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

Today I am reposting, for the ninth year, one of the more popular articles on this blog. With high school students 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 created a series of videos specifically related to preparing low brass players to audition for the Mississippi Lions All-State Band, which appear in the YouTube playlist below. I began creating these videos over eight years ago now, and while I have recently begun updating and replacing some of the older videos there is a mix of very recent recordings and older ones. All of the information remains relevant to the current audition format; the newer videos simply have a somewhat higher recording quality.

While some of the material below repeats information covered in these 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 had 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.

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

Fighting for Normal

Playing with friends at College Hill Presbyterian Church.

This morning I was able to do something special that was completely normal until six months ago: I performed a piece of music, with other people, in public. The COVID-19 event has robbed society of much that was beautiful and good (including, but not limited to the arts), to say nothing of the incomes and opportunities that those of us in the arts have lost due to ongoing restrictions. Thankfully, by far the largest share of my income comes from teaching, and so while I have lost a not-insignificant amount of expected income from performing, the loss is inconvenient rather than devastating. I have many friends and colleagues that have not fared as well during the past few months.

As case numbers fall, better treatments for COVID-19 are devised, and society slowly begins to reopen, I find myself repeatedly asking the question, “How do we get back to normal?”

On some level, and in both good and bad ways, the answer to that question must be “we don’t.” Sadly, some arts organizations that were already operating on razor-thin margins will be unable to recover from months of lost revenue, to say nothing of restaurants, hotels, and other businesses similarly impacted. At the same time, innovation is often spurred by crisis, and there will be new organizations and businesses that use the contingencies of the present moment to devise new and profitable business models. Those of us that work primarily as educators find ourselves in a situation that is similar, at least in some ways. The pivot to online education back in March forced all of us to develop effective methods of teaching online. Sometimes this was using technologies that already existed, while at other times new technologies and methods were developed or refined to meet the needs of the moment. The best of these tools will undoubtedly remain part of our instructional “toolkits” long after the present crisis has ended, becoming part of the future iteration of “normal.” I hope to write more about this in a future post.

The benefits of online tools for teaching and content delivery notwithstanding, I am convinced of three things:

1. This cannot be the “new normal.”
2. People do not want this to be the “new normal.”
3. We will have to fight to get back to normal.

The first two of these statements can be covered at the same time. The present situation of various stages of lockdown, separation, and alienation is unsustainable. We human beings were made in the image of our Creator, a God who eternally exists in three divine Persons enjoying perfect fellowship. As his image-bearers, we, too, were made for fellowship, not separation. Think of the social dysfunctions that are tied to continued isolation; it is no coincidence that one of the most common descriptions heard of individuals accused or convicted of horrific crimes is “he was a loner.” We human beings were made to be together, and if the last six months have taught us anything it is that virtual school, virtual church, virtual concerts, virtual sporting events, and virtual socialization are but pale imitations of the real things. They are certainly blessings to have in times of necessity, but there is an unquantifiable yearning for human contact that these virtual media simply do not satisfy. This cannot be the “new normal,” and people do not want it to be so.

Even so, I believe we will have to fight to get back to normal, or to find a workable “new normal.” One reason for this is simple economic necessity. If businesses, arts organizations, charities, churches, and even schools and universities are to continue as going concerns, they need customers, patrons, volunteers, and congregants. And yet, as much as we long deep down for human contact, the inertia is toward continued isolation. Ordering on Amazon is easier than shopping locally. Taking classes online in one’s pajamas is easier than getting up and going, likewise “attending” church (if one continues that at all). If we are going to come out of this period of isolation and reassert our humanity, we are going to have to decide to do so.

Whatever it takes….

Now, please understand that I am not advocating for any defiance of various mandates given by the civil authorities. I favor masking indoors, social distancing, and isolating in the event of exposure to or contracting the virus. But I do advocate taking the most “normal” that we can have during these restrictions. For example, this semester my university gave us two options: teach entirely online or teach with some in-person instruction supplemented by virtual work of some kind. For performing faculty on wind instruments, this includes restrictions such as 30-minute lessons or rehearsals, with 30-minute breaks in between, using masks, bell covers, and some means of collecting and disposing of condensation. While it would be tempting to balk at such restrictions (and, granted, they are more workable for my instruments than for some others) and teach online, I have elected to give the maximum amount of in-person instruction allowed. Why? For one thing, I think the prescribed safety measures are more than sufficient. Indeed, COVID-19 cases on our campus are declining and no outbreaks have been traced to classroom buildings. Secondly, if the present restrictions can serve as a halfway point between fully virtual instruction and a full schedule of in-person teaching, using the maximum amount of in-person time allowed will whet everyone’s appetites for a more fulsome educational and artistic experience, and perhaps help its return to come sooner and be less jarring when it does.

But most importantly, from my perspective as an educator, I think our students long to be in the same rooms with their teachers and classmates, interacting with them both formally and informally, teaching and learning, and simply “being human” together. It is hard to explain why this is—at least, without the theological angle I took earlier—yet everyone knows it is so. We human beings long for togetherness, and it is worth fighting for.

Even with a mask and a bell cover.

Posted in Beauty, Church, COVID-19, Digital Revolution, Distance Education, Education, Euphonium, Higher Education, Music, Music and Worship, Music Education, Performing, Politics, Quarantine, Society, Technology, Videoconferencing, Worship

“CoronaTunes” Retrospective

When the stay-at-home orders relative to the COVID-19 event began to be issued in mid-March I resolved early on to spend part of the time away from my normal performance schedule making multitrack recordings to share on Facebook and YouTube. My reasons for doing this were partly unselfish but, honestly, partly quite selfish. Unselfishly, I thought—as evidently many musicians and other artists did—that filling social media with music, dance, and other art forms would “take the edge off” of a difficult time. Selfishly, I knew that I needed to continue to develop and refine my skills at making audio and video recordings. I had no idea when I began that the series would eventually comprise 30 videos–really enough material for a CD-length recording–but that’s what happened.

Even a cursory viewing of this playlist will show considerable development from the first video to the last one. For the first two-thirds of the project I made the multitrack videos using the Acapella app by Mixcord. This program for iOS makes starting with multitrack recording easy for just about anybody, at least from the technical side. The ability to meaningfully edit the results is severely limited here, though, so making a quality recording in Acapella often involves playing multiple complete takes of each part, which can be rather exhausting. It also requires some added equipment to improve on the audio capturing capabilities of the phone or tablet, which I discussed in a previous post.

As I was nearing the end of the project I found myself increasingly unsatisfied with the results I was getting in Acapella, especially compared to the more polished videos some of my more tech-savvy friends and colleagues were producing. I had already figured out how to export the audio from Acapella and do some minor editing and EQ work in Adobe Audition before posting, but I resolved to learn to record audio directly into my computer using an audio interface and Audition, with video coming separately from my smartphone, tablet, or webcam. I then reassembled all of this in Adobe Premiere Pro. Recording in this way is less intuitive to the newbie than is the Acapella app and takes far longer, but as I became more proficient at mixing and editing the results became increasingly satisfactory. I still have much to learn, but my skills in this area increased tremendously over this ten-week period away from my normal schedule, and I am glad to have been able to use the time so productively in this way.

I’ll conclude these thoughts with five brief observations or reflections.

1. Today’s technology makes “starting out” cheaper, easier, and better than in the past. In previous generations multitrack recording—or really home recording of any quality—required the investment of hundreds or even thousands of dollars just to begin. While doing this well still requires one to obtain quite a bit of equipment and software, the initial experimentation really costs nothing. If you own a smartphone, you can get a free version of Acapella or some similar app and get started.

2. Nevertheless, doing this well requires effort and investment. People concerned with sound quality will not be happy for long with recording into the onboard mics on their phones, tablets, or computers. I spent several months in late 2018 and well into 2019 experimenting with equipment that could improve recording quality on smartphones and tablets (also mentioned in the aforementioned post), as well as an audio interface and software to record on the computer. I’ve still barely scratched the surface of all of this, and yet between my home and office I’ve spent somewhere in the neighborhood of $2000 on A/V equipment and software. If I really wanted to get into this on a more professional level that number would increase dramatically, and quickly.

3. Brass instrument sounds are notoriously difficult to capture. Perhaps the greatest frustration my students and I experienced in online lessons this past semester was the inability of the onboard microphones in smartphones, tablets, and especially laptops to capture their sounds without significant clipping or distortion. While we’ve all heard some pretty good recordings of other instruments made with “just an iPhone”—my wife has laid down some good voice/guitar tracks with her phone and no added equipment—the intense vibrations produced by brass instruments require something more robust. And then, even the best microphone requires optimal placement and setting of levels, plus mixing, EQ, and compression added after the fact in order to obtain a satisfactory result. This is the most difficult part of recording brass instruments to master, and I still have a long way to go.

4. Learning to work with digital technology is important for serious musicians. I started teaching college-level trombone lessons as a 22-year-old graduate assistant and had my first adjunct position where I was “the” low brass teacher at 24. For a long time both my self-identification and others’ perception of me was that of a “young professor.” Yet it’s as if one day I woke up and I was suddenly forty years old and there was a new crop of young folks at conferences, on YouTube, etc., playing really well and using lots of digital technology for recording enhancement, for sound effects, for looped accompaniments, and so forth. That spurred my desire to learn better recording techniques more than anything else. If we middle-aged-and-older folks don’t try to keep up with these technological developments we’re going to be left behind!

5. Digital media can augment and enhance, but not replace live performance and teaching. Once again, I am thankful for the time and resources I had available to further develop my recording skills. I’m also glad to have been forced to develop some proficiency at teaching lessons online, as I think that is going to be at least a part of how music instruction is delivered in the long term. However, I do not think that digital media can fully replace the interactive and interpersonal elements of music making and music teaching. Not even the best digital technology can replace real technical and artistic proficiency as a musician—or for that matter as an actor, a dancer, a painter, a sculptor, etc. While I love recordings and even streamed concerts, watching and listening via screen and speakers is not the same as being in the room with fellow audience members and performers. And somehow having that teacher in the room with you, encouraging you, playing along with you, and, yes, admonishing you is somehow more real, more personal, more human than that same teacher on the other half of your screen.

By all means let’s continue developing these digital technologies, let’s learn to use them better, and let’s develop business models that enable artists to do so profitably (this has been a notable lack over the past few weeks). But let’s not forget that those of us in the arts engage in what we do because creating beauty and order in the midst of an often chaotic and ugly world is part of what makes us human beings, image-bearers of the Creator who told us to meditate on the good, the true, and the beautiful. That same God exists eternally in perfect fellowship within his Triune Self, and so as the imago Dei we long to be together. Not via screens, not even “social distancing.” Just together. Let us all hope and pray that the time for that comes sooner rather than later.

Posted in Acapella App by Mixcord, Alto Trombone, Audio Interfaces, Bass Trombone, Christian Worldview, Conferences, COVID-19, Digital Revolution, Distance Education, Euphonium, Instructional Technology, iPad, Microphones, Mixing Boards, Multitrack Recordings, Music, Music and Theology, Pedagogy, Performance Videos, Performing, Practical Christianity, Quarantine, Recording Technology, Recordings, Smartphones, Social Media, Tablet Computers, Teaching Low Brass, Technology, Tenor Trombone, The Business of Music, Trombone, Tuba, Videoconferencing

Intervals and Sounds, Not “Dots and Spots!”

A couple of weeks ago I was working on scales with a young student in an online lesson. This person has made good progress in the past year or so, going from being a minimally functional player with limited range to having three working octaves and steadily improving skills in rhythm, intonation, and other areas. Most of the school-aged students that come to me are advanced players looking to improve their standing in all-state ensembles, college auditions, and similar venues. Working with those students is rewarding, of course, but there is a particular joy in helping a struggling student to grow, improve, and enjoy music making even more.

Anyway, back to scales. This student first came to me able to play only a very few scales, mostly one octave. At present two-octave scales in every key are more or less possible, but only while using a scale sheet. This was made clear to me in the lesson I’m recounting because the student was reluctant to repeat a scale after I gave the instruction to turn away from the music stand, and even after I insisted still kept stealing “one more look” at the sheet before beginning to play. I told the student right then, “You aren’t playing the notes. You’re going for ‘dots and spots!’”

Conceptually, diatonic scales ought to be simple. Each of the seven letters of the “musical alphabet” occurs only once per octave, and all one really has to do to figure out the major scale in any key is to walk through that alphabet and apply the appropriate key signature. Same with the minor scales (with some modification) and even modal scales, but that’s a discussion for another time. The point here is that my student, who played the requested two-octave scale with relative ease when looking at the scale sheet, was almost entirely unable to do so when the sheet was removed. Instead of thinking through the names of and relationships between the various notes, my student was trying to remember where the notes occur on the page (“dots”) and what slide positions they require (“spots,” i.e. on the slide), with practically no consideration of what a scale sounds like, what pitches are represented by those “dots,” or how the patterns should be executed. This approach yields extremely slow improvement at best, and scales and other patterns “learned” in this manner cannot be readily applied as tools to help with sight reading and mastering new pieces of music. Even missed pitches can go unnoticed because the student is associating marks on the page with fingerings or slide positions (brass instruments having the unique possibility of playing entirely correct fingerings yet missing pitches), and paying little attention to the sounds being produced. We must teach students to conceive of scales, arpeggios, and other patterns as series of intervals, relationships, sounds to be achieved, and to trust that the mechanics will flow intuitively from such a conception.

So how do we do this? I think in part the answer is going to lie in how we address the initial instruction of brass players. My son started playing violin at age six, and I was struck by how much of early instruction in the Suzuki method is more or less by ear. Yes, the mechanics are learned, but music reading in large measure comes later. Beginning students are encouraged to develop an approach to the violin that is intuitive and musical, not forced and mechanical. Conversely, with wind players we tend to teach music reading and instrumental technique simultaneously, and even when simple tunes are interspersed among technical exercises the implicit focus ends up being largely on mechanics, not on music. To be sure, this is necessary to an extent, certain technical difficulties of wind instruments—particularly brass instruments—preventing an entirely intuitive approach to early instruction. But perhaps we can at least bring some elements of a Suzuki-like approach to the way we teach young wind players…and older ones. Here are a few ideas.

1. Teach beginners as much “by ear” as possible. The term “rote teaching” has a well-deserved bad name in education, but used sparingly it can be a useful tool. I have long advocated teaching fundamental exercises to beginning students without any music at all. This is no doubt simpler with brass instruments than with woodwinds due to the simpler mechanics of the instruments, but the goals here are two. First, we want students to associate the physical act of playing with the sounds they desire to produce, not merely with the markings on the page. Secondly, we want the students’ playing abilities to be at least a few steps ahead of their reading abilities. Then, as note reading is introduced we merely have to teach them to add the appearance of the written notes to the aural and mechanical skills they have already developed. In this way we aim to have both technique and reading flow out of musical concepts, rather than the reverse (which doesn’t work).

2. Make singing and buzzing central aspects of teaching and practice. Brass playing is more like singing than playing any other family of instruments. The reason for this is simple and should be obvious: the vibration—the tone—on brass instruments is produced not by a reed, string, or other part of the instrument, but by the lips, a part of the player’s body. The embouchure essentially takes the place of the vocal folds, and the thought processes and airflow needed to initiate and sustain those vibrations are otherwise similar to those of singers. Moreover because the vibrations are produced by the body and not by the instrument, it is vitally important that the player hear the desired pitch internally before playing, as the instrument will merely amplify the pitch being buzzed; it will not, except in a very broad and imprecise sense, force the player to buzz the correct pitch. Singing helps players to develop their “ears”—their internal perceptions of pitch—while also encouraging the expressive approach to music making common to singers. Buzzing the mouthpiece alone begins the process of transferring these concepts to the instrument, but without the mechanical complexities of the entire instrument. Taken together, singing and buzzing do much to ensure the success of brass players. No amount of practice of the instrument will compensate for lacking skills in these areas.

3. Teach scales—and everything else—as musical ideas, not technical ones. The immediate concern that sparked my writing on this topic was teaching major scales, so let us pursue that for a moment. While I do make and distribute scale sheets to my students, I use them as little as possible. Instead, I encourage students to think through the patterns. “What is the key signature?” “What is the starting pitch?” “Talk through the scale slowly while performing the fingerings.” This process can be quite slow at first, but the results in the long run are superior. Students begin to conceive of scales in terms of their tonal relationships, and not in terms of the mechanics of and/or written music for their instruments. In time, students are able to master these patterns and learn new ones more quickly, and moreover have less difficulty conceiving of musical relationships in the abstract, which benefits later studies in music theory, piano, etc. Perhaps most importantly, students that master patterns in this way begin to notice their presence in the music they play. This has tremendous benefits for sight reading, practice efficiency, and even improvisation.

While we as instrumental music teachers have to teach technique and mechanics, it is easy for both us and our students to lose sight of the musical objectives of what we do. Teach music first and foremost. The mechanics will flow from it. Teach mechanics first and foremost and the music will never come.

Posted in Alto Trombone, Baritone Horn, Bass Trombone, Contrabass Trombone, Euphonium, Music, Music Education, Pedagogy, Playing Fundamentals, Practicing, Scales and Arpeggios, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Tuba

What is the Gospel?

What is the Gospel of Jesus Christ? That’s a strange question to ask near the end of the eighth year of writing a blog that is mostly devoted to my professional interests but sometimes dabbles in things spiritual. It’s a basic question, but one that many Christians and others merely interested in Christianity struggle to answer with clarity. To be sure, there is plenty of difficult-to-understand doctrinal material to be found in the Old and New Testaments, enough so that we have multiple denominations and traditions that have divided over disagreements both big and small. Yet surely we should all be able to understand and agree upon “the basics.” The Westminster Confession of Faith (1646), to which my church and denomination subscribe, states the following (Chapter 1, Paragraph 7):

All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.

Perhaps that could be more briefly stated, “Yes, there’s hard stuff there, but the most important part is easy to figure out.” So if the gospel—the “good news” itself—is supposed to be simple, why do we have a hard time explaining it? Let me suggest five things that “muddy the waters” on this basic question.

1. We are sinners. Scripture tells us that basically from Genesis 3 on, we have been separated from God, prone to mix sin into even our best thoughts, words, and works. Jesus himself reminds us in Matthew 6 that we cannot “serve two masters,” yet so often we try to “have our cake and eat it,” wanting to be “good Christians” on the one hand while also maintaining worldly respectability, position, or pleasure on the other. Even the best intentioned among us can, if we are not careful, distort the clarity and simplicity of the gospel because of our own sinful tendencies.

2. We make cultural assumptions. That cultural and religious practices will influence one another is perhaps inevitable. Christian worship in different parts of the world, while hopefully similar in broad outlines, will vary in certain particulars according to the cultural milieus of different times and places. This is fine and even to be expected, as long as we don’t make our particular cultural expression a sine qua non of the gospel itself.

3. We make religious assumptions. Over fifteen years ago a young Southern Baptist couple moved to the Midwest for a new job, and before finding a small Southern Baptist church there visited congregations of a couple of other Baptist denominations. The couple declined to join any of those churches, in part because they did not have an “altar call” at the end of their services. To be fair, that was before my wife and I discovered Reformed theology, much less came to understand that the development of the altar call as a part of worship was a nineteenth-century phenomenon never seen prior to that time and still not practiced by many faithful Christians. I had assumed that a religious practice never precisely observed in scripture was nevertheless a vital part of Christianity. If we are not careful, we can all assume that certain beliefs and practices with which we grew up are vital to the faith, when we should examine them in the light of scripture to either put them in their proper place or set them aside.

4. We confuse imperatives and indicatives. The term “gospel” or “good news” tells us that this message is not an imperative—a “do this” statement, but rather than an indicative—a “this is so” statement. To be sure, the Bible is full of imperatives; the Ten Commandments provide a nice selection of those. And there is even an imperative to be exercised in response to the gospel, but the “good news” itself is an indicative: a message, a declaration, an “indication” that something wonderful has happened. We err when we confuse these.

5. We confuse the gospel itself with its results. If you enjoy hearing exciting “testimonies” of God’s work in people’s lives, then you’ll be bored with mine. I was raised in church and became a believer as a child. Yes, I was a sinner, and yes, I repented and believed the gospel—and that is wonderful. But you know what I’m talking about. People get way more excited about a testimony like that of Ravi Zacharias (1946-2020), a great Christian apologist who passed just a few days ago. Zacharias was a religiously skeptical teenager that attempted suicide and when he woke up received a Gideon Bible in his hospital room. He read it and was converted. His whole life was turned around and he began a life of wondrously productive ministry. Whether the apparent change in a person’s life is relatively small like mine, or big like his, the change results from the gospel—the change itself is not the gospel.

If you’re still with me at this point, you’re probably wondering “when are you going to answer your own question?” Now. I’m going to do it now. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is most simply laid out in 1 Corinthians 15, where the Apostle Paul wrote this:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures….(1 Corinthians 15:3-4)

That’s it, stated most simply right there in the Bible. Jesus Christ died for our sins and rose again. That is the gospel, the news, the indicative—the thing that is so regardless of my response to it, or yours. The imperative—the thing that you and I must do in response to the gospel—flows from it. Turn back a couple of books and you’ll find that stated simply also:

Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” (Acts 16:30-31)

 I’ve copied here just four verses for you; if you want a statement of what the confession calls “those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation,” there it is. Of course, there are ideas just under the surface even in those verses that are not immediately apparent. That Jesus is described as Christ brings with it certain understandings of deity as well as his role as Savior, while the instruction to believe in him as “Lord” includes repentance by implication, since acknowledging his Lordship would require turning from sin to following him. But the basic message is there:

Christ died for our sins and rose again. (Indicative.)

Believe in him and be saved. (Imperative.)

That, in a nutshell, is both the gospel and what we are to do in response to it. Everything else in the Bible points here, to the Person and Work of the Lord Jesus Christ. While we can and should search the scriptures for understanding and guidance on every matter to which it speaks, let us not in so doing lose sight of “the main thing,” much less obscure others’ view by adding our own baggage, however well-intentioned. The gospel is simple. Let’s keep it so.

Posted in Apologetics, Bible, Christ's Person and Work, Christian Worldview, Church, Confessionalism, Denominations, Doctrine, Practical Christianity, Ravi Zacharias, The Gideons International, The Gospel, Theology, Worship