Back to Blogging, with a Report on Trombonanza 2016

UM Trombone Ensemble August 2016

University of Mississippi Trombone Ensemble, Fall 2016

My first post after a long summer hiatus comes a few days later than I had planned, and that might not be a rare occurrence in the coming months. While I hope to maintain my usual weekly writing schedule and have a full slate of planned topics for the coming academic year, that schedule might prove to be difficult to maintain. Why? Because the low brass studio at Ole Miss is growing by leaps and bounds! When I arrived in 2012 there were eleven low brass majors; now there are 24. Add to those a couple of students taking lessons on doubling instruments (something I always encourage) and I find myself teaching 26 lessons per week at the university, in addition to ensemble rehearsals, teaching high school students after school, grading, and other faculty responsibilities. Our trombone ensemble now has 19 members (compared to nine four years ago) and the tuba-euphonium ensemble 13 (compared to six at one point that first year). I am thankful for the growth and very much enjoy my work, but this schedule is already proving quite tiring…and we aren’t even through the first week of classes! So please excuse me if my ability to write with the regularity for which I have striven in the past is compromised at times.

UM Tuba-Euphonium Ensemble August 2016

University of Mississippi Tuba-Euphonium Ensemble, Fall 2016

Anyway, my main topic for this week is a report on my visit earlier this month to Santa Fe, Argentina, for the annual Trombonanza event, which I mentioned in a post back in May. Knowing some of the “big name” trombonists who have been invited to Trombonanza in the past, I was particularly honored and surprised to be asked to come. After a supremely enjoyable and I think successful event I am still honored and surprised but also extremely thankful for the opportunity.

What is Trombonanza?

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Monday Evening Solo Recital

Regular readers of the International Trombone Association Journal will already be familiar with Trombonanza, due largely to the efforts of Dr. Irvin Wagner from the University of Oklahoma, who has attended several of the Trombonanza events in past years and written about it for the Journal. Essentially, Trombonanza is a weeklong celebration of all things low brass, with teaching, learning, and performance opportunities for trombone, euphonium, and tuba players ranging from beginners to university students to seasoned professionals and adult amateurs. The teaching faculty is drawn from throughout Latin America, the United States, and Europe, representing a wide variety of styles, repertoires, and perspectives. Concerts include recitals and solo performances with large ensembles by faculty members, trombone and tuba-euphonium ensemble performances by faculty and students, and two performances by the entire assembled mass of faculty and students—over 170 players!

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Wednesday Evening: Verhelst’s World Concerto with the municipal band

I was invited to attend in order to teach bass trombone, perform a half-recital with piano as well as a concerto with the municipal concert band in Santa Fe, work with student chamber groups, and perform with the faculty ensemble (which I also conducted for one piece). Between all of those activities were clinics and masterclasses for players of different levels, altogether making for some very long days. It was an exhausting but very satisfying week.

Instruction and Performance at Every Level

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Conducting a very fine student trombone choir

As a bass trombone faculty member, I found myself working primarily with older students and young professionals (beginners, after all, rarely play bass trombone), particularly because I was also assigned to conduct the most advanced student trombone choir. This was perhaps for the best, since I speak practically no Spanish, and the classes with older students always had someone there who was able to translate. I enjoyed working through some of the standards of the bass

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Amaru, my “Spanish teacher”

trombone repertoire and a bit of orchestral literature, as well, with such accomplished and motivated students. Still, I had some enjoyable and productive sessions with the younger students; while I usually have very little patience with clichés, the saying “music is a universal language” often seemed to hold true. (Of course, it helped that everyone present could read music!) One boy in particular decided to take me under his wing and try to teach me a bit of Spanish; my first words were “hola,” “cómo estás,” and “wi-fi.”🙂

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Fun!!

A Friendly and Intense Environment

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Conducing the faculty ensemble with soloists Richard Alonso Diaz and Hugo Migliore

What impressed me most about Trombonanza is how the environment there was simultaneously friendly and intense, characteristics which too often seem unable to coexist in the music world. At many musical gatherings, either the environment is friendly but the musicianship suffers, or there is a high level of musicianship but people are egotistical and even ruthlessly competitive. At Trombonanza, though, the faculty and students were unfailingly supportive of and encouraging to one another, even while demanding of themselves and others very high levels of performance. The atmosphere was often familial; many of the students attend Trombonanza each year, and while the faculty members from the US and Europe were new to the event, most or all of those from Argentina and elsewhere in Latin America had attended several times and knew each other quite well. One could even characterize the rapport among most or all of the faculty and students as loving. All of this made for an event that was both personally and artistically satisfying.

One Special Moment

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That’s one big low brass ensemble!

The moment from the week that I found most moving was one in which I was not personally involved at all, but one which I think best characterizes the spirit prevalent at Trombonanza. There was one little boy in the euphonium class who was, I believe, ten years old, and had only been playing for a few weeks. His playing was understandably somewhat behind even the other younger euphonium students, and while he was eager to learn and seemed to enjoy himself, he was not able to keep up very well with the planned ensemble music. Undaunted, one of the tuba teachers, Vasile Babusceac, was determined that this young man would get to perform on the Thursday evening ensembles concert, which was attended by a full house of over 800 people. He arranged to play a short, simple duet for tuba and euphonium with this young man, who performed admirably for someone so new to the instrument. Afterward, the crowd erupted in applause and shouts of “Bravo!” Needless to say, that boy will never forget that night. I’m not sure I will, either—and I’ll even admit to being a bit teary-eyed at that moment.

The reaction—and the presence—of that crowd also highlights something great about Trombonanza: the people of Santa Fe have very much adopted it as “their” festival. All of the performances were attended by concertgoers not connected with Trombonanza at all, sometimes in very large numbers. What a satisfying contrast to conferences and festivals elsewhere whose concerts are attended by the people participating in the event.

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My view at the Saturday morning outdoor large ensemble concert. What a crowd!

Delicious Food!

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Yum!

Beyond the musical experiences, the food in Argentina is terrific. I was told before I left that I had to try the steaks, which were delicious, but the chicken, pork, and fish were also wonderful, and mealtimes provided great opportunities for friendship and camaraderie. Barbecue in Argentina, called asado, is simple yet tasty, usually seasoned only with salt and the flavor given to the meat from the smoke. I drink alcohol so rarely that I am practically a teetotaler, but I did sample several

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Asado!

delicious local beers and wines, particularly at one restaurant that was across the street from a large brewery, with fresh beer pumped in directly through a series of pipes above the roadway. Breakfast is evidently not a big deal in Argentina; we were served very simple morning meals at the hotel and were told that this was typical for their country. Of course, with lunch and dinner being so big who had room for a huge breakfast?

A Wonderful Experience

These short reflections can only scratch the surface of what was a wonderful time of performing, teaching, and fellowship with low brass players from around the world. Toward the end of my visit I was interviewed by a local television station and the reporter asked if I would come back to Trombonanza in the future. If I’m ever invited, my answer will be “absolutely!”

Posted in Alto Trombone, Bass Trombone, Doubling, Euphonium, Higher Education, Micah Everett, Music, Pedagogy, Performances, Playing Fundamentals, Practicing, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, TROMBONANZA, Trombone, Trombone Ensembles, Tuba, Tuba-Euphonium Ensembles, University of Mississippi

“For Everything There Is a Season….”

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace. (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8)

Composers have been setting texts of scripture to music for, well, longer than written music has existed. As is the case with the music of every age, most of these settings have lacked any enduring quality and have fallen by the wayside, but a few special pieces have enjoyed continuous use over the centuries. Think of that glorious setting of Psalm 100 or “Old Hundredth” from the Genevan Psalter (1551), or Handel’s use of multiple texts from throughout the Authorized Version in Messiah (1741). While few would argue that from a musical standpoint The Byrds’ setting of the above text from Ecclesiastes stands up to Handel, Turn, Turn, Turn (1965) is a catchy tune, and thousands of listeners have unwittingly learned the first eight verses of Ecclesiastes 3 by hearing and singing it. Tonight I have no intention of writing a lengthy piece on how to set scripture to music, but I did have this text in mind and can’t think of it at all without singing that song. Perhaps the church would indeed have benefited had The Byrds written more scripture songs.

For the past four days our son has been visiting my parents, and while I’d like to report that my wife and I have enjoyed a period of unprecedented productivity, for the most part we have rested and caught up on reading, though I have puttered about a bit on a couple of small projects in the house. On more than one occasion during these recent days we have marveled at just how much time parenting even one child occupies, and we almost haven’t known what to do with the extra time available to us. As I’ve written in several previous reflections in this space, Jennifer and I were married for nearly nine years before becoming parents through adoption, and so in our young married lives we enjoyed the peculiar freedom that comes with childlessness for a longer period than many of our friends did. That additional free time allowed us to pursue further education, save some money, and have a fuller level of involvement in the church and particularly one of our favorite parachurch organizations, The Gideons International. While in our early years as Gideons we were present at many of the regular meetings and even held officer positions, as parenting has occupied more of our lives my involvement has been reduced to participating in occasional scripture distributions, attending a weekly prayer breakfast, and periodically speaking in churches. Her involvement has lessened even more.

Giving Gideon New TestamentWhile I hope that we will one day be able to again participate in the Gideon ministry and other worthwhile activities in a more fulsome way, my only regret at present has to do with the attitude of my younger self toward other young men or young couples who from my perspective didn’t “do their part” in the church or ministries like the Gideons. Completely oblivious to the real demands of childrearing, I judgmentally assumed that if I had time to participate in this kind of work, so did they, and they simply chose not to do so, leaving most of the work to the mostly retired men who, incidentally, project the image most folks seem to associate with our organization. Certainly we all make choices regarding how to spend our time, and if I put my mind to it perhaps I could even do more work with the Gideons, or at church, or other kinds of volunteering outside the home. But could I so invest that time without compromising necessary obligations of equal or greater importance? Or perhaps to put it even more stridently, do my responsibilities to my family and my employer matter before God just like church-related work does?

As I mentioned in a post just a few weeks ago, one of the most important doctrinal rediscoveries of the Protestant Reformation was that in Scripture God infuses ordinary work with dignity and value, not only specifically religious activities or ecclesiastical vocations. Moreover, we are called to do everything “heartily, as for the Lord and not for men” (Colossians 3:23). If I am to adequately fulfill my present callings as husband and father on the one hand and as musician and teacher on the other, I cannot without sin take on so many additional activities and obligations that I do a disservice to my employer, or to my family. This is not to say I have no obligations to the church, of course, but it is one thing to diligently partake of the means of grace and teach my family to do the same. It is another to run ourselves ragged in an ironic bid to better serve God and neighbor in the name of the One who invited us to come unto Him and rest.

Ordinary by Michael HortonSeveral months ago my wife and I both read a recent book by Michael Horton (b. 1964) entitled Ordinary: Sustainable Faith in a Radical, Restless World. A recurring theme in Dr. Horton’s writings and podcasts of late has been the repudiation of the uniquely American version of evangelicalism—with its oversized churches, celebrity culture among some pastors, and armies of volunteer laborers doing work of dubious eternal value—in favor of, again, the ordinary means of Word, sacrament, and prayer which God has promised in scripture to bless. In other words, it is most often through ordinary people in ordinary churches doing ordinary things that God is pleased to further his work in the world. Rather than running out of the door to every conceivable church activity or Gideon meeting or whatever, perhaps I really do best to be home with my family most nights, to read scripture and pray and sing with them, and to rest in the promise that despite the poverty of our efforts at times (family worship at our house is an occasionally sublime but often sleepy and sometimes angry affair), God really does use these ordinary things to build his kingdom.

Yesterday eleven of us Gideons placed Bibles in a new hotel in town, and I was thankful for the opportunity to participate. While there was a little sadness that I am so often absent from our gatherings and efforts these days, I hope that I am doing the best I can to serve God and neighbor in this season of my life. One day, Lord willing, there will be an “empty nest” and then retirement, and the additional time that comes with that season.

Hopefully we’ll still be allowed to give away Bibles when that day comes.


“For everything there is a season,” and that includes blogging. I’ll be devoting my attention to other things for the next several weeks, and will return here with a new post sometime around August 20 (D.V.). I suppose I might interrupt my planned hiatus if some topic arises that merits my immediate attention, but then again it is not as if the world really needs my opinion about anything. In any case, I already have a full slate of planned topics for the late summer and fall, and will look forward to sharing those thoughts with you then.

Posted in Bible, Books, Christian Worldview, Doctrine, Doctrine of Vocation, Evangelism, Michael Horton, Parenting, Practical Christianity, Providence, The Gideons International, Theology

Summer Activities Preview

It has been my habit to take a break from blogging during the summer and this year will be no different; after this post and another sometime next week I’m going to sign off until mid-August. Having been awarded tenure and a promotion to associate professor at The University of Mississippi effective July 1, my original plan for this summer was to spend more time with my family and on various home improvement projects and very little time on “music stuff,” and to some extent that is going to be the case. However, a couple of major opportunities have presented themselves which I would have been foolish to allow to pass by.

ITEC 2016The first of these is coming up in just over a week, as this year’s International Tuba-Euphonium Conference will be held at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville May 30-June 4. I have not yet decided just how much of the conference I will attend, though I will most likely arrive on Tuesday and depart on Friday. Of greatest interest for me will be my lecture “Preparing to Teach ‘Low Brass’ at the College/University Level: A Primer,” which I will give on Thursday morning, June 2 (the posted schedule says Tuesday, but it has been moved). This presentation will be a somewhat expanded version of a lecture of the same title that I gave at the South Central Regional Tuba-Euphonium Conference back in 2013, and I am happy to be able to address the same topic for a larger audience for my first appearance on an ITEC program. Those familiar with my book The Low Brass Player’s Guide to Doubling will recognize many of the ideas in the presentation, though in this context I’ll be focusing on how to use those ideas to both get and keep one of the limited number of jobs like mine in American academic institutions.

Trombonanza 2016An unexpected opportunity is coming the first week in August, as I’ll be teaching bass trombone, conducting ensembles, performing a short solo recital, and performing Steven Verhelst’s World Concerto with concert band at this year’s TROMBONANZA in Santa Fe, Argentina. TROMBONANZA is the premiere annual trombone event in that part of the world, and I was both surprised and honored to be invited to participate. Regular readers of the International Trombone Association Journal will be familiar with this event, as it has been covered at length in that publication in recent years. I’m looking forward to a busy but fun week with great trombone playing and, I’m told, delicious food and drink as well!

Great River Trombone Quartet

Great River Trombone Quartet

Other than those major items, I’m looking forward to resuming rehearsals with the Great River Trombone Quartet after a long hiatus, taking on a temporarily expanded role in the music ministry at Christ Presbyterian Church, advising students during orientation sessions at Ole Miss, teaching private lessons, and playing a few gigs here and there. In the midst of all that I hope to catch up on my reading, do some fishing, do some work on the house and yard, and begin preparing for a fall solo recital.

Wait a minute…I thought the summer was supposed to be a break!

Posted in Bass Trombone, Doubling, Education, Euphonium, Higher Education, International Tuba-Euphonium Conference, Micah Everett, Music, Music and Worship, Performances, Performing, Practicing, Teaching Low Brass, The Low Brass Player's Guide to Doubling, TROMBONANZA, Trombone, Tuba, University of Mississippi

Why Private Schools are “Cheaper”

As I mentioned in a recent post offering some tongue-in-cheek remarks on the educational system, my wife and I have enrolled our son in a private Christian school, where she also works as a part-time music teacher. I believe that this decision is compatible with a general attitude of support for the public schools, and while I obviously affirm the right of parents to choose private or home schooling for their children if desired, I do not affirm vouchers or other means of siphoning funds away from the public school system. Indeed, as one of my Presbyterian “heroes” J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937; the dude on the far right of the banner at the top of the page) opined, the presence of competition from quality private schools can serve as a deterrent to apathy and inefficiency in the public school system.

While I agree generally with Machen’s assessment, the idea of having public schools mimic the models of successful private schools has been applied in an unhappy way in recent years, particularly by conservative lawmakers championing “fiscal responsibility.” Before I proceed further, and lest my conservative credentials be questioned, I am in favor of limited government, balanced budgets, and state and local control of the public schools. This last item, once a major conservative talking point, seems to have gotten short shrift in recent years as lawmakers in several states have slashed state education spending while simultaneously cutting income taxes and offering tax incentives to large private employers. It seems to me that the more responsible route would be to shore up state budgets so that dependency upon federal funds (and their accompanying regulatory apparatus) could be lessened or eliminated. But, I digress.

There is much talk in conservative circles about how private schools “deliver a better product at a lower cost per student” than their public counterparts. On a surface level, this is true. One reason for this is the relative freedom from government regulation and testing regimes that private schools enjoy. Regulation costs money, as entire offices of administrators must be hired to monitor and enforce regulatory compliance and submit accompanying paperwork to the appropriate government authorities. Standardized tests are likewise hugely expensive, in addition to siphoning valuable time from actual teaching and learning. Some lawmakers have responded to this by authorizing voucher programs or charter schools which are freed from these burdens to a greater or lesser extent. What they never seem to ask is that if these regulations and tests are so onerous, why not simply remove them from the schools we have in order to save money and give greater freedom—and responsibility—to teachers and students? All of the public school teachers I know would rejoice at the thought!

Another reason for private schools’ lower per-student costs is not as easy for public schools to match: parental involvement. While some families have to sacrifice a great deal to pay private school tuition, other private school families are quite well-situated, often with one parent staying home and the other having an enviable degree of freedom of scheduling during the day. This allows moms in particular to log hundreds of volunteer hours per year to keep things moving at schools, while dads are also able to help in various capacities, serve on school boards, etc. In such families one or both parents can almost always be at home with the children during the evenings, making them available to help with homework, provide transportation to various enrichment activities, and generally run their families in a way that minimizes many of the social pathologies faced by public schools, particularly in poorer districts. Indeed, more affluent public schools often enjoy similar advantages in this way to their private counterparts.

Is that to say that less affluent parents care any less for their children? Not necessarily. Of course, one could credibly argue that problems such as absentee parents, drug abuse, poor nutrition, unstable family situations, and the like are more prevalent in economically disadvantaged areas. Still, even the best parents of lesser means doing shift work, working multiple jobs, or otherwise without free hours during the typical school day will be unable to put in volunteer hours, spend as much time working with their own children on homework, etc. Whether because of dysfunctional home environments, inability to contribute after hours to educational endeavors, or some combination of these and other factors, public schools—especially less affluent ones—cannot count on students’ families to offer the kind of support that private school students enjoy. Instead, the school is expected to take up the slack, and that costs money. Money for tutoring, for after-school programs, for free or reduced-cost meals, for medical and counseling services, and the list goes on. Private schools don’t have these things, because the families involved do not need them—the families provide for them themselves.

In a perfect world, all children would have supportive parents with the time and inclination to help them to succeed educationally, both on an individual level and as part of a school community. That this is not always the case is not the fault of the public schools, nor is it within their capability to solve the root problems at hand; problems of which I have but scratched the surface this evening and that in only an anecdotal manner. And yet, public schools are still charged with doing their best to educate children in the best and most cost-effective manner possible. Would lessening the regulatory burden save money? Almost certainly. Can public schools otherwise operate as cheaply as private schools? As long as there are students who are not receiving the needed support at home, almost certainly not. Our society is broken, and empty exhortations to “do more with less” ring hollow when faced with children who desperately want someone to teach them…and sometimes to love them. Can public schools solve these problems? No, but for now they are charged with standing in the gap.

So what is the solution to our society’s problems if not better schools? There’s a Book about it…but you can’t talk about it at school.

Posted in Christian Education, Economics, Education, J. Gresham Machen, Politics, Teachers

Tuba Doubling Report

Although I’ve taught applied tuba for twelve of the fifteen years that I have taught applied lessons at the university level, I have only seriously practiced the instrument and become reasonably proficient at performing on it in the past year or so. There are a number of reasons for this, including the expense of purchasing an instrument and the fear that practicing the tuba, with its substantially larger mouthpiece than my various trombone and euphonium mouthpieces, would somehow negatively impact my playing on my other instruments. Still, my desire to be a better tuba teacher and the opportunity to purchase a very reasonably-priced instrument ultimately overcame my reservations, and I am happy to report that my tuba playing is going quite well. Although there was a very tiny bit of embouchure disruption at the very beginning and I ultimately sold the first tuba I purchased to get one that was more ergonomically suitable for me, adding tuba into my regular practice, teaching, and performing work has been relatively easy. Perhaps more importantly, my tuba students have expressed great appreciation for my efforts, have been patient as I have slowly mastered E-flat tuba fingerings, and have been a little frustrated when I have been able to play their music on an instrument so new to me. All of that said, here are a few reflections on the work I’ve done in the past year, and some of the ideas which led up to it. I’ll say at the outset that my only regret about the whole process is that I didn’t undertake it years ago!

 1. My education as a tuba teacher began well before any formal training as such.

Once I set myself upon the path of establishing a career as a studio teacher I always envisioned myself as a “low brass teacher,” as my undergraduate professor was, rather than only as a “trombone teacher.” To me this made sense, as it would open additional career options for me in addition to providing the satisfying challenges of teaching multiple instruments. As a graduate student I took special care to study euphonium and tuba pedagogy in addition to my required trombone work in order to prepare myself to this end, but my real education as a tuba teacher began years before this. I was fortunate to have serious tuba students among my roommates for the entirety of my undergraduate career, and much of my knowledge of the instrument can be traced to “talking shop” in the single-wide trailer we shared (and practiced in!). Additionally, I fondly remember taking long road trips to a regional tuba-euphonium conference and to the then-famous “tuba room” at the Woodwind and Brasswind store in South Bend, Indiana, where one of my roommates purchased his first F tuba. Some of the most important learning really does take place on informal occasions such as these.

2. The similarities between euphonium and tuba are tremendous.

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

The Low Brass Player’s Guide to Doubling by Micah Everett

I have always viewed the euphonium and tuba as simply different members of the same family of instruments, with very similar approaches to blowing, tone production, and other techniques, only at different pitch levels. In this way I was able to teach tuba by analogy from the euphonium, and with very good success. I applied the same approaches to developing my own tuba playing, and have found that they worked very well, indeed. In a way, this experience has vindicated the approach I have always taken to teaching the tuba, as well as my way of approaching doubling on multiple low brass instruments generally, which is explored in my book on the subject.

3. A buzz is a buzz, is a buzz. Mostly.

A key concept in my book on low brass doubling is that of trying to have the same tonal range on all of the low brass instruments one plays. While different instruments respond more readily and with a better sound to notes in different parts of the range, the player creates the buzz, and it is always desirable to not be dependent upon the instrument in one’s hands to enable the production of a certain pitch. I have continued applying that same approach to the tuba, and really can play almost as high on it as on any of the trombones, and as low on the trombones as on the tuba. Of course, the tuba sounds better than the trombones down low (bass trombone excepted—that sound is different, not better or worse), and vice versa. While I had been concerned that the larger mouthpiece would somehow be problematic for me, that really hasn’t been the case at all.

4. One tuba really isn’t enough to do everything.

The one tuba I own and play regularly at present is an E-flat tuba, which I chose because as a bass tuba it is nimble enough to explore the advanced solo and chamber repertoire for tuba but it is a little bigger and with a fuller low range than the F tuba. Still, trying to play literature and especially orchestral excerpts intended for the larger contrabass tubas (BB-flat or CC) has demonstrated the limitations of this instrument. While I don’t anticipate doing any orchestral tuba playing anytime soon and should be able to manage my present requirements reasonably well with just this one instrument, the serious tubist really does need to own both bass and contrabass tubas in order to adequately meet all performance demands.

5. Want to be more than “just a doubler” on a new secondary instrument? Schedule a solo performance!

In all of my activities as a “multi-low-low-brass-instrumentalist” over nearly twenty years I have never been content to be “just a doubler” on any of my instruments, and the tuba is no exception. Therefore, once I saw things were going pretty well with my tuba playing I immediately scheduled a solo performance. Although the Impromptus for Solo Tuba by Robert Muczynski (1929-2010) might be an odd choice for a first tuba solo performance, the last Faculty Recital Series concert at Ole Miss this year was an entire program of works by Muczynski. This little tuba solo also happens to be his only low brass solo work, so the decision was just about made for me. Preparing solo repertoire is a great way to stretch one’s skills on a new instrument, and I have already begun planning a recital program for bass trombone and tuba for the fall tentatively entitled “The Big Horns.” In the meantime, enjoy this recording of the Muczynski performance.

Posted in Doubling, Euphonium, Higher Education, Low Brass Resources, Mouthpieces, Music, Music Education, Pedagogy, Performance Videos, Performances, Performing, Playing Fundamentals, Practicing, Teaching Low Brass, The Low Brass Player's Guide to Doubling, Tuba

On Making Good Shoes

The Christian shoemaker does his Christian duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes, because God is interested in good craftsmanship.

For those interested in the Protestant doctrine of vocation, that tasty little nugget allegedly spoken by Martin Luther (1483-1546) seems pithy, appropriate, and worthy of sharing on social media. I have been guilty of doing so myself. Alas, it appears that Luther never actually said it. Still, it is not wholly inconsistent with Luther’s teachings on the idea of Christian vocation, which were encouraging and liberating for believers of his generation and continue to be so today.

The medieval church in which Luther was raised and eventually ordained a priest was one which promoted a two-tiered (well, at least two) vision of Christian vocation and identity. While secular professions, family life, and the other trappings of an ordinary existence were permissible and even good for laymen, to take holy orders and enter the priesthood was to enter upon an entirely higher plane of the Christian life. Ordinary people, no matter how devout, simply weren’t a part of this. As Luther studied the scriptures and began to develop the theology of the nascent Reformation, he came to realize that while the church’s ordained offices are of vital importance, the work of ordinary believers is also honored in scripture, and infused with a dignity of its own. Each of us is to serve God and neighbor through our work, and while Luther did not write the pithy quote above, in a 1522 sermon (quoted here) he did say this about the callings of Christian magistrates and other workers:

The prince should think: Christ has served me and made everything to follow him; therefore, I should also serve my neighbor, protect him and everything that belongs to him. That is why God has given me this office, and I have it that I might serve him. That would be a good prince and ruler. When a prince sees his neighbor oppressed, he should think: That concerns me! I must protect and shield my neighbor….The same is true for the shoemaker, tailor, scribe, or reader. If he is a Christian tailor, he will say: I make these clothes because God has bidden me do so, so that I can earn a living, so that I can help and serve my neighbor.

Referring now to the scriptural basis for this understanding, the Apostle Paul wrote the following to the church at Colossae, after speaking to the particular concerns of several groups of individuals:

Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. (Colossians 3:23-24)

This is clearly a key passage upon which Protestants from Luther forward have built their understanding of vocation. In his famous commentary, Matthew Henry (1662-1714) had the following to say about this passage:

It sanctifies a servant’s work when it is done as unto God—with an eye to his glory and in obedience to his command, and not merely as unto men, or with regard to them only. Observe, We are really doing our duty to God when we are faithful in our duty to men. And, for servants’ encouragement, let them know that a good and faithful servant is never the further from heaven for his being a servant: “Knowing that of the Lord you shall receive the reward of the inheritance, for you serve the Lord Christ,” Col 3:24. Serving your masters according to the command of Christ, you serve Christ, and he will be your paymaster: you will have a glorious reward at last. Though you are now servants, you will receive the inheritance of sons.

Sadly, many evangelicals have lost sight of this wonderful and liberating doctrine, and in some cases seem to have developed their own two-tiered understanding of the Christian life not unlike that of the medieval church. By this understanding, “full-time Christian service” is the greatest possible calling, and the rest of us should as much as possible engage in mission work, evangelism, various kinds of service projects, and in general spend as many hours as possible at the church or in church activities. When one must of necessity be engaged in secular work, opportunities for evangelism must always be sought and taken advantage of when present, even to the detriment of one’s professional duties. Sadly, this attitude has sometimes left non-believers with an understandably poor impression of the Christian’s work ethic.

I am not suggesting that ordinary Christians should not share the gospel, engage in service projects, or participate in mission work of various kinds. These things are necessary and good. However, our ordinary callings are also necessary and good, and performing them to the best of our ability is a Christian duty that glorifies God and serves our neighbor. Time spent doing “church work” is not the only time in which we can faithfully serve God.

Today I participated in a Bible study on my own time before work, and after arriving at the office I practiced, taught, graded, and made instructional videos for a teaching and recruiting project, all without direct reference to Christianity at all. Did these things honor God? To the extent that I did them to the best of my ability and with his glory and the service of my neighbor in view, the scripture answers in the affirmative. It is liberating to know that even my ordinary work as a teacher and musician can be honoring to God, though at the same time it is convicting—if diligent work is honoring to God, then slothful work is dishonoring to him. With such a motivation in view, Christians should always be the very best workers!

And if I get an opportunity to speak to someone about the Bible and the Christ revealed therein, that will be wonderful, of course.

But I’ll do it on my own time.🙂

Posted in Christian Worldview, Church, Doctrine of Vocation, Evangelism, Martin Luther, Practical Christianity, Theology

Why I am a Christian

While this blog is dedicated primarily to my teaching and performing work as a brass player, over the nearly four years of writing here I have enjoyed occasionally writing about my views on various aspects and implications of the Christian faith. Today I want to briefly step back and write about something even more fundamental: why I have been and remain a confessing and practicing Christian. The following five headings provide a cursory overview of my thoughts; I have made no attempt to be comprehensive. Strangely enough, I will begin and end with more subjective items and place the more objective ones in the middle. That might seem to weaken the force of my reasoning a bit, but this sequencing is the most honest and the truest to my actual experience and, I’m sure, to the experiences of others.

1. I was raised to be a Christian.

The first reason that I am a Christian is that I was raised as one. That is not a compelling argument for Christianity to the outside observer, but it is an honest observation, as I have never experienced evaluating the Christian faith from a position of ignorance, indifference, or unbelief. My parents brought me to church from infancy, and made efforts to ensure that I knew and understood the scriptures and in time came to own their faith for myself. Adult conversions sometimes happen, of course, and we rejoice at those, but it does seem that God’s ordinary way of building his church is through the faith being passed down from parents to children, and I am thankful that my parents did just that. Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it. (Proverbs 22:6)

2. Christianity is grounded in historical events—things that actually happened.

Setting aside for brevity the various arguments about the timing of creation, the age of the earth, and the historicity of the early chapters of Genesis, the Bible has proven to give us a very accurate portrayal of historical personages, places, and events in the parts of the world it directly addresses. Archaeologists have found it to be a supremely reliable guide to the locations of the ancient cities and civilizations it describes, and documents from other contemporary cultures normally verify what the Bible says about the peoples and events of that time. Most of all, the Bible tells us about Jesus Christ, a man whose existence and activities are as well established as any other figure in antiquity, if not more so. Rather than having us believe in a myth or fable to help us to “be better people,” our faith ultimately rests upon a person who really existed and events that really happened to him—and which the New Testament’s authors invited their original readers to verify by questioning eyewitnesses. (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:3-8) Christianity stands or falls on whether or not this Jesus really was who he said he was, died for our sins as the Bible says he did, and “rose again the third day according to the Scriptures.” Absent any a priori bias against the miraculous, one finds that the Resurrection is one of the best attested events in all of history, and one upon which our standing with God depends. For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. (2 Peter 1:16)

3. Christianity accurately describes and accounts for the conditions of the world and humanity.

The great Christian apologist Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984) spoke often of the importance not only of becoming believing Christians but of developing a “Christian worldview.” He said that everyone has a worldview—a lens through which one views all of life—and that Christianity was only one of any number of such views held by individuals in our society. Of course, these offer competing and often contradictory ways of seeing the world, and Schaeffer opined that every worldview will, at its basis, provide answers to the following three questions. The worldview whose answers agree with reality is the one that should be adopted.

  • Where did we come from?
  • What’s wrong with the world?
  • How can it be fixed?

Biblical Christianity answers these questions rather simply. Humanity was created “very good” in the image of God, marred that image through sin and rebellion, and its problems (and those of the entire creation) will be solved only when Christ returns at the eschaton. The last item especially sounds like “pie in the sky” to many readers, I’m sure, but the first two in particular seem to me to correspond to reality better than any competing views. The idea of an originally “very good” humanity that fell from that goodness accounts for humanity as we observe it—as capable of great goodness and with an innate sense that there is an objective “right” and “wrong,” and yet capable of unspeakable evil both to one another and the creation as a whole. Neither the views that everyone is “basically good” or somehow starts out morally neutral account for all of this, nor does a pessimistic view of man as entirely evil. Still, there is evil in the world, not just among people but even in the physical creation itself. What is the solution to those?

4. Christianity provides the only compelling solution to our problems.

Out of all of human history, the twentieth century is particularly marked by spectacularly failed utopian visions in which people attempted to create a perfect society without reference to God. Marxism cast one such vision, yet resulted in the deaths of millions. Nazism had another (though with a veneer of faux-Christianity) and ended similarly. Various lesser movements have been underwhelming at best and comical at worst. Proponents of all of these movements saw rightly that our world and societies are broken, but failed to correctly diagnose the cause—that we have sinned against a Creator-God to whom we are accountable—and to recognize that ultimately our hope must lie outside of ourselves. So what does Christianity offer? A promise that Christ will return one day to restore all things (cf. Revelation 22:12), and that in the meantime his people are to be not fatalistic, but rather faithful stewards, doing good where they can in anticipation of the Master’s return. (cf. Jeremiah 29:7)

This begins not on a societal level but a personal one. Sin infects not only the society but the individual, and the individual must be redeemed. Just like we are powerless to “fix the world” by ourselves, so we are powerless to save ourselves from the consequences of our own sin. Happily, the same Christ that will one day restore all of creation will freely save all who will repent of sin and believe in him. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)

5. The Spirit’s internal witness.

The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God…. (Romans 8:16)

I am aware that I am ending with what probably appears to be my weakest point, but once again this is true to experience. In the scriptures we find the promise of a supernatural, internal witness of the Holy Spirit that we are indeed God’s children, and the context there in Romans chapter 8 suggests that this witness is strongest at moments of particular weakness or distress. While I have experienced this in some small measure in my own life, this also explains how persecuted believers in previous generations and in our own in some parts of the world have faced suffering and death not only with patience and resignation but with joy and comfort in the loving Father they would soon meet. Lots of people have died for various causes, but to face suffering and death—and even the smaller trials of everyday life—with perfect joy and peace speaks to the supernatural ministry of the Spirit of God.


Most of the time when I read, think, or write about Christianity, the Bible, and the church I like to focus on some particular point of theology, experience, or practice, and to explore them in more depth than I have here. While I don’t imagine that I have convinced anyone to embrace Christianity with these brief reflections, I hope I’ve provided something to think about. When I open the Bible and begin to read I see people like me and like people I know, with problems, virtues, and sins not unlike the ones I observe in myself and in others around me, despite their being removed from us by twenty centuries or more. Most of all, I see the most plausible explanation for the condition of our world, and the only hope for its redemption. I was raised to revere and to believe the Bible, and to entrust my life to the Christ revealed therein. I hope and pray that everyone reading this will do the same. I can’t imagine a compelling reason to do otherwise.

Posted in Apologetics, Assurance, Bible, Christian Worldview, Doctrine, Fatherhood of God, Francis Schaeffer, Practical Christianity, Salvation, The Future, Theology, Truth