Taming the Beast: My Wagner Tuba Debut - Houghton Horns

Taming the Beast: My Wagner Tuba Debut

‘Beastly’ artwork by Camille Rhea Houghton.

Welcome to Mark Houghton’s WBH Blog. After many years, I finally succumbed to all the peer pressure. Enjoy!

In my career as a professional orchestral horn player, I’ve largely avoided the Wagner tuba. I’d always found it to be a bit intimidating. When the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra performs repertoire involving Wagner tuba, I stick to my role as Third Horn. Tuben can be awkward, difficult to play, and just plain weird. But I like a challenge, so I couldn’t pass up a rare chance this past February to play 1st Bb Tenor Tuba for two performances of Bruckner 7 with the Oklahoma City Philharmonic. Big thanks and shoutout to Bill Caballero and my PSO horn section colleagues who covered the rotation that week for me, which afforded me (quite literally) this opportunity. 

In order to get a jump on the preparation, I checked out one of the PSO’s Alexander double Wagner tubas this past December. I was fortunate to have that instrument available to me, as most orchestras don’t own a set of tuben. It was January before I opened the case and began to get acquainted with the thing, and it became immediately clear that I was entering a different world. One thing that I realized very quickly was that the Houghton H3 mouthpiece I was currently using for my daily horn playing wasn’t ideal. The shank wasn’t a great fit for the tuba’s European receiver, and I felt that the small bore of the H3 was a bit confining. After trial and (lots of) error, I settled on an old Giardinelli B8 two-piece cup with an H1 rim. This is probably the largest mouthpiece that I’ve ever played professionally, and I couldn’t imagine it working for me on horn, but it is somehow pure magic on the Wagner tuba.

My *magical* Wagner tuba mouthpiece.

Holding the instrument was the next learning curve. I noticed that I needed to adjust my posture so that I was achieving something resembling a horn mouthpiece angle, without hunching forward in an awkward, unsustainable position. My left arm was prone to tensing up at first (something I’ve dealt with plenty in horn playing as well). The ergonomics of the tuba just aren’t great. I know that Engelbert Schmid tuben are designed to fit the left hand just like a standard horn grip, which seems quite logical, and better from an ergonomic standpoint. This alternative design results in the bell curving out to the left, rather than the right, and this element is unique to Schmid tuben as far as I am aware. Read more here.

I decided that I would combat potential bad habits and get comfortable on the beast through daily practice, even if it meant small increments and short sessions. This was in addition to my standard horn practice of course, so it required a little extra planning and time management. There’s also something incredibly disorienting about the sound emanating from an entirely different place than we’re used to as horn players, and this phenomenon can make pitch (which is already suspect) very difficult to evaluate. 

Before long though, I was hooked. It was liberating to discover this new instrument, even if it was the horn’s misfit cousin! Over the coming weeks I would make it my focus to develop horn-like facility on this monster through scales, etudes and tuning exercises. 

I had requested to have the rental tuba—that is, the one I was actually going to use on the gig—shipped to me in advance. It arrived around the first week of February, and let’s just say it was….vintage. This was an old Alexander single Bb tuba, and it was altogether different from the modern Alexander double that I had been prepping on. This disparity was a bit worrisome at first. However, I found that I really enjoyed the sweet, focused sound of the smaller bell Bb instrument. It was equipped with a fourth valve that was fairly reliable for some of the F harmonics. Nonetheless, things were different on this instrument, so I had to pay my dues. I dove in with lots of drone and tuner work, which was quite beneficial. 

When I departed for OKC weeks later, I realized that I’d need to snugly pack up the tuba (case and all) in the large shipping box it was delivered to me in. This was in order that I could check it at the counter—which, as you might imagine—was tons of fun. The TSA agent at the oversize baggage drop asked me what was in the box. When I told him it was a musical instrument, he informed me that he was going to have to open it up. I asked very kindly for him to pack it back carefully the way I had done. He seemed pretty confident that it wouldn’t be an issue, and the tuba ended up being fine. 

When I arrived in town, I was warmly welcomed by Dr. Kate Pritchett, Principal Horn of the OKC Philharmonic, and Associate Professor of Horn at Oklahoma City University. During the week, Dr. Pritchett invited me to work with some of the brass students at the university, which was lots of fun. I also caught up with Jan McDaniel, who is a professor of music at OKCU and a family friend (from waaay back!). We had a nice breakfast one morning and easily could’ve talked music and life all day long. 

It was great to reconnect with Jan!

Another perk was hanging with my good friends Brian Brown and David Lesser, who were tackling the F tuben parts. Back in the day we all used to gig together tons and play horn chamber music just for fun. Suffice it to say that there was conspicuous consumption of chicken wings and beer that week (only after services, of course!). And Brian can thank me for his newly acquired addiction to pork rinds. We even made a day trip up to OSU in Stillwater to catch a brilliant recital by Adam Unsworth. Good times. As an aside, this was weeks before the COVID lockdown and looking back, I remember Brian and I discussing the first reports of PPE shortages and people storming pharmacies and grocery stores…alas!

L to R: Peggy Moran, Kate Pritchett, James Rester, Mirella Gable, Matt Reynolds, Brian Brown, David Lesser, Derek Matthesen and yours truly. 

If you’ve never played or read the tuben parts from Buckner 7, they can be quite intimidating. Full of sharps and double sharps, with the added fun of transposing in Bb basso on an unfamiliar instrument. In most cases I’d always advise using the original part, but I made an exception for myself on this occasion. I can recommend a clean transposed version of the 1st and 2nd Tenor Tuba parts here.

Bruckner wrote some of the most difficult chord inversions and exposed lines for the tuben at key moments in his symphonies. Maybe he had no idea how challenging and unreliable these instruments could be? It seems that Wagner and Strauss wrote more simply and somehow more appropriately for the tuben, but there’s no doubt that the effect of Bruckner’s Wagner tuba writing is sublime when well-executed. 

The first official Wagner Tuba entrance. This occurs at the beginning of the second movement after you’ve been sitting cold for over twenty minutes…

This entrance at X is quite exposed, but it makes for one of the most hauntingly beautiful moments in the entire symphony. There’s a massive buildup when horns 1&2 join in at 190 that culminates in a powerful resolution.

Bb basso anyone?

….and yeah.

Unlike Bruckner’s Eighth and Ninth Symphonies, in which the Wagner tuba players double on horn, there’s lots of sitting around in the Seventh. The first movement usually clocks in at 20+ minutes, after which you’re starting the Adagio by coming in cold with a highly exposed melodic passage. My solution was to subtly touch a couple of notes (in unison with the horns) during the raucous end of the first movement, and I highly recommend this little hack. There’s another 8-10 minute break for the tuben during the Scherzo, then lots of playing in the Finale with some more highly exposed passages. I guess the important part is being prepared to mentally pace yourself and stay engaged, because you can tend to feel a bit like an NFL kicker being iced with all that downtime. 

My fellow tuba section mates were more than happy to meet for little sectionals around all of our services that week, and it became a fun ritual that went along with the full rehearsals. I was glad that we all wanted to present our very best, and it took every minute that we had to ensure our entrances, breathing, and (especially) pitch were on point. By mid-week, we were all using Peterson StroboClip  tuners, which proved indispensable.

Our section’s position in the stage setup changed between the first and second rehearsals, and we found it much more comfortable to be lined up in a row behind the horns, rather than stacked in front of them. That’s not to say that this arrangement is in any way definitive, and it would have been nice to be a bit closer to the low brass, especially in a few crucial moments. Oh well, options are always limited, so you remain optimistic and do the best you can. 

The concerts went well, and we were fortunate to get bows on both occasions. Big thanks to the OKCU section and extras for their steadfast support, excellent performances, and an all-around fun week! 

Mark Houghton authors the Working Brass Hero Blog. He has played French Horn professionally for nearly twenty years. Mr. Houghton has been a member of the world renowned, Grammy-winning Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra since 2014. Additionally, he is a founding member and part owner of Houghton Horns, and Adjunct Professor of Horn at Duquesne University. Mark lives in the South Hills of Pittsburgh with his loving and supportive wife, Katie, and their three amazing children: Camille, Charlotte and Maxwell. Mark is not a writer, but he’s trying real hard. He is constantly taking on new projects, despite the fact that he has no time for them. Mark will never turn down espresso before 4pm on most days, and has a penchant for tequila and grass-fed steak. He is obsessed with the game of soccer. 

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