Fall Concerts and Activities Preview

Once again this year I have a very full teaching load, with 28 applied students when high school and other private students are taken into account, 20 players in the University of Mississippi Trombone Ensemble, and 13 players in the University of Mississippi Tuba-Euphonium Ensemble. Those ensembles share a number of musicians, which is in keeping with my philosophy of encouraging students to double on multiple low brass instruments. Other than lots of teaching and a couple of short trips, this will be a relatively calm semester with regard to performances. Since the spring and especially next summer are looking to be rather busy, a comparably restful fall is welcome.

September 16: Northwest College Brass Festival, Powell, WY
Later this week I’ll be leaving for a short trip to Wyoming to teach at the 15th annual Northwest College Brass Festival, for which I received a kind invitation back in the spring. Much like the North Carolina Trombone Festival, for which I was a featured artist this past April, I will lead three clinics, play a couple of solo works, and participate in festival ensembles. I’m looking forward to an enjoyable but exhausting day!

October 6-8: National Association of College Wind and Percussion Instructors National Conference, University of Montevallo (AL)
I have been a member of NACWPI since I was a graduate student and have always appreciated its Journal because of the opportunity to read articles by teachers of other wind and percussion instruments. This will be my first time attending the national conference, and I am looking forward to hearing those same perspectives in person. My performance will be on the final day of the conference, in which I will be performing both the trombone and tuba sonatas by Paul Hindemith (1895-1963), along with indomitable pianist Stacy Rodgers. Although both sonatas have a characteristically “Hindemithian” sound, the tuba sonata (1955) is much lighter and more playful in character compared to the sense of impending doom communicated by the trombone sonata (1941). I suspect that this reflects the vastly different circumstances of both Hindemith’s life and of sociopolitical happenings worldwide between those two dates, and I hope to have enough time to talk a bit about that between performing the two works. I am also beginning plans for a longer program of Hindemith’s music to perform at Ole Miss hopefully sometime in the spring.

October 28, December 2, and December 9: Performing with the North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra
This will be my fifth season with the North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra as first trombonist, and the schedule for this fall is similar to those in past years, with a classical concert, a performance of The Nutcracker with the Tupelo Ballet, and a Christmas program for chorus and orchestra. While my role in the orchestra is usually as a tenor trombonist, at various times I have found myself playing alto trombone, bass trombone, or euphonium in the group.

November 28: University of Mississippi Low Brass Ensembles
Our low brass ensembles concert is once again just prior to the Christmas holiday, so there will be a couple of “seasonal” selections. Other highlights will be a trombone ensemble arrangement of the theme from the film The Magnificent Seven, and a new tuba-euphonium ensemble arrangement by UM alumnus Allen Carroll of the Six Choral Folk Songs by Gustav Holst (1874-1934).

Besides these events, there will be a number of student solo and ensemble performances, a large tuba-euphonium junior recital shared among three students, activities yet to be scheduled with the Mississippi Brass Quintet and Great River Trombone Quartet, and the usual mix of “church gigs” and other smaller engagements for me. In addition to all this “musicking” (to borrow a word from Christopher Small) I’m serving as president of the local Gideons this year, as well as sharing an adult Sunday school class at Christ Presbyterian Church, lecturing biweekly on the letter to the Colossians. There is plenty to do!

 

 

 

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Posted in Alto Trombone, Bass Trombone, Bible, Christ Presbyterian Church of Oxford, Christian Education, Church, Conferences, Education, Euphonium, Music, NACWPI, North Carolina Trombone Festival, North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra, Northwest College Brass Festival, Pedagogy, Performances, Performing, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, The Gideons International, Trombone, Tuba, University of Mississippi

You Kids Just Don’t LISTEN!!!

Even though this is my seventeenth year teaching at the university level in some capacity (having begun as a wide-eyed twenty-two-year-old graduate assistant), in my mind I still identify as the “young professor.” That self-identity is crumbling, though, and at an increasing pace each year. It has been a long time since I was the youngest faculty member in the music departments in which I have worked, and even more importantly I am this year twenty years older than the incoming freshmen. When I first started teaching college students the students seemed to look at me as an older brother type of figure (when I was, in fact, older, as was not always the case); now my students call me Trombone Dad. The ever-greater frequency with which my pop culture references fall flat reminds me that there is now a small but noticeable generation gap between myself and my students. While most of these generational differences are innocuous and even amusing, there are some habits that my fellow undergraduate students and I had “back in the day” whose loss is an unhappy one for today’s music students. One of the most important among these is repeated listening to great recordings.

When I was an undergraduate student, internet access had only recently become widely available. Home connections were almost exclusively of the dial-up variety, and e-commerce was in its infancy. Although this sounds like the proverbial “uphill both ways in the snow” story to my students, I was either a junior or senior in high school when I first learned of the existence of commercial recordings of brass solo and ensemble music, and to obtain these recordings one had to write for a paper catalog and then fax or mail a paper order form to a distributor. As my university career progressed online ordering became increasingly common but there still were no services like YouTube, Spotify, or Pandora. In short, my fellow students and I expected to have to “dig” a little bit in order to locate and purchase recordings of great players, and when the coveted recordings were finally obtained they were listened to repeatedly—often in six-disc CD changers mounted in the trunks of our cars, in which changing discs had to be done before or after a trip. We didn’t know it at the time, but those of us who were listening to performers on our instruments, or bands, or orchestras, or jazz groups, or whatever were developing sonic concepts that would one day help us to build successful careers.

Fast-forward to today, when multiplied thousands of hours of the greatest players in the world can be located and enjoyed with only a few keystrokes, yet the majority of students rarely or never listen to solo and chamber recordings of their instrument, or great bands and orchestras, or the best jazz and popular ensembles. More than one of my students in the past week named *me* as the player they most often listen to for example and inspiration, and while that is flattering there are far better brass players than me in the world, and in any case listening to only one person’s example inevitably leads to an impoverished ideal of how one’s instrument should sound. (Ditto for future band and orchestra directors—listen to the greatest groups in the world to form a sound concept, not just your college wind ensemble or orchestra or jazz ensemble.) Seriously, how can you expect to have a fulsome vision of the kind of sound that is achievable by your instrument or group if you never listen to the very best performers in those genres? You can’t, and with the easy availability of recorded music these days you simply have no excuse to not do this. If you want to sound great, start by listening to and absorbing great sounds.

So, students where should you begin? First of all, make sure you are listening to quality recordings of professional players, not just “some dude on YouTube.” The internet has a lot of wonderful music, but you have to shuffle through a lot of garbage to find it all, and sometimes you actually have to pay money to hear it. But it’s worth it. Here are playlists of a few of my favorite albums to get you started. Hint: Check the suggested videos on these pages to find players and tracks that might be interesting to you.

Joseph Alessi: Illuminations
Alain Trudel: (Alto) Trombone Concerti
James Markey: On Base
Steven Mead: Euphonium Virtuoso
Øystein Baadsvik: 20th-Century Tuba Concertos
Harry Watters: Out of a Dream—Love Songs
Szeged Trombone Ensemble: New Horizons
Michael Davis, et al.: Absolute Trombone
Sotto Voce Quartet: Refractions
Chicago Symphony, Cleveland Orchestra, and Philadelphia Orchestra Brass Sections: The Antiphonal Music of Gabrieli

And just in case you are at all curious about the guy whose rantings you have been reading at this site all these years, here is:

Micah Everett: Stepping Stones for Bass Trombone, Vol. 1

Even better, join the International Trombone Association, the International Tuba-Euphonium Association, or the professional group for your instrument or ensemble type and start reading their magazines or journals. You’ll quickly get a feel for who some of the top players and groups are so that you can start listening to them. You might also join the discussions over at The Trombone Forum, TubeNet, or TubaEuph, or some of the various brass-related Facebook groups. There, too, you’ll start to gain a sense of who the top players are and where to find their albums.

Start listening. Start internalizing. Start copying. You’ll be surprised by how much your musicianship improves simply by listening to great players!

 

Posted in Alto Trombone, Bass Trombone, Euphonium, Higher Education, Low Brass Resources, Music, Music Education, Practicing, Professional Organizations, Recordings, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Tuba

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

Today I am reposting, for the sixth year, one of the more popular posts on this blog. With high school students 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 times. 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.

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 with a slovenly appearance 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, Bass Trombone, Daily Routine, Education, Euphonium, Music, Music Education, Practicing, Scales and Arpeggios, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Tuba

You’re Never Going to Know Everything (But You Still Should Try), Part Two

Last week I wrote discussing how I had come to terms with—and in fact really embraced—the idea that my knowledge of music, brass pedagogy, and basically everything about my profession should be always growing but will never reach completion. There is simply too much out there to learn and know and perform and teach, even in the miniscule slice of the music business occupied by low brass players, for one person to be able to master everything. And yet, the diligent pursuit of this unattainable level of mastery is what enables a thriving and successful career. Pivoting on this idea just a bit (or a lot), should I not, as a Christian, expect my experience studying God’s Word to be the same, except on an infinitely greater level?

I still remember as a younger man feeling like I knew the Bible very well. My parents had raised me in the church and forced me (sometimes despite my…er…lack of eagerness) to participate in Bible Drills, a Southern Baptist program in which young people memorize verses or longer passages of Scripture and learn to locate them quickly. Over twenty years later, I am thankful for this foundation of biblical knowledge I received in this and other programs, knowledge which I became eager to increase as a young adult, particularly after reading the Left Behind novels. (Some of you might find that humorous, but the story of how that Arminian, Baptist, dispensational premillennialist became the Calvinist, Presbyterian, amillenialist I am today will have to wait for another time, though it is alluded to in other posts on this blog.) By age 25 or 26 I knew the Bible better than a lot of older folks that I knew seemed to, and that might not have been mere youthful arrogance. After all, a quick Google search will yield the results of dozens of studies of varying quality demonstrating alarmingly low levels of biblical literacy among American evangelicals. Happily, three things were to happen in my life that would demonstrate that while I did know quite a lot, I still had a long way to go.

One was undertaking a bit of formal theological education. Just a bit before turning thirty I decided to undertake a certificate program in systematic theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. I discussed this at greater length in another post a few years ago. Suffice it to say for now that I entered that program thinking that I knew a lot, and ended it knowing a great deal more than I knew before—but also being more aware than ever of how much I had yet to learn. Just “dipping my toe” into the great sea of knowledge of God’s Word that great thinkers have produced over twenty centuries showed me that while my own reasoning from the Scriptures was often quite sound, it was rarely original. The same things had been said better, more clearly, and more completely, by men both smarter and godlier than me. I was nowhere near as “mighty in the Scriptures” as I had once fancied myself.

The second was becoming a parent. Parenting seems easy enough to those with no children. Use the right teaching (both sacred and secular), the right disciplinary methods, and the right family structure and the inevitable result will be happy, obedient children who become productive, Christian adults. Right? Honestly, I’m not sure how anyone can be a parent and not become a Calvinist. Even very young children provide eminent displays of the total depravity of humanity, and even the best behaved will lead a believing parent to despair of anything saving them except the sovereignly electing, redeeming, and regenerating acts of God himself. In any case, knowing the letter of the Bible and reading quality books along with it will not in themselves produce Christian children. If my son is to emerge from childhood as that happy, productive, Christian young man that I hope he will be, the experiential knowledge and application of that Bible must be my first priority. And that will begin not in the study, and not in my teaching him what I have studied, but on my knees.

Finally, “life happened.” A Christian young adult raised in a middle-class American household has seen relatively little that will test his faith, provided that he has been taught the Scriptures well and knows at least some reasonable counterarguments to prevailing secular perspectives on various issues. Add 15-20 years of even mild difficulties, and that faith has been more tried. Sickness, loss of loved ones, job insecurity, financial challenges, parenting, church difficulties, marital difficulties, and other issues that we all experience to a greater or lesser extent have a way of moving one’s faith out of the theoretical realm and into the morass of daily life. Being able to quote large amounts of Scripture and even offer theoretical applications is one thing; it is another thing entirely to need to cling to those same truths, those same promises when all lesser hopes have been stripped away. I am certain that I have only barely begun to know what this is really like.

So am I suggesting that studying the Bible is no good and practical application is the way to go? Not at all. I have read the Bible through over fifteen times in multiple translations, and each time I discover things that I had not noticed before, and come away with a greater love for both it and the Christ revealed therein. Likewise when reading good books about the Bible, listening to fine preachers and skilled lecturers, etc. Good books, after all, are those that reward repeated reading with new insights, and God’s Word is the very best of Books, having been “breathed out by God” himself. (2 Timothy 3:16) There is much to be gained from studying the Word of God.

Still, we must not forget that God intends for our knowledge of this Word to be no mere academic pursuit. It is to manifest itself in action (Ephesians 2:10, James 2:14-20), and most of all to lead us to Christ Jesus, “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” who is the only way to the Father (John 14:6), and the One upon whom we are to fix our eyes as we run life’s proverbial race. (Hebrews 12:1-3)

When preparing to teach Sunday School a few weeks ago I was struck by the following passage, more so than I have been by this story in the past.

Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42)

Were Martha’s activities bad, or unimportant, or sinful? No. Nevertheless, Jesus gently reminds her that “the good portion” is to sit at his feet, to learn from him, to love him. Will that manifest itself in action, in service, in good works? Of course. But that begins with knowing Christ, and where do we find him? That’s right. The Bible.

So just like in my worldly profession (and I’m sure yours as well) but on a far greater level, I find myself constantly approaching this wonderful Book and seeking to learn it better and to know better the Christ revealed in its pages. Will I reach full mastery? Nope—who can expect to fully know an infinite God, even in eternity? But I must still seek to know him better and better, resting in the hope that one day, “when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.” (1 John 3:2)

Posted in Bible, Calvinism, Christian Education, Christian Worldview, Church, Doctrine, Practical Christianity, Prayer, Reading and Study, Salvation, Theological Education, Theology, Truth

You’re Never Going to Know Everything (But You Still Should Try), Part One

As those familiar with my work and career (whether through this blog or some more personal acquaintance) already know, I became a university low brass teacher at an unusually young age. I was awarded a teaching assistantship at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro directly upon completing my undergraduate degree and had a small studio of eight trombone students (one of whom was a graduate student in music education) at age 22. Two years later my responsibilities at UNCG were shifted to primarily classroom instruction in music theory and ear training (i.e. solfège and dictation) although I retained a few bass trombone students, and I was also hired as an adjunct low brass instructor at Elon University. Thus by age 24 I was “the” low brass teacher in a small music department, and after a brief stint at the University of Northern Iowa I landed in a tenure-track position at the University of Louisiana at Monroe at age 26. Seven years later I assumed my current post at the University of Mississippi. I was a tenured associate professor for the first time (at ULM) at 32, and then again at Ole Miss at 37, ages often associated with the beginnings of an academic career, not receiving tenure and settling down.

I wrote a little about this in a post a couple of years ago, and I wish to be careful to not repeat myself because today I intend to explore this from a different angle, one that will dovetail next week into an application to another area of life entirely. In that post I wrote about my insecurities as a young professor, constantly pressuring myself to “know everything” about my field or at least give the impression that I did, and sometimes keeping at arm’s length ideas, individuals, and occasionally even opportunities that might threaten that façade. Happily, certain life experiences—along with the typical expectation of universities that professors will explore new ideas and methods and expose students to the same—kept me from retaining this attitude very long. I like to think that ultimately the only things that have significantly curtailed my learning or exposing students to new things have been limitations in time and funding. The latter has sometimes been plentiful, sometimes less so; the former is always finite, and as a single professor trying to keep up with both the “trombone world” and the “tuba/euphonium/lower brass world,” I am constantly dividing my time between the two and letting opportunities in both areas pass by simply because there isn’t time for all of it.

Even though limitations in available time and resources dictate that much escapes my notice, the sheer volume of new music, new instructional materials, new historical materials, new recordings, new techniques, new analytical approaches, etc., etc. that does come to my attention keeps me drinking from the proverbial firehose on a constant basis. For the past thirteen years I have edited the recording reviews column for the International Trombone Association Journal, and despite having dozens of trombone-related recordings come across my desk each year I am fully aware that there are two or three times as many (or more) that are never sent to us. Every conference I attend has new music presented that I want to purchase and use with my students or perform myself, but finances will keep me from ever doing so in many cases, likewise with products and accessories to improve performance. For every lecture I attend on brass pedagogy there are a dozen more that I have missed. Who knows which of them would have been most helpful to my own playing or that of my students? For every new text I read there are at least three or four more that I don’t, some of which languish for years in my Amazon wish list waiting for me to have enough money to buy them. And I haven’t mentioned the internet, which is chock full of blogs just like this one, each attracting maybe 1000 or 1500 visitors a month, as well as podcasts, video blogs, and other resources. While as a young teacher I was concerned that I might be exposed as not knowing everything, having very nearly reached middle age I am more often frustrated because limitations upon my time, financial resources, and energy will keep me from ever mastering the constantly increasing knowledge and literature out there in my field.

So what am I going to do about it? I’m going to keep practicing, keep reading, keep listening, keep teaching, keep going to conferences, keep learning, and keep sharing what I have learned. I’ll never master or even discover everything, but I’m going to try anyway, because that’s the only way I’ll make real progress. I wish I could go back and tell that young man hanging on for dear life in this profession that folks who wish to hide what they don’t know end up shutting their eyes and ears to wonderful things that will improve their playing, their teaching, and ultimately their students’ learning and success. As I said in that earlier post, I’m no longer worried that people will know that my knowledge is finite—they already know that! Instead I hope my students and colleagues, past, present, and future, will look at me and see someone with his face always up to that firehose, taking in as much as possible, and sharing what I’ve learned with everyone who will listen. I’m convinced that this is what the best teachers do—they constantly learn.

firehose

 

Posted in Alto Trombone, Bass Trombone, Digital Revolution, Education, Euphonium, Higher Education, Music, Music Education, Pedagogy, Performing, Playing Fundamentals, Practicing, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Tuba

Get With The Program!

We’re now a little ways into July, which is when I suggest that Mississippi high school band students begin preparing in earnest for this year’s auditions for the Mississippi Lions All-State Band, which are held in November. Unlike many states, in which the all-state groups are chosen after a series of regional auditions, Mississippi holds a “cattle call” audition in which every student who wishes to audition can travel to the audition site and audition to the band, followed by a second round a week or two later in which the top students (usually double the number who will ultimately be accepted in each section) audition again to determine final placement. I like this system because it prevents the situation experienced in some other states where a deserving student in one region with a large concentration of good players on his instrument is denied a seat that ultimately goes to a lesser player from a different region. The all-state group in Mississippi is also different from most states because instead of culminating in a three or four-day “honor band” with a guest clinician and a short concert, the group meets in the summer and prepares a large concert for performance in Mississippi before traveling to the annual Lions Clubs International convention and marching a parade/competition show and performing an entertaining “lobby show.” This arrangement, made possible by the Mississippi Lions’ partial sponsorship of the group, means that our state’s top band students travel to a different major city each summer. This year’s event was in Chicago, but the destinations are not always domestic; during my three years in the band during the mid-1990s we traveled to Seoul, Montreal, and Philadelphia. Thus, the all-state band is a tremendously musically satisfying experience in Mississippi, and auditioning is entirely worthwhile.

As you might imagine, I receive a number of requests for lessons from students who are preparing to audition for the band here in Mississippi, just as I did when teaching previously in Louisiana and Iowa. By one measure, my record of success in preparing students for all-state auditions has been rather mixed, maybe even as low as 50-60%. However, when you consider only the students who actually did the following four things, the success rate surges to 100% or very nearly so. Students who proceed without “taking care of business” in these areas have a much lower chance of audition success, no matter how good their private teachers are.

1. Take lessons year-round, not just for “audition cramming.”

During August or September of most years I begin receiving calls and emails from students or parents wanting to “take a few lessons” in order to prepare for Lions Band auditions. Most are honest about their intention to make applied lessons only a temporary thing, and as long as I have time available I am happy to work with them. (Money is money, after all, and I’m not keen on turning down opportunities to have even some positive influence on area musicians.) However, many of these students come with poor practice habits, unlearned scales, and assorted fundamental playing issues that cannot be adequately addressed in just a couple of months of lessons, especially when that time must be devoted primarily to preparing required audition materials. While I do everything I can to at least begin to address these issues and make the audition music presentable, the more successful students continue to study privately between December and July, where we are able to address important playing basics before turning our attention in earnest to the audition materials around midsummer. Even in situations where distance or finances allow only sporadic applied study, periodic guidance (and diligent following of that guidance between lessons) is superior to nothing at all.

2. Diligently complete a daily fundamentals routine.

This item follows directly from the previous one. I assign each of my students a daily fundamentals routine (usually the “Level 2” materials off of this page) and though I normally make some modifications for younger students, my instruction is always that the routine be completed in its entirety each day. While nearly all of my students (both high school and college) can be counted upon to work through portions of the routine on most days, a much smaller percentage diligently performs the entire routine each and every day. That smaller group is the one that consistently makes the band. The “power” is not in my particular routine, of course (there are many good daily fundamentals routines out there), but rather in the daily and systematic review and extension of fundamental playing skills. Foregoing fundamentals work in favor of more time working on music is tempting, and sometimes even seems wise, but ultimately it is a losing proposition. The basic skills must be there and growing before successful audition preparation can occur.

3. Practice scales year-round.

Scales (and arpeggios in states that require them) are the first thing played in most auditions, but they are often the most poorly played materials. Even students who thoroughly prepare the assigned études often play scales out of tune, with a poor tone quality, and with inconsistencies in timing and articulation. While I do not favor year-round practice of the assigned études, scales should be part of every player’s daily practice. Make the scales a demonstration of solid fundamental playing ability, with the most beautiful sound, best pitch, even timing, and consistent articulation possible. Students who do so reap benefits beyond simply “high scores on scales,” as these skills positively impact every area of performance.

4. Use a metronome regularly.

For better or for worse, the preparation of most young musicians in this country emphasizes playing correct pitches over correct rhythms, with the result being that the majority of students not only read rhythms poorly but also internalize time very badly. Use a metronome (or even a drum machine app) even when playing fundamental exercises and scales, not to develop rhythm reading per se, but to better coordinate the actions of breathing, tonguing, blowing, buzzing, and releasing each note. This will help you to internalize a sense of pulse and coordinate all of your playing by it, leading to a remarkable decrease in what had been wrongly thought to be “chop problems.” Use this improving sense of time and coordination to improve your rhythmic execution in the études and in sight reading. Frequent “stops and starts” not only lead to missed rhythms, but also to a decline in overall playing because of lost coordination.

There are, of course, other elements that contribute to success in all-state auditions, many of which I discuss in my annually-reposted article on the topic. My purpose today is highlighting often-neglected steps that must be undertaken in the long term to best ensure success. The students I have had the most success in helping over the years have been those who “buy in” to my program of year-round practice and study, diligent and daily fundamentals work, mastery of scales, and the development of rhythm and time by using the metronome. Those skeptically wanting to “pick and choose” from my instructions or seeking only a “shot in the arm” or a shortcut to audition success have rarely reaped the desired rewards. Those willing to walk with me through the “long game” of developing comprehensive musicianship have fared much, much better.

 

Posted in Alto Trombone, Auditions, Bass Trombone, Daily Routine, Euphonium, Music, Music Education, Pedagogy, Playing Fundamentals, Practicing, Scales and Arpeggios, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Tuba

Why Buzz the Mouthpiece?

The practice of buzzing the mouthpiece away from the instrument has been a major part of brass players’ preparation and maintenance for the past half-century or so, and has been advocated by leading players of every brass instrument. While there have always been some players and teachers who were not in favor of regular buzzing practice (including one of my own teachers), the “no buzzing” position has long been a minority report. Nevertheless, one well-known trombonist caused quite a stir in the online brass community a couple of years ago by posting a video discounting the practice of mouthpiece buzzing, suggesting that it is a waste of time at best and deleterious to playing at worst. This individual has been a well-established and highly regarded performer for over 35 years, so his opinions necessarily carry some weight. While few if any players changed their own positions based upon this video, it did spark a good deal of self-examination and discussion among players, which is not a bad thing.

And to be fair, there are some possible dangers of mouthpiece buzzing. The biggest is that, at least in my observation and experience, people tend to use the embouchure and air slightly differently when buzzing compared to playing on the instrument. If buzzing is overused there is a chance that one might try to retain too much of the “buzzing approach” when moving back to the instrument, with odd results for both tone quality and response. Another potential pitfall is that a player might begin to pinch excessively in an attempt to achieve a perfectly clear sound on the mouthpiece, leading to a rather thin and unpleasant sound on the instrument. Instead, the desired “buzzing sound” is going to be slightly airy in character, leading to a tone quality possessing the right balance of clarity and warmth.

These potential dangers notwithstanding, there are benefits to mouthpiece buzzing which I believe outweigh any risks. The greatest of these benefits is the promotion of efficient use of the air and embouchure. To employ a politically-correct buzzword (and with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek), the mouthpiece is “intolerant” of inefficiencies in one’s use of the air and embouchure. I have found that students who have difficulty producing sounds on the mouthpiece also work much too hard to produce sounds on the instrument (I myself had this problem as a young undergraduate student). As students practice on the mouthpiece and become proficient at doing so their tone production on the instrument becomes less laborious. Thus buzzing on the mouthpiece helps to promote efficiency in tone production, and that with minimal conscious thought given to the precise activities of the various physical structures involved in playing.

Another benefit is promoting smooth movements between registers. As students become more proficient at buzzing on the mouthpiece the “buzzing range” should gradually be extended to three octaves or more. All of us have “shifts” of a greater or lesser degree when moving through the instrument’s range, and as proficiency on the mouthpiece increases most players find that negotiating these shifts is easier on the mouthpiece than with the instrument, simply because subtle changes in mouthpiece angle and even in the relationship of teeth, lips, and mouthpiece are more simply executed and often done unconsciously. Daily use of a glissing exercise like the one below (tuba 8vb) will promote smooth, seamless negotiation of register changes which the player should seek to transfer to the instrument.

Range Extension

The last benefit of mouthpiece buzzing that I’ll discuss here is perhaps the most obvious: ear training. While the natural tendencies of the instrument have a way of correcting minor errors in audiation—at least in the middle and lower registers—in order to correctly play the desired pitch on the mouthpiece the player must first accurately hear and internalize that pitch. Practicing buzzing at the piano, with tuning drones, or even with songs on the radio can help to promote this ability. Solfège practice, while loathed by many students, is eminently helpful in this regard also, as it is likewise beneficial for nearly every musical endeavor. Despite having so-called “perfect” pitch I find solfège practice to be useful because of how it promotes perception not only of individual pitches, but of tonal relationships.

While I find a small to moderate amount of mouthpiece practice to be helpful and even necessary, I advocate spending only about 5-15 minutes per day buzzing. This amount is enough to realize the great benefits afforded by regular mouthpiece practice without experiencing the potential dangers mentioned earlier. Additionally, I do not favor regularly practicing “free buzzing” without the mouthpiece. While free buzzing does much to develop strength and control and is even necessary for correcting certain embouchure issues, I find that the absence of the mouthpiece rim and its isolating effect on the embouchure musculature makes the sensation of free buzzing too different from that of normal playing to be of great use. Buzzing on the mouthpiece rim alone can be a viable compromise position.

Finally, and at the risk of “throwing myself under the bus,” I’ll remind the reader that this is an area of practice and pedagogy about which fine players—some far more accomplished than me—differ. There are great brass players who strongly advocate free buzzing, and there are great players who advocate not buzzing at all. Having tried various approaches, though, I have found that regular but moderate and judicious mouthpiece buzzing practice yields the best results for me and for nearly all the students with whom I have worked over the years. This seems to be the majority report in the broader brass community, as well.

Posted in Alto Trombone, Bass Trombone, Daily Routine, Euphonium, Mouthpiece Buzzing, Music, Pedagogy, Playing Fundamentals, Practicing, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Tuba