The “Problem Solver” Approach to Music Execution

Regular readers here know that performance anxiety is a topic which I have addressed on several occasions in the past five years, both because I am an occasional sufferer and more importantly because I regularly encounter students who deal with this not only during public performance but even during their weekly lessons with me. Although I’m not sure I’ve said this in so many words in previous posts, one thing I absolutely do not do when students (or I) encounter this issue is admonish them to “not be nervous.” Such a suggestion would be a nonstarter—if one is prone to nervousness that emotion is there and is likely to be there at least for the foreseeable future, and a more successful course of action is to accept it and figure out how to achieve great things musically in spite of it.

Happily, there are a number of steps that one can take which in the short term will minimize the effects of nervousness, and in the long term will help to minimize or even eliminate its presence. Increasing the efficiency with which one undertakes the physical act of playing the instrument, making mental notes of the feeling of playing relaxed when it occurs, performing more frequently, prioritizing service to the audience over exaltation of the self, choosing repertoire wisely, and (obviously) practicing diligently are all helpful steps, and are discussed in more detail here. In a certain sense, these methodologies and others related to them serve to create a certain emotional detachment in the performer, where the act of performing is not so tied to one’s emotional state that anxiety or other negative emotions can derail a performance when they are present.

Instead of investing tremendous emotional energy (whether positive or negative) into a performance, I have found it sometimes found it helpful to think of my role on stage as that of a “problem solver.” In this case the “problem” is that I have to deliver an effective and satisfying performance of the piece of music at hand, and my task is to “solve” this problem by devising and employing means that enable me to achieve this end. This includes technical execution, of course, as well as responding to variables that occur in the midst of performance such as extremes of temperature, poor piano tuning, audience distractions, etc., but it also includes emotive elements. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, the expressive content of a piece can and should be planned in advance, and so programmed into the performance that this content can be conveyed regardless of the emotional state of the performer. After all, as one person remarked on Facebook in response to that article, our job as performers is to give the listener an emotional experience when listening to our music, not necessarily to have the same experience ourselves (though if we do, great!). When I approach performing as a problem solver, I often find that I am much too engaged in this task to have time for performance anxiety.

As with many things in music, this suggestion can be taken to an unnecessarily and unhelpful extreme. The famous tubist and brass pedagogue Arnold Jacobs (1915-1998) said that we all needed to have an “investigator’s hat” and a “performer’s hat,” the former to diagnose and solve problems in the practice room, and the latter to enable effective performance. He warned against wearing the investigator’s hat while performing, lest one become so wrapped up in thinking about how to play that he becomes unable to engage in the simple act of delivering a beautiful performance. This warning is well-taken, and I don’t mean to suggest that the problem solver should be one who obsesses over the minutiae of physical execution during performance, thus experiencing “paralysis by analysis.” Rather, the problem solver should focus primarily on his mental concept of how the piece should sound, and make adjustments as needed in very basic areas of execution (breath, intonation, physical relaxation, etc.) in his quest to realizing that concept. There must be a right way someplace between overanalysis and a “mindless yet hopeful” approach, and at the moment this is the best description I have for it.

 

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Posted in Alto Trombone, Bass Trombone, Euphonium, Music, Pedagogy, Performance Anxiety, Performing, Playing Fundamentals, Practicing, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Tuba

Every Piece of Music is a “Song”

stepping-stones-for-bass-trombone-vol-1The advent of iTunes, Amazon music, Spotify, Pandora, and all the other legal means of purchasing, streaming, and distributing music and other media electronically has been a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it has never been easier for artists both new and established to get their work seen and heard by thousands of people in a very short period of time. The severely diminished role of record labels as gatekeepers for new music means that just about anyone with the performing skills, time, money, and marketing savvy needed to produce and promote an album can do so with a much smaller number of middlemen than before. Of course, there is a “flip side:” while it is perhaps easier than ever to produce a professional quality album, it is harder than ever to make a reasonable amount of money from doing so. Fewer listeners than ever before actually buy whole albums, much less albums distributed on hard copies like CDs, and royalties paid even from legal download sites and streaming services are extremely small, on the order of a fraction of a cent per play. Artists who once made thousands of dollars per night selling recordings after concerts now make practically nothing in that way; solo recordings have become little more than expensive business cards. I don’t even have to look to other people’s examples to illustrate this. My own solo recording, which cost well over $10,000 to make, has yielded less than $300 in royalties for me since it was released in 2015. Of course, my reasons for creating an album were as much academic as artistic—the target audience was teachers and students, and my university provided the lion’s share of funding for the project. I never expected to make money. Had I needed to make a profit—or even break even—for the recording to be considered a success, I would have never done it in the first place. If there ever was much money to be made in recording brass music, there isn’t any longer.

SongsWhile I could go on about the effects of electronic downloads and streaming on the recording industry, my main purpose in writing today is related to a less serious effect of the advent of iTunes: the labeling of every track, every movement, every piece of recorded music (and even spoken text and other non-musical sounds) as a “song.” While I have no desire to be that snarky musician who constantly reminds people that “it’s not a song; it’s a piece,” as a music teacher I have a reasonable expectation that my students will be more precise in their writing and other classwork than in colloquial speech. When writing and speaking about music in this way, the word “song” refers to a piece of music that is, well, sung, thus using that word in reference to a concert band piece, a movement of a symphonic work, a piece of chamber music, or anything else that is not a song is sloppy and will receive a merciless rebuke from my red pen. (Yes, I still grade in red, but that’s another topic altogether.) Needless to say, as we move closer to having a generation of college students who do not remember a world without the iPod (the current freshmen were two years old when the first iPod was released), imprecision in speaking of music with regard to genre has lamentably increased.

Snging-Trombone-Vernon

I’m in good company in thinking this way. Who am I to argue with Mr. Vernon?!?

My desire for precision in speaking and writing about music might make my main point for today even more surprising: I am finding it increasingly helpful for both myself and my students to think of the pieces we are performing as “songs.” The first time I said this to a student who had suffered through having papers marked up for such usage the student was understandably surprised, but all have quickly come to understand my point in using the word figuratively in this context. Although this tendency manifests itself differently with players of different instruments, instrumentalists of all stripes are prone to making playing a more physically demanding activity than it is, recruiting muscle groups that are not immediately necessary and with all this effort adding tension and diminishing response and quality of sound. Low brass players in particular have long invoked the metaphor of singing to illustrate the method of playing we should instead choose, one which involves a relaxed body, the free movement of air, and an approach to phrasing that mimics that of a great singer. While the utility of this approach is particularly evident when playing more lyrical pieces, even the most technically demanding works can benefit from a more intentionally “songlike” way of playing. This weekend I’ll be performing the both the Trombone Sonata and the Tuba Sonata by Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) at the National Association of College Wind and Percussion Instructors National Conference, and I have written the word “song” on multiple pages to remind myself of the importance of this approach. Even the intense and not-traditionally-tonal works of a composer like Hindemith benefit from a more “singing” style.

So, students, I guess I’m backtracking a little bit. There are times that you can refer to your “pieces” as “songs,” as long as you are doing so figuratively and with the intended ends of relaxing the body and enhancing performance. Otherwise I’ve still got my red pen in my front pocket!

Posted in Alto Trombone, Bass Trombone, Beauty, Breathing, Digital Revolution, Euphonium, Higher Education, Music, Music Education, NACWPI, Pedagogy, Performing, Playing Fundamentals, Practicing, Recordings, Stepping Stones for Bass Trombone, Vol. 1, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Tuba

It’s Okay to “Go Through the Motions”

Several times in the past few weeks when I have asked students how they could have improved their performances of various playing assignments I have heard responses something like “Well, I could have put more emotion into it.” To be sure, their playing did lack the expressive qualities inherent to great performances, but I am always quick to caution these students that depending upon some mysterious reserve of deep feelings to magically generate emotive content is foolish. As I noted in a post last year on a similar topic, in performance often the most powerful emotions being experienced by the student on stage are fear, anxiety, and apprehension. Drawing upon those feelings will not yield the desired expressive performance, except in the unlikely event that those negative emotions are the ones that the player desires to communicate!

Instead of depending upon manufactured emotional hype, musicians are better served by ensuring that their playing fundamentals are solidly maintained, and then by considering in advance the musical devices (especially variances in tempo and dynamic level) that will best communicate the desired expressive content of the pieces being performed. In other words, I encourage students to plan and program the feelings they intend to convey. This ends up being a little bit like acting, with the musician conveying not the emotions he is experiencing at the moment, but rather those which he believes inhere in the piece. Interestingly, and as I also noted previously, the emotional highs students too often think are necessary to generate great performances are actually the ones that follow from great performances (and when they do it is a great joy!). Generating those performances, however, is often a much more cerebral affair than most non-musicians realize.

Yesterday in our men’s Bible study group (which we have lovingly dubbed the Council of Skateland since our church meets in a converted skating rink) someone asked if the faithfulness of Old Testament-era Israelites who might sometimes have merely “gone through the motions” of offering the prescribed sacrifices could be considered genuine, even if feelings of love and devotion toward God were not always as evident as they could have been. My answer—as well as the consensus of the group—was that it could, for believers both then and now, the latter bringing the “sacrifice of praise” described in Hebrews 13:15, to say nothing of the “living sacrifices” of our very selves (Romans 12:1). Faithfulness to God need not always be characterized by the emotional “warm fuzzies” which are too often considered synonymous with “worship,” though we might sometimes experience those feelings. But sometimes life isn’t happy. Sometimes it’s all we can do to drag ourselves out of bed each day for any reason, including to attend to God’s worship. Some days we can only lament with Habakkuk,

Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. (Habakkuk 3:17-18)

The Bible is full of songs and other expressions of lamentation, putting to death any notions that God’s people will be or are expected to be always happy. Yet we continue in the public and private exercises of God’s worship, even when we don’t feel like it, even when it seems that we are only performing outward exercises. And do we not, interestingly enough, sometimes find that the positive emotions we failed to bring with us to worship follow from it? Do we not sometimes enter the Lord’s house empty and leave it filled? Maybe “going through the motions” isn’t such a fake thing to do, after all.

Longtime readers of The Reforming Trombonist know that I like to draw connections between my work as a musician and teacher and my Christian faith, and while this one might seem a bit tortured, in my own experience it is quite obvious. The music student (and sometimes even the professional) wants to give an expressive performance, but finding only fear and doubt within learns to mimic the outward characteristics of musical expression and finds—to his surprise and delight—that the feelings he thought he needed in order to perform well actually come as a result of performing well. Similarly (though more importantly), the weary Christian, finding “the joy of the Lord is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10) to be a hollow quotation, nevertheless forces himself to perform the rote observances of God’s worship and finds—likewise to his surprise and delight—that the warm feelings of love and devotion that seemed so foreign just a couple of hours before are rekindled as God’s Spirit ministers to him through public and private worship.

Can “going through the motions” be wrong for the Christian? Sure it can. There have certainly been many individuals over the centuries that made an outward show of Christianity but ultimately proved to be false brethren. But for the true believer who is simply “not feeling it that day,” those outward actions might just constitute a tremendous act of faith that God will bless and multiply.

For the musician the parallels end here, because I don’t know how one could be a “false musician.” For you the “the motions” are “the thing.” Learn what great performance sounds like, and then figure out how to create it, regardless of your own feelings. In time, you’ll find that your actual emotions and the ones you seek to convey become increasingly alike as your skills improve and your fears largely (if not completely) subside. That’s when performing starts to become fun!

Posted in Christ Presbyterian Church of Oxford, Christian Worldview, Lord's Day, Music, Music and Theology, Music and Worship, Pedagogy, Performance Anxiety, Performing, Playing Fundamentals, Practical Christianity, Practicing, Teaching Low Brass, Theology, Worship

“Counterfeit Detection Training:” A Short Reflection on Colossians 1:15-20

I mentioned in my last post that this year I am sharing responsibility for an adult Sunday school class at Christ Presbyterian Church on the letter to the Colossians. Given that this is the focus of any focused theological study on my part at the moment I’m sure the reader will be neither surprised nor offended that my monthly blog posts on theological topics might in the coming months sometimes contain reflections from that study. First of all, the passage at hand, just six verses from the first chapter of Colossians:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities–all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1:15-20)

In some ways determining what the “main theme” of Colossians is can be difficult. While the letter to the Galatians is clearly focused upon the doctrine of justification by faith (and not by works of the law), 1 Corinthians addresses some serious sin issues in that church, and the unsigned letter to the Hebrews exhorts Jewish believers to not return to their former faith, teasing out the focus of Colossians is a bit of a challenge simply because the Colossians are so well-behaved. Paul commends their faith and practice throughout and offers little in the way of criticism. Nevertheless, the presence of false teaching in Colosse becomes increasingly evident as the letter progresses, so commentators more or less agree that Paul’s purpose in writing is to thwart any attempt by outside forces to introduce a counterfeit gospel into the church there.

51jmtbXp44L._SY291_BO1,204,203,200_QL40_The way Paul approaches this in these verses—some of the most densely-packed theologically in all of Paul’s writing—is interesting and instructive, particularly because of its positive presentation. We get practically no indication anywhere in Colossians of the identity of the false teachers that he was aiming to refute when writing this letter, and no real mention of the presence of false teaching all until Chapter Two. Instead, Paul positively presents and reminds the Colossians of the true doctrine of the Person and work of Christ. He seems to understand that “the Colossians are not willfully unfaithful. It is simply that they are young in the faith.” And that “this positive instruction, once its implications have been grasped in terms of the sufficiency of Christ, will be the Colossians’ best protection against error.” (Dick Lucas, The Message of Colossians and Philemon, p. 45)

Have you ever heard of how law enforcement agencies train their officers to detect counterfeit currency? While I’m sure they spend some time studying the various techniques that counterfeiters might employ, the focus of this training is upon becoming intimately familiar with the characteristics of real currency. The better one knows the genuine article, the better equipped he will be to spot a fake.

Paul is evidently employing a similar approach here, and one Christians today would be wise to emulate. While there is certainly a place for familiarizing oneself with and mastering arguments to refute the teachings of cults, heretical groups, other religions, and secular philosophies, the best protection for our own souls is to know better the Person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. The more we “consider him” (cf. Hebrews 12:3)—who Christ is and what he has done for us—the better equipped we will be to spot those teachings which are contrary to the gospel.

Posted in Bible, Christ Presbyterian Church of Oxford, Christ's Person and Work, Christian Worldview, Colossians, Practical Christianity, Reading and Study, Salvation, Theology, Truth

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!

 

 

 

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