Fall Concerts and Activities Preview

Today I continue a regular practice for this blog, outlining the major performance activities for myself and my students for the coming semester. This academic year is shaping up to be a very busy one, particularly in the spring, but there are plenty of fall performances on tap, as well. While much of my time the past couple of years has been devoted to recording and writing projects, I am looking forward to spending more time this year focusing upon practicing and performing, even while working to bring these major recording and writing projects to completion. More on that in a future post.

August 23-24: Tom Walker’s Gospel Train Big Band

Tom Walker

Tom Walker

Although this event is already in the past, I want to mention it simply because it was so much fun. Tom Walker is the former trombone professor at Oklahoma State University and now works in administration at the University of Missouri at St. Louis. A lifelong member of the Salvation Army, he has organized the Gospel Train Big Band to perform high-quality arrangements of gospel tunes while raising funds for and awareness of the Salvation Army’s charitable activities and, of course, to present the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The band has only a few regular members that travel to all of the performances, with local musicians filling out the majority of the ensemble; this is the second opportunity I have had to do so. Tom always manages to hire great players, and the resulting sound is magnificent. Check out their website and new recording at www.gospeltrainbigband.com.

October 25: North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra

North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra LogoThis year I will once again be occupying the principal trombone chair in the North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra (formerly the Tupelo Symphony Orchestra). While the performance calendar for this group is fuller in the spring than in the fall, the October concert will feature a number of French works, including the Piano Concerto No. 2 by Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921).

November 3: Mississippi Brass Quintet

Ingolf Dahl

Ingolf Dahl

The Mississippi Brass Quintet is the faculty brass ensemble at the University of Mississippi, and will appear in concert this fall as part of the Department of Music’s Faculty Recital Series. The November concert will include works by Hugh Aston (1485-1558), Ingolf Dahl (1912-1970), Anthony Plog (b. 1947), and MBQ trumpeter and UM composition professor Stanley Friedman. The quintet will turn its attention to touring and recruiting in the spring.

November 17: UM Low Brass Ensembles

University of Mississippi Trombone Ensemble Fall 2013

University of Mississippi Trombone Ensemble

The University of Mississippi Trombone Ensemble and Tuba-Euphonium ensemble continue to grow bigger and better each year, with fourteen and thirteen members, respectively (up from nine and six just a couple of years ago). Despite a severely limited rehearsal schedule and a focus on teaching and learning over performance, these groups nevertheless present enjoyable and variegated concerts each year. This fall’s concert will include original works by Václav Nelhýbel (1919-1996), Michael Hennagin (1936-1993), Wesley Hanson, Thom Ritter George (b. 1942), and Jan Koetsier (1911-2006), as well as arrangements of works by Sir John Stainer (1840-1901), Benedetto Marcello (1686-1739), and John Philip Sousa (1854-1932).

November 19: Student Recitals: D.J. Fitzgerald and Nelson Coile

Eric Ewazen

Eric Ewazen

The University of Mississippi’s music education curriculum lacks a recital performance requirement for graduation, so I am especially encouraged when future music teachers in my studio come to me asking to perform a half or full recital. This November trombonist D.J. Fitzgerald and tubist Nelson Coile will share a lengthy and challenging program including works by Alec Wilder (1907-1980), Henri Tomasi (1901-1971) Eugène Bozza (1905-1991), and Jan Sandström (b. 1954), as well as two pieces by Eric Ewazen (b. 1954).

November 7: Quartet Performance at University of Memphis Low Brass Workshop

Bass TromboneAn exciting new endeavor for me this year is the formation of a still-unnamed trombone quartet along with three other university trombone professors, Joseph Frye (University of Tennessee at Martin), Ed Morse (Mississippi Valley State University), and John Mueller (University of Memphis). Our inaugural performance will be during this year’s University of Memphis Low Brass Workshop, and we are looking forward to further performances during the spring semester. I am especially enjoying my role as bass trombonist in the group, as most of my more recent performance opportunities have involved playing high notes on the tenor trombone. I enjoy the variety and balance that come with performing on multiple instruments and exploring a wide tonal range.

December 6: TUBACHRISTMAS

Merry TubaChristmas!This year we will once again be bringing the annual TUBACHRISTMAS event to Oxford, with a morning rehearsal and lunchtime performance in Nutt Auditorium on December 6. After inclement weather forced us from our planned outdoor venue to the auditorium last year, I so much enjoyed playing indoors that I have decided to remain there this year. As always, tuba and euphonium players of all ages and ability levels are welcome to participate, and band directors are especially invited to encourage their students to come or even bring them to the event. It is always great fun for everyone involved!

While this list does not include smaller performances for campus events, church services, student recital hours, Christmas programs, and the like, it does outline the major goings-on here for myself and my students this semester. As I mentioned, the spring is already shaping up to be even busier, with at least a couple of appearances at regional low brass conferences in addition to the usual local and on-campus fare. I’ll share more about that in a similar post planned for January. In the meantime, if you would like more information about any of these events please contact me.

Posted in Bass Trombone, Brass Quintet, Performances, Tenor Trombone, Trombone Ensembles, Tuba-Euphonium Ensembles, TubaChristmas

Fifteen Steps to Playing a Better All-State Audition (Repost)

Today I mark my return to blogging after a summer off by reposting one of the more important and popular articles from this blog. With high school students are preparing for auditions for all-state groups and similar ensembles around this time of year, posting this article every fall seems appropriate.

Let me also remind Mississippi band students that I have posted a series of videos on my Ole Miss website specifically related to preparing low brass players to audition for the Mississippi Lions All-State Band. While some of the material below repeats information covered in those videos, the ideas here are intended to be more broadly applicable, both to students that play other instruments, and to those taking auditions in other states. Teachers, please feel free to share these ideas with your students if you think they will be helpful.

1. Keep your instrument in optimum working condition.

This should be obvious, but often a student’s playing is hindered by a slide that doesn’t move well, frozen piston valves, noisy rotary valves, etc. If your instrument has a problem of some kind, have your band director or private teacher check it. Perhaps all that is needed is a thorough cleaning, or a minute adjustment. If your teacher is unable to resolve the problem, take your instrument to be serviced by a qualified technician.

When your instrument is in good working order, make sure to clean and lubricate it regularly. Often mechanical problems that can “make or break” an audition are the result of a lack of proper care and maintenance, and these always seem to occur at the most inopportune time. Regular maintenance will not only prevent damage, but will make your instrument easier and more fun to play, help your practice sessions to be more productive, and very likely lead to success in the audition.

2. Practice. Every day.

When you’re not practicing, one of your competitors is. The students that earn the top chairs in all-state auditions have a disciplined and consistent approach to practice, often practicing for 10 to 15 hours per week (or about 1.5 to 2 hours per day), if not more. I recommend conceiving of your practice time in terms of a weekly schedule rather than a daily one, as this has the advantage of allowing you to plan for days that you might not be able to practice as much (because of band festivals, extra homework, church activities, etc.) and compensate by practicing more on the days when you have more time available. Do make sure that you do at least some practicing every day, though. Even 10-20 minutes on an extremely busy day is better than nothing.

3. Begin each day with a thorough warm-up/maintenance routine.

Some time each day should be spent on playing fundamentals, including breathing exercises, mouthpiece buzzing exercises, long tones, articulation exercises, lip slurs, and range extension exercises. Make sure that you have some way of systematically addressing each of these areas every day, seeking to both maintain and extend your fundamental playing skills. Some routines that I have constructed for this purpose can be found here.

4. Spend 20-50% of your practice time on playing fundamentals.

Continuing with the previous thought, the ideal “warm-up” routine contains much more material than the body needs to be ready to play a band rehearsal or even give a concert. Rather, successful players spend a significant portion of their practice time working on fundamental skills like those mentioned above. In my own playing I have found that the more time I spend on developing fundamental playing skills, the less time I need to spend in order to prepare actual repertoire for performance or auditions. And, since these fundamental skills apply to essentially every piece of music, I do not have to “reinvent the wheel” every time I learn a new piece. Instead, I am able to quickly discern what skills and techniques are needed for a given piece and immediately apply them, thus greatly reducing the amount of practice needed to learn and master a new piece of music. This means that I am able to cover a very large amount of music in each practice session.

When you are preparing for an important audition or performance, aim for spending at least 20% of your practice time (approximately 12 minutes of a one-hour practice day or 24 minutes of a two-hour practice day) on fundamentals. If you have nothing “big” coming up, consider spending as much as 50% of your practice time on fundamentals. This can seem repetitive at times, but it pays huge dividends for your playing in the future!

5. Play everything with the best sound you can produce.

Ambitious high school students tend to place a lot of emphasis on range and speed; to use a common expression, playing “higher, faster, and louder.” This tendency is not altogether bad, as one of the purposes of activities like all-state auditions is to push students to extend their technical capabilities on their instruments. However, it is easy to forget that none of these things really matter if one plays with a poor or uncharacteristic tone.

I often illustrate this concept to my students by playing “Flight of the Bumblebee” on the trombone. By most accounts, this is a difficult technical feat. The first time I play it, I play with a good, characteristic trombone sound, and students are usually quite impressed. But then, I play it a second time, this time with an extremely poor sound. I’m playing just as quickly, double-tonguing just as much, and moving the slide just as accurately, and yet students usually find this second performance to be rather unimpressive. Nobody cares how “high, fast, and loud” you can play if your sound is poor.

Make a concerted effort to play everything with the best sound you can produce. Even scales can sound great, and since scales are usually the first things played in an audition, you can set a positive tone (sorry) for the entire audition by playing them with a good sound. Then maintain that great sound through the prepared pieces and sight reading. This will certainly improve your score for the entire audition.

6. Memorize your scales, and practice them at least once per day. They have to be automatic!

Scales are a big part of every all-state audition, and yet they are so often played poorly. Successful students memorize all of their scales (this is required in most states, including Mississippi, but some states allow the use of a scale sheet during the audition, unfortunately). If you don’t have your scales memorized yet, make this a priority—you don’t want to enter the audition room still unsure about one or more of the required scales.

When the audition is several weeks or even months away, it is helpful to practice your scales slowly, in order to foster playing with a great tone quality (see above), and playing in tune. As you increase in proficiency, keep working to play faster, but if intonation or tone quality begin to suffer, return to practicing slowly. The goal is to play fast, AND in tune, AND with a good sound.

Most band students are more familiar with the “flat” scales than with the “sharp” scales. This makes sense, as most band music is written in “flat keys” (at least when referring to “concert” pitch). If you are having trouble with certain keys, then practice those scales twice as much as the ones with which you are more familiar. When you walk into the audition room, you want to be equally comfortable—or at least sound like you are equally comfortable—with every scale.

Regarding range, in some states all students play each scale in the same prescribed range. In others (including Mississippi), students are rewarded for pursuing extra octaves. If yours is a “prescribed range” state, then make sure you can play all of the scales in the prescribed range. Playing less than that will result in a huge deduction from your score. If your state rewards extra octaves, then play as many octaves as you can in the allotted time, but do not attempt range that you cannot play well every time. Hearing a student “nail” a “high R-sharp” is always impressive, and that student will earn a high score. However, the student that strains and reaches for that “R-sharp” might have scored better if he stuck with a range he could play well.

7. Know the definitions of all of the musical terms in your etudes.

Musical instructions are usually written in Italian, sometimes in German, and sometimes in French. Rarely are these instructions written in English. And yet, those listening to your playing will expect you to know what the terms in at least your prepared pieces mean, and to observe them in your performance. There is no excuse for ignoring these terms, and yet I have listened to auditions in which 70% or more of the students completely ignored one or more terms, and as a result gave performances that were wildly “off the mark.” If you want to earn a high score, follow the instructions, regardless of the language in which those instructions are written. To do even better, try to memorize a large number of common terms, so that you can also correctly observe any markings in the sight reading part of the audition.

By the way, “in the old days” we had to purchase music dictionaries in order to look up the meanings of musical terms, and sometimes we had to refer to Italian-English dictionaries, for example, in order to find more obscure terms. Today, you can quickly and easily find the definition of any term simply by “Googling it.” In short, there is no excuse. Know what terms mean, and do what they say!

8. Use a metronome, and practice your scales and etudes both slower and faster than the prescribed tempos.

These days, there is no excuse for not owning and using a metronome in one’s daily practice. Not only can simple metronomes be purchased inexpensively at most music stores, but also cheap or free metronome programs can be found to work with computers and most smartphones or tablets. I recommend using the metronome not only to foster correct rhythm and timing when practicing scales and etudes at the prescribed tempos, but also to enable systematic practice at both slower and faster tempos. The process I use is as follows:

First, practice materials at 50% of the indicated tempo. This is for the purpose of working out fingerings, articulations, and tone quality without the pressures created by playing faster. For etudes that are already slow, practicing at half tempo will foster better phrasing. Try to phrase in the same way and breathe in the same places as you would when playing at tempo. You will then have a much easier time making your phrases when you resume playing faster.

Second, practice at 75% of the indicated tempo. This provides a convenient “halfway point” between the slower tempo you practiced before and the tempo for which you are striving.

Third, practice at the indicated tempo. Having followed the two steps indicated above, you will find that playing at tempo will be much easier for you than if you had begun by practicing this quickly. Continue using the metronome to ensure that you are counting and keeping time accurately.

Fourth, practice at 125% of the indicated tempo. This is especially helpful for the scales and faster etudes. This tempo will feel extremely fast, and even frantic, but still attempt it, even if you are never able to make your playing as clean as you would like at this tempo.

Finally, return to the indicated tempo. Having worked out notes, fingerings, tone, tuning, and phrasing at slower tempos, and then at least tried to master the necessary technique at faster tempos, playing at tempo will feel balanced, even, and relatively relaxed. Alternate playing with and without the metronome for this step.

Not all of these steps need to be completed each day, particularly as you become more proficient at playing your scales and etudes, but these are necessary when first beginning work on your audition materials, and later on are still useful for occasional “refreshers.”

9. Mark your breaths.

One helpful practice that is neglected by many students is that of planning and marking breaths. While you will be playing your scales from memory, go ahead and practice breathing at the same place(s) every time you play a given scale.

In the prepared pieces, make a clear mark at the places where you know you will breathe, and then some smaller markings in parentheses in places where you can breathe “if you have to.” By planning your breaths and then breathing in the same places every time you practice your scales and etudes, you will deliver a more consistent and pleasing musical result, and will also take an important step toward mitigating the effects of nervousness. Because you will have practiced breathing—deeply—in the same places each time, when you are in the audition room you will be likely to continue breathing deeply in those places, rather than taking unplanned and shallow breaths as people tend to do when they are “on edge.”

In order to determine where to breathe, sit down with your prepared pieces and a pencil, without your instrument. Note the places where musical phrases end (look for the ends of phrase markings or slurred lines in particular), and mark breaths in those places, as well as during any rests. In short, figure out where the music itself indicates pauses, and plan to breathe in those places. If this yields too few breaths, or if you are afraid you might need some “extra,” mark additional possible breaths in parentheses. Because you are using pencil, you can always erase and adjust your planned breathing if necessary, but by planning breaths without your instrument you are allowing the music to determine where you breathe, rather than your subjective “felt need” for air. This will yield a very mature and pleasing performance.

10. Don’t practice something until you get it right once. Practice it until you can’t get it wrong!

As an applied lesson teacher, I can easily tell when a student has not practiced, but I can also tell when a student has practiced something until he “got it right once.” This student will play with a good tone quality and pretty good technique that are indicative of regular practice, but when playing scales, etudes, and solo literature he will make interesting mistakes. When questioned, he will say that he made that same mistake repeatedly when practicing. Immediately, I am aware that the student practiced that etude at least three times each day, making the mistake twice, and “getting it right” the third time. What’s the problem with this? The student has practiced playing incorrectly twice as many times as he has practiced playing correctly!

When preparing for the audition, don’t run through troublesome passages until you play them correctly one time—repeat those passages until you get them right five or even ten times successively. By doing this, you will make a habit of playing these passages correctly, instead of having to address the same mistakes each time you practice.

11. Sight read something every day.

The sight reading portion of the audition is the scariest part for many students, largely because it is the most “unknown” element of the audition. While it would be impossible to prepare for the specific piece that you will encounter during the sight reading portion of a given audition, you can greatly improve your chances of succeeding at this part simply by sight reading something each day. There are a number of books available with short etudes designed for sight reading practice, and I have even recommended a few of them, but the main thing is that you find unfamiliar music of a variety of styles, time signatures, key signatures, tempos, and levels of difficulty, and sight read as much of it as you can. This will make you more familiar and comfortable with the process. Make sure also that you have a teacher or some other knowledgeable individual listen to your sight reading from time to time, to make sure that you aren’t making any unnoticed mistakes.

12. Get a private teacher.

Even the best band director has too many obligations, too little time, and not enough expertise on every instrument to effectively coach all of his or her students for all-state auditions. If at all possible, arrange for regular lessons with a private teacher that is knowledgeable about your instrument and the audition process. This person will help you to put the ideas listed here as well as other helpful concepts into practice, and will (provided that you follow his or her instructions) greatly increase your chances of playing a successful audition. Ask your band director for names and contact information of qualified teachers in your area. You might also look for professors and students at nearby universities and community colleges, and perhaps even professional players if you live near a large city. (If you live within driving distance of Oxford, send me an email—I can take on a few more high school students.)

An added benefit of private instruction is that your teacher’s ideas will apply not only to the immediate goal of making the all-state band, but to making you a better player overall. If you want to continue playing in college—and particularly if you want to major in music—this extra help might literally “pay off” in the form of higher band scholarship offers.

13. Dress for the occasion.

One change in the “culture” of auditions that I have observed over the past fifteen years or so is the increasing informality of dress among students auditioning. When I was a high school student, it was not unusual for young men to wear a shirt and tie and perhaps a sport coat for auditions and for young women to wear a blouse and skirt or even a dress. In recent years, I have noticed more and more students auditioning wearing jeans and t-shirts—and not even their “good” jeans and t-shirts! This is not a positive development, in my opinion.

The way that you dress communicates something about the seriousness with which you take a given endeavor. When you make an effort to “dress up” for an occasion, you communicate to others (and yourself) that you believe you are doing something important. When I serve as an audition judge, a student that walks into the room smartly dressed communicates to me that he takes his playing seriously, and before the first note is played, I have unconsciously begun to form positive expectations about how that student will perform. Conversely, a student whose appearance is slovenly communicates a negative image, and my expectations are likewise negative. That might not seem “fair,” but judges are human, and will inevitably form “first impressions” of some kind. Make sure you the impression you make is a good one!

By the way, this counsel even applies in the case of “blind” auditions (those in which the judges cannot see the student auditioning). While it might seem absurd to “dress up” when those evaluating your playing will not be able to see you, there is something to be said for how your dress affects your own self-perception and carriage. By dressing well for the audition, you are mentally preparing yourself for the important task at hand, and you will be more likely to conduct yourself throughout the process in a manner most conducive to playing a great audition.

14. Be confident.

Part of playing a successful audition is carrying yourself and then playing in a confident manner. If you have prepared diligently for the audition, you have no reason not to be sure about yourself and your playing, and your entire presentation, from the way you dress (see above) to the way you play each of the required items should communicate confidence and poise. While this may not directly impact your score, self-assured students to tend to play better, which does have a direct impact on the final score.

Perhaps you are like me, and inevitably have a greater or lesser degree of “butterflies in your stomach” every time you play a high-stakes audition or performance. In such situations, you feel anything but confident! If this describes you, you might find it helpful to “fake it.” Put on an air of confidence, even though you don’t feel that way at all. Not only will your judges view your playing in a more positive light, but you might find that by feigning self-confidence you “psych yourself in” to actually being more confident, and thus playing better.

15. Have FUN!!!

Auditions are nerve-racking experiences, and the entire process—from practice and preparation to the audition day itself—can become anything but fun. In such situations, it is easy to forget that one of the main reasons we took up playing our instruments in the first place was the enjoyment that our playing provides to ourselves and others. Make sure that you include something “fun” in your practice time each day, and as you prepare the “hard stuff,” keep the end goal of the audition in mind. Performing great music at a high level with students that take music seriously is an exciting and fun experience afforded to relatively few high school band members. The hard work required to get there is worth it!

Posted in Auditions, Music, Playing Fundamentals, Practicing

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