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Tuba Overview

A tuba is the lowest-pitched and largest brass instrument. Utilizing a conical bore—a bore that increases in diameter from the mouthpiece to the bell—the sound is produced when the player's lips are pressed against the mouthpiece and made to vibrate as air passes between the lips.

The Ophicleide, a keyed brass instrument and part of the bugle family, was largely replaced as the tuba became more popular. The name tuba is the Latin word for ‘tube.’ In the United Kingdom, a tuba player is referred to simply as a ‘brass player.’ However, in the United States, tuba players are known as tubaists, or tubists.

Tuba's History

The tuba was in high demand before its creation. Many bandmasters and conductors were looking for an instrument to operate on the lower end of the scales. To fulfill this need, many instruments were designed and utilized before the tuba became popular. Each of these instruments brought elements of design and sound that have contributed to the tuba we know today.

One of the newer orchestra instruments, tubas first appeared around the middle of the 19th century. The most influential of these instruments was created in Dublin Ireland, 1810, by Joseph Halliday. Joseph—a bugle maker—created the keyed bugle, taking many cues from the keyed trumpet. Joseph continued to create the ophicleide. The ophicleide is a brass instrument with keys, pads, and a conical bore. These elements were then passed on to form the first tuba as we know it today.

September 12, 1835 was the birth date of the first tuba. After the invention of the valve in the 1820s, valves were incorporated into many brass instruments. The incorporation of these valves led to more keys being added to the tuba, allowing for its low range.

First patented by Wilhelm Wieprecht and Johann Gottfried Mortiz in 1835, the tubas were quickly adopted by many brass bands in Britain. Years later in 1878, the compensating valve system was invented and applied by D.J. Blaikely. This system allowed for the extended range boasted by tubas today.

Types of Tubas

Tubas can be found in a variety of pitches, but more commonly the pitches of F, Eb, CC, or BBb. The variety of pitches are provided by elongating the main tube of the instrument. The tube for a Bb is approximately 18 ft long, for a C tuba the tube is nearly 16 ft, the Eb has a 13 ft tube and the F a tube of 12 ft.

The lowest pitch of tuba is referred to as contrabass tubas. Typically pitched in CC at 32 Hz, or BBb at 29 Hz, these tubas have become popular in concert bands, orchestral bands, and high school bands across the US, Germany, Australia and Russia. In the US, the BBb is the most widely used tuba because of the large scale of tuba use in public high schools.

The higher pitched tubas at F or Eb are referred to as bass tubas—a fourth above the contrabass. These tubas are used in orchestra bands when the bandmaster wishes to target the higher ranges. The tenor tuba—also referred to as the euphonium—is a full octave higher than the contrabass tubas. Tubas known as subcontrabass tubas have also been created but are very rare because they fell out of popularity because of their unmanageable size.

Tubas are further defined by their intended use. For example, a tuba with a wrap for placing on the lap of the player is called a concert tuba. A recording tuba is made with a forward-facing bell to make it easier to record the tubas sound in a microphone. Occasionally, a tuba will be wrapped for horseback riding or marching and they are traditionally referred to as a hélicon. John Phillip Sousa—an American bandmaster—had a namesake version of the tuba that was modified to resemble a hélicon, with an upturned bell that was curved to point forward called a sousaphone.

Tuba Playing Techniques

There are a variety of techniques that may be applied to a tubist's music. Once the basics are mastered, embouchure, air, tongue, teeth and hands may be used to further manipulate the sound to incorporate unique sound. Some of these techniques include:

• Bangs: Created by hitting the instrument with the player's hand, or a small hard object, these sounds are used to create sharp and loud bangs that ring out above the other instruments.

• Clacks: Clacking the tongue against the roof of the mouth whilst playing the tuba creates a loud clack to emanate from the bowl of the tuba. Typically marked with ‘X’-shaped notes and verbal instruction in music.

• Microtones: Tones played in the tuba at intervals smaller than even a semitone.

• Mouthpiece slaps: Created by either smacking the mouthpiece with their palm onto the mouthpiece or by using a wide embouchure and slapping the mouthpiece with the tongue. By pressing the valves, a range of pitches can be reached with this method.

• Multiphonics: Created when singing directly into the mouthpiece while playing.

Tuba Mechanics

While tubas vary in length, the features of a tuba are roughly the same for all. Tubas are constructed of the mouthpiece, bell, valves, valve tubes (made available for maintaining valves), and the water key (a removable cap on the tube leading to the mouthpiece that allows condensation and spit to be easily removed).

The sound of the tuba begins when the lips vibrate on the mouthpiece. Those vibrations then follow down the conical tube, past the holes that are covered and uncovered by depressing valves operating padded levers over the holes. The air stream is then left to travel out of the holes or forced to traverse the remainder of the tube length and out of the bell. This is what produces the pitch for each instrument. By tightening or loosening the lips, a player may manipulate different notes, however, this method is limited without the aide of the valves that make this instrument possible.

Notable Tuba Players

There have been myriad notable tuba players from across the globe. Below is a list of some of the most popular tuba players to date.

  • Arnold Jacobs
  • Roger Bobo
  • Oystein Baadsvik
  • Gene Pokorny
  • John Fletcher
  • William Bell
  • Charles Daellenbachj
  • Avital Handler
  • Carol Jantsch

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