“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

Why I Enjoy Teaching in the Church

This past year during the fall and spring semesters I shared teaching responsibilities for an adult Sunday school class on the book of Colossians, after teaching part of a shorter series the previous summer. These were my first opportunities in several years to teach adults in that setting, and I was very grateful to be able to do so. Our church is blessed with more capable teachers than space for classes, so I’m once again taking a break from teaching responsibilities. I sincerely hope there isn’t another years-long wait before the next opportunity, though, because there are a number of things that I really enjoy about teaching in the church, particularly classes for adults.

1. I get to study a subject other than music. I’m sure some folks at church find my participation in the church’s musical activities—or rather my usual lack of active participation—to be somewhat enigmatic. After all, shouldn’t a professional musician want to have a hand in all things music-related? I’ve written about this before and won’t rehash those ideas here. Suffice it to say for now that I like for my experiences of worship and service in the church to be unrelated to my day-to-day work during the week. If I’m spending most of my time Monday through Saturday making music, Sunday doesn’t feel like much of a “Sabbath” if I spend it doing exactly the same things as every other day. It is nice—not to mention spiritually and psychologically healthy—to step out of my professional role and do something else on the Lord’s Day. The time spent in preparation during the week is likewise refreshing, as I am able to take my mind off of its usual focus for a bit and delve into the Word more deeply than usual. This brings me to my next point.

2. I am motivated to make time for in-depth study of the Scriptures. I have read the Bible through on a yearly basis for about fifteen years now, and have listened to it read via audio recordings several times over, as well. This is an important part of my regular devotions, but it isn’t particularly in-depth, nor does it have to be. There is a place for cultivating and maintaining a general sense of what the Bible says in that way. However, there is also a place for more rigorous study, something which I found easier to do before becoming a parent. Now time for challenging reading and study is precious and hard to find in the midst of other important responsibilities. Preparing to teach an adult Sunday school class requires—at least for me—several hours of reading commentaries and other reference works, writing a full manuscript (which I will not read verbatim but this exercise helps me to organize my thoughts), and time spent in prayer for myself and for the class. The last part in particular is important, because…

3. Teaching challenges me to grow spiritually. I sometimes have a bad habit of allowing Bible study to be a merely academic exercise. I find the study of history, of anthropology, of systematics, and all the things that go into good theology to be intellectually stimulating. However, while the Bible touches on all of these fascinating subjects, its primary purpose is to point its readers to the Lord Jesus Christ, and to teach those who believe how they are to live as God’s people in the world. If I do not walk away from these studies more convicted of my failings and more enamored with Christ, I’ve missed the point! Teaching through Colossians was particularly encouraging, since the initial recipients of Paul’s letter to Colossae weren’t descending into flagrant sin and unbelief like those in Corinth or like those rebuked by Christ himself in the opening chapters of Revelation. Rather, the Colossians were “regular Christians” just trying to believe and live rightly. Paul’s challenge to them to continue to look to Christ alone as their sufficient Savior is relevant to all of us who try to live well, avoiding particularly scandalous and public sins, but still very much in need of exhortation to look to Christ.

4. Hopefully, teaching challenges others to learn and to grow, as well. As is the case with any teacher in any subject, I’m sure some of the folks who attended my Sunday School class liked my teaching, others probably didn’t, and some thought it was “okay.” Although I have a small amount of formal theological education I have no degree in that field, nor do I hold church office, so to stand before a group of people and say “this is what the Bible says” sometimes feels presumptuous. I suppose all I can do is stick closely to the scriptures and to the books of those more learned and pious than myself, continue to pray, and hope that the things I have to say are of benefit to others. In the end, if we’re not all walking away from such a class knowing more about Jesus and feeling challenged to be more like him, we’ve all missed the point!

Posted in Christian Education, Christian Sabbath, Church, Colossians, Reading and Study, Theological Education, Theology, Work and Leisure, Worship

Discovering Similarities between Music Practice and Sports Practice


Our son, Brody, pitching in a recent game.

Any parent will tell you that the experience of raising a child or children is an adventure, one in which parents often find themselves improvising, trying to do the best they can for their children but not always sure of what that “best” actually is. Parents of adopted children have an additional challenge in that they cannot based upon their own abilities anticipate what natural giftings those children might have, and “nature versus nurture” questions frequently arise. In our son’s case, being raised by two music teachers certainly has some bearing upon his budding skills as a violinist, though inherited traits undoubtedly play a role, as well. More obviously “natural” are his skills in sports, traits which neither his mother nor I possess. While I am still able to be of some use coaching him in baseball, this has to do mainly with my having the hand-eye coordination of an average adult combined with 30-plus years as a spectator. His abilities far exceed mine at the same age (I played right field in Little League, and we all know what that means), and will undoubtedly surpass my current skills before very long.

Observing and assisting with my son’s development as a ballplayer has led me to notice some interesting similarities between building skills in a sport and the same process on a musical instrument. In fact, the processes are identical in some respects, thus rendering my experience as a musician surprisingly relevant to his baseball practice. Here are a few thoughts on the subject.

The Necessity of Innate Ability
In music lessons I place as little emphasis as I can on the idea of “natural talent,” preferring to emphasize the importance of disciplined hard work. My students often hear me exhort them to practice “daily and systematically” in order to most efficiently increase their playing skills. Nevertheless, innate ability certainly plays a role in skill development. The physical “chops” needed to play the instrument well come very naturally to some students, while others must engage in a daily regimen of exercises just to remain functional. Similarly, some students have a “good ear” seemingly from birth, while others spend hours drilling musical passages, listening to recordings, and practicing solfège just to keep up with those in the first group. Every student has a certain amount of “chops” and “ear” naturally; those with above-average skills in one or both areas have marked advantages over those of average ability or less.

The same is true in sports. This fall my son has moved up to a “kid-pitch” team for the first time, and currently pitches one inning per game. While he has to spend time perfecting his skills on the mound for both accuracy and speed, his natural abilities give him a head start over kids of very limited athletic ability, as I was. At his age I could have spent hours throwing pitches and refining my wind-up and delivery, and still might not have reached the same skill level that he has. Nevertheless, a child with less innate ability than my son, but more than me, might with practice meet and exceed his skill level because of…

The Limitations of Innate Ability
I once heard a great trombonist say that the players that enjoy the greatest success are not those with the most natural talent, but those just below the top in that respect. The implication was that supremely talented individuals, many of whom move through their early and advanced training with minimal effort, become totally derailed when they at last encounter a significant obstacle to further progress. Those in the second tier, as it were, while still above-average in innate ability, have developed the conceptual, physical, and psychological tools needed to overcome significant difficulties, and thus eventually surpass their more “talented” colleagues. My students have heard me refer to “The Wall,” my term for the point at which an individual can no longer rely primarily on natural talent and has to actually work to solve problems and overcome difficulties. For some, this point comes in the first week, while for others it might be in the second or third year, but it nearly always comes. Figuring out how to physically and psychologically overcome these challenges and continue to grow and progress is an important part of the musician’s development. Although we are still quite early in my son’s sports career, I am beginning to observe a similar pattern there.

The Type of Practice that Brings Results


Brody and me practicing scales together.

As I am sure is the case with most eight-year-old violinists, getting our son to practice without argument is a perpetual challenge. While at the end of a productive practice session he will grudgingly admit that he enjoys playing, he is less fond of practicing scales, perfecting his bowing, and correcting minor errors once he has the gist of a piece. Yet it is this daily and systematic practice of playing fundamentals that spurs his greatest growth as a musician.

It is the same with baseball. With an eight-year-old pitcher the primary objective is to throw strikes. The pitches do not have to be extremely fast, nor is this the time to practice curveballs, changeups, and other specialty pitches. They only need to be accurate. Yet getting him to systematically develop the pacing, technique, and consistency to throw across the plate most of the time is a challenge when the desire to try exotic pitches is so great. Throwing not-all-that-fast-balls over and over again is not exciting, but it is effective. The same can be said for time spent in the batting cage.

Effective practice—in music and in sports—is usually repetitive and sometimes boring, but it works.

The Necessity of Quality Instruction
When we decided a couple of years ago to have our son begin violin lessons we considered whether or not to teach him ourselves or to hire a teacher to give him lessons. While neither my wife nor I are violinists, we are both trained music educators and have sufficient knowledge to teach beginning strings. Despite this, the desire to have an outside authority figure behind his instruction (besides “just mom and dad”) led us to engage a teacher. Two years later, his skills have reached the point that, although my wife in particular can observe his practice and remind him of certain elements of his teacher’s instructions, the superior knowledge and experience of his violin teacher is necessary for him to make further progress. Similarly, if he continues in baseball—particularly pitching—too much further we will have to consider getting professional coaching for him. The limited abilities of an observant father simply will not suffice for very long, no matter how talented the son happens to be.

The Need to Have Fun!
I am getting old enough now that I can credibly grumble about youngsters’ apparent disdain for hard work, but the pursuit of both music and sports should not be so dominated by disciplined activities that there is no room for enjoyment. Pick-up games of baseball among neighborhood kids are still important. Sitting around playing Real Book tunes is fun, and easier than ever now with free accompaniments so readily available. My son even enjoys playing his violin along with videos of Queen and other classic rock groups, barely aware of how much vital ear training is happening as he does this.

Playing music and playing sports—the operative word is “playing,” and we must never forget that these activities should be enjoyable both for us and for listeners and spectators.

But let us also remember that the greatest enjoyment is usually of the “delayed gratification” variety, the satisfaction that comes with the mastery of a new skill or new piece after weeks and months and years of hard work. Hard work and great fun can and should go together!



Posted in Baseball, Music, Parenting, Pedagogy, Practicing, Scales and Arpeggios, Sports, Teaching Low Brass

“I Was Like WOW: Music for Trombone Alone and With Multimedia” — Complete Performance Recordings (well, almost)

A week ago this evening I performed a solo recital which I entitled “”I Was Like WOW: Music for Trombone Alone and With Multimedia.” As the title suggests, all of the programmed works were either unaccompanied or have multimedia accompaniment. I had no collaborators, and the experience of being alone on stage for the entire performance was new, exciting, and, honestly, a bit scary. The performance went well and was well-received, and I am happy to share the recordings with all of you.

Well…most of them. Apparently Christian Lindberg’s people do not want a recording of his piece on YouTube other than his own, so you’ll just have to take my word for it that my rendition was good!

Michael Davis (b. 1961): Mission Red

Domenico Gabrielli (1651-1690), arr. Micah Everett: Ricercar

Brian Lynn (b. 1954): Doolallynastics: A Brief Torture for Solo Trombone

Howard J. Buss (b. 1951): Alien Loop de Loops

Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006): Fantasy for Trombone

David Fetter (b. 1938): Variations on Palestrina’s ‘Dona Nobis Pacem’

JacobTV (b. 1951): I Was Like WOW

Christian Lindberg (b. 1958): Bombay Bay Barracuda

I had always wondered why the only recording of this piece on YouTube was Lindberg’s own recording; now I guess I know why. Just listen to this one and imagine that I sounded at least as good as him…but please do not imagine me in the same outfit!






Posted in Brian Lynn, Christian Lindberg, David Fetter, Domenico Gabrielli, Howard J. Buss, JacobTV, Malcolm Arnold, Micah Everett, Michael Davis, Music, Performances, Tenor Trombone, Trombone