Pen and tubas

Selected Articles by John Manning

(originally published on TubaNews.com)

Become a Musical Pioneer: Do Something Different!

If I hear another brass player perform the Carnival of Venice one more time I am going to scream. Nothing against traditional literature, I think it is essential everyone try to tackle all of the standard repertoire, but why not do something that HASN’T been done before?

Tuba players face a unique dilemma; all of our solo literature was written in the 20th century, or later. Sadder yet, is that it took over a century after the invention of the tuba for a composer to write a concerto for o   our instrument. Although we have made great strides in literature as well as respect, I think we are still thirsting for great music created specifically for our instrument. The way I see it, we have a few options. First, befriend a composer (hopefully a good one – or at least an imaginative one) and commission a new work. Second, transcribe a great work for tuba. This is a great way to artificially expand the repertoire and catch up with the rest of the orchestra, but what then?

For inspiration, composers and artists of the past have explored exoticism – music of “the other”. In Mozart’s time, the “exotic” sounds of Turkey excited his curiosity. The painter Paul Gauguin painted the people of Tahiti, and Mark Twain’s fascination with travel and different cultures was well known. The modern musical equivalent of this fascination is reflected in a renewed interest in “World Music”. From Kodaly to Peter Gabriel, musicians have been intrigued and inspired by the variety and newness of another culture’s music.

My interest comes from a variety of sources and experiences. Once I returned to Boston to rejoin the Atlantic Brass Quintet in 1989, I explored the eclectic musical scene in Boston and Cambridge, thriving since the 19th century. My first step was joining the Hot Tamale Brass Band. Not exactly an “exotic” stop on my voyage, but an introduction to playing a new style of improvised music from the streets of New Orleans; foreign enough for a classical tubist who grew up in Massachusetts. Not long after that, I was asked to join a group called “Brass Planet”, which was a trombone quartet with tuba and drums. The members came from a diverse array of musical backgrounds: jazz, klezmer, rock, classical, and salsa. Playing in that group was my first active exposure to true “world music”; ska, Mexican Banda music, Lebanese belly-dancing music, Greek dance music, and Balkan music. This led to playing with the Shirim Klezmer Orchestra, which was an education in a completely new style of playing.

When Jon Nelson joined the Atlantic Brass Quintet, he brought a new perspective to the group and introduced us to brass music from Brazil, Costa Rica and Mexico. In addition to his arrangements of works by Frank Zappa, he also encouraged us to tap into the world brass music scene. I had been a fan of Balkan brass bands for a few years, and by the late 1990’s I was hooked.

When the Atlantic Brass Quintet played a festival in Costa Rica, I was inspired by the compositions of Vinicio Meza. He is a native Costa Rican, who studied at Curtis Institute and also leads the hottest big band in San Jose. When I returned to play a solo recital in 2000, I commissioned Vinicio to write a four-movement work, entitled “Retratos”, or “Portraits”. Interestingly enough, Vinicio was studying the music of Spain, and the work has a strong Spanish flair, not a Costa Rican one. This piece has turned out to be a gem, and I am planning on recording it very soon.

More recently, I hosted the Northeastern Regional Tuba Euphonium Conference at the University of Massachusetts. I adopted a theme of “Diversity”, intentionally striving to create “not just another” conference. I made sure to invite top soloists, both civilian and military; college teachers and amateurs, and sponsored competitions to be sure to interest students. I had a strong Northeast representation with Mike Roylance and Norman Bolter from the Boston Symphony and top teachers from Maine, New Jersey, and Massachusetts. To inject some variety I invited artists to present lectures and multimedia presentations as well as a “TubaPalooza” event, which featured jazz, rock, Dixieland, and avante gard musicians. There were a lot of great moments at NeRTEC, but the highlight for me was the lecture recital entitled “Chinese music transcribed for tuba and guzheng” presented by a former student Chi-Sun Chan and his wife Shin-Yi Yang. I had encouraged them to find some music that they could play together. The result was innovative and beautiful. I was so enthused that I immediately asked “Sun” and his wife if I could perform this music sometime with Shin-Yi.

My dream will be realized tomorrow, when I perform the “Guzheng Suite” at my solo faculty recital at the University of Massachusetts. I feel a strong sense of pride for having played a small part in the creation of this entirely new concept, and excited at all of the possibilities it holds. I had never heard guzheng before, or at least not live (It is that haunting, plucked, stringed instrument you often hear in Chinese music).

Exploring new music is the duty of all serious musicians, and delving in world music is the new frontier. From the musical journeys of the Kronos Quartet, to the huge popularity of Astor Piazzolla, world music is hot. Currently, I am a big fan of Balkan (“Gypsy or “Rom”) brass bands, Mexican Bandas, and the music of Brazil, Costa Rica, and China. This interest represents much more than a simple hobby for me, it is a potential crossroads in our musical tradition. As I learned form the history of Klezmer music or jazz, new art forms often emerge from a fusion of styles. Why not seek out potential combinations by adding to your current musical knowledge in a nontraditional way?

By no means am I saying that world music is the only new direction in music, nor do I want to discourage students from learning the standards. But, if you are looking for something new, and have a creative interest in music that is outside the norm, go exploring!

P.S. – Don’t forget to send me a postcard.

Re-learning to Breathe


“You play the tuba, you must have huge lungs!”

As tuba players we know that the answer to this most common of questions is, “No, not really.”

I must admit, however, that I have fantasized about having my physician discover, to his amazement, that I possess some kind of supernatural tuba player abilities. I have imagined teams of interns gathering around to examine my “super lungs” or my “chops of steel”. In reality we all know that what we do is not so much super-human, but could more accurately be described as hyper-human.

Everyone knows how to breathe, it’s just that us wind players have learned to move a lot of air. Ironically, the air moving part of our job is the easiest, but the one that is most frequently taken for granted.

The real specialized skill behind brass playing is developing a characteristic tone and learning to operate our horns. A lot goes into sounding like a tuba player: embouchure, articulation, projection, control, consistency and color. Of course, the first challenge we encounter is operating the thing. Learning (new) fingerings, reading bass clef, even holding our instruments takes some effort. And, like all musicians, we have to become fluent at our special language of symbols and words that make up the act of reading music.

But, when it comes to forgetting the basics, the first thing to go is breathing. Arnold Jacobs taught us that “We are complex machines,” capable of effortlessly performing thousands of functions simultaneously. Given that concept, our goal should be to spend a lot of time getting to the point that our playing motor functions can operate almost on “automatic pilot,” leaving us to simply think of “wind and song.” It seems like such a simple task, but too frequently what goes wrong in the equation has to do with air.


We breathe every minute of every day – asleep or awake, we are unrelenting respirators. So it is ironic that the most frequent problem I notice in brass players is related to moving air. Some people don’t breathe deeply enough, others breathe too slowly, and still others try to “budget” their air and go too long without taking a breath. It is a good idea to get away from the horn for a minute and examine how we naturally breathe.

One great way to monitor your “natural model” is to lie down with one hand on your belly and the other on your chest. Since we don’t have to “try” to breathe, just inhale naturally and notice where and how much your body moves. Now get up and run in place for five minutes, lie down again and monitor your breathing again. Notice the exaggerated breathing after the exercise and compare it to your resting state version.


I have noticed one universal commonality between all great brass musicians I have ever met – they all had at least one outstanding and dedicated music teacher when they were young. We owe a world of gratitude to these generous and gifted educators for starting us off with a strong foundation in music and brass playing. That said, I have also found that there is a common misconception about a well-intended piece of advice we often hear from these early mentors. As an example, when I was in High School, our marching band director was a former Navy musician and a demanding taskmaster. He had us stand at attention, run laps for moving, and insisted on good tone and musicianship at all times. I remember a big thing with him was not moving our shoulders. What he was hoping for us to avoid the excessive tension caused by raising the shoulders earward, which is often the result of an over exaggerated inhalation. This misinterpretation turned into a bad habit of preventing all upper thoracic movement, preventing a full, natural inflation.

Some teachers suggest separating inhalation into two regions – a “belly” breath and a “chest” breath, encouraging their students to “fill up from the bottom first, then the top.” We all have most likely been told countless times to “breathe from the diaphragm” and “play with support”. I don’t wish to discount this well-intended instruction, but I do want to attempt to dispel some common misconceptions. For tubists especially, I think the focus should be on maximum air flow and minimal air pressure.

I frequently go through this lecture with young tuba players who I have met for the first time. They often have a lot of technique and musicality, but their tone is deficient and they tend to use too little air. Once I “allow” them to fill up completely, they discover a whole new “reserve tank” to tap into and quickly learn to sound better with less effort.

When you ask a young tuba player to explain the diaphragm, you often get a vague description of something in the gut, with no idea what it really is or does. I don’t think that all tuba students have to be as knowledgeable of the anatomy as Arnold Jacobs was, but I do want them to understand the basics of respiration.

The diaphragm serves as a wall between the upper thorax (where the lungs and heart reside) and the lower (where our intestines and other organs are located). When we inhale, the diaphragm flattens out, causing a change in pressure, which draws air into the lungs. Generally the diaphragm is not engaged on the exhale, so it is best for tuba players to avoid “pushing” or “bearing down” when we exhale. One way to think about it is to blow less and breathe into the tuba. When we engage the diaphragm while exhaling (playing), airflow is inhibited and results in inefficiency and a thin sounding tone. So, “breathing from the gut” and “play with support” can be confusing and sometimes counterproductive suggestions.


Like most things in music, I find it best to focus on how it sounds – not how it looks, or how it feels. As soon as I can get a student to realize how the respiratory system works, I want them to forget it, and focus on their sound. Utilizing aural and mental models is a great way to improve you sound. If you aren’t currently studying with a private teacher who plays his or her instrument well, you may want to seek one out. Just as “A picture’s worth a thousand words”, so is a good sound model. Live performances and recordings provide some inspiration, but there is no substitution for the inspiration and motivation of hearing how it should go. Most importantly, watch how a professional brass player breathes. Notice how much they expand, how relaxed they look, and when they breathe. And, of course, listen to how they sound.


Like all things invisible, air is a hard thing to observe. That is why visual aids like breathing tools (incentive spirometers, breathing bags, power breathers) are extremely valuable at teaching us to move air. More powerful, however, is the power of our minds. Norman Bolter, trombonist with the Boston Symphony, has his students visualize projecting their sound to a far-off corner of the hall, or a nearby tree. I like the concept that Sam Pilafian passed on to me; play with warm, slow, moist air. Cool, fast, dry air results in a non-characteristic sound and tends to expend your precious air supply too quickly. It is the type of air you use to warm up your hands on a cold day, or to fog up a mirror. All tuba and euphonium players have a great substitute for a mirror right in front of their noses – the bell of their instruments. Breathing a “fog circle” on the surface of your bell helps you to visualize this concept of warm, slow, moist air quite well.


Of course, breathing exercises are extremely helpful in reinforcing your muscle memory for taking a full, efficient breath and utilizing it to its fullest potential. The problem, from what I have seen, is that you can become a master of breathing exercises but fail to take those good habits to the horn. Too often, brass players forget all their training as soon as they pick up the horn. I think it is a good idea to come up with a few “Applied Breathing Exercises”, which encourage you to carry over healthy breathing habits to playing the tuba. Here are some simple ideas:

When working on a passage that challenges your phrasing, each place at which you would normally try to get a quick breath, stop and take a long, full, slow breath and then return to the music. This teaches you capture the feeling of a complete breath with the luxury of stopping time. Ultimately, you want to learn to minimize the length of your breaths.

Breathing through your nose is a perfectly natural method of respiration, however, brass players don’t typically utilize this method due to the fact that it is inefficient. However, the ability to catch a quick but shallow nasal breath can be fruitful enough to tie you over to the next oral breath. The advantage is that you can get a breath, albeit small, without pulling your embouchure away from the mouthpiece, which can be very handy in some situations.

This one I got from Øystein Baadsvik during a visit to the University of Iowa last year. He folded a piece of paper a few times and stuck it between the mouthpiece and leadpipe of one of my student’s euphoniums. This intentionally caused an extreme leak in the tone production system and encouraged the player to move much more air. Once the paper was removed, his tone improved dramatically.

Sometimes it is challenging enough just to get through a phrase, and no matter how big a breath you take, you still can’t get to the end of the phrase. To overcome this, play the phrase much faster and a bit softer than written. When you hear what it sounds like to deliver the phrase uninterrupted, without the burden of leaving the musical line to breathe, you can use this as a model once you reinsert a breath.

Simply, think of yourself as a beach ball. Instead of thinking of inhaling, just think of inflating. As you exhale, or play, deflate – let your body collapse. Rather than forcing the air out, let gravity do the work. Learn to fill up properly and utilize your air supply efficiently, without rationing. As Arnold Jacobs taught, waste air – it’s free.


As I mentioned before, it seems ironic that we have to learn, or even re-learn anything about respiration, but part of that might be due to the fact that we are performers. With most performance-oriented activities comes a degree of anxiety. It is hard to fight the primal instinct to fight or flight when confronted with stress. This is a primitive yet powerful instinct that causes us to tense up, which is counterintuitive to most performing. No matter how many times you tell yourself to relax, tension still creeps in and paralysis takes hold. This might explain why we overlook the simplicity of breathing when we are learning to master the tuba, even though we know that good breathing is essential to good playing. Sometimes we learn surprisingly slow, and it often takes multiple repetitions for anything to become a habit. Don’t be discouraged, learn to stick with it and don’t forget the basics. When in doubt, don’t think too much – and don’t forget to breathe!

Musical Ephemera; Souvenirs of a Life on the Road

Ephemera, plural of ephemeron, is defined as:
1. A short-lived thing
2. Printed matter of passing interest

I have always been interested in collecting musical ephemera; printed material from the performances and travels of my musical life. From my earliest band folders to my most recent recital programs, musical ephemera reminds me of how far I have gone, both geographically and musically.

Most people collect some type of souvenirs from their travels; snapshots, snow globes, and spoons, to name a few. For me, the concept of having visual proof of a travel adventure is irresistible. We all like to travel, but we love to talk about the trip even more. Traveling can be exhausting, uncomfortable, dirty work, but sharing the voyage is thrilling (unless you happen to be on the wrong side of a slide show of someone else’s summer vacation). Collectable souvenirs like ashtrays, thimbles, and t-shirts are fine, but they lack the personal significance that ephemera have. Snapshots are OK, but they always seem to fall short of the mark. “It looks much more impressive in real life”; “Too bad I don’t have a zoom lens”; “I’m not sure who that guy is”. Ephemera are miniature, concise, official, and tell a story of their own.

Musicians always automatically get a free souvenir at each performance, the concert program. In addition to program notes, it often lists what chair you played, who else played with you, and who the conductor was. In the world of academia, these programs are crucial evidence at supporting your validity and confirming your productivity. As I enter the latest chapter in my academic career, I am grateful for my habit of preserving ephemera, as it will be helpful when tenure review rolls around. This habit has been with me since I was young, and has included assorted collections, from patches and stickers to programs and posters.

According to the American Society of Ephemera, many things fall under the category of ephemera: advertisements, baseball cards, magazines, posters, photographs, postcards and sheet music. Judging by the huge interest people have in collecting these now valuable items, I would say that they are more than just “short lived things”

As a kid, I collected patches – not exactly printed material, but very close. I was fascinated by the fact that I could reminisce about the places I visited by thumbing through my shoebox full of emblems from states and museums. I soon adopted a “merit badge” mentality, collecting patches as proof of visitation. There is something special about the fact that you can own something connected to a place not only in origin, but also in design, much like a status symbol.

Eventually, my interest turned to music and my patch fetish faded. As I got better at the playing the tuba, I got involved in regional, district, and all-state festivals and discovered a new form of ephemera – stickers. I had spotted these stickers plastered on the cases of the top musicians in the high school band, touting their prowess to the world, or at least to fellow band geeks. Now they were all over my case, and there is plenty of room on a tuba case for stickers!

My interest in collecting musical ephemera was rekindled about 10 years ago, when I started traveling abroad with the Atlantic Brass Quintet. From 1988 to about 1992, we toured forty-eight states, performing in tiny towns and small cities while staying in one Motel 6 after another. In 1992 we flew to Narbonne, France and won the Premier Prix at the International Brass Quintet Competition and came home with the ultimate souvenir – a trophy. I remember saving a sticker from the bar where we celebrated that night, appropriately named “Le Pub”. Upon our return in 1994, to present our “winners concert”, we were thrilled to see a poster of us in every shop window. Posters with our picture are really cool, but if they were printed in a foreign language, they are golden to me. Hanging on the walls of my studio, I have Atlantic Brass Quintet concert posters, printed in French, Spanish, Japanese, and Korean. I am proud of these posters because they reflect our accomplishments, and preserve a unique time and place.

In 1995, the Atlantic Brass Quintet embarked on a seven-country tour sponsored by “Arts America”, a now-defunct branch of the state department’s United States Information Agency. The tour consisted of 22 concerts over six weeks in Pakistan, India, Oman, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. It was a grueling tour, but the adventure of my lifetime. We were put up in five-star hotels, where they still continue the tradition of providing their guests with “Luggage Labels”. This tradition harkens back to the age of the steamer trunk and struck a chord with my “merit badge” mentality. On that trip, I collected labels from the Le Meridian New Delhi; the Cairo Marriott; the Muscat (Oman) Sheraton; the Taj Benghal Calcutta; the Galaxy Gardens in Mussoorie, India, and the Al Fau Holiday Inn, Jeddah. Before I left, I had a special case made for my tuba because I had been warned about how luggage was handled in this part of the world, and I had no choice but to check my tuba. The case is a masterpiece of triple-ply aircraft aluminum and custom fitted on the inside with three different densities of foam to keep it immobile (the key, by the way, to preventing shifting and dents).

This massive, trapezoidal case on wheels became a blank canvas for my sticker collecting. On a trial run before the Middle East tour, I took it to Texas and Japan with great success. It was tough, and traveled well, but it also served as a makeshift autograph album. In Cairo, we worked with members of the opera house orchestra and one of them signed my case “I hope you have very good time”.  On the train going to the airport in Japan, a musician wrote something in Japanese, which I later learned read  “To the dancing tuba player”. I’ve added stickers from all sorts from clubs and festivals I have played at to mementos of my biggest successes and failures. To this day, I cherish a tiny sticker I got in Guebwiller, France to remind me of the competition I lost miserably there.

My latest collection of ephemera, also displayed on the wall of my office, consists of nametags from various events I have attended or performed at. Anyone can get a Niagara Falls ashtray, but only you can get a nametag with your name on it from an event that you attended. It serves as undeniable proof of your accomplishment. A nametag answers the questions of “who, what, where” with “Me! , There! , Then!”

Concert programs also do that, but you have to rifle through the pages and you can’t display them as easily. My nametag collection includes several All-State Conferences, ITECs and one from the Army Band Tuba Euphonium Conference.  I like the one from the Boston Independence Day celebration on the Esplanade, where the Boston Pops play. It looks basically like a “backstage” pass, much like what rock musicians wear. I am most proud of the nametag I designed for NeRTEC, the regional conference I hosted. My most recent addition is a snazzy one from the Summer Band Festival in Jeju, South Korea. It not only includes a nice lanyard, but features and small publicity photo of the Atlantic Brass Quintet, along with my name, and some really nifty Korean writing. (All right, I admit I’m a geek!)

My biggest regret is to not have some kind of musical souvenir from a few highlights from my musical career. I once played a gig with the Hot Tamale Brass Band in Boston at Mama Kin; a club owned by the band Aerosmith. It was a fun band, but wasn’t a fun gig. We had to compete with dance music in the next room, and we only got a fleeting glimpse of Aerosmith before they disappeared into their private room. We were then directed to play on the foyer in front of some locked doors, and not only did we lose the steady traffic of the audience, but the space was had a low ceiling and it felt like we were playing in a box. After we finished we discovered that we had been playing for hours right in front of Aerosmith’s private room, and they emerged, one by one to our amazement. Each member of the band nodded and smiled to us as they left, and I got up the courage to approach lead singer Steven Tyler and thanked him for letting us play. He replied with “Hey Tubahead, phenomenal!” I wish I had a picture of that moment!

During President Clinton’s first Christmas in the White House, the Atlantic Brass Quintet was invited to play for a reception for some diplomats and their Families. We were very honored and excited and hired a hot shot New York photographer to capture any potential photo-ops with the president. As it turned out, we were stationed next to a Christmas tree in the entry hallway of the West wing and the president was away on business. The Diplomats and their families strode past us merrily as they were escorted deeper into the White House for their reception. Although photographs count as ephemera, all we got from our White House experience were a few shots of us playing next to a Christmas tree (it could be any tree) and security dogs sniffing our cases at the security gate.

So, if you are a young musician, start saving those programs, stickers and posters. You may not appreciate their value for many years to come, but you’ll be glad you hung on to them. To this day I can proudly point to my flight case and say; “See that Karachi Sheraton sticker? That’s where I got food poisoning!”

College Audition Advice


With the college audition season just about to begin, I thought that it would be timely to offer my thoughts from the other side of the “hot seat”. Whether you are considering a conservatory, a music department at a private college, or a music school at a public University – if you want to major in music, you need to audition. The audition procedure varies from state to state and country to country, but here is my advice to help you with one of the most important moments of your career.

The first piece of advice I have to offer is be a good student. There is little an instructor can do to convince their institution to overlook a weak academic record, no matter how strong a player you are. If you aren’t a good “test taker”, and received low standardized test scores (SAT or ACT), a good GPA and class standing may help. Although I don’t really mind if my tuba students flunked trigonometry, I have learned that those who performed poorly academically in high school tend to do poorly in college. At the very least, poor grades may cause them to lose scholarships, and in some cases, drop out of school.

College is challenging enough for the average student, but music majors have some of the toughest schedules on campus. Trying to juggle rehearsals, music theory and history classes, practicing, combined with academic and social demands can be the hardest aspect of college. If you are a high school student with hopes of becoming a Music major, don’t make the mistake of assuming academics don’t matter. Learn to prioritize and develop good study habits before college.

From the professor’s perspective, you are an investment. Each year, instructors are hoping to maintain and build their studios, filling them with strong players and solid students. It is good to remember that this person is evaluating you on several levels. The most important aspect is your playing ability, but they are also hoping to get an idea of you personality and intellect. After all, they are going to spend four years with you, guiding you toward your professional goals, and they want to be sure that you work together well. Remember, you are auditioning them as well. As much as you may want to attend a certain school, if you and the professor don’t click, perhaps you should reconsider.

The other part of being a good student is how you interact with your instructor. Listen to everything they have to say, make eye contact, and be curious. Most importantly, be honest with them and yourself. Frequently, I turn auditions into “mini-lessons” to not only offer the student a glimpse of how I work, but to test how the student responds to suggestion. Be prepared for this, and use it as a way to evaluate your professor.

In addition to good grades, there are other non-musical preparations you can make in high school. Most guidance counselors stress the importance of showing extra-curricular involvement, and it certainly helps. I look for a diverse level of musical experience, such as participation in regional and all-state festivals, youth orchestras, marching and jazz bands, and chamber music. Applicants with diverse musical experiences add richness and depth to the studio, and are most prepared for college. An added benefit to performing with numerous groups is that it provides you with essential contact with directors who could possibly write you strong recommendation letters.


By your junior year, you should start researching schools. Band directors, private teachers, fellow students, and the Internet are all good starting points. Remember, you should choose the best school for you (not for your parents, your director or your friends). A school’s brochure and website can be an excellent source of information, but nothing substitutes for a campus visit. Arrange to take a tour of the campus, sit in on classes, stay overnight if possible, and attend a rehearsal or concert if possible.

For music majors, I think the most important aspect of the college visit is to take a “sample lesson” with the instructor. I do this with as many applicants as I can, for it gives both the student and the instructor a chance to get to know each other in the same context in which they will spent most of their time over the next four years. After the lesson, try to arrange a meeting with some of the members of the studio and ask them about the school. This will give you the valuable insight you need to make this all-important decision.

There are a lot of things to consider when deciding on which colleges to apply to. Do you prefer a conservatory environment, or more of a University setting? Are you more comfortable at a large school or small one? Close to home, or as far away as possible? You will need to list these preferences and prioritize them in order of importance. For example, you may love the campus, but they may not have a full-time instructor. You might hate the music building, but the ensembles are outstanding. Make a list of all the things that really matter to you, then, list them in order of importance, for example, like this:

1. Tuba professor
2. Tuition
3. Ensembles
4. Marching Band
5. Distance from home

The application process is a necessary evil you must contend with, and if you are not a detail-oriented person, take extra care. Pay close attention to deadlines and organize yourself by making a chart or checklist, especially if you are applying to multiple schools. Be aware that in the case of most Universities, you will need to apply to both the University and the School, or Department of Music. In most cases, you can do this online, and get accepted to the University before you audition. Generally, your audition is the determining factor for acceptance into the school/department of music.

Smart college applicants plan audition tours, grouping their auditions geographically and chronologically. Due to potential delays and instrument damage, I recommend driving whenever possible, not flying. Most schools have official “audition days” between January and March, but they may also be willing to schedule “special auditions”, at your convenience. Often, the audition days offer organized tours, opportunities for you and your parents to meet the faculty and administration, and sometimes theory and history tests. If you have a choice, I recommend auditioning as early as possible. It can be harder to find scholarship funds for a student who auditions later in the cycle.

Once you have an audition scheduled, and possibly before, you should decide on what to play. First, check with the instructor regarding audition repertoire requirements. Many schools don’t have specific mandates, but suggest “two selections of varying style” from the standard repertoire. Be sure to choose pieces that you are familiar with, and play well. Trying to impress the audition committee by playing a tough piece poorly won’t make a good impression. This is your chance to put your best foot forward, and play your best. I would suggest being prepared to play two movements of a solo, an etude, and possibly an orchestral excerpt. Be sure to use original music, not copies, at the audition. Music is an investment, and serious students own their own music.

Be sure to arrive at the audition totally prepared. Make sure your instrument is in good working order, and don’t forget your mouthpiece! Most schools don’t require an accompanist, but if you have one, it may put you at ease. You may want to check to see if the school requires one, and if they could provide one.


Here are my suggestions for a successful audition strategy:

1. GET GOOD DIRECTIONS – The last thing you need on audition day is the added stress of getting lost and/or arriving late. Try to stay nearby the night before the audition if possible and find out where you can park.

2. AVOID CAFFEINE – Try to avoid caffeine for a few days prior to the audition and get plenty of sleep. Also, don’t radically change your daily routine the day of the audition. Eat and exercise normally, don’t decide to skip breakfast, or wear your body out before the audition.

3. DRESS WELL – Be sure to look your best, but remember to be comfortable. Wearing brand new shoes, or an ill-fitting jacket may distract you from playing  and feeling comfortable. Look professional and be polite, think of this as a job interview.

4. BE PREPARED – Be sure you are totally comfortable with the music you have chosen. Plan on a few “mock auditions” in front of teachers and friends. You should check with the instructor to see if you should be prepared to play scales or sight-reading, you don’t want to be surprised. I would also recommend you be prepared for an informal interview and have a list of questions ready to ask the professor.

5. MAKE A GREAT FIRST IMPRESSION – It is true that first impressions are critical, not only socially but sonically. The first thing most professors listen for is your sound, so be sure your “warm up” notes, or opening measures sound great.Don’t be shy, fill the room with your tone and always sound your best.

6. DON’T EXPECT PERFECTION – Too may applicants show immediate and     obvious disappointment during their auditions. No one plays perfectly, expect a few mistakes and don’t let worrying about one mistake lead to another. I tell my students to “strive for perfection, but don’t expect to achieve it.” It never goes as well as your last practice session, and with the added pressure of a college     audition, you may find yourself making silly mistakes – let them go!


Once you have survived the audition, the hard part is over. However, there are a few things you can do. Send a brief note, email, or even call the professor to thank them for the opportunity and perhaps discuss the audition. If you are on an audition tour, focus on the next audition. Try to evaluate your last audition and improve upon it. This is also a chance to organize your correspondence with the school and update your checklist.

If you are fortunate enough to be accepted by several schools, you have a tough decision to make. It’s time to re-examine your preferences and priorities. The most frequent element students and parents focus on at this time is cost. Keep in mind the following:

1. Like buying a new instrument, get the best education you can afford. Carefully weigh the cost of paying off loans in exchange for being able to attend the best school for you.

2. Keep scholarship offer amounts in perspective. You may be offered a $5,000 scholarship to “School A”, and a $2500 scholarship to “School B”. However, if the total tuition and fees to attend “School A” is $15,000, remember it will cost $10,000 a year to attend. If “School B’s” tuition and fees totals $7500, it would only cost you $5000 a year. I frequently hear that students decide on the school that “offers them the most money” and I fear that they are regarding scholarships as a prize instead of a discount. When it comes to your education, don’t let your ego or your wallet get in your way. Remember, what you get out of college depends a lot on what you put into it. You may get a “full ride” but be unmotivated and miss out on all the potential benefits of the experience.

3. Make the choice that’s best for you. You will get a lot of advice when it comes time to decide – from you parents, your friends and your teachers. Ultimately, you have to be happy with your decision. You are an adult, this is your future, and life is what you make of it. Choosing a college based solely on one recommendation, or one experience may not serve you well.


Once you make the big decision, besides relaxing, you still have some things to do. Many times, purchasing an instrument is first on the list. The best thing to do is to consult with your future professor and find a dealer and try out a lot of different makes and models. In some cases, this purchase can wait, especially if you currently own a decent instrument or can rent one from the school. This would also be a time to purchase new music. Ask your instructor what etude books, solos, and excerpts you should get. A great way to acclimate to your campus is to attend a summer orientation, band camp, or plan another campus visit. Anything you can do to adapt to your new environment and orient yourself around the campus will ease your adjustment period


When I was in high school, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do until I was about 16. I was commuting to Boston three times a weekend to participate in the Greater Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra at Boston University, and the Massachusetts Youth Wind Ensemble and Youth Chamber Orchestra at the New England Conservatory. Due mostly to those experiences, I chose to apply to only BU and NEC.

At my audition for NEC, I auditioned for Toby Hanks. I remember that he remarked, “I can tell from your warm up that you are a good player”, which encouraged me and relaxed me for the audition itself – thanks Toby. For my Boston University audition, we took an illegal left turn and got into an accident – what a way to start! The audition went well, however and I had been studying with Sam Pilafian a bit in high school, so ultimately chose to attend BU.

At the time, Boston University was one of the most expensive private colleges the U.S., but I managed to get some scholarship and took out a lot of student loans. I had to contend with student loans for years, but it was worth it. BU doesn’t have much of a campus, I only got to play in the orchestra once, and the practice rooms were infested with mice – but studying with Sam Pilafian and the Empire Brass was an invaluable, life-changing experience.


College is an investment in your own future, so do as much research and take as much care as you can in the process. College can be one of the most exciting and challenging times of your life, and, as I said before, it is what you make it. The music world is not a lucrative one, but it has it’s own special rewards. If you have the talent, the dedication and the passion it takes, a career in music will be it’s own reward. As they say, do what you love and the money will follow.

I realize that the audition process might be different than I have outlined above, and my advice may not work for everyone, so I would welcome other’s perspectives in the forum.

Break a leg!

Stocking Your Tuba Toolbox


Each day, us brass players need to be prepared to tackle a wide variety of musical jobs, and like any job, it requires tools. I’m not just referring to our instruments, but stocking your metaphorical toolbox with all of the skills necessary to successfully navigate the hurdles of your musical workday.

I look at my daily routine, or warm-up, as a period of preparation and maintenance. I include long tones, lip slurs, scales, arpeggios, and range building exercises. But, the recipe for a good day doesn’t stop there. I also make sure I do breathing exercises, some mouthpiece buzzing, and work with a metronome and tuner.

I remind my students of this concept when they encounter a problem-spot during their lesson. For example, if the student is having problems slurring up a fifth, I suggest that if they had already accomplished that in their daily routine – that day and every day – that slur would be less of an issue. I relate it to the handyman, who totes a well-stocked toolbox and is ready for any task. Not having worked on low range articulation might be equivalent to the handyman forgetting his screwdriver back at the shop.


In addition to skills, there are actual tools of the trade that each of us should have, such as a metronome, tuner, and recorder. But owning these essential tools is only half the battle; we must learn how to use them properly, effectively and creatively.  Recently, I observed one of my students practicing a Bordogni etude. To his credit, he went to the piano – a powerful learning tool  – and proceeded to plunk out the melody. However, he never sang or buzzed his mouthpiece along the piano to help him learn to achieve the proper intervals and fine intonation necessary. Although I insist that all my students learn to sing everything they play, many under-use this valuable exercise. Ironically, this student was a formal vocalist, so it wasn’t embarrassment or lack of vocal control holding him back. Using a piano, electric keyboard, or even a pitch pipe gives you the vital feedback necessary to hone in on the exact pitch center of each note. I tell my students, “When in doubt, you probably can’t hear it.” Even if you have a solid grasp of the pitch, singing helps you make musical decisions away from the instrument, isolating the musician within and giving the chops a break. The best part about singing as a learning tool is that everyone has a voice, so you don’t have to spend money to buy this tool. If you still think that your voice is closer to Tom Waits than Tom Jones, then try humming or whistling. Either way, if you can’t sing it, you can’t hear it. And if you can’t hear it, don’t expect your horn to find the right note for you.


Speaking of pitch, let’s talk about intonation. First off, no brass instrument ever invented plays perfectly in tune on every note. All of our horns are imperfect tubes with slight imperfections and idiosyncrasies. Therefore, we must adjust many notes by one of three methods: lipping, using alternate fingerings, or pulling tuning slides.

Learning to bend any note with your lip into its proper pitch center is a skill that takes practice and control, but it is necessary especially when fine-tuning open notes or when slides are not accessible. If you haven’t discovered your instrument’s “bad” notes, I suggest spending some time with a tuner and making an intonation chart, which in addition to a traditional fingering chart includes pitch correction solutions. If, for example, you find that you’re A-naturals are all twenty cents sharp, you may make a notation to use 3rd valve or pull your 1st valve tuning slide out an inch or two.

You may have noticed that all makes and models of tubas have adjustable slides connected to each valve, and they are conveniently located as to allow movement while playing. Despite this obvious design plan, too many tubists allow their left hand to lay idle while continuing to play certain notes out of tune. Given my background and training, I have chosen to correct my intonation using all three methods, but mostly by adjusting my tuning slides with my left hand. This isn’t for everyone, and I know that some people and some instruments manage to play beautifully with very little slide movement, but it is what works for me. So, if you aren’t correcting by lip or utilizing alternate fingerings, and you still play out of tune, you must use that left hand as a tool to adjust those slides.


Like a carpenter’s hammer, the metronome is one of the most frequently used tools in the musician’s toolbox. There are many different kinds of metronomes on the market ranging from $20 to over $100, but they all do the same basic job; they keep absolutely perfect time. But, like any tool, it can be overused, underused, and misused. The most common mistake is to take it for granted and not use it enough. After that, many students with poor timekeeping skills use it too much, and become dependent on it. I recommend a 50% rule: put the metronome on half the time, and turn it off the other half. To drill certain passages, leave it on. But, when running sections, entire etudes or movements, for each time you play with the metronome on, turn it off and play it through again “without the training wheels”. This will help wean you off of the metronome and prevent you relying on it for a crutch.

If you find yourself without a metronome, one thing that I find works quite well is what I call “played subdivisions”. To learn to play a rhythmically challenging passage in time, try playing the smallest subdivided beats within all long notes. For example, if the passage contains a half note followed by triplet notes, it makes sense to start thinking of the triplet subdivision during the half note. I recommend taking this mental method a step further and manifest it by actually playing the upcoming subdivision imbedded in the longer note value.

Another valuable exercise is to sing while conducting the music, in tune and in time. As I mentioned earlier, the ability to sing is a tool that every musician should learn to exploit. Learning to refine the physical coordination while singing accurate rhythms and pitches is a valuable skill, and will help your sense of time, your ear, and your overall musicality.


With all of the makes and models of instruments available and countless body types and sizes, it’s logical to assume that many people may need to make certain concessions to play their instruments comfortably. For tubists, you also have to take into account the type and height of whatever chair you happen to be playing on. With all these variables, it is no surprise that many of us may need to address some very important ergonomic considerations. The best solution is to figure out how to bring the instrument to you. What I mean is that you should be sitting (or standing) upright, but comfortably. When “addressing” the instrument, you shouldn’t be slouching, leaning, reaching up, or twisting your torso unnaturally. At the very least, it may lead to unnecessary physical tension, and may be adversely affecting your playing. Don’t settle for discomfort or compromised posture. One of the most popular solutions is to use a tuba rest, or stand. It solves the problem of supporting your instrument and eliminates the need to compromise your good posture just to meet the mouthpiece straight on. Sometimes, all that is needed is a small pillow, stack of paperbacks or hockey pucks, or even a guitar strap. Your instrument is the most valuable music-making tool you own, and if you are holding it incorrectly, it will work against you in the long run.


I could go on about all of the gadgets on the market to help musicians (e.g. BERPS, incentive spirometers, decibel meters, visualizers, tonal enhancers, cup holders, etc.) but the most important thing to remember is that it isn’t how many tools you have, it’s how you use them. I try to discourage my students from buying the next great product on the market to fix a problem, but I encourage them to use creativity and technology to their advantage.


They say that tool making is what separates humans from other animals, but scientists have observed exceptions such as primates who use tools to harvest food. The most valuable tool in your toolbox is your brain, but yet, many of us take it for granted and only used a small percentage of its potential every day. Use your common sense and your life experience to continue to problem-solve and improve your playing. If a chimpanzee can figure out how to get a free lunch, you can certainly learn to improve your high register.


DEG “Handy Tuba Rest”

The Boss DB-88 Talking Dr. Beat Metronome

Korg Tuners and Metronomes

ErgoHorn for euphonium


Intonation Trainer Software

National Geographic article about chimps using toolkits!


2 Responses to Writing

  1. Alex Pruzon says:

    These are very good tips! I’m a freshman tubist in Rosebud-Lott High School, located in central Texas, and most of what I learn in regards of improving my craft is from the Internet. Finding sites such as this one is a great help.
    Thanks everyone that maintains websites like this.

  2. I feel the same way about the Ewald(s) that you do about the Carnival of Venice. We’ve tried to expand the tuba literature into the Baroque with Albinoni and a few of his contemporaries only to be shot down. Our Concerto St. Marc for Tuba & Wind Quartet has been played by Richard White out in New Mexico and will be recorded for Summit Records, but the tuba purists don’t seem to appreciate it. We’ve got Fritz Kreisler’s Preludeum and Allegro for Tuba and String Orchestra on the back-burner. Perhaps that will get the ball rolling. Otherwise, as my business partner Craig Garner says, “It’s the same old Ohm-Pah”.

    To hear Richard’s recording of the Albinoni, go to this link:
    Richard A. White – Concerto St. Marc for Tuba & Winds. It’s pretty awesome.

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