Monday, July 02, 2012


At first glance it may seem strange that the reason fingering on the tuba falls behind the other members of the “Corporal Quartet”, breathing, articulation and embouchure, is acoustical.

How is fingering affected by acoustics? Sit down at a piano and starting from middle C play ascending C, D, E, F, G and descending G, F, E, D, C and play it as fast as you can, than repeat the same thing in minor, with an    Einstead of E; You can easily hear the difference between major and minor. Now make the same comparison starting from the lowest C on the piano; in this register it’s suddenly very difficult to discriminate a difference between major and minor. Of course, tubists rarely play that rapidly in that extreme contrabass register, but the above experiment clearly demonstrates that the lower the register the more difficult it becomes to hear, and when the clearly is difficult to hear, it’s easy to be lenient regarding digital precision.
Similarly, the fact that the tuba has the largest sound of all the instruments in the symphony orchestra family also can cause clarity problems. Like low register, sonic mass can make discriminating tonal clarity more difficult and therefore allowing the fingers to become less defined. Thirty years ago while preparing a piece (Sarturnalis, by Meyer Kupfermann), which had many technical passages in the extreme low register, I naturally approached the work with a CC tuba; the principal problem, however, was tonal clarity (pitch recognition). Finally, in desperation I tried the same low passages on F tuba, and although the fingering patterns necessary in this extreme low register were far more complicated, I was able to hear more clearly, which required that the fingering be absolutely accurate. The F tuba liberated me from the unnecessary sonic mass, which resulted in masking the clarity of the CC tuba in the low register.

Any difficult passage played by a tubist in the low register, if played by a trumpet two octaves higher, would in all probability result in greater digital accuracy simply because the trumpet player can better hear what he’s doing! Of course, the tuba can be equally as accurate as the trumpet, but the fact is, we tubists have to be especially careful that we are equally accurate.

A FACT ABOUT FINGERING: Some people have faster fingers than others. It’s interesting to note that there is absolutely no correlation between those who have naturally fast fingers, and intelligence, musicality, manhood or which instrument one plays; it simply means the fingers can move faster and more accurately, just like some people can run faster than others.

Those people who are blessed with natural digital dexterity are lucky but those of us without that good fortune can develop fast fingers by practice! Personally, I am not one of those lucky ones, but I have discovered several steps that can help train digital clarity and velocity with extraordinary results.

Educational psychologists have learned that the old system of working on a technical passage, that is playing under tempo until perfect, turning up the metronome one click faster, and repeating that process until finally the passage is at the correct tempo, is tedious and frequently not successful.

The newer more efficient method is to take the difficult passage at a slower tempo, and master that passage at that slow tempo. I have added the following five steps for this method and have observed almost 100% positive results. In dealing with these five steps please keep in mind:
Play the passage at half tempo or less,
The tempo, should not change once the procedure is started,
Whatever the articulation, each note should be as long as possible (note lengths should be proportional to the slow tempo)
And all tongued notes should be articulated very clearly.

The 5 steps:

1.  At the slow tempo, change the fingerings from note to note quickly, simulating the speed you would need to change fingerings at the real tempo. Repeat. Be patient.

2.         Same process concentrating on the fingers that go down. Repeat! Be patient! Do not go faster.

3.      Same process concentrating on the fingers that go up. Repeat!! Be patient!! Stay at the slow tempo.

4.           Same process concentrating on fingers used in common between notes. Repeat!!! Still be patient and still stay sotto tempo.

5.       Only change to the real tempo of the passage after the passage has become stable and dependable sotto tempo.

Usually this process goes quickly, occasionally not; patience will be rewarded.

Fingering need not be the weaker member of the corporal quartet, but especially for lower register instruments, we need to give special care that fingering functions equally with breathing, articulation and embouchure. Sadly, many students see this kind of fingering work as embarrassing or child like. Focusing on fingering when necessary is nothing to be ashamed of and knowing when it’s time to focus on fingering is the sign of a brilliant student. Get the Herbert L. Clark fingering exercises and go to work!

Kyoto, Japan, March 18, 2006
Revised July 2, 2012, Tokyo