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 The Monthly Morsel

Each month ABQ will blog on topics of interest to musicians, music-lovers, and brass players.  Have something you want to hear about? Send us a message.

  • Writer's pictureAlliance Brass Quintet

Modified Tuba for Quintet Success

Updated: Dec 8, 2018

So… are you going to sell that one?

Something many musicians have often heard from a friend, parent, significant other, or even teacher. I, like many musicians before me have owned and do own a lot of instruments (mostly tubas… mostly). I have it even worse than some because when I’m not playing tuba, or teaching tuba, I can be found in my basement repair shop fixing tubas. This means I have a, let’s say slightly more than, average amount of tubas. Any professional tuba player, or even advanced (college level) student, will tell you that one needs 2 tubas to play professionally. I’ve found I need 4, not counting tuba-like instruments. I have my big orchestra tuba, my smaller bass tuba, my quintet horn, and, of course, my sousaphone. Every tuba player might want to consider getting a sousaphone because you might be surprised how many opportunities come up that involve standing while playing, but perhaps I’ll cover that some other day.

Today, I am going to try to limit my post to talking about my quintet tuba, a horn I purchased shortly after joining the Alliance Brass Quintet. As a tuba player that has been freelancing around Chicago for over a decade, I did just fine playing my bass tuba on the quintet gigs that came up, but the music we play in Alliance is a little different than the typical repertoire of Die Bankensangerlieder and the Ewald quintets. I found needed a voice that blended a little more with the musicians than a big bass that is at home anchoring an orchestra performing Berlioz or Wagner. I purchased a little Yamaha C tuba, and quickly found it blended a bit better with the group than my bass tuba. It had a good high range for a C tuba as well, but there was one glaring deficiency, no 5th valve. For all of you non-tuba people who have continued to read this post in spite of the tuba-specific nerd-stuff, let me quickly explain the need of a 5th valve. The 5th valve is a longer 1st valve that is primarily used for 2 things: tuning and accessing the pedal range of the instrument. Heading back to the music, I had to alter more than one of the pieces that Alliance plays because the arrangement called for some pedal tones that I couldn’t hit on my 4 valve Yamaha. That didn’t sit well with me because the pieces just sounded better as arranged with the pedal tones. I decided I would alter my instrument to make it meet all my needs by adding the 5th valve.

I mentioned earlier in the post I repair instruments. In fact, I have a fully equipped brass repair shop in my basement where I can clean and fix just about any instrument as well as do some custom work. I did my research, made my parts list, and sent in a larger order of parts to Yamaha to make my addition. I was fortunate in that Yamaha made more than one version of my horn, and one happened to be an F tuba with a 5th valve. I have used many parts from that setup as it matched both bore size and would surely fit. Several (ok 8) months later I got my parts in. The bulk of them came from Yamaha and a few other odds and ends came from one of the main repair technician industry supply shop’s, Allied Supply.

I assembled the tuning slide assembly first including the bends to make it so it wouldn’t hit the bell when removing the slide. There was a little guessing involved because there is no stock part and the tubing would need to be longer on a C tuba than an F tuba. There was a stock outer tuning slide setup that I harvested parts and made a new setup that was one piece including the tubing inserts to keep the bore size consistent. I was able to get ferrules and the 90 degree tube to connect everything to the rotor. Next was bending a replacement mouthpipe as the angle of entry changed with the addition of the rotor and I didn’t want to cut the original one. Things got tricky with the thumb lever as I was not able to get all the parts from Yamaha so I did some basic machining and did a miniball conversion using many of the existing parts. The whole process took me about 20 hours… much more than I expected, but a good amount of that time was figuring things out. Custom work like this always seems to take about twice as long as it should.

I’ll admit, I was pretty nervous about adding all this to my horn, both in altering the original instrument, investing several hundred dollars in parts and a ton of my time that probably should have been used fixing other instruments for customers. The moment finally came when everything was together and I could see what I came up with. I was very pleased when I gave it a blow and found it played very similarly to what it played like before. Anyone who’s very familiar with their instrument will notice when a small change is made… even something as basic as getting worn pads replaced to correct a valve alignment. This was a drastic change so I wasn’t surprised it was a little different. Fortunately the response was reasonably close and the 5th valve worked as expected. The low notes were accessible! I found a surprise benefit to my change. The mouthpipe on the original horn was made of rose brass, the new mouthpipe is made of yellow brass. This changed, likely paired with the new pipe not attached as much to the bell, added a little more core to the tone that I have found to be really pleasant. I’ve included some pictures of this process. I have not finished the cosmetics. Some day when I don’t need the horn for a month or so (which doesn’t seem like any time soon) the new parts will be sent out for silver plating and re-mounted.

Now, my intention for writing this post was not to encourage everyone to start modifying horns to get the voice they are looking for. There’s a lot of other ways that don’t involve the labor and expense to make a change, whether with a mouthpiece, instrument, or just more practicing and instruction. I will agree I’m fortunate to have the skills to do this, but, at the end of the day, it’s still just a tuba. The tuba only amplifies the music that’s being made by the musician singing and operating the machine. Yes, I could absolutely play a different tuba with Alliance and make it work, but I do feel pleased with what I’ve done to be able to play all of the notes in my music with this tuba.

Yamaha YCB-621 before modifications

Original mouthpipe removed

Original Mouthpipe Removed

Inner and outer tuning slide initially assembled

Inner and Outer Tuning Slide Assembled

New mouthpipe in the process of being bent

New Mouthpipe in the Process of Bending

Mouthpipe and rotor assembly soldered to tuba

Mouthpipe and Rotor Assemble Soldered to Tuba

Final picture after thumb lever and tuning slide tweaked.

Final picture after thumb lever and tuning slide tweaked.

This project was completed by Jim Langenberg, Tuba with Alliance Brass. For more information, contact Jim at his shop, BRAZEN BANDWORKS:



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