The Creative Tubist

My friend, colleague, and fellow blogger Jeff Agrell asked me to write a guest article for the International Horn Society Journal. Here’s a peek:

Creativity is more than just being different. Anybody can play weird; that’s easy. What’s hard is to be as simple as Bach. Making the simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity – Charles Mingus

I am not a horn player, but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night. I have the honor to have Jeff Agrell as a colleague and friend, and we have a lot of conversations about creativity – as musicians, as teachers, and artists. He asked me to write a bit about creativity in my tuba-euphonium studio at the University of Iowa. I would like to share with you two main ways I utilize creativity in my studio teahing; encouraging creative practicing and assigning final projects.

CREATIVE PRACTICE – To help my students avoid memorizing mistakes and building bad habits by careless repetition, I encourage them to be creative – to make a game out of practicing. To me, being creative means to look at a problem with a fresh perspective and come up with a new solution. But it is much more than that. The practical side of creativity for musicians, is that it fuels progress in the practice room. After “running it a few times” what do you do next? I suggest practicing using a seven-staged approach:
1. IDENTIFY – Where are the problems? Frequently, a challenging piece seems fraught with difficult sections, and can seem overwhelming. But, like all problems, if you break the project down into digestible pieces, the process is more productive and less frustrating. I suggest penciling in brackets, or circling the most difficult portions, and direct your energies to these smaller, more concentrated areas of difficulty.
2. ISOLATE- Focus only on that small problem, or snippet, for now. So now that you now where the problems are, just work on those areas. Avoid playing the rest of the piece that “sounds good already” for a while, until you can strengthen the weak links.
3. DISSECT – Take it apart, slow it down, examine the problem. Sometimes you might think that the problem has to do with tonguing, but then realize it had to do with air; or you might realize that you have not  been hearing a certain interval correctly. Stop and use your tools (metronome, tuner, piano, singing, conducting, buzzing) to address that problem.
4. SIMPLIFY – Start with what you CAN do; try to play a simplified version. I like to suggest to my students that they determine what aspect of the passage is the most difficult, and reverse it. If it is very high, take it down an octave; if it is fast, then take it slow. But many might not realize that it would be just as helpful to play a slow passage fast (speed-reading), or slur a marcato passage. Perhaps simplifying the rhythm by taking out the trill, or removing the tie, or making all of the note values the same. Granted, that version is not the final product, but starting with what you can do can be much less daunting.
5. SUCCEED – Master the problem once. After some time, you will succeed, and be able to execute the passage accurately. Please remember that success once (especially after many repeated failed attempts) does not guarantee future success.
6. REPETITION – Don’t stop with step five! You must repeat the success to “erase” the effects of any repeated failed attempts. Make a game out of it and see if you can play the passage perfectly five times in a row. Try memorizing the snippet, or repeat it in a looping fashion, without pauses.
7. REINTEGRATE – Go back a few bars and test your ability to succeed in context. One you are confident that you have improved the likelihood of succeeding at your next attempt, put the snippet back in context to see if your preparation will get you through the “heat of battle”.
Final Projects –  In an effort to help my students learn more, about music and themselves, I require them each to complete a final project each semester. The projects vary, but all have something to do with music, but help them learn beyond just what they learn in lesson, ensembles, and rehearsals. The goal is the expand their interests and expose them to a variety of aspects of a musicians life – such as arranging, transposing, reading, writing, improvising – which may not necessarily be directly studied through applied lessons.

Some past final project assignments have included:

1. IMPROVISATION TEAMS – Given my experience and respect for the value of improvising, I divided my students into pairs and told them that they had to meet once a week to improvise together. There were no rules; they could use any instrument or voice, tonal or atonola, jazz or free. Once a week, during seminar class, I would schedule a team to improvise for five minutes in front of the studio. In addition, they submitted a recording of their weekly improvising. I think everyone learned a lot, and they had a good bit of fun too. I think it is important, even essential, for all musicians to have the ability to create music spontaneously. It may seem a bit unnerving at first, but it  can also be very liberating.

2. PRACTICE BLOGS – I have maintained my own blog TubaHead for several years now, and I thought it would be a good way to motivate my students in their practicing, and keep an eye on their progress. I asked them to post a few times a week and blog about their progress in the practice room, as well as their musical experiences in ensembles and attending concerts.3. JOURNAL ARTICLE REVIEW – The International Tuba Euphonium Journal is our version of the Horn Call, and I have found it helpful most of the time. I have, however, noticed a few articles that I either disagreed with, or didn’t find very informative. In an effort to inspire my students toward improving their own writing, I assigned them each to write a review of a recent ITEA article, and have encouraged them to submit their own.

4. BASS LINE TRANSCRIPTION – One of my first final projects was to transcribe the bass line from one of about a dozen pieces of rock and world music on a compilation CD I made. I have personally learned a lot by having to transcribe bass lines off of recordings to learn for different bands. Additionally, I chose pieces with active bass lines ranging in style from Mexican Banda to classic rock. After the student transcribed the piece mid-semester, they had to perform the bass line along with the recording at the end of the semester.

5. ENSEMBLE ARRANGEMENT – The University of Iowa tuba-euphonium ensemble, Collegium Tubum, is very active, and we are always in need of new music. One semester, I had each student arrange a short piece for the group. We read all of them, and a few ended up on concerts. But the most impressive result, was that several students ended up being published arrangers.

6. ETUDE COMPOSITION – In an effort to get my students thinking like composer, as well as teachers, I had them each compose two etudes; one melodic, and one technical. At the end of the semester, each student performed one of their etudes in front of the studio, while the rest of the class graded each etude.
7. INTERDISCIPLINARY ARTS PROJECT – The University of Iowa enjoys a rich, and diverse artistic community, so I wanted to encourage my students to take advantage, and attend numerous arts events. They were required to go to non-brass recitals, concerts by ensembles they might not have attended, poetry readings, art exhibits, and dance recitals. At the end of the semester, they each discussed their experiences.
8. BOOK REPORT – This past semester, I chose about twenty different books on the theme of “the brain and music”. Students were to complete the text by a certain mid-semester date, and utilize what they were learning in their comments during seminar classes. For the final seminar class, each student gave a brief overview, and commented on what they liked and didn’t like about the book.
A Few Thoughts On Creativity
One purpose of creativity is to innovate, but creativity can also invigorate, especially us “creative types.” Creativity may simply be doing something in a different way – to spice up the routine and avoid boredom. New technology can be a great catalyst for creativity. It combines the novelty of the “new toy” with the excitement of a fresh medium. Think back to the first time you finger-painted, or used a computer, or discovered the drums. Think of all the creativity released with the advent of the printing press or the internet. Sometimes pressure spawns creative bursts – like the space race not only got man to the moon, but launched countless developments and technologies which benefit man. Many writers and artists report that they “work best under a deadline”. The Modernist movement music was characterized by an intentional, self-conscious departure from the norm. Perhaps great ideas just dawn on us, but often we need to instigate the thought process, and necessity or the deadline serve as great motivators.
I have been inspired by the creativity of many artists, and especially by some very creative tuba players. In a very pragmatic way, your creativity may lay the groundwork your future. The list of tuba players below are all unique, entrepreneurs, who carved out their careers outside the mainstream.
Creative Tuba Players:
Oren Marshall – is one of the few pioneers to experiment with “electric” tuba – that is, amplified with synthesized and guitar effects.

Marcus Rojas – is the top freelance tuba player in New York city. His impressive range of styles runs from orchestral and jazz, to commercial and avant-garde.

Deana Swoboda – is the tuba professor at Western Michigan and has played in the Dallas Brass. She has a fantastic educational show called brass rap and helps educate and promote band musicians.
Jon Sass – Although he studied at the classical repertoire, he ended up moving to Vienna and making a name for himself in the European jazz/funk scene.

Brian Wolff – Like Marshal and Heasley, Brian utilizes electronic effects and loops to create a techno/house style of music all created by sounds originated with his tuba.

Oystein Baadsvik is the world’s only full-time professional tuba soloist, and a skilled improviser. His innovative, beat-box style of playing made splash on You-tuba with his hit “Fnugg” – which combines Nordic folk singing, multi-phonics and his funky “lip-beat” technique.

Tom Heasley – is an ambient musician from California. His music is transcendent and mesmerizing.

Deana Swoboda – is the tuba professor at Western Michigan and has played in the Dallas Brass. She has a fantastic educational show called brass rap and helps educate and promote band musicians.

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4 Responses to The Creative Tubist

  1. Wow, great article!

    What about adding memorizing full solos? I feel like when I memorize a solo, and iron out all the technique, I can really get much more involved and create a much bigger and cohesive musical landscape.

    I think you can also develop your musical ideas better over time, because when you sit down a few years later and play a solo, you have a lot of markings that you used before, maybe you will fall into old habits you had at the time and simply play the solo the same way you did years ago. Maybe a bit of a stretch, but either way I think memorizing is great.

    This should be posted at every university/conservatory!

    Twitter: @banihex

    • John Manning says:


      Thank you. Memorization is an invaluable tool – I neglected to mention it. I frequently suggest that to my students – if not to perform it from memory, at least work on it so much that you aren’t really “reading” the music. I’d love to hear more about your and your website, I’ll check it out now.

  2. John Manning


    Great, thanks. My personal site may or may not work, as I just deleted my account earlier. I want to take it in a different direction. The other site just started, it’d be great to get your input.


  3. Ben Stapp says:

    great blog! i just wanted to send you some music with tuba,
    thought you might enjoy.

    here is the ‘hidden link” :



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