10 tips for tuba players from Roger Bobo

Dec 16, 2015

Brass legend, virtuoso soloist, world renowned teacher. These may come to your mind when you think about Roger Bobo. After playing in the Los Angeles Philharmonic for 25 years, he decided to make a change in his career and dedicate his time to teaching and conducting. Here at Play with a Pro, we have had the pleasure to meet Mr. Bobo at Domaine Forget and asked him a few questions which can come in handy for all tuba players. Read some of Bobo’s stories and tips on how to improve your tuba playing.

You can watch the full video of the interview here  

1. Why did you choose the tuba?

Well there are two parts to this. When I was little boy I was sitting on my father's shoulders in front of this big church in Los Angeles and there was a brass choir playing from the tower of this  church. It was the most fantastic beautiful sound. .. Later on when I was 7, I started playing the trumpet. I played the trumpet for a few years and then lost interest. Then when it was time to go to junior high school, we went to visit our future high school. There was this room with all these musical instruments and we were told not to touch anything, but there was this big instrument sitting and I went over there and I climbed into it and I started to play it. It felt wonderful and I loved the sound of it and the feeling of making it sound. It operated exactly as a trumpet, but a few keys lower. I could play my two favorite pieces on it. So because of the natural affinity to feel good, to enjoy the sound and because it was forbidden (you know the forbidden fruit syndrome) then I was stuck with it for the rest of my life.  

2. What makes a great tuba player?

You need to be musical. We can discuss what musical means for the next hour and a half, or for a few days. You know it’s somebody who loves music and can take a simple melody and make it into something beautiful. That means they are musical.  

3. I heard you singing while teaching… how does that help?

I use singing to teach and it gives a lyricism to the tuba players and I also use it sometimes to get them to feel the sound. Sometimes they are playing with this little bit of air and they sound pale, but if I start singing 6 inches away from their ear suddenly the start playing big  and this works every time.


4. What is a good sound on the tuba?

This should be in plural. What are good sounds?  There are many sounds and it depends on the piece you are playing. What you do in the symphony orchestra it’s not the same with what you do as a soloist. So we are required to take on many identities. We need to have several voices that fit in the context of the music.  

5. How was life in the orchestra?

You have to be a team player. Frankly when I first got a job in an orchestra I was trying to be  a teamplayer, but I was also ambitious... In the LA orchestra we were always able to talk things over  and we enjoyed it. This doesn’t happen in all the orchestras. It was a very special orchestra. Like everybody in the brass section had a master's degree and I think that helped.  After I left the orchestra I started conducting a bit and suddenly the brass section became a lot less important than I thought it was when I was sitting in the back playing those parts.

6. Is there a difference in tuba playing today compared to the time when you were a student?

The level has grown faster than probably any instrument in musical history. There is sort of a sociological anomaly and many people are attracted to the tuba. When I auditioned, there were two people who auditioned. If we just do a little survey in the last  years  in  the Boston Symphony there were 106. It’s always around 150 and they are always good. In that way it has changed. Of course with that change, the level of playing  rose. There were very few truly great players in the 50s. Now there are a lot of them, great players and great teachers. When I was a young boy there were no solo albums with tuba and now I suppose there are hundreds.  

7. How do you advise your students to practice?

I can’t really answer that because it’s different. Some students are just like iron and they can practice for hours, some people can’t because of some physical or mental reasons.


8.How do you choose the equipment?

Eventually students need to find their own way. Everyone in my course has two tubas, one c and one f. These are two of the voices that are required. I particularly prefer a focused and clear sound. I think that if you have this kind of sound then you can put a more definable bottom on a symphony orchestra for example. Every tuba sounds different, every mouthpiece sounds different and more than everything else every person sounds different. A lot of people find their equipment early in life and some of them are seeking to find the right mouthpiece and horn until they quit playing.

9. What do you think makes a good orchestral tuba player?

Consistency. I think you need to have a great sense of musicality and you have to love what you do. The healthy orchestra players find something else to do except playing in the orchestra. Let me put it this way, I calculated one time and I was the highest payed symphony orchestra player in America per note. Sometimes  I am on the stage all the time, but sometimes I am not at all. Once while they were doing a Beethoven cycle, I was off for 6 weeks. Sometimes you stay on the stage for 40 minutes before you make your entrance and that is difficult.

10. What do you like so much about teaching?

The surprise was that when I moved to Italy, I wanted to leave the orchestra. I had been playing in the orchestra for 35 years and it was time to move on. But the surprise was that I started teaching and I started adoring teaching  because it was more challenging than playing tuba in the symphony orchestra. It was more gratifying and it had more variation, because each student was a completely different situation. So I guess you have to be a little bit of a psychologist, a little bit of a guru and a little bit of a maestro. It is fabulously interesting and I am learning more about it every day.  

For more advice from Roger Bobo you can watch his masterclass here 


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