We tuba and euphonium players are getting pretty sophisticated now that we have an article on mutes. Still, it seems like such a minor item to be discussing when there are all those tough etudes, solos, and orchestra excerpts to see and conquer with our blazing techniques and beautiful tone. It’s such a shame we have to put some ugly things down the bell and ruin that beautiful tone. We don’t have to use a mute that often, but we have to suffer (or enjoy?) the mild laughter and tittering in the audience when we put up our instruments with the mute in it. There’s just no hiding!!
The balance of your instruments may be affected – the horn may become top-heavy. Your instrument may not sit there like it did before. Also, you need a space beside you for the mute when you’re not using it. And the mute is an extra burden to carry along too. We’re already burdened with an awkward instrument to carry. A mute is one more thing to bang, one more thing to knock over stands with, one more thing to keep others from stumbling over. So, all of us just have to choreograph in the mute along with planning how to get into and out of the pit or the stage.
How do you find a mute? It’s not hard to find mutes for tuba and euphonium. They are advertised if you look for them.
Will just any tuba or euphonium mute work? No. You should try out mutes just like you do a new or used instrument. Sometimes a horn may feel, look, and sound just right in the store or studio, but it may not be right for you or the ensemble you play with – it’s the same with mutes. Tell the mute company your instrument model and ask for a mute for that instrument to be sent on approval.
There also does not seem to be a standard on which to judge the intonation, sound and shape of mutes. There are players who know they have to pull out the tuning slide when using their mutes or adjust the mute in and out while playing. This is not necessary if you have the right mute. But should you expect your mute on approval to be perfect-in tune and the right sound-when you put it in your horn the first time? Not at all!! In fact you are lucky if that happens.
The first thing I do is to check for intonation. If sharp, I know the mute has to come out a little, so I put on a thin strip of cork with masking tape on one of the corks at a time. (By the way, try, if possible, to tune to a tuning machine as you can be fooled by the pitch when suddenly the fundamental in the sound is missing.) If the mute is flat (which is rare) I file the corks a little at a time.
Now, I have to be careful. When a mute on approval is in tune, or getting there, how is the sound? You can say you can’t be choosy? Oh yes you can! If the sound is dark and fuzzy it won’t be heard or it may not match the trumpets and trombones you’re playing with. I block off the small end of the mute a little because that will brighten the sound. This may also make it sharper, so I may have to add cork. If the mute is too open sounding, some of the fundamental is back in the sound and I’ll stand out in the brass section too much. So I need to get the mute down in the bell further, but if this makes the mute too sharp, then I’ll probably need to send the mute back. I, personally, like a tight, crisp, in tune, bright, edgy sound on a mute. It blends better with the trumpets and trombones I play with and it also records better.
I’m not uptight if the mute seems to stick out a long ways as long as it is snug, so if I lower the horn to empty the water key, it won’t fall out. If this is a problem, moisten the corks.
If I can get the sound and pitch right with my horn and mute, there are a couple of other things I like to check out and they are how the mute fits, and how it sounds in the extreme ranges. If the sound of the mute is not centered in the extreme low and extreme high range, that is if the notes are stuffy or won’t come out at all, then push the mute in further or out further and see if that improves the sound.
If I can’t get the sound, pitch and “feel” in the low and high range then I may need a larger mute. (Long, narrow mutes tend towards a louder, more open muted sound. Those that are short and wide tend to “echo”, feel stuffy, but are bright and clear and do a better job of taking out the fundamental.)
I also don’t want a mute that is brightly colored or reflects light. This is a distraction from the music. Conductors don’t like it either.
I also like to check on what the brass section in general thinks about a mute I use. Can they hear me? Am I in tune with them and their mutes? Often I’ve found I need to be able to really play loud to keep up the the other muted brass. Do I have the same kind of “edge” then, that they do?
Then, there’s also the choreography again. I always make sure the mute is where I can grab it fast. Sometimes I have to hold it in my left hand just outside the bell because the composer didn’t leave enough time to put the mute in the horn. But one thing for sure I need to do is to put the mute in and take it out with the same hand so that the handle will be in the same position each time. I, personally, like a side handle. I can reach it quicker and easier without stretching so much that is affects my embouchure. I can also place the mute in the horn when it’s down or up. Usually, you can add extra handles. I’ve heard of players fumbling around trying to find the handle when there’s no time to put the horn down. It can be pretty embarrassing—there are a few knowing looks out there when this has happened. Of course, that has never happened to me!! Oh yes, on other thing while still into choreography-be sure to plan when to put in and take out the mute very carefully so you won’t have to scramble, if that’s possible.
Sometimes, it is possible for the mute that fits one tuba to fit another different sized or pitched tuba. But you may need to have a mute for reach size tuba you own. By the way, the mute I’ve been discussing here is a straight mute for the upright or oval style euphoniums and tubas. There is one company I know of who will make a bell front mute for tuba and/or euphonium.
As far as muffler practice mutes are concerned, my personal preference is to avoid them if possible. The back pressure that results from practicing on them can do damage to your free blowing and cause closing of the throat. It’s not worth the trouble for me.
I think I’ve pretty well covered the mute and its uses. There are many things I’m sure some of you already know. If all the techniques for getting a good mute fail, I’d consult the mute company about what else I could do, or I may return the mute and try another.
It’s too bad there isn’t room tot tell about all the hilarious things and not so hilarious, that have happened with mutes in performances and about the attempts by some to create “make-shift” and “get-by” mutes.
The key word in all this is FLEXIBILITY. Keep an open mind. Try out different mutes. It may take time, but work to find the one that’s best for you and your instrument.
Former tubist with the Hartford Symphony Orchestra, T.U.B.A. International representative. Ron currently resides and manufacturers Mutes in Boise, Idaho. For more information on Ron Apperson Mutes please visit www.appersonmutes.com