I have spent a significant portion of my teaching career working with marching band low brass sections. In that capacity I am often tasked with transferring students from other instruments to play the tuba. I am frequently asked about the age a student should be started on the tuba and what attributes he or she will need to succeed.
Let’s begin by taking a look at the end goal. You may ask why I would post this blog entry in November when most high schools are wrapping up their marching season? Balance within your instrumentation requires years of preparation and these ratios work for both marching and concert band settings. I strongly believe that a marching band should have about 8 tubas for every 100 wind musicians. The ideal brass section of 50 would consist of 16 trumpets, 10 mellophones, 16 baritone/trombones, and 8 tubas. That is 8 functioning tuba students who are capable of making a positive contribution to your ensemble’s sound. Most band directors advocate a “pyramid” concept of tone and look towards their low brass to support its foundation. However, insufficient instrumentation can make this nearly impossible. In my experience, when the tuba section is short handed the students overcompensate. This produces a less than desirable sound and is ultimately counterproductive.
I recommend that you start students on the tuba at the earliest possible opportunity. However, there are limitations to consider, mainly the size of the student and availability of suitable instruments.
Ideally, a tuba student should start on a 3/4 sized BB flat tuba. Sometimes a 4/4 (full sized) instrument is the only instrument available and the beginner is not tall enough to hold the tuba. A Wenger Tuba Rest or a tuba stand can provide a solution. Keep in mind that proper posture and holding position is vital since they are prerequisites to full breath support. If instruments and/or tuba stands are unavailable consider starting a student on the (bass clef) euphonium as it will provide the most natural transition to the tuba later on.
Anyone who is interested! While it is important to have balance in your instrumentation it is rare to have too many tuba players. It is much more likely that you need to recruit a couple students to transfer to the tuba.
It is best to transfer younger students because they will require time, patience, and instruction to develop into a competent tuba player. Furthermore, students improve at varied rates. A blend of veteran student leadership paired with younger developing musicians will sustain the quality of your section.
Do not be afraid to include female tuba students. Try to avoid gender stereotyping in your instrumentation. Gender is not a factor in one’s ability to play an instrument. This is evidenced by the high level of musicianship by today’s female tubists!
A student’s success on their instrument is largely dependent upon their level of dedication. Playing the tuba is not easy. At its beginning stages it is rarely glamorous. In novice and intermediate ensembles it is mostly used in a supporting role. And yes, it is heavy. Therefore you should look towards your most dedicated student to make this transition.
There are some physical and cognitive considerations that should be factored in as well. Sometimes students with braces have a much easier time on the tuba as opposed to other brass instruments. Others have difficulty accelerating their air enough to play in the upper register of a trumpet but the free blowing nature of the tuba suits them well. A good ear is an important asset. You can assess this by signing and mouthpiece buzzing with the student.
Here are some resources for young musicians and a set of guidelines for the first steps. Focus on the basics and reinforce good habits! Mouthpiece buzzing and breathing exercises should be included at every stage of a student's development.