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

This week I am reposting, for the fourth year, one of the more popular posts on this blog. With high school students are preparing for auditions for all-state groups and similar ensembles around this time of year, posting this article every fall seems appropriate.

Let me also remind Mississippi band students that I have posted a series of videos on my Ole Miss website specifically related to preparing low brass players to audition for the Mississippi Lions All-State Band. While some of the material below repeats information covered in those videos, the ideas here are intended to be more broadly applicable, both to students that play other instruments, and to those taking auditions in other states. Teachers, please feel free to share these ideas with your students if you think they will be helpful.

1. Keep your instrument in optimum working condition.
This should be obvious, but often a student’s playing is hindered by a slide that doesn’t move well, frozen piston valves, noisy rotary valves, etc. If your instrument has a problem of some kind, have your band director or private teacher check it. Perhaps all that is needed is a thorough cleaning, or a minute adjustment. If your teacher is unable to resolve the problem, take your instrument to be serviced by a qualified technician.

When your instrument is in good working order, make sure to clean and lubricate it regularly. Often mechanical problems that can “make or break” an audition are the result of a lack of proper care and maintenance, and these always seem to occur at the most inopportune time. Regular maintenance will not only prevent damage, but will make your instrument easier and more fun to play, help your practice sessions to be more productive, and very likely lead to success in the audition.

2. Practice. Every day.
When you’re not practicing, one of your competitors is. The students that earn the top chairs in all-state auditions have a disciplined and consistent approach to practice, often practicing for 10 to 15 hours per week (or about 1.5 to 2 hours per day), if not more. I recommend conceiving of your practice time in terms of a weekly schedule rather than a daily one, as this has the advantage of allowing you to plan for days that you might not be able to practice as much (because of band festivals, extra homework, church activities, etc.) and compensate by practicing more on the days when you have more time available. Do make sure that you do at least some practicing every day, though. Even 10-20 minutes on an extremely busy day is better than nothing.

3. Begin each day with a thorough warm-up/maintenance routine.
Some time each day should be spent on playing fundamentals, including breathing exercises, mouthpiece buzzing exercises, long tones, articulation exercises, lip slurs, and range extension exercises. Make sure that you have some way of systematically addressing each of these areas every day, seeking to both maintain and extend your fundamental playing skills. Some routines that I have constructed for this purpose can be found here.

4. Spend 20-50% of your practice time on playing fundamentals.
Continuing with the previous thought, the ideal “warm-up” routine contains much more material than the body needs to be ready to play a band rehearsal or even give a concert. Rather, successful players spend a significant portion of their practice time working on fundamental skills like those mentioned above. In my own playing I have found that the more time I spend on developing fundamental playing skills, the less time I need to spend in order to prepare actual repertoire for performance or auditions. And, since these fundamental skills apply to essentially every piece of music, I do not have to “reinvent the wheel” every time I learn a new piece. Instead, I am able to quickly discern what skills and techniques are needed for a given piece and immediately apply them, thus greatly reducing the amount of practice needed to learn and master a new piece of music. This means that I am able to cover a very large amount of music in each practice session.

When you are preparing for an important audition or performance, aim for spending at least 20% of your practice time (approximately 12 minutes of a one-hour practice day or 24 minutes of a two-hour practice day) on fundamentals. If you have nothing “big” coming up, consider spending as much as 50% of your practice time on fundamentals. This can seem repetitive at times, but it pays huge dividends for your playing in the future!

5. Play everything with the best sound you can produce.
Ambitious high school students tend to place a lot of emphasis on range and speed; to use a common expression, playing “higher, faster, and louder.” This tendency is not altogether bad, as one of the purposes of activities like all-state auditions is to push students to extend their technical capabilities on their instruments. However, it is easy to forget that none of these things really matter if one plays with a poor or uncharacteristic tone.

I often illustrate this concept to my students by playing “Flight of the Bumblebee” on the trombone. By most accounts, this is a difficult technical feat. The first time I play it, I play with a good, characteristic trombone sound, and students are usually quite impressed. But then, I play it a second time, this time with an extremely poor sound. I’m playing just as quickly, double-tonguing just as much, and moving the slide just as accurately, and yet students usually find this second performance to be rather unimpressive. Nobody cares how “high, fast, and loud” you can play if your sound is poor.

Make a concerted effort to play everything with the best sound you can produce. Even scales can sound great, and since scales are usually the first things played in an audition, you can set a positive tone (sorry) for the entire audition by playing them with a good sound. Then maintain that great sound through the prepared pieces and sight reading. This will certainly improve your score for the entire audition.

6. Memorize your scales, and practice them at least once per day. They have to be automatic!
Scales are a big part of every all-state audition, and yet they are so often played poorly. Successful students memorize all of their scales (this is required in most states, including Mississippi, but some states allow the use of a scale sheet during the audition, unfortunately). If you don’t have your scales memorized yet, make this a priority—you don’t want to enter the audition room still unsure about one or more of the required scales.

When the audition is several weeks or even months away, it is helpful to practice your scales slowly, in order to foster playing with a great tone quality (see above), and playing in tune. As you increase in proficiency, keep working to play faster, but if intonation or tone quality begin to suffer, return to practicing slowly. The goal is to play fast, AND in tune, AND with a good sound.

Most band students are more familiar with the “flat” scales than with the “sharp” scales. This makes sense, as most band music is written in “flat keys” (at least when referring to “concert” pitch). If you are having trouble with certain keys, then practice those scales twice as much as the ones with which you are more familiar. When you walk into the audition room, you want to be equally comfortable—or at least sound like you are equally comfortable—with every scale.

Regarding range, in some states all students play each scale in the same prescribed range. In others (including Mississippi), students are rewarded for pursuing extra octaves. If yours is a “prescribed range” state, then make sure you can play all of the scales in the prescribed range. Playing less than that will result in a huge deduction from your score. If your state rewards extra octaves, then play as many octaves as you can in the allotted time, but do not attempt range that you cannot play well every time. Hearing a student “nail” a “high R-sharp” is always impressive, and that student will earn a high score. However, the student that strains and reaches for that “R-sharp” might have scored better if he stuck with a range he could play well.

7. Know the definitions of all of the musical terms in your etudes.
Musical instructions are usually written in Italian, sometimes in German, and sometimes in French. Rarely are these instructions written in English. And yet, those listening to your playing will expect you to know what the terms in at least your prepared pieces mean, and to observe them in your performance. There is no excuse for ignoring these terms, and yet I have listened to auditions in which 70% or more of the students completely ignored one or more terms, and as a result gave performances that were wildly “off the mark.” If you want to earn a high score, follow the instructions, regardless of the language in which those instructions are written. To do even better, try to memorize a large number of common terms, so that you can also correctly observe any markings in the sight reading part of the audition.

By the way, “in the old days” we had to purchase music dictionaries in order to look up the meanings of musical terms, and sometimes we had to refer to Italian-English dictionaries, for example, in order to find more obscure terms. Today, you can quickly and easily find the definition of any term simply by “Googling it.” In short, there is no excuse. Know what terms mean, and do what they say!

8. Use a metronome, and practice your scales and etudes both slower and faster than the prescribed tempos.
These days, there is no excuse for not owning and using a metronome in one’s daily practice. Not only can simple metronomes be purchased inexpensively at most music stores, but also cheap or free metronome programs can be found to work with computers and most smartphones or tablets. I recommend using the metronome not only to foster correct rhythm and timing when practicing scales and etudes at the prescribed tempos, but also to enable systematic practice at both slower and faster tempos. The process I use is as follows:

First, practice materials at 50% of the indicated tempo. This is for the purpose of working out fingerings, articulations, and tone quality without the pressures created by playing faster. For etudes that are already slow, practicing at half tempo will foster better phrasing. Try to phrase in the same way and breathe in the same places as you would when playing at tempo. You will then have a much easier time making your phrases when you resume playing faster.

Second, practice at 75% of the indicated tempo. This provides a convenient “halfway point” between the slower tempo you practiced before and the tempo for which you are striving.

Third, practice at the indicated tempo. Having followed the two steps indicated above, you will find that playing at tempo will be much easier for you than if you had begun by practicing this quickly. Continue using the metronome to ensure that you are counting and keeping time accurately.

Fourth, practice at 125% of the indicated tempo. This is especially helpful for the scales and faster etudes. This tempo will feel extremely fast, and even frantic, but still attempt it, even if you are never able to make your playing as clean as you would like at this tempo.

Finally, return to the indicated tempo. Having worked out notes, fingerings, tone, tuning, and phrasing at slower tempos, and then at least tried to master the necessary technique at faster tempos, playing at tempo will feel balanced, even, and relatively relaxed. Alternate playing with and without the metronome for this step.

Not all of these steps need to be completed each day, particularly as you become more proficient at playing your scales and etudes, but these are necessary when first beginning work on your audition materials, and later on are still useful for occasional “refreshers.”

9. Mark your breaths.
One helpful practice that is neglected by many students is that of planning and marking breaths. While you will be playing your scales from memory, go ahead and practice breathing at the same place(s) every time you play a given scale.

In the prepared pieces, make a clear mark at the places where you know you will breathe, and then some smaller markings in parentheses in places where you can breathe “if you have to.” By planning your breaths and then breathing in the same places every time you practice your scales and etudes, you will deliver a more consistent and pleasing musical result, and will also take an important step toward mitigating the effects of nervousness. Because you will have practiced breathing—deeply—in the same places each time, when you are in the audition room you will be likely to continue breathing deeply in those places, rather than taking unplanned and shallow breaths as people tend to do when they are “on edge.”

In order to determine where to breathe, sit down with your prepared pieces and a pencil, without your instrument. Note the places where musical phrases end (look for the ends of phrase markings or slurred lines in particular), and mark breaths in those places, as well as during any rests. In short, figure out where the music itself indicates pauses, and plan to breathe in those places. If this yields too few breaths, or if you are afraid you might need some “extra,” mark additional possible breaths in parentheses. Because you are using pencil, you can always erase and adjust your planned breathing if necessary, but by planning breaths without your instrument you are allowing the music to determine where you breathe, rather than your subjective “felt need” for air. This will yield a very mature and pleasing performance.

10. Don’t practice something until you get it right once. Practice it until you can’t get it wrong!
As an applied lesson teacher, I can easily tell when a student has not practiced, but I can also tell when a student has practiced something until he “got it right once.” This student will play with a good tone quality and pretty good technique that are indicative of regular practice, but when playing scales, etudes, and solo literature he will make interesting mistakes. When questioned, he will say that he made that same mistake repeatedly when practicing. Immediately, I am aware that the student practiced that etude at least three times each day, making the mistake twice, and “getting it right” the third time. What’s the problem with this? The student has practiced playing incorrectly twice as many times as he has practiced playing correctly!

When preparing for the audition, don’t run through troublesome passages until you play them correctly one time—repeat those passages until you get them right five or even ten times successively. By doing this, you will make a habit of playing these passages correctly, instead of having to address the same mistakes each time you practice.

11. Sight read something every day.
The sight reading portion of the audition is the scariest part for many students, largely because it is the most “unknown” element of the audition. While it would be impossible to prepare for the specific piece that you will encounter during the sight reading portion of a given audition, you can greatly improve your chances of succeeding at this part simply by sight reading something each day. There are a number of books available with short etudes designed for sight reading practice, and I have even recommended a few of them, but the main thing is that you find unfamiliar music of a variety of styles, time signatures, key signatures, tempos, and levels of difficulty, and sight read as much of it as you can. This will make you more familiar and comfortable with the process. Make sure also that you have a teacher or some other knowledgeable individual listen to your sight reading from time to time, to make sure that you aren’t making any unnoticed mistakes.

12. Get a private teacher.
Even the best band director has too many obligations, too little time, and not enough expertise on every instrument to effectively coach all of his or her students for all-state auditions. If at all possible, arrange for regular lessons with a private teacher that is knowledgeable about your instrument and the audition process. This person will help you to put the ideas listed here as well as other helpful concepts into practice, and will (provided that you follow his or her instructions) greatly increase your chances of playing a successful audition. Ask your band director for names and contact information of qualified teachers in your area. You might also look for professors and students at nearby universities and community colleges, and perhaps even professional players if you live near a large city. (If you live within driving distance of Oxford, send me an email—I can take on a few more high school students.)

An added benefit of private instruction is that your teacher’s ideas will apply not only to the immediate goal of making the all-state band, but to making you a better player overall. If you want to continue playing in college—and particularly if you want to major in music—this extra help might literally “pay off” in the form of higher band scholarship offers.

13. Dress for the occasion.
One change in the “culture” of auditions that I have observed over the past fifteen years or so is the increasing informality of dress among students auditioning. When I was a high school student, it was not unusual for young men to wear a shirt and tie and perhaps a sport coat for auditions and for young women to wear a blouse and skirt or even a dress. In recent years, I have noticed more and more students auditioning wearing jeans and t-shirts—and not even their “good” jeans and t-shirts! This is not a positive development, in my opinion.

The way that you dress communicates something about the seriousness with which you take a given endeavor. When you make an effort to “dress up” for an occasion, you communicate to others (and yourself) that you believe you are doing something important. When I serve as an audition judge, a student that walks into the room smartly dressed communicates to me that he takes his playing seriously, and before the first note is played, I have unconsciously begun to form positive expectations about how that student will perform. Conversely, a student with a slovenly appearance communicates a negative image, and my expectations are likewise negative. That might not seem “fair,” but judges are human, and will inevitably form “first impressions” of some kind. Make sure you the impression you make is a good one!

By the way, this counsel even applies in the case of “blind” auditions (those in which the judges cannot see the student auditioning). While it might seem absurd to “dress up” when those evaluating your playing will not be able to see you, there is something to be said for how your dress affects your own self-perception and carriage. By dressing well for the audition, you are mentally preparing yourself for the important task at hand, and you will be more likely to conduct yourself throughout the process in a manner most conducive to playing a great audition.

14. Be confident.
Part of playing a successful audition is carrying yourself and then playing in a confident manner. If you have prepared diligently for the audition, you have no reason not to be sure about yourself and your playing, and your entire presentation, from the way you dress (see above) to the way you play each of the required items should communicate confidence and poise. While this may not directly impact your score, self-assured students to tend to play better, which does have a direct impact on the final score.

Perhaps you are like me, and inevitably have a greater or lesser degree of “butterflies in your stomach” every time you play a high-stakes audition or performance. In such situations, you feel anything but confident! If this describes you, you might find it helpful to “fake it.” Put on an air of confidence, even though you don’t feel that way at all. Not only will your judges view your playing in a more positive light, but you might find that by feigning self-confidence you “psych yourself in” to actually being more confident, and thus playing better.

15. Have FUN!!!
Auditions are nerve-racking experiences, and the entire process—from practice and preparation to the audition day itself—can become anything but fun. In such situations, it is easy to forget that one of the main reasons we took up playing our instruments in the first place was the enjoyment that our playing provides to ourselves and others. Make sure that you include something “fun” in your practice time each day, and as you prepare the “hard stuff,” keep the end goal of the audition in mind. Performing great music at a high level with students that take music seriously is an exciting and fun experience afforded to relatively few high school band members. The hard work required to get there is worth it!

Posted in Auditions, Bass Trombone, Euphonium, Practicing, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Tuba

“Out of the Mouth of Babes….”

And Jesus saith unto them, Yea; have ye never read, Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings thou hast perfected praise? (Matthew 21:16b KJV)

I have written before in this space about out long period of childlessness and our joy at finally becoming parents through adoption, so I will not recount that story today. Suffice it to say that, over five years later, we still count our son to be a tremendous blessing to our family, though honesty demands that I admit, as all parents must, that parenthood is a mixed blessing. Scripture teaches that we are all sinners, and children are no exception. We observe our son’s physical health, intelligence, curiosity, and apparent musical skill (he has good pitch and timing—at age 5 we hoped for no more) with thankfulness and joy, and pray that these things will be cultivated and developed that they might be useful both in the church and in society. Nevertheless, he is exceptionally strong willed, and prone to outbursts of anger and rage when he does not get his way. His intelligence and, for his age, facility with language enable him to say some rather hurtful things when he is angry, and these words are necessarily directed at us, since as his parents we are the ones who most often refuse to bend our wills to his. In today’s society some parents would no doubt seek to subdue a child with such tendencies by means of medication, and while that topic has come up in discussions between my wife and me, we have not yet considered that option with any seriousness. We do not wish for his strong will to be broken. Rather, we hope and pray that it can be, like his other gifts and aptitudes, channeled and directed to good and righteous use, that he would hold fast to the gospel in the midst of a society that seems increasingly hostile to the message of Christianity.

Following one recent episode and after he had calmed down we reminded him of the necessity that the parents be in charge of the household rather than the child, and quoted Scriptures familiar to him which teach this. We also reminded him that all are sinners, deserving of God’s wrath, and yet have salvation offered to them upon condition of repentance and faith. Finally, we assured him that Jesus loves us, and that if we are his he will continue to love us forever in spite of our sin, because he has chosen us and purchased our forgiveness. All of this was done, of course, at an age-appropriate level, using much less complicated verbiage than I just used for the sake of brevity.

The following day as he was playing alone in my home office (a room where he is not usually allowed to play by himself, but I digress) my wife caught him speaking to himself as he played, saying “Oh, Jesus. He’s my savior. Even though I sin, he will forever love me.” Later, he was singing a made-up song about the ultimate defeat of Satan. While we do teach our son using song and catechesis (a series of memorized questions and answers), the amazing thing about this is that he was not repeating a song he had been taught or a formulaic doctrinal statement he had heard. Instead, he is evidently processing these things and putting them into his own words. While we do not believe he has yet been “converted,” repenting and believing the gospel for himself, the fact that he is processing and articulating the doctrine he has been taught gives us great hope for him, and we are thankful.

I want to address two likely responses to this little story, followed by my own response. First, for our fellow Christian parents who might read this and wonder how we are teaching our son, we can’t say enough good things about cultivating children’s faith using “old” methods. Each day we read scripture together, work on memorizing Bible verses and catechism questions and answers, pray together, and sing a hymn or psalm. Even non-musicians can do the last part—we always sing a cappella, and aside from the fact that we have better-than-average pitch an uninformed observer would probably never know that both parents in our family are music teachers. Furthermore, we bring both the Bible’s warnings and its promises to bear in regular conversation, and particularly when exercising discipline. These things are spoken frankly and lovingly, never in a “hellfire and brimstone” fashion intended to elicit a visceral reaction of fear. Finally, while we trust that these are among the ordinary means through which the Spirit works to bring children to faith, we are aware of our complete dependence upon him to save us, our son, and anyone else. Even the best methodology cannot save through human action alone.

To non-Christians who might be reading this and are horrified that we would so “indoctrinate” our son, I suppose we are guilty. We believe that Christianity is true and right, presenting the only view of the world that is fully consistent with reality, not to mention the only way of salvation from God’s wrath. Therefore, we are teaching our son in the hopes that one day he will own this faith for himself. This really shouldn’t be scandalous—don’t all parents teach their children according their own worldviews? When he is older we will teach our son the various arguments for Christianity in opposition to other faiths and worldviews. One day he will go out into the world and encounter any number of belief systems which stand in opposition to the one in which he was raised, and he will have to evaluate for himself and choose for himself what he believes. While we will pray that he, by God’s grace, chooses rightly, the choice will be his. But right now he is five, and it is not yet the time for the study of comparative religion and various schools of philosophy and ethics. And even when we one day discuss those things, it will be with the presupposition that Christianity—specifically Reformed and Presbyterian Christianity—is true and right.

For me, hearing what my five-year-old son was saying was an immense comfort to me, not because he was saying it, but because of what he said. Assurance of salvation has always been a particular challenge for me as a Christian, and adults have a way of making God’s promises to us in the Gospel unnecessarily complicated. In a simple and heartfelt way, he simply restated what Paul wrote to the church in Rome nearly two millennia ago:

For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39 KJV)

Indeed, sometimes our children teach us as much as we teach them.

Posted in Christian Worldview, Parenting, Practical Christianity

Sometimes Being Forced to Overcome an Obstacle is a Good Thing

I have found myself with little time for writing this week, but since I like to maintain the discipline of posting something every weekend I’ll share just a brief reflection this evening. This is essentially a follow-up to last week’s post about my experience at the Alessi Seminar, though it has more to do with my preparation for that event than the event itself.

About six weeks prior to the Seminar we were each emailed part assignments for a trombone quartet and the trombone choir, and asked to choose from a short list of solo works and excerpts to prepare for the masterclasses. While I was able to choose a solo and excerpts that did not expose any peculiar weaknesses in my playing (an idea I mentioned in a post last year), a couple of the ensemble parts I was assigned exposed a particular “chink in my armor” that I had been working to address but also made efforts to compensate for in performance. The particular weakness I’m referring to is the range between F4 and Bb4. I am well able to play below that range and, happily, have relatively little difficulty above it. But I have had some “stickiness” in recent years negotiating a minute shift when moving between the middle and upper registers and not always happy experiences when doing so.

Not wanting to embarrass myself at the Seminar, I spent nearly as much time practicing those two ensemble parts as I did my solo and excerpts for the masterclasses. Over the course of those six weeks or so I had several breakthroughs in my practice of those parts, and the performances were successful. Even more importantly, the improvements in that register have transferred to other pieces. I am no longer practicing those two ensemble parts, yet the things I learned in preparing them have brought about better playing in that register generally.

When I wrote the earlier post I just mentioned someone commented on Facebook that sometimes you have to take the things that you can’t do well, program a piece that forces you to work on them, and “kick them in the ***.” While I still maintain that it is good to program things that highlight one’s strengths, particularly when practice time is limited, sometimes being forced to tackle a weakness head-on is the best way to foster improvement. Happily, that was the case this summer.

Posted in Performing, Practicing, Trombone

Reflections on the Alessi Seminar

For eight days earlier this month I participated in the biannual Alessi Seminar, a workshop for trombonists headed by Joseph Alessi, principal trombonist of the New York Philharmonic. It was an intense schedule of rehearsals, performances, and master classes; when the event was over I had 54 pages of handwritten notes. While many of my readers would no doubt like to see a full transcript of those notes, you will be disappointed—if you want that much information, you need to shell out the $2000+ it costs to attend (including travel, etc.)! Still, I will gladly offer these ten reflections, written as I am still sort of processing things myself.

  1. There are lots of fine trombonists out there.
Fellows Trombone Choir, Alessi Seminar 2015

Fellows Trombone Choir, Alessi Seminar 2015

When I learned that I had been accepted into the Fellows Class (i.e. the “second group,” taught primarily by former Seattle Symphony trombonist and now Indiana University professor Peter Ellefson) at the Alessi Seminar I was both pleased and a little disappointed. After all, who doesn’t want to be in the “first band,” especially after seeing that most or all of the members of the higher class are younger than you? I was mostly pleased, though, and was reminded that not too many years ago I was that young up-and-coming trombone player that was practicing a ton and successfully competing with more experienced players for jobs and opportunities. Despite my conflicted personal feelings, what I found at the event were two auditioned classes plus more than 50 “auditors” who were supremely dedicated to their craft, and all working to better themselves and one another. It was an intense and productive time for everyone involved, with little egotism to be found.

  1. The instructors were dedicated, sincere, very direct, but never unfriendly.
Me Working with Mr. Ellefson

Me Working with Mr. Ellefson

Prior to the Seminar, I knew both Mr. Alessi and Mr. Ellefson primarily by their world-class reputations and through performances and recordings. I had seen little of their teaching, much less experienced it myself. One would expect musicians of that caliber to be intense and demanding—and they were—but underlying all of that was an evident desire to improve the individual’s playing and the level of trombone playing generally. They were often challenging but never mean, making receiving and applying instruction sometimes difficult but never unpleasant.

  1. Diligent practice of playing fundamentals is very important.

I have always taught , have usually practiced, and have often written about the importance of daily, extended practice of playing fundamentals. Nevertheless, when reading some folks “pooh-pooh” the notion of such practicing in various online forums, I have sometimes questioned whether my approach to practicing in this way has been too tedious and repetitive. Hearing Mr. Alessi and Mr. Ellefson play and discuss what they do to prepare to play each day has renewed my dedication to this kind of practicing. Lesser musicians may spend less time on fundamentals, and there are always a few super-talented folks out there who can get by with less than the rest of us, but if two of the greatest trombonists in the world need to keep practicing fundamentals to stay at the top of their game, that should say something to the rest of us.

  1. I would do well to make some refinements in my sound.

For as long as I can remember, I have made the pursuit of a big, full sound a central part of my practice and playing. While I am happy to be able to play with such a sound, I was reminded in one master class (again, in a direct but not unfriendly way) that this approach is not always needed. Not everything has to be played with the most massive sound possible. This will be a hard lesson to apply, but given the physical limitations imposed by my ongoing back pain issues, the added flexibility that a more compact sound provides, and the frequency with which I get “the hand” from conductors(!), cultivating a more compact approach may not be a bad idea, provided that I make sure to retain the ability to bring lots of power when needed.

  1. Mr. Alessi’s suggestions regarding performance anxiety.
Me Working with Mr. Alessi

Me Working with Mr. Alessi

I have been honest with my students, my fellow musicians, and even on this blog that after the physical difficulties I experienced a few years ago I developed more severe performance anxiety than I had ever had. Working out of this has been challenging, and the psychological difficulties suffered after an injury (Mr. Ellefson called this “broken brains” as compared to “broken chops”) can take more time to resolve than the physical ones. Happily, the steps I have taken in recent years to curb the physical manifestations of performance anxiety have been effective. I was only truly nervous for a few minutes the entire Seminar, and even then was able to keep the physical effects of this to a minimum.

Mr. Alessi added two suggestions to what I was already doing to help with this. First, he said to “have no ego.” After all, why would you be nervous if you weren’t concerned about your reputation? That comment smarted a little bit (as it was spoken directly to me), but it was on target. As musicians, we should seek to serve our audiences, to serve our fellow musicians, and to pursue beauty and refinement in our craft for its own sake, as well as to reflect and glorify the beauty of the Creator. Egotism is distasteful at best and harmful at worst.

His second suggestion was to think “low and slow.” When nervous we tend to pull the pitch sharp and to cause various problems related to the airspeed being too fast. Instead, we should aim for “the bottom of the note,” and remember to keep the airflow relaxed and under control. This suggestion is simple, easy to apply, and of immediate benefit.

  1. Pursuing a position in a major symphony orchestra requires specialized preparation.

If I wanted to torture myself, I could speculate all day as to why my audition recording earned me a spot in the Fellows Class rather than the Participant Class. As I said before, I was pleased with the experience I had at the event and don’t want to spend too much time at this stage worrying about that. Still, in observing the teaching and playing that occurred in both groups over the course of the Seminar, as well as the critiques received regarding my own playing of orchestral excerpts both on my recording and in the master class, I was reminded that orchestral excerpts are not the place to display one’s individualistic approaches to musicality. You should play musically, of course, but much more within the limitations of the written page than in solo repertoire. My own training as a musician and teacher focused mostly on solo and chamber music, as well as teaching techniques for students of various levels of ability. While I studied orchestral repertoire, it was never a major focus of mine. It should have been no surprise, then, that in an audition consisting largely of orchestral excerpts any deviation from the accepted norm among orchestral musicians (and I had several in my recording) would be received negatively. I am thankful to have been reminded just what the expectations are in certain key excerpts, both for my own benefit and for that of my students. If I have any students who are interested in pursuing an orchestral career, I will make sure to direct them to graduate schools where they will receive that specialized training.

  1. I left the Seminar both secure in and happy with my place in the profession.

For more than a decade now, I have been primarily employed as a teacher of all of the low brass instruments in music departments serving mainly future music educators. I get to do some solo and chamber performing, some orchestral playing, and assorted other playing jobs, but mainly I am a teacher helping to train the next generation of secondary school music educators. During the Alessi Seminar I was able to think a bit about the lives lived by our instructors and musicians like them in high-profile positions, lives which include lots of time away from home giving concerts and instruction throughout the world. For an orchestral musician, even time not traveling means being out lots of nights! Some people revel in that kind of life, and good for them, but for a homebody like me, I’m content to teach in a smallish music department in my home state, performing fairly regularly, but mostly being at home at night, and able to visit parents and other family members regularly. I like being a musician; I love being a husband and father. In my current job, I get to do all of those things. 

  1. I like playing bass trombone in a trombone quartet.
Willamette Trombone Quartet, Alessi Seminar 2015

Willamette Trombone Quartet, Alessi Seminar 2015

All of the Participants and Fellows at the Alessi Seminar were assigned to trombone quartets consisting of members who had not played together before, or at least had not done so regularly. I have normally played bass trombone in such groups, including in my current quartet, the Great River Trombone Quartet. However, for the Alessi Seminar I was assigned to play first trombone in the so-called Willamette Trombone Quartet. This was a healthy challenge, and we had a successful performance, but I’ll be glad to get back to the low notes!

  1. Trombonists are friendly, fun-loving people.

The Alessi Seminar ended with a party at a local restaurant with food and non-alcoholic drinks provided, as well as pool tables and shuffleboard. After eight days of intense music making, it was great to enjoy a steak, some red wine (which I paid for), and the company of 70-ish trombone players, all of whom know how to have a good time. I have a bit of experience with observing the professional gatherings of other groups of musicians, many of whom are uptight, unhappy people. We have those folks in the low brass world, too, but for the most part we are a jolly lot, which makes the challenging and intense nature of our work that much easier to handle.

  1. Will I do it again?

Will I attend the Alessi Seminar again, and maybe make a more informed stab at the Participant Class? Maybe. I’m still physically and mentally exhausted from this year’s Seminar, and the next event isn’t until 2017, so it’s a bit early to decide. Having not had a trombone lesson in over ten years, it was good for me to go and “have my butt kicked” for a few days, and I have no regrets about attending. Part of me thinks that my efforts will be better spent helping my students to earn a place in one of the two auditioned classes, but ambition might just get the better of me in a couple of years. Maybe I’d even be able to attend with a student, which would be cool. Maybe one of my students would even place *above* me in the audition. Believe it or not, I think that would be very cool, too. We’ll see!

Combined Trombone Choirs Performing <i>Elsa's Procession to the Cathedral</i> (Wagner/Cherry), Alessi Seminar 2015

Combined Trombone Choirs Performing Elsa’s Procession to the Cathedral (Wagner/Cherry), Alessi Seminar 2015

Posted in Alessi Seminar, Alto Trombone, Bass Trombone, Performance Anxiety, Performances, Performing, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Trombone Ensembles

Lessons Learned Teaching Children’s Sunday School

In August my wife and I will conclude a two-year stint teaching children’s Sunday School classes at Christ Presbyterian Church, first with four and five-year-olds, and then with fifth and sixth-graders. We are stepping aside, at least for now, because the church has a usual policy of having folks teach children on Sunday mornings for no more than two years at a stretch, thus ensuring that people do not lose the opportunity to participate in the adult classes for both learning and fellowship.

Teaching the children has been a big change for me, as ever since I was first engaged as a substitute Sunday School teacher over ten years ago I have taught only adults and college students. However, the work is no less important—in fact, it might be more important—and is not without its unique challenges. Here are a few things I have learned in the past couple of years through this new avenue of service. The first couple of these were things that I had figured out before agreeing to serve in this way, and the rest I discovered during the process.

  1. Children’s Sunday School classes need good teachers.

I first considered teaching a children’s class after reading an article directed toward seminary students who complained that the churches they attended were not “using their gifts.” They lamented not being asked to teach adults, while the children’s department was hurting for teachers. In a similar way, I realized that our (then) new church was probably not going to ask me to teach adults any time soon (I was new and relatively unknown), but the children’s classes always needed teachers. Seeing a place where I could be useful, I chose to do so, and am glad that I did.

  1. Men can and should teach these classes along with their wives.

Sadly, the church is largely viewed in our society as being primarily “for women,” with men taking an ever smaller interest in her activities and worship. There are many reasons for this, but one small way to counter it is for boys to see men taking the Bible seriously and taking the work of teaching the faith to young people seriously. Teaching a class along with your wife also allows students to see a (hopefully) healthy married relationship firsthand for a few minutes each week, as well as providing some unfortunately necessary legal protection (our church does not allow men to work with children alone).

  1. Curriculum selection is important.

I have sometimes had to use Sunday School curricula with which I disagreed on significant points and which occasionally contained outright errors. This increased the amount of time needed to study, as errors, when found, had to be researched and corrected. Happily, the materials from Great Commission Publications that our church uses are sound and reliable, if occasionally corny (as such materials often are).

  1. Repetition is necessary. Very necessary.

About halfway through this school year we discovered that our fifth and sixth grade students had no idea what the sequence of the books of the Bible is, much less even a broad mental timeline of biblical history. Some of the students said that they had to memorize the books of the Bible in the second grade at their Christian school, but the information had clearly been forgotten due to disuse. I understood then why children’s curricula must be somewhat repetitive—that’s the only way to make the information stick! (We now recite the books of the Bible at the beginning of every class.)

  1. Brevity is a virtue.

Today’s adults have limited attention spans, and the children are even worse. While I can teach for a longer period of time with the fifth and sixth-graders than I could with the preschoolers, I am still well aware that economy of words is necessary if I am to hold their attention. Those of us who are prone to ramble must learn to use words efficiently if we are to communicate well with young people!

  1. If one has to go to the bathroom, all have to go to the bathroom.

Even children that “know their place” want to find ways to exercise some degree of control of their situations. Young kids do not have to be potty trained for very long before they learn that a request to go to the bathroom is a surefire way to get out of a situation they don’t like, particularly if they declare that they need to go “real bad.” Moreover, when one has to go, others will quickly follow suit. Teachers must learn to tell the difference between a real and contrived “emergency,” as well as learn the virtue of “one at a time.” Knowing that they won’t be able to bring their friends along has a way of decreasing most kids’ sudden urges.

  1. Older students need to bring and use their Bibles.

One thing that still bothers me about the fifth and sixth graders is that half the class never brings a Bible with them—to church!!! Given the modern day habits of printing passages for study in the Sunday School curriculum materials and the sermon texts in the bulletin, perhaps folks are somewhat justified in believing that bringing a Bible is unnecessary. Nevertheless, students will not learn to find their way around the Scriptures if they do not have a copy to use. Encourage and admonish them to bring Bibles along, and have a few copies in the classroom for those who still don’t bring them. If a student doesn’t have a Bible, give him one!

  1. Make them think, and speak.

Middle school and high school students that come to me for music lessons are often taken aback at first by my frequent use of the Socratic Method when teaching. Apparently they are unaccustomed to teachers asking them to form and express an opinion, which is really quite sad. Still, one of the best ways to get students really thinking about the topic at hand is to ask them questions and wait for them to think and answer. With a little directed questioning, students will figure out the right answers and retain them better than if you simply lecture at them all the time. And remember, this is the Bible; we want them to learn it better! Even the preschoolers can do this in a very limited way, but do be careful. I still remember the time I asked “What’s the first book in the Bible?” After receiving no answer, I said “You know, we’ve been studying it. It begins with the letter ‘G.’” Immediately a child yelled “Jesus!” Well, the “Sunday School answer” is not always right, but at least he tried….

  1. “Lick and stick.”

The activities included with the GCP materials for preschoolers frequently included apparently non-adhesive “stickers,” and we quickly began to wonder if our curriculum publisher had established some sort of back-room deal with the manufacturers of Elmer’s glue sticks. About halfway through our time with that class (and not a few articles of clothing marred by purple glue), we discovered quite by accident that our stickers were of the “lick and stick” variety. Or at least I think they were; maybe the moisture just made them stick to the paper in its own right. In any case, the kids liked saying “lick and stick,” and we liked not dealing with purple glue sticks. Everyone wins!

  1. You might be able to study less than for an adult class, but you will need to pray more.

I used to spend hours each week studying to teach college students and adults, yet have often prepared to teach children the day before or even early on the morning of the class. A person armed with a sound curriculum and a reasonably thorough knowledge of the Bible will be able to teach a children’s class with less study than when preparing to bring deeper material to adults. Nevertheless, no amount of knowledge and skill with the Scriptures or cleverness of delivery will substitute for the Holy Spirit working through one’s teaching to bring the children to faith in Christ. We are dependent upon God to bring forth the harvest. Teachers, pray diligently to that end!

I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. (1 Corinthians 3:6)

Posted in Christian Education, Education, Practical Christianity, Theology

Rediscovering and Reapplying the “Conversational Breath”

In last week’s post as well as several others I have freely discussed areas in which I have abandoned previous approaches to playing my instruments and have embraced ideas found in newer publications. While readers might conclude that I have rejected the teachings of my own professors wholesale, that conclusion would be in error. Players who have taken lessons with me and with one of my former teachers still report that I sound like the teacher that they know, and in most areas of my playing and teaching I remain an amalgamation of my own instructors. Indeed much of my playing development these days comes not from learning new information but from rediscovering and sometimes reapplying ideas that have been forgotten. This is certainly true of the topic that I have chosen for today.

Emory Remington (1892-1971)

Emory Remington (1892-1971)

Emory Remington (1892-1971) was the legendary trombone teacher at the Eastman School of Music for nearly fifty years. He practically invented the modern trombone choir, and his teaching on the use of a “balanced daily routine” for fundamental playing work remains the basis of my own approach to the same topic. Indeed, most of the exercises in my own routines are based upon (if not copied directly from) those used by “The Chief.” My trombone teachers at the university level included one of Remington’s students and a student of one of his students, so his teaching had a formative, if indirect, influence on my own work.

Nevertheless, one idea espoused by Remington that I abandoned for a long time was his preference for using a “conversational breath” when playing. He rejected what he called “overbreathing” as used by many players because he believed this led to unnecessary tension when playing. While I agreed that unnecessary tension was to be avoided, I did not agree with the “conversational breath” concept because I believed it left the player with an insufficient amount of air to meet his playing demands, particularly when playing bass trombone and tuba. When incorrectly understood, I still believe this to be the case. Certainly more air than is used in normal speech is needed at least at times when playing, particularly for loud and extended passages in the lower register.

Last week I mentioned that over time I had unintentionally allowed an unhelpful abdominal tension to creep into my playing, a situation that was ultimately resolved through regular use of The Breathing Book. While I have long admonished students that unnecessarily laborious breathing can add tension, and that not every breath needs to be a “full capacity” breath, I had been less successful in applying these ideas to my own playing. The harder I worked, and the bigger breaths I tried to take, the more tense I became. This was a recipe for disaster, and I am thankful both that only a couple of bad performances rather than a wholesale “crashing” of my playing led me to reevaluate this, and that I discovered teachings and materials that helped me to resolve the issues.

In light of these new discoveries, and particularly after hearing the term used for the first time in a long while in a couple of lectures earlier this year, I have been giving the “conversational breath” a second thought. I find myself more and more wondering if I misunderstood all along what Remington was after. Perhaps he meant a conversational breath not in volume, but in quality. What if one could learn to take in the amount of air needed for a passage, however large that amount might be, with the same feeling of ease and relaxation that one has in casual conversation? If so, while it would be inaccurate to view the newer teachings of David Vining in The Breathing Book as a fleshing out and application of Remington’s idea, rightly understood perhaps the two concepts could live together. One would then learn from Vining how to properly use the breathing apparatus, and then when playing focus largely on maintaining the relaxing breathing of a casual conversation when playing.

I suspect that I am reinterpreting Remington too much to remain absolutely true to his original concept, as the big breaths I often use, particularly when playing loudly on the bass trombone, can hardly be described as “conversational.” Still, I can’t help but think that the concept of a “conversational breath in quality but not in volume” might be a way to take this idea and successfully apply it to modern playing demands, promoting a relaxed, “conversational” feel even in the most intense playing situations.

Posted in Alto Trombone, Bass Trombone, Breathing, Emory Remington, Euphonium, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Tuba

Great Books: The Breathing Book by David Vining

The past eight years have in some ways been difficult ones for me. The onset of neck and jaw pain came in 2007, to which was added back pain after a car accident in 2008. I finally received a final diagnosis of the causes (both injury related and congenital) and chronic nature of these pain issues in 2010, and have been learning to “live with it” ever since. While none of these issues were caused by my brass playing, they have sometimes had a negative effect on it, one about which I have written and spoken freely on this blog and elsewhere in the past. Most importantly—and indeed most beneficially—these issues have forced me to continually seek and eliminate inefficiencies in the way I approach my instruments. As a younger man I was able to play incorrectly in some respects with little negative effect; I no longer have that luxury. When I use the body well, I have no pain when playing. When I use the body poorly, I often do. To put it more crudely, “When I do it right, it don’t hurt.”

One area of inefficiency I have slowly been addressing over the past several years is that of breathing. The vast majority of my teachers were, either implicitly or explicitly, advocates of the “breathe low” approach to breathing when playing. The idea here is that the primary movement when inhaling should take place in the abdomen, as the diaphragm flattens and displaces the internal organs and such, and the lungs somehow expand downward. Movement in the upper chest (where the lungs actually are!) is generally discouraged, a practice that probably began as an overreaction to the error of moving too much in the shoulders. While I rarely heard the idea of a firm or tense abdomen promoted, the “breathe low” approach tends to lead to that result, or at least it did with me. While this had little negative effect upon me in my pre-injury days, in recent years the extra tension in my abdomen exacerbated the effects of certain structural imbalances that, for better or worse, I have to deal with.

Enter David Vining, whose What Every Trombonist Needs to Know About the Body I have reviewed here before and whose publishing company, Mountain Peak Music, recently released my own book on low brass doubling. After experiencing a nearly career-ending battle with Focal Task-Specific Dystonia of the embouchure, Vining researched and developed his own treatment plan, rebuilt his playing and career, and subsequently began a renewed teaching focus, helping both students and professionals how to recognize, eliminate, and avoid the kinds of habits which lead to challenges like dystonia. As a result of Vining’s book and several lectures and master classes of his that I have attended, I began to retool my teaching and playing regarding the use of the body in several respects, including breathing. I abandoned the “breathe low” mantra in my teaching after learning that the lungs do, in fact, expand in all directions simultaneously rather than “from the bottom up” as is often taught (there is movement in the abdomen, just not exclusively so), but eliminating the habits of breathing that way and of introducing excessive abdominal tension into the mix in my own playing took much longer, and in fact is an ongoing process.

The Breathing Book by David Vining

The Breathing Book by David Vining

Realizing that my own breathing was still not matching in practice the ideals I espoused verbally, I purchased a copy of The Breathing Book last summer. In just 32 pages alternating text and playing exercises applying the text, Vining walks the player step by step through understanding how the body works and then applying this knowledge to actual playing. Breathing is the main focus of the book, but its instructions necessarily touch every aspect of one’s physical approach to the instrument. The entire book can be completed in a little over an hour; less if the text is not thoroughly read (though it should be, at least the first few times). My practice over the past several months has been to replace my regular daily routine with this book once weekly or sometimes every other week, and I have begun recommending that my students do the same.

I cannot overstate how useful this book has been for my playing. While I encountered very little information that was completely new to me, the systematic presentation and application of the ideas introduced here have made it incredibly useful. Perhaps most importantly, through regular use of this book and application of its ideas to all playing, I have eliminated several areas of unnecessary tension, including in the abdomen. This has yielded expected benefits in tone quality and phrasing; an unexpected benefit has been a reduced susceptibility to the effects of performance anxiety. Nervousness often leads to an increase in muscle tension and other inefficiencies that are already there; in the absence of such tension, the effects of “nerves” are largely eliminated.

In a conversation we had at a conference several months ago, David mentioned to me that he hoped one day The Breathing Book (which has editions for all brass instruments as well as the oboe) would be rendered unnecessary because the correct approach to breathing would be known to practically all teachers, performers, and students. While I wish that this will someday be the case, I’m sure that books like this will always be needed. Even with the best and most physiologically accurate instruction, the tendency of diligent players to make things harder than they are will always lead to various kinds of incorrect approaches to breathing and other fundamental issues that will need to be addressed. Happily, the brass community now has this book and others like it to help players get back to the right place when inefficiencies creep into their playing.

This really is a great book. Order your copy today!

Posted in Books, Breathing, Doubling, Playing Fundamentals, Teaching Low Brass