Experiment and make your own decision.
Roger Bobo
March 8, 2019
Oaxaca, Mexico

Friday, February 22, 2019

Many assistant conductors reach their success, fame and fortune as a result of the principal conductor becoming ill and by being prepared to take over the conducting responsibilities. This is a classic example of luck; the principal conductor’s sudden illness becomes the good luck of the ambitious assistant. 
Calculation:Can luck be influenced by our individual attitudes and behaviors? There are numerous and fascinating academic studies showing copious statistics that those with optimistic attitudes have a greater incidence experiencing what they wish for, IE, good luck. Studying the best options to realize that wish gives an advantage whether we are playing the slot machines in the Las Vegas or Montecarlo casinos or measuring the circumstances of an upcoming event; studying the odds of a horse race or the surrounding conditions of an audition or competition. There are those who can calculate higher frequencies of winning and there are those who by instinct just feel ‘Lady Luck’ is there at certain times. In the casino world, virtuoso gamblers make in depth studies to anticipate as closely as possible when the best moment is to take the chanceon luck, and when to make their move. For classical musicians, knowing the conditions for a symphony orchestra position or solo competition, it’s advantageous to be aware of who the judges are, who are the other competitors, and what is the history. This gives us a greater chance of being lucky or perhaps avoiding a probability of being unlucky.
Preparation: Of course, everyone has hopes regarding many things, work, money, love, and fulfillment. Hope alone is a weak option for bringing good luck, statisticians point out that those who believe they will be lucky have a better chance for success. In 1956 a young boy of 18 years old went of to study tuba at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. Just by chance the tubist in the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra had unexpectedly just been drafted into military service. The young man, just entering his freshman year, was asked to audition; he played and was asked to join the orchestra. That was a classic example of pure luck and the boy was prepared. Because of extremely good luck and thorough preparation a long and successful career was put in motion.
Random: We don’t know when luck, good luck or bad luck, will appear. Winning the lottery or being hit by a truck, the one thing that we can be sure of is that luck will touch our lives. Some may call it destiny, karma, spiritual, superstition or just plain luck.Luck is an aspect of our private lives that we can choose, it exists for everyone. 
Be prepared and GOOD LUCK
Roger Bobo
February 22, 2019, Oaxaca, Mexico