Pay the Piper

So you want to play a musical instrument?

You think you'd like to learn the tuba? We tell you the advantages and pitfalls, where to buy one, how to get lessons, what it will cost - everything you need to know

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What instrument to play
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Where to get lessons
How much progress will I make?
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The Tuba

Family: Brass
Cost: from £1,195 (the lowest price we could find, VAT included)
Best age to start: 12 years upwards
Easy to start? Yes, if you're big enough to hold it

The Tuba is the largest brass instrument. Unlike the trumpet and trombone, but like the cornet, it has a conical bore so consists of a gradually widening tube of brass folded round on itself to save space. The sound comes out of the flared bell, and is made by blowing a "raspberry" with your lips into the cup-shaped mouthpiece. In effect, your lips are vibrating like the reed of a clarinet, and this vibration becomes musical sound in its passage through the specially-shaped bore of the tuba. You can obtain a number of different "open" notes in this way by varying the tension of your lips (try blowing a raspberry and smiling at the same time), and can then produce the notes in between by pressing different combinations of valves.
The valves divert the air through little extra lengths of tubing, thus making the instrument temporarily a bit longer and therefore deeper. There are usually three valves. You hold the tuba in front of you on your lap with the mouthpiece to your lips (obviously!), and the bell pointing upwards. Your right hand operates the valves, while the left supports the instrument.
Tubas don't usually come apart, and are carried in rigid cases which are necessarily heavy and bulky. Some players have cases with wheels on the bottom.
Tubas do come in different sizes and in different keys. The most common is in E flat, meaning that when you play C on the tuba, it actually sounds like an E flat on any normal instrument so the tuba music you buy has been specially transposed to suit. Other tubas may be in B flat, BB flat (meaning larger and therefore deeper), EE flat and even CC.
Also, there is a decision to be made about clef. When played in an orchestra or wind band the tuba's music is written in the bass clef (same as the left hand of the piano), but when played in a brass band its music is written in the treble clef. You will have to decide, in consultation with your teacher, which clef you are going to learn. On balance, unless you are quite sure that you are going to join a brass band, we would recommend bass clef.
The tuba is an easy instrument to start, and the amount of puff required is not as great as you'd expect - it's the long thin instruments with a narrow bore like the trumpet or the horn that need the most effort. The real difficulty is the sheer size of the instrument, which is also pretty heavy. You can start at 12 or 13 years old. However, the tuba is so similar to other instruments such as the smaller euphonium, baritone or tenor horns that it is perfectly realistic to start on one of those and transfer to the tuba later on. Otherwise, you probably need to take advice from a teacher about what size of tuba to start on. He or she is likely to advise that you look for a "small E flat" or "small-bore E flat" instrument which will be a manageable size. Later you can switch to a large-bore instrument. There is at least one Tuba in E flat available at about £1,700 which has been specially designed for younger players.
The tuba is important to orchestras, wind bands and brass bands, and sometimes appears in traditional jazz bands so there are excellent opportunities for group music-making. Also, there aren't many tuba players around, so you'll be popular.
There is little to go wrong with a tuba as it has few moving parts. It is easily dented, of course, and this can be expensive to repair especially if the damage is so severe the lacquer which protects the brass surface has to be renewed. The few moving parts are in the valves, and these do give trouble but not too often. Do not be tempted to take them to pieces until you are absolutely certain you know what you're doing - they look simple but it's easy to put them back wrong and damage them. There is little maintenance to do on a tuba, but the tuning slides need to be moved and greased from time to time, and the valves will need a very little special "valve oil".
The real drawback to the tuba is that it is very expensive, starting at around £1,200.
One of the most popular tutor books for beginners is Learn as you play tuba. While it's always best to have a teacher, some people do try to learn the tuba by themselves. A Tune a Day for Tuba is fairly old and may no longer be the best tutor book around, but we still think it's particularly suitable for lone students.
If you'd like to listen to some really marvellous tuba playing, try this CD. You don't often hear tubas being played "in tandem" as it were, so a whole quartet of them is something really special!
• Very expensive
• Easy to start
• Quite hard to find a teacher
• Opportunities for group music-making are excellent
• Not particularly prone to damage
• Heavy and hard to transport
• Which clef will you learn?


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Copyright © David Bramhall 2005