by Craig Knox


It is all too easy to look to equipment as a means to solve playing deficiencies. Some players are constantly hoping that a new mouthpiece, instrument or custom adjustment will fix all their problems, and the huge variety of equipment which is now available only makes this syndrome even more of a wild goose chase. Common sense tells us that this approach is not the answer. Some players realize this and take the exact opposite tack, shunning experimentation with new equipment, and focusing only on practice instead. For many years, I was one of those people. I put all of my effort into honing my ability as a player and musician. In fact, I clung to the equipment I had played for years, both because I was committed to its sound, and because I purposely didn’t want to get sucked into chasing after the perfect set-up. To be sure, spending those years developing my technique and musicianship was productive; but I also learned the hard way that by ignoring the role of equipment I was depriving myself of the opportunity to sound my very best.

“A great player will sound great whether they are playing a new state-of-the-art instrument or a 50-year-old clunker” is the kind of statement I have heard many times from brass players who are wary of the equipment arms-race. And this is certainly true. A great musician with a great concept of sound will always sound distinctive, no matter what instrument they are playing. But the one angle that is sometimes missed is that that same great player will sound even better on an excellent instrument which is well suited to them. And what happens when there is more than one “great player” in the room? It is at auditions where small differences between numerous “great players” become very important, and there is no doubt that equipment plays a role. Over the years observing auditions both as a candidate and an adjudicator, I’ve noticed that – while there are certainly some auditions in which one stand-out player steals the show (and the job) – very often there are two or maybe three finalists who for all intents and purposes are all qualified for the position, and who make it very difficult for the committee to come to a decision. In these situations it can be a very small or subtle detail which ultimately makes the difference. If you are lucky enough to find yourself in the finals of an audition, you want to know that you are as comfortable and capable on your instrument as your competition is on theirs. In this situation, even small equipment upgrades, tweaks and custom modifications can make a difference. Even if you think a small tweak amounts to, say, a 1% improvement in playability, the fact is that a few modifications can add up to 5%...and you’ll be glad for that 5% when you find yourself in a neck-and-neck competition.

So does this mean you should stop practicing and spend your time testing out new mouthpieces? Of course, equipment is just one piece of the puzzle, and the emphasis should always be on developing your technical ability and musicianship so that you can produce the results you want on whatever instrument you play. The answer – like everything else in life – is to find a healthy balance somewhere between obsessing about equipment, and ignoring it.

Speaking of finding balance, let’s take this to the next level and briefly discuss the question of equipment in the bigger picture. Aside from playability, a fundamental function of your instrument is to provide the basic sound quality which will define you as a player. There are as many types of sound as there are tuba players, but there are also some basic categories: bright/dark, big/small, “American”/“German”, and players often feel passionate about the camp to which they belong. As a young player, and for a long time, I was very committed to certain equipment which provided a certain sound characteristic…even though that sound did not fit the current trend. Eventually, I became more open to experimenting with different equipment and sound concepts, and it was thereafter that I started to have regular success at auditions. As much as anything, I think these changes represented a change in attitude on my part: a realization that satisfying my own preferences was less important than satisfying the listener I was playing for. It sounds obvious, but in my experience it is something that we often lose sight of: that the role of a professional musician is to serve the audience, not ourselves. Does that mean that we should give up on our own ideals of sound and style? No, but that is where the balance comes into play once again. I suggest seeking a balance between being true to yourself, and still being open enough to new approaches, new sounds, and new equipment.




 Copyright 2011 Craig Knox, all rights reserved