Some Thoughts for Low Brass Players Who Want to Major in Music…or Who Just Want to Get Better!

A high school band director in my state reached out to me recently and asked if I would contribute to a project compiling advice from university faculty members on what prospective music majors on their instruments should know and be able to do before beginning their degree programs. I think he mainly wanted lists of skills and competencies that such students should have, and I have included those as an appendix to this article, but even more important than these lists are broader ways of thinking about music and music making that lead to success, which I have organized into the following fifteen thoughts. I have written primarily with prospective low brass majors in mind, but many of these ideas are applicable to players of other instruments, as well as to students hoping to become serious amateurs or semi-professional players rather than music majors.

1. Your instrument is a musical instrument. Perhaps this is less of a problem for players of more traditionally melodic instruments, but I sometimes find that young low brass players do not think very musically at all about their playing. Such students approach playing from an entirely mechanical perspective, as if their instruments are simply noisemaking devices requiring neither artistry nor expression. Some students—amazingly, even some who are entirely capable of singing their parts (see below)—play with their ears somehow disengaged, playing entirely by feel and missing multiple partials as a result. Every student, even those whose instruments normally occupy background roles, should be reminded of the musical purpose of what we do, and given opportunities and assignments that engender that way of thinking.

2. If you can sing it, you can play it. Playing a brass instrument is much more similar to singing than is playing any other family of instruments. Just like singers, brass players vibrate a part of the body in order to make music, and the pitch at which that vibration occurs is determined by the signal sent from the ear/brain to the embouchure. The vibration simply occurs in the lips instead of the vocal folds, and then is amplified and colored by the instrument. Because brass instruments can produce multiple notes per fingering, accurate audiation is, if anything, more important for brass players than for other instrumentalists. Learning to sing well promotes this very necessary skill, as well as the musical way of thinking discussed previously.

3. Complete development as a musician requires finding and preparing more challenging music than your band or orchestra parts. I began writing this article between services of a weekend orchestra gig, and over lunch the other trombone and tuba players and I were discussing how simplistic our parts often are compared to those of the string and woodwind players, even in a professional orchestra. To some extent, this is necessary. Our instruments are not as easy to play quickly as some others and besides, too many fast-moving passages for the low brass can create muddiness in the overall sound of the ensemble, even when played well. Composers’ practice of writing comparably simple low brass parts begins even at the middle school level, and can lead to low brass players becoming lesser musicians than their colleagues if the large ensemble music is not supplemented by more challenging materials. Besides seeking out band and orchestra music that at least occasionally challenges their low brass players, directors should encourage their low brass players to find and prepare solo repertoire, advanced etudes, and chamber music, and direct them to find study and performance opportunities that will give them appropriate challenges.

4. Complete development as a musician requires daily and systematic practice of playing fundamentals. While musical objectives should be at the forefront of our thinking when practicing and performing, realization of these objectives does demand facility in the physical aspects of playing the instrument. Because we brass players produce sound by vibrating a part of the body, certain daily calisthenics are needed to ensure that the whole tone production apparatus—including not only the muscles and tissues of embouchure but also the physical structures related to breathing—is in optimal shape. A daily routine reviewing and extending one’s capabilities with long tones, articulation (single and multiple), flexibility (lip slurs), finger dexterity and/or handslide accuracy, and high and low range extension goes a long way toward ensuring optimal playing development and productivity in the remaining parts of one’s daily practice. There are published books of exercises and routines for this purpose, and many teachers have posted theirs online for free. Students should be encouraged to find, use, and even create routines that work for them.

5. Complete development as a musician requires thorough mastery of scale and arpeggio patterns. Most students are required to learn scales and/or arpeggios for auditions or pass-offs of various kinds, but few seem to truly understand their utility for improving reading and playing. For one thing, most “technical” passages encountered in music follow some common pattern or another, whether it be a scale, an arpeggio, or maybe some derivative like a scale in thirds or fourths. The more familiar one becomes with patterns like these, the more likely one is to recognize them when encountered in pieces of music and execute them almost automatically.

6. Practice beyond your comfort zone in every aspect of playing. One surefire way to fail to grow as a musician is to only practice things one already does well. Every day’s practice should have one playing higher and lower, faster and slower, louder and softer, longer and shorter, etc. than is comfortable, and both the daily routine and other practice materials can be used to promote this.I still do this on my own playing, and am therefore able to step on stage knowing that in performance I will come nowhere near the limits of my capabilities in any area. Practicing in a way that pushes the extremes thus ensures higher quality (and more enjoyable) playing in the short term and greater technical development in the long term. Do those extremes always sound great? No, but it’s okay to sound bad in the practice room, as long as those bad sounds are in the service of promoting growth as a player.

7. Certain advanced techniques are easier to master when you are younger. Start now! I sometimes joke that I can teach a seventh-grader to multiple-tongue in two weeks, and I can teach a college freshman to do it in a semester. While the comment is tongue-in-cheek, it accurately reflects my experience as a teacher. Multiple-tonguing on brass instruments, to continue with the same example, is conceptually very simple. Instead of articulating each note with a t or d consonant, a k or g consonant is introduced every other syllable or every third syllable to facilitate faster playing. For whatever reason, very young students usually pick up on this easily, but older ones often struggle. Is the struggle physical or psychological? I am not always sure. Maybe it is easier to develop greater tonguing speed when the body is still developing than it is after one reaches adult size, or maybe it is easier to develop greater tonguing speed before one “decides” that this is difficult to do. Perhaps both of these are true on some level. In any case, students should be encouraged to pursue advanced techniques at the earliest moment it seems appropriate. They really can learn a lot before they start to develop hangups, whether physical or psychological.

8. The internet is a great resource…if you know how to use it. This statement is a truism that applies to more than just brass playing. Internet access first became widely available just as I was finishing high school, and for the past 25+ years I have marveled at the ready availability of so much information. The websites of various brass playing-related organizations, ensembles, teachers, libraries, retailers, and professional musicians offer an ever-growing collection of helpful and often free resources for players of all levels. The discussion groups that began as email listservs and rudimentary bulletin board services have evolved into highly developed discussion forums both within and outside of the usual social media services. The “democratization of publishing” that this has engendered demands discernment, though. Anybody can publish a website or blog, and not everything on the internet is true and reliable. Online forums can sometimes become downright toxic, so learning to navigate these wisely is a must.

9. Recordings of the world’s greatest musicians on your instrument (and not on your instrument) are at your fingertips. Use them! I still remember when a friend from the all-state band who went to another school in our county brought over a copy of Christian Lindberg’s recording Romantic Trombone Concertos. I was about sixteen at the time, and was completely mesmerized. I had no idea that trombone playing like that was possible, or that recordings of trombone players playing solos accompanied by full orchestra existed. That seems silly today, when both live and studio recordings of great musicians from all over the world are instantly available, usually for free or included with a modest subscription fee. Amazingly, seemingly few students take advantage of the opportunity they have to listen to professional recordings of their solo pieces and sometimes even etudes. Perhaps worse, students sometimes settle for the first “hit” on YouTube when looking for a reference recording, even when that video is of another student at the same level and with similar problems. The aforementioned “democratization of publishing” applies to recordings, as well, and the bit of extra effort needed to find a real professional recording is well worth the time.

10. Learning to read in different clefs is not that hard, and vastly expands the repertoire available to you. Serious trombonists should start learning to read in tenor clef while in high school. This is a standard expectation of composers once the music reaches a certain level, and besides, it just isn’t that difficult to master given the availability of quality study materials. Alto clef reading is also expected of trombonists, but with less frequency. Euphonium players should learn to read in both bass and treble clefs, as both types of parts are not available in every situation. Reading treble clef parts fluently also facilitates “stealing” great music from trumpet, cornet, clarinet, etc. possible. Tubists are rarely expected to read more than bass clef, though learning to do a bit of alternate clef reading opens new repertoire to them, as well.

11. The bass trombone is a great option for some students and can be studied in high school. The bass trombone is becoming increasingly common at the high school level, as it should. Having the larger instrument at the bottom of the section is a necessity for most jazz band and orchestra music and for an increasing number of advanced wind band pieces, but even when not absolutely required for range purposes the bass trombone provides an effective timbral “bridge” between the tenor trombones and euphoniums in the wind band. Students who develop an affinity for the lower register as they develop as players should be encouraged to cultivate this. They might find that this not only increases their development as musicians and enjoyment of playing, but of their scholarship potential, as well.

12. The euphonium is much more closely related to the tuba than to the trombone. This should inform your sound concept. I sometimes wish that we would collectively decide to abandon the term “euphonium” and instead use “tenor tuba.” This might just eliminate the general public’s confusion when hearing about this instrument, but even more importantly, it would communicate to students (and directors) just what kind of sound concept should be pursued. Creating this “tenor tuba” sound demands not only a right sound concept, but also right equipment. A good euphonium mouthpiece is going to be deeper and fuller than a comparable trombone mouthpiece; while the two share common shank sizes, the mouthpieces are not truly interchangeable.

13. The “which tuba should I play?” discussion is worth having. Professional tubists will usually play at least one contrabass tuba (BBb or CC) and one bass tuba (Eb or F). The bass tuba question can be left until well after students enter college, but the contrabass tuba question should be considered by prospective music majors while still in high school. In the United States, most professional tubists play the CC instrument as their large tuba, but practically all students in school bands start with the BBb instrument. The CC tuba does offer certain advantages over the BBb, but it is not unequivocally “better.” Nevertheless, students with professional playing ambitions beyond working as music educators and “playing a few gigs” might choose CC tuba simply to avoid being outliers in that way. Those who simply want to become great teachers or work in some other area of music might decide to avoid the challenge of learning new fingerings and simply develop their musicianship as highly as possible on the BBb. All that said, some college and university studios demand that their students play CC tuba, so consulting one’s likely teacher at the next level when making this decision is wise.

14. Start exploring improvisation now. Although I have done some jazz and commercial playing throughout my career, I was well into my thirties before I began to feel truly comfortable with improvisation. These days the line between “jazz players” and “legit players” is becoming increasingly permeable, and while one might feel more “at home” in one realm or the other, versatility is very much in demand. Besides, learning to improvise well fosters thinking about music on a structural level that improves sight reading, score reading, and overall creativity, thus yielding benefits well beyond the immediate context. Think of it being a little like songwriting, beginning with variations on the head and then expanding to new melodic material over the changes. Thorough familiarity with scale and arpeggio patterns (remember those?) gives one lots of material with which to work. Online backing tracks and apps like iRealPro make improvisation practice easier than ever these days, giving ample freedom to experiment with new ideas in the privacy of your practice room. This is not just for trombone players, either. Tubas and euphoniums are perfectly capable of playing jazz and commercial music, and learning to create walking bass lines when reading from a lead sheet is a great skill for tubists.

15. Have fun! Playing music should be enjoyable, not stressful or painful. All of us go into music because it brings joy to ourselves and others, yet we ironically find ourselves stressing about performances and other responsibilities. While playing our instruments should be a physically simple and enjoyable experience, we often adopt approaches that are laborious, tense, and inefficient. Remember that the simplest way to physically execute a given playing task is usually the right way, and strive for utmost efficiency. Regarding emotional stress and anxiety, I once heard one of the greatest trombonists in the world remind his audience, “it’s just a trombone.” Is music important? Of course. Is it “life-and-death-important?” Not usually. Relax and allow yourself to enjoy the process, to learn, to succeed, to fail, and to grow. In so doing, you’ll bring greater joy to your audiences, your students, and yourself. Have fun!

APPENDIX: Desired Competencies and Representative Repertoire for Entering Freshman Low Brass Majors.

Tenor Trombone

Has a thorough routine for daily and systematic fundamentals practice.

Thorough knowledge of major scales, major arpeggios, and chromatic scale. At least some familiarity with minor scales and arpeggios preferred.

Tonal range G1-C5.

Fluent reading ability in both bass and tenor clefs; some experience with alto clef.

Representative solo repertoire: Rimsky-Korsakov Concerto, Barat Andante et Allegro, Guilmant Morceau Symphonique, Galliard Six Sonatas, Marcello Six Sonatas, Dubois Cortège, Saint-Saëns Cavatine, Pryor Thoughts of Love.

Representative method books: Gower-Voxman Rubank Advanced Method (2 vols.), Arban Complete Method, Bordogni Melodious Etudes, Edwards Trombone Craft, Fink Introducing the Tenor Clef, Introducing the Alto Clef.

Bass Trombone

Has a thorough routine for daily and systematic fundamentals practice.

Thorough knowledge of major scales, major arpeggios, and chromatic scale. At least some familiarity with minor scales and arpeggios preferred.

Tonal range Eb1-G4.

Fluency throughout the low register both in terms of reading and familiarity with the F/Gb/D valves.

Representative solo repertoire: Hoffman Trigger Treat, Hindemith Three Easy Pieces, Lieb Concertino Basso, Jacob Cameos, McCarty Sonata, Galliard/Everett Six Sonatas, Marcello/Everett Six Sonatas, Langford Proclamation.

Representative method books: Gower-Voxman Rubank Advanced Method (2 vols.), Arban Complete Method, Bordogni Melodious Etudes, Fink Introducing the Tenor Clef, Edwards Bass Trombone Craft.


Has a thorough routine for daily and systematic fundamentals practice.

Thorough knowledge of major scales, major arpeggios, and chromatic scale. At least some familiarity with minor scales and arpeggios preferred.

Tonal range G1-C5.

For bass clef players, fluency in both bass and tenor clefs, as well as understanding of using tenor clef as a “transposition tool” for reading transposing treble clef euphonium parts.

For treble clef players, developing fluency in bass clef.

Representative solo repertoire: Curnow Rhapsody, Capuzzi/Catelinet Andante and Rondo, Schumann/Droste Five Pieces in Folk Style, Falcone Mazurka, Galliard Six Sonatas, Marcello Six Sonatas, Clarke The Bride of the Waves, Ropartz Andante et Allegro.

Representative method books: Gower-Voxman Rubank Advanced Method (2 vols.), Arban Complete Method, Bordogni Melodious Etudes, Mead New Concert Studies, Fink Introducing the Tenor Clef, From Treble Clef to Bass Clef Baritone.


Thorough knowledge of major scales, major arpeggios, and chromatic scale. At least some familiarity with minor scales and arpeggios preferred.

Tonal range Bb0-Eb4.

Fluency throughout the low register both in terms of reading and familiarity with the low fourth valve (and fifth valve, if available) fingerings.

Some consideration of the relative merits of moving to CC tuba or remaining on BBb tuba as one’s contrabass tuba should have taken place.

Representative solo repertoire: Barat Introduction and Dance, Haddad Suite, Bach/Bell Air and Bourree, Tcherepnin Andante, Capuzzi/Catelinet Andante and Rondo, Hartley Suite for Solo Tuba, Marcello/Little Sonatas, Curnow Concertino.

Representative method books: Gower-Voxman Rubank Advanced Method (2 vols.), Arban Complete Method, Bordogni Melodious Etudes, Jacobs Low Register Studies, Blazhevich/King 70 Studies.

Posted in Bass Trombone, Christian Lindberg, Daily Routine, Digital Revolution, Euphonium, Higher Education, Low Brass Resources, Music, Music Education, Pedagogy, Performing, Playing Fundamentals, Practicing, Singing, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Tuba | Comments Off on Some Thoughts for Low Brass Players Who Want to Major in Music…or Who Just Want to Get Better!

Thoughts on Choosing Songs for Corporate Worship

Although I thought I would never find myself in a position like this, for the past four months I have been serving as the music director at our church, responsible for directing the adult choir and choosing not only choral anthems but songs for corporate worship. Readers of The Reforming Trombonist know that this is a topic to which I have given a great deal of thought, though I’m not sure I have ever succinctly laid out the process or considerations I would use—and now do use—when choosing selections for congregational singing. In theory, this is very simple, including only five items, listed in order of priority. In practice, of course, the choice of songs can become more contentious, but more on that some other time. Here are my five considerations.

1. The songs we sing must have orthodox, Biblically-grounded texts. The New Testament actually has very little to say about music in corporate worship, and when it does speak of music it uses words like “teaching and admonishing one another” (Colossians 3) and “addressing one another” (Ephesians 5). What does that mean practically? It means that music in worship is more than just a means of expressing our feelings about God, the church, or the gospel (though it can include those things), but is rather a tool for instruction in the faith. Music has a way of embedding itself in our minds and souls in a way that words alone do not—think of the stories you’ve heard of nursing home patients who speak little and seem to remember even less, but perk up and sing along when they hear the hymns (or other songs) they’ve known and sung their whole lives. God obviously intends that we use music as a tool to communicate his Word so that it becomes fixed in our minds and hearts even more deeply. It is therefore incumbent upon us to choose music that truly and rightly communicates that Word to us. In the Reformed tradition singing settings of the Psalms and other scripture passages has a long and rich history; this is a good model for our song selections even if we do not sing exclusively from the Psalter.

2. The songs we sing must be singable by groups of mostly untrained singers. There is one set of criteria that we might use for choosing music to listen to, another set when choosing music for a choir, and yet another when choosing music for a vocal soloist or small group. Even that is probably oversimplifying things, but in any case none of these are right for choosing songs for a big and diverse group of untrained singers. Most people have a functional vocal range of about a tenth (i.e., an octave plus two more steps), and going much beyond that makes a song inaccessible to them. A great deal of popular music today seems to center on the tenor/alto range, favoring that area where higher men’s voices and lower women’s voices overlap. That leaves the poor bass/baritones and sopranos struggling to keep up when singing songs written in that genre. Certain older songs have a somewhat different problem, extending higher in the range than is practical. Excessive rhythmic complexity can also introduce difficulties that should be taken into account; simpler rhythms without too much syncopation work best. In practice, I find myself choosing the best texts I can for the occasion (more on that below), and then the best melodies I can to go with those texts. Sometimes the most singable melody is an older one, and sometimes it is a newer one. So be it. The priority is to help the congregation to sing well.

3. The songs we sing should reinforce the sermon text or other items in the liturgy. Our church’s liturgy typically includes three hymns plus the Doxology or Gloria Patri. For the first selection, after the Call to Worship, I typically choose something that simply praises God for who he is and what he has done. Although we do not use a Psalter in our church, the Trinity Hymnal includes a number of settings of Psalms or paraphrases thereof, and I often favor these when choosing opening selections. For the other two I will choose songs that reinforce the topic or text of the sermon or one of the other scripture readings, and on Sundays when Communion is served I’ll choose one song that is appropriate for that. All of this creates a unity to the service that, I hope, enhances the instructional function of music in worship.

4. The songs we sing should include selections from the great hymns written throughout the history of the church. At this point, your response might be something like “Of course you like your old songs, Micah. You’re a classically trained musician.” Fair enough. I like the old songs, but my personal taste is not a good reason to choose anything. Honestly, determining the best age or genre of worship music is an area where we are largely left to our own wisdom, as Scripture doesn’t tell us much at all about the music we should sing; it just commands us to sing. Still, I think about passages like, say, Deuteronomy 31-32, where God commands Moses to write and teach a song to the people recounting his faithfulness to them and also admonishing them for their past, present, and even future sins. This song was not intended to be a “flash in the pan” worship song that they sang in the desert and forgot about within a generation; it was to be retained and learned and passed down. Songs like this and others found here and there throughout the Bible (and especially in the Psalms) used music not only to instruct the congregation but to ground them in a shared history and identity. Similarly, when we sing the same songs as our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents and great-great-great-great-great grandparents we join with past generations of Christians and rejoice in our shared history and identity and in God’s faithfulness to us over the generations. Giving that up would be a mistake.

5. The songs we sing should include newer selections of high quality. At the same time, people did not stop writing good songs for worship around the year 1900. Now, the vast majority of new hymns and songs being written lack the enduring quality that makes for a truly great worship song. Do you know why I know that? Because the vast majority of old hymns and songs lacked the enduring quality that makes for a truly great worship song. The difference is that time has a way of vetting the songs we sing, and those that lack staying power gradually find themselves disappearing from the hymnals. That places us at a disadvantage, of course, because we have little way of knowing which newer songs will be able to “stick” in the long term. Still, new songs with good texts and singable melodies are worth trying, not to replace the old hymns of the faith, but to add to the collective witness of generations of Christians. This is as it should be.

At the end of the day, I really think that if we choose good texts, with the best melodies for congregational singing, most questions of age or genre will melt away…if we let them. There is a certain hubris that says that every song written before 1990 doesn’t “speak to” the modern generation, and a reverse hubris that says that every song written after 1990 (or 1950, or 1900) is contemporary “trash.” If we can move beyond style preferences that reflect our preferred listening habits and instead learn to see congregational singing as a tool for instruction in the Word and for grounding us in our history and identity as Christians, maybe worship music won’t have to be so divisive.

Tomorrow at College Hill we will start with a Psalm setting from 1912, followed by a choral anthem from 2006, the Doxology (text from 1709; tune from 1551), a song from 2005, and end with an old hymn from 1545. Are the styles different? Yes, but if you focus on the melodies themselves and especially the texts, there is a fundamental unity present, one that allows us to join not only with the local congregation, but with generations of Christians in singing God’s praises. That’s the goal, at least.

Posted in Church, College Hill Presbyterian Church, Liturgy, Music, Music and Theology, Music and Worship, Worship | Comments Off on Thoughts on Choosing Songs for Corporate Worship


Now that I am just a little bit into my third decade of college low brass teaching, I have long since discovered that my uses of pop culture references to illustrate concepts often fall flat. While at the beginning of my career I was close enough in age to my students that we could identify with a lot of shared references, now that I am much closer to their parents’ age (sometimes older!) I usually have to explain myself when trying to use some pop culture artifact to convey a musical or technical concept. Often I decide that this isn’t worth the time and find some other illustration, but recently I had an idea that, while it required finding the clip online to drive the point home, was very effective.

Miss Congeniality is a comedy from 2000 starring Sandra Bullock and Michael Caine. Bullock plays Gracie Hart, an FBI special agent who agrees to go undercover to investigate a terrorist threat to the fictional Miss United States pageant. Caine’s character, Victor Melling, plays a washed-up pageant coach who is hired to turn the tomboyish Hart into a beauty queen. Melling is disgusted with Hart at their first meetings, noting that not only Hart’s frumpy appearance but even her plodding gait are utterly unsuitable for the Miss United States pageant and must be remedied if she is to be believable as a pageant contestant. He admonishes her to “glide” as she walks in the humorous scene here.

Of course, in miraculous movie fashion, Hart learns—more or less—to walk, talk, and act as a beauty queen just in time for the pageant, saves the day, arrests the terrorists, and even strikes up a romance with her fellow agent Eric Matthews (Benjamin Bratt). But how is all of this relevant to brass playing?

The longer I teach, the more convinced I become that many technical problems experienced by students are caused not by insufficiencies in embouchure, airflow, articulation, slide/valve technique, or any other easily identifiable technical areas, but rather by the failure to properly coordinate these in time. For example, when the air and tongue work in opposition to one another, the result is a heavy, explosive, and ill-timed articulation when the desired sound is delicate and graceful (yes, even on our large instruments). This requires a solid sense of musical time, and then the coordination of all the physical movements of playing in time—in this particular example, thinking of the air propelling the tongue and the tongue riding the airstream instead of merely interrupting it leads to an articulation that is much less harsh, more speech-like, and on the whole more pleasant.

In the movie, Gracie Hart begins to walk like a beauty queen when she learns to coordinate the movements of her body in a graceful and, I would argue, well-timed manner. In order to realize the best possible playing, we brass players must do the same.


Posted in Alto Trombone, Articulation, Baritone Horn, Bass Trombone, Embouchure, Ergonomics, Euphonium, Music, Pedagogy, Performing, Playing Fundamentals, Popular Culture, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Timing, Trombone, Tuba | Comments Off on Glide!

The Brass Player as Singer

Remington singing while conducting a trombone choir rehearsal.

Emory Remington (1891-1971) was one of the twentieth century’s foremost trombone pedagogues. Over the course of several decades as trombone professor at the Eastman School of Music, he built a program that produced dozens of orchestral trombonists, performers in other genres, and university professors, including one of my teachers, Dr. Edward R. Bahr (b. 1941). Remington’s development of the “balanced daily routine” for playing fundamentals practice is so synonymous with his name that countless band directors and students refer regularly to “Remington long tones” with only minimal awareness that these exercises originated with a trombone professor. The introduction of the trombone choir as a pedagogical and performance medium is another important part of his legacy. But one aspect of Remington’s teaching that is perhaps sometimes overlooked is his emphasis on singing as a tool for teaching, demonstration, and conceptualization.

By all accounts, Remington rarely played with or for his students in lessons, and did not play at all during the last two decades of his life. Instead, he sang constantly, demonstrating tone, phrasing, and overall musical concept using his voice only. Dr. Bahr emulated this approach in large measure, though he employed a mix of singing and demonstration. That has been my overall approach, as well, though in recent years I have leaned more toward demonstration by playing rather than singing, despite referencing the importance of a singing-type concept in my teaching and writing. (See here, here, and here for examples.) There are good reasons for favoring demonstration by playing over singing. Some pieces of music extend well beyond the comfortable vocal range, for example, and many students who would play in tune with a demonstration on the instrument will fail to tune to singing in the same way. Nevertheless, I have recently begun to experiment with singing more frequently while teaching, thus far with very favorable results. Here are a few reasons why singing during brass lessons can be a most effective teaching tool.

1. Brass players must hear like singers in order to play effectively. Unlike pretty much every other type of instrument, with which the sound—the vibration—is produced using a part of the instrument, brass instruments produce sound by amplifying the vibrations of a part of the body, the lips. The signals from the brain that cause the lips to vibrate are similar to those that cause vibrations in the voice when singing, and just as one must hear the desired pitch in order to sing it, one must hear the desired pitch in order to buzz it.

2. Brass players must resonate like singers in order to play effectively. The effects of an excessively tense use of the body when singing are immediately evident: pinched sound, limited tonal range, intonation problems, etc. These difficulties are less immediately obvious when brass players are too tense, but they are there. We have to learn to breathe and vibrate in a relaxed and efficient manner to achieve a resonant tone, just like singers do.

3. Brass players must phrase like singers in order to play effectively. The best playing on any instrument can be described as songlike in quality, with the instrumentalist emulating the naturally expressive approach of a fine singer. For brass players, whose physical approach is already so analogous to that of singers, it should be second nature for us to employ a similar approach to musical phrases. That this is so often not the case—that our approach is focused on mechanics rather than music—demonstrates what happens when we fail to employ a singing approach to the instrument and model it to our students.

Given the positive effects of approaching brass playing more like singing, we as brass teachers would do well to model this effectively for our students. This includes not merely singing along, but taking the time to develop at least a reasonably good vocal sound, and sufficient pitch accuracy to provide students with effective models. Happily, the physical similarities between brass playing and singing mean that using very similar breathing and tone production techniques to those we use while playing will also serve us well while singing. Furthermore, we must encourage our students to do the same, not only employing singing in their individual practice but also paying special attention to skill development in ear training and solfège classes. Another eminent brass pedagogue, Arnold Jacobs (1915-1998), repeated the ear training course every year while a student at the Curtis Institute of Music. While Jacobs’s approach differed from Remington’s in a number of respects, the emphasis on emulating singers both mechanically and stylistically was a vital point of shared emphasis between the two.

Great brass playing is really a lot like great singing, except that the vibration is produced by the lips instead of the vocal folds. The more we can think and execute like singers instead of “brass machine operators,” the more beautiful and expressive our playing will be.

Posted in Arnold Jacobs, Baritone Horn, Bass Trombone, Breathing, Ear Training, Embouchure, Emory Remington, Ergonomics, Euphonium, Music, Music Education, Musical Interpretation, Neural Pathways, Pedagogy, Performing, Playing Fundamentals, Practicing, Singing, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Tuba | Comments Off on The Brass Player as Singer

An Unexpected Apologetic for Adoption

I have been a Star Wars fan for really all of my adult life. As part of the “Star Wars Generation,” I grew up with a passing familiarity with and enjoyment of the original trilogy, but became more familiar with it as a teenager, first through video games and even a Dungeons and Dragons-type roleplaying game set in the Star Wars universe, and later through the Special Editions of the original trilogy released in theatres in the mid-90s. Since then, I have found the various Star Wars media—including movies, television, novels, and games—to be a type of easy escapism. They are not great literature, nor does the quality of the stories stand up to the intense scrutiny brought by a “toxic fanbase” that is looking for existentially significant experiences through popular media that are not designed to provide such. But again, as easy entertainment, Star Wars works just fine, and provides a break from my usually considerably weightier reading.

But that doesn’t mean that there are never moments of particular poignance in Star Wars, and one of these came during the finale of Obi-Wan Kenobi, which was released a few weeks ago. While the initial focus of this episode is on a duel between the titular character and his former apprentice and friend Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader, after Kenobi defeats and abandons Vader the focus shifts to the desert planet of Tatooine, where Skywalker’s young son Luke is in danger from Reva, a fallen Imperial Inquisitor determined to somehow exact vengeance upon Vader by destroying his son. (Ignore for the moment that Vader is at this point in the story unaware that he has surviving children, and will not become aware of this for over a decade.) Kenobi realizes Luke’s danger and rushes back to render aid, but is too late to be particularly effective.

Happily, in the meantime, Luke’s adoptive parents, Anakin’s stepbrother Owen Lars and his wife Beru, mount a heroic defense of their home and nephew. While they are no real match for Reva, they are able to delay her long enough to allow Luke to escape into the desert. Reva finds him, but thanks to a change of heart on her part (and the ironclad “plot armor” provided by the necessity that Luke survive to take on his role in the films and other media that occur later in the story’s timeline), she returns him unharmed, and all is well.

My point in writing today is the touching heroism of Owen and Beru Lars. That couple initially occupied a minor role in the story, and meets a violent demise in the original Star Wars film (which takes place about ten years after the events of Obi-Wan Kenobi). That their roles and their relationship with Luke are more fleshed out here is a nice addition to the story. Though Luke is not a blood relative of theirs, they not only gladly took him in as an infant, but they are clearly prepared to defend him at all costs, including at the risk of their own lives. In this context, Owen’s opposition to Luke undergoing Jedi training becomes not just a reactionary resistance based in his own conservatism and desire to “keep his head down,” but a well-intentioned desire to keep him safe. Put simply, Owen and Beru think of Luke as their son, and treat him as such. One cannot imagine there being any difference in their relationship if Luke were their own “flesh and blood.”

As an adoptive parent, this part of the story resonates deeply with me. Not only can I not imagine that our relationship with our son would be any different were he our biological child, I really don’t think about this very much at all. He simply is our son, and we are determined to love, teach, provide for, and defend him as we would had he been our biological child. While the particular circumstances of the Lars homestead might be different (i.e., we do not have caches of weapons strategically placed in our home in case of invasion), the self-sacrificial love that they are willing to show is, I’m sure, familiar to just about all adoptive parents. Most of us have heard the occasional “adoption horror story,” of course, but the “adoption love story” is much more common. While every adoption story brings with it some degree of pain and loss, our stories bring a much greater degree of love, joy, and fulfillment. Seeing that little subtext at the end of Obi-Wan Kenobi brought just a bit more depth to an already enjoyable series.

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