Given the fact that both the tuba and euphonium are large amplifiers of physical activity, it is possible and effective to use the sound of the breath as a compositional element. In normal practice, tubists and euphonists are careful to make sure that the breath is not amplified by the instrument: the breath is done outside of the mouthpiece, in order to minimize unwanted noise. When specifically utilized, though, a variety of sounds can be made by breathing in or out through the instrument (via the mouthpiece opening). The type of breath sound created through the instrument is determined primarily through the speed of air and the oral cavity shape. A tight oral cavity will result in a sound that consists mainly of upper harmonics, while an overly-large oral cavity will emphasize lower harmonics. The speed of air can be varied over time, so that a sort of “whooshing” or wind effect is created. This is generally easier to accomplish when exhaling, although it is possible to create a similar sound when inhaling.
A few guidelines are necessary to utilize this technique to its best effect. First of all, slow breathing in the instrument can be soft dynamically to the point of being nearly inaudible. If the instrument is externally amplified, this is no big issue, but when played acoustically this can be a factor. Additionally, the use of loud, repeated breathing sounds (as in the creation of a ‘bellows effect’) can be physically taxing to the performer. There is little resistance when blowing air into the tuba, and doing this at a high volume for an extended period of time can lead to hyperventilation in the extreme, and physical discomfort in milder cases. Finally, breathing in through the instrument can, in some cases, lead to physical discomfort in the performer. This happens primarily if an instrument has been improperly maintained, as the leadpipe may have started to accumulate some debris. Regular maintenance on behalf of the performer will mitigate this issue. Moreover, the use of non-biodegradable valve oils may lead to a situation where a performer is inhaling harmful particles from the valve block. Again, this is non-issue provided that the performer observes proper maintenance and uses suitable valve oils (something that should be done regardless of intent to perform contemporary music).
There are a variety of notations used to delineate this effect in the score; as always, consistency and clarity of notation is advised. One common notation technique is to use wavy lines to indicate the relative pitch and motion of the air sound, as well as diamond, x-shape, or slashed noteheads to distinguish from standard notation. As the breath sounds carry the possibility of being rapidly alternated with standard notation, it is vital that the symbol used for this technique be clearly delineated from the standard notehead.
Works to consider (bolded titles are particularly representative examples of this technique)
Solo Tuba Music – Cort Lippe
Solo No. 3 – László Dubrovay
Midnight Realities – Morgan Powell
From the Quiet… – Peter Hoch
Breath and Sounds – Beatrice Witkin