Want a Full Sound? Vibrate!

Low brass players necessarily have a great interest in learning to efficiently and effectively move air through their instruments. Tubas and bass and contrabass trombones require that their players generate tremendous airflow in order to produce and sustain a tone, and the euphonium, baritone, and smaller trombones are not far behind. Many teachers and players—myself included—devote at least a small part of each day’s practice time to performing breathing exercises, aerobic exercises, or both, in order to increase the efficiency with which we move air. Unsurprisingly then, when you ask the average low brass student how one produces a full, resonant tone quality, most will unhesitatingly answer “by using lots of air.” Sadly, this answer is incomplete. Airflow is really only part of the equation; one might even say it is only a way of getting to the means by which one really produces a full sound.

Think for a moment about other families of instruments. On string instruments the fullest sound is produced when the bow is moved across the string in such a way that the horsehairs contact the string evenly across the entire width of the bow, and when as much of the bow’s length is used for each note as the musical context will allow. This activates the string in such a way that it vibrates more vigorously. (String players, please forgive my very rudimentary explanation!) Similarly, using the heaviest gauge string that a particular player and instrument can handle will ensure that the greatest possible amount of vibration occurs on each note.

Or perhaps woodwind instruments are more familiar to you. Beginning clarinetists will typically use a #2 or #2.5 reed. While these thinner reeds do not produce the full sound of their thicker counterparts, the weaker embouchures of young players cannot yet handle thicker reeds. Teachers typically want their students to move to #3, #3.5 or greater as soon as possible, though, because the thicker piece of wood means that there is more vibrating area, and thus a richer and fuller sound is produced.

So what is the relevance of all of this to brass players? Just as more string vibrating more vigorously produces a fuller sound on a string instrument, and as more wood vibrating more vigorously produces a fuller sound on a reed instrument, so more “lip” vibrating more vigorously produces a fuller sound on a brass instrument. While moving air efficiently and energetically is important for us as brass players, the purpose of moving that air is to activate the vibration of the lips in the mouthpiece. On brass instruments the fullest, most resonant, most pleasing sound is produced when the greatest possible amount of flesh is vibrating inside the mouthpiece for a given pitch and dynamic level. When the lips do not vibrate freely in response to the airflow provided or only a portion of the lip surface inside the mouthpiece is able to vibrate, the sound quality will be poor no matter how much air one blows into the instrument.

It behooves us therefore as low brass players to focus our energies in practice not only upon airflow, but upon enabling the most efficient and active lip vibrations possible. How do we do that? First, by ensuring that the mouthpiece selected is well-matched both to the instrument being played and the physical characteristics of the player’s embouchure. The cup diameter in particular needs to be wide enough to accommodate free movement of the player’s lips; those with fleshier lips will thus need to use a wide-diameter mouthpiece compared to those with thinner lips. Beyond equipment selection, the prescription for encouraging freely vibrating lips should be obvious: daily practice, including regular and systematic addressing of playing fundamentals. Mouthpiece buzzing, long tones throughout the range, flexibility studies, and range extension exercises (in both directions) are of particular importance. That these things be done daily cannot be overemphasized; because sound on brass instruments is produced by vibrating a part of the body that is not used for that purpose in other activities, daily exercise of that part of the body is vital so that these structures are able to form an embouchure that will vibrate readily (i.e. with minimal muscular effort exerted by the player) in response to the airflow provided.

Airflow is so vital for all wind instrumentalists, and for low brass players in particular, but it is only a means to an end. That air is only useful insofar as it activates vibration in the lips, and if a full and resonant tone is desired the lips need to be able to vibrate freely and vigorously, and with minimal muscular effort. Selecting the right mouthpiece is an important part of this, but the most important thing here is the same as it always is for musicians: “practice, practice, practice!”

 

 

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Posted in Alto Trombone, Bass Trombone, Breathing, Daily Routine, Embouchure, Euphonium, Mouthpiece Buzzing, Mouthpieces, Pedagogy, Playing Fundamentals, Practicing, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Tuba

Remember Why You Do This

Having now spent over twenty uninterrupted years in university music departments as a student or faculty member, I have observed and have come to expect certain rhythms of life which are more or less uniform at all of the institutions with which I have been a part. In about the fourth or fifth week of every semester both students and faculty begin “dropping like flies” due to illness, as pathogens from students’ various places of origin mix, adapt, and grow in the dormitories, apartment complexes, and classroom buildings before overwhelming the immune systems of all but the hardiest among us. The latter weeks of November and April are essentially sleepless for students and nearly so for faculty, as exams, term papers, and major performances come upon us simultaneously. In the midst of preparing for these responsibilities, many music students begin to experience a sense of burnout, wondering if all of this effort to become a musician (whether in education, performance, or some other specialty) is really worth it. Although students usually experience this questioning as a crisis, the question is reasonable and worth asking, regardless of the answer at which one ultimately arrives.

This “what am I doing here?” crisis is perhaps most acute for freshmen, who are for the first time having something that had heretofore been a hobby—an “extracurricular activity”—become instead a “job.” Suddenly music is about more than the simple emotional highs of high school ensembles, and practicing is a daily necessity whether one feels like it or not. Sophomores and juniors have moved beyond the shock of being a first-year music student, but once music is not always superficially “fun” they wonder if they really want to enter the profession after all. Seniors (and “super-seniors”) have usually moved beyond these crises, now wrestling with how to view, present, and comport oneself as a professional adult. Graduate students are freaking out about everything, but are too tired to acknowledge it even to themselves. Faculty members aren’t immune to burnout, either, but have learned from experience to accept as normal that their love of the musical life will ebb and flow. This is, after all, to be expected with any career choice.

I’d like to share a few pieces of advice to music students who are wrestling with the “what am I doing here?” question.

1. Know that occasionally questioning your choice of music as a career is normal, acceptable, and “okay.” Many high school performing ensembles are built upon an ethos that emphasizes “hype” before big performances, and this is what often leads students to choose to pursue careers in music. Once they reach the university, they find that publications and articles aimed at future music educators in particular are full of “rah, rah” that focuses on how meaningful it is to share a love of music with children. To be sure, getting excited about a big performance is fun, and sharing music with children is meaningful, but every single day is not going to be pregnant with existential significance. Some days you are going to be struggling through your third sleepless night studying for a music theory test, or writing drill, or, later, attending seemingly endless parent meetings. It is okay to acknowledge to yourself that after the “flash-bang” passes the musical life involves a lot of lonely drudgery, and it isn’t always exciting or fun. But please know that these feelings of questioning or burnout are normal, despite some musicians’ habit of making those who choose or even consider another path feel like traitors of some kind. Every sane person questions their choice of profession at times, especially one that is as challenging, poorly-compensated, and misunderstood as the music business.

2. Make sure you find yourself another hobby, or at least a part of your life that is not wholly defined by music. The transition of music from “extracurricular” to “job” can be especially hard for music students who have not cultivated other hobbies or interests. While success in a university music curriculum necessarily demands that the majority of one’s time be devoted to musical pursuits (and success as a music educator or performer is little different), if you never cultivate other interests you will find burnout to be a much more likely outcome. Regular readers here know that I enjoy reading, writing, and sometimes teaching on topics related to the Bible and theology. This is an interest that I began to cultivate in earnest as an undergraduate music student, and which has only deepened over the intervening years. While my writings on theological and devotional topics here do not receive nearly the traffic that my music-related writings do, occasionally focusing my thoughts on something else is refreshing and enjoyable for me. Related to this is the rarity with which I participate in any prominent manner in the music ministry of my church (though I do help out in some “behind-the-scenes” capacities)—I like having a part of my life which is not dominated and defined by my work as a musician. (I have also written about this here in the past.) As retired Boston Symphony Orchestra bass trombonist Douglas Yeo has said, “Trombone is something I do, it’s not who I am.” (Mr. Yeo, by the way, is also a committed Christian, and his website and blog are well worth checking out.)

3. Don’t be jaded. There’s an old joke that goes as follows: “How do you get a musician to complain? Give him a job!” In some of my early freelancing experiences I was so turned off by the older musicians’ negative attitudes that I began to reevaluate my career choice all over again. To be sure, sometimes the music isn’t very good, or the strings are out of tune, or the conductor is incompetent, or whatever, but instead of trying to score brownie points with other musicians by talking about how “everything sucks,” focus instead on what a blessing it is to participate in the creation of beautiful sounds for yourself and others to enjoy. As a low brass player, I often find myself counting rests in the back of the orchestra. This is a great opportunity to hear and relish in some of the most sublime sounds in existence, if only I will allow it to be so.

4. Serve God and others. I am fond of saying that “music is a service profession.” Our place as professional musicians and/or educators is to be other-centered rather than self-centered. If I am a performer, then even in the lonely hours in the practice room I am to glorify God by my diligent efforts and by cultivating beauty, so that I can then turn around and give performances that are uplifting to others. If I am a composer, it is much the same, except that I am creating the music that others will perform to the same end. If I am an educator, I am training my students to do the same. In none of these scenarios is my first priority “what I get out of it.” The creation of beauty is a good in itself by which God is glorified (Philippians 4:8), as are diligence in one’s work (Colossians 3:23) and the upbuilding of others (cf. Ephesians 4:29). Being other-focused is one great way to deal with questioning and/or burnout when they occur, as the joy of service endures long after the shallow motivation of “because it’s fun” passes.

5. Remember why you do this. Dear confused, questioning, and burned-out music student, we’ve all been where you are, and it is okay that you are there. While your exhaustion can make it hard to think in this way, remember why you do this. Are the “warm-fuzzies” from high school band good? Sure they are, but they are infrequent and fleeting. Is there a place for idealism about inspiring students like the music educators magazines talk about? Yes, but idealism is a tough sell when you’re sleeping four hours a night. Focus on deeper things, too. Remember what a joy and blessing it is to create beautiful music, and to teach others to do the same. Whatever part of the profession you enter, direct your efforts to the service of others and, if you share my Christian faith, to the glory of God. Avoid those whose jaded attitude toward the profession is a constant turnoff, and make sure you can step away into some other hobby or pursuit from time to time. Not only will the time doing “not-music” be refreshing for you, but it will most likely also inform and enrich your music making.

In the end, I guess I really am encouraging you to remember that “music is fun,” but the fun I am encouraging is not of the fleeting kind that lasts for a few hours after a great performance and then subsides. Rather, it is one that is deep, rich, grounded, mature, able to endure the vicissitudes of life, attitude, and work, and ultimately enriching to yourself, your students, and your audiences. Is that a pursuit worth making your life’s work? I think so!

Posted in Beauty, Career Choices, Education, Higher Education, Music, Music and Theology, Music Education, Performing, Practical Christianity, Teaching Low Brass

Rhythm is More Important Than Pitch (but Don’t Miss Pitches, Either)

Auditions for the Mississippi Lions All-State Band are coming up in just a couple of weeks, so in addition to our regular work on fundamentals, scales, and etudes, sight-reading is presently a major component of my high school students’ lessons. While some students seem to have a very natural aptitude for sight-reading, for most it is a skill acquired only after the overcoming of many obstacles. Foremost among these obstacles is the unhappy habit of prioritizing pitch over rhythm. The vast majority of students that come through my door will stop repeatedly during sight-reading exercises in order to make sure that they are playing the correct pitches, apparently unaware that this practice eliminates any chance of playing the exercise with accurate rhythm. Ironically, in seeking more accurate performances these students deliver renderings that are hardly recognizable.

One of my professors in graduate school was in the habit of saying that “the wrong pitch in the right place is half-right, but the right pitch in the wrong place is completely wrong.” My students have heard me repeat this saying ad nauseam, and a few have begun to take it to heart. Think of it this way: if you play something with accurate rhythm but miss every single pitch, you are still placing sounds where sounds should occur, and silences where silences should occur, and the piece remains somehow recognizable. Conversely, if you play every pitch accurately but pause and fumble and “test the waters” frequently so that the rhythm is obliterated, your “correct” sounds are happening in all of the wrong places, and the piece is nearly unrecognizable.

My suggestion, then, is to prioritize rhythm over pitch. Theoretically a sight-reading performance in an audition with entirely correct rhythm and no correct pitches would still receive half-credit, which is more than you are likely to get if you completely mangle the rhythm by “chasing after notes.” What is more likely, though, is that as your rhythm and timing become more secure your coordination of breath, articulation, and embouchure will improve, and greater pitch accuracy will follow as a result. Strangely enough, by making correct rhythm your first priority you might just achieve greater pitch accuracy than you experienced when prioritizing pitch. The end result? Higher sight-reading scores in auditions, and the development of a skill that will serve you well in the “real world” should you continue in music professionally.

After all, in “real life” sometimes we have to sight-read the gig!

Posted in Alto Trombone, Auditions, Bass Trombone, Euphonium, Music, Pedagogy, Performing, Playing Fundamentals, Practicing, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Tuba

Scripture, then Creeds, then Confessions, then Self

Americans can be a strange people, and this is perhaps especially true of American Christians. Although the percentage of the population claiming a Christian identity has fallen in recent years, the majority of the population still professes adherence to some form of Christianity. However, it is one thing to profess Christianity; it is another thing entirely to know or hold to anything resembling an orthodox expression of the faith. Surveys like this one have repeatedly demonstrated that American Christians in general possess a rather low level of biblical literacy, even in groups which profess strict adherence to the scriptures. And don’t ask about knowledge of important personages and doctrinal disputes throughout church history; the level of knowledge is even lower. While evangelicals at least profess to believe and revere the Bible, too many have very little idea of what it actually teaches, and doctrinal standards often consist in practice of “that’s how we’ve always taught it,” “my church does it this way,” or even worse, “God told me.” Leaving an unpacking of the last statement in particular for some other time, let me set forth a less subjective (and, I hope, therefore superior) approach to forming, reforming, and defending the Christian’s faith and practice. I like to summarize this as “Scripture, then Creeds, then Confessions, then Self.”

1. Scripture. In 2 Timothy 3 we read the following words:

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

If the Bible is what it claims to be, the Word of God in written form, then we are bound to affirm what it affirms, reject what it rejects, and obey what it commands. It should be the Christian’s ultimate and inviolable rule for faith and life. This means at the very least that we should make every effort to develop a full knowledge of what the Bible teaches so that we might live and believe in a way that pleases God, and ultimately find eternal life in Christ.

Still, the Bible is a big book (or collection of books), encompassing multiple authors, time periods, and genres. Some of its teachings are not as clear as others, and the sheer volume of material means that some systematization is helpful in increasing our comprehension of it. That brings us to…

2. Creeds. The great ecumenical creeds (the Apostles’, Nicene [or Niceno-Constantinopolitan], and Athanasian Creeds) are summaries of biblical doctrine that have served the church well for nearly two millennia, setting forth basic understandings of who God is and how people can be saved. It is safe to say that these contain the minimal standards of what might be considered orthodox—Christians of different denominations or traditions that differ on any number of secondary and tertiary issues can receive each other as brothers so long as there is agreement on these core issues. For more specific areas of doctrine, we move on to…

3. Confessions. The confessions of faith of various denominations are the next level of specificity. Whether you know it or not, if you are a member of an organized Christian denomination your church probably officially holds to documents such as the Westminster Standards for conservative Presbyterians, the Three Forms of Unity for those in the continental Reformed traditions, the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith for Reformed Baptists, the Baptist Faith and Message for Southern Baptists, the Book of Concord for confessional Lutherans, and similar documents for other denominations. While members and even officers and clergy of these denominations might take exception to one or more individual (usually minor) points in these documents, in general these represent faithful efforts to systematize, promote, and teach the beliefs of a particular denomination or group—subject, of course, to Holy Scripture.

4. Self. Lastly, self. Rather than making one’s own personal opinions or experiences the ultimate rule and arbiter in matters of faith, it is safest to subject one’s personal opinions to the standards listed previously. For example, I am a member of a Presbyterian church, which means that I subordinate and check my own opinions on matters of faith by the doctrinal standards of my church, the Westminster Standards. For the most part, that is as far as I have to go, as the Standards are demonstrably faithful to the scriptures in practically every respect. In the very few cases (one or two only) in which I take exception to Westminster, I don’t simply say “I don’t like that,” but rather move up the chain as it were, making sure that my opinions are at least consonant with the creeds and, then, with Scripture itself. As it turns out, the areas in which I take exception are some where the Bible is not as immediately clear as it is in others (a circumstance acknowledged by the Westminster Standards themselves), and faithful Christians can be found holding several opinions on these matters. So while I am in very nearly 100% agreement with the stated doctrinal opinions of my denomination, I dare not depart from them at all without believing that there is a scriptural argument for my deviation. The Christian’s primary commitment should be to Holy Scripture; one should never knowingly go against that.

To put my view even more briefly, one should hold tightly to the Bible as the ultimate rule of faith and life, then a little more loosely to the ecumenical creeds, still more loosely to the confessions of one’s denomination, and very loosely indeed to one’s personal opinions. Rather than taking the quintessentially American approach of making primary the beliefs and experiences of the individual, the correct and ultimately safer approach is quite the opposite, subjecting every religious belief to the test of Scripture, in most cases as interpreted by the (not infallible but certainly helpful) creeds and confessions.

Posted in Bible, Christian Education, Christian Worldview, Church, Confessionalism, Creeds, Denominations, Doctrine, Practical Christianity, Theology, Truth

The “Problem Solver” Approach to Music Execution

Regular readers here know that performance anxiety is a topic which I have addressed on several occasions in the past five years, both because I am an occasional sufferer and more importantly because I regularly encounter students who deal with this not only during public performance but even during their weekly lessons with me. Although I’m not sure I’ve said this in so many words in previous posts, one thing I absolutely do not do when students (or I) encounter this issue is admonish them to “not be nervous.” Such a suggestion would be a nonstarter—if one is prone to nervousness that emotion is there and is likely to be there at least for the foreseeable future, and a more successful course of action is to accept it and figure out how to achieve great things musically in spite of it.

Happily, there are a number of steps that one can take which in the short term will minimize the effects of nervousness, and in the long term will help to minimize or even eliminate its presence. Increasing the efficiency with which one undertakes the physical act of playing the instrument, making mental notes of the feeling of playing relaxed when it occurs, performing more frequently, prioritizing service to the audience over exaltation of the self, choosing repertoire wisely, and (obviously) practicing diligently are all helpful steps, and are discussed in more detail here. In a certain sense, these methodologies and others related to them serve to create a certain emotional detachment in the performer, where the act of performing is not so tied to one’s emotional state that anxiety or other negative emotions can derail a performance when they are present.

Instead of investing tremendous emotional energy (whether positive or negative) into a performance, I have found it sometimes found it helpful to think of my role on stage as that of a “problem solver.” In this case the “problem” is that I have to deliver an effective and satisfying performance of the piece of music at hand, and my task is to “solve” this problem by devising and employing means that enable me to achieve this end. This includes technical execution, of course, as well as responding to variables that occur in the midst of performance such as extremes of temperature, poor piano tuning, audience distractions, etc., but it also includes emotive elements. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, the expressive content of a piece can and should be planned in advance, and so programmed into the performance that this content can be conveyed regardless of the emotional state of the performer. After all, as one person remarked on Facebook in response to that article, our job as performers is to give the listener an emotional experience when listening to our music, not necessarily to have the same experience ourselves (though if we do, great!). When I approach performing as a problem solver, I often find that I am much too engaged in this task to have time for performance anxiety.

As with many things in music, this suggestion can be taken to an unnecessarily and unhelpful extreme. The famous tubist and brass pedagogue Arnold Jacobs (1915-1998) said that we all needed to have an “investigator’s hat” and a “performer’s hat,” the former to diagnose and solve problems in the practice room, and the latter to enable effective performance. He warned against wearing the investigator’s hat while performing, lest one become so wrapped up in thinking about how to play that he becomes unable to engage in the simple act of delivering a beautiful performance. This warning is well-taken, and I don’t mean to suggest that the problem solver should be one who obsesses over the minutiae of physical execution during performance, thus experiencing “paralysis by analysis.” Rather, the problem solver should focus primarily on his mental concept of how the piece should sound, and make adjustments as needed in very basic areas of execution (breath, intonation, physical relaxation, etc.) in his quest to realizing that concept. There must be a right way someplace between overanalysis and a “mindless yet hopeful” approach, and at the moment this is the best description I have for it.

 

Posted in Alto Trombone, Bass Trombone, Euphonium, Music, Pedagogy, Performance Anxiety, Performing, Playing Fundamentals, Practicing, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Tuba

Every Piece of Music is a “Song”

stepping-stones-for-bass-trombone-vol-1The advent of iTunes, Amazon music, Spotify, Pandora, and all the other legal means of purchasing, streaming, and distributing music and other media electronically has been a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it has never been easier for artists both new and established to get their work seen and heard by thousands of people in a very short period of time. The severely diminished role of record labels as gatekeepers for new music means that just about anyone with the performing skills, time, money, and marketing savvy needed to produce and promote an album can do so with a much smaller number of middlemen than before. Of course, there is a “flip side:” while it is perhaps easier than ever to produce a professional quality album, it is harder than ever to make a reasonable amount of money from doing so. Fewer listeners than ever before actually buy whole albums, much less albums distributed on hard copies like CDs, and royalties paid even from legal download sites and streaming services are extremely small, on the order of a fraction of a cent per play. Artists who once made thousands of dollars per night selling recordings after concerts now make practically nothing in that way; solo recordings have become little more than expensive business cards. I don’t even have to look to other people’s examples to illustrate this. My own solo recording, which cost well over $10,000 to make, has yielded less than $300 in royalties for me since it was released in 2015. Of course, my reasons for creating an album were as much academic as artistic—the target audience was teachers and students, and my university provided the lion’s share of funding for the project. I never expected to make money. Had I needed to make a profit—or even break even—for the recording to be considered a success, I would have never done it in the first place. If there ever was much money to be made in recording brass music, there isn’t any longer.

SongsWhile I could go on about the effects of electronic downloads and streaming on the recording industry, my main purpose in writing today is related to a less serious effect of the advent of iTunes: the labeling of every track, every movement, every piece of recorded music (and even spoken text and other non-musical sounds) as a “song.” While I have no desire to be that snarky musician who constantly reminds people that “it’s not a song; it’s a piece,” as a music teacher I have a reasonable expectation that my students will be more precise in their writing and other classwork than in colloquial speech. When writing and speaking about music in this way, the word “song” refers to a piece of music that is, well, sung, thus using that word in reference to a concert band piece, a movement of a symphonic work, a piece of chamber music, or anything else that is not a song is sloppy and will receive a merciless rebuke from my red pen. (Yes, I still grade in red, but that’s another topic altogether.) Needless to say, as we move closer to having a generation of college students who do not remember a world without the iPod (the current freshmen were two years old when the first iPod was released), imprecision in speaking of music with regard to genre has lamentably increased.

Snging-Trombone-Vernon

I’m in good company in thinking this way. Who am I to argue with Mr. Vernon?!?

My desire for precision in speaking and writing about music might make my main point for today even more surprising: I am finding it increasingly helpful for both myself and my students to think of the pieces we are performing as “songs.” The first time I said this to a student who had suffered through having papers marked up for such usage the student was understandably surprised, but all have quickly come to understand my point in using the word figuratively in this context. Although this tendency manifests itself differently with players of different instruments, instrumentalists of all stripes are prone to making playing a more physically demanding activity than it is, recruiting muscle groups that are not immediately necessary and with all this effort adding tension and diminishing response and quality of sound. Low brass players in particular have long invoked the metaphor of singing to illustrate the method of playing we should instead choose, one which involves a relaxed body, the free movement of air, and an approach to phrasing that mimics that of a great singer. While the utility of this approach is particularly evident when playing more lyrical pieces, even the most technically demanding works can benefit from a more intentionally “songlike” way of playing. This weekend I’ll be performing the both the Trombone Sonata and the Tuba Sonata by Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) at the National Association of College Wind and Percussion Instructors National Conference, and I have written the word “song” on multiple pages to remind myself of the importance of this approach. Even the intense and not-traditionally-tonal works of a composer like Hindemith benefit from a more “singing” style.

So, students, I guess I’m backtracking a little bit. There are times that you can refer to your “pieces” as “songs,” as long as you are doing so figuratively and with the intended ends of relaxing the body and enhancing performance. Otherwise I’ve still got my red pen in my front pocket!

Posted in Alto Trombone, Bass Trombone, Beauty, Breathing, Digital Revolution, Euphonium, Higher Education, Music, Music Education, NACWPI, Pedagogy, Performing, Playing Fundamentals, Practicing, Recordings, Stepping Stones for Bass Trombone, Vol. 1, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Tuba

It’s Okay to “Go Through the Motions”

Several times in the past few weeks when I have asked students how they could have improved their performances of various playing assignments I have heard responses something like “Well, I could have put more emotion into it.” To be sure, their playing did lack the expressive qualities inherent to great performances, but I am always quick to caution these students that depending upon some mysterious reserve of deep feelings to magically generate emotive content is foolish. As I noted in a post last year on a similar topic, in performance often the most powerful emotions being experienced by the student on stage are fear, anxiety, and apprehension. Drawing upon those feelings will not yield the desired expressive performance, except in the unlikely event that those negative emotions are the ones that the player desires to communicate!

Instead of depending upon manufactured emotional hype, musicians are better served by ensuring that their playing fundamentals are solidly maintained, and then by considering in advance the musical devices (especially variances in tempo and dynamic level) that will best communicate the desired expressive content of the pieces being performed. In other words, I encourage students to plan and program the feelings they intend to convey. This ends up being a little bit like acting, with the musician conveying not the emotions he is experiencing at the moment, but rather those which he believes inhere in the piece. Interestingly, and as I also noted previously, the emotional highs students too often think are necessary to generate great performances are actually the ones that follow from great performances (and when they do it is a great joy!). Generating those performances, however, is often a much more cerebral affair than most non-musicians realize.

Yesterday in our men’s Bible study group (which we have lovingly dubbed the Council of Skateland since our church meets in a converted skating rink) someone asked if the faithfulness of Old Testament-era Israelites who might sometimes have merely “gone through the motions” of offering the prescribed sacrifices could be considered genuine, even if feelings of love and devotion toward God were not always as evident as they could have been. My answer—as well as the consensus of the group—was that it could, for believers both then and now, the latter bringing the “sacrifice of praise” described in Hebrews 13:15, to say nothing of the “living sacrifices” of our very selves (Romans 12:1). Faithfulness to God need not always be characterized by the emotional “warm fuzzies” which are too often considered synonymous with “worship,” though we might sometimes experience those feelings. But sometimes life isn’t happy. Sometimes it’s all we can do to drag ourselves out of bed each day for any reason, including to attend to God’s worship. Some days we can only lament with Habakkuk,

Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. (Habakkuk 3:17-18)

The Bible is full of songs and other expressions of lamentation, putting to death any notions that God’s people will be or are expected to be always happy. Yet we continue in the public and private exercises of God’s worship, even when we don’t feel like it, even when it seems that we are only performing outward exercises. And do we not, interestingly enough, sometimes find that the positive emotions we failed to bring with us to worship follow from it? Do we not sometimes enter the Lord’s house empty and leave it filled? Maybe “going through the motions” isn’t such a fake thing to do, after all.

Longtime readers of The Reforming Trombonist know that I like to draw connections between my work as a musician and teacher and my Christian faith, and while this one might seem a bit tortured, in my own experience it is quite obvious. The music student (and sometimes even the professional) wants to give an expressive performance, but finding only fear and doubt within learns to mimic the outward characteristics of musical expression and finds—to his surprise and delight—that the feelings he thought he needed in order to perform well actually come as a result of performing well. Similarly (though more importantly), the weary Christian, finding “the joy of the Lord is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10) to be a hollow quotation, nevertheless forces himself to perform the rote observances of God’s worship and finds—likewise to his surprise and delight—that the warm feelings of love and devotion that seemed so foreign just a couple of hours before are rekindled as God’s Spirit ministers to him through public and private worship.

Can “going through the motions” be wrong for the Christian? Sure it can. There have certainly been many individuals over the centuries that made an outward show of Christianity but ultimately proved to be false brethren. But for the true believer who is simply “not feeling it that day,” those outward actions might just constitute a tremendous act of faith that God will bless and multiply.

For the musician the parallels end here, because I don’t know how one could be a “false musician.” For you the “the motions” are “the thing.” Learn what great performance sounds like, and then figure out how to create it, regardless of your own feelings. In time, you’ll find that your actual emotions and the ones you seek to convey become increasingly alike as your skills improve and your fears largely (if not completely) subside. That’s when performing starts to become fun!

Posted in Christ Presbyterian Church of Oxford, Christian Worldview, Lord's Day, Music, Music and Theology, Music and Worship, Pedagogy, Performance Anxiety, Performing, Playing Fundamentals, Practical Christianity, Practicing, Teaching Low Brass, Theology, Worship