Four Considerations for Music Majors Transferring from Community Colleges

One peculiar aspect of teaching music at a university in Mississippi is that a large number of our students transfer here after spending one or two years (or more) at a community college. While the presence of community colleges and of transfer students is not unique to Mississippi, not every state has community colleges with large and active music departments, complete with highly qualified faculty, private lessons, ensembles (including marching band), theory courses, etc. While the transition from community college to university is relatively seamless for students in some majors, music students can find themselves repeating many or even all of their sophomore year music courses based upon the results of entrance auditions and exams. Here are four thoughts which might be of help to students hoping to make the transition as smooth and as free of repeated coursework as possible. The first two have to do with how university music faculty approach transfer students and the possible necessity of repeated work, while the second two contain suggestions regarding how students can get the most out of their time at community college and hopefully avoid repeating coursework. High school seniors deciding whether to go directly to the university or take advantage of the cost savings from starting at a two-year school might also find these ideas useful.

1. University music faculty want you to be great…for them. Speaking as a university faculty member whose teaching load is calculated by the individual student, I am in some ways happier to have a new freshman come into my studio than a new transfer student. I say this not because I do not gladly welcome transfer students (I do), but because when a student enters my studio as a freshman I will have that student filling a space in my assigned teaching load for a longer period of time. Beyond the “numbers game,” working with a student from the freshman year onward also gives me the greatest length of time to work with that student and help him or her to become a fine musician. Remember, when you receive a music degree from us you are entering the professional world bearing our imprimatur, as it were. The continued good name and reputation of our university, department, and faculty depends on the quality of our graduates, and we are not interested in sending students out into the world that are not the best musicians, teachers, etc. that they can possibly be. For the transfer student, if we think this goal will be best served by having you repeat a few courses, we will readily make this recommendation. Please, though, don’t think our motives are altogether selfish, because…

2. University music faculty want you to be great…for you. As a teacher, I often say that the truest measure of my success is not my playing ability, my knowledge of advanced pedagogical techniques, or my published writing or recording projects. Rather, the truest measure of my success is the success of my students in the professional world. The vast majority of students who pass through my studio are aspiring school band directors, and nothing is more professionally fulfilling for me than seeing students with whom I have worked for two, three, four, or more years go out into the world and use the tools with which I and my colleagues have provided them to build great band programs of their own. While not denying the selfish motivation I mentioned above, the goal of having students become successful for their own sakes is of much greater importance, and if we believe that the review and development of concepts and skills that comes from repeating some coursework will give a student the greatest chance of success, we will recommend that the student repeat those courses.

Students that are told to repeat some coursework should not be insulted by that requirement. Instead, if you are told to repeat something, take this apparent setback in the spirit in which it is intended: as a means of preparing you for the greatest possible success. Still, no student relishes the idea of repeating courses, so allow me to offer suggestions in the two areas that offer the greatest stumbling blocks for transfer students: music theory and applied music (lessons).

3. In music theory, take great notes, study hard, and find out what the university courses cover. Music theory is perhaps the area in which the greatest number of music transfer students find themselves repeating material. In some cases this has to do simply with poor preparation or study habits on the part of the student. If you are “barely getting by” in theory at the community college and studying very little, chances are that you are not truly mastering the material and will find your recall to be severely wanting when you take your theory placement exam at the university. Sometimes, though, even bright, diligent, well-prepared students show a deficiency in some area or another which leads to a recommendation that one or two semesters of theory be repeated. This might be due to some incongruity between the theory curricula at the two schools. Perhaps the courses at the university cover certain concepts that the comparable courses at the community college do not, or perhaps there is simply a difference in terminology used at the two institutions that might cause confusion. Reach out to students at the university that you know and ask them if you can see a syllabus or even some assignments to see what you need to be learning. You could even email the university theory faculty with your questions. Finally, check the music department website; there may be a study guide that can provide guidance. I have seen students avoid an entire year of repeated work simply by asking questions, finding information, and diligently reviewing their theory class notes for a few weeks before the placement exam is given.

4. In applied music, practice diligently, learn standard repertoire, and master your scales. As an applied music faculty member I have much more direct experience in this area, and I will say frankly that I rarely allow a transfer student to enroll in junior-level lessons the first semester. Most transfer students repeat the entire sophomore year of the lesson sequence; some repeat only one semester. Rarely is anyone set back farther than that. This is not to say that I would not gladly admit an adequately-prepared student at the junior level, and I have done so once or twice in the past. Most transfer auditions, though, display at least one of the following three deficiencies, and sometimes two or all three are present. The first is simply a lack of overall practice and preparation. A student who plays with an uncharacteristic sound, poor technique, poor sight reading ability, etc. will not be allowed to enter my studio as a junior. For trombone players I would add lack of skill reading tenor and alto clefs, and for euphonium players reading both treble and bass clefs. While in some cases the deficiency is due to some physical issue that needs to be addressed, most often the culprit is lack of diligent practice. Go to the woodshed and get to work!

The second deficiency in applied music is a lack of knowledge of standard repertoire. In some (though not all) cases, the applied teachers at community colleges are also the band directors or otherwise employed primarily in areas other than applied music, and might teach lessons on instruments that are only distantly related to their primary instruments in addition to ensemble conducting and/or other courses. No matter how good a musician this teacher is (and we have some very fine musicians teaching at our area community colleges), a single teacher with so many diverse teaching responsibilities can have gaps in his knowledge of each instrument’s performance and instructional repertoire, leading to similar deficiencies on the part of students. Check the websites of universities you are considering for completing your studies. Most will have suggested repertoire lists that will help you to familiarize yourself with appropriate materials.

(To the community college directors/teachers that might be reading this, again, please understand that I mean no disrespect. I have had some outstanding transfer students come through my studio, owing largely to great teaching at the community college level. I only mean that one only has so many hours in the day to keep up with current trends, repertoire, etc. in multiple areas of instruction. Drawing from my own experience, once upon a time I taught some theory courses in addition to low brass, and while I like to think I taught those courses competently I knew that I was not up to date on the latest scholarship, etc. in that field the way that I was with low brass. Some gaps are nearly unavoidable, even with diligent effort, because there simply isn’t enough time in the day to keep up with absolutely everything. I have trouble keeping up with new repertoire, pedagogical ideas, etc. with just the low brass instruments!)

Finally—and this is the most common reason that I hold students back—lack of mastery of major and minor scales and arpeggios. Nearly all of the university music departments with which I have been associated as a teacher or student have required that students demonstrate mastery of all major and minor (all forms) scales and arpeggios before beginning junior-level lessons, yet most of the transfer students that audition looking to be admitted as juniors are unfamiliar with minor scales. If you want to enter a university applied studio as a junior, be able to play, at minimum, any major or minor scale or arpeggio, from memory, on demand.


These thoughts are by no means a comprehensive list of considerations relevant to community college music students looking to transfer to a four-year institution, but hopefully they will provide helpful “food for thought” as you prepare for auditions and entrance exams. Also, please don’t think that starting at the university as a freshman is a surefire way of avoiding these potential problems. We just as readily demand repeated courses from current university students who don’t meet certain standards as we do transfers, and have often done so–there are no double standards.  Whether you choose to start at a community college or go to a university immediately after high school, good, old-fashioned hard work will be required if you want to be successful. Good luck!

Posted in Auditions, Community Colleges, Education, Higher Education, Music, Music Theory, Practicing, Repertoire, Scales and Arpeggios, Teaching Low Brass, Uncategorized

Finding Strength in Weakness: A Comparison Between Brass Playing and the Christian Life

 

Weakness is your friend. Strength is your enemy. Blow air, don’t ‘support’ it. –Arnold Jacobs (1915-1998)

Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth! (Psalm 46:10)

Those who have followed this blog for any length of time (or who simply look at the blurb at the top right of each page) know that my writing and thinking reflects my unusual combination of interests in brass music and Reformed theology. As a professional low brass player and teacher I most often post articles in that realm, and perhaps because I have a small degree of recognized expertise in music those posts are by far the most frequently read and shared. My theological writing is amateurish by comparison, but thinking through those things enough to write on them is edifying to me and hopefully to the few readers of those articles. Given my divergent interests, the rare occasions that I am able to find connections between the two areas and write about them are particularly enjoyable. This week’s brief reflection is one of those posts.

As a young undergraduate student really just learning about the broader musical world beyond high school band I had not been at the university long before I became aware of the great Chicago Symphony Orchestra tubist and brass pedagogue Arnold Jacobs (1915-1998). In a recent post I mentioned my resolve to travel to Chicago to take a lesson with him, and my disappointment when the realization of that desire was prevented by his death. The brass community’s interest in Jacobs’s teaching has not diminished in the nearly twenty years since his passing, and my own playing and teaching have been greatly influenced for the better by his teachings, some of which I have learned, forgotten, and relearned several times over the years.

One of my most helpful rediscoveries of a Jacobs concept in the past few months has been the importance of weakness in great brass playing. Many brass players, myself included, tend to work too hard physically when playing. Rather than enhancing tone quality, technical execution, or musical effect, this extra effort is unproductive at best, and at worst can be deleterious to both musical results and the player’s physical well-being. While Jacobs was his generation’s preeminent expert on the physiology of brass playing and was able to correct sometimes serious physical deficiencies in the players he taught, often the problems he encountered were the result of players expending a great deal of physical, muscular effort when all that was needed was the free movement of air from a relaxed body through a relaxed embouchure, all informed by signals from the brain which were primarily musical in nature rather than physical. I wrote at greater length about this a couple of years ago, referencing Jacobs’s teaching in particular. The greatest brass players perform from a position of relative weakness, not strength, and yet produce a vibrant, robust, powerful sound. “Weakness is your friend. Strength is your enemy.”

While the comparison might be a bit of a stretch, I see a similarity between this concept in brass playing and how one enters and then progresses in the Christian life. Man’s impulse is to try to somehow merit favor with God through his own works, a reality reflected in most of the world’s belief systems. Christianity uniquely acknowledges that Man’s fallenness renders him unable to merit God’s favor. Even if one were to resolve from a certain point in his life to serve God diligently and perfectly—and actually succeeded in doing so—he would only be rendering God his due for that period of time without doing anything at all to discharge the sin-debt already incurred. Jesus illustrated the impossibility of “working off” the consequences of one’s sin in the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18:21-35). The figure quoted to the first servant, ten thousand talents, was an extraordinarily large amount of money, something like 150,000 years’ salary for a common laborer. Our Lord was here using a bit of hyperbole (who, after all, would loan a servant that much money, if it even existed?) to demonstrate the impossibility of ever meriting God’s favor by our own efforts. If we are to receive God’s favor and enter his presence in the next life, we must receive forgiveness based upon the merits of another. Happily, the Lord Jesus, through his life, death, burial, and resurrection, has purchased that forgiveness and merited eternal life for all who repent and believe in him.

While acknowledging the scriptural truth that those who receive Christ’s salvation will in turn do good works commensurate with that (James 2), there is a difference between rendering willing and joyful service to the God who has saved us by grace through faith, and striving with great toil to seek to placate an angry God through our own efforts. The brass player who learns to play from a position of weakness finds that the use of “song and wind” (a classic Jacobs concept) finds music making to be a pleasurable, joyful experience rather than a difficult and even painful one. Likewise (and forgive me if the comparison seems a bit tortured) the believer who rests upon Christ to receive forgiveness of sin and eternal life finds willing service to God to be a pleasurable and joyful experience, rather than the difficult, painful—yea, impossible—task of meriting favor with God on his own. “Be still”—cease striving—the psalmist said. Or, as our Lord himself said,

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:28-30)

Indeed, the Apostle Paul found that it was in his weakness that Christ’s strength shined forth.

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. (2 Corinthians 12:9)

Rather than heavy and laborious toil, in Christ’s yoke—in his easy and light service—we find strength and rest.

 

Posted in Arnold Jacobs, Assurance, Music and Theology, Pedagogy, Practical Christianity, Salvation, Teaching Low Brass

The “KAT” of Faith

For my first post following a nearly two-month hiatus I am going to briefly visit an idea which was first brought to my attention several years ago when taking systematic theology classes online from Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, and of which I was reminded during a recent sermon. Assurance of salvation is sometime a touchy subject in churches and in discussions among Christians. Those who have never struggled in this area are sometimes perplexed by their brothers and sisters who do, and those who struggle with it (as I sometimes do, despite having first professed faith in Christ nearly thirty years ago) do not always understand those who have always seemed at ease regarding their standing in Christ. Whatever your individual struggles (or lack thereof) in this area, at the very least we should be able to agree that we must examine ourselves to see if we are in the faith (2 Corinthians 13:5), to make our calling and election sure (2 Peter 1:10). While biblical exhortations in this area often direct us to look to our own works, thoughts, and manner of life as evidences of salvation, surely part of this self-examination involves simply understanding what saving faith is, what its elements are. In my studies and in the recent sermon to which I alluded mention was made of three elements: knowledge, assent, and trust, which I have somewhat humorously abbreviated as KAT. Let us examine each of these elements briefly.

1. Knowledge. Saving faith includes knowledge of its object, namely the Lord Jesus Christ, and his life, death, and resurrection. Paul wrote to the believers in Corinth “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). Paul reminded the Corinthians that saving faith begins with knowledge of the facts of the Gospel, that this God-Man Jesus Christ came to earth, died for our sins, and was raised again, all in accordance with biblical prophecy. In an age which often holds up faith as a virtue without regard to the object in which that faith is placed, we will do well to remember that saving faith is impossible if we know nothing of the Christ in whom we must believe in order to be saved.

We must also remember that knowledge alone will not save. Plenty of folks have at least a passing knowledge of the gospel—some even have studied the scriptures for years—but do not go any further. Knowledge is necessary, but alone it is not sufficient, so let us continue.

2. Assent. Besides knowing the facts surrounding Jesus Christ and the contents of the gospel, in order to be saved we must assent to them; we must acknowledge them to be true. Continuing in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul wrote “and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me” (1 Corinthians 15:5-8). Paul developed his argument not by speaking of his feelings or emotions, or even of God’s great promises in Christ, but he builds a forensic case for the claims he has made regarding Christ. He says in effect, “You must believe in Jesus Christ in order to be saved. Here are the truths about him. These are events that actually happened, not some vague merely ‘religious belief’ with no connection to objective reality. Don’t believe me? There are 500 eyewitnesses out there. Ask them.” Paul wrote during the lifetimes of eyewitnesses to Jesus Christ who could have proved him wrong if he were lying. He tells his readers both then and now that the gospel is not just a “good story” about a “good man” who might or might not have lived but in any case is a good example. He really lived, really died, and really rose again, for us. Saving faith includes believing that this is actually so.

This also, though, is not sufficient. James wrote that even Satan and his demons know and believe the gospel, but this does not save them—they tremble at it! (James 2:19). There is one more element for us to consider.

3. Trust. We must not only know about Christ and believe the facts about him; we must also trust that the Christ so revealed to us is both able and willing to deliver the salvation he promises to all who repent and believe. I once heard the type of trust to which I am referring illustrated as follows:

There once was a man, I believe with Wycliffe Bible Translators, who was working on developing a new Bible translation for a people group who had not only not had the scriptures in their language previously but perhaps had not even had a written language at all before. These missionaries sometimes work for decades developing written languages for non-literate cultures before finally providing them with the written Word of God. As this gentleman was making progress on how to communicate biblical concepts to this people he was frustrated at not finding in their language an adequate word for “faith.” Then one day, he and his guide came to an old rope bridge which seemed hopelessly unstable, yet they had to cross it in order to reach their destination. After several unsuccessful attempts, the guide told the missionary to “lean to” the bridge. Sure enough, once the man trusted the bridge with his full weight the ropes tightened and he was able to cross. That word for “lean to” became the translator’s word for “faith” in this people’s new Bible.

Saving faith involves knowledge of the facts of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, assent to the truth of these, and trust that the Christ therein will save. The sinner willing to “lean to” him will happily find him a willing, able, and sufficient Savior, for this life and for that which is to come.

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:28-30)

 

Posted in Assurance, Bible, Christian Worldview, Practical Christianity, Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, Salvation, Theology, Uncategorized

Great Books: C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy

Clive Staples Lewis (1898-1963)

Clive Staples Lewis (1898-1963)

Though he lacked formal training as a theologian and did not claim that title for himself, Clive Staples Lewis (1898-1963) is rightly remembered as one of the twentieth century’s greatest Christian writers. His works on theology—or, perhaps more properly, Christian philosophy—such as The Abolition of Man (1943) and Mere Christianity (1952) brought deep thinking about God, man, and man’s relationship to God and to one another to a level accessible to the lay reader. Lewis’s use of a conversational style in such works reminds me a bit of the way in which the great American Presbyterian theologian J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937) wrote in his works for lay readers, and with similar effect. Men and women not formally trained in theology were brought to a place where they, too, could begin to ponder their faith and its implications on a deeper level. This was a great benefit to the church as a whole.

Despite his great benefit, Lewis must be read with some care, as his views on certain areas of theology were not entirely orthodox. By training and profession Lewis was a professor of medieval literature, and this training is brought to bear particularly upon the last volume of the trilogy of novels I am presently considering. The Space Trilogy, written in the 1930s and 1940s, is an important and refreshing contribution to a genre in which Christians have not generally excelled (at least not in a manner which expressly reflects a Christian worldview): science fiction. These three novels are not allegorical in the way that The Chronicles of Narnia series (1950-1956) is, but important Christian themes are at the forefront throughout, particularly that of the cosmic battle between good and evil which Scripture tells us is always taking place around us, and even in us and through us. Although less well-known than Narnia, in my opinion the Space Trilogy is more important, as instead of allegorizing individual conversion and Christian living we see a fictitious expression of that epic struggle between the Seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent.

In the first novel, Out of the Silent Planet (1938), we meet Elwin Ransom, a Cambridge philologist and the protagonist of the entire trilogy, who is kidnapped and taken to Mars by Edward Weston and Dick Devine, who believe that they must provide a human sacrifice to the inhabitants of Mars (or Malacandra, as the inhabitants of that world call it) in order to gain access to the planet and its natural resources. Ransom overhears his captors discussing this during the journey, and escapes not long after their arrival. He encounters three sentient species on Malacandra: hrossa, séroni, and pfiftriggi, each with differing physical characteristics and cultures, but with one important similarity: Malacandra has never experienced a Fall; the world and its inhabitants are entirely free from sin. Upon speaking with the Oyarsa, or angel, ruling over this planet, Ransom learns that there is regular communication between the angels of the different planets of the solar system with one exception: Thulcandra, or as we call it, Earth. The angel of that world is “bent,” a reference to Satan’s rebellion and his later leading man into sin, as well. Oyarsa is fascinated by Christ’s saving work on that world, something “into which angels long to look.” When Weston and Devine are captured, Ransom hardly recognizes them at first; after spending time with the sinless inhabitants of Malacandra, those sinful men even look distorted to Ransom’s eyes. After Ransom makes clear to Malacandra’s inhabitants that Weston and Devine’s plans are in no way benevolent or righteous, they are banished from that world. Ransom is given the option to remain, but opts to return to Earth with a promise of Oyarsa’s protection during the journey.

Perelandra (1943), known to us as Venus, is in an entirely different state of development, with sentient life having just been created there in the form of one male-female pair. Oyarsa sends Ransom there with a mission to prevent that pair from falling into sin. He arrives to find a fascinating topography: the world consists of floating islands which are constantly in motion save for one mountain, which remains fixed. The two sentient inhabitants of that world (Perelandra’s “Adam and Eve”) have but one directive from God: they are not to sleep on the Fixed Land (that world’s “forbidden fruit”). Shortly after Ransom’s arrival, Weston arrives in a spaceship, and after nearly or actually dying is obviously and dramatically possessed by the Devil himself, who sets about trying to tempt the woman into disobeying the prohibition of sleeping on the Fixed Land. Ransom knows that he must intervene, and fights with Satan/Weston even into the depths of Perelandra. He emerges victorious and raises a marker to memorialize Weston, who despite being a thoroughly ungodly individual was a man of tremendous scientific achievement. Having succeeded in preventing Perelandra’s Fall, he remains for some time to recuperate, though the wound from a bite on his heel never heals. He is then returned to Earth using the same type of miraculous conveyance that transported him to Venus.

That Hideous Strength (1945) is quite a departure from the other books. It takes place entirely on Earth and even in Britain, but the same cosmic forces that are at work in the other novels are here as well. As the novel opens the action is centered around Bracton College in the University of Edgestow, where Mark Studdock is a senior fellow in sociology. An organization called the National Institute for Coordinated Experiments (N.I.C.E.) is trying to convince the college to sell a portion of land to the organization. Interestingly, this land is said to be the final resting place of Merlin (from the Arthurian legends). Lord Feverstone, a N.I.C.E. insider, acts as if he is befriending Studdock and even offers him a position at N.I.C.E. Feverstone is later revealed to be the same Dick Devine from Out of the Silent Planet, just as we are beginning to understand just how devious this man and his organization are.

Meanwhile, Jane Studdock, Mark’s wife, is having terrible nightmares which are gradually revealed to be revelations of the devious activities inside N.I.C.E. She is rightly suspicious and does not like Mark’s increasing involvement with the organization, and their marriage begins to deteriorate. After seeking counsel from a friend, Jane encounters a group headed by Ransom, who by now is strangely youthful in appearance thanks to his rejuvenation on Perelandra yet has a depth and gravity that shows his true age and wisdom. He is in communication with the Oyéresu of the different planets and is later revealed to be the heir of the Pendragon line. This shows Lewis’s background as a medievalist, and also is important for later events in the novel.

N.I.C.E. is a powerful expression of the type of scientific technocracy which denies God, Christ, and in a real sense even humanity in order to gain greater control over man, nature, and society. At its deepest levels, N.I.C.E. is downright Satanic, and the reader understands that Lewis believed much of modernity to be Antichristian in the biblical sense. One of the organization’s objectives is to find and revive Merlin, hence its interest in that piece of land at Bracton College. Merlin is revived, but is not captured by N.I.C.E. Instead, he is revealed to have been a Christian, and joins with Ransom and his group to overthrow the institute’s plans. Humorously, the officials at N.I.C.E. encounter a tramp who they believe to be Merlin; the tramp plays along in order to keep being well-fed. Merlin eventually does come to N.I.C.E., empowered by the Oyéresu, and engineers through miraculous means the overthrow of that Satanic organization, which is then further destroyed by earthquakes which also kill Feverstone/Devine.

Mark Studdock gradually came to understand that N.I.C.E. was evil, and finally resisted and rejected it. Aided by Merlin, he is guided to the place where Jane has stayed with Ransom and his company, and finds a bridal chamber where the now Christian couple consummates their restored marriage. Ransom, meanwhile, prepares to return to Perelandra.


These brief summaries I have provided only scratch the surface, of course, but I hope they will whet your appetite to read this wonderful series of novels. Again, there is no allegory here, and That Hideous Strength does get a bit weird, but Lewis’s expression of that great battle between God and Satan though three exciting works of science fiction is truly ingenious, and difficult to put down. Those who object to the idea of life on Mars or Venus should remember that these novels were written before the age of space exploration which revealed the actual conditions on those worlds, and in any case the novels are fiction and should be enjoyed as such. Highly recommended.


I’ll be taking the month of December off from blogging in order to focus on some other projects and to simply enjoy some rest. God willing, I will return to writing in early to mid-January.

Posted in Book Reviews, Books, C.S. Lewis, Practical Christianity, Theology, Uncategorized

Solo!

Today’s post is a rare mid-week offering, though it is mostly the material that I had originally planned to share on November 6 or 7. I wasn’t able to get the videos from my November 2 recital British Invasion! up in time for that, but perhaps that turned out for the best as the delay has allowed me to include additional recordings from the University of Mississippi Low Brass Ensembles concert on November 14 and the University of Mississippi Wind Ensemble concert on November 19, both of which included trombone solo pieces which I performed. As with all live performances, there are a few occasional blemishes. A sticky valve in one place, one miscounted rest (to my shame—I had become a bit distracted), and the occasional “bobbles” and “cacks” that are an unfortunate part of performing challenging literature on brass instruments. I have a very young trombone ensemble this year with lots of new students; I am pleased with their work thus far though they still have some growing to do. I am looking forward to seeing them do bigger and greater things as they mature.

Anyway, enough “throwing myself under the bus.” These were good performances. I enjoyed playing them, and I hope you will enjoy watching and listening.

Gordon Jacob (1895-1984): Trombone Concerto, Movement I (with Stacy Rodgers, piano)

Gordon Jacob (1895-1984): Trombone Concerto, Movement II (with Stacy Rodgers, piano)

Gordon Jacob (1895-1984): Trombone Concerto, Movement III (with Stacy Rodgers, piano)

Ray Steadman-Allen (1922-2014): The Eternal Quest (with Stacy Rodgers, piano)

Joseph Horovitz (b. 1926): Euphonium Concerto, Movement I (with Stacy Rodgers, piano)

Joseph Horovitz (b. 1926): Euphonium Concerto, Movement II (with Stacy Rodgers, piano)

Joseph Horovitz (b. 1926): Euphonium Concerto, Movement III (with Stacy Rodgers, piano)

Philip Sparke (b. 1951): Aubade (with Stacy Rodgers, piano)

Peter Graham (b. 1958): Brillante (with Stacy Rodgers, piano)
*Includes a special and very appropriate change of attire. :)

James Kazik (b. 1974): Sanctuary (with University of Mississippi Trombone Ensemble; David Cuevas, conductor)

Arthur Pryor (1870-1942): Fantastic Polka (with University of Mississippi Wind Ensemble; David Willson, conductor)

Posted in Euphonium, Performances, Tenor Trombone, Trombone Ensembles, Uncategorized

The Rule of Rules in Music

Music is usually thought of as an emotive art form. People participate in music individually, communally, or in performance to communicate ideas, to express feelings, and even to experience an emotional release of some kind. Skilled performers are able to evoke desired feelings from even the most passive of listeners. It is right to think of music in this way, if a bit simplistic.

Despite the importance of emotion in music, the best musicians do not allow their inner emotional states to dictate the quality or emotive content of a performance. The uninitiated reader might be surprised or even dismayed to find out that the communication of happiness, sadness, anger, and any other feeling whether intense or subdued can and usually is programmed by the performer, who uses various musical devices to create desired types of musical expression—and stir up certain reactions in the listener—regardless of his or her emotional state during the performance. The need for this ability in vocal and dramatic music is obvious—otherwise how can one hope to perform a happy role like that of Papageno after receiving news of a loved one’s serious illness, or how could a joyful newlywed sing a stereotypical country song with the requisite lament? Even when performing absolute music, expressive devices must be planned to some extent or another, lest the performer fail to communicate any feeling to the listener except that of his or her own performance anxiety. In an important sense, every musician—even the instrumentalist—must to some degree become an actor.

While this practice of “programming expression” might sound complicated, it usually isn’t. In most cases, following a few simple rules will enable instrumentalists to find the appropriate expressive devices for a given piece. My students are quite accustomed to hearing directives such as these:

  • Emphasize longer notes over shorter ones, and allow series of shorter notes to lead to and from longer ones.
  • Crescendo slightly during the first half of the phrase, and diminuendo slightly in the second half.
  • Push the tempo ahead slightly in the first half of the phrase, and pull back slightly in the second half.
  • Overdo all of the above devices in the practice room, as the presence of one’s instructor, accompanist, or audience will usually have a moderating effect.
  • Plan to take breaths in the places where the music “breathes” or pauses, not simply where one feels like breathing.

Honestly, following the above five rules and observing all of the written expressive markings will go a long way toward creating the optimal expressive effect for just about any piece. Similarly, execution (especially tuning) can be boiled down to a few easily-remembered rules:

  • Major thirds must be lowered, minor thirds raised, and perfect fifths raised. (Other chord tones have rules governing their needed adjustments as well, but these three are the most vital to know.)
  • Brass players must learn the overtone series charts for their instruments, and the tuning tendencies of each partial. The fifth (must be raised), sixth (must be lowered), and seventh (must be raised very much; unusable on brass instruments except trombone) are perhaps the most important to know well.
  • The above two sets of tuning rules will in some cases either compound, thus increasing the needed adjustment, or negate one another, eliminating the need for any tuning adjustments.
  • Tuning rules should be applied both harmonically in ensembles, and melodically within one’s own playing.
  • When playing with piano the perfect intonation that is theoretically possible when playing in other types of ensembles cannot be achieved, due to the compromises inherent in piano tuning. Besides, given that the brass player can adjust pitch during performance and the pianist can’t, the responsibility for matching the piano rests with the brass player, even if this requires negating other tuning rules.
  • With regard to articulation, to achieve a given type of attack the tongue stroke will be softer in the lower register and harder in the upper register. (I recognize that the latter suggestion is contrary to “received wisdom,” but I have often found it to be the case.)
  • The most important element of good legato tonguing or slurring is the maintenance of constant airflow—and thus constant buzz—through the duration of the passage.

These rules for expression and execution are starting to sound like quite a bit to remember, and this isn’t even a comprehensive list! In practice, though, remembering this is not all that difficult, and ultimately saves a lot of effort wasted through trial-and-error methods of figuring out how to execute a passage or improve its emotive effect. Still, as helpful as these rules are they must always bow to what I am calling here “The Rule of Rules in Music” or just “The Ultimate Rule.” Here it is:

If it sounds good, it is good.

The advantage of having “usually-applicable” rules for effecting expressive devices or technical execution is that much of the guesswork is removed from musical interpretation and performance. However, sometimes the rules don’t work, and students are often stumped in these cases. Perhaps two or more of these rules conflict with each other, or maybe a particular piece contains unusual compositional devices or requires extended techniques. Perhaps doing the thing that usually works simply sounds bad in a certain piece. In these cases, the regularly-applied rules must be modified or discarded and the “Rule of Rules” applied. Experiment until you find an approach that yields a desirable sound. If you are a student, trust that your teacher will give you some guidance, but be willing to experiment between lessons and see if a departure from the usual approach leads to a better result. A good teacher will appreciate your willingness to think, experiment, and search for creative solutions to expressive or technical difficulties, even when some correction is needed.

“If it sounds good, it is good.” Whatever formulas musicians might devise to improve the technical or emotive aspects or performance, these must ultimately give way to the “Rule of Rules.” Too simplistic? I don’t think so. In fact, I think it stands as a partial but legitimate application of a nearly two-millennia-old directive, one which holds particular importance for Christian musicians like myself but might be at least appreciated by others:

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (Philippians 4:8)

We as musicians are in the business of creating beautiful sounds, sounds which stir listeners’ emotions, engage their minds, and in the best music even point in a small way to the beauty, order, goodness, and excellence of the Creator. And yet we too often become so tangled in minutia that we obsess over rules and forget the most important things. Beautiful sounds. Edify the listener. Glorify God.

“If it sounds good, it is good.”

Posted in Pedagogy, Performing, Teaching Low Brass

The Old Man at the Music Store was Right!

Arban

Joseph Jean-Baptiste Laurent Arban (1825-1889)

Although this habit seemed mundane to me at the time, one of the greatest boons to my musical development as a teenager was driving to the nearby music stores and looking through the available sheet music. Back then Mississippi was still granting drivers licenses to fifteen-year-olds, so I would have begun this particular habit sometime during or just before my sophomore year in high school, and I continued it on a fairly regular basis until leaving for college, and resumed when I was at home for winter and summer breaks. Wright Music Company (which no longer exists) on Highway 80 in Jackson had by far the best collection of advanced materials for low brass among the local stores—I still have the copies of the Hindemith Sonata and Creston Fantasy that I purchased after thumbing through the file drawer of trombone solos and finding them there. Both pieces were far beyond me then but in subsequent years I performed both from those same copies I bought from Mr. Wright. Mississippi Music had a respectable selection of sheet music back then in the old store on Robinson Road, and Ball Music in Pearl (also no longer in business) always kept a few things in stock, particularly method books.

Arban Book

My preferred trombone/euphonium edition of the Arban book.

One particular visit to Ball Music in either 1993 or 1994 remains a very powerful memory over twenty years later. Although I can’t remember exactly when it occurred, I remember what I bought, what Mr. Ball said to me, and what I was thinking at the time. In hindsight, I also realize how foolish I was, and how right Mr. Ball was. My teacher, Debra Johnson, had sent me to Mr. Ball to purchase my first Arban book. Jean-Baptiste Arban (1825-1889) was the cornet professor at the Paris Conservatory during the mid-nineteenth century, and first published his famous Complete Method for that instrument in 1864. This hefty volume is a treasure trove of study materials, definitely favoring the “technical” aspects of playing over the “musical” ones but still having some useful material for studying phrasing. It has appeared in numerous editions for trumpet/cornet, trombone/baritone/euphonium, and tuba over the past 150 years, and despite some rather dated ideas in Arban’s original instructions the exercises themselves are held in high regard by brass players and teachers throughout the world.

“Teenager Micah” didn’t know any of that, though. I had been told by my teacher to get this book (and warned that it was large and somewhat expensive), and so I set about getting a copy. When I walked in and asked Mr. Ball about the book he walked over to the display where the book was, handed me a copy, and said to me “Young man, you will use this book for the rest of your life.” I have to admit that my first thought when he said that was “Yeah, right, old man. I’m gonna pass this one off just like I did all of the other books I’ve been assigned so far.” I was a teenager, after all, and “knew everything.” I was a polite teenager, though, and had been taught to show respect to adults, so I didn’t voice that thought aloud. I thanked Mr. Ball, paid for the book, and went home to practice using my ill-fated folding music stand, which did not long survive having that massive tome placed on it.

In my defense, my experience with method books to that point was limited to the old First Division Band Method, the Rubank Elementary Method, the two volumes of Gerald Bordner’s Practical Studies for Trombone, and exercises we played during band rehearsals. With all of these I would simply pass off materials and move ahead. Repeating exercises was rare, and seemed unnecessary. I simply didn’t have a category for etudes and studies that would yield benefits from repeated study over many years. I soon would, though, as Mr. Ball’s words to me have repeatedly proven to be profoundly correct since that evening in his little store. Not only has repeated practice of the materials as written (in the trombone version) been helpful, but Arban’s studies were a big part of helping me to first develop my doubling chops on euphonium, then bass trombone (mostly by playing the scale studies down one or more octaves), and now tuba. When I was preparing to record my bass trombone album a couple of years ago I spent hours playing Arban exercises down one and two octaves, both to strengthen my low register and to build stamina in my left arm for holding up that heavy and awkwardly-balanced instrument during long recording sessions. While I vary the amount of playing along with students that I do during their weekly lessons, my students both present and past will tell you that I rarely leave my instrument on its stand when Arban is on the agenda for that lesson. I almost always play along, both to provide an example for the student and simply because I will benefit from another trip through those exercises.

These days few brick-and-mortar music stores keep substantial amounts of sheet music in stock. To be sure, the online dealers have both better selection and better pricing than most local businesses could ever hope to match, and the efficiency and convenience of a quick online catalog search to find and purchase a desired item is wonderful. Still, there’s something about thumbing through file cabinets in the corner of a store and discovering major works for one’s instrument that my students today will never know in the way that I did, and that is a loss worth mourning.

And so is the loss of wise words spoken from an experienced music store owner to an ignorant kid who has no idea what a great treasure he has just acquired.

Posted in Jean-Baptiste Arban, Playing Fundamentals, Practicing, Repertoire, Teaching Low Brass