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Improve Your Low Brass – Start a Tuba-Euphonium Ensemble!

by Dr. Skip Gray
Professor of Music
University of Kentucky

How will forming a tuba-euphonium ensemble help my program?

There are many possible aspects to consider while making a plan on how to improve your tuba and euphonium section-sound, technique, musicianship, even camaraderie. Most of these issues can be directly addressed by forming a regularly meeting tuba-euphonium ensemble with your students. With such a group, opportunities arise including:

  • The establishment of a “workshop” to concentrate on improving all facets of playing within the section, getting the players focused on good tone production, intonation, elements of technique, and advancing musical concepts;
  • A chance for tuba and euphonium players to experience more challenging music as well as, very importantly, more melodic material and inner, harmony parts;
  • An expansion of ability and knowledge in music of different styles and historical periods;
  • Ultimately, the development within your tubists and euphoniumist of a new performing identity and sense of artistic value.
What are some factors involved with choosing music that “works” for the group?

Tuba-euphonium ensemble is a somewhat “difficult beast” to make sound good. Because of the low nature of the instruments, the overall timbre can be quite muddy. When choosing music for your group, there are some basic elements that will lead to a successful ensemble:

  • The largest available variety of tuba-euphonium works are for four-parts. Most of these arrangements and compositions work very well with the parts doubled, thus fitting the piece to the size of your group. Often, works that have more than four parts don’t produce clarity in overall ensemble sound. When deciding the proportions for putting multiple players on parts, consider the strengths and weaknesses of the students. The most important parts in easier tuba-euphonium ensemble pieces are usually the top (melody) and the bottom part (bass line). Too many players on the inner parts can result in a lack of clarity.
  • Look for arrangements and compositions that avoid voice crossing.
  • Because of the inherent nature of the instruments, “close” writing does not usually work well in low brass ensembles. Often, tuba-euphonium ensemble music that sounds good maintains adequate space between the parts with, particularly, at least a perfect fifth between the lower two parts. The typical instrument ranges for a grade III-IV tuba-euphonium ensemble are:
  • The alternative to a large ensemble with doubled parts is a chamber group. The quartet is a good choice because literature is plentiful and of very good variety in terms of musical styles and historic periods. A quartet with two euphoniums and two tubas offers a great deal of sonic clarity, range of timbre, and a wide tonal range.
What are some of the primary rehearsal considerations?
  • Always strive for good tone quality and intonation. The first step towards establishing a good tone is proper breathing. Students need to be reminded that every breath should be full and relaxed. Low brass players should use a long-“O” vowel during inhalation and with articulation. This not only opens the throat allowing for free inhalation and exhalation, but also helps to keep the chin dropped, centering the pitch and producing better intonation.
  • Work towards blending sounds. Although tone is a very individual component of each player’s musical personality, playing in a chamber ensemble (as well as large symphonic groups) requires that each player listen and blend. Blending of sound can many times be realized through a commonality of players’ oral concept-striving for uniformity of vowel, the long-“O” as mentioned above. Warming up with slow, chorale-like pieces that allow each member of the group to listen and fit their sound into the group can help produce a more homogenous ensemble sound.
  • Match articulation and note releases. In addition to blending individual sound, the musicians must also focus on matching attacks. This can be done through the use of consistent articulation syllables throughout the group. In tuba and euphonium playing, the “DOH” articulation syllable is used most of the time. For harder articulation, the “TOH” syllable can be used. Note releases are also important and should be realized consistently throughout the ensemble. In brass playing, notes are ended by stopping the air. The most widely used concept of stopping the air is to put an “H” ending on notes.
  • Get the group to listen to each other and react. Insist that it is the responsibility of each player in the ensemble to listen to each other and to find a musical common ground. This can be as simple as, when playing a fugue or other imitative type of piece, to match the note lengths and articulation style of earlier entrances. Another kind of essential listening is to pay attention to the player with the melody, being sure to balance the dynamic of supporting lines appropriately, shaping phrases to promote the melodic inflection (with crescendo-diminuendo and accelerando-rallentando), and to release phrases together.
What performance outlets are there for a tuba-euphonium ensemble?

There are many opportunities for the group to perform that fulfill a myriad of positive goals for a high school band program. These include overall musical and technical improvement, recruitment of low brass players, and growth of the program’s reputation in the community and beyond. Some concert possibilities for your tuba-euphonium ensemble might include:

  • Performances at “feeder” programs to interest students to start on or switch to the tuba or euphonium;
  • Feature the tuba-euphonium ensemble on a band concert. This will improve players’ self esteem and the overall “image” of the instruments;
  • Offer the ensemble for performances at retirement complexes and civic organizations. This is a great way to expose your program without using the entire band as well as the opportunity to provide service to the community.
Is there some literature that I should consider when starting my tuba-euphonium ensemble?

There is a great variety of published literature for high school level tuba-euphonium ensembles that is readily available. A beginning library might include:
Bach, J.S./Stevens. Anna Magdelana Suite.
Bartles, Alfred. When Tubas Waltz.
Frackenpohl. Arthur. Pop Suite.
Goble, Joseph. Totally Tuba March.
Gray, Skip. Concert and Contest Collection.
Kalke, Ernst-T. Requiem for a Dead Little Cat.
McAdams, Charles. The Saints.
Sousa, J.P./Morris. Semper Fidelis.
Werden, David. Songs of the British Isles.

The tuba-euphonium ensemble is a great way to give extra attention to the players, help them to develop into better musicians, and to promote your program.

Special offer!

Free to the first twenty-five requests: Compact disc The University of Kentucky Conner Tuba-Euphonium Ensemble Live! At the 2008 United States Army Band Tuba-Euphonium Conference. Just send me an e-mail at