“Gadgets and Gizmos:” Tablet Computers as Sheet Music Replacements, Part 2

A little over four years ago I wrote an article defending my decision to not yet use a tablet computer for music reading, ending with the following words:

Again, I am sure that at some point in the not-too-distant future reading sheet music from tablet computers will be the usual practice. Nevertheless, until some standardization in the software applications used for this purpose occurs—particularly for marking parts for musical enhancements and avoiding errors—I remain unconvinced that the time has arrived. When such industry standard applications emerge I will be more willing to overcome my other two objections and join the “Sheet Music on iPad Revolution.”

euphWell, last year I decided to end my Luddism and begin performing and teaching using an iPad. I began in the summer of 2018 with a 9.7-inch device, but was able to upgrade to a used 12.9-inch iPad Pro a few months ago for even greater visibility. So far I have been very happy with the change, particularly as I now rarely have to travel with large binders or folders of sheet music. The more streamlined appearance at recitals is also a plus, with the iPad stand obstructing the audience’s view less than a music stand. I still have yet to digitize a large segment of my paper music library, a lack which remains the most serious drawback of this effort. However, as “sheet music” purchasing becomes increasingly digital and wifi access to cloud-based storage systems nearly ubiquitous, many of the concerns that prompted my initial reticence to adopt the iPad as a music-reading device have been alleviated.

forscore iconThe app that has been most helpful in this endeavor is called Forscore. I mentioned in my article four years ago that I saw the inability to efficiently mark music to correct and avoid errors was a serious drawback of reading from tablets, a problem that this app addresses very well. Accidentals and other markings are easily inserted using a tap-and-drag placement method that is very intuitive, and can be done in different colors in order to best draw attention (red seems to be the usual choice). Additional markings can be made using a finger, stylus, or Apple Pencil, including writing or highlighting in multiple colors. My parts now are rather colorful, with corrections indicated in a way that immediately draws my attention. Page turns can be done by hand or with a Bluetooth pedal, and can be configured for half or full page turns at each swipe or tap. My only complaint about this app is that scores and parts have to be loaded into it manually from the cloud drive and metadata entered for indexing; in some ways this resembles the way one would organize music for a recordings library like iTunes rather than a sheet music library. Nevertheless, Forscore seems to have emerged as an industry standard in this area, and its functionality more than makes up for this one oddity.

A further complaint about Forscore is that it is available only in iOS. In fact, that is a common issue with music-related mobile apps. While I have become rather fond of my Samsung smartphone, I have retained an Apple tablet because the software I use for my work is available only in that system. Additionally, Android tablets tend to be shaped more for viewing widescreen movies and videos than for documents. Perhaps one day music reading won’t be an iOS-only endeavor, but for now that seems to largely be the case.

fireflyRegarding other accessories, the most important is my PageFlip Firefly Bluetooth pedal, which I use to turn pages when playing. This device connects easily, has extremely long battery life, and simply works. I have seen and heard others complain about their page-turning pedals from other makers sometimes being a bit touch-and-go but that has not been my experience at all with this device. Highly recommended.

iReal-Pro-Logo_website_highr-1024x252I’ll mention one more app before leaving this post, one that is not directly related to music reading per se but has been extremely helpful in my practicing and teaching: iRealPro. To put it briefly, if something like this had existed when I was 18 years old I would be a FAR better jazz/commercial/popular musician than I am now. In this app one can download chord changes for thousands of songs, transpose them, change the tempo or style, and explore practically unlimited ideas for practicing and developing style and improvisation. While this app does not have complete lead sheets (i.e. with notes and rhythms in addition to chord changes), paired with lead sheets from The Real Book or other sources it is a formidable resource. And, unlike Forscore, it works on both iOS and Android.

I knew when I wrote that 2015 article that at some point I would join the “Sheet Music on iPad Revolution.” I’ve been there for a while now, and so far I’m liking it. In fact, I need to go and check the charge on the batteries: I’m going to be conducting a rehearsal using the iPad in a few minutes.

Posted in "Gadgets and Gizmos", Forscore, Improvisation, Instructional Technology, iPad, iRealPro, Music, Pedagogy, Performing, Practicing, Smartphones, Teaching Low Brass

The Bell is Lava!

Touching the bell in order to locate third—and sometimes even fourth—position is a common bad habit among trombonists. The reasons for this are fairly obvious. When first learning to play young musicians are taught to visually locate some of the slide positions in relation to the location of the bell, and third position in particular lies close enough to it that touching the bell with the index and/or middle fingers becomes a means of ensuring that one has found the right “spot.” Some teachers of beginning students even encourage this practice, unfortunately. A few students will extend this approach to finding fourth position by reaching back with the right thumb, which becomes particularly unhelpful as the student grows and the placement of fourth position moves further and further out as the thumb lengthens.

The problems with this approach are as obvious as the reasons for adopting it. While young students with untrained ears must be taught to locate slide positions using various visual or tactile clues (i.e. judging by the location of the bell or the feeling of a more or less full extension of the arm), the hope is that they will move as quickly as possible to locating slide positions aurally, by the sounds and intonation of the pitches being played. Touching the bell to locate slide positions disrupts this process, as students will essentially shut off the ears in favor of finding positions solely with the hands. As I’m fond of saying “fingers are great, but they don’t hear very well!”

An additional problem with touching the bell is disruption of technique. As students become more advanced and the technical requirements of assigned music increase the impulse to touch the bell when passing third and/or fourth positions hampers the execution of fast-moving passages. While I am ultimately not a “don’t-touch-the-bell purist” (i.e. I don’t usually correct the habit if it occurs only occasionally and doesn’t seem to be causing problems with tuning or technique), when a student’s bell-touching detracts from the quality of performance it must be corrected immediately.

Gavin

Ouch! (I’m a bad person.)

The question is how does one break a student (or oneself) of this habit? Often it goes away on its own as the music becomes too difficult to execute while touching the bell. Likewise, as students’ listening skills improve they become too dissatisfied with the poor tuning when touching the bell to continue doing so. I have occasionally resorted to extreme illustrations like taping a thumb tack or push pin to the student’s bell. This is for illustrative purposes only—I do not actually place the sharp point in a location where the student will touch it and be injured—but it sometimes communicates the message. A less extreme version of this is to modify the children’s game “the floor is lava” and instead say “the bell is lava.” I tried that one just this afternoon with a student and his execution immediately improved. Maybe that’s a healthier visualization than taping sharp implements to students’ instruments!

In the end, bell-touching tends to decrease as students practice and improve. When it persists, this habit is very likely indicative of insufficient practice as much as anything else. A healthy, daily regimen of fundamental exercises and scale studies is called for.

And remind them that “the bell is lava!”

Lava Bell

 

Posted in Alto Trombone, Bass Trombone, Pedagogy, Playing Fundamentals, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Trombone

“The Good Sound:” Complete Performance Recordings

Last week I performed a recital of music for euphonium with piano or electronic accompaniment as part of the University of Mississippi’s Faculty Recital Series. The program’s title, “The Good Sound,” is a tongue-in-cheek play on the meaning of the word “euphonium.” Although I perform euphonium solo and chamber works fairly regularly, this was my first full-length solo euphonium program in ten years. The program went relatively well and was well-received, and I’m happy to share the live performance recordings, “warts and all,” with readers of The Reforming Trombonist.

Julius Klengel (1859-1933), arr. Micah Everett: Concertino No. 1, op. 7

Ennio Morricone (b. 1928), arr. Adam Frey and Kevin Kaska: Gabriel’s Oboe (from “The Mission”)

Herbert L. Clarke (1867-1945): From the Shores of the Mighty Pacific

Benjamin McMillan (b. 1984): Mandelbrot’s Dream

Franz Liszt (1811-1886), arr. Patrick Hoffman: Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2

Peter Graham (b. 1958): The Holy Well (from “On Alderley Edge”)

 

Posted in Euphonium, Micah Everett, Music, Performance Videos, Performances, University of Mississippi

“Gadgets and Gizmos:” Dry Mouth Spray

A long-term debate exists among brass players regarding the advantages and disadvantages of dry and wet lips when playing. Some insist that playing is easiest when the lips are relatively dry, while others prefer that they be moist. This is largely a matter of personal preference, and in any case the debate, such as it is, is between two forms of a moderate position; most players would agree that excessive moisture becomes problematic, and practically no one wants a completely dry mouth and oral cavity. Far from being desirable, the sensation of dry mouth is an experience dreaded by players when it occurs.

Dry mouth is not an unfamiliar phenomenon. It is a common symptom of various forms of performance anxiety, and is usually considered harmless. Those experiencing dry mouth during public speaking, for example, can take a glass of water with them and usually continue without difficulty. For the brass player, though, dry mouth can cause serious difficulties in performance, hampering tone quality, response, and flexibility. While having water on stage can help, drinking water during rests can be distracting. More importantly, the water can rinse out what remains of the mouth’s natural moisture, ensuring that the first drink taken will not be the last. I am therefore perhaps too reticent to have a bottle of water with me on stage, and recently found myself in quite a bit of peril because of it.

When performing at the recent International Trombone Festival at Ball State University, during the third movement of a four-movement piece I felt as if all of the moisture in my mouth was simply gone. Having no water on stage, between the third and final movements I stood and silently chewed the sides of my tongue for a couple of minutes to stimulate salivation, and then continued the performance. That was a disappointing experience, especially because I was certain that without the dry mouth my performance of the third movement would have been considerably better.

71M3QsEo83L._SL1500_

Later that same day, some of my students attended a performance by a prominent trombonist and one noticed that he periodically sprayed moisture from a small bottle into his mouth. Intrigued, the student found that player later and asked what the spray was. He told him that it was a spray used for dry mouth, with which he had become familiar when a relative experienced dry mouth during treatment for an illness. Knowing of my own dry mouth experience the same day, the student sent me a text message about this, and later that day I found a bottle of Biotène Dry Mouth Moisturizing Spray at a local store. I used it before later performances at the ITF and had a much better experience. I have continued to use this product, even before and during my solo recital last night at Ole Miss. It is an effective product, and similar formulations are available from several manufacturers.

The advantages of a spray like this are two. First, it is discrete. The bottle is small, can be easily carried in one’s pocket, and is used very quickly without drawing much attention. Second, and perhaps more importantly, these sprays stimulate salivation, rather than providing only a brief period of moisture before another drink is needed. Indeed, only a small amount of the dry mouth spray is needed at any particular time, and I am still using the bottle I purchased back in July.

Are dry mouth sprays a total replacement for water? No, and I still advocate hydrating generously on the day of a big performance. I even had a bottle of water to drink a bit between pieces last night. But do such sprays provide one more “tool in the box” that can help to improve performance? Absolutely, and I am thankful for the discovery.

Posted in Alto Trombone, Baritone Horn, Bass Trombone, Biotène Dry Mouth Moisturizing Spray, Contrabass Trombone, Embouchure, Euphonium, International Trombone Festival, Music, Performance Anxiety, Performing, Playing Fundamentals, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Truth, Tuba

Avoiding the Patrick Star Sound (“The Singing Trombone” Epilogue)

A couple of days ago I wrote a little article about the historical and musical reasons for taking a “singing” approach to trombone playing. While I did not say so directly, this approach is appropriate not only for the trombone, but for all of the low brass instruments. (And perhaps other instruments as well, but I don’t want to step beyond my own expertise.) I should add one caveat, though: while a singing approach is normally a good thing, that does to certain extent depend on what particular singer one wishes to emulate.

Many low brass players, when questioned, would say that the pursuit of a “dark” sound is an appropriate goal. At one point in my career I would have agreed without question, but I wonder if the subjective categories of “bright” and “dark” are as helpful as we sometimes think. At the very least, there are times when a brighter sound is appropriate and other times when a darker one is so. Therefore, I instead encourage students to pursue a vibrant sound. When the lips are vibrating as freely as possible in the mouthpiece, the sound will be a full and desirable one, regardless of the particular bright or dark coloring one wishes to pursue.

One unhappy side effect of the unquestioned pursuit of a dark sound is the development of what I have begun calling the “Patrick Star Sound,” after the character on the Spongebob Squarepants cartoon. Players seeking a dark sound often will in some way stop using an energetic airstream that engages the lips with vigor, and instead allow the air to lose momentum in the back of the oral cavity or top of the throat. The effect of this when singing is to move from a clear and natural tone to one more like Patrick’s voice on the show. The effect when playing a brass instrument is not unlike this. The tone might be described as very warm, but without focus or vigor, and a certain inconsistency that comes from the air not engaging the embouchure as vigorously as possible. Needless to say, this is not a characteristic sound.

While an affable character, Patrick Star is certainly the buffoon of the Spongebob Squarepants program, and not a character one would wish to emulate in real life. For the brass player, add Patrick’s vocal tone to the list of traits worth *not* emulating.

And in case you have no idea what in the world I’m talking about, perhaps this video will be instructive. I doubt you’ll have to watch the entire thing in order to get the point!

Posted in Alto Trombone, Baritone Horn, Bass Trombone, Embouchure, Euphonium, Music, Patrick Star, Pedagogy, Performing, Playing Fundamentals, Practicing, Spongebob Squarepants, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Tuba

The Singing Trombone

At this time last week I was preparing to perform Canzon “La Hieronyma” by Giovanni Martino Cesare (1590-1667) as a prelude to the Sunday service at College Hill Presbyterian Church. It has been over fifteen years since the last time my wife and I were members of a church that has an organist, so one of the great pleasures for me since we began attending College Hill is getting to explore the trombone and organ repertoire a bit. While the repertoire of original music for this instrumentation is not excessively large, what is there is significant, and most of it is appropriate for use in the worship service, at least in more “traditional” churches with regard to music selection. Playing through some early music is a special treat—the Cesare piece was composed in 1621, and congregants are usually surprised to learn that trombone and organ is most likely the originally intended instrumentation. Apparently the trombone’s long history—going back to at least the mid-fifteenth century—and particularly its historic role in liturgical music is not common knowledge.

Besides expressing surprise at the existence of a trombone solo repertoire, the comments I most often receive in this context have to do with the lyricism of which the trombone is capable. People whose only exposure to the instrument is in athletic bands and perhaps to a lesser extent jazz and other commercial genres are accustomed to trombonists playing loud and articulate passages, or perhaps comical effects, not lyrical, vocal-like lines. Developing a lyrical approach to the trombone is perhaps more difficult than on some other instruments, which explains the unfamiliarity, but people seem to enjoy it once they’ve heard it.

Interestingly, one of the greatest compliments I’ve received regarding my playing in church happened on a day when I was not playing at all. At a Sunday evening service several years ago my wife and I found ourselves seated behind a young family that did not normally sit near us. At the conclusion of the service the gentleman turned around and offered a compliment regarding my singing, saying that my singing reminded him of my trombone playing, which he had by then heard in worship services on a few occasions. I thanked him, but at the same time explained that his understanding of causation in this case was backwards. I do not try to mimic my trombone playing while singing—I try to mimic the voice while playing the trombone!

Why this “singing” approach? First of all, it sounds nice, and you might remember from another post here some time ago that “because it sounds good” is the number one reason for playing in a certain way. But there is a historical reason for that “singing” approach, as well. The trombones of the first three centuries or so after its invention, while functionally similar to modern instruments, were smaller in their bore and bell sizes than current models. These “sackbuts,” so called using this old English term to distinguish instruments of ancient dimensions from those of modern ones, had as one of their primary functions to reinforce the voice parts in choral singing and sometimes other contexts. This traditional way of writing for trombones with voices persisted well into the eighteenth century and beyond. Keeping this in mind, the cultivation of a “singing” approach to trombone playing not only sounds good—it is historically appropriate.

A lyrical approach to trombone playing is not a departure from historical norms. If anything, the various more aggressive or more comical approaches that seem more common today are such a departure. I guess I’ll need to keep playing preludes in church from time to time so that more people will become aware of the majesty and nobility of this great instrument.

Posted in Alto Trombone, Bass Trombone, Choral Music, Church, College Hill Presbyterian Church, Music, Music and Worship, Pedagogy, Performing, Pit Orchestras, Stepping Stones for Bass Trombone, Vol. 1, Teaching Low Brass, Trombone, Tuba

No Place for Truth

Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world–to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate said to him, “What is truth?” After he had said this, he went back outside to the Jews and told them, “I find no guilt in him.
John 18:37-38

“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”
—Daniel Patrick Moynihan (1927-2003)

I’ve been thinking about these two quotes for quite a long time now, so while they might seem particularly relevant in the present cultural and political moment, like most of the things I write here the initial idea for this post came some months ago. I suppose that the pairing seems a bit strange at first, considering together the conversation between Pontius Pilate and the Lord Jesus on the one hand, and those of a Democratic United States senator on the other. But taken together these quotations remind me that while we in our conceit believe that the cultural and political crises of the present day are somehow historically unique, in fact the milieu of the Roman Empire in New Testament times was not altogether different from our own. As Solomon said a millennium before the conversation between Pilate and Christ, “There is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9)

In Pontius Pilate we have a character who is at best a morally weak political leader. At worst he is a petty tyrant. His flippant rhetorical question “What is truth?” suggests that he has little regard for actual reality when the facts on the ground do not serve the ends that he believes to be politically expedient. In the end he delivers the Lord over to torture and death, not because he believes Jesus to be guilty of any crime—he doesn’t—but because he cares only about placating the crowd, maintaining order, and assuring his own place as the facilitator of that little slice of the Pax Romana. For Pilate, “truth” is at best malleable, at worst irrelevant.

Sadly, that same attitude persists among the political and cultural leaders of our own day. Once again, “there is nothing new under the sun.” The most pressing manifestation of this at the present moment is the discussions surrounding the impeachment inquiry against President Donald J. Trump recently initiated in the House of Representatives. As is so often the case in such matters, one side looks at the evidence and concludes that it is damning. The other side examines the same evidence and concludes that it is a “nothing burger,” to quote one senator. Who is right? What really happened? Was a crime committed, and if so by whom? I have no idea, and I’m not sure that anyone in Congress or the executive branch has any idea either.

But what bothers me more is that I’m not sure that anyone in Washington even cares what really happened. They only care about winning. Truth is replaced with spin, and the integrity of our society and its institutions continues to erode.

There was a time in our country when people with widely divergent political and social opinions could enjoy civil conversation and even come to some agreement based on certain common assumptions and understandings. At the very least, everyone agreed that “true” and “false” were objective categories not subject to individual interpretation, so a shared understanding of “the facts” formed the basis for dialogue and even consensus. But in a time when “truth” is no longer considered to be an absolute category but rather a relative one, that broad agreement on basic factual propositions has collapsed, and people on opposing sides of issues find their interlocutors to be not merely mistaken, but unintelligible…or perhaps dangerous. That’s what is so scary about the present moment. It’s not that people have disagreements about government, public policy, societal norms, or the like. It’s the disappearance of a set of common assumptions that allows profitable conversation to even begin.

So how do we get to that place where people can even talk? I don’t know. I’m just a trombone player who thinks about things and sometimes writes little blog posts that ten or twenty or a hundred people might read. But I think Sen. Moynihan’s words are relevant. Diversity of opinion is fine. It’s even good, prompting people to refine, sharpen, and revise their views in the light of new and better ideas. But “diversity of facts” is a problem. It’s a problem because the lack of agreement that some things are so and some things are not-so prevents the formation of a shared understanding that enables civil discussion to take place. More importantly, it’s a problem because “diversity of facts” is a nonsensical term. Some things are so and some things are not-so whether or not you or I or anyone else understands or agrees with this. Truth is absolute, not relative. It’s sad that so few in our day acknowledge this. It’s even sadder that they don’t seem to care.

And then there’s the matter of the One who called himself “the Truth” (John 14:6). The rejection of that Truth is the most tragic of all. But in a time when so many ask with Pilate “What is truth?” it is sadly unsurprising.

Posted in Apologetics, Bible, Christ's Person and Work, Christian Worldview, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Doctrine, Donald Trump, History, News and Commentary, Politics, Pontius Pilate, Practical Christianity, Society, Truth