The Art of Eb Tuba Playing – Simon Morton
In the eighth of the series in which some of the SA banding world’s pre-eminent players discuss the role of their particular instrument within the brass band, Simon Morton, principal Eb bass of the New York Staff Band, focuses on the role of the Eb bass.
I was a fairly husky boy and in the words of a good friend and fellow tuba player, “husky boys play bass!” However, my first contribution to Salvation Army brass music was actually on the tenor horn. I was a serious cheek puffer and combined with my slight huskiness, was soon transferred to the Eb bass! I should be careful not to imply that the necessary requirement to play any bass instrument means being a person of plentiful mass, but I have found that it helps! Another common misconception when it comes to bass players is that we only have to play ‘oompahs’ and long low notes. As I am specifically referring to Eb bass playing in this article, I can assure you that Salvation Army band music is so much more.
As a boy, I was the lone bass in the Derby Central YP Band and today as a member of the New York Staff Band (NYSB) for the last decade, my role as an Eb bass player hasn’t really changed much. We are relied upon as a solid reference for intonation, steady rhythmic pulse and a general foundation for the rest of the band. Proper breathing, counting and exact sub-division are essential. Playing in a great section with the NYSB and previously with Flint Citadel Band taught me that I did not have to go this alone and in order to accomplish these things, teamwork is a must.
No matter this size or level of your band, you need to have good intonation. This means practising with a tuner, knowing the tendencies of your instrument, and always being prepared to listen. Do certain notes on your instrument tend to go sharp or flat? Try to adjust the slides accordingly, but do not change them every time you play. Also, be kind to the other players in the band and listen to what is going on around you. Even the best players get fatigued and intonation can suffer, so instead of sticking to your guns and refusing to play anything other than perfect 440, listen and adjust to the soloist if possible.
The subject of rhythmic responsibility and pulse is a greatly debated one for tubists. I will share my opinion and preference knowing there may be disagreement! There has been a tradition in many parts of the world in which the Bb basses sit to the left of the Eb basses (from their point of view), essentially leading the entire section. Most of the banding world does the opposite and the principal Eb is considered the section leader. I believe this to be the correct formation as this person will most often be the best and most musical player in the section. Once a leader is selected, the rest of the section must adhere to the stylistic and rhythmic approach he or she sets. Should the section play ahead of the beat to keep things moving? Should the basses always be a bit louder so the rest of the band knows where the beat is? Should the basses lead (or not lead) the bandmaster? The answer to all these questions is no in my opinion. There is a time and place for each note and I believe this is to be exactly in the right place! I don’t think it is necessary for a bass section to ‘push’ as long as everyone is playing together and not dragging. So as we say in the States,
don’t be that guy!”
Another important role of the Eb bass in larger and more established ensembles is as a solo instrument. This is not a new thing in Salvation Army music. One of the most terrifying moments in Salvation Army banding, from a player’s point of view, are the few bars rest before the Eb bass solo in Les Condon’s The Call of the Righteous. The solo itself is not the most difficult thing ever played, but the mental state of the player must completely change. Whereas most of the time we are listening and laying the foundation, now we are expected to not ruin the piece with a botched solo! In today’s music, there are some very difficult passages for the Eb bass and flawless technique and high and low register chops are standard requirements for people playing music by composers such as Kenneth Downie, Martin Cordner and others.
I should carefully touch on one more topic as it relates to good Eb bass playing. That is whether or not the Eb should pedal. Most Bb players will tell you absolutely not and will be offended at the mere suggestion that their pedals are not good enough! If you are the only bass in your band then by all means, go ahead but use some discretion. As a player of both Eb and Bb bass, I feel that I can comment in a way that is satisfying to both parties. When playing Eb, I would not suggest taking it upon yourself to pedal anything. Nicely ask permission of your Bb mate and only do it if they and the bandmaster are okay with it. As a Bb player, I have asked Eb players to pedal certain notes because they are easier to sustain and can be played with a nice full sound without getting too edgy, while allowing the Bb to have the option of playing a nice sonorous root note or stay on the pedal without having to work as hard.
Finally, wherever you are in your Eb bass playing career and whether it’s starting out in the YP Band or on the way to higher level SA banding, I implore you to commit your playing to the Lord. As the Apostle Paul states, “and we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are called according to His purpose.” (Romans 8:28). Let the Lord God Jesus Christ be the foundation of your life just as we are called to be the foundation of the band!