The Brass Player as Singer

Remington singing while conducting a trombone choir rehearsal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Unexpected Apologetic for Adoption

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Adoption, Parenting, Popular Culture, Star Wars | Comments Off on An Unexpected Apologetic for Adoption

“Due North” Complete Performance Recordings

This past March I presented a recital of music for trombone, euphonium, and tuba with piano by Scandinavian composers. Entitled “Due North,” the program highlights some lovely music by composers that are perhaps “off the beaten path” a bit, yet from a part of the world that has produced some very fine low brass music over the years. This was the first complete solo program I had performed since 2019, as pandemic restrictions prevented my doing so for over two years. The program went relatively well and was well-received, the only disappointment being that I did not receive the recordings until this week! I’m happy to share this live performance, “warts and all,” with readers of The Reforming Trombonist.

Trygve Madsen (b. 1940): Euphonium Concertino, op. 123

Vagn Holmboe (1909-1996): Trombone Sonata, op. 172a

Axel Jørgensen (1881-1947): Romance, op. 21

Arild Plau (1920-2005): Tuba Concerto

Posted in Arild Plau, Axel Jørgensen, Doubling, Euphonium, Music, Performance Videos, Performances, Tenor Trombone, Trygve Madsen, Tuba, Vagn Holmboe | Comments Off on “Due North” Complete Performance Recordings

On Video Games and Neural Pathways

When I started this blog ten (!) years ago I found it considerably easier to write frequently (usually weekly) than I do now. The change is mainly due to my son, who was two then and family life centered around the home, with my wife staying home with him full time. Now he is twelve and has numerous activities that require our time and attention, and Mrs. Everett has long since returned to teaching music herself. Add to that a steadily increasing slate of responsibilities at church, and my ability to sit and write “for fun” has declined precipitously. Nevertheless, I enjoy writing here and intend to continue doing so for the foreseeable future, even if with reduced frequency.

My last post here, almost exactly three months ago, used a video game comparison to illustrate a problem in music teaching, and I’ll be using a related illustration today. Imagine with me, if you will. It is the summer of 1991, and the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) has just been released. You have just turned twelve years old and you are thrilled that your parents purchased this new system for your birthday. The only small disappointment is that so far the only game you own is the one that came with the system, Super Mario World. While other games will follow, for the time being you are content with this one, and are greatly enjoying the improved graphics and more expansive world building made possible by the more advanced technology of this new system. At twelve, you are not yet quite clever enough to be amused by the trope of having the stages of the game steadily increase in difficulty and complexity, while the main bosses, once reached, are consistently incompetent and easily defeated.

That was my life in the summer of 1991, and it was a pretty good one. I spent way too much time playing Super Mario World and, with a little help from Nintendo Power magazine (there was no Google or YouTube yet, remember?), finished the game before school started. I didn’t realize it then, but I was also establishing neural pathways that would persist years into the future.

Just a few days ago, my son asked if we could purchase a subscription to Nintendo Switch Online. He was interested in playing some of the games from older systems that were available through the online service, and suggested offsetting the cost by canceling another, rarely-used service to which our family had subscribed. This seemed reasonable, so I purchased the subscription. I have also enjoyed revisiting some of the games from my childhood, including Super Mario World. While this is unsurprising, I have been surprised by the extent to which my memories of how to overcome the various challenges of the game have remained mostly intact over thirty years later, as have the instinctive actions needed for effective gameplay. Not that I haven’t had to “dust things off” a little, but I am far from starting from scratch. Even my son is impressed!

Now, what does that have to do with brass playing…or anything important? Only this: repetitive actions establish neural pathways that enable the brain and body to act instinctively and efficiently, and these can persist even after years of disuse. I didn’t have to relearn how to play Super Mario World; I just had to, in a manner of speaking, find those old paths again. Effectiveness in playing a musical instrument depends on this same phenomenon. Daily practice establishes neural pathways that enable music making to take place largely on an instinctive and subconscious level. This frees the player from the burden of consciously thinking about “how to play,” so that the conscious mind can focus more on “how it goes.”

But, there’s a catch. While good habits and correct technique establish neural pathways that facilitate great playing, poor habits and faulty technique establish neural pathways that facilitate poor playing. Habits that are continually reinforced become ingrained, whether good or bad. Have you ever noticed that, even after years of playing and practicing correctly, sometimes an old bad habit that you thought you had long since overcome begins to find its way into your playing again? Somehow, those familiar paths persist, and while poor habits can and must be replaced with good ones, well-established poor habits can easily reassert themselves and must be guarded against.

Playing a musical instrument well is an enormously complex task, and effectiveness requires a mix of instinct and conscious awareness. Training those instincts requires daily and systematic practice in which good playing habits (and thus the neural pathways associated with these) are further ingrained and strengthened. Poor habits, sadly, never fully go away once established; they are only replaced with good habits that must be, again, continually reinforced. The better we train our young students in good habits from the beginning of their playing careers, the greater their likelihood of persisting in those habits in the long term, and avoiding the arduous and continual task of replacing poor habits in the future.

Speaking of Super Mario World, I was just involved in a multitrack recording project that presented one of the themes from the game, arranged for a massive trombone ensemble. It was a fun project and the end result was really great. I hope you enjoy it!

Posted in Alto Trombone, Baritone Horn, Bass Trombone, Contrabass Trombone, Daily Routine, Euphonium, Music, Neural Pathways, Pedagogy, Performing, Playing Fundamentals, Practicing, Recordings, Teaching Low Brass, Technology, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Tuba, Video Games | Comments Off on On Video Games and Neural Pathways

“This is an Etude. It is not The Legend of Zelda, and it’s not 1987.”

As a child of the 80s (okay, born in the very late 70s, but I don’t remember any of it), I am increasingly convinced that I grew up in the best time to ever be a kid. The internet was not yet a reality in most households (perhaps thankfully), but we had cable television and plenty of great cartoons, and even though most of those cartoons were basically 22-minute toy commercials, we had a ball watching them. Despite the only thinly-veiled profit motive behind their production, most cartoons of the time had at least a working moral compass with an obvious dichotomy between good and evil (He-Man was good, Skeletor was evil; the Autobots were good, the Decepticons were evil; G.I. Joe was good, Cobra was evil…you get the point). Popular entertainment nowadays—including programs intended for children—contains a great deal more moral ambiguity, which is perhaps more realistic but arguably unhelpful. But, that is a digression from my present point. For now, suffice it to say, again, that the entertainment options enjoyed by kids in the 80s were great.

There was a Legend of Zelda cartoon, too, whose purpose was–you guessed it–to entice kids to buy video games.

Those entertainment options included the very earliest home video game systems, and during that great decade, my family had first an Atari 2600 and, later, the first iteration of the Nintendo Entertainment System. To be sure, the graphics and sound of the NES are rather crude to modern eyes and ears, but the 8-bit graphics were a massive improvement over the Atari, and the gameplay was decidedly better. The first three Super Mario Bros. games were released on that system, as well as the first two entries in The Legend of Zelda franchise. I still remember receiving a copy of the first Zelda game and being first taken by the shiny gold (i.e., gold-colored plastic) casing on the game cartridge, and then very intrigued by this concept of saving one’s game. Unlike previous games that were played from beginning to end in a single sitting, Zelda was intended for more long-term play, and allowed the player to save his or her progress at various points. This not only facilitated a more expansive world-covering adventure than had been possible previously, but meeting an unfortunate end in some battle did not necessitate restarting the game at the beginning, but instead at the most recent save point. While players of modern video games might take this concept for granted, in 1987 it was still pretty new, or at least new to me.

See all those enemies? The music and action would have almost certainly slowed down until some were eliminated.

As great as the original Zelda game was, though, the gameplay was sometimes clumsy or confusing, and occasionally the amount of activity on the screen would overwhelm the modest computing power of the NES. Remarkably, the game rarely froze entirely, but the action of both player and enemies and the music would slow down until enough enemies were dispatched to reduce the number of moving objects to a more manageable level. (The rest of you 80s kids remember what I’m talking about.) As a music teacher, I am often reminded of this little phenomenon during my students’ lessons.

For better or worse, most of my students’ early musical training leads them to place much greater emphasis on pitch accuracy than on rhythmic accuracy. This most often manifests itself in students slowing down the tempo when the rhythmic activity becomes more pronounced, and sometimes in obliterating all sense of rhythm or time in the interest of “chasing notes.” It’s as if we’re right back in 1987, and each of those sixteenth notes is an “enemy” that makes the CPU (i.e., the student’s brain) slow down until “Link” can destroy enough of them to allow running at normal speed again. While it is wholly unremarkable that most students in 2022 have no idea what I’m talking about when I tell them that their playing reminds me of playing The Legend of Zelda in the 80s, I do find it remarkable that many of them do not seem to notice that they slow down at the “hard parts,” and others do not seem to understand that this is a problem.

So what is the solution? One way or another, students must be brought to understand one important yet counterintuitive idea: rhythm and time are more important than pitch. While we tend to think that the melody is the most important aspect of any tune, the rhythm actually plays a greater role in making it recognizable. As an experiment, simply tap the rhythm of a well-known tune (like “Mary Had a Little Lamb” or “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”) on a table and ask people if they recognize it. Chances are, they will. Now, pick another tune and play the pitches in order, but completely out of rhythm. Your listeners will almost certainly have more difficulty identifying the chosen song. The rhythm really is more important.

Moreover, good timing (thinking here of a felt sense of “the beat” more than the rhythm) is important not only for musical reasons but also technical ones. A solid sense of time will lead to better coordination of breath, articulation, and the various other elements of technical execution. This is interrupted when one slows down to accommodate difficult rhythms.

All of that said, slowing down to “get the notes” in a difficult passage does hit on one important aspect of addressing musical challenges: complex tasks are best mastered by reducing them to series of simple tasks. Students who slow down while learning the pitches probably intend to improve their rhythmic performance in the future, but for the reasons discussed above, this effort will almost certainly be more successful if approached in the reverse order. Master the rhythm first, and then learn the pitches. This promotes better time, better coordination, and better accuracy. It’s okay if a slower tempo is necessary at first, so long as a consistent tempo is maintained throughout rather than varying according to difficulty.  

To be honest, sometimes I miss 1987. I mean, being eight years old was pretty great, Ronald Reagan was still president, and the Saints went to the playoffs for the first time. And yes, I loved playing the original Zelda game on the old NES system, but that was a video game, not performing music. When playing an etude or performance piece, maintaining steady rhythm and time is of primary importance, no matter how many “enemies” are on the page.

Posted in Breathing, Music, Music Education, Musical Interpretation, Pedagogy, Performing, Playing Fundamentals, Popular Culture, Practicing, Rhythm and Time, Teaching Low Brass, The 1980s, Video Games | Comments Off on “This is an Etude. It is not The Legend of Zelda, and it’s not 1987.”