A Curated Social Media Presence

22e6e223a65a3e58f0b17fd1b726a695_what-is-social-about-social-media-social-media-blog-lau-_1198-500Readers that also follow me on Facebook might remember that I deleted my social media accounts about ten years ago, and avoided social media entirely for over a year. While I enjoyed keeping in touch with friends and colleagues around the country and world and sharing things that I find interesting, I found both the privacy concerns and the potential for time wastage to be so great that I decided to walk away. I returned—reluctantly—largely because I concluded that marketing and recruiting for my university low brass studio demanded a social media presence. Similarly, promoting my blog posts here as well as my published writing and recording projects in the present milieu demands social media engagement. I still struggle to avoid wasting time online, though I share far fewer serious articles than in the past and do not engage in arguments with “anonymous internet people.” Most importantly, I have found a way to at least somewhat mitigate my privacy concerns, which is my topic for today.

Social media users know that the people they “meet” there generally fall into two broad camps: those who post and share almost nothing, and those who post and share frequently. A middle ground hardly exists. Yet upon returning to social media usage in 2011 I was determined to carve out such a middle ground, what I call a “curated” social media presence. Since most of my social media activity is on Facebook, allow me to describe a few principles that I use in managing my presence there.

1. Very little remains on my personal timeline more than seven days. I very much enjoy sharing things that I find humorous with my “friends.” (We all know what that word means on Facebook.) During times of particular social or political unrest such as the present COVID-19 pandemic and associated quarantines, I tend to think that intelligent humor both breaks up the intensity of the moment while occasionally providing insightful commentary. At the same time, I do not think that the internet needs a publicly accessible permanent record of the things that I find funny, so I delete these items from my timeline after the “likes” stop. While I largely refrain these days from posting very much serious material beyond my own writings, I also delete such posts after just a few days, and for similar reasons.

2. Family/child pictures especially do not remain up for very long. My departure from social media was motivated in part for the desire for privacy for my then-infant son, who we had recently adopted. His privacy remains a primary concern of mine, but one that I balance against the legitimate desires of family and (actual) friends to keep up with the goings on in his life. Being especially diligent to remove posts about him not very long after posting lessens the possibility of embarrassing baby pictures showing up on the internet as he gets older. Additionally, we have a hidden Facebook group for family members where we share pictures and other updates that for whatever reason need to remain more private.

3. Professional activities are relegated primarily to separate pages. I maintain separate Facebook pages for both my low brass studio activities at Ole Miss, and even for this blog, which occupies an interesting sphere where my personal and professional interests intersect. Posts on those pages are limited to those relevant to those activities, are publicly accessible (in the case of the studio page, largely for marketing and outreach purposes), and remain up indefinitely. I sometimes share these posts to my personal timeline to generate additional attention, but later delete them following the broad guidelines above.

4. I try to avoid highly controversial postings, as well as arguing with “anonymous internet people.” Some of you might remember that a number of years ago I made a habit of sharing many serious articles that I found interesting, and engaging in greater or lesser amounts of discussion about them. Besides these posts undoubtedly leading to a lot of “unfollows,” there is usually little edification to be found in online arguments, so I now prefer to use my time otherwise. Contrary to the expectations of many in polite society, I actually enjoy serious discussions of politics and religion, but in person, and in a civil manner. I go to Facebook to look at memes.

5. My privacy settings for most posts are “friends only,” and I avoid platforms that do not allow that control. I am beginning to realize that some of the most interesting social media discussions are actually on Twitter these days, but I don’t find its free-for-all nature to suit me, nor do I think I can express myself in 140 characters. The ability to make the vast majority of my Facebook posts visible to “friends” only is greatly appealing to me. I am beginning to make use of my LinkedIn account a bit more, where there is some possibility of control similar to Facebook, and with a more professional ethos generally. I have an Instagram account, but have never posted anything on it and have only logged in once or twice to look at posts from others.


I suppose that’s a lot of words to say that “I delete most of my posts after a week or so.” Still, I think this can be an effective approach to balancing the desire for connection with others with concerns for privacy. I am not naïve about this—I am quite sure that even the posts that I delete are saved indefinitely somewhere in the bowels of Facebook, but that is different than having a complete, publicly accessible archive of my pictures, jokes, and comments. Mine is not a perfect system for navigating these sometimes opposing desires, but I am pleased with it thus far. If you are interested in trying it but are afraid that deleting old posts will take a long time, I have little reassurance for you—it does take a long time, but only initially. Once the initial “curating” work is done all it takes is removing a post or two every day or so.

Posted in Digital Revolution, Online Resources, Parenting, Privacy, Social Media, Society, Technology

Downhill Bible Reading

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPerhaps I’ve grabbed your attention with the weird title, but I should clarify that I’m not writing today to introduce you to some extreme sport that somehow combines rapid descending speeds with reading large books. The title is apt, but for reasons that will become clear over the course of this article. This is something of a follow-up to a piece I wrote last month called Tolle Lege!—or, “Pick Up and Read.”

I remember my first (failed) attempt to read the scriptures all the way through. I was fourteen, and eager to somehow prove to myself and others that I really was committed to knowing and understanding the Word of God. Perhaps that was not the greatest motivation, and like so many attempts to read the Bible it foundered before I even finished the Pentateuch, or the first five books. I actually soldiered on through Leviticus but finally could not make it through the seemingly endless worship regulations and, well, numbers in the book of Numbers. (It’s not just a clever name.) Maybe you have a similar story. Had I made it a little further I would have discovered that the narrative becomes considerably more interesting in the later chapters of Numbers, but it would be a few years later before that happened. I finally made it through the entire Bible at some point in college, and have held to a yearly reading plan since my mid-twenties. For a number of years I have also kept recordings of the Bible being read in my car, and listening to that—sometimes frequently, sometimes less so—has been a great supplement to the reading plan, but not a replacement for it.

For the past couple of years I have managed not only to read the Bible through but to get somewhat ahead of schedule in my reading calendar, finishing well before the end of the year. This year I am even further ahead—I am writing this on April 5, yet I am somewhere in mid-June in the daily readings. It seems to be getting easier and easier for me to get ahead. Why is that, and is there a message that can be helpful to others in it?

Part of the answer no doubt lies in the present state of quarantine and social distancing relative to the COVID-19 pandemic. While I am keeping to most of my normal teaching schedule (albeit through correspondence and videoconferencing), I have no performing to do, I cannot go to the gym, and I am rarely out of the house generally. There is additional time to read. But I was ahead of schedule even before the stay-at-home orders came. Another partial answer might be that in the past 2-3 years I have taken to doing my regular Bible reading on an e-reader. That might sound sacrilegious to some, and I will admit that it lacks the gravitas of a leather-bound Bible, but I often have the e-reader with me so I can take in a few chapters away from home, or even at night with the lights out thanks to the backlight.

Those two contributing factors aside, though, I think the biggest contributor to the greater ease and speed with which I am reading the Bible is this: I am familiar with it. In that post a few weeks back I mentioned doubts about the Bible’s veracity or self-consistency as well of fear of conviction of sin as possible reasons why people—even professing Christians—do not read it. But perhaps the reason for some is that they find it simply daunting. The narrative structure is a little strange. It moves through multiple (human) authors and genres with an overall forward-moving chronology but numerous small moves forward and backward in time, especially when multiple authors visit the same events. The names and lives of the people and places can seem utterly unfamiliar. And it’s a big book, especially for a society in which fewer and fewer people read books at all.

So what is my answer to this? An exhortation and an assurance. The exhortation? Tolle lege. Pick up and read. The blessing is worth it. The assurance? Not only is it a blessing, but it also gets easier with each year, each successive reading. It really is “all downhill from here.” With repeated readings the narrative structure becomes more familiar, even second nature. The names of people and places might still be scary if you are asked to read them aloud, but they at least will not surprise you in print anymore. (Protip: listen to a recording of the Bible being read and copy the pronunciations. There is some variety between readers, but not much.) With each reading the lives, feelings, trials, temptations, successes, and failures of the people you meet in the pages of Scripture seem less foreign. Take away the façade of modern technology and the surface-level peculiarities of our time and place, and the people described in the Bible really are just like us, for good and for ill. Most importantly, and with the Spirit’s help, as growing familiarity allows you to use less mental effort just to keep up you are able to focus more on how a given passage applies to you, whether for warning or encouragement, conviction or assurance.

The old adage asks the question “How do you eat an elephant?” with the predictable answer “One bite at a time.” Reading through the Bible might seem to you like it might as well be eating an elephant. It did to me. But every year that elephant seems to get smaller. That does not mean that the scriptures become somehow less convicting—familiarity, happily, does not breed contempt. It just means that as the broad contours of the thing become more and more imprinted on my mind, as characters and places and events become less strange and their appearances even expected, I don’t have to work very hard to keep up with the gist of what is happening. This accelerates the reading process while simultaneously making it a more spiritually profitable exercise. I’m sure your experience will be similar.

Start reading. It is all downhill from here!


One additional note: I am here speaking of regular daily/yearly Bible reading as an exercise which builds a basic familiarity with the contents of Scripture and the truths contained in it. I do think that can become faster and easier over time. I am not suggesting that there is no place for deeper study and meditation on particular passages, processes that necessarily move slowly. Those are also valuable, but to my mind separate exercises from the practice of regularly reading through the scriptures in their entirety.

 

 

 

Posted in Assurance, Bible, Christian Formation, Practical Christianity, Reading and Study, Theology

“Gadgets and Gizmos:” Microphones, Mixing Boards, and Audio Interfaces…Oh, My!

I had planned to address a topic like this anyway, but a couple of weeks earlier. Events surrounding the COVID-19 virus had the contradictory effects of both making this topic very timely, but also delaying my having time to write about it as I retooled for teaching entirely online for the remainder of the semester. Happily, I had this equipment on hand so that I was able to setup my home office for effective teaching, though had all of this happened just a year or so ago I would not have been so prepared.

As a teenager I was at least a bit of a gearhead when it came to home stereo systems. My first one was my dad’s old stereo with a CD player sort of spliced into it in a way that might not have been completely safe, but it worked. It was fun learning how to do that, anyway. A little later I got a proper audio/video receiver and some pretty good speakers, which I kept until a few years into married life when my wife decided she wasn’t interested in having our living room clogged with so much audio equipment. By that time the best equipment had gotten considerably smaller anyway, and I also decided that I didn’t want premium sound as much as I wanted more money in my pocket, so for over a decade I left premium audio behind except for always keeping a pretty good set of studio monitors for my home computer and some decent headphones. All that time I never got into purchasing recording equipment very much, believing that to be prohibitively expensive.

Fast-forward 10-12 years, and on all the message boards and at all the conferences for low brass players I increasingly noticed that quality audio and video recording, mixing, and production was becoming a fairly standard expectation in the profession, even for people like me that play entirely acoustic instruments. I decided that I needed to learn how to do a little better than plugging some mics into a handheld recorder linked to a camcorder, and that I needed to be able to do at least some basic recording and mixing using both computers and mobile devices. After a few months of experimentation (and not a little bit of buying and returning things to Amazon), I have arrived at setups that work for me.

The explanations that follow are simply “things that I have that work for what I do.” Others might have different or better setups, or similar equipment from different manufacturers, etc. I have little expertise in all of this, but am happy to share what I’ve discovered.

Audio Interfaces

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The audio interface is how one gets microphones (powered or unpowered), instruments like guitars, as well as one or more auxiliary inputs to interface with a computer. As an added bonus, these can function as external sound cards, usually providing superior audio quality to what one usually finds installed on laptop or desktop computers. I have two of these, one at home and one at work, both from Tascam. The US 1×2 is smaller and simpler. It has front inputs for a single microphone as well as an instrument (guitar, etc.), as well as a rear auxiliary input (I use these to play from my phone into the monitors or headphones). The output is into two audio channels. The US 4×4 is more complex, with front inputs for four microphones and/or instruments, MIDI in/out in the rear, and output into as many as four audio channels.

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Either of these units works well for having a quality microphone to use when teaching music lessons via Zoom, Google Meet, etc.—which seems to be the most common application for this sort of thing at the moment. Having good sound makes a HUGE difference in the online lesson experience. The 4×4 in particular can be used for recording from multiple sources into four distinct channels in digital audio workstation (DAW) software such as Adobe Audition (my preference), Avid Pro Tools, etc. I’ll admit to not having explored this very much as yet, but maybe I will have time to do so in the coming weeks.

Mixing Boards

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One thing I learned from months of frustrating experimentation with the above audio interfaces is that however useful they are with computers, they do not work nearly as well with smaller devices like tablets and smartphones. While desktop and laptop computers have both hardware and software capabilities to manage the audio input from multiple channels, iOS and Android devices lack these capabilities. Depending on the app being used, these devices will often only take the audio from one or maybe two inputs, and sometimes separate them into left and right channels in annoying and undesirable ways. What these devices need is something that takes care of managing and, well, mixing the audio signals from various inputs on the hardware side before sending those signals to the device in a simple L/R mix that they can understand.

802

To that end, I purchased a pair of very inexpensive, entry-level Behringer USB mixers, the Xenyx Q1202USB and Q802USB. (Once again, one of these stays at home, and the other at the office.) These units will take the information from as many as twelve or eight inputs, respectively, mix it all into two channels (left and right) in whatever mix you indicate, along with some basic EQ capabilities, and then to the phone or tablet via the USB output (with Lightning or USB-C adapter as needed). This has allowed me, with the same microphones I use with the audio interfaces, to record quality audio on my small devices, and even on my students’ phones when I need for whatever reason to record portions of their lessons for future reference. These mixers work equally well with audio and video recording apps, including the popular multitrack video recording app Acapella, which I have used off and on over the past year or so to record a number of enjoyable ensemble tracks. More on that later.

Incidentally, while I have primarily used the mixers with mobile devices, they also work just fine with computers and DAW software, but without quite so much control of the outputs on the software end.

Microphones

I have learned in my limited experience with recording equipment that great microphones can be extremely expensive. I am very well aware that the ones I own are far from top-shelf items, but they work well without being outrageously expensive.

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My “daily driver” at home, both for teaching via Zoom and for recording of just myself, is the Audio Technica AT2020. It’s a fairly basic condenser microphone that yields a reasonably good sound for not terribly great expense. (This is the mic used for all of my multitrack videos, if that provides a helpful reference at all.) It is also available in a USB version that can interface directly with a computer with no separate audio interface necessary, but I have no direct experience with this one.

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At work I have used a pair of RØDE NT5 small diaphragm condenser mics for the past eight years, initially just as external mics for a Zoom H4n handheld recorder before I moved to my current equipment. These are good for capturing quality sounds in lessons and even larger ensemble rehearsals and performances. They are pricier yet still far from top-of-the-line, but deliver quality sound for a variety of situations.

sm58

We do have one other mic at the house, usually used as a vocal mic, the Shure SM58. Once again, a very basic mic but one which is considered a standard, good quality mic for what it does.

For capturing brass sound many would say that the gold standard is a ribbon mic. That was the primary type used on my 2015 solo album, and I have long considered getting one for myself. I am reticent because while these mics sound great, they are also fragile. Maybe one day I’ll take the plunge.

Speakers and Headphones

krk

In both of these areas I know that there is far better (and far more expensive) equipment out there, but these serve my present needs reasonably well. The studio monitors in my home office are a pair of KRK Rokit 5 units. These were always “okay” with just my computer. When I added the audio interfaces their sound became much better.

two headsets

I have two headsets. My favorite is the Sennheiser HD 518. The sound here is pretty good, maybe not quite as good as their more expensive cousins like the HD 600, but still good. The one problem with big over-ear headphones like this is that it is hard to play the trombone while wearing them! For that purpose I have Beyerdynamic DT 252. This unit brings both the left and right channels into a single earpiece, so I can monitor with this unit on my right ear while leaving my left ear free—and my trombones not running into headphones. I’m not as pleased with the sound from this one, so I may try to find a better unit with the same configuration at some point.


That’s about it. The real audiophiles among my readers will probably find this equipment to be basic and maybe even not-so-great, but it works for my present needs. I hope more entry-level readers (or those wanting to get into more recording, improve online teaching, etc.) will find this discussion helpful.

I’ll leave you with a little project I’ve been working on during this period of quarantine, which I’ve dubbed “CoronaTunes.” As I’m writing now I have posted seven entries to this playlist with as few as two and as many as twelve parts; I hope to add more in the coming weeks. All of these are recorded on an iPad Pro using the Acapella app, with the AT 2020 mic mentioned above and one of the Behringer mixers. Most of them do have a bit of additional audio and video editing on my PC using Adobe Audition and Adobe Premiere, respectively.

Posted in "Gadgets and Gizmos", Acapella App by Mixcord, Alto Trombone, Audio Interfaces, Baritone Horn, Bass Trombone, Distance Education, Education, Euphonium, Instructional Technology, iPad, Microphones, Mixing Boards, Multitrack Recordings, Music, Music Education, Pedagogy, Performance Videos, Recording Technology, Recordings, Smartphones, Tablet Computers, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Tuba, Videoconferencing, Zoom

Book Suggestion: Healing Back Pain

Lots of folks that know me—and even some that “know” me only through reading my writings here and elsewhere—know that I have suffered from chronic back and neck pain for over ten years. It began with problems with my neck and jaw in 2007 (but, in retrospect, intermittently even before that), and worsened considerably—including spreading to my low back—after a car accident in 2008. Despite trips to numerous doctors, physical therapists, and chiropractors, I found limited relief, and not even clear diagnoses—some minor disc problems and excessive curvature in my thoracic and lumbar spine, but nothing that clearly explained all of my symptoms. I came to the unhappy conclusion that I was irrevocably “broken,” and resigned myself to a life of more limited personal and professional achievement than that to which I had once aspired. Perhaps worst of all, because I was somewhat depressed (and thus prone to overeating) and afraid of vigorous exercise (because I thought I would injure myself) I regained most of the nearly 80 pounds I had lost in my early twenties, and was moving into middle age with the beginnings of predictable health problems resulting from that weight gain.

Surprisingly, the onset of physical pain did have some positive benefits for my work as a musician and teacher. I began to pay closer attention to the way that I use my body when performing (and doing other activities), and studied ways of using the body more correctly and more efficiently. Because using my body incorrectly caused pain, I became a better player and conductor, even though I didn’t always feel as good as I had before. My teaching improved because I took extra care to steer students toward improved and more efficient approaches to their instruments. To the extent that these changes have led to lasting improvements in my work, I am thankful for the physical ailments that led me to make them. Still, I was unsatisfied with the quality of my life and work, and thus always looking for better answers to the issues I was experiencing.

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In 2017, for reasons I do not even begin to recall now, I stumbled across the work of Dr. John Sarno (1923-2017), Professor of Rehabilitation Medicine at New York University. I mentioned his work in a post a few months ago and would like to elaborate just a bit more here. In works such as Healing Back Pain: The Mind-Body Connection, Sarno suggests that most chronic pain is not due to structural causes at all, but is rather an outworking of stress, tension, or even repressed emotions. Thinking back to the early days of my experience with chronic pain, one of the doctors I visited said that my symptoms sounded to him more like the result of stress at work than a real physical problem. I recall being, ironically, very angry at the suggestion, because I believed myself to not be one of “those people” that is overcome by stress to the point of experiencing physical symptoms. Still, we have no problem with attributing minor issues such as headaches, excessive perspiration, elevated heart rate, or even mild bowel or bladder disturbances to stress. It just might make sense that such negative feelings could have other, more serious physical manifestations, especially if those feelings are intense and even buried under a façade of calm (like I preferred to present, and still do). After several years of very limited success managing my symptoms, I was more receptive to the idea of a psychosomatic element in at least some of them, and began to devour books by Sarno and others who followed his model. For the first time in a long time, I saw improvement in my symptoms and overall well-being. Most importantly, I felt well enough to begin an exercise program for the first time in years, and lost all of the weight I had regained, plus another 15 pounds.

I am not suggesting that finding Sarno’s work has been a panacea. While the structural problems with my spine are mild, they really are there. The excessive curvature of my thoracic spine produces a chronically forward head posture, leaving me a bit prone to cervical headaches, TMJ problems, and such. These and other issues might still flare up at particularly stressful moments, but I have learned to not be alarmed at this, and to even anticipate flare-ups at particular times. I’ll also not recommend Sarno without a caveat or two. He is too enamored with the work of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), and tends to blame too much on negative childhood experiences rather than present stressors. He is often overconfident, demanding an all-or-nothing approach to his theories regarding the causes of chronic pain. More recent authors that have developed these ideas further have taken a more balanced approach between physical and psychological causes. Nevertheless, since Sarno was the one who basically “started it all,” I would begin there.

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A couple of additional suggestions before I close for today. The last book by John Sarno is entitled The Divided Mind, and is a collaborative effort between Sarno and several other practitioners in relevant fields, which already begins to remedy some of the excesses of Sarno’s earlier work. I am in the process now of reading a new book entitled Psychophysiologic Disorders: Trauma Informed, Interprofessional Diagnosis and Treatment by David Clarke, Howard Schubiner, Mags Clark-Smith, and Allan Abbass. Not only does this text present the very latest research and observations in this field, but it is heavily footnoted, making it a useful resource for finding further information.

If you find yourself having issues with chronic pain, as I did, by all means seek the best medical care, diagnostic imaging, physical therapy, etc. But if nothing is working and your doctors seem flummoxed, you might at least consider that your symptoms are, at least in part, a stress response of some kind rather than a purely physical phenomenon. Like I said, I was initially insulted at the suggestion, but once I accepted it I found myself on the road to a greatly improved quality of life. 100% resolution of symptoms? No—again, there really are some structural problems that really are there—but I no longer feel debilitated or hopeless, and the resumption of an exercise program has made me the most physically fit I have ever been at age 40. This is, psychologically and physically, a much better place to be.

Posted in Books, Ergonomics, Howard Schubiner, John Sarno, Pain, Physical Fitness, Teaching Low Brass

Tolle Lege!

Giving Gideon New TestamentThis morning I had the opportunity, as I do several times per year, to speak to a congregation on behalf of The Gideons International. You are probably familiar with the Gideons even if you don’t realize it; we’re the folks that place Bibles in hotels and hospitals, or give New Testaments to students, emergency personnel, and soldiers. One reason I have supported this ministry for as long as I can remember is that it has always retained a simple mission centered largely around scripture distribution. Funds raised in churches and through other donations from non-members are devoted entirely to purchasing Bibles; members of the association cover all of the overhead through annual dues. I generally abhor having to ask people for money, but honestly asking folks for money to buy Bibles, knowing that all of it really will be used for that purpose, is easy.

Ravi Zacharias (b. 1946)

Gideon presentations in churches include the sharing of statistics such as the number of scriptures placed in the previous year (73.5 million) and since the association’s inception (2.35 billion), as well as the number of countries, territories and possessions in which we operate (200) and the number of languages in which we distribute scriptures (108). But the bulk of speaking time is devoted to sharing stories of people who have come to faith in Jesus Christ after reading a Gideon-placed scripture. Most of these are just ordinary folks who received a New Testament at school or found a Bible in a hotel room at a particularly dark moment, but occasionally we encounter more high-profile examples, such as the conversion story of internationally-known apologist and author Ravi Zacharias (b. 1946), who was converted through reading a Gideon Bible in a hospital room after a failed suicide attempt as a teenager. All of these stories are miraculous in their way; the saving of souls is the special work of the Spirit of God, and these Gideon Bibles are in the end just “seeds” being scattered. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. (1 Corinthians 3:6)

God clearly uses the reading of scripture to work faith in our hearts, yet amazingly even those who claim to love the Bible and believe it to be the Word of God rarely read it and know little of what it says. According to a recent Lifeway study, people in general tend to revere or respect the Bible, but fewer than half of Americans have read the scriptures to any significant degree. Even professing Christians are incredibly inconsistent in this regard, with only 49% of professing evangelicals self-reporting as being likely to read the Bible each day, according to this same study. There is a remarkable inconsistency in claiming to believe a book to be revealed by God, yet not bothering to find out what it says.

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So what are you waiting for? Don’t have a Bible? I’m sure you can find one. Send me an email and I’ll send you one. Or visit Bible Gateway or any number of free online Bible resources. Even the Gideons have an Bible-reading app! It is easier to read the Word of God today than ever.

Perhaps you ignore the Bible thinking that you will find contradictions or logical errors and such. Interestingly, most people who claim the scriptures to be “full of contradictions” can’t name one. While there are a few difficulties in the text, there are no unanswerable ones, and the Bible’s internal consistency is impossible to ignore. In the end, the message is simple: God made us, we sinned against God, and God sent his Son to redeem fallen, sinful people for himself. That message might sound absurd or offensive, but it is not inconsistent or contradictory.

Or maybe you are afraid that the scriptures will somehow convict you of your own shortcomings. I can guarantee that they will. For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12) Thankfully, while the Bible lays bare our shortcomings it also offers forgiveness through Christ for all that believe. Its central message is one of hope, not condemnation.

Speaking of famous individuals who were converted through reading scripture, few are more noteworthy than Augustine of Hippo (354-430), who in his Confessions wrote of his own remarkable conversion through reading God’s Word:

As I was saying this and weeping in the bitter agony of my heart, suddenly I heard a voice from the nearby house chanting as if it might be a boy or a girl (I do not know which), saying and repeating over and over again “Pick up and read, pick up and read.” At once my countenance changed, and I began to think intently whether there might be some sort of children’s game in which such a chant is used. But I could not remember having heard of one. I checked the flood of tears and stood up. I interpreted it solely as a divine command to me to open the book and read the first chapter I might find…. So I hurried back to the place where Alypius was sitting. There I had put down the book of the apostle when I got up. I seized it, opened it and in silence read the first passage on which my eyes lit: “Not in riots and drunken parties, not in eroticism and indecencies, not in strife and rivalry, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh in its lusts.” (Romans 13:13-14)

I neither wished nor needed to read further. At once, with the last words of this sentence, it was as if a light of relief from all anxiety flooded into my heart. All the shadows of doubt were dispelled. (152-153)

There we read the greatest theologian of the early church describing his own conversion from worldliness and unbelief to saving faith in Christ after obeying the unexpected call of “Pick up and read.” Or, in the original Latin, tolle lege. I have read the entire Bible through each year for at least fifteen years. It has never become dull or tiresome, its unity of message and purpose becomes ever more apparent, and its presentation of who God is and who we are seems even truer each time. Start reading today. It will challenge you but ultimately it will be a blessing to you. Tolle Lege!

 

Posted in Augustine of Hippo, Bible, Christian Formation, Evangelism, Practical Christianity, Salvation, The Gideons International, Truth

You Don’t Always Need a Big Breath

The title of this article probably sounds downright heretical to most low brass players, but I am increasingly convinced that this is a neglected concept in both our playing and our instruction. Now let me say at the outset that I believe it is important for low brass players be able to move massive quantities of air. Tubists and bass trombonists in particular are called upon to rapidly move liter upon liter of air through the embouchure and instrument, particularly in loud passages in the low register. I think all of our daily fundamentals practice ought to include breathing exercises of some kind, and aerobic exercise further helps to improve the efficiency of the exchange of gases. The low brass player needs to be able to inhale a great deal of air quickly, and then expel it quickly and efficiently.

But not all the time. Not every phrase is long enough, or low enough, or loud enough, to require that every inhalation be a full-capacity affair. I was reminded of this last month when preparing for the “Insanity Brass Duo” concerts with Michael Wilkinson (I shared the videos here a couple of weeks ago). The opening piece, my setting for alto trombones of one of Georg Philipp Telemann’s (1681-1767) canonic sonatas for flutes or violins, is on the smallest instrument I play, in the highest register that I play. We’ve presented this program three times over the past year, and every time I find myself struggling on the alto trombone in the practice room until I realize that taking in too much air creates a certain tension that compromises tone, flexibility, and comfort. Eventually a double-breath of some kind is necessary, as stale air must be expelled from the lungs before inhaling again. Taking in smaller, but still sufficient breaths allows for an efficient exchange of gases, freedom in tone production, and a more relaxed and beautiful sound.

What this realization necessitates is a slight adjustment in the philosophy of breathing. While it is important to be able to take in a huge breath when necessary, the operative paradigm while playing ought not to be “every breath must be huge,” but rather “every breath must be sufficient.” Take in enough air for the instrument, register, and length of phrase being played. If that’s a full-capacity breath, fine, but often it will not be so. Strive for an even exchange of gases, executed at the most musically conducive moments in the piece. The result will be greater comfort, greater efficiency, and better sound and flexibility.

Posted in Alto Trombone, Baritone Horn, Bass Trombone, Breathing, Contrabass Trombone, Daily Routine, Euphonium, Music, Pedagogy, Performing, Practicing, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Tuba

The Trombone Is a Musical Instrument

It almost always happens when I play a solo or chamber piece in a church service. Someone will approach me after the service, or later in the week, or even via email and say something to the effect of “Your playing is just so lyrical. I didn’t know the trombone could do that.” (Or euphonium, or tuba. The same applies to all of the low brass instruments, except that people generally don’t know what the euphonium is or what it is called.)

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Although I enjoy the praise (who doesn’t?), I’m opening with this little anecdote not to brag but to establish context. The general public does not expect low brass instruments to be played with lyricism, or finesse, or taste. For a century and more popular culture has tended to use low brass instruments to portray buffoonish or clumsy characters (think: in Looney Toons scores), and when the instruments appear on screen the depiction is not much better. Dan Aykroyd as a tuba-playing dad in My Girl is sort of sweet, but awkward, and Jason Biggs’s trombone-playing “Petey” on American Pie 2 is offensive on many levels, not unlike the movie as a whole. None of this helps to establish the low brass player as a serious musician in the popular consciousness.

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While factors like these explain why the general public does not expect musicality from low brass players, it does not explain why so many of us fail to achieve a beautiful, flowing, lyrical sound. In previous generations the average player in school or amateur bands might have claimed to never heard low brass playing of greater musical quality, but the easy availability of recordings online today effectively nullifies this excuse. Instead, I think the blame lies in two factors: the difficulty of playing lyrically on our instruments, and a failure of low brass players to correctly conceptualize the process of playing.

One of the main reasons that so few low brass players achieve a truly flowing lyricism is simple: it’s hard to do! The movies, cartoons, and such that portray trombones and tubas and their players as clumsy and buffoonish are right in that it is difficult to play these instruments otherwise. The coordination needed to achieve not only musical but clean playing on the trombone is tremendous, requiring, in my opinion, a program of daily exercises and calisthenics in order to develop and maintain the requisite strength and coordination. Coordination for the tubist is somewhat easier in one respect, but the large mouthpiece and tremendous airflow requirements bring their own difficulties, requiring daily fundamentals practice similar to the trombone. Comparably, the euphonium is easier to play musically, but players still have to know that this is possible and have equipment (particularly mouthpieces) that facilitate this, along with, again, daily fundamentals practice. In short, low brass players fail to achieve lyrical playing because, ironically, it takes a lot of effort in the practice room to deliver such flow and effortlessness on stage.

While playing lyrically on low brass instruments is difficult, in my experience so many players fail to achieve it not because of lack of effort but because of misplaced effort. To put it briefly, these players approach trombone (or tuba, or euphonium) playing not as a musical activity, but as a technical challenge to be overcome. The implicit thought (rarely does the player state this explicitly, or even realize it) is that if all of the technical “boxes” are checked and all of the right things are done, “music” will emerge. This never works. The sheer complexity of playing these instruments necessitates a plethora of coordinated actions that exceeds the ability of any human being to think about consciously. And besides, there is simply no way that “musicality” will emerge from a focus on “technicality.” If you want a musical sound, you’ll have to conceptualize that sound, and keep that goal before your eyes at all times.

So what is to be done? Simple. First, know that lyricism, musicality, finesse, and taste are possible on our instruments, and what these sound like. This goal must be kept in mind at all times. Secondly, one must undertake the fundamentals practice needed to develop the strength and coordination to achieve this goal. A correct concept is no substitute for practice! Finally, trust that the daily fundamentals regimen is sufficient to develop and maintain a certain “automatic-ness” about the physical process of playing. This frees the conscious mind to focus on musical goals rather than floundering about in a fruitless quest to achieve “music” by focusing on technique.

Arnold Jacobs (1915-1998)

And if you think this won’t work, just consider how athletes train. In the past couple of years I’ve lost 75 pounds by swimming several days per week. While I’ve given some thought to the technique of my stroke, for the most part I’ve developed efficiency and stamina by simply moving from one wall to another, lap after lap, day after day, week after week. I certainly don’t try to think about the minute muscular movements of my arms and legs—that would be paralyzing. Those training for marathons don’t think very much about their legs—they simply run increasing distances each day in order to develop the requisite strength and stamina for the task. As Arnold Jacobs (1915-1998) famously said, “Only in music do I find people worrying about using their bodies right. Go to the products, get the results. Don’t worry about the body just make sure it sounds better than anybody else, that is the big factor.”

That’s the ticket, friends. “Go to the products, get the results.” The trombone is a musical instrument.

Posted in Alto Trombone, Arnold Jacobs, Baritone Horn, Bass Trombone, Contrabass Trombone, Euphonium, Music, Pedagogy, Playing Fundamentals, Popular Culture, Practicing, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Tuba