The New-Old Country

Having been prevented by end-of-semester duties at the University of Mississippi from maintaining my usual weekly writing schedule since the end of April, I write today with the somewhat unhappy announcement that I will not be resuming that schedule until August or September of this year. The reason for this is by no means dissatisfaction with blogging, but rather the need to devote my literary energies for the summer to my largest writing project yet. I will share a bit more about that at the conclusion of this post. While I do not anticipate writing here regularly for the next several months, I would not be surprised if I find myself sharing an occasional post if a matter of particular interest or importance presents itself.

As I “sign off” for the time being, I would like to leave The Reforming Trombonist’s small audience with an ironic exhortation for a blog: “get off the internet.” I write to you today as one who for the better part of a decade has devoted an inordinate amount of time to reading online resources of various kinds. I am rather grateful for a number of these; I very likely would never have discovered the Reformed faith which I have come to cherish were it not for the availability online of writings new and old promoting that view of the Scriptures, faith, and life. Through social media I am able to maintain (if imperfectly) relationships with old friends, former classmates, and former students now scattered around the country and world, as well as with professional colleagues both at home and abroad. Even this blog was directly responsible for my securing a contract for the book to which I will devote the majority of this summer. Clearly by advising readers to “get off the internet” I do not intend that this exhortation be observed in its fullest, literal sense.

And yet, I do mean to say that we could all stand to spend less time online. In a previous post, I shared a listing of “Websites I Check Regularly,” a rather extensive listing of materials which, if viewed daily, could easily occupy over an hour of reading time. While I do not wish to diminish the value of any of those sites, and I still check all of them from time to time, not everyone has an hour to spend reading online each day. Perhaps no one should spend that long even if the time is available. As Providence would have it, I found myself with a significant overload in my teaching schedule this past semester. I quickly discovered that the time I had available for reading and study was severely diminished, and I would have to choose between maintaining a habit of reading books and print journals, and continuing my previous volume of online reading. Happily, I chose the former.

The internet is a wonderful source of news and information, but in withdrawing from it to a certain extent I came to realize just how much of what seems at the time to be “vital information” is in fact fleeting and ephemeral. Additionally, that which proves to be important is better viewed after some time has passed and information has been collected and processed, in contrast to the often-erroneous “breaking news” that has rendered much of the cable “news” industry (and its associated websites) both annoying and worthless. The advent of podcasting has proven to be a timesaving measure for taking in that which is needful; a number of quality websites and authors that produce news and commentary from a variety of perspectives now offer regular podcasts that can be automatically downloaded by your smart phone or other portable device. This way, one can take in much of the same material that once had to be read online while getting dressed, driving to work, eating lunch, etc.

By reducing my online reading and getting much of the online information I still consume through podcasts, I have, even with my limited schedule, been able to spend more time enjoying books. As readers of this blog are certainly aware, my favorite field of avocational reading is theology (and, secondarily, its effects upon life and culture), and it is in that field particularly that I have come to enjoy reading “old books,” as C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) so famously advised his readers to do. I just finished reading a rather lengthy volume of collected essays and reviews by J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937), perhaps the leading conservative theologian in American Presbyterianism during the first half of the twentieth century (and also the gentleman pictured at the far right of the banner on the top of this page). Machen possessed an uncanny ability to express complex truths in a style that is simultaneously scholarly and conversational, and which effectively bridges the gap between pedantic nineteenth-century prose and the often too simplistic style that prevails today. More importantly, I am constantly impressed by his foresight in anticipating many of the theological, social, and political controversies which continue today. Those controversies existed in his time, but in what we might call “seed form,” and were not always recognized by Machen’s contemporaries. His insights, now a century removed in some cases, are instructive and, as Lewis observed, subject to different “blind spots” than those possessed by contemporary writers. In this and other cases, I have found the reading of “old books” to be particularly enlightening.

And so, dear reader, I invite you to join me in what I have called “The New-Old Country,” that place where a person who has tasted both the benefits and limitations of modern technology learns (or begins to learn) to “put those things in their place” and once again embraces the old books, the old ways, the old learning, and the insights to be found therein, insights which are uncannily useful in their contemporary applications. As a blogger, this also means that my responsibility to ensure that my writings here are useful and “worth your time” is even greater. I look forward to assuming this responsibility once again in the fall, after spending the summer on a book project tentatively entitled The Low Brass Player’s Guide to Doubling, to be published by Mountain Peak Music in early 2015 (D.V.). Performing on multiple low brass instruments has become a vital part of my performing and teaching career, one about which I have written in this space on several occasions. I am excited about the opportunity to write at greater length on this subject, and hope that the forthcoming book will be useful to my colleagues and their students.

Posted in C.S. Lewis, Low Brass Resources, Music, Music and Theology, News and Commentary, Practical Christianity, Presbyterianism, Teaching Low Brass, Theology

The Grass Is Not Always Greener (But It Is Still Pretty Nice)

The Presbyterian Church in America, of which the church my family attends and serves is a part, is an interesting denomination. Confessionally and historically its roots are in the old Southern Presbyterian tradition, which in turn derives from English and Scottish Presbyterianism. Its confessional standards are the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, ancient documents (at least by Protestant standards) which, while subservient to Holy Scripture, are regarded as faithfully summarizing and systematizing what the Bible teaches to be true. While the present denomination is just over forty years old, its founders regarded themselves as the rightful heirs of a proud Southern Presbyterianism when they broke away from the increasingly liberal Presbyterian Church in the United States (now part of the mainline Presbyterian Church U.S.A.). In fact, those early fathers of the PCA often referred to themselves as the “continuing church.”

With such a history, one might expect to find PCA churches filled with the descendants of old and proud families who were part of the PCUS and then the PCA for generations, and in a few churches one finds exactly that. Perhaps more often, though, one finds in the PCA, in addition to new converts to Christianity, people who grew up as Baptists (like myself), or Methodists, or even charismatics of various kinds. People that for one reason or another grew dissatisfied with the denominational tradition in which they were raised and have found in conservative Presbyterianism an intellectually and spiritually robust view of the Bible and its application to all of life, one that provides answers to the most difficult challenges of life and thought and at all times directs people to repent and believe the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ.

At least, that’s what I sought, and that’s what I found. Having become a “five-point Calvinist” years before first joining a Presbyterian church, I observed and later studied the denomination’s history, confessions, government, and polity from a distance before becoming fully convinced of the rightness of its positions (paedobaptism was a particular sticking point, one about which I hope to write in the future), and then joining a Presbyterian church along with my family. For whatever reason, I somehow thought that everyone that came to the PCA from some other theological tradition must have done so after a years-long process of study, deliberation, and prayer, as I did. Silly me.

While there’s nothing wrong with choosing a church and denomination after years of prayerful study (I still like to think that there’s still something very right about it), most people just don’t do that. They choose a church because they like the preaching, or the ministry to children, or because they are converted through an outreach program of the church, or because a friend or family member invited them. Many—if not most—people who join our church have never read the Westminster Standards in their entirety, and a number of them may never do so. In short, most of the folks that come to our churches are just “regular Christians.” They look to Christ alone for salvation, they love and revere the Bible and seek to obey its teaching, and they seek to be faithful in supporting and serving the church. And that’s okay.

Ours is a day in which Calvinism has gained a level of notoriety in some circles that it hasn’t enjoyed in many years. Christians from non-Calvinist traditions (like me) who come to love this high view of God’s sovereignty, study its authors both past and present, and seek to promote that view in their churches and denominations often find that view unwelcome. While one should be charitable toward fellow believers and particularly church leaders who disagree on this matter, sometimes the best thing one can do to promote the “purity and peace” of the church is to depart for a church or denomination which holds those views.

However, don’t expect to find that “the grass is greener on the other side of the fence,” or at least not all of it. Having been a part of Calvinistic and confessional churches for about six years now, I can say that it has been a joy and a relief to worship and serve in a church and denomination where the matter of God’s sovereignty (both generally as well as regarding salvation specifically) is not debated or a source of division, where the ancient creeds and confessions of the church are valued and studied, and where the works of authors both ancient and modern regarding the deep things of God are read and discussed.

And yet, there is no perfect church, and no perfect denomination. In any church one finds real people with real problems. People who struggle with material needs as well as deep spiritual hurts. People who struggle with sin and unbelief and erroneous views of the Bible and desperately need to come to a real and saving faith in Jesus Christ. Regarding theological matters, while Calvinism is not debated in the PCA a number of other issues are, and the divisions are sometimes painful. Happily, our confessional standards and system of ecclesiastical courts provide a proper (if imperfect) forum for vigorous debate on these matters. Sadly, on “this side of heaven,” the church remains an imperfect entity, regardless of the denomination.

I’ve written this partly because I find it personally helpful to remember and reflect on these things, and partly because there may be someone out there who will read this one day; someone who is (or feels like) a lone Calvinist in a church or denomination that is not amenable to that view and is considering moving to a Calvinistic and confessional church or denomination, be it the PCA or other NAPARC church, or even a Reformed Baptist congregation. To that person I will say that I have no regrets about the path which led to my ultimately landing in the PCA, except that I wish I had handled my departure from a couple of churches better. Still, I hope that reader, if he does decide to pursue membership in such a church, will do so with his eyes open, realizing that there is no church in which all (or even most) of the members are “into” deep theological debates on obscure topics. Most folks neither want nor need a lecture on some minor point of systematic theology, but simply need someone to give them a “cup of cold water” (Matthew 10:42) in the name of Christ. Remember also that until Christ returns the church, regardless of theology or denomination, is yet imperfect, full of broken people with real sins and real problems.

While such problems will persist both in and out of the church until our Lord returns, in our Calvinistic and confessional churches one finds a robust theology which is best able to meet those problems “head-on” and address them in a fulsome and biblical way; one which is most compatible with the whole counsel of God. If that is what you are seeking, then I say “Come on. The grass isn’t *all* green, but much of it is, and it is a good place to be.”

Posted in Calvinism, Confessionalism, Covenant Theology, Doctrine, Practical Christianity, Predestination, Presbyterianism, Salvation, Theology

“But I’m a Music Education Major!”

My apologies for failing to post anything here last week. April is a busy month in all university music programs, I’m sure, and ours is no exception. Given the volume of work and the lack of available time, to forego last week’s blog post was an easy and necessary decision. While I’m sure no one fretted about not reading my weekly ruminations last week, it seemed apropos to explain last week’s silence.

As my thirteenth year of teaching applied music at the university level nears its end, I continue to ponder the necessity and importance of applied lessons on a major instrument for music education students (i.e. those preparing for careers as school music teachers). The majority of students that have come through my studio over the years have been aspiring band directors—in fact, I can count on both hands the number of performance majors I have taught regularly over the course of my career thus far. In most respects, I am happy that this is the case, as I find it impossible to in good conscience release a large number of performance students into a job market that simply does not have a place for all of them. I even actively discourage undergraduates from majoring in performance, telling them that the music education degree, with its associated teaching license and higher likelihood of future gainful employment, is a much better option (unless, of course, they hate children). If they wish to pursue graduate training in performance they can still do that with the music education degree provided that they practice sufficiently (that path worked for me, at least).

While I am happy working primarily with future band directors, this is not without its frustrations, particularly as students advance in their studies toward teaching observations, score study, and teaching practica of various kinds. Advanced music education students sometimes begin to question the importance of applied lessons and individual practice. This questioning is rarely verbalized and perhaps not even conscious, but is evidenced by a reduced commitment to lesson preparation on the part of some students. For my part, I continue to emphasize the importance and even the practicality of major instrument study for music education students. While there are many arguments that can be brought to bear on this question, those that I use most can be grouped under one of the following headings.

1. Development of Comprehensive Musicianship

Perhaps the most important benefit of applied study for music education students is the development of comprehensive musicianship. I have over the years read arguments that music education curricula should be altered so that instead of spending three or four years perfecting skills on a single major instrument, each student instead spends a year or so of in-depth study of at least one instrument from each family, perhaps culminating in a recital of intermediate-level works on all of these instruments. While I understand the rationale behind this argument, I disagree with it, not because it threatens my livelihood (it wouldn’t; I would simply spend most of my time teaching intermediate-level lessons), but because it eliminates the primary forum in which students develop advanced expressive and interpretive skills. To be able to play “musically” on an instrument requires mastery of its technique, and changing “major” instruments every semester or every year would rob students of the opportunity to gain sufficient technical mastery to even begin exploring advanced interpretive ideas, ideas that can be effectively transferred to the student’s future work on the podium. The various “methods” classes that are part of every music education program should be sufficient to give students rudimentary playing skills on all instruments (suitable for demonstrating for beginning players, at least). When teaching advanced players, though, the ability to pick up one’s major instrument and beautifully demonstrate a phrase from any part of the score can be an effective part of one’s rehearsal technique. Major instrument study is what gives our students the opportunity to become the best musicians they can be, with an interpretive “toolbox” that will serve them whether they are playing or conducting (or, for that matter, writing, arranging, or doing any number of musical tasks).

As an aside, I do not think it is a coincidence that some of the best band directors I have known have had advanced degrees in performance….

2. Development of Rehearsal Technique in the Practice Room

Students should be encouraged to think of their preparation for each weekly lesson as a forum for developing and refining rehearsal technique. Ken Lewis, my band director at Delta State University and professor in my band conducting and band methods courses, told us that effective band directors follow a three-step process to correct problems with an ensemble: “Detect, Diagnose, Remedy.” First, hear the problem. Then, identify the problem and its likely cause or causes. Finally, based upon this diagnosis, prescribe a remedy. An ineffective director often will skip the middle step. He will hear the problem, and then without diagnosis immediately proceed to the “remedy,” which is, more often than not, to “do it again and hope it’s better.”

Similarly, those students whose work in the practice room consists solely of “playing it a few times and hoping for improvement” rarely get very far as players. Those who hear a problem and then take the time to figure out what the problem is and what is causing it before proceeding are much more productive in the practice room, and this skill set transfers directly to their work as band directors. Perhaps this is why I have known a number of successful band directors that were never more than “okay” players, but I have never met a successful band director that during his or her college years did not learn how to go into the practice room, fix problems, and emerge having made some real improvement.

3. “Side Gigs” Are a Good Thing

The first two items on this list are the most immediately applicable to the future music teacher’s preparation, but the following three are also reasonable, if less important and treated more briefly. First of all, everyone likes to make a little extra money, and the music teacher that is a proficient player can in some markets earn a sizeable side income performing in local churches, with regional orchestras, teaching private lessons, or in other venues.

4. Non-Hypocrisy Also Is a Good Thing

This one might seem like “low-hanging fruit,” but I think it has some validity. I personally find it impossible to tell my students to do something that I am not willing to do myself. I tell them to play through a comprehensive daily routine each day, and I do so, as well. I tell them to play through an extended sequence of scales and arpeggios in at least one key each day, and I do so, as well—in fact, mine is more than twice as long as the one most of them do.

Likewise, the music teacher that admonishes his students to practice regularly, and yet never did so himself, has a credibility problem. I’m not saying that every band director should be practicing two hours a day—in fact, I know better than most applied teachers that finding *any* time for regular practice is a challenge given the average band director’s schedule. However, being able to say, if only to oneself, that “when I was a student I practiced at least as much as I am telling my students to practice,” lends a little bit of “moral authority” to one’s admonitions.

5. You Never Know…

Finally, “you never know.” When I started my undergraduate studies I had every intention of spending my career as a school band director, and I was well into my junior year before I decided to “have a go” at graduate degrees in performance and possibly a career as an applied teacher at the tertiary level. Because I had already established effective individual practice techniques, I was able to simply increase the amount of time I was practicing and the breadth of literature covered and found myself able to successfully audition for graduate school, be awarded a teaching assistantship, and start along the path which led to my present position. Had I used my ambition to become a band director as an excuse for insufficient practice habits, that door would have been closed to me. Music education students that are even entertaining the possibility of a career path other than that of a public school teacher should especially strive to develop their playing skills. After all, “you never know….”

Applied study of one’s major instrument is an important and necessary part of the future music teacher’s preparation. I hope these thoughts will be helpful for applied teachers who sometimes struggle to convince students of the importance of individual practice, and for busy students who might find themselves wondering “why do I have to do this?” There is a purpose, and this will contribute to your success. Get to work!

Posted in Career Choices, Daily Routine, Education, Higher Education, Music, Music Education, Performing, Playing Fundamentals, Practicing, Scales and Arpeggios, Teaching Low Brass

“Live in the Now:” A Brief Addendum to My Thoughts on Performance Anxiety

In my essay posted two weeks ago I addressed the topic of performance anxiety, and judging by the statistics regarding that post a number of people found it useful, or at least worth reading and discussing. In thinking and talking about this topic with a few students over the course of the past week I have thought of an additional item that I would like to bring to my readers’ consideration. Stated briefly, one might entitle these thoughts “Live in the Now.”

Quality performance recordings are of great importance to musicians. The application process for graduate programs often includes the submission of audio or video recordings of live performances. After graduation, a quality “demo” CD or DVD is even more important for those seeking employment as performers or teachers of performance. Professional performers and college/university teachers alike use live recordings to market themselves to contractors and prospective students. Indeed, in every solo performance one hopes not only to make a good impression upon the live audience, but also to obtain a (near-)perfect recording for future use.

This desire for a great recording is normal, understandable, and perhaps even laudable, but it can be poisonous to the performance anxiety sufferer. Already fearing the opinion that the audience present in the room might have if any part of the performance is subpar, the nervous musician sinks even further into his anxiety when he considers that he is not only playing for that audience but is also seeking to produce a recording worthy of being heard by prospective employers, contractors, and students. There is only “one take,” and pondering that reality makes a nerve-racking situation even more so.

I know this because I have experienced it. As I said in my earlier post, I am writing this as a “pilgrim on the way,” not as one who has overcome, at least not entirely. Still, I have a suggestion for addressing this cause of performance anxiety: learn to enjoy the moment. “Live in the now.”

In several of my past writings, including that of two weeks ago, I have emphasized the need for the performer to entertain and serve the audience. Focusing upon “what they think of me” is not a healthy attitude, particularly during the performance itself. Likewise, thinking of “how I can use this performance for future self-promotion” is unhealthy, and can beget additional anxiety. Let go of all of that, and remember that you are there to entertain, to edify, and to serve the audience there in the room with you. Remember that playing music should be fun, and allow yourself to enjoy the moment. Remember even that the audience wants you to enjoy yourself and play well, and is unlikely to notice minor errors if you do not draw attention to them.

And if there are imperfections in the performance, learn what you can from them, but don’t dwell on them. Use the best parts for your “demo” recording and discard (or archive) the rest.

Compiling a great “demo” recording of live performances is extremely important, but this should not be in the forefront of the performer’s mind while on stage. To do so only increases anxiety and robs the present audience of the attention it deserves. Enjoy the moment, serve the audience, make great music, and repeat. Perform well and often and you’ll have no difficulty putting together a fine recording.

“Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” (Matthew 6:34)

Posted in Performance Anxiety, Performing, Playing Fundamentals, Practicing, Teaching Low Brass, Worry

What Theological Education Has Done for Me

In April 2009 I began a nearly two-year process that has shaped and continues to shape my spiritual life and thinking on theological matters: I pursued and eventually completed a Certificate in Systematic Theology from Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan, though distance learning. At the time I was looking for some additional direction in my theretofore self-directed theological study, and was even considering leaving my present profession and entering the pastorate. Because my wife and I were childless then and both working full-time, I had the free time and financial means necessary to take up this pursuit. I chose PRTS because its promotional materials and available sample lectures communicated a combination of rigorous academic requirements, warm piety, confessional orthodoxy, and to be honest, low tuition that I found more appealing than its rival institutions. Additionally, its certificate programs required only 18 credit hours of coursework, while those at other schools required 30 or more—really the equivalent of a full master’s degree in any field other than theology. While PRTS was and is a young institution and was not accredited by the Association of Theological Schools at that time, I was assured that they were pursuing that accreditation. The seminary has since been fully accredited by ATS.

It has been more than three years since I completed this program, and life now is substantially different. I was just about halfway finished with the certificate when we adopted our son, and I know full well that both time and finances would prevent my entering such a program at this time in my life. I am teaching at a university with greater requirements for performing and publishing than my previous one, which also limits the time I have available for outside study. Furthermore, my family is now part of a larger church, and opportunities for putting the results of my studies to use in a formal setting are rightly slow in coming as we continue the process of finding places of service and involvement here. (That said, one might argue that my present position teaching preschool Sunday School is the most important teaching role I have ever had in the church!)

All of that said, given the opportunity, time, and money I would gladly continue my formal studies through PRTS or a similar institution. The benefits of the studies I was able to complete have been many; here are just a few of them:

1. Greater appreciation for the work of the pastor.

Taking 18 credits of systematic theology will certainly give one an appreciation for the “academic side” of a pastor’s initial preparation, as well as the myriad considerations and hours of study that are part of the development of every sermon. Given the pastoral bent of the professor for all of my courses, Dr. Joel R. Beeke, I also received a glimpse into the practical challenges that are part of the pastor’s work. While “bi-vocational” ministries are sometimes necessary for pastors, they are far from ideal—it’s a full-time job!

2. More informed opinions on theological matters and related subjects.

I entered this program largely hoping to enhance the teaching ministries I had already enjoyed in several churches. Unsurprisingly, after 18 hours of systematics I know a whole lot more about theology, the Bible, and how these ideas apply to practically every area of life. However…

3. Greater appreciation for how much I don’t know.

Strangely enough, I have found myself less willing (really!) to voice my opinions about matters of theological discussion and controversy than I once was. I entered the program at PRTS having already read the Bible through several times in multiple translations, and thought I knew things pretty well. After hundreds of hours of listening, reading, studying, and reflection, I came to realize that even after these formal studies I had barely “scratched the surface.” Learned men have been plumbing the depths of God’s Word for centuries, and their findings, expositions, and reflections occupy thousands upon thousands of pages. The Bible alone yields new treasures upon every reading, while the thoughts of godly and erudite scholars give further “food for thought.” I know a great deal more of this than I once did…enough to be even more aware of what I do not know.

4. More awareness of the historical context of theological ideas and debates.

American evangelicals, like practically all people living in advanced societies today, tend to be very “present-minded.” Even those of us that are lovers of books tend to fill our shelves with the works of recent authors, and the result is an unhappy intellectual myopia. By its very name, PRTS displays a fondness for the works of sixteenth and seventeenth-century authors, and those men were in turn quick to cite sources extending back to the earliest days of the church. Reading and learning about the debates, circumstances, and struggles of the past is enlightening regardless of the subject area; when the subject is God and His Word, such study is humbling and inspiring, as well.

5. A “reticent eagerness” to serve.

When I began my studies I truly believed myself ready to serve the church in the office of elder. (I thought I knew a lot, remember?) While I am eager to serve the church in whatever way I can, I find myself much more tempered in my view of my own readiness for its highest “lay” office. Not only do I realize how much I have yet to learn about theology and the Bible, I realize even more just how much I have yet to learn about the challenges of bringing the teaching of God’s Word to bear upon the lives and struggles of real people. Maybe the Scriptures use the word “elder” to describe this office for a reason….

6. A removal (perhaps) of my pastoral ambitions.

I really did consider for a time leaving the music profession and the secular academy to become a pastor, and Dr. Beeke was kind enough to speak to me on the phone about it and offer his counsel. His advice: “If you can stay out of the ministry, stay out of it.” He reiterated the difficulty of the work and the need for a real sense of calling if one was to persevere. For my part, I came to realize that loving God’s Word and enjoying the study of theology do not by themselves make a pastor. After completing my formal studies with PRTS I thus redoubled my efforts at pursuing my present vocation in a manner that glorifies God and edifies my students, colleagues, and others.

Still, in the back of my mind I sometimes wonder…and consider…and pray….

7. Exposure to pastors and theologians who continue to shape my thinking.

In other writings I have discussed my transition from Southern Baptist to Reformed Baptist to Presbyterian. I began my studies at PRTS in the middle part of that journey, and the men whose writings and sermons I came to know through those studies have been instrumental in furthering my growth in both understanding and piety. While I came to PRTS already knowing of many of the top pastors and scholars in the Presbyterian tradition, through my studies I first became aware of the Dutch Reformed tradition and the rich heritage that is there. My iTunes podcast list thus continued to grow, and my bookshelves become ever fuller. I only wish that the English translations of Dutch works were not as stilted as they sometimes are.

8. An informed opinion regarding distance education.

I cannot adequately say how thankful I am for these studies and how much I would encourage any Christian with the necessary desire, opportunity, and means to undertake a similar course. However, distance education (regardless of the field—not just theology) does have its limits, and I became keenly aware of these over the course of my studies. The spontaneous interactions with faculty and fellow students before and after classes, in the hallways, and elsewhere are an important part of the educational process that is not adequately replicated in online courses. The lack of access to a theological library (or a library with resources for whatever field one is studying online) can also be problematic; in his lectures Dr. Beeke would at times refer to a book chapter or article that students should read beyond those listed in the syllabus, and while on-site students could simply go to the library and do so, I had to purchase or otherwise procure those additional sources. The building of relationships with future colleagues is also an important part of post-secondary education in any field. For seminary students planning to enter the pastorate, classmates become that initial and sometimes lifelong “support group” when the difficulties of the pastor’s work begin to take their toll. These relationships don’t happen online! The same is true to one extent or another for professionals in every field. Finally, students must be very self-motivated to succeed in online courses. Often there is no set schedule, no regular class meeting time, and no reminder of due dates (if fixed due dates exist at all). I have seen many college students fail online courses because they simply forget to do the work. If you lack the drive to complete coursework without regular reminders to do so, distance education might not be for you.

If you love God, His Word, and His church, and have the means to do so, consider some kind of formal theological education. There are on-campus and online programs available at numerous institutions representing every denomination. For most folks, distance learning is the only viable option, and while imperfect, it can be both enjoyable and edifying. Still, if you find yourself considering the pastorate, an on-campus, residential program is definitely preferable.

Posted in Bible, Calvinism, Confessionalism, Distance Education, Doctrine of Vocation, Education, Higher Education, Instructional Technology, Practical Christianity, Presbyterianism, Providence, Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, Theological Education, Theology

Performance Anxiety

While a precious few of my readers are blessed with having no personal experience with the matter I am discussing today, most performing artists know it and know it well, and for some it can be debilitating at times. Performance anxiety is a frustrating challenge. Sufferers know it to be irrational and unpredictable, and yet most are unable to eliminate it entirely. Indeed, both I and my students have found “managing symptoms” or even achieving “remission,” to invoke concepts from the medical profession, to sometimes be more plausible goals than “cure.”

When I first began teaching university-level applied trombone lessons as a graduate assistant nearly thirteen years ago, I very self-consciously sought to hide any and all weaknesses in my playing and teaching. I am still a few months shy of age 35 now, so in the early years of my career I was usually very close in age to my students, and in a few cases I was younger than them. At that time I feared that admitting any weakness or ignorance would somehow damage my credibility in my students’ eyes. These days I am a little more “seasoned” and a lot more comfortable, and have discovered that being honest with students about areas with which I struggle or have struggled in my playing is very helpful to them in that I am able to speak from experience about steps that they can take to address the same issues. Today’s subject is an area in which I have made a great deal of progress, but still have some distance yet to go.

And so, in addressing the subject of performance anxiety I write very much as a fellow “pilgrim along the way,” not as one that has entirely “overcome.” Here are some ideas and steps to consider when dealing with this issue. Most of these can be tried simultaneously, and any can be modified as needed to fit a particular person or situation.

1. Practice. A lot.

Musicians accept as axiomatic the need for plentiful, rigorous, and daily practice, but perhaps few consider how much this helps one to manage performance anxiety. The more times one has successfully played a challenging piece or passage, the greater the likelihood of a successful performance. Furthermore, with greater practice comes greater honing of the physical structures and movements used in making music. The more “in shape” one is as a player, the more likely he is to be able to overcome the physical manifestations of performance anxiety.

2. Strive for Efficiency.

When practicing, and particularly when working on playing fundamentals, note any and all extraneous or inefficient movements (or, conversely, areas excessive tension or rigidity) in the body, and seek to eliminate them. These “nervous habits” often become magnified in stressful performance situations, and quickly go from being meaningless “quirks” to real liabilities.

3. Learn to Relax.

I have often noticed that when I am “just messing around” in the practice room I can play some difficult things very well and very efficiently, but then struggle with similar passages when actually “working at it.” Many of my students have noticed the same thing about their own playing. Why can we play certain things when we aren’t taking our playing seriously but not when we are? Often it is because we are not “getting in our own way” by introducing the useless nervous tensions that we often employ when we are “really trying.” While relaxation is no substitute for regular and diligent practice, I have found that making a “mental note” of the way that I play when “having fun” and then trying to replicate that way of using the body in a more stressful playing situation is very helpful.

4. Address “Problem Areas.”

Even the most nervous players can be successful on stage when performing repertoire that exploits their strengths while minimizing their weaknesses. It is the weaker areas, the ones that sound fine but feel insecure in the practice room, that will both feel and sound poor on stage once “nerves” are introduced. Work extra hard to turn weaknesses into strengths!

5. Choose Repertoire Wisely.

As a follow-up to the previous point, when possible, choose performance repertoire that accentuates areas in which your playing is most secure, while drawing less attention to areas of difficulty. During his group warm-up session at the Eastern Trombone Workshop this week, SFC Sam Woodhead of the United States Army Band noted in passing that (I am paraphrasing here) “Even the best players in the world have ‘chinks in their armor,’ so to speak. They just do a good job of covering them.” I’ve been pondering that statement for a few days now, and I realize that I do a very poor job of applying this principle. Thinking back, my most successful solo performances (and, incidentally, those that were most enjoyable and least affected by nervousness) have been those in which I played repertoire that did not require me to “expose” any areas of significant weakness in my playing. While there is a place for practicing and sometimes even performing repertoire that forces one to address weaknesses, there is something to be said for choosing works that make you sound good. I have a habit of choosing music that I like without considering whether or not a given piece is a good piece of music for me, and this is a habit I will endeavor to change, beginning now.

6. Perform as Often as Possible.

An unhappy result of performance anxiety is that those that suffer from it become less enthusiastic about performing publicly. And yet, why do we become musicians if not to perform for others? Performing more frequently is an important part of addressing anxiety not only because there is no place in the profession for the “non-performing performer,” but also because fewer performances can lead the anxiety sufferer to believe that the “stakes are higher” for the performances that he does have. This leads to a spiraling cycle of increasing and debilitating nervousness. Performing more often, conversely, causes one to become more comfortable, to enjoy the increasing confidence brought by repeated successes, and to be able through honest appraisal and evaluation of experiences on stage to identify causes, symptoms, and solutions for specific instances of anxiety when they occur.

7. Be Humble, but Confident.

As a Christian, I reject as incompatible with my faith the arrogant type of personality both on and offstage that some associate with “great artists.” However, while Christ commends humility, there is a difference between humility and self-deprecation, the latter being unhealthy. Despite the haughty attitude that society sometimes expects of them, I have noticed over the years that the very best performers, regardless of their belief systems, carry themselves not with arrogance, but with what I will call a “settled confidence,” simply performing with a secure idea of the sound they wish to produce and with the expectation that the desired sound will in fact be produced. Cultivating this kind of outward demeanor, even when one’s inner emotions are full of nervous turmoil, helps with performance anxiety in two ways. First, it causes the audience to have better expectations; when they see nervousness they expect to hear it, and are more likely to notice minor blemishes as a result. More importantly, confident behavior can sometimes beget the actual feeling of self-confidence, with predictable and positive results.

8. Entertain and Serve Your Audience.

As performers we always hope that the audience will “like us,” but we must strive to make the performance not so much about us as about the audience. We are there to present great music for the audience to enjoy, and should strive to play in a way that is entertaining and uplifting for them first of all, and only secondarily fulfilling and gainful for us. Anxiety is in many ways a self-centered attitude, rooted in the fear that the audience may have a negative opinion of us. When the performer’s primary desire is shifted from the promotion of self to the edification of the audience, performance anxiety sometimes lessens as well. Perhaps paradoxically, the performer’s reputation receives a “boost,” as well!

9. “It’s Just a Trombone.”

The first International Trombone Festival I attended was the 2001 event at Belmont University in Nashville. Despite the passage of time, I still very clearly remember a talk given by Jim Miller, Assistant Principal Trombonist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. In that talk, he described his dismay at his inability after multiple auditions to move from a “middle-tier but still full-time” orchestra to a position like the one he now holds in one of the top orchestras in the country. Without repeating his entire story here, the discovery that “it’s just a trombone” was central to his renewed success, as he realized that he was taking himself and his career so seriously that he was unable to regain the skill, confidence, and enjoyment that were needed for him to enjoy the greatest success. For those of us that suffer from performance anxiety, the message here is to remember that “it’s just a trombone” (or whatever instrument one plays), that the negative impact of a poor performance is almost nil “in the grand scheme of things,” and that to be able to play and perform for others is a great privilege afforded to relatively few people. Don’t dread playing. Enjoy it!

10. “It Will Be Okay.”

The message of this last point is more suited to one of my occasional posts related to my Christian faith, and so I will leave expounding upon it at length for another day and another article. Suffice it to say for now that I am comforted by the promise that the God whose providence extends even to the smallest birds and to the hairs of my head will always care for and sustain His people (Matthew 10:29-31). Resting upon that promise always provides both perspective and relief in the face of anxiety.

Again, I write today not as one that has “arrived” but as one that still struggles from time to time with performance anxiety. Happily, those occurrences are less frequent and less severe than they once were, largely due to application of the ideas discussed above. I hope these thoughts will be helpful to musicians and others with similar struggles.

Posted in Eastern Trombone Workshop, Education, Higher Education, International Trombone Festival, Performance Anxiety, Performing, Playing Fundamentals, Practicing, Providence, Teaching Low Brass, Worry

“Gadgets and Gizmos:” Smartphone Apps to Improve Low Brass Teaching and Performance

The development of smartphones and other hand-held computing devices has brought rapid changes to the ways in which we live, work, and play. Not all of these changes are positive; I doubt I’m alone in reporting that I am more distracted and find myself less able to focus on long-term mental tasks (such as long periods of time reading difficult texts) than I did ten years ago. “The jury is still out,” as they say, regarding the benefits and risks of allowing young children to use these devices.

For now, though, it is enough to say that these devices are here, they’re not going anywhere, and they might as well be put to good use in brass playing and teaching. In today’s short post, I’ll present six apps that I use in my practicing and teaching, some on a daily basis. While there are many other such apps available for both iOS and Android devices, these are the ones that I have found to be the most useful.

1. FrozenApe Tempo, $1.99.

FrozenApe Tempo

FrozenApe Tempo

Long gone are the days when students needed to go to the music store and spend $10-20 or more on a small metronome with limited battery life and an amazing ability to be lost or stolen. Those that wanted advanced functionality would have to be prepared to pay well over $100. Now any student with a smartphone can purchase and use a metronome app with many advanced at a fraction of the cost, and with the benefits of a rechargeable battery and of “always” being with him. While there are other—some free—metronome apps out there, I have found this one to have the ease of use and volume produced that I want. While I don’t use the advanced features very much at all, there are a number here for those that are so inclined.

2. Peterson iStroboSoft Tuner, $9.99.

Peterson iStroboSoft Tuner

Peterson iStroboSoft Tuner

While at nearly $10 this tuner is pricey for a smartphone app, it offers the precision of a strobe tuner for what is still a fraction of the cost of the “hardware version.” As a low brass player and teacher, I am always looking for tuners that will accurately “hear” the lowest notes on the tuba and bass trombone, as many handheld tuners do not. This app does, which is a major selling point for me.

3. TonalEnergy Tuner, $3.99.

TonalEnergy Tuner: Waveform

TonalEnergy Tuner: Waveform

At first glance, this app might seem redundant, or perhaps it seems to make the previous two so, as it includes both a metronome and a tuner, in addition to a pitch generator and waveform analysis. It is the latter two functions which I find most useful here. The pitch generator can be useful to players that want to perform singing or mouthpiece buzzing exercises with a correct starting pitch while they are not near a piano or other instrument to provide that pitch. The waveform analysis is particularly helpful, as it gives players a visual indication of whether they are producing steady tones, and how many overtones are being generated.

TonalEnergy Tuner: Success!

TonalEnergy Tuner: Success!

I do not use the metronome function of this app very much because I find the FrozenApe Tempo app to be quite superior in that regard. The Peterson iStroboSoft Tuner is a marginally better tuner than this one, though I enjoy seeing the “happy face” that this app yields when I am in tune! Like the Peterson app, this one also can “hear” the low partials on tuba and bass trombone.

While there are other apps that perform certain functions better, this is the closest thing to a “do everything” app for musicians that I have found.

4. Randomizer Wheel, $0.99

"The Wheel of Doom"

“The Wheel of Doom”

This “virtual roulette wheel” can be programmed to randomly decide among the items on any list the user programs into it. I use it in each lesson to decide which of twelve scale routines the student will have to play for me, leading students to affectionately dub this app “The Wheel of Doom.” By using this app in lessons, I have created a situation in which the student is as likely to have to play an “easy” scale routine as a “hard” one, and I am thus prevented from “going easy” or “coming down” on a student for any reason. While I don’t use this app in my individual practice, some players might find the introduction of some “chance” into their routines to be beneficial.

The above four apps are the ones that I use the most frequently; I mention the two below simply because I find them interesting.

5. Decibel Meter Pro, $0.99

Decibel Meter Pro

Decibel Meter Pro

Honestly, I purchased this app because I wanted to see “objectively” how loudly I played at fortissimo. While there was an observable difference between dynamic levels, it was not as great as my ego had hoped. Still, this could be useful for demonstrating to students that their dynamic ranges are not as wide as they should be, or even for determining when noise levels in a performance space are too great and some sort of acoustic shielding is in order. Granted, such shielding is usually placed in front of the trombonists, not behind them….

6. iBone, $2.99

I have yet to think of a genuinely useful purpose for this app, but it’s still fun. This guy is much more skilled at it than I am!

Posted in "Gadgets and Gizmos", Education, Instructional Technology, Low Brass Resources, Music, Online Resources, Playing Fundamentals, Practicing, Scales and Arpeggios, Teaching Low Brass