Ask Jason

May 24, 2020

Rick Dellinger, Columbia Orchestra Horn player asks several tuba-related questions which are answered by Tom Holtz, Columbia Orchestra Principal Tuba. Rick writes...

“I have been a horn player ever since I gave up on the piano at age 10. Recently I decided to take up the tuba, just as a side gig, because playing fourth horn in the Columbia Orchestra always made me wonder how low I could really go.”

Rick can go pretty low on horn, he's a great fourth horn player, that's a skill set not everyone has. It will be nice to get back to making music with him in person. He writes,

"I’ve discovered it’s possible to play, on a tuba, the lowest note that exists on most pianos. This can only be achieved for very short durations, however, before the player temporarily loses consciousness."

Okay, so I don’t actually lose consciousness, but that ultra-low A can only be achieved for a very short duration before the people around you will do almost anything to make you stop playing it. Rick then asks Jason,

"Do you have a preference for what kind of tuba to use in orchestral or in chamber groups? They come in the keys of F (often described as “soaring,”) Eb, C, and Bb (sometimes described as 'foundational.')"

Tubas come in different keys and sizes. Tubas in F and Eb are smaller tubas, while tubas in C and Bb are their larger counterparts. Each have their place in orchestral and chamber music.

Many of the professional orchestral tuba players in the United States have two tubas, a large C tuba and a small F tuba. The biggest horns lend themselves to producing that "foundation" tone—a big sound that is warm, dark, and blends well with the orchestra, especially the string basses. It also provides the brass section with a big sonic foundation for the trombones, horns and trumpets.

A prime example of using the big tuba in the orchestra is during Richard Wagner's iconic "Ride of the Valkyries," where he places the tuba right in the center of the big closing thematic statement a full octave below the trombones, working in unison with the string basses.

Another example is in the Fifth Symphony of Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev. There are moments of sustained, lyrical playing where the tuba reinforces the string bass sound. Many composers don't use the tuba until all the orchestra's forces are called into play, but Prokofiev provides some rare moments where he uses the tuba sound with the strings and woodwinds, while the rest of the brass section sits out.

Certain composers and pieces call for a different type of sound, a more brilliant sound, often in a higher register that may not lend itself to being played on the big tubas. This is where the F and Eb tubas come into play. These smaller horns, with a smaller bell and a smaller bore size, can get a more soloistic tone, or a brassier sound that meshes just as well with the brass section as with the string basses.

Tuba players often use a smaller tuba with the music of French composer Hector Berlioz. At the dramatic end of his Overture to "Benvenuto Cellini," many composers would have been content to send the tuba down to the accompaniment with the string basses. Instead, Berlioz sends the tuba up to the sky, joining the trombones in the same octave for maximum effect.

Another Berlioz moment for the small tuba is in his monumental work, "Symphony Fantastique." In the final movement, the "Witches Sabbath," Berlioz originally scored the "Dies Irae" motif not for tubas, but for two ophicliedes. It's hard to describe the ophicleide; it's kind of a combination of a trombone, a bassoon, and a saxophone. It's not nice, and Berlioz chose these instruments as he wrote this movement full of darkness and despair. If you choose a warm, happy tuba sound for this moment, you chose poorly.

Even among the small tubas and the large tubas, there's a lot of variety in how tubas are built, and the roles for which they are intended. Many F tubas are built with a tall, narrow bell for that brilliant, soaring quality. Others are built with a shorter, wider bell to give more of a lyrical sound for solos and offer a foundation for small chamber groups. Eb tubas are most commonly used in the British brass band tradition, in conjunction with big Bb tubas. They have a wonderful tone for solos, and can be a foundation for small groups on their own, as well as part of a section. These horns can all be used as a foundation instrument, and can produce that warm foundation tone. They just don't produce nearly as much as the bigger horns.

The C tuba comes in all sizes, from compact horns for chamber music to gigantic horns with big, wide bells for the largest orchestras. Bb tubas are commonly used in schools for students to learn tuba, so they come in very compact sizes for young players, but that's a lot of tubing to be wrapped in a small package. A Bb tuba is really meant to be a large tuba. The largest Bb tubas are still used in orchestras and bands across Germany and eastern Europe, sometimes in conjunction with the smallest F tubas to get the biggest contrast between horns.

Now, with all these tubas to pick from, here's the question of the day: "Which tuba does Jason prefer?" To be honest, I've never asked him, but I'll tell you what I use in the Columbia Orchestra, and it's not what many of my colleagues would use. I'm very fortunate to have two tubas, and let me be clear, you do not need two tubas to play in an orchestra; one will do just fine. My small tuba is not an F tuba, like that of many players in the U.S., but an Eb tuba. I've been using Eb as a foundation instrument in many different small ensembles for a long time. I used an F tuba for many years. I will occasionally borrow an F tuba from a colleague for a particular piece if it will make my life easier. I just love the sound of the Eb, and it works so well for so many different things.

My big tuba is a C tuba, but it's not an oversize jumbo C like you would find in the back row of almost any major symphony orchestra in this country. It's a standard-sized large C tuba. Not an extra large or double extra large, just a large. For my "big horn", frankly, it's not all that big. The thing is, I don't really need anything larger. The Columbia Orchestra is big, and it's good, but we don't produce the same wattage as the Boston Symphony or the NY Philharmonic, so I'm not going to bring in a gigantic tuba just to have Jason give me "The Hand." I've got enough horsepower with the equipment I have, so I can just focus on making really great music.

The upshot of all of this is that my small tuba is pretty big for a small tuba, and my big tuba is pretty small for a big tuba. They actually look fairly similar. If they're side by side, it's easy to tell which is which. But, here's the trick… If I'm doing my job well enough, and I've chosen the right horn for the program we're playing, Jason isn't going to know which horn I brought. So, Rick… since you play an F horn, I'm kind of curious to hear what you could do on an F tuba. And, to answer your question, "Which tuba does Jason prefer?"

We may never know.

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