“Buy the Truth and Sell it Not….”

While the reader might assume that I have chosen today’s topic in reaction to recent events in the news, that reasonable assumption is not correct. My usual practice is to choose topics for the blog weeks or even months in advance, and this particular subject has been on my mind for quite some time. Christians have a particular interest in the concept of truth, and lamented its decline long before the present political and social concerns presented themselves. After all, as followers of the One who referred to himself as “the Truth” (John 14:6) and as those whose faith stands or falls depending on whether or not certain historical events—especially the Resurrection—actually took place (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:15-17), Christians are very concerned with determining what is and what is not actually so. We deny the relativism that has for years now been prevalent in our culture, particularly in the area of religion. Christianity cannot be “true for you if it works for you but not true for me,” nor can two competing religions or worldviews be simultaneously true. Christianity might be true or it might be false, but it cannot be simultaneously true or false for different persons, times, places, or circumstances. The denial that truth or falsehood are salient categories in the area of religion has long been a barrier to Christian apologetics and evangelism, as it is impossible to convince a person of the truth and exclusivity of the gospel if he does not even accept the idea of religious truth.

In recent years this loss of truth has become an increasing concern in areas beyond religion, as we are seeing the reporting or presenting of facts in a variety of areas replaced with spin. People in politics, the media, and even in private conversation seem increasingly unconcerned with ascertaining and reporting truth, instead concerning themselves with constructing compelling narratives. Everywhere we look we are presented not with facts but with spin, and people on opposing sides of the issues are unable not only to agree, but even to speak to one another on the basis of some shared understanding. This is to the detriment of our collective well-being.

While the pervasiveness of spin is perhaps new, its presence, of course, is not. When Christ was questioned by Pontius Pilate our Lord answered in part that he had come “to bear witness to the truth,” to which Pilate cynically answered “What is truth?” (John 18:37-38) This same Pilate quickly demonstrated himself to be concerned with the maintenance of order more so than with his own assessment of Jesus’ innocence; truth and reality took a backseat to appearances. Centuries earlier, when Adam and Eve were confronted by God over their disobedience both attempted to deflect blame; Adam blamed Eve, and Eve blamed the serpent (Genesis 3:9-13). Our first parents were also the first spin doctors.

While the strategic shaping of narratives goes all the way back to the Garden, Adam and Eve were guilty only of trying to present the facts in the most favorable light, not of denying that they had indeed eaten of the Tree in defiance of God’s command. Such a denial would have been futile, of course, but in any case the strategic presentation of verifiable facts is a far lesser violation of truth than the denial that truth even exists. What concerns me today, and what seems to be ruining our society’s capacity for civil discourse, is that we are witnessing a collective denial of objective reality, with every party, every faction, and even every individual constructing unique versions of “truth.” We’ve gone from spinning the facts to our advantage to denying the very existence of facts and being left with nothing but spin. No wonder we keep talking past each other.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan (1927-2003) famously said that “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts,” but this hasn’t stopped people from pretending that truth, if it exists at all, is endlessly malleable. The result? Democrats and Republicans sound less like two groups of people offering competing solutions to the same set of problems and more like people from different nations entirely—if not from different planets! The same can be said about our national conversation in numerous areas of social, political, and moral concern. I fear that until we learn to “Buy the truth and sell it not,” as the scripture commends (Proverbs 23:23)—until we collectively remember that truth exists, can be known, and should be known—we are going to keep finding ourselves not only unable to agree with those with differing opinions, but unable to communicate with them at all.

More importantly from a Christian perspective, without a shared commitment to truth the communication of eternal truths—with regard to which the stakes are infinitely higher than those regarding various temporal concerns—becomes nearly impossible.

Posted in Apologetics, Bible, Christian Worldview, Doctrine, Political Systems, Politics, Practical Christianity, Society, Theology, Truth

Reflections on the Process of Making a Solo Recording

stepping-stones-for-bass-trombone-vol-1My first solo album, Stepping Stones for Bass Trombone, Vol. 1, was released on the Potenza Music label a little over a year ago. Some readers will know how stressful the project became for me, as its release was delayed for nearly two years by the illness and passing of the recording engineer and producer Rich Mays (himself a very fine bass trombonist during the first part of his career), yet its completion was a necessary component of my application for promotion and tenure at the University of Mississippi. Thankfully, all turned out well. I was very pleased with the final result and the album has received good reviews. More importantly, I was promoted to associate professor and granted tenure (for the second time, since I successfully went through the same process at the University of Louisiana at Monroe before moving to my present position). I’d like to offer a few reflections on this process, both for the benefit of any readers who might be considering making a solo recording and also as I gather my thoughts in preparation for possibly making another album in the next year or two.

1. Secure as much funding as possible. Making a recording is an expensive venture, with costs easily exceeding $10,000. The greatest expense is usually hiring a skilled recording engineer, as few performers possess the skills, equipment, and software needed to record, mix, and edit a professional-quality recording. Recording brass instruments well is particularly tricky, requiring precise placement of a particular type of microphone to do well. Usually a separate mastering engineer must be engaged to give the sound a final polish. Depending on how well your engineer knows your instrument and its repertoire, a separate producer might need to be hired, and in any case someone to offer general assistance in the booth will be needed (this is a great role for advanced students). Additional costs include mechanical licensing fees paid to the publishers of the works recorded, hiring an accompanist and probably a piano tuner, rental fees for the space in which the recording will be made, travel and lodging for the engineer if necessary, and any fees required by the record label which will carry and market the album. And this is not a comprehensive list! Unless you are independently wealthy, funding through fellowships, grants, and similar sources will be necessary to meet all of these expenses, so apply for everything you can!

2. Expect to make zero net profit. (Actually, you will lose money.) There was a time when even classical musicians recording solo albums could expect to recoup at least a substantial portion of the cost of doing so through selling physical albums, most recently on CD. Sadly, it seems that few consumers are interested in buying physical copies of recordings anymore, and the music streaming services that make millions of tracks available to listeners at little or no cost pay very low royalties to the musicians who recorded the content. These days a solo album functions largely as an expensive business card, meaning that those who record such albums really need to have motivations other than profit for doing so. (You know, like your university basically requiring it as part of your tenure application!) That there is no hope of profit in making a recording also makes the securing of outside funding even more important.

3. Expect delays. While it is a good idea to plan a timeline of how the album should progress from initial planning through release, you should take it for granted that this timeline will have to be revised repeatedly throughout the process. Why? Because “stuff” happens! Perhaps the availability of the recording space or engineer or pianist will change due to illness or unexpected obligations, or perhaps you will be the one with an unexpected life event. Maybe your funding will be held up or canceled somehow and additional money will have to be found someplace. While the unhappy circumstances that led to the long delay of my own album are particularly unusual, any project that requires the contributions of multiple human beings with their own individual desires, motivations, and obligations will be subject to the various postponements that inevitably accompany “real life.” Still, beginning with a plan will almost certainly minimize the number and impact of such delays.

4. Practice a lot and mark “everything.” The 3-4 days during which recording takes place can be particularly taxing physically, so building stamina by undertaking lengthy practice sessions in the weeks and months leading up to the recording itself is a good idea. These practice sessions need not consist entirely of the material that is on the album (in fact, review of playing fundamentals is very helpful), but do make sure that the material on the album is thoroughly mastered, as this will minimize the number of takes needed to record the various materials. Mark places where mistakes occur or might be anticipated in the music so that these are avoided both in practice and while recording. Remember that fewer takes means not only saving chops, but also saving money due to less time spent both recording and editing. After all, you’re the only one working on this thing for free!

5. Provide detailed notes for editing. If I could pick one thing that I could have done better to speed up the editing process, it would be to mark in greater detail the precise locations (as in minutes and seconds on the timer) in each take from which certain measures in each piece should be taken. I had a bad habit of indicating this more generally (“take these measures from the second time through on this take”), which led to Rich spending unnecessary time “fishing” for the location of a given passage. That sounds so obvious to me now that I’m kicking myself for not thinking of it at the time, but I didn’t. Also, let me remind you again that the better prepared you are and the better your playing is, the less editing that will be necessary, leading to a more seamless final product that will be produced more inexpensively.

6. Purchase high-quality headphones. When listening to unedited tracks and particularly when evaluating the final sound quality, using the best headphones you can obtain will be of great help in assessing how things are sounding and what further adjustments will be necessary. Happily, Rich loaned me a very fine set of headphones for this purpose; next time around I will purchase some for myself. Listening on headphones is much better for detailed evaluation than on even high-quality speakers, and the headphones used should have the fullest dynamic and tonal range possible. Needless to say, earbuds do not fit the bill!

7. Defer to the knowledge of others. When making a recording for the first time, take for granted that there is much that you do not know, and be ready to adjust your expectations in various areas according to the advice of your engineer, your accompanist, and anyone else that might have more experience than you. This is another area in which I have some regrets, as I became quite frustrated during recording when my unreasonable expectations for how quickly things should proceed were not met. “Experience is the best teacher,” as they say, and while I’m happy that I will have a bit of experience to offer next time, I should have more readily deferred to the knowledge and experience of those working with me the first time.

8. Pursue a “perfect” final product, but accept that you’ll never get there. Despite the positive reviews and comments that I have received regarding my recording, I can still name particular spots that I wish could have been better, or edits that are obvious to me because I know about them, even though no one else listening can tell. (Rich was a great engineer!) Happily, my recollection of these things is fading with time, and I can listen to the finished album with more satisfaction now than I could a year ago. The pursuit of perfection ensures a quality product, but as with everything in this fallen world, we all must accept that absolute perfection will not be achieved in any human endeavor.

But again, the pursuit of perfection is valuable despite knowing that it is an impossible goal. I look forward to pursuing it again in the recording studio in the coming months and years, God willing.

Posted in Bass Trombone, Higher Education, Micah Everett, Music, Playing Fundamentals, Practicing, Recordings, Stepping Stones for Bass Trombone, Vol. 1, Trombone, University of Mississippi

Fall Concerts and Activities Preview

This year we have more low brass students than ever at Ole Miss, and with a correspondingly large number of things going on both for me and for the students this fall, at least toward the end of the semester. The first couple of months will largely be spent preparing for all of this stuff! Here’s a short run-down of things going on around here later this fall.

October 15, December 3, and December 10: Performing with the North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra

nmso

North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra

This will be my fourth season with the North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra as first trombonist, and the schedule for this fall includes a classical concert, a performance of The Nutcracker with the Tupelo Ballet, and a Christmas program for chorus and orchestra. While my role in the orchestra is usually as a tenor trombonist, at various times I have found myself playing alto trombone, bass trombone, or euphonium in the group.

November 7: Faculty Recital Series: “The Big Horns”

everettbasswithpianoFor my faculty recital on campus this year I will be following last year’s program for tenor trombone and euphonium with a program for bass trombone and tuba. The bass trombone portion will reprise the half recital I played on the first night of TROMBONANZA back in August, with works by Jacques Castérède, David William Brubeck, and Frank Gulino, while the tuba portion will include works by Anthony Plog, Gordon Jacob, and Øystein Baadsvik. After having put off taking up tuba in earnest for many years, I have been pleased with my progress on the instrument in the past year-and-a-half or so and am looking forward to presenting these works.

November 10: Investiture of University of Mississippi Chancellor Jeffrey S. Vitter

UM Trombone Ensemble August 2016

UM Trombone Ensemble

Although he has been at Ole Miss since January, the formal investiture of the university’s seventeenth chancellor will be held on November 10. I am pleased to announce that the University of Mississippi Trombone Ensemble has been asked to play for the processional and recessional during the event, in which the university faculty will enter and exit in full academic regalia.

November 14: Carmina Burana

orff

Carl Orff

The choirs at Ole Miss will be performing Carmina Burana by Carl Orff this November, and an ensemble of faculty, Memphis area musicians, and a few students has been engaged for the performance. An audience favorite, Orff’s work is frequently performed in various venues, and I have performed it a number of times in the past.

November 16: Guest Artist: Jonathan Warburton

warburton.png

Jonathan Warburton

On November 16 British bass trombone soloist Jonathan Warburton will be presenting a recital and master class on campus. A champion of new music, Mr. Warburton has commissioned a number of works for bass trombone, and we hope to hear one or more new pieces during his visit to our campus.

November 29: University of Mississippi Low Brass Ensembles

UM Tuba-Euphonium Ensemble August 2016

UM Tuba-Euphonium Ensemble

Our low brass ensembles concert this semester is occurring later in the semester than usual, and given the proximity to the winter holiday we’ll be including a number of tunes appropriate for the season in addition to the types of works more typical of our programs. One highlight will be a performance of Eric Crees’s sixteen-trombone arrangement of Eric Clapton’s hit Layla, which first appeared twenty years ago now on the hugely successful (well, for trombone music anyway) album The London Trombone Sound.

Besides these events, there will be a number of student solo and ensemble performances, including three senior recitals that are still awaiting scheduling, activities with the Mississippi Brass Quintet and Great River Trombone Quartet, and the usual mix of “church gigs” and other smaller engagements for me. And, of course, lots and lots of teaching—between my work at the university and private teaching opportunities I am working with students over 30 hours per week at the moment. Mine is a busy but enjoyable life at the moment.

 

 

Posted in Alto Trombone, Anthony Plog, Bass Trombone, David William Brubeck, Education, Euphonium, Frank Gulino, Gordon Jacob, Higher Education, Jacques Casterede, Jonathan Warburton, Micah Everett, Music, Music Education, North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra, Oystein Baadsvik, Performances, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Tuba, Uncategorized

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

Today I am reposting, for the fifth 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 times. 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, Daily Routine, Education, Euphonium, Music, Music Education, Practicing, Scales and Arpeggios, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Tuba

Book Review: A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and A Great War by Joseph Loconte

Reading is one of my favorite pastimes, and while I am unable to devote the time to books that I would like during the academic year (at least, to books beyond my immediate academic area), summers are a time when I can on some days spend the better part of an afternoon in a chair enjoying works on a number of subjects. Unlike some university faculty members who seem to take great pains to spend as much time far away from campus as possible during the summer, I prefer to remain at home for most of that time. Besides, Oxford is a great place during the summer. It has all of the dining establishments and other amenities that only the presence of thousands of students and tens of thousands of sports fans can bring to a small town, but with a fraction of the traffic and practically no lines anywhere. One of my favorite places to spend part of a day is Square Books and its associated stores Off-Square Books (where overstock and used volumes are sold at a discount) and Square Books Jr. (my son’s preference of the three). One afternoon just after the spring semester ended I found and purchased this delightful volume at the main Square Books store.

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A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and A Great War by Joseph Loconte

Regular readers of this blog will not be surprised that I am a fan of both C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) and J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973), given my own Christian commitment and the winsomeness and skill with which those authors communicated a worldview consistent with that faith. While he was a later convert to the faith than his friend and colleague, Lewis’s works—both fiction and non-fiction—were usually more expressly Christian in orientation than those of Tolkien. Neither was fully orthodox to the thinking of a Reformed Protestant; Lewis held unusual views in a number of areas and Tolkien was a Roman Catholic. Nevertheless, both men possessed insights which can be appreciated even by those who are suspicious of some of their theological sensibilities, particularly when it comes to seeing the detrimental effects of the loss of the West’s traditional and largely Christian ways of thinking and its replacement with a man- and “progress”-centered modernity which proved unable to bear up under the great upheavals of the twentieth century. The first and in some ways greatest of these upheavals was World War I—then more commonly known colloquially as the Great War—in which both Tolkien and Lewis served as officers. This is where Loconte’s volume enters, showing how the wartime experiences of these two great authors was so formative of the worlds and worldviews that they would create.

Clive Staples Lewis (1898-1963)

C.S. Lewis (1898-1963)

Loconte titles his first chapter “The Funeral of a Great Myth,” referring specifically to the so-called Myth of Progress, an expression of the optimism which permeated Western societies in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Convinced of the inevitable evolutionary growth of man and his societies during their time and rapidly discarding the metanarratives—both religious and otherwise—that had previously undergirded those societies, people expected that the twentieth century would see the ascent of humanity into times of unparalleled prosperity and felicity. The eruption of Europe into full-scale war in 1914 shattered all of that, especially as the new realities of machine guns, chemical weapons, and trench warfare  replaced the comparably genteel conduct of hostilities in previous generations. The Myth of Progress died along with so many men in the trenches of northern France, and Tolkien and Lewis came to realize that a new mythology—or at least a restatement and revitalization of old ones—would be needed to deliver people from a sense of meaninglessness.

In subsequent chapters Loconte shows how the wartime experiences of both Tolkien and Lewis shaped their iconic works, including The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, and the Space Trilogy. Even in the introduction Tolkien is quoted as comparing Sam Gamgee to “the privates and batmen I knew in the 1914 war” (xvii), and in general he seems to have portrayed in his hobbits the industry, dedication, and plain yet noble traits he saw in common British soldiers. Meanwhile, the lords of Gondor represent the best of the officer corps.

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J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973)

For Lewis wartime (and later) parallels can be found when contrasting the unspoiled natures of Narnia, Thulcandra, and Perleandra on the one hand and the demonic and/or technological perversions of the White Witch and the National Institute of Coordinated Experiments (N.I.C.E.) on the other. Tolkien likewise would compare the idyllic Shire and the almost-magical Lothlórien with the raping of the natural order committed by both Sauron and Saruman, not to mention the devastation of the Shire committed at the hands of the exiled Saruman and Wormtongue. Both authors saw the destruction wrought by increasing wartime technology as damaging to men’s souls as well as to their bodies, and created works whose heroes embodied nobility, chivalry, love of nature, and the simple pleasures of kith and kin while the villains sought to rule both nature and their fellows through unnatural means and with an iron fist, leaving destruction in their wakes.

While warfare played a major role in their works, neither Tolkien nor Lewis glamorized soldiery. They viewed it as a sometimes necessary evil but always as a means to the end of establishing or restoring peace, not as an end in itself. Their heroes always prefer the plow and the pen to the sword. Lewis in particular saw the growth of the social sciences as alternatives to theism and the commitment to absolute truth as an unhappy successor to the Myth of Progress, following this worldview to its unsavory ends in That Hideous Strength. While certainly neither man opposed academic study and the increase of knowledge, they saw the growth of a worldview lacking “timeless moral truths” (164) as highly detrimental.

In the end, “neither sought a return to the political or social ideals of Christendom. Nevertheless, they saw its tradition of valor and chivalry as both practical and vital” (172). “Rejecting equally the moods of militarism and pacifism, these authors charted a middle course: a partial return to the chivalrous ideal” (173). The wartime experiences of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien showed both men the emptiness of secular ideals, but also demonstrated the simple valor and homespun joys of ordinary people that alone can, in God’s providence, undergird a virtuous society. In this book, Joseph Loconte has performed a great service, introducing lovers of both Lewis and Tolkien to these experiences which were so formative for the fictional worlds through which they strove to show mankind a better way.

Posted in Apologetics, Book Reviews, C.S. Lewis, Christian Worldview, History, J.R.R. Tolkien, Providence, Society, Theology, Truth, Virtue

Back to Blogging, with a Report on Trombonanza 2016

UM Trombone Ensemble August 2016

University of Mississippi Trombone Ensemble, Fall 2016

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

UM Tuba-Euphonium Ensemble August 2016

University of Mississippi Tuba-Euphonium Ensemble, Fall 2016

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

What is Trombonanza?

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Monday Evening Solo Recital

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

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

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

Instruction and Performance at Every Level

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Conducting a very fine student trombone choir

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

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Amaru, my “Spanish teacher”

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

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Fun!!

A Friendly and Intense Environment

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

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

One Special Moment

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That’s one big low brass ensemble!

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

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

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

Delicious Food!

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Yum!

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

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Asado!

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

A Wonderful Experience

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

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

“For Everything There Is a Season….”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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