Artist Insights featuring Andy Cattanach

The Bandsman’s Break

As we all get further into our enforced break from musical activities, it’s sometimes hard, especially as a tuba player, to keep motivated and in shape (musically!) for the eventual resumption of full group music making. Whilst we may have our band practice pads at home, by now we may have run short of ideas and enthusiasm. I know I certainly did, quite rapidly too!

Tubas aren’t very “lockdown friendly”, what with everyone cooped up at home most of the time, and household acoustics suiting tubas less than most other brass instruments, unless you’re lucky enough to have access to larger spaces with high ceilings. Perhaps time to come to an arrangement with your local bandroom or Church if this is proving an issue? However disheartening this period may be, we can use this time to our benefit in many ways. Here are some ideas that you might like to try, some which have helped me both over the years, and during this Pandemic period.

Time with your instrument

Any time with your instrument on your lips can be useful, no matter how sporadic. Whilst we’d all love to be able to keep up a Herculean practice regime, our family members and neighbours certainly don’t agree, especially whilst we’re all at home together most of the time! Make the most of the time you can actually PLAY by having some structure and goals. Smaller, but more regular, sessions may keep the complaints at bay from co-habitants.

Our “bass section” sound is what our bands are built on, so make sure you can keep your instrument resonating. The type of air support we need on tuba is easily lost without regular attention, and probably the first thing to suffer without regular playing. Consistent, “slow air” support of normal dynamics becomes incredibly hard after even a short time off, and this is highlighted in the cruel acoustics of the average lounge or dining room! Don’t disappear into yourself, and try to get a solid tone at all dynamics, the hardest always being the quietest. The old adage “anyone can play loud and fast” rings true. Basic long notes or the hymn book/ballads are a great help here.

Basic exercises out of study books should keep articulation and coordination in check, but also don’t be afraid to root around for other music to play. There are plenty of sources of music online, and certainly don’t limit yourself to music written only for your own instrument. It really doesn’t matter what you play, at what pitch, if it’s for your own purpose. The International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP) / Petrucci Music Library has lots of Copyright free music to have a look at, including the more famous study books. Whilst you can download famous orchestral tuba parts to try, there are lots of solos and duets too, for all instruments, that work well. I’ve enjoyed lots of French horn duets by Henry Kling, for example, which brings me to…

Recording yourself! I know many groups have done “Virtual Performances”, and my band is no exception. Whilst this is nothing like playing live, it does at least set a goal and deadline, and using technology most of us have already on our phones or tablets, we can record these performances, but also use it for our own purpose. Record your practice, and set yourself goals to improve. Hearing yourself back can be an eye opener! Recording duets or quartets with yourself helps with tuning and timekeeping, and ends up with a finished performance, whether you choose to share it with anyone or not.

We can also use the abundance of spare time to learn new skills. Bass clef, anyone? I know most brass band players don’t need bass clef in their weekly band rehearsals, but it’s a great skill to have, and is the key to performance opportunities with other groups (Orchestras, Wind Bands, Brass Ensembles for instance), more solo music, and the traditional tuba study books. Whilst there are “cheats” for EEb players, BBb players need to do a bit more work. It’s well worth doing though, especially as most tuba music is only available in bass clef.

Away from the Instrument

One of few positive by-products of this period is the amount of musical material now available for perusal online. Many performers, teachers and conductors who are usually inaccessible to most of us have done various webinars, podcasts, performances and interviews freely available to absorb on YouTube or Facebook. Whether these are tuba (or even brass) players or not is unimportant.

Listening to output from other Tuba players like Carol Jantsch or Sergio Carolino, but also other “Bass instrument” players has been inspirational to me. People such as Bass guitarists Leland Sklar, Pino Palledino and Rocco Prestia, Double Bass players Rinat Ibragimov and Ray Brown have filled many hours for me, along with content from many other musicians and conductors. Soak up the knowledge and experience from as many as you can while we have the time!

Hopefully, we’ll be back playing together in full bands soon, but the ideas above can be used even then.

Andy Cattanach

Andy Cattanach is a Lancashire born BBb Tuba player who has played with many of the UK's top brass bands, and is currently Principal BBb Bass at Foden's Band, a position also previously held at the Fairey and Brighouse and Rastrick bands. Andy is also the Tuba player with the Intrada Brass Ensemble, as well as performing with many local Orchestras and Big Bands on both Tuba and Bass Trombone.