When Contextualization Diminishes Meaning (Or, Missing that Sweet and Awful Place)

Over the past several years I have carved out an interesting role in planning and executing the musical elements of corporate worship at Christ Presbyterian Church in Oxford. Having long ago determined that I would rather spend most Sunday services worshiping alongside my family rather than occupying a role “up front” (I discussed this at length in a previous post), I have nevertheless been able to use my musical training in service to our church by typesetting all of the “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” that we take from various sources in a uniform format for placement in our bulletin. I like to think that this helps those in attendance to keep up with what is happening because they are not shuffling back and forth between a bulletin, a hymnal, and perhaps separate printouts of various newer songs with different fonts, etc. (We only print the melodies in the bulletins in order to save space, though, so those who want to sing parts will still want to find and use a hymnal.) While music literacy is regrettably low in our country, I like to think that providing all of the melodies and texts in our bulletins communicates even to those who do not read music that we are making a real effort to enable everyone to participate in congregational singing.

While my role is essentially secretarial and includes no real responsibilities as a liturgist, the elders and staff members who plan our liturgies have nevertheless periodically asked my opinion about the suitability of certain melodies and texts for our worship. Like many churches, our congregation has folks who complain weekly if the proportions of “traditional” and “contemporary” tunes are not to their liking, though I have said before (here, here, and here) and still believe that this whole debate misses the point. My emphasis is always on which texts are most edifying and which tunes best suit the texts and are easiest to sing, regardless of style. Nevertheless, I typically end up taking a rather conservative and traditionalist position on these questions, not so much because I don’t like new songs as because I am loath to see the church discard centuries of hymnody in the interest of contextualization. Having worship that is intelligible to the current generation is important, but maintaining a connection to those Christians who have gone before is important, too. It is a delicate balancing act to be sure, and while I am thankful that those who plan our liturgy value my opinion enough to ask for it on occasion, I am also glad that I am not the one ultimately making these decisions—and thus receiving the complaints!

One way that many churches in the Presbyterian and Reformed tradition of which I am a part have tried to balance the needs for both context and tradition is the setting of old texts to newer music. This started largely in our college ministries of a generation ago and has since become a major part of the “musical diet” of our churches. On the whole, this is a good thing. Some of the tunes are good, and some of them are actually more easily singable than the older melodies traditionally associated with those texts. Even where entirely new tunes have not been written, editors have in recent years made a regular practice of replacing archaisms in texts with more current usage, mostly replacing “thou” with “you” and similar changes where rhythm and meter are amenable to that. This also is mostly unobjectionable, though I’ll confess to often singing the archaic texts even when the newer versions are right in front of me.

Still, these updates are not always for the best. While the folks at Indelible Grace Music (which publishes the Reformed University Fellowship Hymnbook and associated resources) and others have written some good melodies, others sound too trite and sometimes even too much like commercial jingles to adequately bear the weight of the texts set to them. Remember, the test for a good hymn tune is not its age, but rather its singability and its suitability for the text being set. Sometimes there is simply a mismatch between text and music, and sometimes the newer tune is actually harder to sing for untrained singers than the older one. In these cases perhaps a better new tune would serve just fine, but we must always be careful not to discard the old just because it’s old. Sometimes, like a fine wine, the old is better.

Likewise when updating old texts. The replacing of “thou” with “you” is usually harmless, but there is nevertheless a clarity that comes from having different pronouns for second-person singular and plural, as well as a certain gravitas that accompanies the “King James-ish” usage. These aren’t the only words that are changed in newer hymnals, though. Consider the first verse of this favorite hymn:

How sweet and awful is the place
With Christ within the doors,
While everlasting love displays
The choicest of her stores.

While all our hearts and all our songs
Join to admire the feast,
Each of us cry, with thankful tongues,
“Lord, why was I a guest?

“Why was I made to hear thy voice,
And enter while there’s room,
When thousands make a wretched choice,
And rather starve than come?”

‘Twas the same love that spread the feast
That sweetly drew us in;
Else we had still refused to taste,
And perished in our sin.

Pity the nations, O our God,
Constrain the earth to come;
Send thy victorious Word abroad,
And bring the strangers home.

We long to see thy churches full,
That all the chosen race
May, with one voice and heart and soul,
Sing thy redeeming grace.

I’ve included the entire hymn text here for context, but I want to draw attention to the very first line, “How sweet and awful is the place.” The word “awful” here is used in an older sense, meaning not something that is “bad” but rather something that inspires reverence, that is “full of awe.” I like to think that the average congregant can figure this out from the context, but the editors of the current edition of the Trinity Hymnal (1990) disagreed, and changed the word to “awesome.” While the two words are technically synonymous, our society’s present colloquial usage of the word “awesome” is such that the desired meaning is lost. I am sympathetic to efforts to recover that word as one that should refer only to the majesty of the Almighty, but for the moment I’d rather have to take five seconds to remember when “awful” meant “full of awe” than to try to drum up that same feeling from the other word when just a few hours before I might have said “this is an awesome donut.” I fear that the change has actually brought about a loss of the desired meaning, though that was certainly not the intent of the editors who made the change.

Then again, maybe there’s a loss of meaning in both cases, especially considering that our society and even our churches rarely seem to appreciate or promote a real sense of reverence when engaging in God’s worship, regardless of the language used. That being the case, maybe I’ll just be glad that we sing a text with that message at all, whether “awful” or “awesome.”

But I’m still going to sing the original word, even if I’m the only one doing it!

Oh, and if you’re unfamiliar with this great hymn, here it is as sung at the Together for the Gospel conference several years ago.

Posted in Church, Music and Theology, Music and Worship, Practical Christianity, Presbyterianism, Worship

Fundamentals, Not Feelings: Part Two

For as long as we can remember my wife and I have had an occasional feeling of being “ecclesiastical misfits.” We often discuss a sense of differentness at church or parachurch gatherings, even among fellow believers with whom we are in total or near-total doctrinal agreement, but we have been unable to pinpoint the cause of that feeling. Unable, that is, until a few days ago.

At a fundraising luncheon for The Gideons International, of which we have proudly been members for nearly twelve years, all of the Gideons present were asked to stand and say a word about why they had become members of the association and continued to serve therein. (This made the meeting extraordinarily and excessively long, but I digress.) One by one men and women stood, each giving a rousing testimony of how he or she so greatly enjoyed the fellowship shared in the Gideon association and the good feelings experienced as a result of distributing Bibles and personal witnessing. This continued unabated until the last table was reached, and I stood to speak. My testimony was decidedly plainer. I said we joined the Gideons because we believed that spreading the Gospel was important (indeed, commanded by Christ), and that distributing Bibles was an effective way of going about it. We didn’t join the ministry for the fellowship or for the “good vibes,” but rather because we believed its mission to be in keeping with the commands of Christ.

That honest answer received no less rousing approval from those present than did the more emotionally-laden responses heard from the others, but it helped me to pinpoint just what it is that is different about my wife and me. You see, in our adult lives we have made nearly every decision about our religious affiliations and activities after periods of study, prayer, and discussion. For example, when we moved to Louisiana twelve years ago we chose to join a particular Southern Baptist church because we love God’s Word and the pastor there preached continuously through books of the Bible rather than topically. We left that church for a Reformed Baptist church plant because we had concluded that Calvinism was better aligned with what the Scriptures actually taught than was Arminianism, and later became Presbyterians because after continued prayer and study we came to that understanding of baptism and church government. After moving to Oxford we debated for some time which of the two PCA churches to attend. Having equally long lists of “pros and cons” for each after visiting both for several weeks, we made the simple and logical decision to join the one closer to our home. In fact, in sixteen years of marriage we have on only one occasion chosen a church to attend because someone there reached out to us, and even then it was a church with whose doctrine and practice we already agreed. We have rarely been motivated by feelings or relationships in our religious undertakings, but are instead motivated by a simple commitment to truth.

Maybe I’ve been missing the obvious for a very long time, but I am only now realizing that not everyone chooses religious affiliations and activities the way we do. Instead, many people visit churches because someone invites them. They stay because people are kind to them, or because they find the worship aesthetically pleasing, or because their kids have friends at that church. Likewise with other avenues of Christian service; people tend to gravitate to activities where they share good rapport with the other volunteers. This is not to say that such considerations don’t matter or that doctrinal concerns are unimportant to people—I don’t think anyone chooses a religion or denomination simply because “my friends are there”—but those doctrinal concerns are not always clearly in first place.

So, which approach is right? Actually, in the form that I’ve presented them, neither. On the one hand, a tendency to bookishness can create a Christianity that is too cerebral and rather off-putting to those who don’t like to study theology or quote long-dead theologians in regular conversation. The Reformed tradition is nothing if not intellectually vigorous, and a person like me can easily become swallowed up in Protestant versions of the proverbial “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin” debate while ignoring the real needs and opportunities for service lying before him. The Bible calls us to hospitality, community, and service, all callings which the solitary Christian in his study is sometimes far too quick to ignore. Christianity is an individual faith—God draws us unto himself as individuals—but it is not individualistic. God calls us to warmhearted fellowship with him and with one another. The calling to those of us who love the study of Christianity is to get our heads out of our books and to join in our corporate responsibilities of friendship and service.

On the other hand, even an unintentional and possibly unconscious elevation of feelings and relationships above doctrine will create its own problems. Of course, there is nothing wrong with enjoying fellowship with likeminded individuals and finding great fulfillment in diligent service. In fact, there is something very right about it—I would fully expect Christians to be more at home among fellow believers than among unbelievers (cf. 1 John 3:14), and to find unique fulfillment in following the direct command of Christ to share the Gospel (cf. Matthew 28:18-20). Nevertheless, if in sharing Christianity to those outside the faith or “on the margins” we emphasize camaraderie and personal fulfillment we present—perhaps inadvertently—a “gospel” that offers little that one cannot find in a civic organization, a fraternal society, or even another religion. The good feelings we derive from Christian fellowship and service must be grounded in something deeper.

Several months ago I posted an article here entitled “Fundamentals, Not Feelings.” In that article I noted a tendency among young musicians to prioritize emotional “highs” from music making above technical skill and diligent practice. In that article I suggested, as I often do to my students, that depending upon heightened emotional states to generate quality performances is an inconsistent method at best and a totally unreliable one at worst. The professional musician must be able to deliver a skilled and, yes, expressive performance regardless of his emotional state at the time. Much like actors, we must convey the emotive content of the piece being performed despite any contrary feelings that might be present. Interestingly enough, when we learn to do this the emotional highs do often come, but they come as a result of effective performance, not as a cause of such performance.

I see a parallel here with the Christian faith. Ours is a Word-based religion. We have the Holy Scriptures which claim to be the very Word of God and thus to convey to us God’s will for faith and life. The truth of the Scriptures is not dependent upon one’s feelings about or even belief in Christianity. Instead, if the Word is truly God-breathed (cf. 2 Timothy 3:16) then it is true and we are bound to obey it whether we are sad or happy, depressed or excited, lonely or surrounded by loving friends and family. It is therefore incumbent upon us to know what God’s Word says and then to join with the best churches and Christian ministries that we can in order to carry out its commands. And we are to do this not because we like the people and enjoy the work, but because God both demands and deserves our service. Just as for the musician—but on an infinitely higher level—the emotional highs will come as a result of faithful service grounded in the “fundamentals” of the faith as presented in Scripture, not as a cause of or motivation to the same.

And when we get this right, we should also expect to like the people and enjoy the work. That’s good—after all, we’re going to be spending eternity with these folks!

Posted in Bible, Calvinism, Christian Worldview, Church, Denominations, Doctrine, Practical Christianity, Presbyterianism, The Gideons International, Theology

Bass Trombone as the Primary Instrument: A Report

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

For basically the entire year from May 2016 to May 2017 I moved from my usual practice of treating the large tenor trombone as my primary instrument to placing the bass trombone in that role. While for the entirety of that time I continued to play alto, tenor, and bass trombones, euphonium, and tuba in teaching and performance, an unusually low-note-heavy performing schedule for an extended period of time made this a sensible change. As I discuss in my 2014 book The Low Brass Player’s Guide to Doubling, I have found through experience that keeping multiple instruments on more or less equal footing does not work well for me. I am a more successful doubler when one of the instruments is treated as “home base” in terms of practice time and fundamental approach, while the other instruments are treated as departures from that primary instrument. At the same time, I do think that which instrument occupies the primary role can change as circumstances dictate. This was not my first time moving the bass trombone to the “top spot,” but it was the longest period of time for which I have done this.

At this point circumstances have changed somewhat and moving the large tenor back into the primary position is most prudent for my upcoming performing obligations. I’d like to reflect briefly on both positive and negative effects that I experienced from this extended shift in priorities.

On the positive side, the primary benefit was that I was better able to meet the performing obligations I had, including several bass trombone solo performances in prominent venues. The extra time focusing on that instrument’s sound and range yielded small but significant improvements, particularly with regard to tone quality and response in the extreme lower register. There was a bit of associated improvement in my tuba playing, as well. On a more conceptual level, the experience has reaffirmed my overall approach to doubling, especially the primary instrument/secondary instruments paradigm that I discussed above but also the idea that as long as all instruments are practiced regularly and the same tonal range is maintained on all one can enjoy reasonable success performing on multiple low brass instruments in the midst of a very efficient approach to daily practice. For the most part, any decline in my capabilities on the higher-pitched instruments was felt by me more than heard by others.

Nevertheless, there was some decline, particularly with regard to extended playing in the upper register. While I explored a full tonal range in excess of six octaves in my daily practice throughout this period, my efforts were still focused in the lower part of the range. I noticed that I was working a bit harder in my regular monthly gig as an orchestral first trombonist, but where I really noticed the change was playing lead trombone in a big band in late March/early April. Several hours per day of loud high-note playing took their toll, not so much in terms of embouchure fatigue (though there was some of that) but in excessive muscular effort throughout the upper body. I don’t think we realize just how much muscular effort is recruited from the back and torso for this kind of playing until we become out of shape in that way. As a back pain sufferer anyway, this experience was unpleasant, but also made me realize that more time in the upper register not only enhances my playing ability in that part of the range but likely also has a slight strengthening effect on muscles that are used for maintaining posture and other functions. Finally, recovery of my previous approach, with the large tenor as primary instrument, took a little longer than expected; it was a month or so before this once again felt “natural” to me.

On the whole, this balance of “positives and negatives” was precisely what I expected. I moved the bass trombone into the primary position precisely because I expected some moderate improvement in my skills on that instrument as a result, and I also expected a moderate “felt but not heard” decline in my upper register work. The only significant surprise was that a single occasion of extended high register work was more challenging than expected, but even then I was foolish for not spending extra time on my small-bore tenor trombone in the couple of weeks or so leading up to that engagement. The experience has vindicated the approach to doubling on multiple low brass instruments which I have used for nearly 20 years and which is presented in my book. It works!

(So why not go buy a copy for yourself……?)



Posted in Alto Trombone, Bass Trombone, Daily Routine, Doubling, Euphonium, Low Brass Resources, Method Books, Micah Everett, Music, Performing, Playing Fundamentals, Practicing, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, The Low Brass Player's Guide to Doubling, Trombone, Tuba

Artistry is Not the Enemy of Practicality!

Members of the music teaching profession, like any other profession, can be categorized in a number of ways. For example, in most music departments at the tertiary level there are applied faculty members who are specialists in particular areas of performance, ensemble conductors, specialists in “academic” music subjects such as theory and musicology, and those engaged primarily in the preparation of new teachers. Each of these categories has further subdivisions and in some cases there is overlap. At the secondary level there is the broad divide between vocal and instrumental music educators, again with further divisions and also overlap. Tonight my thoughts are turned to a more informal division between members of the profession, namely between those who would style themselves as “practical” and those who might be considered “artists.” The latter term is sometimes used as a pejorative applied to those in the second group who those in the first group consider to be, well, impractical, and though I’ve never seen it I’m sure the reverse situation sometimes exists. In some cases it is the ensemble conductors and the teacher educators who oppose themselves to the “high strung” ideas of “artist-faculty” in the applied music area, while in others it could be secondary school educators who are suspicious of new or different methods employed by university faculty. There are other examples of this, as well, and while these characterizations are sometimes apt they more often set in opposition groups of educators who would better serve their students and each other by developing understanding and cooperation.

To be sure, there are those teachers whose methods and aims are unreasonable and unworkable. Not every artist-level performer is able or qualified to help students with physical, emotional, or artistic challenges to overcome those challenges. Great “natural talent” can be accompanied by a failure to understand the difficulties encountered by those not thus endowed, and an inability to helpfully describe the processes and techniques that one uses to perform as he does. Those whose careers have been spent in the concert hall or the university do not always appreciate the priorities of teachers at the primary and secondary school levels, or of students who aspire to careers as teachers or in areas of the music profession other than their own. Such failures of understanding certainly represent deficiencies to be remedied.

At the same time, though, those who consider themselves to be on the more “practical” side of things should not be suspicious of those who seek to improve students’ artistry. From my own vantage point, this sometimes manifests itself in ensemble conductors’ suspicion of methods used by applied lesson instructors. (And before I proceed further, these thoughts are based upon a pattern observed over a number of years in different situations and even different states. I’m not passive-aggressively calling anyone out.) Although I initially trained for a career as a band director and still have a very cursory knowledge of instruments other than my own, I never cease to be amazed by the number of fingerings, tuning tendencies, and other refinements that a gifted and experienced band director knows for every instrument in his ensemble. University-level training provides a foundation at best; this knowledge is cultivated in the trenches and is immensely practical, usually able to be quickly imparted during short rehearsal breaks. Nevertheless, even the best ensemble conductor is not going to be able to develop minute refinements in advanced students past a certain level, at least not in the context of ensemble rehearsals. Even where the expertise is present available time doesn’t allow for this kind of teaching, and thus private lessons are advised and pursued. Problems can arise when the private teacher begins to suggest literature, techniques, or equipment that are unfamiliar to the ensemble conductor. Where a conflict is perceived, distrust can develop between the ensemble conductor and the private teacher, and the charge is sometimes leveled that the private teacher is becoming “uppity” and impractical, or the opposite assertion that the ensemble conductor is “set in his ways” and “holding students back.” Who suffers most in such an atmosphere of distrust? The student.

So what can be done about this? In short, we all need to stop acting as if artistry and practicality in music teaching are somehow opposed to each other. Those applied teachers and other high-level folks who have their heads in the clouds don’t necessarily need to give up their big ideas, but they need to make sure that they can not only explain their big ideas and advanced techniques to students at every level, but also explain to how these ideas and techniques practically contribute to the making of great music by students at every level. This doesn’t mean that, for example, I’m going to teach embouchure formation to a 11-year-old in the same way that I will discuss it with a graduate student, but I am going to make sure that the graduate student knows how his advanced techniques exist in seed form in the approach taken with the beginner. If you are comfortable coaching a great concerto but can’t successfully apply the same ideas to Grade 1-2 literature there is a problem, and the charge of impracticality might indeed apply.  While there are certain methods and ideas that are undertaken at the highest level without a lower-level precursor, the vast majority of the tools we use for constructing, phrasing, and executing beautiful musical lines apply in some way at every level and in every style. There should be no reason for applied teachers and others to approach music in a way that can’t be practically utilized on the ground in every situation. Make every effort to learn how to do this.

On the other hand, those who are suspicious of “artists” should view these folks as partners in the musical enterprise, not adversaries. Specialists on certain instruments or in particular areas of academic music study will of necessity know more about those specialties than those in more generalist positions. When students consult with these folks and come back with new ideas don’t dismiss them immediately as impractical. They might be, but they might not be, and often misunderstandings are a result of differences in terminology or emphasis—or errors in student understanding, execution, and communication—rather than in fundamental approach. Perhaps visiting over coffee or something like that will clear up any perceived conflicts. While unworkable ideas will have to be discarded, if an “artist” is doing his job well such ideas will be encountered very rarely, if at all.

I fear that my writing tonight sounds too much like a rant, but I hope not. I have always been troubled by the idea that we must choose between the practical and the artistic, and long to see this false dichotomy abandoned. Remember that the greatest artistry is achieved when one’s approach to music-making is maximally efficient. In that sense, the pursuit of great artistry is the most practical thing we can do, since the approach that yields that artistry will be the one that is simplest, most efficient, and most practical.

Pursue artistry, pursue beauty, and find the most efficient and practical way of getting there. Can’t we all agree on that?

Posted in Beauty, Education, Higher Education, Music, Music Education, Pedagogy, Performing, Teachers, Teaching Low Brass

Choosing a Contrabass Tuba: BB-flat or CC?

In the past few months I have had several students at both the college and high school levels ask me for guidance regarding purchasing their first tubas. Given the state of the national economy generally and Mississippi’s perennial status as an economically depressed state, both the relative ease of finding quality used instruments today and the rising quality of low to moderately-priced Asian imports make this a somewhat less frightening undertaking than it was 10-15 years ago. Nevertheless, there are still certain questions which must be answered at the outset of one’s search, including whether the student prefers piston or rotary valves and whether a bass or contrabass tuba is required. Of these questions, the first can be decided purely based upon personal preference, or perhaps by the selection of available instruments in a given price range. The second can almost always be answered in favor of contrabass tubas. While a smaller bass tuba is great for solo and chamber work, a contrabass tuba is the one called for most often in large ensembles and in whatever freelancing type of jobs most of my students will one day be able to undertake “on the side,” so that is my usual suggestion for these students. Having settled upon purchasing a contrabass tuba, the student must then decide whether he or she wishes to purchase a BB-flat or CC tuba.

Regarding this sometimes contentious question, I’ll say at the outset that I don’t care which one the student purchases as long as he or she practices regularly and plays well. Ideally, students will play-test as many examples of both as possible and then choose the best instruments for them regardless of key. However, the question is rarely that simple. On the one hand, the BB-flat tuba is the instrument of choice in American school bands. This is the type of instrument that almost every student plays when first learning the tuba, and I have known many band directors who actively discourage students from purchasing CC tubas and even forbid the use of these instruments in their bands. The tuning tendencies of the BB-flat and CC are largely similar so conflicts in that regard are infrequent, but directors have an understandable desire to not have their ensembles suffer while a tubist masters new fingerings and sometimes resist the introduction of an instrument whose fingerings and tuning tendencies are unfamiliar to them. Additionally, the student who purchases a CC tuba will need to retain proficiency with BB-flat fingerings for use with marching instruments, and mixups are not uncommon. While these arguments in favor of the BB-flat tuba are largely arguments of convenience, it is also true that a large BB-flat tuba is capable of a depth and gravity of sound matched by few CC instruments.

On the other hand, while the BB-flat tuba is common among professional players in some parts of the world, in the United States the overwhelming majority of high-level players use and prefer the CC tuba. Some college and university professors even require that music majors switch to CC tuba and in some cases require the purchase of such an instrument for admission to the studio. While BB-flat tubas are not unknown on the professional scene, they are rare in some circles, and students who play the BB-flat can expect to encounter a certain amount of “snark” if they arrive at a gig or audition with that instrument. These factors are unimportant for those not seeking to establish full-time playing careers and whose teachers have no bias against the BB-flat tuba, but if a student is even considering pursuing a significant playing career I typically advise a switch to CC. The avoidance of negative attitudes toward the BB-flat is not the only reason to prefer CC, however. Because its main bugle is two feet shorter (with correspondingly shortened tubing elsewhere), players often find that the CC tuba feels more nimble than the BB-flat with little loss with regard to depth of sound. Additionally, because CC tubas have dominated the high-end market for so many years there are more available models with advanced upgrades such as the addition of fifth valves for improved low register tuning and the use of various alloys to achieve particular colors of sound. The argument is sometimes made that CC tuba fingerings lend themselves better to sharp keys (and vice versa for BB-flat tuba fingerings), but this is a weaker argument to me—a diligent student will learn to play well in every key on whatever instrument is chosen.

Remember, finally, that audiences will rarely notice a difference in sound from the same player on a BB-flat tuba or a CC tuba; the primary reason to choose a particular instrument will ideally be to promote the greatest ease in producing your desired sound. If you sound great, you will be welcome in my studio regardless of the type of tuba you play, and ultimately you will be able to find a place in the professional world, as well. The above thoughts will be worth considering, however, as you choose an instrument to purchase.

Appendix: A closing thought for band directors unfamiliar with the CC tuba.

I have visited with many high school students over the years that wanted to purchase a tuba and were told by their band directors that they would not be allowed to play CC tuba in their ensembles. While there are good reasons for an ensemble director to not want to have an advanced student learning new fingerings when preparing for concerts and especially contests, there are also good reasons that a student might wish to consider a CC tuba. If the CC tuba is unfamiliar to you, you might consider this roundabout way of thinking about it. The CC tuba’s fingerings and tuning tendencies are essentially the same as those for the written notes on trumpet (or treble-clef euphonium), only two octaves lower. The only real difference is that tuba players will want to use the fourth valve or 2-4 in place of the 1-3 and 1-2-3 combinations, respectively. While some instruments have a fifth valve for use in the extreme lower register, this part of the range rarely appears in band music. Additionally, I have published fingering and overtone series charts for the CC tuba here.

Posted in Low Brass Resources, Music, Music Education, Pedagogy, Piston Valves, Rotary Valves, Teaching Low Brass, Tuba

The Christian and Sci-Fi

I’ve enjoyed taking the past few weeks off from blogging, but I am hoping to be back to writing on my weekly schedule for most of the summer, since I don’t have any large commitments that would preclude my doing so. One way that I’ve spent the added free time that accompanies the end of school is taking in some television shows and movies. My wife and I are big Doctor Who fans, and I have loved Star Trek since middle school. A favorite pastime recently has been catching up on the Trek series that I missed when college and the busyness of early working life kept me from watching much television at all. (It didn’t help that my wife really can’t stomach Star Trek, except perhaps the newer movies.)

tricorderScience fiction is more than just escapism for nerds, though. This post was prompted by a story I read just recently about a competition to make a working device that mimics the functions (if not the appearance) of the “tricorders” used by medical personnel on Star Trek to diagnose a variety of medical conditions. The winning device, “DxtER,” by an organization called Final Frontier Medical Devices, is now moving to the testing phase with further research and development in cooperation with the FDA. One hopes that devices like this one could one day soon be used in homes to provide initial diagnosis of a variety of medical conditions, perhaps enabling the early identification of looming issues as well as the avoidance of unnecessary and expensive emergency room trips. All inspired by a little device on a fictional program.

This isn’t the first time that Star Trek has inspired new inventions, of course. One needs only to look at the similarity between the communicators on the original Trek series and certain models of cellular telephones, or the resemblance between TNG datapads and tablet computers, or even the development of directed energy weapons by the military to see the positive benefits that sci-fi inspires in the real world. These real-world influences are not limited to gadgetry, either. These programs also communicate, with varying degrees of explicitness, their own particular worldviews. Stories casting a future vision for our world and our societies (as opposed to those set in fictional worlds or historical periods) can greatly influence their audiences’ thinking about what a desirable future looks like and how it should be achieved. In almost all cases, these worldviews are humanistic and relativistic, or in some other sense not Christian. This doesn’t mean that Christian viewers cannot enjoy such programs, of course, but they must do so with a certain critical eye toward the worldviews communicated.

This leads me to wonder, what if authors and screenwriters with real Christian commitments started making serious forays into the sci-fi genre? What if, in addition to theorizing wonderful inventions that might make our lives better, authors portrayed a future society built upon Christian principles rather than secular ones? These stories need not be expressly evangelistic (actually, one of the worst things about “Christian” films and literature is that they try too hard in this way) and certainly shouldn’t be apocalyptic (I’m an amillennialist). Simply approaching the writing process with an underlying Christian commitment could potentially produce great contributions to the cultural conversation as society envisions the both the technology and mores upon which our future will be built.

So, are there models for this kind of writing? Yes, and I occasionally hear book and movie reviews about literature of this kind, but my favorite is C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy. While not set in the future (the timeframe was contemporaneous to Lewis), these stories mix space travel, aliens, and even mythology while depicting the cosmic struggle between good and evil and criticizing the excesses of the secular ideologies which were pervasive in Lewis’s day and ours. Christians hoping to enter into this genre and contribute—as Christians—to the envisioning process that sci-fi engenders would do well to start with reading Lewis.

And until they do, I’ll just go back to watching Voyager. (Yeah, I know, but it’s still new to me….)

Posted in C.S. Lewis, Christian Worldview, Doctor Who, Practical Christianity, Science Fiction, Society, Star Trek, Tablet Computers, The Future, Theology

“Gadgets and Gizmos:” Improving Smartphone Recording Quality

Recording practice sessions and lessons is an important tool for identifying and correcting execution errors and thus improving performance, and on the whole the ubiquitous presence of smartphones capable of making audio and/or video recordings has been a boon to students’ abilities to practice in this way. However, musicians generally have been unimpressed by the sound quality produced using the microphones installed on these devices and have continued to rely on dedicated recording equipment in order to realize a reasonable quality of sound reproduction. While memory limitations on most smartphones necessitate that “real” recording equipment be retained for recording longer sessions or events, the items I’m highlighting today can facilitate the recording of shorter portions of a piece or exercise using a smartphone or other handheld device but with the sound quality provided by external powered microphones. Provided that your microphones are handy and already set up (such as in a teaching studio or dedicated practice space) this enables the taking of quick recordings with the only setup required being the plugging of a single cord into the phone’s headphone/microphone jack. In lessons I’ve even been able to make the recordings using students’ phones, eliminating the extra steps of recording on my camera or sound recorder, transferring files to my computer, uploading to Dropbox, and emailing to students. The only disappointment thus far has been with students who have the iPhone 7, the absence of a headphone/microphone jack making the use of these microphones impossible without added adapters.

Saramonid SmartRig+The device I’ve used primarily for recording practice sessions and lessons in my studio at the university is the Saramonic SmartRig+. With two XLR inputs and two TRS inputs, one could theoretically bring sound from as many as four microphones into a smartphone or other recording device. So far I have been using only a pair of Røde NT5 condenser mics which are mounted to one wall in my studio. It has dials for adjusting sound levels and balance so with a bit of experimentation one can arrive at a desirable quality of sound. Since its only real function is providing phantom power to the mics and transferring sound to a recording device the SmartRig+ requires very little power to operate, which is supplied by a single 9-volt battery. My only complaint about the device so far is that in my hands the construction feels a bit flimsy; the housing is entirely made of plastic. But, so far it has done the job I have assigned to it exceedingly well.

Rode SC4A simpler, more portable, and much less expensive option is a small adapter cable which transfers the sound from the TRS cable found on many microphones to a TRRS plug as required by the input on most smartphones. I am using a Røde SC4 for this purpose. At only 3 inches it doesn’t provide much length, so if your microphone cable is short you might need an extension cable of some kind, but it does facilitate the transfer of sound as needed. This adapter cable obviously provides no power, so the microphone used will need to have an internal power supply. I am using a Sony ECM-MS907, a very fine older mic which has good sound quality and is powered by a single AA battery which always seems to last forever. The sound produced from this setup is somewhat inferior to that achieved by the NT5’s in my office, but in the absence of all of that equipment this gets the job done admirably.

Again, memory limitations on most smartphones will dictate that one have dedicated recording equipment, high-capacity SD cards, etc. for recording concerts, entire lessons, and other longer engagements. But, for capturing short clips to assist in practicing and teaching, these setups are simple, inexpensive, can be used quickly and easily, and are a vast improvement over the poor sound quality usually captured on smartphones.

Posted in "Gadgets and Gizmos", Accessories, Instructional Technology, Music, Pedagogy, Practicing, Smartphones, Teaching Low Brass