by M. Max McKee
As I travel around the world listening to bands and as I assess master’s projects of the 200-plus directors from 40 states and several foreign countries in our American Band College program, it becomes increasingly clear to me that many ensembles have little or no bass line. Having suffered the same problem myself in the early years of my teaching at Southern Oregon University, it soon became clear to me:
If you are going to have a band that sounds like a band,
you simply have to have a strong bass voice.
Often I hear, “Well, you know, we have only 22 students in our band and no one wants to play tuba.” Or, “We don’t own a tuba; can’t afford one.”
My answer always remains the same: It’s your job to fill the instrumentation. Immediately. How many trumpets do you have? 5 or 6? Enthuse one of them to move to tuba. Only 3? Then, how many flutes do you have? Transfer one of the smartest students in your band. Besides, it’s a GREAT common transfer based on the similar lack of resistance and air supply. These students not only do well on tuba, they soon find out how important their job is and really love playing tuba. (I’m a clarinet player and always played tuba in the secondary instrument bands of our undergraduate American Band College program. I loved every second of it AND I learned a whole bunch of things about what you simply can’t ask a tuba player to do!)
“We don’t have any money to buy a tuba.” That’s simply misplaced priorities. I’ve heard that statement from programs that raise tens of thousands of dollars a year to go on a trip to Disneyland. Believe me, if you tell your parent group that you must have two tubas or we’re never going to sound like a band should sound, that group will help you out.
They won’t? Well, then, do it yourself. I taught at a school that almost never had money for equipment. We simply focused on what we needed and got it through band auctions, performance dollars, etc. If you tell me your fund raisers will never earn that kind of money, I’d ask, “So, how much do you make on each fund raiser?” We never did anything that raised less then $5000 and it was usually double or more than that. Just look around and see how to completely avoid all the traditional, mini-money operations. You’ll be amazed what you can do with your band via a few performances. Much more fun. Even a band auction concert is a hundred times more fun than a car wash.
If you are still without a tuba, then think about the alternatives. Got 10 alto saxophones? (Even 4 is too many.) Switch one to bari sax; switch another to bass clarinet. In fact, switch to two or more bass clarinets. I even ask brass players to switch to low voice woodwinds. The parts are usually easy enough that they become instant stars in the woodwind section while eliminating the complete burial of woodwind sound in a brass-heavy band.
Always try to get two going at the same time: Two tubas, two bass clarinets, etc. They become friends, start doing duets AND you’re covered when Tuba One’s family moves out of town.
Still in trouble? Get your bass voice out of the percussion section. You CAN use a synthesizer IF you use great common sense about its function, how loud it is, and especially the style that is being played from those tuba parts. It does you no good if that bass voice sticks out and is obviously not a tuba or low end woodwind player.
The same is true about the use of electric bass. It can work really well if you get the student to play sensitively as part of the overall ensemble. If you have even one tuba, the synth or electric bass can play “inside” the wind player bass voice sound and make the listener believe you have 3 or 4 tubas. Even better: Get the already-playing electric bass player to play acoustic bass in your band. He or she will learn a lot and will provide a low that generates tons of overtones.
While on overtones, it is important to mention that having a strong bass voice is the only way you’ll get depth and resonance. If you also tune off that bass voice, you’ll subconsciously teach the rest of the band to tune down instead of across to other treble instruments. I’ll guarantee you that your band will start playing better in tune with a more gorgeous overall sound the minute you develop the bottom voice.
The bottom line is literally that. More bass, my friends. It’s the only way your ensemble is going to succeed. It’s totally unlikely that you’ll ever have too much bottom. MORE BASS!!