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.



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

When Contextualization Diminishes Meaning (Or, Missing that Sweet and Awful Place)

Over the past several years I have carved out an interesting role in planning and executing the musical elements of corporate worship at Christ Presbyterian Church in Oxford. Having long ago determined that I would rather spend most Sunday services worshiping alongside my family rather than occupying a role “up front” (I discussed this at length in a previous post), I have nevertheless been able to use my musical training in service to our church by typesetting all of the “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” that we take from various sources in a uniform format for placement in our bulletin. I like to think that this helps those in attendance to keep up with what is happening because they are not shuffling back and forth between a bulletin, a hymnal, and perhaps separate printouts of various newer songs with different fonts, etc. (We only print the melodies in the bulletins in order to save space, though, so those who want to sing parts will still want to find and use a hymnal.) While music literacy is regrettably low in our country, I like to think that providing all of the melodies and texts in our bulletins communicates even to those who do not read music that we are making a real effort to enable everyone to participate in congregational singing.

While my role is essentially secretarial and includes no real responsibilities as a liturgist, the elders and staff members who plan our liturgies have nevertheless periodically asked my opinion about the suitability of certain melodies and texts for our worship. Like many churches, our congregation has folks who complain weekly if the proportions of “traditional” and “contemporary” tunes are not to their liking, though I have said before (here, here, and here) and still believe that this whole debate misses the point. My emphasis is always on which texts are most edifying and which tunes best suit the texts and are easiest to sing, regardless of style. Nevertheless, I typically end up taking a rather conservative and traditionalist position on these questions, not so much because I don’t like new songs as because I am loath to see the church discard centuries of hymnody in the interest of contextualization. Having worship that is intelligible to the current generation is important, but maintaining a connection to those Christians who have gone before is important, too. It is a delicate balancing act to be sure, and while I am thankful that those who plan our liturgy value my opinion enough to ask for it on occasion, I am also glad that I am not the one ultimately making these decisions—and thus receiving the complaints!

One way that many churches in the Presbyterian and Reformed tradition of which I am a part have tried to balance the needs for both context and tradition is the setting of old texts to newer music. This started largely in our college ministries of a generation ago and has since become a major part of the “musical diet” of our churches. On the whole, this is a good thing. Some of the tunes are good, and some of them are actually more easily singable than the older melodies traditionally associated with those texts. Even where entirely new tunes have not been written, editors have in recent years made a regular practice of replacing archaisms in texts with more current usage, mostly replacing “thou” with “you” and similar changes where rhythm and meter are amenable to that. This also is mostly unobjectionable, though I’ll confess to often singing the archaic texts even when the newer versions are right in front of me.

Still, these updates are not always for the best. While the folks at Indelible Grace Music (which publishes the Reformed University Fellowship Hymnbook and associated resources) and others have written some good melodies, others sound too trite and sometimes even too much like commercial jingles to adequately bear the weight of the texts set to them. Remember, the test for a good hymn tune is not its age, but rather its singability and its suitability for the text being set. Sometimes there is simply a mismatch between text and music, and sometimes the newer tune is actually harder to sing for untrained singers than the older one. In these cases perhaps a better new tune would serve just fine, but we must always be careful not to discard the old just because it’s old. Sometimes, like a fine wine, the old is better.

Likewise when updating old texts. The replacing of “thou” with “you” is usually harmless, but there is nevertheless a clarity that comes from having different pronouns for second-person singular and plural, as well as a certain gravitas that accompanies the “King James-ish” usage. These aren’t the only words that are changed in newer hymnals, though. Consider the first verse of this favorite hymn:

How sweet and awful is the place
With Christ within the doors,
While everlasting love displays
The choicest of her stores.

While all our hearts and all our songs
Join to admire the feast,
Each of us cry, with thankful tongues,
“Lord, why was I a guest?

“Why was I made to hear thy voice,
And enter while there’s room,
When thousands make a wretched choice,
And rather starve than come?”

‘Twas the same love that spread the feast
That sweetly drew us in;
Else we had still refused to taste,
And perished in our sin.

Pity the nations, O our God,
Constrain the earth to come;
Send thy victorious Word abroad,
And bring the strangers home.

We long to see thy churches full,
That all the chosen race
May, with one voice and heart and soul,
Sing thy redeeming grace.

I’ve included the entire hymn text here for context, but I want to draw attention to the very first line, “How sweet and awful is the place.” The word “awful” here is used in an older sense, meaning not something that is “bad” but rather something that inspires reverence, that is “full of awe.” I like to think that the average congregant can figure this out from the context, but the editors of the current edition of the Trinity Hymnal (1990) disagreed, and changed the word to “awesome.” While the two words are technically synonymous, our society’s present colloquial usage of the word “awesome” is such that the desired meaning is lost. I am sympathetic to efforts to recover that word as one that should refer only to the majesty of the Almighty, but for the moment I’d rather have to take five seconds to remember when “awful” meant “full of awe” than to try to drum up that same feeling from the other word when just a few hours before I might have said “this is an awesome donut.” I fear that the change has actually brought about a loss of the desired meaning, though that was certainly not the intent of the editors who made the change.

Then again, maybe there’s a loss of meaning in both cases, especially considering that our society and even our churches rarely seem to appreciate or promote a real sense of reverence when engaging in God’s worship, regardless of the language used. That being the case, maybe I’ll just be glad that we sing a text with that message at all, whether “awful” or “awesome.”

But I’m still going to sing the original word, even if I’m the only one doing it!

Oh, and if you’re unfamiliar with this great hymn, here it is as sung at the Together for the Gospel conference several years ago.

Posted in Church, Music and Theology, Music and Worship, Practical Christianity, Presbyterianism, Worship

Fundamentals, Not Feelings: Part Two

For as long as we can remember my wife and I have had an occasional feeling of being “ecclesiastical misfits.” We often discuss a sense of differentness at church or parachurch gatherings, even among fellow believers with whom we are in total or near-total doctrinal agreement, but we have been unable to pinpoint the cause of that feeling. Unable, that is, until a few days ago.

At a fundraising luncheon for The Gideons International, of which we have proudly been members for nearly twelve years, all of the Gideons present were asked to stand and say a word about why they had become members of the association and continued to serve therein. (This made the meeting extraordinarily and excessively long, but I digress.) One by one men and women stood, each giving a rousing testimony of how he or she so greatly enjoyed the fellowship shared in the Gideon association and the good feelings experienced as a result of distributing Bibles and personal witnessing. This continued unabated until the last table was reached, and I stood to speak. My testimony was decidedly plainer. I said we joined the Gideons because we believed that spreading the Gospel was important (indeed, commanded by Christ), and that distributing Bibles was an effective way of going about it. We didn’t join the ministry for the fellowship or for the “good vibes,” but rather because we believed its mission to be in keeping with the commands of Christ.

That honest answer received no less rousing approval from those present than did the more emotionally-laden responses heard from the others, but it helped me to pinpoint just what it is that is different about my wife and me. You see, in our adult lives we have made nearly every decision about our religious affiliations and activities after periods of study, prayer, and discussion. For example, when we moved to Louisiana twelve years ago we chose to join a particular Southern Baptist church because we love God’s Word and the pastor there preached continuously through books of the Bible rather than topically. We left that church for a Reformed Baptist church plant because we had concluded that Calvinism was better aligned with what the Scriptures actually taught than was Arminianism, and later became Presbyterians because after continued prayer and study we came to that understanding of baptism and church government. After moving to Oxford we debated for some time which of the two PCA churches to attend. Having equally long lists of “pros and cons” for each after visiting both for several weeks, we made the simple and logical decision to join the one closer to our home. In fact, in sixteen years of marriage we have on only one occasion chosen a church to attend because someone there reached out to us, and even then it was a church with whose doctrine and practice we already agreed. We have rarely been motivated by feelings or relationships in our religious undertakings, but are instead motivated by a simple commitment to truth.

Maybe I’ve been missing the obvious for a very long time, but I am only now realizing that not everyone chooses religious affiliations and activities the way we do. Instead, many people visit churches because someone invites them. They stay because people are kind to them, or because they find the worship aesthetically pleasing, or because their kids have friends at that church. Likewise with other avenues of Christian service; people tend to gravitate to activities where they share good rapport with the other volunteers. This is not to say that such considerations don’t matter or that doctrinal concerns are unimportant to people—I don’t think anyone chooses a religion or denomination simply because “my friends are there”—but those doctrinal concerns are not always clearly in first place.

So, which approach is right? Actually, in the form that I’ve presented them, neither. On the one hand, a tendency to bookishness can create a Christianity that is too cerebral and rather off-putting to those who don’t like to study theology or quote long-dead theologians in regular conversation. The Reformed tradition is nothing if not intellectually vigorous, and a person like me can easily become swallowed up in Protestant versions of the proverbial “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin” debate while ignoring the real needs and opportunities for service lying before him. The Bible calls us to hospitality, community, and service, all callings which the solitary Christian in his study is sometimes far too quick to ignore. Christianity is an individual faith—God draws us unto himself as individuals—but it is not individualistic. God calls us to warmhearted fellowship with him and with one another. The calling to those of us who love the study of Christianity is to get our heads out of our books and to join in our corporate responsibilities of friendship and service.

On the other hand, even an unintentional and possibly unconscious elevation of feelings and relationships above doctrine will create its own problems. Of course, there is nothing wrong with enjoying fellowship with likeminded individuals and finding great fulfillment in diligent service. In fact, there is something very right about it—I would fully expect Christians to be more at home among fellow believers than among unbelievers (cf. 1 John 3:14), and to find unique fulfillment in following the direct command of Christ to share the Gospel (cf. Matthew 28:18-20). Nevertheless, if in sharing Christianity to those outside the faith or “on the margins” we emphasize camaraderie and personal fulfillment we present—perhaps inadvertently—a “gospel” that offers little that one cannot find in a civic organization, a fraternal society, or even another religion. The good feelings we derive from Christian fellowship and service must be grounded in something deeper.

Several months ago I posted an article here entitled “Fundamentals, Not Feelings.” In that article I noted a tendency among young musicians to prioritize emotional “highs” from music making above technical skill and diligent practice. In that article I suggested, as I often do to my students, that depending upon heightened emotional states to generate quality performances is an inconsistent method at best and a totally unreliable one at worst. The professional musician must be able to deliver a skilled and, yes, expressive performance regardless of his emotional state at the time. Much like actors, we must convey the emotive content of the piece being performed despite any contrary feelings that might be present. Interestingly enough, when we learn to do this the emotional highs do often come, but they come as a result of effective performance, not as a cause of such performance.

I see a parallel here with the Christian faith. Ours is a Word-based religion. We have the Holy Scriptures which claim to be the very Word of God and thus to convey to us God’s will for faith and life. The truth of the Scriptures is not dependent upon one’s feelings about or even belief in Christianity. Instead, if the Word is truly God-breathed (cf. 2 Timothy 3:16) then it is true and we are bound to obey it whether we are sad or happy, depressed or excited, lonely or surrounded by loving friends and family. It is therefore incumbent upon us to know what God’s Word says and then to join with the best churches and Christian ministries that we can in order to carry out its commands. And we are to do this not because we like the people and enjoy the work, but because God both demands and deserves our service. Just as for the musician—but on an infinitely higher level—the emotional highs will come as a result of faithful service grounded in the “fundamentals” of the faith as presented in Scripture, not as a cause of or motivation to the same.

And when we get this right, we should also expect to like the people and enjoy the work. That’s good—after all, we’re going to be spending eternity with these folks!

Posted in Bible, Calvinism, Christian Worldview, Church, Denominations, Doctrine, Practical Christianity, Presbyterianism, The Gideons International, Theology

Bass Trombone as the Primary Instrument: A Report

<i>The Low Brass Player's Guide to Doubling</i> by Micah Everett

For basically the entire year from May 2016 to May 2017 I moved from my usual practice of treating the large tenor trombone as my primary instrument to placing the bass trombone in that role. While for the entirety of that time I continued to play alto, tenor, and bass trombones, euphonium, and tuba in teaching and performance, an unusually low-note-heavy performing schedule for an extended period of time made this a sensible change. As I discuss in my 2014 book The Low Brass Player’s Guide to Doubling, I have found through experience that keeping multiple instruments on more or less equal footing does not work well for me. I am a more successful doubler when one of the instruments is treated as “home base” in terms of practice time and fundamental approach, while the other instruments are treated as departures from that primary instrument. At the same time, I do think that which instrument occupies the primary role can change as circumstances dictate. This was not my first time moving the bass trombone to the “top spot,” but it was the longest period of time for which I have done this.

At this point circumstances have changed somewhat and moving the large tenor back into the primary position is most prudent for my upcoming performing obligations. I’d like to reflect briefly on both positive and negative effects that I experienced from this extended shift in priorities.

On the positive side, the primary benefit was that I was better able to meet the performing obligations I had, including several bass trombone solo performances in prominent venues. The extra time focusing on that instrument’s sound and range yielded small but significant improvements, particularly with regard to tone quality and response in the extreme lower register. There was a bit of associated improvement in my tuba playing, as well. On a more conceptual level, the experience has reaffirmed my overall approach to doubling, especially the primary instrument/secondary instruments paradigm that I discussed above but also the idea that as long as all instruments are practiced regularly and the same tonal range is maintained on all one can enjoy reasonable success performing on multiple low brass instruments in the midst of a very efficient approach to daily practice. For the most part, any decline in my capabilities on the higher-pitched instruments was felt by me more than heard by others.

Nevertheless, there was some decline, particularly with regard to extended playing in the upper register. While I explored a full tonal range in excess of six octaves in my daily practice throughout this period, my efforts were still focused in the lower part of the range. I noticed that I was working a bit harder in my regular monthly gig as an orchestral first trombonist, but where I really noticed the change was playing lead trombone in a big band in late March/early April. Several hours per day of loud high-note playing took their toll, not so much in terms of embouchure fatigue (though there was some of that) but in excessive muscular effort throughout the upper body. I don’t think we realize just how much muscular effort is recruited from the back and torso for this kind of playing until we become out of shape in that way. As a back pain sufferer anyway, this experience was unpleasant, but also made me realize that more time in the upper register not only enhances my playing ability in that part of the range but likely also has a slight strengthening effect on muscles that are used for maintaining posture and other functions. Finally, recovery of my previous approach, with the large tenor as primary instrument, took a little longer than expected; it was a month or so before this once again felt “natural” to me.

On the whole, this balance of “positives and negatives” was precisely what I expected. I moved the bass trombone into the primary position precisely because I expected some moderate improvement in my skills on that instrument as a result, and I also expected a moderate “felt but not heard” decline in my upper register work. The only significant surprise was that a single occasion of extended high register work was more challenging than expected, but even then I was foolish for not spending extra time on my small-bore tenor trombone in the couple of weeks or so leading up to that engagement. The experience has vindicated the approach to doubling on multiple low brass instruments which I have used for nearly 20 years and which is presented in my book. It works!

(So why not go buy a copy for yourself……?)



Posted in Alto Trombone, Bass Trombone, Daily Routine, Doubling, Euphonium, Low Brass Resources, Method Books, Micah Everett, Music, Performing, Playing Fundamentals, Practicing, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, The Low Brass Player's Guide to Doubling, Trombone, Tuba