“A Well-Regulated or Orderly Church Music…”

I have heard that the price of becoming a thinking adult is the need to deal with all of the paradoxes and inconsistencies that life presents, the cognitive dissonance that is inevitably present as we flawed and fallen humans do our best to make sense of the flawed and fallen world in which we live. As a worldview, Christianity makes better sense of this than its competitors; its explanation of a perfectly created cosmos with humanity set at its head as bearers of the imago Dei, but then fallen and broken because of Man’s sin, is fully consonant with reality as we observe it. In both the created order and in Man himself we see immense capacities for truth, goodness, and beauty, but equally immense capacities for falsehood, evil, and ugliness. Both the world and our own souls yearn for redemption, for completion, for “fixing,” that which has been inaugurated by the life, death, and resurrection of Christ and will be consummated upon his return. In the meantime, we deal with the contradictions that continually present themselves in our originally-good-yet-now-fallen world, hoping to arrive at solutions that honor God, serve others, and satisfy our own desires for those cognitive dissonances to be resolved.

Perhaps more so than any other subject, church music is the area in which my intersecting professional, ecclesiastical, spiritual, and intellectual background and interests have generated conflicts and contradictions requiring tremendous amounts of thinking, studying, and praying to resolve. I should also say at the outset of this essay that I don’t think I’ve satisfactorily resolved all of this yet, but I’m trying, and writing about it helps me to continue to do so. Perhaps I should begin by describing the disparate yet intersecting threads that inform my thinking in this matter.

The first is my upbringing in medium-sized, conservative Southern Baptist churches. As is the case in evangelical churches both then and now, the liturgies of these congregations (not that they would have used the word “liturgy,” but every church has them) grew not so much from historic Protestantism as from the revival meetings of nineteenth-century America. Specifically regarding music, the selections had texts that were frequently—though not always—centered upon feelings and experiences rather than upon scriptures and doctrines, and “specials” by choir or soloists were largely popular in orientation, if “behind the curve” of trends in popular music. I began to wonder as a young man if this was really the best way to “do church,” and my early experiences as a professional musician exposed me to the music used by more traditionally liturgical congregations. Still, I was in my late twenties before I developed a theological understanding and vocabulary sufficient to give voice to my reservations about evangelical worship music. By then I had both discovered and embraced Reformed theology and decided to leave broader evangelicalism behind. Having observed further developments in this ecclesiastical “world” from the outside, I don’t regret that decision, and I have a hard time “biting my tongue” when observing similar developments in my present denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America.

The second of these threads is my work as a professional musician. As a primarily “classical” low brass player (but with increasing excursions into jazz and popular music), I’ve been asked to perform over the years in services for nearly every Protestant denomination and even an occasional Roman Catholic service. Unsurprisingly, I’ve enjoyed the music in the more traditionally liturgical mainline denominations the most, but of course have not been able to accept those churches’ abandonment of biblical orthodoxy. I should also confess that I have had a great time playing in horn sections like those of Tower of Power or Chicago in certain large evangelical churches, but “enjoying the music” and “worshiping” aren’t necessarily the same thing, or at least they shouldn’t be. I’ve also long nursed an uneasiness with the tendency of many professional musicians to eschew regular involvement in a particular church in favor of constantly moving from church to church as itinerant performers. Without the discipline promoted by church membership it is difficult—or impossible—to maintain a consistent Christian life and witness, and indeed many of the musicians playing in churches every week are not professing Christians at all, a fact that would likely scandalize many in the congregations they serve if they knew about it. Although this is against my professional and financial self-interest, I have reduced my performing for a fee in church services to fewer than five weeks per year, and even in my own congregation I more commonly sit in the pews as a congregant than perform as a musician.

The decision to limit my performing in church services was influenced not only by my uneasiness with the current practices of professionalized church music, but also by my increasing exposure to Reformed theologians’ teaching on worship generally, which is the third of these intersecting threads that have informed my present thinking. Historically speaking, worship music throughout Protestantism was centered upon congregational singing, a practice which had been practically abandoned prior to the sixteenth century. Lutheranism and later Anglicanism still favored a more developed and professionalized music than did the Calvinists (whether Reformed, Presbyterian, Congregational, or Baptist), the latter groups largely eschewing instrumental music and in many cases limiting congregational singing to settings of the Psalter. In the intervening years the worship music in Reformed and Presbyterian circles has become less austere, but at least until very recently there has been a broad understanding that the worship service is to be centered upon the Word, sacraments, and prayer, with music placed in a subservient role. Regular readers of this blog know that I believe this understanding to be correct. Music is important, it is commanded, and it ought to be done well, but it also ought not be able to grow beyond its assigned place.

So what would a worship service with music in its rightful place look like? It should be primarily characterized by congregational singing, and the texts sung should be useful for instructing the congregation in scripture and doctrine. Consider Colossians 3:16, where we read

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord. 

Here the singing is directly tied to “teaching and admonishing.” That doesn’t necessarily mean that songs expressing our feelings about God or our religious experiences are entirely out of place, but care should be taken that the texts sung primarily communicate objective scriptural truths.

Other than ensuring that music is subservient to Word, sacrament, and prayer and primarily focusing on congregational singing, I don’t think one can create universally applicable rules. The prohibition of musical instruments practiced by some groups seems unnecessary in light of the Psalms speaking of worship using instruments, and yet my own experiences working as a professional musician in churches leads me to think a certain austerity is advisable. What does that austerity look like? I don’t know. Questions like what instruments to use, whether or not a choir or soloists might be used, etc. seem to defy the crafting of simple answers to apply to all situations, and I have more than once inadvertently caused offense in the attempt to do so. Perhaps it is best to say only that we should choose good music, do it well in whatever configuration we choose, and limit it to its proper functions of expressing praise to God and instructing the congregation. And we should always strive for better reasons for our choices than “that’s the kind of music that I like.” That’s a good method for choosing concerts to attend and recordings to buy, but it is at best an incomplete method for choosing music for Lord’s Day worship.

Like I said, I still don’t have all of this worked out in my mind, and trying to approach church music with theological and intellectual rigor on the one hand and with the ear, tastes, and motivations of a professional musician on the other leads to much cognitive dissonance. Perhaps you’ll remember a review I wrote of John Eliot Gardiner’s 2013 biography of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), a review which later appeared in Modern Reformation magazine. As I stated in that review, Gardiner presents Bach not as a perfect man, but certainly as a believing Christian who was doing his best to honor God in his vocation. At one point in his life Bach saw that his professional goals were not consistent with the policies of his employer, and was offered a new position elsewhere. Quoting from Gardiner, who in turn quotes Bach himself,

It is against this background, and in his request to the church council of the Blasiuskirche for his release from Mühlhausen, that Bach defined for the first time an Endzweck (artistic goal)—“namely, a well-regulated or orderly church music to the Glory of God and in conformity to your wishes.” (180)

“A well-regulated or orderly church music.” That’s a laudable goal for sure. Maybe one day I’ll be able to fully articulate what I think that looks like.

Posted in Beauty, Calvinism, Christian Worldview, Denominations, Doctrine, Doctrine of Vocation, Johann Sebastian Bach, Lord's Day, Music, Music and Theology, Music and Worship, Practical Christianity, Theology, Truth, Worship

The Best Breathing Exercise in the World

Regular readers might have noticed that I have not published here with the usual frequency in the past few months. Part of the reason for this is having a much larger teaching studio this year than has normally been the case. This is a great blessing for sure, and I enjoy my work, but teaching for over 30 hours per week leaves little time for practicing, performing, necessary administrative work, and trying to maintain some semblance of an active family and church life. Writing—both here and in the print venues where my articles and reviews sometimes appear—has sadly taken a back seat, especially with my recent addition of a regular exercise regimen.

Weight and fitness have never been strengths of mine. Except during a couple of periods of serious illness I was generally an overweight child and young adult but managed to lose about 75 pounds during graduate school, and then kept that weight off for nearly seven years. “Life happened,” as they say, around that time, and after becoming a parent and developing some back problems the weight slowly returned, until by a year or two ago I had regained about 60 of the 75 pounds I had lost. Predictably, “bad numbers” in my yearly physicals, with cholesterol, triglycerides, liver enzymes, blood pressure, and pulse rate all “out of whack,” accompanied this weight gain. Having gotten my back issues largely under control (something about which I hope to write in the future, but for now will simply recommend this book), I resolved to set about trying to become healthier. I reduced the portion sizes in my meals and eliminated soda entirely, and began exercising daily, swimming laps four days per week (currently one mile per day) and doing strength training and stationary bike riding on the remaining days. At the time I am writing this I have lost over 50 pounds, so I have nearly returned to the weight I maintained throughout my mid and late twenties. I will readily admit that losing weight was easier at “twentyish” than it is at “fortyish!”

While massive weight loss would seem to be a boon to the physical aspects of brass playing, the first time I lost this much weight that was not the case, at least not initially. Instead, the weight loss was accompanied by a marked decline in my playing ability, particularly with regard to breathing and with a corresponding decline in tone quality. After I had struggled for months trying to understand why my playing was suffering, my teacher (I was still a full time student and taking weekly trombone lessons then) theorized that the problem might be that the muscles throughout my torso and elsewhere in the body had become accustomed to having to work harder to support all of that weight. With those muscles always somewhat activated to keep me upright and mobile, engaging them in the task of moving large volumes of air was relatively easy. But with the weight gone, those muscles became more relaxed, and breathing in the way that had felt right previously no longer resulted in efficient air movement. I had to become more mindful about how I was breathing and moving air, and after a few months I had regained my previous playing skill. Since then I have shepherded a few of my own students through similar playing difficulties after their own weight loss efforts. Counterintuitively, losing weight seems to make brass playing worse before it makes it better.


The pool at the Turner Center at the University of Mississippi. My new “home away from home.”

The potential for playing disruptions due to weight loss was one of the reasons that I chose swimming as the primary exercise for my current weight loss efforts. I hoped that the need for regular and efficient breathing while swimming would prevent me from having the same breathing issues as I had experienced fifteen years earlier. (And, given my history of back problems, the low-impact but high-energy nature of swimming was appealing.) Happily, this time around I have experienced none of the breathing and tone quality difficulties that I had during my previous weight loss. That’s probably partly due to my anticipating problems and addressing them in advance, at least unconsciously, but the breathing requirements for lap swimming undoubtedly played a role. Not only has my breath management while playing not suffered; it is better than it has ever been.

I have long been an advocate of breathing exercises such as those found in The Breathing Gym. I still do them daily and encourage my students to do the same. Still, after all of this swimming I look better, feel better, and am breathing better than ever. Lap swimming is the best breathing exercise in the world!

Posted in Alto Trombone, Bass Trombone, Breathing, Daily Routine, Euphonium, Music, Music Education, Pedagogy, Performing, Physical Fitness, Playing Fundamentals, Practicing, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Tuba, University of Mississippi

On the Importance of “Faithful Plodding”

plodding 2I am always moved by stories of pastors with long tenures in small congregations. In a time when “celebrity pastor” is a term that makes sense and so many build careers by moving to increasingly larger churches every 2-3 years, there is something peculiarly beautiful when one hears of a man serving the same congregation for 30, 40, or even 50 years. We’re talking about a person who has faithfully loved, prayed for, preached to, counseled, comforted, admonished, baptized, married, and buried successive generations of the same families, and received the congregation’s continued love and devotion in return. Such stories rarely generate headlines except perhaps locally on the occasion of the minister’s retirement or death, but I am convinced that such faithful men will receive special rewards in heaven.

While the work of a music professor is of far less eternal importance than that of a minister, I am in a lesser yet similar way moved when I hear of the retirement of a colleague who has served the same small school or department for an extended period. While major conservatory and large university programs will necessarily attract a significant portion of the most talented and ambitious students, smaller programs in both state and private institutions still train a large percentage of aspiring music teachers and performers, students who will in turn impact hundreds and thousands of students and concertgoers in schools and communities of every size. Often these students begin their college or university careers with notable deficiencies in one or more areas of music study and execution, yet with hard work under the tutelage of dedicated professors, they are able to remedy those difficulties and build meaningful careers.

To participate in the success of such students is immensely fulfilling, but it is not flashy. It can’t be distilled into brief soundbites nor does it generate a lot of exciting YouTube videos. And yet to see students who really struggled to begin music careers not only find jobs but succeed in teaching or performing yields an enduring satisfaction. Teaching more “naturally talented” students is fun in its own way, of course. The repertoire they are able to perform is more advanced and the problems are smaller and easier to solve. Turning a willing student who doesn’t “get it” into one who does is harder, and maybe that is why it’s in a way more rewarding. The same could be said for taking a studio or program which is not reaching its full potential and slowly but surely turning it into one that is. That work of building and sustaining excellence, one student at a time, is the work of a lifetime.

Both the minister and the professor in my examples—and in neither case am I thinking of a particular person—are engaging in what I sometimes like to call “faithful plodding.” Day by day, one sermon after another, one congregant after another, one student after another, diligently doing the work of teaching, admonishing, correcting, encouraging—of building up individuals in their lives and work. The one deals with infinitely more lasting and important matters than the other, of course, but for both faithfulness in their callings seems to entail mainly quiet, consistent, diligent effort that receives little notice and few accolades, but in the end delivers the desired results. For the one that means simply greater musical achievement, which is wonderful, but for the other it means the salvation of human beings, which is far better.

This is not to say that I do not desire more publicly visible indicators of success. In recent weeks the trombone and tuba-euphonium ensembles under my direction at Ole Miss were both invited to participate in their respective professional organizations’ international conferences, and I am immensely gratified to have seen our programs grow to this extent in the past 6.5 years. God willing, I look forward to more growth, more students, and more success in the coming years, but the work of getting there will be the same slow and steady “faithful plodding” that brought us this far. There’s not a lot of “flash-bang” in this approach, but it works.

Posted in Alto Trombone, Bass Trombone, Christian Worldview, Church, Doctrine of Vocation, Education, Euphonium, Higher Education, Music, Music and Theology, Music Education, Pedagogy, Performing, Practical Christianity, Practicing, Prayer, Preaching, Salvation, Teachers, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Theology, Trombone, Trombone Ensembles, Tuba, Tuba-Euphonium Ensembles

“Captain Obvious:” How Water Keys Work

Allow me to interrupt your holiday recuperations or Black Friday shopping for just a moment to address a pet peeve of mine. I titled this little piece “Captain Obvious,” but given the prevalence of this misunderstanding among my students and others, clearly this is not so obvious after all. I want to address a simple, slightly disgusting, but vitally important part of playing a brass instrument: emptying the water keys.

Honestly, this isn’t as gross as non-brass players in particular seem to think. The colloquial term “spit valve” is funny, but not particularly correct. While there is a small amount of saliva in the liquid that collects in the various nooks and crannies of brass instruments, the majority of it is condensed water vapor, just like the water droplets that form when one breathes warm air on a mirror or window. While there are valid reasons to collect this material in a spittoon, cup, or garbage can in certain situations rather than emptying it on the floor, those have to do more with the tendency of wet spots on thick carpet to promote mildew, not with the unsanitary nature of “people’s spit.”

spitMy real concern this morning is not with the composition of the condensate emptied from the water keys, but rather with how the water keys actually work. To me, the most disturbing part of how students empty water keys is not what comes out of them but how students try to operate them, namely by blowing vigorously and loudly through the instrument in order to force the water to exit. This is not only distracting; it is often ineffective when compared to quieter methods. Consider the picture of a water key here (sorry for using a trumpet; it was the clearest image Google returned). Although there are a few variant designs, the usual water key is a slightly raised opening made at a point in the tubing where condensation tends to collect, and sealed with a small piece of cork or rubber that is held in place with a lever and spring which can be opened periodically to release water from the instrument. Gravity dictates that the water collects at low points in the instrument’s tubing, so this is where water keys are typically placed.

At this point more technically minded readers might ask, “if gravity makes the water collect at the instrument’s low points, wouldn’t gravity alone make the water exit the opening when a water key is engaged?” The answer is YES. Although there are times when a bit of vigorous blowing or tilting of the instrument is needed to move the water to a point where it can exit through a water key, once the water is there it will exit through the hole without any blowing at all. Humorously, I have even seen students look to see where the water key is, open it, and then have all of the water run out before they (loudly and unnecessarily) blow through the instrument. Not only is the loud noise of blowing to empty the “spit” unnecessary; it can even be counterproductive if the air is blown so vigorously that the water actually moves past the opening rather than exiting the instrument, and then returns to its former place when the water key is disengaged. Then the familiar sound of gurgling water continues to mar one’s performance.

Of course, there are cases in which engaging a water key without blowing will not cause the water to exit. As I have already mentioned, tubas and horns are notorious for having bends in the tubing without water keys that necessitate some blowing and tilting of the instrument in order to remove the water. Many instruments have tuning slides without water keys in the valve system that must be removed in order to empty water. I have even noticed that a bit of water can collect between the two valves in double-valve bass trombones, in which case removing one of the tuning slides and blowing a puff of air to force out the water is needed. Except in instances like these, if the condensate will not exit the instrument through a water key with very little or no blowing the likely culprit is “cheese” or “gunk” caused by food particles collecting in the instrument and promoting…growth. In that case your first step should be to get a professional cleaning, and after that to buy a toothbrush.

“Spit valves” are (usually) not as gross as people think, but incorrect operation can be a distraction. Instead of loudly and obnoxiously blowing through the instrument just open the water key and allow gravity to do its thing.

Posted in Alto Trombone, Bass Trombone, Euphonium, Euphonium Maintenance, Music, Performing, Practicing, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Trombone Cleaning, Trombone Maintenance, Tuba, Tuba Maintenance, Water Key

On Exercise Equipment and Musical Development

620-Downsizing-Ditch-these-10-items-Exercise-Equipment-ESP.imgcache.rev1442607571108.web_-1The phenomenon of unused home exercise equipment is so pervasive in our society that it has become something of a trope. With the holiday season fast approaching, many families will soon see this in action once again. Typically, a person purchases or is given a treadmill, stair climbing machine, weight bench, or even a more elaborate piece of workout equipment, vowing that *this year* will be the year that “I finally get back in shape.” Nevertheless, the resolution to become healthier rarely lasts through the month of January, after which that workout equipment becomes at best a place to hang laundry, and at worst only an unused occupier of space, a constant reminder of the healthier life that might have been.

Although I have sometimes been guilty of neglecting the exercise equipment in my home, that has not been the case this year, as I have lost over 40 pounds in the past few months through diet and exercise. But I didn’t write today to brag about weight loss. Instead, I want to address another kind of often ignored “exercise equipment,” one whose neglect was—with some exceptions—quite noticeable among my students this week.

I have on occasion used this space to extol the virtues of daily, systematic fundamentals practice, including the use of a comprehensive daily routine (see here and here) and some regular program of scale and arpeggio work. While it has become fashionable among some in the low brass community to disdain this type of practice because of its repetitive and supposedly uncreative nature, I find the daily routine to be an indispensable tool in the development and maintenance of brass playing skills.

While the daily routine might vary in length and in the specific exercises used from day to day (I have routines of several different lengths depending on the amount of time available for fundamentals practice), some time should be spent each day systematically addressing the following items:

  • Breathing exercises. While such exercises are usually a form of overtraining, they do improve the efficiency with which one moves air.
  • Mouthpiece buzzing exercises. A few minutes of buzzing each day promotes efficiency in the use of the air and embouchure.
  • Long tones. Use this time not only to “warm up” the embouchure, but also to ensure that the breath, attack, tone quality, steadiness of tone, and release are all optimally timed and of the highest quality.
  • Articulation exercises. Each day’s practice should include a review of all types of articulations, both single and multiple-tonguing. Trombonists in particular should work on legato articulations.
  • Lip-slur exercises are extremely helpful for building strength and flexibility. In the upper register this same technique is used to produce lip-trills, an important skill for trombonists especially.
  • Fingering/slide movement exercises. Use diatonic and chromatic patterns to develop speed and dexterity of the fingers and/or slide arm.
  • Range extension. Each day’s practice should include exploration and extension of the tonal range, both high and low.
  • Scales and arpeggios. I recommend having scale and arpeggio routines in each key area, and performing these in at least one key area each day. Besides developing familiarity with the playing requirements in different keys, these routines can be used for further development in the other areas mentioned above.

At this point you might be thinking, “That all sounds good, but surely it takes a long time to do. Are you really suggesting that I spend 30 minutes or more each day on playing fundamentals?” YES. Yes, I am. Amazingly, students who would not dream of entering a race or some other athletic contest without training first seem to think that they should be able to achieve optimal musical development without taking the steps needed to develop the strength, stamina, and flexibility needed to play well. As I noted a few weeks ago, the similarities between effective sports practice and music practice are so pervasive that they seem to be essentially the same thing, only applied in different areas. That 30 minutes—or more—of daily fundamentals work might seem like a lot, but in the end it saves practice time, as errors and failures due to lack of basic skill development become rare, or even nonexistent.

If you spend a few hours watching late night television or even browsing the internet you are likely to encounter advertisements for hundreds of different pieces of exercise equipment for sale at different price points. All of them promise the ability to “become a better you” physically speaking, and many of them can actually deliver on those promises…but only if they are used. In the same way, lots of brass players and teachers make regimens for playing fundamentals practice available online (mine are here and here), all promising the ability to “become a better you” musically speaking. And similarly, most of these can actually deliver on these promises…but only if they are used.

Students, don’t make the daily routine into an unused piece of gym equipment. Put the laundry away and get to work!

Posted in Alto Trombone, Articulation, Bass Trombone, Breathing, Daily Routine, Embouchure, Euphonium, Mouthpiece Buzzing, Music, Pedagogy, Playing Fundamentals, Practicing, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Tuba

In Praise of Small Churches

primiiveI’ve written previously in this space about my small role serving locally with The Gideons International. While I have at various times held different offices in the local “camps” of which I have been a part both in West Monroe, Louisiana, and in Oxford, Mississippi, the most visible capacity in which I commonly serve has been as a church speaker. Basically, I periodically receive assignments to speak about the Gideon ministry in various churches in a radius of about 60-90 minutes’ driving distance, and in those churches I will explain the ministry, share testimonies of how God has used the Bibles placed or distributed to change lives, and in most cases collect an offering to continue funding the Bible ministry. 100% of donations collected during these speaking engagements go to purchase, print, and ship Bibles; I buy my own gas, and Gideon members cover all of the association’s overhead costs. It is relatively easy to ask for money knowing that all of the money collected will go directly to buying Bibles.

This past Sunday the Gideons had me speak in a church that has served its community for over 100 years, but has dwindled to fewer than twenty people in average attendance. This was a typical experience; most of the churches to which the Gideons send me are rather small. Despite the substantial publicity generated by megachurches of various denominations, according to The Barna Group 60% of Protestant churches have fewer than 100 people in attendance on a given Sunday. A drive through the countryside in much of America (at least east of the Mississippi river, where the population density is greater) shows a landscape punctuated by small church buildings, some housing small but thriving congregations, others plagued by attrition as older members pass away and their children seek opportunities in larger towns and cities. While some people’s initial reactions to small congregations might be to regard these as failures, my observation has been that many of these smaller churches do a better job of shepherding, teaching, and mutual care than do their larger counterparts. Not only have I seen this in my travels with the Gideons; I have also experienced it as a church member. While my family and I presently attend a church with Sunday morning attendance of 400-500 or more people, we have been part of a church of more like 1000 members and also one where ten people in attendance was a good Sunday, as well as all points in between. Looking back, I think the times in which we were happiest with church life and in which we experienced the most spiritual growth were the times that we were in congregations of well under 100 people. Here are a few reasons why I love and appreciate small churches.

1. In a small church, everyone knows and cares for everyone else.

 Most of my speaking engagements take place in the context of a “rally” held in a given county or community, where the Gideons in that area arrange for speakers to visit a number of churches in that area on the same Sunday morning. The day will begin with an early morning breakfast and prayer meeting, after which we will leave to find our assigned churches. Usually this results in my being the first person to arrive at the church, since I always allow extra time in case Google Maps doesn’t actually know how to find the address (not an uncommon occurrence out in the country). This means that I get to observe the congregation as they all trickle in for the Sunday School hour and then as others arrive for worship. This past Sunday I was delighted to see that everyone present, without exception, evidently knew of, cared about, and had prayed for—or actually assisted with—the needs of the others during the week. While in large congregations some folks can inadvertently be made to feel invisible (and sometimes people want to be invisible), I’m always delighted to see how the people in these little congregations so evidently care for one another.

2. In a small church, everyone must be prepared to fulfill just about every responsibility.

 When attending small churches I have had opportunities to teach, to lead singing, to play the piano (very rarely…and badly), and even preach a couple of times. I’ve also had opportunities to clean bathrooms, hang signage, purchase needed items, organize tracts, vacuum floors, prepare the elements for communion, maintain websites, mow and trim grass, keep the financial books, and basically every imaginable task involved in making sure worship services and every other ministry take place. This isn’t always efficient, streamlined, or in any way attractive to worldly eyes, but it is one of my favorite things about small churches. Everyone gets their hands dirty!

3. In a small church, services are Word-centered and relatively unadorned.

 As our present church has grown there has been a concerted effort to make the worship experience smoother, more efficient, more professional in its execution. This is not necessarily a bad thing; for various reasons the homespun campiness of so many small congregations’ worship would seem rather out of place in a larger church. Nevertheless, lacking the resources and paid staff of their larger counterparts, small churches have little choice but to build simple worship services that are centered upon the preaching of the Word, the administration of the sacraments, and prayer. This is not to say that large churches’ worship is not thus focused, but the absence of these resources necessarily leads to a simpler devotion that I find attractive.

Of course, there are many blessings associated with large churches, as well. These are the churches that do much to fund seminaries, publishing houses, and various parachurch ministries that have been of tremendous benefit to Christ’s church. We are all better off because these congregations exist, and many Christians prefer being a part of a larger church because of the variety of opportunities that these churches offer. Still, I often find myself missing those smaller churches in which my wife and I spent several happy years. We might not have had all the “bells and whistles,” but we had little groups of Christians who loved the Lord and each other, and took God’s Word and worship very seriously. Every time the Gideons send me to a small church I hope and pray that the congregation I visit is and will continue to be just like that.

Posted in Church, The Gideons International, Theology, Worship

End the Tyranny of the Green Smiley Face!

As I feared might happen, the absolute busy-ness of my schedule this fall has prevented me from consistently writing here on a weekly basis. When I first started writing a weekly blog in 2012, I was teaching about twenty hours per week; that number has now crept up to about 35. That’s actual contact hours per week working with students. Add to that practicing, performing, grading, other administrative tasks, and trying to maintain some semblance of family and church life, and you can see how blogging can easily get crowded out. Still, I enjoy using this space to develop my thoughts on various topics and am glad to have a little time to do so this afternoon.


TonalEnergy Tuner

I have a real problem with electronic tuners, or rather the mobile apps that we now use for that purpose. Even though I have two different tuner apps on my devices and will use them occasionally, my students will testify that I very rarely use them in applied teaching or ensemble situations. While tuners are great for ensuring that brass players’ tuning slides are optimally placed, once playing begins their utility declines dramatically. (The same applies to tuning open strings on string instruments, adjusting the various joints on woodwind instruments, etc.) Instead, once that baseline placement is established and playing begins active listening must take over, as must willingness to violate “what the tuner says” in favor of what sounds good.

The proper tuning of both melodies and harmonies in just intonation demands that a given note actually have slightly different pitches in different contexts. For example, when playing the tonic chord in the key of D major a written D3 should be played more or less where the tuner says, a frequency of 146.8Hz. However, for a B-flat major triad to be played in tune that same pitch will be lower (145.7Hz) and for a G major triad it will be slightly higher (147Hz). Unless the tuning app is configured to account for these differences, a D that is “correct” according to the tuner will sound rather sharp in the B-flat major triad, and quite flat in the G major one. And even if those configurations are made, wouldn’t it be better just to listen and match with one’s ears, rather than chasing the visual confirmation of the needle—or, in the popular Tonal Energy app, the green smiley face? At the end of the day, if 19 people in a 20-piece band are listening and playing in tune together, but the one person with a tuner on the stand insists that the rest of the band is sharp, who is wrong? The one with the tuner. Pitch is relative!

I’m aware that the previous two paragraphs read a bit like a rant, my excitement brought on by seeing so many ensembles check their pitch with an electronic tuner at the beginning of rehearsal and then essentially forget about pitch afterward. While the intricacies of just intonation are certainly beyond the grasp of younger students (and even of teachers—I had to look up those frequencies cited in the last paragraph), learning and employing a few basic principles can help players and groups of almost any ability level to improve their intonation. Here are some ideas.

1. By all means, use the electronic tuner to set the instruments at the correct lengths before beginning. The “green smiley face” can become a tyrant if it is followed too religiously, but in its place it is a useful servant. Once players have warmed up a bit, the tuner should be used to set the tuning slides at optimum lengths. With brass instruments, my preference is to set the main tuning slide so that the fourth partial note (B-flat3 on tenor trombone and euphonium; B-flat2 on BB-flat tuba, etc.) is correct according to the tuner. Next, I will set the first, second, and fourth valve tuning slides so that their fourth partial notes are correct, and the third valve tuning slide so that the fourth partial note with the 2-3 combination is correct. With trombones I will check both the second and fourth partials with the F-attachment, and on bass trombone I will check the second and fourth partials with the two valves combined. Things get a little more complicated with five and six-valve tubas, and advanced players and other teachers might have their own preferences, but this is what I do to establish a good, reliable starting place for playing.

2. Once that baseline is established, the rule should be to “listen and match.” The proverbial “dude with a tuner on his stand” that I mentioned earlier is no fun at all to have in the band. Instead of listening and trying to blend with the group he has shut off his ears and is trying to “tune with his eyes.” Instead, everyone in the group should be encouraged to listen to the players around them and adjust pitch as needed so that discrepancies are eliminated. I understand that this sounds rather advanced—and for beginning players it almost certainly is—but even intermediate players can be taught to eliminate the “beats” that occur in the sound waves when intonation is faulty. Moreover, admonish students—especially the more proficient students—that matching pitch is not something for “other people” (i.e. people further down in the section) to do. Playing in tune is everyone’s responsibility. If it’s out of tune, everyone is wrong. Even better, when everyone is listening accurately suddenly more than just pitch is being matched. What if through listening people started to match articulation, note lengths, phrasing, etc., etc.? Wouldn’t that be great?


W. Francis McBeth (1933-2012)

3. Match volume, then tone quality, then pitch. I have heard more than one great musician say that it is impossible to really tune when one has an uncharacteristic tone. More specifically, I remember how my college band director, Ken Lewis, constantly admonished us to “match volume, then tone quality, then pitch,” an instruction I believe he received from the great band composer and conductor W. Francis McBeth (1933-2012). The idea is that many apparent tuning discrepancies are actually instead problems with balance and blend. When these are solved, a majority of apparent intonation problems disappear as well, either as a result of improved listening or because the supposed intonation problems weren’t actually intonation problems at all. I have applied these principles in my trombone and tuba-euphonium ensembles, and can confirm from experience that they work.

4. Three rules that will instantly improve intonation. There are lots of principles involving tuning tendencies—both tendencies of the instruments themselves and tendencies of certain harmonies—whose mastery will greatly improve intonation. Advanced brass players ought to be familiar with the overtone series and the tendencies of each partial, and the following chart, which originated in drum and bugle corps circles in the pre-internet days, suggests a number of very specific adjustments to be made in given harmonic contexts.


However, players at almost any level can learn these three rules that, when applied, will have an instant and positive effect on any ensemble’s intonation. They are:

  1. Lower major thirds.
  2. Raise minor thirds.
  3. Raise perfect fifths.

That’s it. Is there more to tuning chords than that? Sure, and notice that I didn’t indicate in any way how much to raise or lower those things—that is useful information, but not always necessary to have in one’s memory. When students are taught to tell by hearing whether they have the root, third, or fifth of a chord and what the likely problem is when a discrepancy is heard they can instantly correct—or even anticipate—problems with intonation. If they learn what to do with sevenths and other intervals that’s even better, but learning about thirds and fifths will take care of a lot of issues.

And above all, teach your students what I call Rule Number One: “Make it sound good.” Every other rule is intended to make it easier for students to determine what to do in order to fulfill Rule Number One. If it sounds good, it (probably) is good!

Tune with your ears, not your eyes. End the tyranny of the green smiley face!

Posted in Music, Music Education, Music Theory, Pedagogy, Performing, Playing Fundamentals, Practicing, Teachers, Teaching Low Brass, TonalEnergy, W. Francis McBeth