What should I practice on tuba? The answer is going to depend a lot on where you are in your journey. This article probably won’t apply to you if you’ve never asked yourself this question.
I consider this essential reading for anyone considering music school.
Let me start with an example.
I was a very good high school player. I had a private teacher, but I also had a lot going on in my life at that time. I was really into reading, learning, composing, learning other instruments, playing in various bands, and even athletics.
So, I practiced euphonium a few times a week. Those practice sessions consisted of warming up, running through a Rochut etude for the week, and then running through whatever solo material I had. I’d spend some time on tricky bits of any of those.
That was it. It took an hour on a slow day but usually more like 45 minutes. It never occurred to me to wonder what I should be practicing, because I filled my time with preparing for my lessons.
Most people will never go beyond this point. Practice what your teacher tells you to practice. They will know what is best for you. If this fills your time, then you probably don’t need this article.
When I got to college, my lessons didn’t consist of much more than what I was used to, but it was recommended that I practice 15 hours a week (or something like that).
I remember thinking: what should I practice? Filling that much time seemed inconceivable. I could get through my lesson material in 1/3 of that time.
This article is what I wish I had available to me back then. It’s my personal thoughts on the usefulness of certain common practice regimens and technique books.
Everyone who takes music seriously ends up memorizing all their scales. What more is there to do if they’re already memorized?
I’m going to take a slightly contrarian view here. Scales absolutely must be worked on to a point, but I think they are a bit overemphasized in the music world in general. There’s diminishing returns that aren’t worth it after a point.
Let me clarify before a bunch of professional musicians and teachers jump down my throat for that.
Scales can’t just be memorized; they must be internalized.
So, if you’re at the point where someone says: play D major, and you think: okay, that’s two sharps, F-sharp, and, let’s see…C-sharp, so D, E, F-sharp, etc.
Then that’s not good enough. You’ve got a ways to go, and you definitely should have scales as part of your practice regimen.
Scales, plus other scalar exercises that we’ll discuss later, are part of a process of internalizing keys.
When a piece of music in G-flat major is placed in front of me, I’m not really thinking about the key at all. I just know what that key feels like. It’s been internalized.
This is what I mean when I say scales are a bit overemphasized. Other aspects of your practice will be how you truly internalize keys, and once they’ve been internalized, there isn’t a lot of benefit to playing them mindlessly.
What to Practice
Learn all scales in two octaves. This means every major and all forms of minor and chromatic scales. Once you aren’t thinking about it very hard, start to work up the speed.
Absolutely use a metronome and record yourself to listen for any unevenness. Pay particularly close attention to awkward crossings like 2-3 to 1 to 2 in A major.
I’d honestly only do one key a day and practice starting on different scale degrees. It’s embarrassing to have your scales perfect only to have your fingers confused in a rehearsal because a run starts on the fifth scale degree instead of the first.
There’s no magic number for speed, but know that the band arrangement of Shostakovich’s Festive Overture gives the violin part to the euphonium. So, even some band standards require fast scales.
After you’ve hit your target (16 notes, perfectly even, at 144 bpm or something), I really don’t think it’s a good use of time to keep this up. Spot check for maintenance every now and again, but there are far better uses of your time.
I’ll throw in arpeggios and thirds here as well. Know all your scales in thirds and all your major, minor, and dominant 7 arpeggios. These don’t have to be as fast as the scales but should be internalized (not an intellectual exercise in memory recall).
As far as I can tell, there’s essentially two main technique books for brass players: Arban and Clarke.
If you have another one, you should be able to extrapolate what I say here to that one by thinking about the types of exercises it has.
I’m talking about Herbert L. Clarke’s Technical Studies if you’ve never seen the full name.
This is the easier one to talk about. I think this technique book is essential (seriously, get your copy on Amazon here). It looks trivial. It looks like someone wrote down a one common pattern and then transposed it to every key.
But, it’s all about how you use this book. This book can be so frustrating at first, because some of the exercises look trivial.
They look like things you’ve played fine a million times. Yet when you try to actually execute it, even at a relatively slow tempo, it comes out a gabled mess.
It’s probably a good idea to start this book before finishing the above “Scales” section. I said above to pick a key for the day. Well, you’ll use that same key when digging into this book.
I used to create big grids on a sheet of paper. I’d have the number of the Clarke study across the top and the key going down the side. I’d then fill in the grid with how fast I got each one so I could check when I came back to the key if I could push it faster.
Nowadays, I’d probably just use an excel spreadsheet. Back then, laptops and tablets weren’t really a thing.
How to Use Clarke
Here’s an example of how I’d incorporate them into my practice regimen. If I’m working on C major as the scale/thirds/arpeggios of the day, then I’d take only the first and second Clarke studies and add the C version into the practice session.
These studies have two major purposes in my mind (understanding why you’re doing something is just as important as doing the thing).
First, it’s getting these common patterns under your fingers to be clean and even. This is so much more important than speed. Never go faster until it is perfectly even and clean.
Some of these will make you want to pull your hair out.
Slow it down. Be precise. It will come.
Second, it’s part of the internalizing process of playing in various keys. This is why I do not recommend just plowing through all of the first set and then moving on to the next. I’d do a couple at a time but all in the same key.
The popularity of this book confuses me. Don’t get me wrong. The price is worth it for the Fourteen Characteristic Studies and solo material (including the famous Carnival of Venice) at the end.
The spiral bound bass clef version can be found on Amazon here.
My teacher took one of the early exercises and had me play it perfectly. I was in college, and the exercise read like something written for a fourth grader.
The point of the exercise was to demonstrate how hard it is to make everything perfect at the same time.
Were my attacks all focused and the same? Did I hear where to place each note before playing it to land on perfect intonation? Was I subdividing to place the eighth note after the dotted quarter perfectly in time? Was I cheating my releases or letting notes taper?
And so on, and so forth.
That was eye opening. I spent a few weeks trying to do this to perfect my “basics.” It was quite useful.
But that’s definitely not the intent of this book. I could have just as easily used a technique book written for fourth graders.
I used the book for double and triple tonguing, but there’s really not that many exercises on it. Also, they’re nothing special.
I mostly learned that skill by taking music with sixteenth notes and isolating a measure and practicing double tonguing that way.
The best use of Arban, in my opinion, is to learn the characteristic studies and a few of the solos at the back. You never know when an audition or performance opportunity will require you to quickly get one of those in shape.
Etudes come in a bunch of different forms. Some are pure teaching material. Some focus on a core piece of technique. Some focus on lyricism. Let’s divide this up into two main types: technical and lyrical.
This article contains far more practice material than one could reasonably jam into a single practice regimen. Choices will need to be made about what makes the cut.
For me, technical etudes pretty much never make the cut. They serve almost no purpose than to perform something flashy (so they are often used as audition pieces).
Technique is developed slowly, over time, with scales and technical studies, as listed above, and encountering it in the standard repertoire.
The only time I use to use technical etudes was when something scared me. If you’re uncomfortable counting a mixed 7/8 + 4/4 where the eighth stays the same, find a study that does that a lot. If fourths scare you, find an etude that does that a lot.
If you think about how the Clarke and Arban books are organized, the technical etudes are not meant as a way to teach the technique. The technical etudes in those books put together the technique that was learned separately into an etude.
They work almost as rewards for the earlier studies, and as a way to show off the culmination of the technique. This is why I don’t suggest using them as a primary way to learn the technique.
First off, I think you should play something lyrical and something technical every practice session. The technical stuff happens automatically with Clarke studies or scales or shedding the hard parts of Carnival of Venice.
It’s easy for an hour to go by and you find yourself feeling tired and you just never got around to anything lyrical.
This isn’t good. We’re not machines. We presumably love music, and it’s probably not because we heard a tuba player execute a scale perfectly.
Lyrical etudes give us a chance to work on our musicality, tone quality, intonation, and more. These things shouldn’t be discarded when playing technical things, but they often are.
How to Practice Lyrical Etudes
Think about the lines. They are always going to or coming from somewhere. Feel the natural agogic stress and make conscious musical decisions about how heavily to draw them out.
My teacher use to have me write a number over every two beats (or whatever is natural) of a lyrical etude. The lowest point would be a 0 or 1 and the highest a 10. Two numbers in a row were not allowed to be the same.
Listen to a recording of yourself. Did you follow the numbers or did you get lazy and treat 5,6,7 as roughly the same?
Some people think playing through “easy” lyrical music is easy and not worthy of practice time. It’s not easy; it’s very hard work.
There’s a hundred musical things to be thinking about, and it’s important to practice these ahead of time. It’s never going to work out if you try to do these things in a performance for the first time.
What lyrical etude books should you use?
Any. I’m partial to Rochut (Book 1 can be found here), but these are quite lyrical. If you find some etudes that seem rigid and dry, then this is all the better!
Make these bad ones musical. Find a way to turn it into music someone would want to listen to. These will improve your skills far more than the ones that do it for you.
I just have to bring this up, because it’s an article about what to do during a practice session.
How many times have you heard that breathing is important? It’s not just important. The breath is everything for a wind instrument. Without the breath, there is no sound.
But it goes beyond that. Breath control affects everything from phrasing to tone quality to pitch to range.
If it’s so important, why does no one practice it?
I’m willing to bet that 90% of the people reading this article have never once intentionally worked on their breath during a practice session.
Breathing exercises are a bit hard to explain, but they come in several forms. Here are a few to get a feel for it:
- Stretches to open up the diaphragm and reduce tension.
- Deep breath exercises to increase lung capacity.
- Exhale exercises to work on using as much air as possible.
- Visualization exercises to work on focused air streams to improve tone.
I highly recommend doing some form of this at the start of every practice session.
I took a masterclass from someone in high school right when the book The Breathing Gym came out. I can’t remember who it was, but my guess is that they were a student of Sam Pilafian.
He taught us a bunch of exercises from this book, and I started to use them. I was so impressed with the results that I bought the book. I still use them all these years later.
The idea of “deliberate practice” is all the rage these days. I completely subscribe to it.
Deliberate practice means that you practice systematically and with purpose. You should know what you’re going to practice before you start. You should understand why you’re doing each thing.
Then, while practicing, you should stay completely focused on the task at hand. Don’t even bring your phone into the practice room with you.
There’s a lot of scientific research out there on this concept, and while it’s hard to summarize, it pretty clearly shows that half the amount of deliberate practice is better than double the amount of mindless practice.
If you only take one thing away from this article, it is that you should not just mindlessly churn out the hours in hope of improving.
Improvement comes slowly, but small amounts of deliberate practice will speed up the process faster than sheer number of hours.
I lay out a deliberate practice guide in my article for learning how to Play in Tune.
Rest and Breaks
The most important part of practice is the time spent not practicing. I know this sounds paradoxical, but resting and taking breaks is when you learn the most.
One important thing is sleep.
Sleeping is when the brain consolidates memories and improves your fine motor skills you just spent all that time practicing. It’s amazing the number of times I can’t seem to play something. Practice seems to do nothing. Then I wake up the next day and play it with ease.
That’s the subconscious at work.
Rest shouldn’t be underestimated as well. You play your instrument with muscles. Muscles fatigue. After you work them out, they need rest to recover and grow stronger. Working too hard with too little rest will only make you improve slower.