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

Today I am reposting, for the tenth 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 nine 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, 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, Mississippi Lions All-State Band, Music, Music Education, Playing Fundamentals, Practicing, Scales and Arpeggios, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Tuba | Comments Off on Fifteen Steps to Playing a Better All-State Audition (Repost)

Improvisation in Slow Motion

I have been arranging solo and chamber music for low brass instruments for almost my entire teaching career. As is true of just about everything I do as a teacher, my reasons for doing this have been mostly practical. The typical scenario is that I see a need for a particular piece or type of piece either for my own performances or for my students, I search for an already-existing publication that fulfils that need, and when I fail to find something suitable, I set about creating an arrangement myself. I’ve become fairly adept at this, and currently have over 30 arrangements in print. Most of these have been published by Cimarron Music Press, but I also have published with Potenza Music and TAP Music. While publication has always been a secondary goal for my arranging work and yields an extremely small amount of extra income, it has provided an extra “feather in my cap” when applying for promotion and tenure. I also like to think that others have found my work useful over the years.

I am speaking entirely of arranging—taking already existing music and adapting it to the medium of my choice—as opposed to composition, which is creating an entirely new work. I have yet to try my hand at the latter in any serious way, but maybe one day. One potential obstacle when one decides to engage in arranging is copyright, as works composed after 1924 (why that is the year is a very long story) are generally still under copyright protection and their composers (or the present copyright owners) entitled to royalties for each copy sold. While many composers, songwriters, and publishers are happy to grant permission to create new arrangements of their works, they do demand appropriate fees, and with the already razor-thin margins in music publication, publishers are often unwilling to publish arrangements when they will be responsible for paying royalties to copyright holders in addition to the arranger. To avoid all this, I have thus far chosen to limit my arranging work to pieces no longer under copyright protection.

Some of my favorite older pieces to appropriate for low brass are from the Baroque era. This introduces a peculiar difficulty: figured bass realization. Figured bass is a sort of shorthand used by composers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when composing accompanying parts for keyboard or sometimes plucked string instruments. The practice was to write the bass line only, and then to include indications regarding how the rest of the chord should be realized by providing numbers and symbols indicating the intervals to be played above the bass notes. In some respects, this was not unlike the chord changes seen in jazz and other improvisatory idioms today, and indeed well-known composers and keyboard players such as J.S. Bach (1685-1750) were widely regarded as skilled improvisers.

While figured bass is typically studied in college and university music theory courses, reading and interpreting these markings in real time during performances is a skill that has largely fallen by the wayside. Therefore, modern publications of these works even for their originally intended instruments typically include a complete keyboard part with the figured bass realized by an arranger or editor. Those preparing to arrange Baroque music for low brass instruments should be aware that while the pieces themselves are in the public domain, the figured bass realizations in more recent editions are not. To avoid running afoul of copyright law, a new figured bass realization must be created as part of the arranging process. Even without the legalities involved, this is usually still a good idea so that one can ensure that the accompanying part is most suitable for the new instrumentation.

Of course, it is one thing to correctly realize figured bass. It is another thing entirely to interestingly realize figured bass. My own skills in this area have certainly grown over the past 15 years or so. My very first published arrangement of a Baroque solo piece was a G.P. Telemann (1681-1767) bassoon sonata that is commonly performed in its original key by trombone and euphonium players. I thought moving it into a different key would make the fingering more amenable to CC tuba, and created a tuba arrangement in that key. This has been a successful arrangement and is still in print, but the keyboard part (which does not include the figures) is rather simplistic, though functional. I’m sure good pianists embellish this one a bit, which is entirely appropriate.

Fast-forward 6-7 years, and we come to this example from my setting of the J.E. Galliard (1687-1747) bassoon sonatas for bass trombone or tuba. Here the figures are included, and the right-hand keyboard part has more melodic interest.

My current project is creating a new bass trombone/tuba edition of the Benedetto Marcello (1686-1769) cello sonatas. The right-hand piano parts are still more inventive. While their function is primarily harmonic, there are little countermelodies and other motives to create interest.

While it is correct to say that my figured bass realization has improved due to having more experience with it, as I reflect on this evolution over the past fifteen years, I can identify a key difference in my approach to this task. In my early efforts I was thinking of the music almost entirely vertically, worrying only about writing the “right chords” over each marking. At some point, I began thinking more horizontally, imagining in greater detail the interplay between the solo and accompanying lines. At its best, the writing process has come to feel a bit like “improvisation in slow motion.” This has led to more interesting and, I hope, more idiomatic parts for the keyboard player in these arrangements, as well as a more enjoyable experience for me both writing and performing.

One of the dangers of formal music study is that we can become so concerned about things like technical execution and chordal analysis that they forget to simply “make music.” While accuracy is important, flow and direction are important also. This is obviously true in performance, but I have discovered that it is true in writing and arranging, as well.

Posted in Bass Trombone, Benedetto Marcello, Copyright, Georg Philipp Telemann, Improvisation, Johann Ernst Galliard, Johann Sebastian Bach, Micah Everett, Music, Music Publishing, Music Theory, Musical Interpretation, Orchestration, Performing, Sheet Music, Teaching Low Brass, Trombone, Tuba, Writing and Arranging | Comments Off on Improvisation in Slow Motion

“It Matters to This One:” Why I Still Teach Music

My twenty-first year teaching low brass at the university level is beginning in a challenging and fractious moment for our society in general and for higher education in particular. After the COVID-19 event appeared to be petering out over the summer and our university and others started to prepare for normal operations, the Delta variant and ensuing “fourth wave” came around to remind everyone that the virus is still here, and sparked entirely new discussions of how to best mitigate its impact. Happily, the presence and availability of vaccines and better therapeutics has shifted the focus of most such discussions from the idea of avoidance (lockdowns, virtual teaching/learning) to mitigation (vaccination, ventilation, cleaning, treatment). The merits of or questions surrounding the vaccines are far outside of my expertise and understanding, and I will decline to present an opinion regarding them in this space. For the purposes of this article, I am simply thankful that we are operating thus far in a paradigm that is much closer to normal than that of one year ago, even as the question of how and whether we should be operating in person at the present time remains contentious in some quarters.

The coronavirus is certainly not the only area of controversy and challenge surrounding higher education. Perhaps the most unifying issue of this kind is the question of cost, with the price of a university education having far outpaced inflation for practically my entire lifetime. Whether one hails (as I do) from the political and religious Right, or (as do most of my colleagues) from the Left, there is agreement—even among faculty members—that high costs and mounting student debt constitute a huge problem. Of course, that agreement evaporates when solutions to this problem are discussed. On the Right, the prevailing discussions are of eliminating administrative positions and expensive student life programs (some on the Left would agree here), as well as academic programs and majors they would describe as politically charged. On the Left, preferred solutions include increased state appropriations and student debt forgiveness. My views here are more informed than those regarding vaccination, but are still beyond my topic for today. Suffice it to say for now that the combination of the pandemic, the politically charged atmosphere both within and beyond the academy, and mounting costs and student borrowing have made this a challenging time to work in higher education. Add to that my own political and religious conservatism, which I discussed in some detail in an interview earlier this year, and one might wonder why I choose to continue working in this profession.

I suppose an easy response to that question would be a rhetorical question of my own: “What else would I do?” A terminal degree in trombone performance doesn’t really qualify one to do much else. I suppose I could retrain into some other profession, but I don’t really want to do so. I enjoy playing and teaching music and consider it a great blessing to be able to make my living in this way. While I find that most of my colleagues disagree with my views on many things, disagreement is not the same thing as intolerance. It is possible not only to work with those with other points of view but to genuinely enjoy doing so, and I like to think that we all extend this courtesy to each other.

More importantly, and at the risk of sounding a little weird, I truly believe that am where I am and doing what I am doing because this is where God would have me. How do I know that? Mainly, because I am here doing this. Much worry has been indulged in by people wondering “what is God’s will for my life?” and much ink has been spilled by those writing often dubious “how-to” guides for such worriers. However, if God really “[declares] the end from the beginning” (Isaiah 46:10) and “upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:3), then absent some obvious sin in one’s current situation or clear indication that a change of employment or situation is wise, one can be reasonably confident that he would not be where he currently is were it not God’s will that he be so. Add to that the scarcity of available positions relative to the number of qualified applicants for jobs like mine and the statistical unlikelihood that any of us would land such a position, and I have every reason to be confident that I am exactly where I am supposed to be.

On a more mundane and day-to-day level, the various controversies of the day simply do not factor to any significant degree into the teaching, learning, and music making that occur in Music Building Room 127, where I enjoy the great privilege of working one-on-one with young people to help them to recognize, appreciate, and create beauty, and then in turn go out and teach others to do the same. Why do I do this? Because creating beauty is inherently good, both glorifying God and edifying people—even those who do not share my religious motivations can still get behind the humanistic part. We make music because it’s pretty, and that is a good thing.

I first heard the following anecdote either as a sermon illustration or in a theology lecture, but a cursory internet search demonstrates that it originated as a short story called “The Star Thrower” by Loren Eiseley (1907-1977). Many highly condensed retellings of the story can be found via a brief Google search. One reads as follows:

A boy stands on the beach, where hundreds of starfish have been swept up by the waves and stranded there to die. He’s throwing the starfish back in the water, one by one, so they can survive.

A grownup watches him for a minute from up on the boardwalk, and then yells down, “You can’t possibly throw all those starfish back in the water. You could stand there all night throwing starfish—it won’t matter.”

The boy looks around, throws another starfish into the water, and says, “It matters to this one.”

I doubt I’ll ever be able to have some great large-scale impact on society, academia, or the church sitting in my office teaching one student after the other to create beautiful sounds by vibrating their lips at the ends of metal tubes. But maybe I can teach one student at a time what it means to love beautiful things, to bring just a little bit of beauty, order, truth, and life into a world too often marred by ugliness, chaos, dishonesty, and death. Maybe I can show just one student at a time a little bit about how the good, the true, and the beautiful reflect the nature of a Creator who made all things for our good and his glory. My impact may be limited, but to the student in my office at any given moment, maybe it matters.

It matters to this one, and so I continue, with thankfulness and resolve.

Posted in Alto Trombone, Apologetics, Baritone Horn, Bass Trombone, Beauty, Career Choices, Christian Worldview, COVID-19, Education, Euphonium, Higher Education, Music, Music and Theology, Music Education, Pedagogy, Politics, Practical Christianity, Society, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Theology, Trombone, Truth, Tuba | Comments Off on “It Matters to This One:” Why I Still Teach Music

Because It’s Pretty…Or, The Downside of Musical Competition

Once again this week I am finding myself without very much time to write, with the International Trombone Festival coming up in a few days and a new recording project just a couple of weeks after that. So, I thought I would re-share another older post that has taken on new significance in the post-pandemic environment.  With so many music educators (myself included, if I’m honest) facing greater or lesser amounts of burnout after the stresses of the past eighteen months or so, the question of why we bother to teach and make music takes on a renewed importance. I am convinced that any answer that does not at least include “because it’s pretty” will ultimately fall short. We make beautiful sounds and teach others to do the same because creating beauty is innately good. Other benefits may and do exist, but they are only ancillary, and can never bear the weight of being a primary motivation for what we do.


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Although it is extremely “nerdy” of me to say so, one of my treasured possessions is this framed collection of medals earned during my time as a student in the Pearl Public Schools band program. The awarding of medals for achievement in school bands is an old tradition that harks back to the militaristic roots of the band movement, but has largely died out in recent years—even when I was a student over twenty years ago our school was one of the few that still awarded medals in significant numbers. Some of those medals were earned through tremendous effort and some quite a bit less, and I could no longer tell you what achievements all of them represent, but at the time it was nice to have effort and achievement recognized in a tangible way. My wife has no desire to have these displayed prominently in our home so they have hung in the stairwell outside my home office for several years. I’ve recently considered moving them to my office at the university, more as a nod to my affection for all things traditional than as an expression of pride in secondary school musical achievements. (Update: I ultimately decided to do that not long after writing this post.)

One aspect of school music represented by those medals is the importance of competition to these programs. Whether bands, orchestras, choirs, or other types of ensembles, performing for ratings and comments from judges and often being ranked compared to one’s peers is a key part of the group experience. This engenders a certain pride in successful programs in addition to serving as a metric by which school boards and administrators might determine funding, staffing, and other provisions for musical organizations. Solo and small ensemble festivals serve a similar role on a smaller scale, and seeking membership in all-state and similar organizations provides another layer of competition for ambitious students. This can lead not only to more exciting and more advanced musical experiences but can also affect college scholarship offers for these students.

For those who decide to enter music professionally, the competition mentality can often endure. Those pursuing advanced performance careers might spend years on the competition and audition circuits seeking to build reputations and ultimately secure employment. But even those seeking teaching and other non-performance musical careers still have to prepare for lessons, recitals, and juries. The need to compete and achieve under pressure is clearly bound up in the very fabric of musical training and career establishment.

Playing

During the recent Christmas holidays I spent quite a bit of time recording videos of Christmas tunes with my wife, using various combinations of low brass instruments, guitar, and vocals. These were not of particularly high quality in terms of the videography or sound mixing (honestly we just played in front of an iPad with no advanced equipment at all), but we had a good time making them and sharing with friends and family on social media. Through that process I began to more fully develop a thought that I had been brooding on for a while but never fully articulated: more than twenty years into my professional career as a musician and teacher, I had never really learned to enjoy making music just to make music. There had always been some other motivating factor at work, whether a competition, a rating, an audition, a grade, a job, or a paycheck—always something else other than simply creating beautiful sounds to share with others or simply to enjoy for myself. That has been to my impoverishment, and the change in attitude that has begun in me has affected my views of teaching, of promoting music education, and even of church music. Perhaps I’ll have time to write about all of this in the coming months.

For my students, I intend to be all the more earnest about impressing upon them the importance of making music for its own sake. Most of my students are aspiring music educators, and many struggle to see the importance of individual practice for their development as teachers. Certainly a certain amount of demonstrated performing competency is an obvious necessity, but I’m beginning to see that my students suffer from the same deficiency in their thinking that plagued me for so long. They are concerned with competitions and ratings and lesson plans, and with learning about budgets and parent organizations and fundraising. And these are all important things. But if we aren’t experiencing and sharing a love for music as music rather than for all of these ancillary things, are we not missing the boat? And ironically, in the midst of all of this frenetic activity are we not failing to communicate why music is so important for our schools, our churches, and our communities?

Why make music and teach others to do the same? Because it’s pretty, and because it brings joy to ourselves and others. There’s more to it than that, of course, but there cannot—must not—be less.

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (Philippians 4:8)

Posted in Beauty, Christian Worldview, Music, Music and Theology, Music and Worship, Music Education, Pedagogy, Performing, Practical Christianity, Practicing, Teaching Low Brass, Work and Leisure | Comments Off on Because It’s Pretty…Or, The Downside of Musical Competition

No Place for Truth

Instead of writing something new this week, I am republishing the following post from a couple of years ago. As we approach the Independence Day holiday, I remain convinced that present challenges in our public discourse stem from more than just differences of opinion; we can’t even agree upon what the facts are! This is a fundamental problem that few in the media seem to get, or at least they don’t talk about it.


Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world–to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate said to him, “What is truth?” After he had said this, he went back outside to the Jews and told them, “I find no guilt in him.
John 18:37-38

“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”
—Daniel Patrick Moynihan (1927-2003)

I’ve been thinking about these two quotes for quite a long time now, so while they might seem particularly relevant in the present cultural and political moment, like most of the things I write here the initial idea for this post came some months ago. I suppose that the pairing seems a bit strange at first, considering together the conversation between Pontius Pilate and the Lord Jesus on the one hand, and those of a Democratic United States senator on the other. But taken together these quotations remind me that while we in our conceit believe that the cultural and political crises of the present day are somehow historically unique, in fact the milieu of the Roman Empire in New Testament times was not altogether different from our own. As Solomon said a millennium before the conversation between Pilate and Christ, “There is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9)

In Pontius Pilate we have a character who is at best a morally weak political leader. At worst he is a petty tyrant. His flippant rhetorical question “What is truth?” suggests that he has little regard for actual reality when the facts on the ground do not serve the ends that he believes to be politically expedient. In the end he delivers the Lord over to torture and death, not because he believes Jesus to be guilty of any crime—he doesn’t—but because he cares only about placating the crowd, maintaining order, and assuring his own place as the facilitator of that little slice of the Pax Romana. For Pilate, “truth” is at best malleable, at worst irrelevant.

Sadly, that same attitude persists among the political and cultural leaders of our own day. Once again, “there is nothing new under the sun.” The most pressing manifestation of this at the present moment is the discussions surrounding the impeachment inquiry against President Donald J. Trump recently initiated in the House of Representatives. As is so often the case in such matters, one side looks at the evidence and concludes that it is damning. The other side examines the same evidence and concludes that it is a “nothing burger,” to quote one senator. Who is right? What really happened? Was a crime committed, and if so by whom? I have no idea, and I’m not sure that anyone in Congress or the executive branch has any idea either.

But what bothers me more is that I’m not sure that anyone in Washington even cares what really happened. They only care about winning. Truth is replaced with spin, and the integrity of our society and its institutions continues to erode.

There was a time in our country when people with widely divergent political and social opinions could enjoy civil conversation and even come to some agreement based on certain common assumptions and understandings. At the very least, everyone agreed that “true” and “false” were objective categories not subject to individual interpretation, so a shared understanding of “the facts” formed the basis for dialogue and even consensus. But in a time when “truth” is no longer considered to be an absolute category but rather a relative one, that broad agreement on basic factual propositions has collapsed, and people on opposing sides of issues find their interlocutors to be not merely mistaken, but unintelligible…or perhaps dangerous. That’s what is so scary about the present moment. It’s not that people have disagreements about government, public policy, societal norms, or the like. It’s the disappearance of a set of common assumptions that allows profitable conversation to even begin.

So how do we get to that place where people can even talk? I don’t know. I’m just a trombone player who thinks about things and sometimes writes little blog posts that ten or twenty or a hundred people might read. But I think Sen. Moynihan’s words are relevant. Diversity of opinion is fine. It’s even good, prompting people to refine, sharpen, and revise their views in the light of new and better ideas. But “diversity of facts” is a problem. It’s a problem because the lack of agreement that some things are so and some things are not-so prevents the formation of a shared understanding that enables civil discussion to take place. More importantly, it’s a problem because “diversity of facts” is a nonsensical term. Some things are so and some things are not-so whether or not you or I or anyone else understands or agrees with this. Truth is absolute, not relative. It’s sad that so few in our day acknowledge this. It’s even sadder that they don’t seem to care.

And then there’s the matter of the One who called himself “the Truth” (John 14:6). The rejection of that Truth is the most tragic of all. But in a time when so many ask with Pilate “What is truth?” it is sadly unsurprising.

Posted in Apologetics, Bible, Christ's Person and Work, Christian Worldview, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Doctrine, Donald Trump, History, News and Commentary, Politics, Pontius Pilate, Practical Christianity, Society, Truth | Comments Off on No Place for Truth