“Low Brass Basics” for Doublers, Part Three

Read Part One here and Part Two here.

Trombone slide positions

The handslide is both a great asset and an Achilles heel for the trombonist. In skilled hands it facilitates the achievement not only of near-perfect intonation but also great purity of tone, as the player is able to adjust his instrument to the precise length needed to resonate on the exact pitch being played without any need for bending or “lipping” of the pitch, which can limit the embouchure’s ability to vibrate freely. However, in unskilled hands the opposite effect is usually achieved, with dull sounds and poor pitch resulting from mismatches between ear, face, and hands. While deficiencies in the player’s ability to hear and match pitch must be addressed, even players with the best ears can experience difficulty when there is a misunderstanding of what “slide positions” truly are. This is a fault which is particularly found among tuba and euphonium players that take up doubling on one or more trombones.

Skilled tuba and euphonium players are accustomed to bending pitches with the lips in order to make intonation adjustments as needed. While some degree of adjustment by manually adjusting tuning slides is desirable when possible, in most cases of intonation difficulty some pitch adjustment with the lips will be necessary. This is appropriate on the conical low brass instruments; not only is there often no other choice, but these instruments are remarkably tolerant of efforts to adjust pitches in this way, yielding a more or less characteristic tone even when the player bends the pitch by a quarter-step or more.

The trombone, however, is not so forgiving; only a relatively small amount of “lipping” is needed before the tone quality becomes unsatisfactory. Happily, on the trombone you should never need to adjust the pitch using the lips. Think of the handslide as a “giant tuning slide,” and adjust it as needed to correct all pitch discrepancies. This is relatively easy to do and becomes quite natural over time, but players who conceptualize trombone slide positions in a rigid and inflexible way (a fault common among new doublers coming to the trombone from a valved instrument) will find it difficult to do at first. It is most helpful to think of the different slide placements on the trombone not so much as “positions” but as “areas.” After all, G3 is played in fourth position on the tenor trombone, but so are B3 and D3—and all of those “fourth positions” are in different places, with further adjustments sometimes needed depending upon the melodic and harmonic context. Thinking of each position as not a particular “spot” but rather a wider “area” where the slide might be placed helps the player to become more comfortable with deviating as needed from where he thinks each position “should” be. This particularly benefits those who play multiple trombones, as the proper placement for each note will vary somewhat from one instrument to the next. When one is not wedded to a certain “spot” for each position, making the changes needed for different playing situations and even different instruments becomes automatic very quickly.

Range

I will conclude this series of blog posts with a word about tonal range. As a doubler myself and as a teacher of all low brasses, I have concluded that all low brass instruments, from the alto trombone through the contrabass tuba, have—or can have—the same basic tonal range. Of course, I do not mean to say that the lowest “tuba notes” sound good on the alto trombone (they are mostly false tones, after all) nor that the highest “alto trombone notes” sound good on the tuba (they are usually mere “squeaks”), nor am I suggesting that you might not be able to play a few more high notes on the alto trombone or a few more low notes on the tuba. However, the player’s buzz creates the note, and if you can buzz a pitch on one instrument you should be able to at least buzz it on another, if with a compromised tone quality in some cases. This understanding of range makes moving from one instrument to the other much easier, as you will not depend upon the instrument to enable you to produce a pitch, but only to provide the best and most characteristic sound when buzzing that pitch. This also lends a bit of credibility when teaching a low brass instrument that you do not play professionally—my tuba students are sometimes quite upset when I can play their low register exercises better on the euphonium than they can play them on the tuba!

When developing a playing career as a multiple low brass player, strive to cultivate your tonal range—and really all of these “universal” principles—in a way that transcends the strengths and limitations of the instrument you are playing at a given moment. If you can do this, the particular instrument becomes almost inconsequential compared to the responsibility and the joy of playing great music, and being able to play multiple instruments occupying multiple roles in multiple genres simply multiplies the pleasure—and the profitability—of being a musician.

Posted in Alto Trombone, Bass Trombone, Doubling, Euphonium, Low Brass Resources, Music, Playing Fundamentals, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Tuba

“Low Brass Basics” for Doublers, Part Two

Read Part One here.

The mouthpiece

The mouthpiece is the chamber in which the player buzzes his lips in order to create sound on a brass instrument, and is thus the primary interface between player and instrument. In a sense, the instrument is but an amplifier of the sound created in the mouthpiece, and thus the quality of sound produced by the instrument depends upon the quality of buzzing which takes place inside the mouthpiece.

Because the mouthpiece is the point of interface between player and instrument, it is vitally important that the mouthpiece selected be appropriate for the facial structure of the player and for the instrument being played. A mismatch in one or both of these areas can make the production of an instrument’s characteristic sound difficult or impossible for the player, regardless of the amount of practice time devoted to it. Conversely, finding the right fit for both player and instrument makes the process of learning and then performing a smoother and more enjoyable one, perhaps particularly when learning a secondary instrument.

While the idea of finding a mouthpiece that suits both player and instrument sounds simple enough, in practice it is not always easy. Developments in brass instrument manufacturing have led to a plethora of mouthpiece choices in recent years, but there remain certain combinations of mouthpiece dimensions, particularly of cup diameter and cup depth, which are considered standard for a given instrument. The player who deviates from these standard configurations will incur greater expense in order to procure a mouthpiece in the proportions that he desires, and the mouthpiece he finds or constructs might be viewed as suspect by those who believe that the standard sizes exist for a reason, and that mouthpieces which depart from the usual proportions will fail to yield a characteristic sound. This has led to the development of two opposing schools of thought among low brass players regarding the selection and use of mouthpieces, particularly when doubling. We will call these the “standard size” school and the “match the player” school.

Advocates of the “standard size” school believe that an instrument’s characteristic sound is most easily produced using a mouthpiece whose dimensions are in keeping with those which previous generations of mouthpiece makers considered standard for that instrument. When cup depth decreases in order to accommodate a smaller instrument, cup diameter should likewise decrease, and vice versa. While players who argue for this approach concede that some very fine musicians deviate from it, they contend that any benefits of such deviations, particularly pairings of cup diameters and cup depths which were once unheard of, are negated by the player having to work harder to achieve a characteristic sound. They would suggest that doublers need to “get over it” and use standard-sized mouthpieces on every instrument they play, regardless of the number of different mouthpiece rims that the player will have to manage.

Those who follow the “match the player” approach find this unthinkable and unnecessary. This approach states that while the cup depth, throat, and backbore of the mouthpiece should be matched to the instrument being played, the rim, and particularly the inner diameter of that rim (referred to elsewhere as “cup diameter”) should be matched to the player. Advocates of this school thus take seriously the concept of the mouthpiece as the interface between player and instrument, and seek to create and use mouthpieces that best correspond to the player’s physiology on one end and the requirements of the instrument on the other. For doublers, this introduces the possibility of playing multiple instruments on a single mouthpiece rim (or multiple rims of similar size), an approach which eliminates certain difficulties associated with playing multiple instruments with rims that feel different on the player’s face.

Advocates of both schools of thought are right about their particular points of emphasis, leaving one unable to dogmatically insist upon one way or the other. On the one hand, deviating from the standard mouthpiece configurations does introduce certain difficulties. Playing a shallow-cupped mouthpiece with a wide rim on the alto trombone, for example, can lead to difficulty achieving the focus, clarity, and upper register response needed for that instrument. Using a tuba mouthpiece with a bass trombone rim does work, but the lowest part of the range might not speak as readily and the warmth of sound characteristic of the tuba will be harder to realize.

On the other hand, playing on multiple mouthpiece rims introduces a certain amount of confusion in the facial musculature, partially negating the possibility of transferring skills from one instrument to the next. Doubling is usually easier and the necessary practice time less when one does not have to effect a wholesale embouchure change when changing instruments. Additionally, depending upon the player’s physiology doubling on certain instruments will be difficult without the use of the “match the player” approach. Those with thick, fleshy lips will have difficulty forming an embouchure that fits the narrow mouthpieces normally associated with alto trombones and small-bore tenor trombones. Conversely, those with thinner lips might find the widest bass trombone and tuba mouthpieces impossible to negotiate without air leakage and related problems.

Both of these approaches to mouthpiece selection for doublers have their advantages and disadvantages, though my own preference for the “match the player” approach is no doubt evident. Still, it is no panacea, and for my own playing I have adopted a combination of the two approaches. While I have difficulty accommodating my thicker lips to a standard-sized alto trombone mouthpiece, the combination of a wide rim and shallow cup that I use requires a bit more conscious effort to maintain the focused blowing and buzzing required by that instrument. Conversely, while I began doubling on bass trombone by using the same rim that I use on all of my other instruments, I eventually determined that moving to a standard-sized bass trombone mouthpiece would be necessary to achieve quicker response in the pedal register. I therefore use two mouthpiece rims on five instruments, playing bass trombone on the larger one and everything else on the smaller one. This is perhaps an odd combination, but it works for me.

For those that find the “standard size” school to be better for them, the negative effects of using multiple mouthpiece rims can be partially mitigated by choosing mouthpieces whose rims have a similar contour. Using a mouthpiece with a wide and flat rim on one instrument and one with a narrow and rounded rim on another, for example, creates a felt discrepancy in addition to the one already present from using different cup diameters. When the rims of the different mouthpieces share a similar contour, the change from one diameter to the next is less jarring.

Should you use one rim or several when doubling on multiple low brass instruments? In the absence of a definitive answer that works for every player in every situation, we can only present the “pros and cons” of the different schools of thought and encourage you to find the approach that works for you. Remember, too, that a hybrid approach might be best.

Sound concept

Having a correct concept of an instrument’s characteristic sound is a vital part of achieving success on that instrument, though the effect of sound concept on one’s playing occurs almost entirely subconsciously. If you are moving air effectively, buzzing freely, and have chosen an appropriate mouthpiece and instrument, all of the necessary ingredients for producing a good sound are in place. And yet, we have all heard players on secondary instruments whose timbres on those instruments are not quite right, perhaps sounding more like a modified version of the person’s primary instrument than like the instrument being played. In such situations, a faulty sound concept is almost certainly to blame, and if the player were to have a better “mental picture” of how the secondary instrument should sound the faulty tone quality would mostly be corrected. Know what your instrument should sound like, and then create that sound!

Posted in Alto Trombone, Bass Trombone, Doubling, Euphonium, Low Brass Resources, Mouthpieces, Music, Playing Fundamentals, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Tuba

“Low Brass Basics” for Doublers, Part One

The Low Brass Player's Guide to Doubling by Micah Everett

The Low Brass Player’s Guide to Doubling by Micah Everett

As some of you might have noticed, I have had a difficult time maintaining my desired weekly writing and posting schedule for this entire fall semester. This is primarily due to my energies being directed, besides the usual teaching and performing, to completing my book project which occupied the entire summer. I am happy to report that we are on schedule for a January release of The Low Brass Player’s Guide to Doubling (Mountain Peak Music), and I hope to soon be able to get back to blogging more regularly.

In order to catch up to my planned schedule of articles for this fall, I am going to post the three parts of this piece on “Low Brass Basics” over a three-day period. This material was in the initial draft of my book, but as the book grew in size and content it quickly became apparent that this chapter covering general fundamental issues was superfluous, at least with regard to the primary thrust of the book. Still, I think it is good material, and will be useful to readers of the blog.

So, here is the first part; more later in the week.


Low brass instruments are among those classified by organologists as aerophones, meaning that they produce sound by means of a column of vibrating air generated by the player. We will discuss the creation of vibration shortly, but in order to have vibrating air we must first have air, and given the size of our instruments the volume of air that must be moved is tremendous indeed, well beyond the requirements of normal breathing. In order to play a low brass instrument well, you must learn to move large quantities of air in a relaxed manner, a task which can lead to two opposite but equally detrimental errors.

The first is the movement of too little air. Small breaths can be taken comfortably without excessive tension, but using an insufficient quantity of air prevents the production of a characteristic sound, particularly on lower notes where the air requirements are greatest. While this error is common among younger players, advanced players can be subject to its opposite, in which great quantities of air are used, but the body is used incorrectly during inhalation or exhalation (or both). This introduces tension which can lead to pain, dysfunction, and ultimately the inability to play at all in some cases. Players who experience these problems have a commendable desire to use a great deal of air when playing, but the failure to use the body well when breathing negates any positive effects from this desire.

So, how does one move lots of air correctly? A short answer is to keep the body as relaxed as possible during inhalation and exhalation. The absence of tension or pain is an indicator that you are at least on the right track. Secondly, make sure that you are not preventing the lungs from expanding due to a faulty “body map” or idea of how the body works. Many players and teachers promote pushing the abdomen out when breathing, while others advise expansion primarily in the upper chest. Both of these approaches stem from a failure to recognize that all of the parts of the lungs fill simultaneously, and thus a good breath will lead to free expansion of the entire torso, with practically all of its muscle groups being involved either actively or passively in both inhalation and exhalation. Simply take a big breath and allow the body to expand as it wishes; the result will be both physically pleasurable and conducive to great playing.

While correct breathing should be relatively simple, all low brass players can benefit from a better understanding of the physiology and mechanics of breathing, both to promote right usage as well as to correct past misunderstandings. Two resources by David Vining are helpful in this regard, What Every Trombonist Needs to Know About the Body (2010) and The Breathing Book (2009, with editions targeted toward different instruments). The teachings of Arnold Jacobs (1915-1998) are also pertinent. Brian Fredericksen’s book Arnold Jacobs: Song and Wind (WindSong Press, 1996) and Bruce Nelson’s Also Sprach Arnold Jacobs (Polymnia Press, 2006) provide good introductions to his work.

While full, correct, and efficient breathing is remarkably simple and natural, exercises such as those in The Breathing Book (mentioned above) and The Breathing Gym by Sam Pilafian and Pat Sheridan (Focus on Excellence, 2002) can improve your breathing. While such exercises are recommended, any breathing methodologies which seem contrived or which introduce tension or pain should be avoided. Most importantly, remember that moving air is but a means to an end in low brass playing, and that end is producing vibration and hence, sound.

The buzz

Low brass players rightly talk a great deal about air usage, but we often err by thinking of the air as that which produces pitches on our instruments. The air does not produce the pitch; the lips do that. We hear pitches as the result of vibrating air; no vibrations, no pitch. It does not matter how much air you are capable of moving if the lips do not vibrate freely and efficiently in response to the air passing through them. The low brass player must learn to move great quantities of air not as an end in itself, but as a means of creating great quantities of vibration, and therefore a great sound.

The question is, “What constitutes a good buzz?” Is it even possible to answer this question in a way that accurately applies to all of the low brasses? I think so, and the answer is this: A good buzz is one in which the greatest possible amount of lip is engaged in vibrating on a given pitch, dynamic level, and instrument. To state this more crudely, “the more meat there is flapping in the mouthpiece, the better the sound will be.” If you want to have a great sound, you need not only to move a great deal of air, but that air in turn must cause lots of vibration in the embouchure.

Of course, there are variables here. Different instruments require different timbres, but much of this is accomplished by using an appropriate mouthpiece and having a proper mental concept of the desired sound. The amount of vibration will differ at different dynamic levels, the best sound is that in which the greatest amount of vibration possible at a given dynamic level takes place. Likewise with differences in tonal range; the vibrations are bigger and slower in the low register and narrower and faster in the high register, but you should still seek to realize the maximum amount of vibration possible for a given pitch, dynamic level, and instrument.

How is such a good buzz achieved? First of all, you must be able to move large quantities of air. Next, make sure that you are making full use of the space available in your mouthpiece. If you have ever heard a trumpeter attempt to play the trombone or tuba, you know the thin sound that results from a player essentially vibrating a trumpet embouchure inside the larger mouthpiece. Fill as much of the mouthpiece as possible with vibrating lip. Third, resist the urge to “flatten out” the embouchure. Most of us have a tendency to “roll in” the lips and perhaps even “smile” in the upper register. While this might help with tone production in a superficial way, the sound produced is always thin and unsatisfactory. Occasionally a related fault can occur in the lower register, where the lips are “stretched thin” as a result of the lowered jaw. In both cases, the player should think of “puckering” just a bit so that there is more lip in the mouthpiece and hence more vibration. (Do be careful with this in the low register; there is a more common fault which results from too much puckering in the low range.) Finally, make sure that your air and buzz are “centered” horizontally, vertically, and in depth (i.e. not playing too much on the inside or outside of the lips). Disruptions in any of these dimensions can result in an aperture that is too large, too small, or in the wrong place. The resulting sound will be unpleasing, with either too little sound “getting through” or sometimes too much air passing through the lips and instrument without contributing to the vibration of the embouchure.

If this information seems overwhelming, please do not let it be so. While it is helpful to think through these things in the way that I have done here, your approach to actual playing must be much simpler. Take a big breath of air, and blow it through the lips and instrument in a way that causes the lips to vibrate freely and vigorously. If that is done well, all of the considerations discussed above will have been addressed, if unconsciously. If there is a problem, the above information will help with diagnosis and correction.

Posted in Alto Trombone, Bass Trombone, Breathing, Doubling, Euphonium, Low Brass Resources, Mouthpieces, Playing Fundamentals, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Tuba

Book Review: Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven by John Eliot Gardiner

In the minds of Christians who appreciate art music, whether as performers or simply as listeners, perhaps no figure so fully epitomizes what it means to be a “Christian composer” or a “Christian musician” as does Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). While Lutherans can most legitimately claim Bach as their own—the composer was a part of that tradition both as a result of his location as well as by personal conviction—Protestant musicians of all stripes look to him as an model, both for the quality of his output as well as the theological conviction with which that output is imbued. The rigorous Lutheran orthodoxy expressed in his sacred compositions has led him to be dubbed the “Fifth Evangelist,” and over the years a picture of Bach as a man of extraordinary piety has developed in the minds of some. A want of reliable firsthand biographical information about the composer has not helped matters, with competing biographies appearing periodically, some commending Bach’s piety, others viewing him anachronistically through an Enlightenment lens.

<i>Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven</i> by John Eliot Gardiner

Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven by John Eliot Gardiner

Enter John Eliot Gardiner, one of the most widely acclaimed conductors of Baroque music and a recognized authority on Bach’s choral music in particular. The author’s expertise in Bach’s choral works is evident, with special attention given in Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven to the composer’s cantatas, Passion settings, Christmas Oratorio, and B minor Mass. While Gardiner’s insights into these works are fascinating, one wishes that greater attention had been given to Bach’s keyboard works; Bach was one of the greatest organists of his day, and his music for organ and for other keyboard instruments is of tremendous significance.

For the purposes of this review, it is to Gardiner’s treatment of Bach the man—more specifically, Bach the Christian man—to which I would like to direct the reader’s attention. While Gardiner never reveals his own religious commitments, judging by his writing he can perhaps best be described as a humanist, whose theistic perspective is agnostic at best. Statements like these appear periodically throughout the book:

Bach’s Lutheran faith is encapsulated in this extraordinary music. It carries a universal message of hope that can touch anybody regardless of culture, religious denomination or musical knowledge. It springs from the depths of the human psyche and not from some topical or local creed. (15)

Even to sceptical and agnostic minds, Bach’s B minor Mass radiates a recognisable and powerful spirituality, one that does not rely on creedal orthodoxy, odd though that might appear. (523)

Gardiner clearly has no desire to present himself as an orthodox Christian of any stripe, and in instances such as these demonstrates a slight desire to blunt the “creedal orthodoxy” of Bach’s work, or at least to give it a broader application. Nevertheless, Gardiner never questions the genuineness or orthodoxy of the composer’s faith, and even admits that this faith was central to Bach’s character, and to his view of the world.

Bach’s working library, estimated to have contained at least 112 different theological and homiletic works, was less like a typical church musician’s and more what one might expect to find in the church of a respectably sized town, or that many a pastor in Bach’s day would have been proud to have owned…. What it does reveal beyond his personal piety, his lifelong reverence for Luther and the central importance of Luther’s writings in both his personal and professional capacities, is that Bach was evidently deeply—and apparently uncritically—immersed in a mindset that was at least two hundred years old. (154-155)

His attempts to find more “ecumenical” applications of Bach’s work notwithstanding, Gardiner never shies away from the fact that Bach was indeed a believing Christian, and more specifically, a committed Lutheran.

While Gardiner’s work reveals a truly and even deeply Christian Bach, it does not reveal a flawless one. Bach was descended from a long line of Thuringian musicians, and was not above using his family connections to improve his own station and, later, those of his sons. Like many artists of his caliber, he was sometimes given to impetuousness, and on at least one occasion found himself in an altercation which involved swordplay. Bach’s long cantorate in Leipzig (1723-1750) saw numerous disagreements with church, school, and municipal authorities, whose various political machinations began well before Bach’s tenure and continued after his death. Bach was not even above, to coin a term, “autohagiography,” taking steps to ensure that the received understanding of his early life and training was to his liking. In short, Bach was, as are all believers, simul iustus et peccator, justified and yet still prone to sin. Gardiner writes with particular poignancy here:

…we should debunk once and for all the idea that Bach in his personal and professional life was some kind of paragon, the Fifth Evangelist of his nineteenth-century compatriots, the living embodiment of the intense religious faith and ‘real presence’ that his music seemed to transmit. Acknowledging Bach’s frailties and imperfections, far less heinous than those of Mozart or Wagner, not only makes him more interesting as a person than the old paragon of mythology, but also allows us to see his humanity filtering through into the music, which is far more compelling when we understand that it was composed by someone who, like all human beings, experienced grief, anger and doubt at first hand. This is one of the recurrent features that confer supreme authority on his music. (203)

As a Christian, this is why I find Gardiner’s treatment of Bach’s life so compelling. Gardiner does not fall into the trap that Christian biographers might of trying to portray Bach as some sort of “super-Christian,” but at the same time he does not attempt to explain away the composer’s faith or downplay its permeating influence upon his life and work. He simply presents a flawed but believing Christian man, striving to create “a well-regulated or orderly church music to the Glory of God.” (180) Indeed, and perhaps entirely by accident, Gardiner presents Bach as an exemplar of the doctrine of vocation, a redeemed sinner seeking simply to do his work “heartily, as for the Lord and not for men.” (Colossians 3:23)

In that respect, even those with little regard for art music or who understand Scripture to prohibit the kind of concerted church music Bach so ably composed can find in this man something worthy of emulation.

 

Posted in Doctrine of Vocation, Johann Sebastian Bach, Music, Music and Theology, Practical Christianity, Reading and Study, Theology

“Judge Not:” Forsaking the Pride of the Theologically Astute

“Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.” (Luke 6:37-38)

I enjoy studying theology. Somehow calling considering the things of God a “hobby” seems wrong, but it is something I greatly relish doing when not spending time pursuing my worldly vocation. (Perhaps “avocation” would be a better word.) My personal library includes dozens of theological volumes, ranging from works intended for popular audiences to thicker tomes full of technical language. During what sometimes seems like a different life I even completed eighteen credits of formal study in systematic theology via distance learning. My wife and I have found great joy in reading, studying, and discussing a variety of theological works, both between ourselves and among friends. Enthralled as we were with studying the deep things of God, for the longest time we simply could not understand why more of our fellow churchgoers could not or would not find time for such study. Could they really be so disinterested?

In the past I have written here about our long period of childlessness, and God’s blessing upon us in bringing our little boy into our home through adoption. While childlessness was a tremendous burden and sadness for us, in retrospect we are thankful for the long period of our adult and married lives that were spent without a child, as without the relatively large amount of free time we had the reading and study that have brought us to our current places in our understandings and lives as Christians might not have been possible. As our boy became increasingly mobile and active, we came to understand just why our peers did not spend the hours in reading and study that we did—they didn’t have time! This might seem obvious to you readers with children, but we were oblivious. Or at least I was.

<i>The Christian Faith</i> by Michael Horton (b. 1964)

The Christian Faith by Michael Horton (b. 1964)

Between having a child in the home and now having a job which demands somewhat more time than did my previous position, in the past four years I have been reduced from devouring large theological volumes in short order to squeezing in a bit of reading here and there whenever possible. At the moment I’m chipping away—often ten pages or so at a time—at The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Zondervan) by Michael Horton (b. 1964). At the rate I’m going, it will be next year before I finish. And that’s okay. While theological study is edifying, enjoyable, and important at some level for every Christian, we are, thankfully, saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, not by how many hours we spend studying or any other work (Ephesians 2:8-10). James tells us that “pure and undefiled” religion is marked by service to God and others and living according to His commandments (James 1:27)—he says nothing about spending multiplied hours in the study. Christ invites us to come to Him and rest in His finished work, and what a joy it is to do so! (Matthew 11:28-30)

There is nothing wrong with enjoying deep reading and study, and perhaps one day when Brody is older and things at work settle down a bit I’ll be able to resume my previous pace. I certainly hope so. In the meantime, I’ll encourage the eager young and childless Christians that might be reading this to regard your fellow believers with charity, not with judgment. Those seemingly disinterested congregants may be doing the best they can, holding simply and tightly to the simple Gospel and God’s promise in Christ that all who call upon Him will be saved (Romans 10:13). Don’t judge those folks or try to impress them with your knowledge. Instead, love them, pray for them, and get to know them. You might just find that by believing simply and seeking to live according to God’s commandments in the midst of hectic and stressful lives they have actually far excelled you in the things that really matter. They’re probably even patiently enduring your know-it-all attitude, confident that our Lord will have you grow out of it.

And having had that same bad attitude before, I am thankful that God forgives all that come to him in repentance, and that His people are marked by that same forgiving spirit.

Posted in Practical Christianity, Pride, Providence, Reading and Study, Theology

Choosing a Doubling Instrument (or Instruments), Part Three

Part One can be found here, and Part Two here.

Do you have time?

Doubling is almost always a boon to the low brass player’s musical experience, both for personal enjoyment as well as for professional prospects. However, these benefits will be realized only if you learn to play your secondary instrument well. Having been involved in situations in which a player (happily, not me!) has accepted an engagement for a doubling instrument which he had not yet fully mastered, I cannot imagine a more uncomfortable performing scenario both for the player at fault and for the other musicians on the gig. Perhaps more importantly, the player’s reputation was sullied, perhaps irreparably. While everyone has a bad day from time to time, musicians and contractors can tell the difference between an uncharacteristically poor performance that occurs in spite of diligent preparation and one which occurs because the player has not spent the necessary time in the proverbial woodshed with a particular instrument. Very few engagements of the latter type will be needed for your phone to stop ringing entirely.

In spite of the obvious benefits of doubling, you must consider whether or not you have sufficient time available for such an undertaking. Effective and efficient practice strategies can minimize the time needed to maintain skills on a doubling instrument that you already have well in-hand, but some practice time is required, especially during the initial stages of secondary instrument study. Not only must a substantial amount of time be invested in learning the new instrument, but this should not come at the expense of time spent practicing your primary instrument, at least not in the long term. An accurate understanding of the similarities and differences between instruments will decrease the amount of time and effort needed to master a new instrument, but this merely explains why doubling does not require that you actually double your practice time. Proficient and effective performance on a secondary instrument requires devoting a substantial amount of time to “shedding” on that instrument. Those who are unable or unwilling to invest that time should reconsider any plans to begin secondary instrument study.

Why is it important that so much time be dedicated to secondary instrument practice? Because audiences, contractors, conductors, and fellow musicians do not want to know that a given instrument is your secondary instrument, and if they do know they do not want to be able to tell by listening to your playing. Admittedly, you will very likely not feel as comfortable at first on your secondary instrument as on your primary instrument, though with time and practice you will reach the point where you are at ease playing whatever instrument is in your hands. In any case, your subjective perception of your own playing is often inaccurate, sometimes favorably so, and sometimes unfavorably. (This is why recorded practice sessions and applied lessons are important for your development.) If contractors and fellow musicians are pleased with your work, then be encouraged—and keep doing what you are doing. In time your comfort level will match others’ reception of your playing. If they are not pleased with your work, then regardless of your perception of your playing on a given instrument you need to practice more, and seek guidance in working out nagging problems.

Effective doubling means sounding great on whatever instrument is in your hands. This requires diligent and informed practice. If you are unable or unwilling to invest the time and effort needed play well on a secondary instrument—so well that listeners cannot readily tell the difference between your primary and secondary instruments—then doubling, in spite of its great benefits, is not for you.

Allow me to illustrate this with a personal anecdote. A number of years ago I received a last-minute call to substitute for the bass trombonist in a very good symphony orchestra, my first time performing with this ensemble. I was to report the next morning for a single rehearsal, followed by a performance that evening. As it turned out, the rehearsal was not even of sufficient length to cover the entire program, a summer pops concert which included Fountains of Rome as well as the 1812 Overture. Given the short notice and the challenging part for Fountains in particular, I was quite nervous though excited about the opportunity. Happily, the personnel manager (who was also the tuba player and thus sat next to me during the performance) was pleased with my playing, and this led to several subsequent engagements with that group before I accepted a teaching position in another state. One of these engagements was an early morning educational concert. Because I was primarily a tenor trombonist and at that time not yet comfortable with playing the bass before doing some fundamentals practice on the tenor, I brought both instruments along and arrived very early at the hall to warm-up. The tubist/personnel manager saw me playing the tenor trombone and said “I didn’t know you played tenor trombone, as well!” Based upon my bass trombone playing, this gentleman had assumed that the bass trombone was my primary instrument, when in fact it was only one of several secondary instruments I was playing by that time.

That is the goal: to play all of your instruments so well that the listener cannot tell the difference between your primary and secondary instruments. This requires a great deal of time and effort, but any lesser result should be unacceptable.

Are you willing?

Before finally “jumping in” and beginning the difficult but rewarding work of doubling, ask yourself if you are truly willing to take on this task. The initial costs are significant, the early practicing is sometimes frustrating, and the rewards, while significant, are often slow in coming and are by no means guaranteed. Recouping your monetary investment could take months or even years depending on the instrument chosen, though musical fulfillment usually comes sooner. Indeed, the variety of playing opportunities afforded to doublers makes playing several instruments especially satisfying; in some respects the greater remunerative potential is “gravy.” And yet these rewards, both tangible and intangible, come only when the listener cannot hear the difference between your primary and secondary instruments. The bar must be set high; great musicianship demands no less.

Posted in Doubling, Low Brass Resources, Music, Performing, Playing Fundamentals, Practicing, Teaching Low Brass

Choosing a Doubling Instrument (or Instruments), Part Two

Part One can be found here.

Setting goals

While musicians who pursue doubling often consider the benefits of doing so largely in economic terms, those are not the only kinds of considerations that might lead you to take on a secondary instrument. The low brass player that is considering doubling needs to set individual goals for secondary instrument study and performance. The intensity of study and practice that are needed, and in many cases the choice of secondary instrument to pursue, will be determined by these goals.

Ask yourself what you hope to accomplish by doubling. An avocational player seeking only to be able to fulfill different roles in community bands, perform in volunteer church ensembles, and play for personal enjoyment will be able to choose the instrument that “suits his fancy” and proceed with his playing development on the new instrument as whatever pace he likes. However, a player who aspires to perform on his secondary instrument professionally should work with great focus and intensity, seeking to quickly achieve professional-level playing on the secondary instrument. The music educator studying a secondary instrument in order to benefit his teaching might fall between these two extremes. Every player that pursues a secondary instrument does so with different objectives in mind. These will determine the choice of instrument, the intensity with which that instrument is studied, and the end result of this study.

You must also ask yourself “Are my goals reasonable, given the opportunities available to me?” A person that plays for personal enjoyment can choose whatever secondary instrument he desires, provided that he is content to play alone if no opportunities for ensemble playing are available. If you want to double in order to increase performance opportunities, consider the available positions in your area. An avocational euphonium player considering taking up the trombone in order to play in the community orchestra, for example, might find his hopes dashed if the trombone chairs are all occupied. But if the tuba chair is available and no experienced tubists are available, doubling on tuba might be a more reasonable pursuit. Similarly, a trombone-playing music educator looking only to improve his secondary school teaching by doubling should probably not choose the alto trombone as a secondary instrument, since that instrument is rare in such contexts. Euphonium or tuba would be better choices. The working musician looking to play more gigs should consider the unique mix of players and opportunities in his area and choose a double for which there seems to be more gigs than players. The aspiring performer that is still a student can choose any doubling instrument that he thinks will improve his long-term career prospects, provided that he is willing to move to “wherever the work is” upon graduation.

The decision to double is a given, at least in many situations, but the choice of instrument depends upon your individual goals and the opportunities available to you. Unless you are playing purely for your own enjoyment and do not mind playing alone, you must consider the prospects for performing on a given instrument, both short-term and long-term, when choosing a double. Your second-choice instrument, if it is greater demand, will almost certainly be a better option than your preferred instrument.

Similarities and differences

Another area to consider when choosing a doubling instrument is the similarities and differences in a given primary-secondary instrument combination. All low brass instruments have some playing techniques that are similar to one or more of the others and some that differ from one or more the others. The more similar a doubling instrument is to your primary instrument, the smaller the amount of time that will be required to gain—and maintain—the proficiency needed to perform on that instrument.

To illustrate this point, imagine that a tenor trombonist is deciding whether to take up bass trombone or tuba as a secondary instrument, and that in this imagined scenario the performing opportunities and potential remuneration are similar for each instrument. Assume further that the player is equally interested in both instruments, and that the cost of acquiring either instrument is similar. In this scenario, the time it will take to reach an adequate performing level on each instrument is an important consideration. If this tenor trombonist has a strong low register already, adding a bass trombone double would not take very long at all. Most of the slide positions are the same, and the desired timbre and air column shape are similar to those on his primary instrument, only bigger. The greatest obstacles to this player mastering the bass trombone will be learning slide positions and tuning using the second valve and becoming accustomed to the increased airflow and embouchure requirements of the bass trombone. Conversely, for that same player to learn to double effectively on tuba would take a greater amount of time. In that case not only are the air requirements increased, but the method of blowing is different as well, being somewhat more relaxed and more expansive on the tuba than on the bass trombone. Additionally, the player would need to learn fingerings, develop the necessary right hand dexterity, and significantly rework articulation in order to accommodate the tuba’s greater slurring capacities as well as certain subtle differences in tonguing technique for staccato and marcato passages. The bass trombone is thus similar to the tenor in many ways while presenting few differences, while the tuba presents a longer list of difficulties. Not only will more time be required for the player’s initial study of the tuba compared to that for the bass trombone, but the amount of practice time needed to maintain that proficiency will be greater, as well.

The above example is a bit artificial (tubas almost always cost more than bass trombones, after all), but it illustrates the point being considered here. The doubling instruments that are most closely related to one’s primary instrument are usually the quickest and easiest to master as secondary instruments. The player that is concerned mainly with moving his doubling from the practice room to the gig as quickly as possible might be encouraged to consider these instruments most strongly. However, there are additional factors that might alter this conclusion.

Returning to the above example, suppose that the player is working as a school band director, or aspires to do so, with freelance performing constituting a substantial but still secondary part of his income. While learning the bass trombone would provide him with additional freelance income in less time than the tuba, taking up the tuba might be of more benefit to his primary employment as an educator. Or, perhaps he has an opportunity to acquire a quality tuba at little or no cost, and would need to spend more to acquire a bass trombone of comparable quality. In such circumstances the player in our example might choose the tuba over the bass trombone, in spite of the greater learning and maintenance times, in order to save money or realize benefits to his career beyond his short-term gig prospects.

Although secondary instruments that are closely related to one’s primary instrument offer the easiest route for the player seeking to begin doubling, there are certain challenges which must be acknowledged and addressed. Returning to the previous example of a tenor trombonist seeking to take up bass trombone (or vice versa), while the large number of shared fingerings between these two instruments make this particular doubling combination an easy one in some respects, those shared fingerings can also become problematic. After all, no two B-flat trombone slides are exactly alike. While A-flat can be played in third position on every B-flat trombone, the precise location of that third position will always differ slightly from one instrument to the next, and likewise with all of the slide positions. The player that fails to acknowledge this and adjust to the peculiar tendencies of each instrument will play with poor intonation on at least one of the two instruments, if not both. Indeed, similar problems can present themselves even for those players who regularly play two of the same type of instrument, such as small- and large-bore tenor trombones, or smaller and larger tubas with the same fundamental pitch.

A related but equally problematic issue occurs with players that play two instruments with similar core tonal ranges but different tone qualities, such as tenor trombone and euphonium, or even euphonium and baritone horn. In such cases, the many shared characteristics of the two instruments can lead the player to prematurely decide that he is ready to double on a certain instrument professionally, when in fact he has only “scratched the surface” of what is needed to succeed on the secondary instrument. As a trombonist who has spent many years perfecting my skills as a euphonium doubler, I am always offended when a trombonist declares himself to be a competent euphonium player, and then proceeds to play the euphonium with a timbre and articulation which sound more like a poorly-played trombone than a euphonium. Having grasped the correlation between trombone slide positions and euphonium fingerings, such players are soon able to accurately produce the correct notes and rhythms on the new instrument, but instead of accepting this area of similarity between the two instruments and focusing on mastering differences, they ignore the differences entirely and settle for a euphonium sound that is both uncharacteristic and unpleasing. Perhaps the most common forum for displaying this particular fault is when an unprepared trombonist occasionally doubles on euphonium in an orchestral setting; it can make for a very unhappy “Bydlo” solo, indeed.

All of the low brasses have shared characteristics which make doubling among our families of instruments relatively easy, but some low brass instruments are more closely related than others. In most cases, the more traits a given secondary instrument shares with your primary instrument, the quicker and easier that secondary instrument will be both to learn and to maintain. Nevertheless, close relationships can lead to laziness in acknowledging and mastering areas of difference which do exist, a tendency which must be avoided if you wish to become a successful doubler. Besides, depending on your particular situation the easiest choice might not be the best one; the ease with which you can gain mastery should be only one of several items you should consider when choosing a secondary instrument.

To be concluded on Monday, October 20.

Posted in Doubling, Low Brass Resources, Music, Playing Fundamentals, Practicing, Teaching Low Brass