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Growing Our Young Tubists

It’s a curious thing: a sixth grader, barely able to carry a 3/4 size tuba more than ten yards, barely able to reach the mouthpiece, and yet, totally in love with this unique, wonderful instrument. The tuba provides many challenges for our young tubists beyond its weight and height. And a section of tubas can provide a great many challenges for a band director. A great tuba section provides a beautiful lush bottom to the band’s sound. A struggling tuba section can virtually bring a band to its knees. The following ideas can help build a tuba section that provides the former and avoids the latter. And, although the title of this article refers to our younger tuba players, the fundamental ideas and concepts offered here have been utilized by me with students ranging from beginner band tubists to students who study tuba with me at Texas Lutheran University. It’s never too early to develop great habits!

1) S.T.T.B.P.

(Sing, Toh, Tongue, Buzz, Play)
Sing: Sing rhythm syllables/note letters directionally. Note goes higher = Voice goes higher (singing on pitch is a distinct plus!) Insist on directional singing. This plants a seed that we want the embouchure, brain, and ears to understand: When the notes go higher or lower, I have to make adjustments to allow those changes in pitch to happen. Insist on directional singing.

Toh: Sing on Toh. The tongue articulates (T) then drops to the bottom of mouth (oh) creating an air cave. Many times when our young tubists produce an unpleasant sound it can be attributed to clenching the teeth together and forcing the air between the teeth. However, that same sound can also be created by having the wrong oral cavity shape. Having the tongue too high in the mouth is a fairly common problem. Singing through music using a toh syllable helps to teach the tongue what it should be doing. Be sure to tell your students how important this is both when singing and when playing. Keep the tongue low in the mouth.

Tongue the Air Stream: Blowing copious quantities of air, tongue the rhythm without the instrument. This reinforces the rhythm and it reinforces the importance of moving lots of air. This is a great exercise because tonguing the air stream without the horn uses a greater volume of air than playing the horn does. When transferred to the horn, your tubists will be ready to move some air!

Buzz: Directionally, or on pitch, buzz the rhythm & melody. Buzzing directionally reinforces the rhythm and the melody of the notes. Don’t worry about being on the right pitch or even in the right register. The idea is to get them thinking directionally, to get them, (again) moving lots of air, and to get them strengthening their embouchures. Buzzing is a great embouchure workout.

Play: Now play it!
These are progressive steps in which the information/experience gained from one step, is transferred from step to step in a cumulative manner, leading finally to playing. Follow these steps as much as possible. You can use some steps and skip others. But as much as possible, try to follow these steps.

2) Communication Skills

From infancy on, as we develop vocabulary skills, we think in words. We’re communicating with ourselves. Whenever possible, have students verbalize their learning. This helps them to understand “deeper” and it helps them to file the information in the right place – in their right place. Ask, “What did we just do to make that section better?” Or ask, “What steps did we take to make that measure work better?” Encourage them to communicate their understanding of what just happened. This helps reinforce their understanding and it helps with their own memory recall when practicing at home or in a practice room.

Give considerable thought to how you voice a concern. Positive communication assists greatly in moving beyond a problem to a solution. It also helps you to stay in a more positive frame of mind. A friend of mine told me once, when I had just adopted a puppy, that she tried to never use the words “bad dog” when correcting her dogs. Not because the dogs’ feelings might get hurt, but because it might influence how she thought of her dogs. How do your words impact your students? And how do they impact you? With this in mind, don’t go overboard in the other direction and fall into the trap of labeling everything a student, or group of students, does as “great”. If something sounds awful, if it is not that student’s best effort, our responsibility as teachers is to make sure the student understands this. Usually, the student already knows. Be sure to move beyond the description of the problem to addressing how to correct the problem.

Remind your students frequently of what they should be doing. When they are doing these things well, give a running commentary of what you are observing: “I see that you are keeping your corners firm while buzzing.” Although it is frustrating to have to give constant reminders, the reality is that reminding students of fundamental concepts is a vital part of our day-to-day teaching. We are teachers about 10% of the time and we are reminders the other 90%.

Communicate to your students when they have achieved a particular goal you have been working toward. And celebrate! ALSO: When achieving success, use these words frequently: “Memorize how that felt. Now do it again, just like that.” Or, “Memorize how that sounded. Now do it again, just like that.” This brings their focus to the right feel or right sound that you have been working toward.

3) To Rote or Not to Rote

Music is a sound medium. Musical notation is only a visual means of reproducing sounds. Which is to say: The reason for the notation is the sound. Which is to say: Utilizing rote teaching is not a deadly sin. Relying only on rote teaching – now that’s an altogether different story, of course!

Whenever possible, start with the sound and move to the notation of that sound.

TRY THIS: Model, Rote, Explain, Transfer

Model: Play for your students a lot! Your model is extremely important.
Rote: (It’s OK.) Teach new concepts by rote. Review old concepts by rote. (It’s OK.)
Explain: When teaching a concept by rote, be sure to explain how the concept works. Have students verbalize the concept to demonstrate their understanding.
Transfer: Now, put the modeled, rote taught, well-explained concept in a different setting, (an exercise, a solo, a band part) causing the student to have to transfer recently gained knowledge to the new material.

As an example, let’s say you want to introduce the concept of four 16th notes on one beat to your young tuba section.

Model: Play four 16th notes on one beat for them in a short rhythm pattern. Try 1/4, 1/4, four 16ths, 1/4.
Rote: You play the pattern, they repeat, you play, they repeat, etc. Now they’re experiencing the concept; they’re experiencing what 16th notes sound like and feel like; their relative speed in relation to the 1/4 notes.
Explain: Now tell them something like, “When we have 4 sounds on one beat, those are called 16th notes.” You can also ask them questions to get them focused on the goal: “Which beat had more than one sound on it? How many sounds did you hear?” NOW show them the notation and explain how you will count it: “1, 2, 3-ee-and-ah 4”. Explain why they are called 16th notes.
Transfer: Now, to check for understanding, have them count and perform rhythms with 4 16th notes on beats other than beat three. They are now transferring their recently gained understanding of what they have just learned to a new set of rhythms.

4) Isolate and Simplify

Isolate the problem area in the music. Try to determine what causes the problem. Simplify by: 1. Slowing the tempo. 2. S.T.T.B.P. (refer to #1 above) 3. Work on bite-size pieces. 4. Play in lower octave, if helpful. This step can be confusing to young students who don’t understand the concept of an octave. It is usually most helpful when working on problems in the upper register. Have students verbalize the steps taken to isolate and simplify, and solve the problem. Remember, this helps them to understand and remember better.

5) Reinforce

Have students reinforce what they have learned through slow, quality repetitions. The students must then also reinforce in the practice room and/or at home what they have learned with you. Be certain that your students have a thorough understanding of what is expected of them before they work on the music on their own. Many students have taught themselves incorrectly, including yours truly, because of a lack of understanding of how the music should be performed.

6) Transfer

Encourage students to make connections between what has already been learned and new material. Can s/he transfer known concepts to new music? Transfer breathing exercises to a piece of music? Transfer the energy of a great crescendo in measure 12 to the crescendo in measure 47?

7) Sight Reading

Create sight reading exercises that focus on sight reading. This can be done by offering 2 – 4 different known notes and simple combinations of known rhythms. This is NOT the time to challenge students with an overwhelming number of musical choices or possibilities. Stay focused on the task at hand: sight reading. For examples see, level 1, Sight reading 1 and Sight reading 2.

8) Metronome Work

When told to practice with a metronome, 99% of all young band students have not been thoughtfully taught how to do so. We, as their teachers, assume that they understand the concept of lining up the clicks of the metronome with the various rhythms found in their music. “Go practice with your metronome” may result in Johnny going home, turning the metronome on, and practicing his music, as that annoying thing clicks and clicks much faster, (or slower) than he is actually playing. Create simple metronome exercises that focus on how the metronome clicks should relate to the rhythm values of various notes. For examples see, level 1, Tempo Time and Tempo Time 2.

9) Motivation

Success breeds success. Through reinforcing and transferring, try to build on previous successes. Give lots of positive feedback, as well as working the problem areas.
As you work, have fun. Music is a lot of work. And the eventual payoff is great! BUT – Make sure you and your students are having fun along with the hard work.
Extrinsic is OK. Stickers, stamps, candy, etc. Just don’t over do it. The best reward system is one in which the payout is random. It keeps the potential recipients hopeful – like slot machines in Vegas!
Music selection motivates. Choose music that might be interesting to students and with which students can be successful. Take a look at some of the music offered at You may find something creative that may catch the imagination of your tubists. Choose your challenges wisely. The student who feels overwhelmed often has little desire to pick up the horn. We have, unfortunately, all sat through many performances thinking, This music is too hard for this group (or soloist)”. Choose your challenges wisely.

10) Make Beautiful Music

Be certain that this goal is always front and center in your students’ minds and hearts, (as well as our own). Try to make every sound that comes out of the horn the most beautiful possible sound. Scales, lip slurs, buzzing, exercises, solos, band music – whatever the focus, always encourage your students to strive to make beautiful music.

You have, no doubt, surmised by now that many of the above ideas can readily be utilized not only with the tuba section of your band but with the rest of the group as well. I offer these ideas as possibilities that will definitely impact the sound, musicianship, and enthusiasm of your tuba section, which in turn will definitely have a strong influence on your band. And, again, I would remind you that these ideas and concepts have proved useful not only for my youngest students but for my TLU tubists as well. It’s never too late to develop great habits!

So, there she goes: Dragging that tuba case with the one somewhat functional wheel out to her parents’ car with grit and determination, and a smile on her face. “I played a low Bb today Mom!” Determination got her case to the car, and determination helped her to get that low Bb to finally sound – determination and some great fundamental teaching.

Keith J. Robinson juggles, reads, runs, composes, sings in the shower, smiles and laughs a lot in Seguin, Texas. Since 2000, he has loved his wife Nelwyn very much. And since 2003, they have very much loved their daughter Jillian; a beautiful busy gift from God, brought to them from India as a toddler.

Born in Michigan, transplanted to the Lone Star State, Keith attended High School and College in Kingsville, Texas, graduating from Texas A&I University in 1985. In 2008 he received his Master’s Degree in Music Education from Texas State University. He has taught all levels of music, ranging for pre-kinder to college, teaching general music and directing choirs and bands. He currently is Music Director at First United Methodist church in Seguin (, and teaches in the Seguin Independent School District at Jefferson Avenue Elementary School, and at Texas Lutheran University, ( also in Seguin.

In the Summer of 2008, Keith launched tuba4u, a new website dedicated to providing creative, challenging, fun, free music to tubists around the planet. Great for tubists of all levels, tuba4u also provides, in addition to music, a Book Club, Link City, and a Spirit page, containing some interesting thoughtful ideas.(