This Week’s Faculty Recital Series Performance at Ole Miss

As always seems to happen in November and April (the two busiest months in many university music departments), my ability to keep up a regular schedule of posting to the blog has been compromised because of other responsibilities. After today’s post I hope to write something every weekend in May and June, take a break during July and the first week in August, and then return on August 14 or 15 with a report on the Alessi Seminar, which will take place in early August.

Today’s post shares the primary reason for my delinquency in blogging over the past couple of weeks: preparing for this past Monday’s Faculty Recital Series performance at the University of Mississippi. This concert, entitled “Music for Low Brass by Young Composers,” featured works for alto trombone, tenor trombone, bass trombone, and euphonium by composers born after 1970. My collaborator for this concert and all of my solo performances thus far at Ole Miss was Professor Stacy Rodgers, who is both an incredibly talented pianist and in every way a pleasant person with whom to work. He makes me sound better!

While I will likely choose only the best of these videos for more long-term inclusion on my faculty website at the university, here I am presenting the recital in its entirety. The performance was very well received and I was satisfied with it, though there are the occasional blemishes that always occur in performances of live music. The alto trombone piece Mythos II: War of the Wood was especially difficult and somewhat out of character for me, since I tend to be more conservative in my programming choices. However, the challenges for me as a performer generally and as an alto trombonist particularly were very healthy. I know the instrument a lot better now than when I started working on this piece. The newer electronic accompaniment for Pearls, which in its original version is accompanied by piano, makes the piece more interesting, in my opinion.

Anyway, I hope you will enjoy these performances.

Frank Gulino (b. 1987): Southeastern Rhapsody


Nathan Daughtrey
(b. 1975): Coming Home


Roland Szentpáli
(b. 1977): Pearls—I. “Ducati SPS 916”


Roland Szentpáli
(b. 1977): Pearls—II. “My One and Only Love”


Roland Szentpáli
(b. 1977): Pearls—III. “Susi”


David Herring
(b. 1970): Mythos II: War of the Wood—I. “Forest of Enchantment and Delight”


David Herring
(b. 1970): Mythos II: War of the Wood—II. “The Gremlins”


David Herring
(b. 1970): Mythos II: War of the Wood—III. “Sprites”


David Herring
(b. 1970): Mythos II: War of the Wood—IV. “Battle Amongst the Oaks and Elms”


Steven Verhelst
(b. 1981): Concertino

Posted in Alto Trombone, Bass Trombone, David Herring, Euphonium, Frank Gulino, Micah Everett, Nathan Daughtrey, Performance Videos, Performances, Roland Szentpali, Steven Verhelst, Tenor Trombone

The Teacher as Fellow Traveler

I was young when I first started teaching college-level applied lessons. Really young. I had a teaching assistantship and eight students at age 22, an adjunct faculty position at 24, a non-tenure track instructor position at 25, and my first tenure track position at 26. Was this by design? Yes and no. I went straight from college into graduate school, continuing through my doctorate, because I had the financial aid to pay for it all. I emerged with three degrees and zero student debt. As I neared completion of my doctoral coursework I applied and auditioned for both playing jobs and teaching jobs, and a big part of me thought—and still thinks—that some time out there “in the real world” performing full time would have given me some valuable experience and even additional credibility, though I hoped all the while to end up in a university position not unlike the ones I have held for over ten years now. As it turned out, that the people with playing positions didn’t offer me work and the people with teaching positions did. The rest, as they say, is history.

I have to admit, though, that despite repeated success on the academic job market and mostly glowing teaching evaluations, I had quite a bit of insecurity in those early years. Not insecurity regarding what I knew—I really did know what I was doing, even though we all improve with additional experience—but insecurity with the idea that I didn’t know everything about brass playing and teaching. Looking at myself in retrospect, I see a fear of having visiting artists work with my students because they might have a technique or idea or piece of music of which I was unaware. There was also a fear of trying new methods, ideas, and techniques, because finding a better way would force me to admit that I had been playing or teaching in a way that was not ideal on some topic. I felt as if I needed to have already “arrived” (at age 25!), and if I hadn’t then I had little business teaching. Sounds crazy, but that’s where I was in the recesses of my pea-brain.

Arnold Jacobs (1915-1998)

Arnold Jacobs (1915-1998)

So what happened? Well, life happened. I developed problems with my neck, jaw, and back. None of this was caused by brass playing but forced some adjustments in the way that I approach my instruments. Along with these problems came some of the worst performance anxiety I’ve ever experienced. These physical and psychological issues still creep up from time to time, but for the most part they are under control, and in some respects I play better today than I ever have. I can sound good even when I don’t feel good, and the reflections of Arnold Jacobs (1915-1998) on playing well despite physical challenges have been reassuring to me.

Thus it was that in my late twenties and early thirties I went from thinking that I had arrived (or at least that I needed to have arrived) to having to do some substantial retooling of my approaches to brass playing and teaching. I got a good bit worse before I got better again. And do you know what? I am a better teacher for having experienced this. Why? Because I have realized the fallacy of thinking that one ever “arrives.” There are always new ideas, new repertoire, and new techniques to be tried. There are always physical difficulties to be overcome as a result of aging, illness, injury, incorrect techniques, or some combination of these factors. There are always students who will present new pedagogical challenges. And besides all of this, there is the little axiom that certainly holds true in the music business: if you aren’t getting better you’re getting worse. There is no such thing as “arriving;” there is only growing or dying.

Gandalf

Ehhh…not so much.

These days, instead of trying to present myself as some sort of wizened old sage of low brass (at age 35!), I instead emphasize to students that I am simply a fellow traveler with them on the path to great musicianship. I’m simply farther along than they are, and am more than willing to share my past and current challenges with them whenever I think this will further their progress. Gone are the insecurities that plagued my younger self; instead I am more transparent and even vulnerable in how I present myself as a player and teacher, and I think I am more effective for being so, particularly with students encountering significant difficulties in their playing. Being a good teacher requires that I do whatever will best enable my students to succeed, even when that means jettisoning my own ego or false sense of “having arrived.” Those things weren’t helpful, anyway.

As I’ve considered these ideas in recent months I have found myself drawn to a statement spoken by the Twelfth Doctor in the finale of the most recent season of Doctor Who. Throughout that season The Doctor experienced something of an existential crisis, wondering whether he was a “good man” or a “bad man,” knowing that he always tried to do the right thing but sometimes failed, and sometimes his choices were between “bad” and “worse” outcomes without the possibility of a genuine “good.” In this episode, having encountered the latest incarnation of his arch-nemesis The Master (now “Missy”) and trying to figure out how he can defeat his enemy’s latest evil scheme, he joyfully concludes

"Doctor Idiot"“I am not a good man! And I’m not a bad man. I am not a hero. I’m definitely not a president. And no, I’m not an officer. You know what I am? I… am… an idiot. With a box and a screwdriver, passing through, helping out, learning.”

There is much freedom to be found in not trying to present oneself as the greatest musician ever or as some sort of hero of the trombone. I’ll be content to be “an idiot. With a trombone and a euphonium, passing through my students’ lives, helping them out, and still learning myself.”

And when I see some former or even current student pass me on that path to great musicianship, I’ll gladly and without any insecurity give him or her a high-five and all the encouragement I can.

Posted in Career Choices, Doctor Who, Education, Higher Education, Music, Music Education, Teaching Low Brass

On Being “Crazy-Normal”

Several weeks ago our church held its annual Bible Conference. Before you get too excited and think that this is a big event hosted by a big church, be assured that this is not the case. Our church is not very large (fewer than 300 members, I think, though visiting students and families can sometimes swell Sunday morning attendance to 500-ish). Furthermore, though the term “Bible Conference” conjures an image of large numbers of visitors from the surrounding area, ours is basically a Saturday and Sunday where our own members gather more frequently to hear extra preaching and teaching from guest speakers. It is still a delight for us.

This year’s primary speaker was Dr. John Leonard, a former professor at Westminster Theological Seminary and pastor of Cresheim Valley Church (PCA) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This year’s conference theme was on evangelism, and Dr. Leonard was an appropriate speaker, given his experience as a missionary, church planter, and author of Get Real: Sharing Your Everyday Faith Every Day. This evening I would like to share an idea from one of his talks that I found particularly helpful. While I fear that the passing of several weeks might have made my memory of his talk a bit fuzzy, I hope I am at least conveying the gist of it correctly.

Throughout his presentation (and, one assumes, in his own practice of evangelism), Dr. Leonard showed little patience for methods of sharing the gospel which are forced, overbearing, or otherwise contrived. These make even well-meaning Christians seem disingenuous and can cause both participants in such an exchange to be very uncomfortable indeed. He also did not believe that Christian movements which make their adherents seem unnecessarily strange to outsiders to be particularly helpful. The gospel message is already foolish and offensive to non-Christians (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:18); there is no need to make it even more so by an off-putting demeanor or an unduly aggressive approach.

To explain his point, Dr. Leonard had us draw a chart on which the vertical axis showed two extremes of “sane” and “crazy,” and the horizontal axis two extremes of “normal” and “strange” (or something like that). For the purposes of this discussion, these terms can be defined as follows:

“Sane:” Having opinions and viewpoints (in other words, a worldview) that more or less tracks with that of the wider secular society.

“Crazy:” Having a worldview so shaped by the Christian faith that one’s opinions and viewpoints often seem, well, crazy, to those that don’t share that faith.

“Normal:” Having a demeanor, language, dress, habits, interests, etc. which are common to people in the society in which one lives, regardless of faith commitment (or lack thereof).

“Strange:” Having a demeanor, language, dress, habits, interests, etc. which are unusual in the society in which one lives, often deliberately so.

The chart illustrating these pairs of extremes looks something like this:

Chart

In this scheme, the “Sane-Normal” person is your average person living in secular society with ideas and interests common to that society, and with either no faith commitment or at most a loosely-held religious affiliation or concept of spirituality which has little effect upon one’s life and thought. The “Sane-Strange” person has those same basic ideas and interests, but has certain modes of dress or other lifestyle quirks which might strike others as unusual. (Think of, in different decades, hippies, punk-rock, grunge, etc.) The “Crazy-Strange” person holds to a more or less orthodox Christian spirituality, but with certain lifestyle traits which are off-putting to others. The Amish are an extreme example; less extreme examples might include conservative communities which seem to want to recapture lifestyles and mores of previous generations, such as one might find in many (though certainly not all) homeschooling communities. Vision Forum was, before the tragic downfall of its founder, an organization that offered books, products, and conferences promoting something of what I’m talking about here. (Full disclosure: I thought Vision Forum offered a number of useful products which I gladly purchased without fully buying into its viewpoint on certain matters.)

In contrast to these, Dr. Leonard advised that Christians should seek to be “Crazy-Normal.” We are right to cultivate a rigorous, thoroughly biblical worldview, one which permeates our thinking and affects everything we do to a greater or lesser extent. The ideas which emanate from such a worldview will very likely seem crazy to those who do not share it. And yet at the same time, we are not to seek to escape our present context. Christians raised in any society will share any number of interests, habits, and mannerisms that are common to people in that society regardless of religion. Rather than eschew these, we should enjoy the good things we find in this world, pursue healthy relationships with our neighbors, and seek the well-being of the societies in which we find ourselves. (Think of Jeremiah’s words to the soon-to-be-exiled people of Judah: “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” [29:7]) While our “crazy” Christian worldview will sometimes limit our ability to fully participate in some aspects of the wider society, there is nothing wrong with cultivating interests and activities which we share with those outside the faith so long as these do not somehow violate the teaching of Holy Scripture.

This way of approaching the Christian’s life in the world is quite liberating. It frees the serious believer from thinking that he must completely eschew all the trappings of earthly society in order to be a good Christian, and yet tempers that freedom with the understanding that our first allegiance is to God and to the Scripture in which He reveals Himself to us. This will inevitably lead to points of disagreement and even conflict with our unbelieving neighbors, and that is okay, so long as the conflict indeed arises because of genuine offense at the faith, not because of Christians behaving in an offensive manner toward others. (cf. 1 Peter 4:14-16)

So what does all of this have to do with evangelism? Only this: if we cultivate a lifestyle that is winsome and genuinely welcoming to others, one in which the light of Christ is always evident and yet is never forced or overbearing or made to seem unnecessarily weird, then opportunities to share the gospel might just present themselves through the relationships we build. We should certainly pray for opportunity and willingness to be used to that end,  while ensuring that our conduct as Christians does not deter our friends, neighbors, and loved ones from coming to Christ by faith.

Posted in Christian Worldview, Evangelism, Practical Christianity

True Confessions: I Dislike “Euphonium”

Just a brief post for this week, and a couple of days early. Unlike many of my trombone-playing colleagues, I am not attending the American Trombone Workshop (formerly the Eastern Trombone Workshop) this week. As a “switch-hitter” with professional interests in both the trombone and tuba-euphonium worlds, I divide my time between activities related to both, and am almost never able to attend every conference and gathering that I would like. In just under twelve hours I’ll be taking thirteen students from Ole Miss to the South Central Regional Tuba-Euphonium Conference, held this year at the University of Central Arkansas. The UM Tuba-Euphonium Ensemble will be performing on Friday afternoon, and then I will give a brief solo recital on Saturday morning. To my knowledge, this will be the first event of this kind for all of these students, and I am looking forward to seeing their understanding of the possibilities of their instruments being broadened through attending concerts, clinics, and lectures. In fact, I am looking forward to this almost more than to our performances!

Given my planned activities for the remainder of this week, perhaps my chosen topic is surprising. Before you call me a hypocrite (or worse), though, please read my title carefully. I did not say I dislike playing the euphonium, that beautiful-sounding tenor member of the tuba family with its rich, velvety tone and smooth slurring. Adding this instrument to my performance activities has been wonderful for my musical life, the euphonium’s strengths and weaknesses almost perfectly counterbalancing those of the trombones. I would be a lesser musician if I did not play it, and possibly an unemployed one, as most of my teaching positions have required that I play and teach at least one valved low brass instrument in addition to the trombones.

No, my dislike is simply for the term “euphonium.” Derived from a Greek term meaning “good sounding” or, more loosely, “pretty sounding,” the term strikes me as a remnant of over-the-top nineteenth-century marketing. I can imagine some inventor saying “Hmm. I have a new instrument here that I would really like to sell and have become part of bands everywhere. I know—I’ll call it the ‘pretty-sound,’ but in Greek so it sounds artsy.”

Not only is the word a little too much, but the name gives the general listening public no clue as to what the actual instrument is. American school band directors often erroneously call the instrument the “baritone” or “baritone horn,” so the public is slightly more familiar with those terms, but only slightly. While these instruments are related to the euphonium, they differ in bore and bell size, physical dimensions (euphonium is larger), bore profile (euphonium is conical while baritone is cylindrical), and sound (the euphonium is more tuba-like while the baritone is more trombone-like). If you would like to see comparison photos or read more about the differences between the two, see this helpful article by retired United States Coast Guard band euphoniumist David Werden.

While I have great sympathy with the desire to eschew the over-the-top term (and sometimes I think people think I’m being snarky when I continue using it), I can’t bring myself to use the word “baritone” because, well, I know what a baritone is and it has a different appearance and sound than the euphonium. No, if we’re going to get away from the term “euphonium” an entire change in nomenclature is needed.

I see two possible solutions. First, we could jettison the word “euphonium” and refer to the instrument instead as the “tenor tuba.” This idea has a great deal of merit. The instrument is already labeled tenor tuba on the rare occasions that it is employed in the symphony orchestra, and it is essentially the tenor member of the tuba family (though some would argue that there is a slight difference between the euphonium and tenor tuba). Non-musicians seem to be able to imagine what the instrument is and what it sounds like when I describe it this way, and as a trombonist playing the euphonium as a secondary instrument I find that envisioning a more tuba-like sound helps me to achieve the desired result.

Another solution would be to shift to more of a German-type nomenclature for valved low brass instruments rather than the British or hybrid-American ones. In British brass band instrumentation (where the euphonium plays a central soloistic role along with the cornet), the E-flat cylindrical mid-range instrument is called the “tenor horn.” There are two or three of these, along with two baritone horns and two euphoniums (yes, baritone and euphonium as two different instruments, playing different parts.) This nomenclature for baritones and euphoniums is typically followed by professional players in the United States (though often conflated by others as stated above), but the E-flat instrument (rarely used today outside of British-style brass bands) has normally been called the “alto horn.”

In German-speaking lands, though, a nomenclature for some similar instruments to the ones I am describing used “althorn” for the E-flat instrument, “tenorhorn” for the smaller and brighter B-flat instrument, and “bariton” for the larger and darker B-flat instrument (though “euphonium” is now used to describe more British-type models). If we could just all call the E-flat instrument the alto horn, the cylindrical B-flat instrument the tenor horn, and the conical B-flat instrument the baritone horn, we could get rid of the word “euphonium” altogether, the general public would be less confused, and the entire American concert band movement would suddenly be calling the instrument by its proper name. Everyone wins!

Of course, none of this will ever happen, and in case any readers are upset by my thoughts here let me assure you that my tongue is firmly planted in my cheek even as I write. I love playing the euphonium and will continue calling it that, and with as little snarkiness as possible. Still one can dream…. :)

Posted in Euphonium, Music, Nomenclature

Addressing the Valsalva Maneuver in Brass Players

Earlier this week a very prominent (and much better than me!) brass player asked in an online forum if the Valsalva maneuver was still a problem seen with brass players, as he had not heard much about it recently. As I and several others replied, it is still very much a “thing,” one that can be rather challenging to address with students. The Valsalva maneuver is a bodily function in which the airway is closed and a forced exhalation against that closed airway is attempted, often as a means of gathering strength for heavy lifting, defecation, or childbirth. While this is not necessarily harmful in those instances, performing this action during brass playing has a deleterious effect upon one’s music making, causing delayed attacks, a telltale “grunt” upon articulation and sometimes even when slurring, and an overall tense approach to the instrument. In extreme cases, use of the Valsalva maneuver while playing can contribute to the development of disorders such as focal dystonia.

Happily, the process of eliminating use of the Valsalva maneuver is simple to describe and, in theory, to execute. The challenge lies in the difficulty of changing one’s fundamental approach to the instrument, the necessity of unwinding sometimes a great deal of unnecessary tension, and the long-term repetition of these steps required to make the new approach the one which the player employs instinctively. The steps I will describe below can be undertaken immediately, and yet must be performed repeatedly over a long period of time in order to realize lasting success.

  1. Recognize and acknowledge the problem.

Often students who enter my studio using the Valsalva maneuver when playing are not even aware that they are doing so. They might be vaguely aware of tension or inefficiencies in their playing, but do not hear the “grunt” or feel the tension in their throats—after doing it this way for so long, the sometimes painful feeling of throat tension is perceived as normal by these students. Recording students so that the tension can be observed and the grunt heard (microphone placement is important here) can help, though often it is only after experiencing relaxed playing even briefly that students realize that there is another, better way.

  1. Understand that using the Valsalva maneuver is a manifestation of a larger timing problem.

I suppose there is a bit of a “chicken or egg” question here. Do students use the Valsalva maneuver because their coordination of breath and attack is ill-timed, or is that coordination ill-timed because of the Valsalva maneuver? I tend to think it is the latter, but in either case defining this as largely—even primarily—a timing issue is an important part of eliminating the problem. Emphasize the importance of inhaling and then buzzing in time, with no hold or pause between the inhalation and the beginning of the note. In other words, the process should be “breathe-play” not “breathe-set-play” and much less “breathe-hold-set-play.” Brass embouchures are relatively simple phenomena, and the formation of the lips should occur simultaneously with the attack and the beginning of the buzz. There should be no need to “set the embouchure.” Simply breathe and play, and use the metronome to ensure steady time. (Note: Students who use the Valsalva maneuver are often averse to practicing with the metronome…because the metronome reveals the timing problem! Metronome practice is absolutely necessary to ensure the correct timing of breath and attack, perhaps especially when playing long tone exercises and other slower materials. In fact, practicing with the metronome 100% of the time for a while is advisable for these students.)

  1. Practice breathing and blowing without the instrument.

Moving on to more concrete steps, have the students breathe and blow through their exercises and pieces without the instrument. Everything else should be the same: use the metronome, emphasize inhaling and exhaling without pause, and even insist on blowing the amount of air that would be used when playing the passage. Move the valves or slide as would be done with the instrument, and articulate normally, but with no instrument (“air trombone!”). The vast majority of students will not continue to use Valsalva apart from the instrument (I have only had one who did), so this is a good way to help the student become acclimated to the feeling of freedom in the throat and of breathing and blowing without pause.

  1. Practice breathing and blowing (but not buzzing) with the instrument.

Next, repeat the above step with the instrument, but still without actually buzzing (in other words, “air play”). The object here is to repeat the feeling of good timing and freely blowing achieved in the previous step, but this time while holding and manipulating the instrument normally, sans buzz. Some students might begin to display Valsalva symptoms in this step, but it is much more noticeable to them when there is no sound coming out of the instrument. Starting again and perhaps repeating the previous step is necessary when this occurs.

  1. Play the passage, maintaining the feeling of the above steps.

Finally, have the student play the exercise or piece, still with the metronome, and trying to maintain the freedom of breathing and blowing achieved in the previous two steps. Chances are this will only last a couple of bars at first before the old habits begin to reassert themselves, but with persistence occurrences of the Valsalva maneuver will become more rare over time.

The Breathing Book by David Vining

The Breathing Book by David Vining

Again, regular repetition of these steps over an extended period will be necessary in order to eliminate the problem, as well as to address “flare-ups” that might occur throughout a person’s career. Like so many poor playing habits, use of the Valsalva maneuver can recur if one does not mindfully and deliberately take steps each day to reinforce correct playing habits. Use of a thorough daily fundamentals routine is a helpful part of establishing, building, and reinforcing good habits because this provides an opportunity to focus upon playing correctly without devoting mental energy to processing and executing the music in front of you. Those prone to Valsalva and other types of excessively tense playing might find regular use of The Breathing Book by David Vining to be helpful, as well.

Posted in Alto Trombone, Bass Trombone, Breathing, Daily Routine, Euphonium, Low Brass Resources, Music, Music Education, Playing Fundamentals, Practicing, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Tuba, Valsalva Maneuver

Should I Have Been a Pastor?

Regular readers of this blog have by now figured out that I harbor more than a passing interest in the study of theology. Although I first professed Christ as a young child and have always been an active church member, my interest in theological study did not begin until I developed a greater interest in reading generally after my first year as a university student. By my mid-twenties I had begun taking in some fairly heavy works, and just before my thirtieth birthday I began a certificate program in systematic theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary via distance learning, which I completed in less than two years. At present my theological library rivals those that I have seen in some pastors’ studies, and I have written and published small theological and devotional articles and reviews not only on this blog but in a few magazines and journals. With this evident interest and aptitude, a few years ago I began to seriously question whether I should abandon my present career and enroll as a full-time seminary student, and then seek to become a pastor.

There were some definite benefits of pastoral ministry that appealed to me. As a university professor in the performing arts, being a conservative Calvinist puts me in a very different place philosophically, politically, and socially than many of my colleagues and students. Conversely, my fellow church members do not always understand exactly what it is that I do for a living and why it matters. The idea of ceasing the straddling of two worlds that I sometimes felt and still feel was appealing. Also contributing to my consideration was the impact of state budget cuts at the regional university where I was teaching at the time. A part of me seriously began to wonder whether our Lord would use the elimination of my teaching position to push me into the seminary.

<i>Called to the Ministry</i> by Edmund P. Clowney

Called to the Ministry by Edmund P. Clowney

I read—and re-read—a little book entitled Called to the Ministry by Edmund P. Clowney, a volume intended for men evaluating whether or not they may be called of God to enter the pastorate. Clowney does not mince words, stating that “The call of the Word of God to the gospel ministry comes to ALL those who have the gifts for such a ministry.” (79) Examining my own self, and knowing myself to be possessed of at least some aptitude in theological matters, I continued to wonder whether Clowney’s challenge was indeed applicable to me. I even began to inquire into the possibility of transferring the eighteen credits I had earned at PRTS to the Jackson campus of Reformed Theological Seminary, which is near my hometown.

Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892)

Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892)

Still, seeking further counsel, I contacted Dr. Joel R. Beeke, President of Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and the professor for the courses I had taken in systematics. He kindly agreed to speak with me via telephone, and in that conversation confirmed that he believed, based upon my academic work at the seminary, that I had the necessary theological aptitude for seminary work and perhaps the pastorate. But, he asked me another question: Could I do something else? Could I stay out of the pastorate and still be content with life as a Christian layman, pursuing my secular profession for the glory of God? If the answer was yes, his counsel was that I continue my current career rather than abandon everything and enter the seminary. Dr. Beeke reminded me of how often Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892), that great British preacher, so often invoked the Apostle Paul’s statement “woe is unto me, if I preach not the gospel!” (1 Corinthians 9:16) If I could not say the same, if I could sleep at night without immediately setting out to become a pastor, then full-time ministry was likely not for me.

I was taken aback by Dr. Beeke’s counsel, but appreciated his honesty. After all, had I left the secular academy to study for the pastorate and attended PRTS the institution he headed would gain several thousand dollars in tuition. Still, I think his counsel was wise and correct. Enjoying the study of theology does not alone make a pastor. Those men entrusted with the care of souls must also be able and prepared to bring that theology to bear upon the lives of real people, in their preaching, prayers, and counsel. People with real problems, real challenges, real fears, real conflicts, and real sins. It is a high and difficult task to which the pastor is called, not a life of ease and leisure as some folks sometimes think. Sure, the work is not physically draining most of the time, but intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually it is a daunting task, not at all for the faint of heart, or those not called by God to it. I found the prospect of time in the pastor’s study very appealing, but was I ready for the real work of ministry? Perhaps not.

Should I have been a pastor? I’m certainly thankful that I did not enter the seminary just out of the university at age 22 (nor had I even thought about it at that time). Having been blessed with several pastors in my life that were either second-career men or bivocational, I can say from my own observations that those men who enter the pastorate after some time in the “real world” bring a maturity and perspective to their work that the younger men sometimes (though certainly not always) lack. After experiencing a great deal of blessing on my work as a musician and teacher in the four years since my serious consideration of pastoral ministry, I am confident that remaining in my current vocation was the correct decision, though I remain ready to serve the church in whatever capacity I might be called. And I still enjoy sitting behind my keyboard and sharing my ruminations with the tens of people that read my writings on theological topics. (Seriously, statistically the articles about music receive many times the number of views that the ones about theological topics do.)

And yet, that nascent desire for the pastorate lurks in the back of my mind, and sometimes comes out for a bit of fresh air. I have every intention of remaining in my current vocation until I retire; it is a challenging and fulfilling one, to be sure. But, who knows, besides the Lord Himself?

Posted in Bible, Career Choices, Pastoral Ministry, Providence, Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, Reading and Study, Theological Education, Theology

Missed Partials are “Real” Missed Notes

Brass players have a peculiar challenge that many other instrumentalists do not share in that in that brass instruments have multiple notes available for each fingering or slide position. This means that the player must not only depress the correct finger(s) and/or find the correct slide position but that he must also vibrate the correct pitch with the embouchure in order to play accurately. While most students are rather conscientious about correcting fingering errors, often those same students will excuse missed partials (i.e. where the player buzzes the wrong pitch despite using the correct fingering or slide position) in the practice room and even in performance. While a small amount of inaccuracy is to be expected even in the best players (we are, after all, only human), excusing these inaccuracies too easily will lead to unnecessarily sloppy playing. Here are seven suggestions for improvement in this regard.

  1. Resolve to Not Excuse Missed Partials.

The first step is a simple one: decide that missed partials are, in fact, “real” mistakes that are to be eliminated. That seems obvious, but for many students it’s not. For that matter, even those of us that play professionally will sometimes let a “fracked note” or other partial error go by in the practice room, tacitly assuring ourselves that it won’t happen again. Successful performances do not come from dismissing minor errors; they come from eliminating them. Demand perfection from yourselves.

Learn How Your Music “Goes.”

As I mentioned in another post about a year ago, successful playing requires that the player know the sound for which he is striving before he attempts to produce it. This is true for any instrumentalist, but is especially true for the brass player, whose process of tone production is more akin to singing than those of other instrumentalists—the vibration is simply moved from the vocal folds to the embouchure. While the natural tendencies of the instrument provide some help, ultimately the player is responsible for hearing the pitches and producing vibrations in the mouthpiece. If you don’t know how the pieces you are working on are supposed to sound, you’re reduced to “putting the slide (or fingers) in the right place and hoping for the best.” This is not a recipe for success.

  1. Develop Your Ear.

On a related note, develop your ear, that is, the ability to know what a piece should sound like simply by looking at it. While the above suggestion about learning “how it goes” is great for pieces that one prepares over time, it is not entirely adequate for situations in which one is sight reading. And yet, sometimes in the “real world” sight reading the gig is the order of the day. Develop your reading, listening, singing, and solfège skills so that you become increasingly adept at knowing “how it goes” simply by looking at it.

  1. Correct Your Physical Approach to the Instrument.
<i>The Breathing Book</i> by David Vining

The Breathing Book by David Vining

While problems with audiation are often a big factor in missing partials, errors in how one plays the instrument can lead to poor performance no matter how good your ear is. Poor posture, unnecessary tension, faulty understandings of breathing, and related problems often lead to inaccuracies in tone production, and can be present even in very advanced players. I recommend that every brass player purchase, read, and regularly complete the exercises in The Breathing Book by David Vining. This short book, with editions for all of the common brass instruments, provides a systematic overview of correct usage of the body, an approach centered upon breathing but ultimately affecting all aspects of playing. If we are honest, all of us have inefficiencies whether great or small that creep into our playing from time to time. This book is one useful tool for detecting, diagnosing, and remedying such inefficiencies.

  1. Develop Good Timing.

Sometimes missed partials are not the result of problems with the breathing apparatus or embouchure, but rather of problems with the player’s coordination of these things. Players without good time (i.e. the ability to feel a musical pulse internally; this is different than the perception of rhythm) will often introduce one or more “hiccups” between inhalation, exhalation, embouchure formation, and buzzing in a way that disrupts the creation of sound and often leads to missed partials in particular. Practicing breathing and buzzing in time, without pausing between inhalation and exhalation, is vital here, as is the use of a metronome or even a backbeat of some kind generated from a computer or other device.

  1. Buzz Your Mouthpiece.

I often tell students that mouthpiece buzzing is helpful because it is intolerant of inefficiencies in one’s use of the body, particularly the embouchure, when playing. Buzzing helps with ear training, efficient use of the embouchure, and particularly with cultivating the sound and feeling of constant buzz, particularly in slurred passages (which should be buzzed as glissandi). While excessive amounts of mouthpiece buzzing can be harmful, a small amount each day is vital to accurate and successful brass playing.

  1. Practice Until You Get It Right…Repeatedly!

The suggestion that one practice a lot should go without saying, but don’t just practice a lot—practice correctly, and repeatedly. Whether you are dealing with missed partials or some other type of error, don’t stop practicing a passage when you get it right once—if you play something incorrectly multiple times and correctly only once, which one have you practiced more? In that case the same errors will almost certainly reemerge during the next practice session. Practice your materials—and particularly problematic passages—until you play them perfectly several times in a row. In other words, don’t practice until you get it right; practice until you can’t get it wrong!

Posted in Alto Trombone, Bass Trombone, Breathing, David Vining, Ergonomics, Euphonium, Mouthpieces, Music, Performing, Playing Fundamentals, Practicing, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, The Breathing Book, Trombone, Tuba