“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

Reflections on a Half-Semester of Teaching Online

As I noted in last week’s post, this past semester was easily the strangest in my 20+ years in higher education. The shift to all online teaching and learning was a shock to everyone, and with so little time to prepare there were certainly “bumps in the road.” While in some respects the experience was less-than-satisfactory, in others it was helpful. Here are a few thoughts after a couple of weeks’ reflection.

The Bad

Let’s start with what didn’t work so well. Depending on the class, online education could not replicate the in-person experience. The majority of my teaching load is in one-on-one applied music lessons. When both student and teacher had a quality microphone, an audio interface, and a fast internet connection, things worked reasonably well; the absence of any of these factors caused problems. Certainly any reader will be able to see that teaching and learning becomes challenging if the student’s equipment cannot record and transmit sound in a truly representative fashion. And even in situations where all of those factors were present, the inability to play along with the student was a significant loss, as were the absence of live piano accompaniment, chamber music, and live performances. Internet technology will have to develop much further before those factors can be replicated in the online environment.

My low brass methods class was even more problematic. This is a lab course for aspiring band directors where students—regardless of major instrument—learn to teach trombone, euphonium, and tuba, and develop at least rudimentary playing skills on those instruments. In a normal semester, the vast majority of our class time is spent playing, but the students did not have access to their “methods” instruments while quarantined at home. Playing labs and tests were therefore replaced with Zoom lectures and papers. While I think I am able to competently discuss and explain the finer points of low brass pedagogy, at some point “talking about playing” is not a sufficient replacement for “playing.” Happily, we were at least able to spend the first half of the semester playing trombone, so students can figure out euphonium and tuba by analogy to trombone. Even so, it would have been better for them to do that “figuring out” in class with me.

The other class I was responsible for teaching this semester was a graduate brass pedagogy course, a quasi-directed study with only two students. The vast majority of this class consists of discussion, writing, and revision, all of which were able to continue reasonably well via Zoom. However, students teaching lessons in class with various levels of players was also supposed to be a part of this course, and in the end we were able to complete only a third of the planned teaching sessions.

I have (as a student) taken asynchronous lecture courses online in the past and found that to be more or less satisfactory. The only real loss was the informal interactions between professor and students and between the students themselves before and after class times, in the library, in the hallways, etc. In some ways these informal experiences are as important as the lectures themselves, and can only be somewhat replicated online. Thus, while a lecture course or seminar might be able to function almost normally online, even then something is lost. Add to that difficulties with online testing platforms that students have reported to me, and maybe even this mode of online instruction remains in need of improvement.

The Good

While I am critical of teaching music online for the reasons discussed above, it was not an entirely bad experience. I have for some time “put off” developing greater online teaching skills, and this experience forced me to rectify this. I clearly do not think that online music teaching can entirely replace in-person instruction, but it is a nice tool to have in the bag, allowing for continued instruction while I am traveling, additional engagement with high school students too distant for in-person lessons, etc. Additionally, as I’ve noted several times in passing and hopefully will discuss at length next week, I have used the time to improve my understanding and proficiency with audio and video recording and editing technology. These are increasingly necessary skills even for those of us that play acoustic instruments.

Perhaps the most successful educational initiative during the “quarantine time” was having discussions with “virtual guest artists” from other universities. My students greatly appreciated hearing the perspectives of my colleagues in other states, and I enjoyed visiting with students elsewhere, as well. I actually hope to continue this practice even after in-person instruction resumes, as it is a great way to have students work with other performers and pedagogues without the expense of having those guests actually travel to Oxford to teach and perform.

Conclusions

As even the most cursory reader will be able to tell, I am very much ready to resume in-person instruction. While I am thankful for the new skills developed while working from home, these technologies do not yet offer a fully satisfactory replacement for live, in-person instruction. At the same time, I do believe that online education is with us to stay. The technologies will continue to evolve and develop, and perhaps one day we’ll truly be able to say that the online teaching and learning experience is very nearly equivalent to the in-person one. It certainly behooves us to develop and maintain skills in this realm so that we are ready to adjust to new developments—or even emergencies like the COVID-19 event.

“Very nearly equivalent,” but only that much. There still is that impossible-to-fully-articulate element of human interaction that can’t be fully replicated with cameras, microphones, and fast internet. At some point we need and long for real, personal human interaction, and the arts foster that in a very special way. Let’s by all means learn the computer skills, but let’s also remain cognizant of what the limitations of technology are…and always will be.

Posted in COVID-19, Digital Revolution, Distance Education, Education, Higher Education, Music, Music Education, Pedagogy, Teaching Low Brass, Technology, Videoconferencing, Zoom

Figure it Out!

Today marks the end of the strangest semester in my 23 years in academia (four as a student, four as both student and teacher simultaneously, and fifteen as a tenure-track or tenured faculty member). Having been forced into distance education due to the restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic, both teacher and students had to adapt quickly to teaching and learning music entirely remotely. While I am thankful for the familiarity with new technologies that this experience has engendered, overall my opinion of teaching music online is a mixed one at best. I hope to write about that in the coming weeks.

The ways in which my students responded to the sudden challenge of online music education were mixed also. Those possessing fast internet connections and at least some consumer audio equipment beyond the standard microphones in smartphones and laptops transitioned in to online lessons relatively smoothly. Those lacking one or both of these conditions had a harder time. Unfortunately, those living in large cities and university towns do not always remember that the availability of fast internet connections is limited in rural areas and among those with limited financial resources. Students in these situations struggled to thrive in online music lessons, the reliable streaming of complex audio and video signals requiring far more bandwidth than online courses consisting primarily of reading and writing, or even lectures.

There were other difficulties, of course. Some students found themselves being required to care for young siblings or cousins who were sent home from school despite their parents still needing to work in “essential” businesses. Others were themselves employed in such businesses, and were asked to work longer than usual hours, including during scheduled class times. All found themselves in situations where tests were replaced with papers, the usual rhythms and resources of university life disrupted, and, in the case of applied music students, being asked to prepare their end-of-semester juries, which are usually performed with a live pianist, by recording themselves with a prerecorded accompaniment. The latter change might sound easy to the uninitiated, but live accompanists have a way of making subtle microadjustments that both compensate for students’ inaccuracies (particularly rhythmic ones) while also helping students to find their next entrances. The absence of this was troubling for many students.

The psychological effect of these changes was notable for both teacher and students, and more than one person voiced to me a dissatisfaction with the entire situation. Although there were times that I became frustrated with the volume of panicked, worried, and even angry calls, texts, and emails, for the most part I was and am honored that my students feel comfortable voicing their concerns to me. In some cases I was able to find ways to help students along or to mitigate their concerns, but I did not except in one minor instance lower expectations. Instead, my admonition to students was essentially “figure it out.”

That might sound short and unfeeling, but I assure you that this is not the case. Instead, it is an idea that I picked up from my trombone teacher and dissertation advisor at UNCG, Dr. Randy Kohlenberg. I wrote about him in a post a few years ago, after he had me return to UNCG as a guest artist at the North Carolina Trombone Festival. Dr. Kohlenberg had a way of being both exceedingly kind and inexorably demanding at the same time, and I wish that I was a better imitator of his character in this way. But one of his most annoying habits to me—at first—is that he would tell us to undertake some complex or important task with absolutely no guidance regarding how to complete the task. Sometimes he did this in trombone lessons, but more often it was in administrative and practical tasks, like organizing the NCTF or preparing for the massive Summer Music Camp held on campus every summer. The way things generally went was that he would give me a task, then evade my questions asking for clarification or direction. I would eventually attempt the task on my own, and afterwards Dr. Kohlenberg would correct the things I did not do correctly or efficiently. I actually learned a lot about the practical side of music education through trying things, making mistakes, and correcting those mistakes. As it turns out, that was the point.

You see, what I thought at first was an unconscious oddity in Dr. Kohlenberg’s character—the first summer working for the music camp I wondered if he had simply forgotten that I was new—was actually very purposeful. He knew that we students would forget much of what he simply told us, but that we would remember what we figured out on our own, and we would really remember the things that we had to correct after “figuring them out” incorrectly the first time. This was true in trombone lessons, but it was, like I said, especially true with practical tasks like organizing a “trombone day,” or preparing rehearsal sites and folders for a massive summer music camp…..or maybe even retooling the teaching and learning environments for online instruction.

You see, dear students, I don’t want to tell you every little thing you have to do all the time. Not because I don’t want to share knowledge with you, but because you will retain more of what you figure out on your own. This is why I ask you questions in your lessons so often rather than simply giving you the answers. Yes, I’m trying to guide you to the right conclusions, but retention improves when you have to think and reason and discover for yourself. The same is especially true for the practical business of being a musician and teacher. The truth is, online teaching and learning is not going away. While I don’t think it can ever fully replace face-to-face music instruction, the ways in which we deliver and receive instruction are evolving and will continue to do so. I have tried to use this experience—this unexpected, frustrating, and often stressful experience—to develop new skills, master new technologies, and develop new ideas. I hope you have done the same and will continue to do so. Keep trying to “figure it out.” Try things. Experiment. Learn. Grow.

And don’t worry: when you really mess up I’ll still be there to correct you.


Speaking of learning new things, the CoronaTunes playlist is still growing, and I am still getting a little better each time at recording, mixing, and mastering. I still have a lot to learn, but recording these tunes has been fun. Enjoy.

Posted in Alto Trombone, Audio Interfaces, Baritone Horn, Bass Trombone, Contrabass Trombone, COVID-19, Digital Revolution, Distance Education, Education, Euphonium, Higher Education, Microphones, Mixing Boards, Music, Music Education, North Carolina Trombone Festival, Pedagogy, Quarantine, Randy Kohlenberg, Teachers, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Tuba, University of Mississippi, University of North Carolina at Greensboro