On “Minimal Motors”

Arnold Jacobs (1915-1998)

Arnold Jacobs (1915-1998)

One of the great regrets of my musical education was that I was never able to arrange for a lesson with renowned Chicago Symphony Orchestra tubist Arnold Jacobs (1915-1998). I was not far into my undergraduate career when I first became aware of Jacobs and his work, and had resolved that before graduating from Delta State University I would make the trek up to Chicago in order to work, however briefly, with one of the twentieth century’s greatest brass pedagogues. Sadly, Jacobs passed away before I was able to realize that goal, so my knowledge of his teaching has come second- and third-hand, through books, recordings, master class notes circulating on the internet, and even anecdotes shared by his students. Even so, the available materials are a goldmine for brass players and teachers, and I am thankful for what opportunity remains for us to sit, as it were, at the feet of this great master, even after the passage of so many years.

Someone with only a superficial understanding of Jacobs’s teaching or perhaps who is only beginning to study it might come away with the idea that his pedagogy centered upon breathing. This is understandable, given that Jacobs was a recognized expert on pulmonary function, having undertaken some study in this field at the University of Chicago medical school, and pioneered a number of diagnostic and practice tools designed to improve the use of the breath when playing wind instruments. Nevertheless, the more familiar I become with Jacobs’s pedagogy the more I realize that while he had a great understanding of the function of the body when playing and believed that one should both develop and utilize such understanding, particularly for diagnostic purposes, he believed that successful performance demanded not complex functions but simple ones. Successful musicianship comes not from trying to consciously micromanage the multiple muscular actions needed to play an instrument, but by allowing the subconscious “computer level” of the brain to handle those things (as it does in every other activity) and focusing the conscious mind on the desired musical results. Jacobs believed, taught, and demonstrated that the body will respond—and respond well—to exceedingly simple mental commands having to do not with individual muscle movements, but with the desired product. The result is an approach to playing that is relaxed, efficient, and joyful for both player and listener.

One aspect of this teaching is the concept of “minimal motors,” which involves playing with the smallest amount of physical effort possible, and consequently the releasing of unneeded tensions in the body. In my own experience as a player and teacher I have observed that brass players carry tension in all sorts of places—the neck, shoulders, abdomen, and even glutes and legs can be affected. While varying amounts of muscular effort are necessary depending on the specific demands of different playing situations, any effort that does not somehow function to enable good playing detracts from it and therefore should be eliminated. To play with minimal effort is a lifelong quest for the brass player, but is a necessary one. Here are few reasons why.

  1. “Minimal motors” enables the fullest, best, most relaxed sound possible.

Singers especially are aware of the body’s function as a resonator. One reason that Luciano Pavarotti (1935-2007) was able to produce such a big, gorgeous sound was that his barrel-chested frame helped to facilitate his production of such a sound. While the body’s acting in this way is less pronounced for instrumentalists, it is still helpful for us to be as open and relaxed as we can on a given pitch in order to produce the best possible sound. Relaxed muscles allow this to happen; tense muscles do not.

  1. “Minimal motors” aids in flexibility.

Successful music making requires the ability to move well. Brass players can sometimes mistakenly think that as long as our embouchures are flexible we will be able to play our best, but if the rest of the body is excessively tense breathing is constricted and the ability to make subtle adjustments in horn angle or other aspects of holding the instrument is reduced. The latter movements are more important for moving throughout the tonal range than some players realize or admit…until excessive tension restricts such movements.

  1. “Minimal motors” reduces the negative effects of performance anxiety.

I have long since given up on totally eliminating performance anxiety from my experience as a musician. I tend to get nervous in high-stakes playing situations, and if anything this has worsened as my expectations of myself have increased and as I have dealt with the effects of injury. Instead of trying to “not be nervous,” I have experienced much greater success in managing or eliminating the effects of nervousness, of which excessive tension is one. If you are given to playing with unnecessary muscular effort in the practice room, the effect of “nerves” on stage will be to further intensify this, perhaps even making playing impossible. If, on the other hand, you cultivate a “minimal motors” approach in the practice room, there is little or no excessive tension for the nervousness to exacerbate on stage, and the physical effects of anxiety are significantly lessened. This sometimes causes the mental and emotional anxiety to eventually dissipate, as well!

  1. “Minimal motors” helps one to cope with the effects of aging or injury.

I have discussed the effects of my own spinal issues (both congenital and resulting from injury) from time to time on this blog, so I will not rehearse them again here except to say that if anything these have caused me to prematurely experience something like the effects of aging. I now lack the physical strength and stamina that I had in my late teens and twenties, so I can no longer “muscle through” pieces of music despite multiple physical inefficiencies in my approach to playing. Instead, I have had to identify and eliminate these inefficiencies, a process which is ongoing and probably will continue for the rest of my career. Because of the use of “minimal motors,” I am in some respects playing better now than I ever have despite my physical challenges. Now I only wonder how “23-year-old me” would have been able to play with similar efficiencies.

  1. “Minimal motors” makes playing more joyful.

When the body is tense and the mind is likewise occupied with excessive effort thinking about how to play instead of thinking about results and allowing the body to do its thing, playing music is no longer fun. It is drudgery instead. Making great music is an extraordinarily difficult undertaking whether one is doing so vocationally or avocationally, and brass instruments are among the most challenging instruments to master. If we cannot experience joy when playing we probably won’t bring joy to anyone else either, so why go to all of this effort? Why not do something else that is both easier and more lucrative to boot? Happily, the use of “minimal motors” is a great help to eliminating the tensions, the pains, the anxieties, and everything else that robs us of the joy of making music and sharing it with others. In that vein, I’ll conclude with an excerpt from a master class Arnold Jacobs gave for the United States Marine Band in 1991. I first heard a recording of this passage more than fifteen years ago, and I still think of it regularly.

There are things going on that your brain cannot comprehend, and what we must understand is that we are an enormously complex piece of machinery, but made very simple for use by what I would call it, biocomputer level of the brain. Regions above the brain stem where the coordinate functions of widely diverse fiber groups that coordinate what ones to fire, what ones keep you straight what ones should not fire, and it takes all of these things at a computer level rather than at the intelligence level of the person. You don’t even know that they exist and that makes you free to do what you want with your body cause you don’t have to worry about it. Only in music do I find people worrying about using their bodies right. Go to the products, get the results. Don’t worry about the body just make sure it sounds better than anybody else, that is the big factor. Take enough air so you can waste it…as I say it’s free it don’t cost nothing. Recognize that the intelligence of the human being has to do with the phenomenon of life outside our body, it doesn’t have to do with the phenomenon of life inside your body. Inside the body there is a system of controls internally that takes charge of it constantly, homeostasis, the ability to maintain temperature, acid alkaline levels, all of these things are taken care of in a level of the brain so that the intelligence is free to cope with all the phenomenon of life of the things you want to think of or do, where you want your body to go. You don’t have to worry about the variety of hundreds of muscles, you don’t have to try and control each one, it is done elsewhere in the brain. If you transfer this to music, it becomes a joy, it becomes so simple in playing.

There it is. I claim no expertise with regard to Jacobs’s pedagogy and certainly don’t claim that all of my thoughts and applications regarding the “minimal motors” concept are entirely in keeping with his teaching. What I do know is that excessive and unproductive effort when playing a brass instrument leads to frustration, lack of joy, and generally poor results. Relax the body and focus on making music. It works, and the results are satisfying for both player and audience.

Posted in Arnold Jacobs, Pedagogy, Performance Anxiety, Performing, Teaching Low Brass

Three Brief Appreciative Thoughts About Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892)

Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892)

Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892)

Although my preparations for this blog include keeping a list of possible topics sufficient to fill several months of weekly posts, I’ll confess that even earlier today I was not entirely settled upon a topic for this week. As regular readers of this blog know, on the fourth weekend of each month I usually write on a topic having to do with my Christian faith. These posts generally attract very few readers (after all, I have little real expertise in theology), but I enjoy writing about these things all the same. Still, I found myself unsure of what to address today. Then, after encountering and sharing a humorous reference to Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892) on social media this afternoon, a gentleman that I met a few weeks ago remarked that he “hadn’t pegged [me] for a fan of Spurgeon.” I quickly replied that I did, in fact, admire the “Prince of Preachers” very much, enough so that we chose Haddon as one of our son’s middle names. That brief “virtual conversation” was enough to prompt me to formulate and share three reasons that I personally admire this man, one of the greatest preachers of all time.

  1. Spurgeon held the person and work of Jesus Christ to be the central focus of scripture, and even of every biblical text.

“I take my text and make a beeline to the cross.” (Charles Haddon Spurgeon, source unknown)

That Christ is the central figure of all of scripture is, of course, not a notion that is unique to Spurgeon. Christianity in general and Reformed theology in particular have held that the entire Bible points to Christ, by telling us of our sin and need for a Savior, by promising and prophesying about that Savior, by telling us of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection and the importance of these, and by telling us that he will come again to judge the living and the dead. While Spurgeon’s Christocentric readings of certain texts were sometimes strained, his unwavering desire to direct men, women, and children to the only “name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12) was exactly right.

  1. Spurgeon held to a theologically robust Calvinism.

“I have my own private opinion that there is no such thing as preaching Christ and Him crucified, unless we preach what nowadays is called Calvinism. It is a nickname to call it Calvinism; Calvinism is the gospel, and nothing else. I do not believe we can preach the gospel, if we do not preach justification by faith, without works; nor unless we preach the sovereignty of God in His dispensation of grace; nor unless we exalt the electing, unchangeable, eternal, immutable, conquering love of Jehovah; nor do I think we can preach the gospel, unless we base it upon the special and particular redemption of His elect and chosen people which Christ wrought out upon the cross; nor can I comprehend a gospel which lets saints fall away after they are called, and suffers the children of God to be burned in the fires of damnation after having once believed in Jesus. Such a gospel I abhor.” (Charles Haddon Spurgeon, A Defense of Calvinism)

As a Baptist, Spurgeon would not have been viewed as sufficiently “Reformed” by some in the Presbyterian and Continental Reformed traditions, but I would contend that he stands rather firmly in that stream of Protestant Christianity. Spurgeon subscribed to the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith, a near-copy of the Presbyterians’ Westminster Confession of Faith except in the areas of baptism, church government, and the relationship of church and state. With regard to his understanding of salvation in general and the doctrine of election in particular, Spurgeon was an unabashed predestinarian, what would in modern parlance be called a “five-point” Calvinist. That he combined these views with such passion for evangelism and missions gives the lie to those who claim that Calvinism is somehow incompatible with evangelistic zeal. If modern Calvinists lack that same zeal the problem is with us, not with Calvinism.

  1. Spurgeon cared more for the lost than for others’ opinions of him.

“Now, with regard to myself; you may some of you go away and say, that I was Antinomian in the first part of the sermon and Arminian at the end. I care not. I beg of you to search the Bible for yourselves. To the law and to the testimony; if I speak not according to this Word, it is because there is no light in me. I am willing to come to that test. Have nothing to do with me where I have nothing to do with Christ. Where I separate from the truth, cast my words away. But if what I say be God’s teaching, I charge you, by him that sent me, give these things your thoughts, and turn unto the Lord with all your hearts.” (Charles Haddon Spurgeon, “Sovereign Grace and Man’s Responsibility”)

One does not have to follow Calvinistic theologians (or the sycophants who sometimes hang around them) for very long before they figure out that we Calvinists pride ourselves on intellectual rigor and tightly formed logical arguments. Perhaps our tendency to lose evangelistic zeal has more to do with an overdeveloped concern to say everything just right than with an actual lack of concern for unbelievers. In any case, Spurgeon rightly eschewed all of that. While the verbiage found in the volumes of transcribed sermons that have come down to us can sometimes seem a bit lofty to modern Americans, it was quite accessible to the mostly British listeners of all social classes who flocked to hear Spurgeon preach throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century. In the end, Spurgeon was more concerned that he point people to Christ than that academic theologians would be satisfied with his Calvinistic and Reformed bona fides.

Charles Haddon Spurgeon loved the Lord Jesus Christ, and powerfully commended him and his glorious Gospel to all that would listen. In turn, God graciously used his eloquent yet simple preaching to draw thousands of people unto himself. I am definitely a “fan of Spurgeon,” and you should be, too!

Posted in Calvinism, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Confessionalism, Evangelism, Preaching, Predestination, Theology

Thoughts about Intercollegiate Athletics from a Music Professor at an SEC University

Ole Miss vs. Alabama 2015Last night was a long and exciting one in the Everett household, as it was for many Ole Miss fans. After an unlikely win against the Alabama Crimson Tide during last year’s football matchup between the two teams in Oxford, many of us had some hope for this year’s game…but not much. After all, the Rebels had only once beaten Alabama in a game at Bryant-Denny Stadium, and had never beaten the Tide in football in two consecutive years. Nevertheless, given the Rebels’ early season performances (granted, against “cupcake” opponents), there was at least a bit of wondering if this year’s game might bring a second win against Alabama on their home turf. As the reader no doubt knows by now, that is exactly what happened, with the Rebels emerging with a hard-fought 43-37 victory. It was an exciting night, and this morning’s alarm and my scheduled speaking on behalf of The Gideons International at a church in Grenada seemed very early, indeed.

When we first moved back to Mississippi three years ago for me to begin teaching at The University of Mississippi a few of my friends and colleagues from elsewhere remarked—not always happily—that I had quickly begun to express more dedication to my new employer’s sports teams than I had to those associated with my previous schools. There is some validity to that observation, and not just because Southeastern Conference athletics are arguably more exciting than those found in smaller conferences and lower divisions. While I am not an Ole Miss alumnus, both of my parents are, so I was raised as an Ole Miss fan. Moreover, because my undergraduate alma mater is a Division II school, my fellow students and I tended to retain our Division I loyalties, since cheering for both schools did not invite conflicts of interest. Thus my “newfound” interest in Ole Miss athletics was not so new after all; it was really more like slipping into a comfortable pair of old shoes.

All of that to say, as I write this evening I do so not as an aloof faculty member who is disinterested in intercollegiate athletics. I very much enjoy a good game, and even more so when my university is well-represented. These five reflections are not intended to praise or criticize intercollegiate athletics in any fulsome way, but are simply some things, both positive and negative, that I have been pondering for a while, and which were brought to mind again last night after last night’s exciting game.

1. Intercollegiate athletics can engender a certain institutional pride which is very healthy.

While I am sometimes annoyed by our campus being taken over by the crowds for home football games (and occasionally baseball or basketball, but not to the same extent), I am glad that so many people love our university. My students are, on the whole, proud to be at Ole Miss, and this is reflected in their attitudes and even their attire. To those who have never known a different situation, the presence of such school spirit no doubt seems normative, but such is not the case everywhere. I loved teaching at the University of Louisiana at Monroe, where I was on the music faculty for seven years, but it was always disheartening to see students and others show up for athletic events wearing LSU colors and logos rather than ULM ones. While Ole Miss’s athletic teams are not always the greatest, our students, alumni, and at least some of the faculty unite around them in a way that is healthy and encouraging, and with a pride in the university that extends to other (and arguably more important) endeavors.

2. Intercollegiate athletics are a great aid to marketing and recruitment.

This is a no-brainer, of course. While a few students develop impressions and decide upon a particular university because of the academic or library facilities, a certain professor’s work, performing groups of various kinds, or other means of outreach and recruitment, athletic teams provide the most readily accessible public face of a university. When these teams are successful, the entire university’s image improves in the eyes of many prospective students. In the South, this is particularly true when it comes to football, and the various “number crunchers” at Ole Miss have demonstrated links between success in football—and even particular football games—and new student applications to the university.

3. Intercollegiate athletics enable some students to attend and succeed in college who might not be able to otherwise.

The popular image of college athletes being poor students has some basis in fact, though the caricature is by no means universally applicable. Plenty of students use the opportunities afforded to them by athletic scholarships and the various support services offered to student-athletes to seriously pursue degrees and, ultimately, careers. I can attest from personal experience that athletes are sometimes among the most respectful and engaged students in a course, and professors can tell when a team’s coaching staff demands that students strive for success both academically and athletically. I remember well the baseball players in my music appreciation classes at the University of Northern Iowa, now over a decade ago. Those young men were not always the most interested in the subject matter, but they were always well-prepared, polite, and respectful, and came to me well in advance of any absences made necessary by their playing schedule to request assignments and even early testing. That *all* of the baseball players in my classes were like this led me to believe that their coach demanded such excellence from them, and I’m sure other faculty members appreciated this as much as I did.

4.  Like it or not, many university music departments owe their size and funding—if not their existence—to athletic bands.

And now for a bit of realism. Almost every year an older student comes to me asking me why he has to be in the marching band to retain most or all of his band scholarship. The usual student in this situation has marched in college band for three years or more and would rather have that time available for additional practice or study, and perhaps even laments the negative effects of marching band on the embouchure (effects which, I should add, are not inherent to marching music but almost inevitably happen when playing in a loud and excited manner, such as when playing in the stands). Happily, I have no knowledge or say-so when it comes to scholarship amounts, so I am not forced into any sort of uncomfortable confrontation with students in this matter. Still, I take these opportunities to remind students that many of those that donate to our scholarship fund don’t care about wind ensemble, or orchestra, or choir, or trombone ensemble, or anything that we do except athletic bands. “He who pays the piper calls the tune,” as they say, and those donating funds for music scholarships want to see a big marching band on Saturdays. Period. I would even wager that, if bands ceased to be a part of intercollegiate athletic events, institutional and alumni support for music scholarships would decline considerably. If bands ceased to be a part of athletic events at the secondary school level, the jobs for which we most often prepare students might disappear as well, and thus the perceived need for university music departments. Of course, I wish that the public generally would have more awareness of and interest in the many and varied offerings of our music department and those at other schools, but realism demands that I acknowledge the central place of athletic bands in the public perception of our work. If I only had a dollar for every time I hear someone ask “So you work with the band?”

5. The tendency of burgeoning athletic departments to overshadow universities’ academic missions should be checked.

As you can see, I believe that intercollegiate athletics occupy an important place in the life of the university. Strategically, I think they are vital to the continued existence of music departments as we know them, and the central role of athletics in marketing the university and engendering pride in the institution is easily demonstrated. My only concern is that intercollegiate athletics has grown into a big business, at least at larger institutions, and the amounts of money being generated by, donated to, and invested in athletic endeavors, facilities, and personnel dwarf the budgets of most academic departments. For example, based on my loose estimate of the salaries in my department (I don’t actually know what my colleagues make) and public reports regarding the salary of coach Hugh Freeze, the annual salary of the head football coach at Ole Miss is enough to pay the salaries of the entire Ole Miss music department for over two years! And that’s just one man. Am I begrudging him that? Not at all; success in football generates more than enough investment to justify that salary from a purely economic perspective, and I think our coach is a fine gentleman who genuinely loves and cares for his players. As our universities get bigger and have more alumni and supporters, the increasing size of athletic departments is perhaps inevitable, but that doesn’t mean this is an altogether positive development. In such an environment, questions such as whether student-athletes should receive compensation for their efforts (beyond tuition, room, and board) become significant, and I do not pretend to have an answer to such issues. As a faculty member who loves intercollegiate athletics and believes them to be an important part of university life, I simply fear that the bigger athletics become, the more distorted their relationship to the rest of the university will become. I’m not sure what the solution is, or if there even is one.

For now, I’ll just keep reveling in last night’s great win, and perhaps continue to dish out a bit of good-natured “trash talk” to my friends and colleagues among Alabama’s faculty and alumni.

Posted in Higher Education, Intercollegiate Athletics, University of Mississippi

Gadgets and Gizmos: An App and a Podcast

I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with technology. On the one hand, I find all of the new things out there to be fascinating, but on the other hand many of the available “toys” out there are far too expensive for me, and the ones I do have tend to occupy time that could be used more productively. Even technologies that are ostensibly intended to lessen one’s workload or increase productivity often fail to deliver on their promises or create as many problems as they solve. The music teaching profession is by no means immune to the lures of technology, and a number of my colleagues seem to delight in trying the latest devices and apps to improve practice, performance, instruction, or all three. While I am sometimes intrigued by these new tools, I often wonder if they are worth the time and money spent acquiring and learning to use them, and if they really deliver measurable improvement over the old ways of doing things, at least with acoustic instruments like mine. Occasionally, though, I encounter a technology that is inexpensive, easy to use, and delivers some noticeable improvement with little change in one’s overall approach to practice and teaching. That is the case with the app Drum Beats+, which I first heard recommended at the Alessi Seminar last month.

Drum Beats+ LogoOne of my biggest complaints about students these days is a lack of a secure sense of time, and the resulting poor rhythmic execution that results from this. While traditional metronome practice is normally an effective remedy for this, I have long wondered if the ubiquitous presence of a strong rhythmic pulse provided by drums and other instruments in popular music has impaired students’ ability to feel time when the drums are absent. Playing the preprogrammed rhythm patterns in this app during students’ lessons has yielded immediate improvements in their sense of pulse. While this is achieved with the use of a normal metronome, the advantage of the drum machine app is that it provides not only a sense of the individual beats but also a sense of the measure—there is a stronger feeling of which beat is the downbeat of the bar, etc. than with a metronome only. While one hopes that students will be able to transition from needing to hear this beat to being able to feel it internally, any tool that will help to remedy a faltering sense of time is a welcome addition.

An added benefit of the drum machine app is that it seems to be a bit more fun than traditional metronome practice, but I wonder if this effect will last once the “new” wears off. I should also state that I am not sure that the Drum Beats+ app has any particular advantages or disadvantages compared to other apps with the same purpose. I have not surveyed the available apps in any comprehensive way, and suspect that this is but one of many apps that can effectively serve in this way.

The Brass Junkies LogoThe other item to which I will direct the reader’s attention today is a relatively new podcast called The Brass Junkies, in which former Boston Brass members Lance LaDuke and Andrew Hitz interview some of the greatest brass players in the world. (Despite their self-effacing claim to be “thoroughly average” players in each week’s introduction, these gentlemen are both fine players in their own right, as well.) I have been a big fan of podcasts for a couple of years now, though to this point I have mainly looked to this medium for news and Christian commentary (which, by the way, has substantially reduced the time I spend reading online articles—and I am a much better steward of my time for it). I have only recently subscribed to The Brass Junkies and have yet to listen to all of the available episodes, but so far I have found this to be a useful and enlightening addition to my regular listening, and I encourage every brass player to subscribe.

Posted in "Gadgets and Gizmos", Drum Beats+, Podcasts, Teaching Low Brass, The Brass Junkies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Out of the Mouth of Babes….”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Christian Worldview, Parenting, Practical Christianity

Sometimes Being Forced to Overcome an Obstacle is a Good Thing

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

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

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

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

Posted in Performing, Practicing, Trombone