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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Christian Faith by Michael Horton (b. 1964)

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

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

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

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

Choosing a Doubling Instrument (or Instruments), Part Three

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

Do you have time?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are you willing?

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

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

Choosing a Doubling Instrument (or Instruments), Part Two

Part One can be found here.

Setting goals

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

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

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

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

Similarities and differences

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be concluded on Monday, October 20.

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

Choosing a Doubling Instrument (or Instruments), Part One

As I mentioned in a post back in May, I spent most of the summer working on a book for Mountain Peak Music tentatively entitled The Low Brass Player’s Guide to Doubling. I am happy to report that so far we are on track for a release early next year.

Any large-scale writing project involves multiple rounds of writing and revising, as well as discarding unnecessary or superfluous material. When I finished my doctoral dissertation back in 2005 about 30 pages worth of material ended up on the “virtual cutting room floor,” and the present book is shaping up in very much the same way. This is beneficial for everyone involved. Readers get a clearer presentation of pertinent information, publishers spend less on printing because of the book’s smaller size (thus lowering costs passed on to the reader, as well), and authors look like better writers than they are! To put it more briefly, nearly every good book, article, or book chapter begins its life as a somewhat longer piece, and sometimes a much longer one.

Not everything that was cut from the book is necessarily bad, though. Some of it was simply deemed to be unnecessary for the project at hand. This was the case with my original second chapter, which was entitled “Choosing a Doubling Instrument (or Instruments).” While thinking and working through these thoughts was important for me as I approached the subject, the publisher thought that readers will have already chosen their instrument(s) and will be consulting our book primarily for guidance on how to approach that instrument. I agreed with is reasoning, and that entire chapter was cut from the book.

Still, I think these thoughts are useful, and since I have a forum here for sharing them, in the next three posts I will present some ideas that low brass players should consider when choosing secondary instruments to add to their performance activities.

Are you ready?

The first question you must ask when considering doubling is “Am I really ready to do this?” Sometimes a player’s ambition can exceed his ability, and the results are unsatisfactory at best. Successful doubling involves extending your fundamental approach from your primary instrument to your secondary instrument, with as many skills as possible being transferred from one to the other. If your fundamental playing on your primary instrument is deficient, that deficiency will manifest itself on the secondary instrument as well, in addition to the usual difficulties which accompany inexperience on a new instrument. You might quickly find yourself being a mediocre player on one instrument and poor player on the other, and the practicing necessary to improve on both instruments simultaneously will be a hard slog, indeed. If your playing on your primary instrument still needs work, you will do best by improving on your primary instrument before trying to add a double.

If, however, your fundamental playing skills are relatively secure and consistent on your primary instrument, you are probably ready to take on a double. Because the basic elements of moving air, buzzing, articulation, etc. change very little between low brass instruments you will be able to focus your doubling practice upon areas where the secondary instrument differs from the primary. You should be able to continue your development on your primary instrument unabated, while improvement on the secondary instrument will be quick and efficient.

Can you afford it?

Taking on a secondary instrument is rarely free. While students can sometimes begin their doubling studies without a significant monetary investment, eventually certain purchases will have to be made. The financial burden of doubling can be divided into two parts: purchasing equipment and supplies, and obtaining instruction.

When adding a secondary instrument you must purchase an instrument and associated supplies (mouthpiece, lubricants, perhaps ergonomic supports, etc.), plus sheet music for study and performance. If you are enrolled as a college or university student you might be able to delay some of these expenses by utilizing school-owned equipment and library resources, but at some point you will need to acquire your own instrument and materials.

At this point the question arises, “How much should I spend on a doubling instrument?” Perhaps the best answer is “As much as you reasonably can.” A new, top-line instrument is a major investment, and although many players can spend that kind of money on their primary instruments, few are able to invest a similar amount in a secondary instrument. Happily, with a bit of searching quality instruments can be found at reasonable prices, particularly on the used market. A modest investment should be sufficient to acquire an acceptable instrument to begin your doubling work; upgrading to a higher quality instrument can wait until your financial position is more secure. Besides, purchasing an instrument with all of the “bells and whistles” might best be saved until you are more experienced on the secondary instrument and have a better understanding of the characteristics that will best suit your playing. Still, if you have the money to purchase a top-quality instrument from the get-go, then by all means do so.

Although thriftiness is usually an admirable quality, resist the temptation to purchase a doubling instrument on the cheap. Today instruments are advertised for sale online at practically every price point, but many of the “great deals” are for instruments of inferior quality, which are likely to hamper your development as a doubler rather than hasten it. It is usually better to purchase a secondhand instrument from a reputable manufacturer than a comparably priced new one from an unknown maker. If in doubt, seek the advice of a fine player or teacher, or, with caution, of a trustworthy instrument dealer.

Besides the cost of an instrument and accessories consider also fees for instruction when beginning secondary instrument study. This is not a major concern for college and university students, as fees for applied instruction are included with tuition or are heavily subsidized. Those that begin doubling while not enrolled as students will likely need to engage teachers at their own expense, at least in the beginning stages of learning a doubling instrument.

As with the temptation to purchase an inferior instrument in order to save money, there might be a corresponding desire to reduce costs by studying and practicing without the guidance of a teacher. Depending on your background and experience, and the similarities between your primary and secondary instruments, you might be able to take up a secondary instrument without private instruction. Certainly there are players that have done just that, and very successfully. However, a good teacher will provide an extra set of ears to evaluate your progress on the secondary instrument, identifying and addressing errors that you miss in individual practice while also suggesting literature and techniques for improvement. Even a few lessons can hasten your development as a doubler while helping you to avoid unforeseen pitfalls.

A low brass player taking up a secondary instrument can incur significant expenses in the short term. Before hastily answering the question “Can I afford it?” in the negative, however, you should ask the opposite question: “Can I afford not to?” You may find that the long-term earning potential from doubling greatly outweighs the short-term costs.

Can you afford not to?

There was a time when doubling was not an absolute necessity for low brass players. The established curricula and methods for training brass players certainly reflect this assumption, given that most perpetuate the model of specializing on a single instrument. While low brass doubling has long been an accepted norm in some circles—the West Coast studio scene comes immediately to mind—in other contexts it has not been as strongly encouraged. When employment opportunities in symphony orchestras, big bands, military bands, and other groups were more numerous (not that they were ever too plentiful), this “specialist model” was not entirely irresponsible.

Times have changed, however, and our methods and emphases in training brass players have not always kept up. Music schools continually turn out more fine players than there are jobs available for them, and while the quality of low brass playing has increased in recent years (at least among the top players), many of these great musicians find themselves underemployed, and some eventually leave the profession. Given the tough job market, possessing a broader array of skills will help you to distinguish yourself among the crowded field of aspiring musicians, making you better able to make a living in the profession. Performing on multiple instruments is one way to make yourself more marketable.

The startup costs for secondary instrument study are great, but when long-term employment prospects are taken into consideration, doubling is a worthy and even necessary investment of time, energy, and money. Whether you want to work primarily as an educator or as a performer, playing multiple instruments will make you a more versatile and ultimately more employable musician. Unless you find yourself in the enviable position of having a salaried and tenured position playing a single instrument, you very likely cannot afford not to double!

To be continued next week. (D.V.)

Posted in Doubling, Low Brass Resources, Teaching Low Brass

Why I am a Gideon

In the fall of 2005, shortly after I began teaching at the University of Louisiana at Monroe, I applied for and was granted membership in The Gideons International. I had been familiar with this ministry for practically my entire life. My dad is a member and my grandfather was, as well, so joining the Gideons seemed to be a very natural pursuit for me as a young man seeking to be useful in the Kingdom of God. Nine years later, I remain one of the youngest Gideon members I know; it would be wonderful to see more younger men take part as they are able in this great work.

The Gideons International Emblem

The Gideons International Emblem

Founded in 1899, The Gideons International is an association of Christian business and professional men, whose singular purpose is to lead people to saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Our primary means of carrying out this work is the distribution of free copies of God’s Word. You are likely familiar with this group even if you don’t know it—we are the folks that place Bibles in hotels, hospitals, and doctors’ offices, in addition to giving New Testaments to students, soldiers, emergency personnel, and prisoners. The Gideon association’s distinctive emblem appears on most of the scriptures we distribute, now in 198 countries (for our purposes sometimes various non-sovereign territories are referred to as “countries”) and 99 languages. Although my family’s level of activity in the Gideons (and, for my wife, the Gideons Auxiliary) has lessened significantly since we became parents, and more so since moving to Oxford due to greater work requirements for me, we are proud to be part of this association and to contribute as we are able by giving money, giving away Scriptures, and, for me, speaking in churches on behalf of the ministry.

John A. Broadus (1827-1895)

John A. Broadus (1827-1895)

I will confess, though, that for a time I questioned whether this ministry was right for me. When we first joined the Gideons I was a convinced Southern Baptist, but had recently embraced what early Southern Baptist theologian John A. Broadus (1827-1895) called “that exalted system of Pauline truth which is technically called Calvinism.” While true Calvinism is no enemy of evangelism, it does call into question some of the evangelistic methods used by fellow Christians who do not share this theological viewpoint. Because the Gideon association brings together evangelicals and Protestants on all sides of the question of Calvinism, as I continued to study the Scriptures (and as I gradually moved from the SBC into a Reformed Baptist church and then to Presbyterianism) I began to develop a few scruples with certain practices of the Gideons regarding evangelism and outreach. In time, though, I concluded that those minor misgivings were no reason to cease my involvement in the ministry. Any group bringing together Christians from multiple theological traditions will see disagreement on secondary and tertiary doctrinal matters. Our shared commitment to “the Bible as the inspired, inerrant, infallible Word of God” (from the Gideon Guide Book), and the further commitment to the gospel contained therein as “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16), far outweighs any disagreement on minor points. (I will admit, though, that given the opportunity I would “tweak” the gospel presentation in the back of our little New Testaments!)

Having worked through that little crisis (which I mostly kept to myself), I remain a Gideon nine years later, and for the same reasons as when I first joined. Here are a few of those.

The work is necessary. As a Calvinist, I believe fully in the doctrines of election and predestination as presented in Scripture. However, I also affirm—as does Scripture—that the God who has ordained the salvation of His people has also ordained the means to that end, namely the proclamation of the Gospel. Christ told us to go into all the world and make disciples, and while the Bible clearly prioritizes preaching as a means of evangelism, the reading of the Word has also proven effective. Indeed, often these little New Testaments find their way into dark and difficult places where preachers are nowhere to be found. Several years ago I served as a driver for an elderly Gideon visiting from France who remarked to me, “These little New Testaments grow legs, and end up wherever God intends them to.” We are called to bring the Gospel to everyone, and publishing God’s Word in as many languages as possible and putting them in the hands in as many people as possible is one means of doing that.

Ravi Zacharias (b. 1946)

Ravi Zacharias (b. 1946)

The work is effective. Gideon publications as well as our presentations in churches feature numerous stories of people converted through the reading of Gideon-placed scriptures. Some of the stories are comparably mundane, while others are more dramatic and some downright miraculous, and yet every sinner delivered from darkness to light, from death to life, from Satan to Christ, is a miracle. I was particularly surprised and honored to learn recently that the renowned apologist Ravi Zacharias (b. 1946) was converted to Christ as a teenager after reading a Gideon-placed Bible in the hospital following a suicide attempt. That’s a more high-profile story than most, but we have received thousands of similar reports. This is an effective work!

The ministry’s conduct is above reproach. Christians are sinners just like everyone else. We may be redeemed sinners striving to turn away from sin, but we remain imperfect in this life. Sadly, the results of that sin sometimes infect the conduct of Christian ministries, and the media rarely wastes opportunities to point out more prominent examples of this. The Gideons International, by God’s grace, has conducted itself with complete integrity for the past 115 years, and I know of no other Christian organization that spends 100% of donations received for evangelistic purposes (in our case, purchasing, printing, and shipping Scriptures). The Gideon members themselves cover all of the overhead.

There are no expressly Reformed groups doing this. As a newly-minted Calvinist, I sometimes wished for a more Calvinistic or Reformed group that conducted activities similar to that of the Gideon association. The Trinitarian Bible Society “sort of” fits that description, and does some exemplary work. However, it is in some ways not as active as the Gideons and its exclusive commitment to the King James Version and the particular family of Greek and Hebrew manuscripts from which it is derived is something of a hang-up for those who do not share that commitment.

And even if there were an expressly Reformed group that otherwise conducted the same work as the Gideons, would it not be unnecessarily duplicative? Would the formation of such a group constitute wise stewardship of time, energy, and resources? Probably not, and besides…

Associating with other Christians for fellowship and service is important. Although we all sometimes conduct ourselves as if our denomination has some exclusive claim on the title “Christian,” it is important to remember that the Kingdom of God is much bigger than the sometimes petty divisions among us. We gain from joining with fellow believers from all denominations for fellowship and service whenever possible. Besides the increased manpower and efficiency that comes from pooling resources, often the insights shared by men from one tradition will illuminate blind spots in another—and we all have them!

In the final chapter of his book The Foot of the Cross, Baptist and later Anglican minister Octavius Winslow (1808-1878) appealed for unity among Christians across denominational lines. The following paragraph is pertinent to the present subject:

Octavius Winslow (1808-1878)

Octavius Winslow (1808-1878)

We will only add that usefulness is another blessing that springs from the recognition and manifestation of Christian union. Beloved, we are useful for Christ, not so much as we stand apart in our individual, isolated condition, as in combination—combination of judgment, of heart, of purpose. This promotes our usefulness. Do you want to be useful in Christ’s Church? Do you want to augment your practical influence in the service of your Master? Then, we beseech you, cooperate with all the Lord’s people in advancing the kingdom of Christ, in circulating God’s holy Word, in distributing religious tracts, in promoting Christian missions. Cooperate with every church or organization in His blessed work. Link and unite yourselves with them, and you will augment vastly that usefulness in the service of Christ, to which, we trust, the Lord by His grace has called you (pp. 162-163).

That, dear reader, is why I am a Gideon. To be as useful as possible in the service of my Master.

Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes. (Luke 12:37a)

Gideon New Testament

Posted in Calvinism, Denominations, Doctrine, Evangelism, The Gideons International, Theology

Play like Obi-Wan Kenobi, not like General Grievous!

(My apologies for the lateness of this post. I had hoped to write on Friday or Saturday but was prevented from doing so by various responsibilities at the end of the week.)

Brass playing is very much an athletic activity. Like top athletes, musicians must train (i.e. practice) for many hours in order to develop the strength, flexibility, and fine motor response in order to play well. While occasional periods of rest are beneficial, frequent neglect of practice/training will lead to substantial loss of the physical capacity for playing, just as athletes that neglect their regimented exercise programs will see declines in strength, agility, and overall skill. The most successful brass players are highly disciplined in their approaches to developing and maintaining the body’s capacities, both as applied directly to brass playing and from a more holistic standpoint.

However, we often err when we think of brass playing as an athletic activity in the same way that football or weightlifting are athletic activities, requiring tremendous muscular exertion. Many players, whether purposefully or as an involuntary response to stress, engage large muscle groups when playing in a manner that is unproductive at best and harmful at worst. (To be honest, nearly all of us have been guilty of this at times.) While those that engage in such effort might identify it as necessary for playing, in reality this is usually isometric tension (opposing muscle groups working against one another), in which much energy is expended but no positive action occurs. In extreme cases, this tension can impede the action of those muscles which are necessary for playing, and even in the best of circumstances a body full of tense muscles will not be able to produce a resonant tone. The brass player must instead seek to play with a minimal amount of muscular exertion, to prize efficiency and economy of effort rather than approaching the instrument as if playing should be a great feat of strength. Indeed, from a muscular perspective our efforts should look more like the graceful and economical motions required for ballet, rather than the exertions of brute strength used in weightlifting.

<i>The Breathing Book</i>, by David Vining

The Breathing Book, by David Vining

An important step to gaining this efficiency is learning to move air more effectively. Too often brass players try to do things with muscular effort that should be accomplished by air. After all, the air is what causes the lips to vibrate, and that vibration is what causes sound. When the lips are not restrained by excessive tension in the face and neck they will vibrate freely in response to the air being blown through them, the result being a beautiful and pleasing sound. To this end, I have begun using and recommending that my students regularly work through The Breathing Book by David Vining (Mountain Peak Music, 2009). This slender volume, with editions for every wind instrument, provides a sequential review of the various physical actions used in playing. While correct use of the breathing apparatus is a primary focus, the suggestions in the book impact nearly every facet of the use of the body when playing. The end result is the elimination of unnecessary effort and tension, and thus more efficient and effective use of the entire body when playing.

Kenobi vs. Grievous

Kenobi vs. Grievous

Low brass players and teachers know that references to science-fiction programs often resonate with our students, so I often find myself making such comparisons to characters and events in such programs in order to illustrate a concept in brass playing. When talking about economy of effort I have recently begun referring to the battle between Obi-Wan Kenobi and General Grievous in Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. In that battle Kenobi, armed only with a single lightsaber and his Jedi intuition, defeated the cybernetically enhanced Grievous, who was wielding four lightsabers. While Grievous’s fighting style was very physically involved, Kenobi observed his opponent as calmly as possible, and with great precision and economy of effort systematically disarmed and eventually killed him. Efficient and economical efforts won the day over great strength and effort. A similar comparison could be made to Kenobi’s defeat of Anakin Skywalker in the same film.

Of course, comparisons to fictional characters and events—particularly in CGI-enhanced sci-fi films—will collapse if analyzed too deeply, but for my students this particular illustration has been quite effective. In brass playing, as evidently in lightsaber duels, the player whose actions are precise, efficient, and economical will always deliver a superior result to the one using great muscular effort. Play like Obi-Wan Kenobi, not General Grievous!

Posted in Breathing, Low Brass Resources, Playing Fundamentals, Teaching Low Brass