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.)


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.


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

“Insanity Brass Duo” 2020 Performance Recordings

Insanity Duo RecitalIn February 2019 University of South Carolina trombone professor Dr. Michael Wilkinson and I realized a long discussed plan to present a recital in which the two of us perform on a variety of low brass instruments. That first performance in Columbia was very successful, and we immediately began making plans to continue the collaboration this year. Over the course of our discussions, we began to—jokingly, at first—use the name “Insanity Brass Duo” to describe the program. It seems apt, since in the current iteration we are each playing seven different instruments over the course of an hour.

Insanity Duo MasterclassOur first performance was funded through the Southeastern Conference Faculty Travel Program, and we applied for and received funding for this year’s efforts through them, as well. This year we performed on Tuesday, January 21, at the University of Mississippi, and on Thursday, January 23, at the University of Alabama. Both programs were preceded by lectures on the day before. Dr. Wilkinson spoke to my students at Ole Miss about improvisation on Monday, January 20, and we spoke together about doubling to Dr. Jonathan Whitaker’s students at the University of Alabama on Wednesday, January 22. It was a very successful week, and I am happy to share the performance videos from the week here.

Sadly, these recordings are not without problems. There were difficulties in the booth during the first performance, so the audio quality of the recordings from the University of Mississippi is not what it should be. The video quality from the University of Alabama could also be better. I wish it were possible to take the sound from one and the picture from the other! Still, I am happy to share these performances here, and hope that you enjoy them despite these difficulties.

Canonic Sonata No. 3 (Telemann/Everett)
Everett—alto trombone
Wilkinson—alto trombone

Sonata No. 3 in A minor (Marcello)
Everett—tenor trombone
Wilkinson—bass trombone

Preludes 10, 15, 16, 24 (Shostakovich/Yeo)
Everett—tenor trombone (10, 15); bass trombone (16, 24)
Wilkinson—bass trombone (10, 15); tenor trombone (16, 24)

Slide and the Family Bone (Davis)
Everett—bass trombone
Wilkinson—tenor trombone

Trombone Institute of Technology (Davis)
Everett—tenor trombone
Wilkinson—bass trombone

Lokk from the Green Island (Aagaard-Nilsen)

Duo Divertimento No. 2 (Deddos)
Everett—baritone horn

Duba Dance (Verhelst)

The Walrus Ordered Waffles (Pederson)
Everett—bass trombone
Wilkinson—contrabass trombone

Don’t Be Absurd (Wilkinson)
Wilkinson—contrabass trombone
Ricky Burkhead—drums (Ole Miss performance only)

<i>The Low Brass Player's Guide to Doubling</i> by Micah Everett

To conclude with a bit of shameless commerce, let me remind everyone that my book The Low Brass Player’s Guide to Doubling is still available from Mountain Peak Music. There you will find a thorough and systematic approach to performing on multiple low brass instruments. Not only have I approached doubling in this way for years, but I actually added the tuba double after writing the book, following the methodology presented there. It works!

Posted in Alto Trombone, Baritone Horn, Bass Trombone, Benedetto Marcello, Cimbasso, Contrabass Trombone, Dmitri Shostakovich, Doubling, Euphonium, Fernando Deddos, Georg Philipp Telemann, Insanity Brass Duo, Micah Everett, Michael Davis, Michael Wilkinson, Music, Performance Videos, Performances, Performing, Steven Verhelst, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, The Low Brass Player's Guide to Doubling, Tommy Pederson, Torstein Aagaard-Nilsen, Trombone, Tuba, University of Alabama, University of Mississippi, University of South Carolina

The Importance of Liturgy

Despite being a lifelong churchgoer, I was a young adult the first time I heard the word “liturgy.” Such “high church” concepts and terminology were eschewed in the Southern Baptist context in which I was raised, thus my first exposure to such terms and practices came when I began to be hired as an occasional extra musician in a variety of churches, including mainline churches with more formal services (and more liberal theology, but I digress). In time, I learned that “liturgy” is simply a word for “order of service” or “how we do worship.” It’s not really a “fancy” term; in fact, as a single word it’s more economical than those other expressions. Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate not only the term but the importance of liturgy for spiritual formation.

But I didn’t get there immediately. The Reformed tradition, whose understanding of scripture I embraced as a young adult, places the highest priority upon the Word of God, particularly the Word of God preached. Thus my primary concern when, for example, choosing a church to attend, was the quality and content of the preaching. Liturgy was important, but far less so. While I still believe preaching to be of central importance in the worship service, the content and structure of the rest of the service must not be neglected. In some ways, they might even be more formative than the preaching.


In recent years I’ve become somewhat familiar with the work of James K.A. Smith (b. 1970), a professor of philosophy at Calvin College. While Smith is a Reformed thinker, his writing sometimes goes against the Reformed tendency to think of spiritual formation as an entirely intellectual exercise. In his book You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit he writes

It is crucial for us to recognize that our ultimate loves, longings, desires, and cravings are learned. And because love is a habit, our hearts are calibrated through imitating exemplars and being immersed in practices that, over time, index our hearts to a certain end. We learn to love, then, not primarily by acquiring information about what we should love but rather through practices that form the habits of how we love. (20)

While it would be a misreading of Smith to say that he totally discounts the importance of information, he clearly—and rightly, I think—believes that information alone, without accompanying and reinforcing habits and practices, ultimately does not form us. In this and other works he uses what he calls “cultural liturgies” as examples; a favorite of mine is the “liturgy of the shopping mall,” where through practice and repetition people learn and become habituated to the practices and mores of commerce. People learn how to behave at the mall not by receiving verbal or written instructions, but by observation, emulation, and repetition.

If observation, emulation, repetition, and thus habituation are how our loves are formed and directed, it makes sense that our religious practices should make use of this trait of human nature. Yet in so much of evangelicalism the trend in worship practices—in liturgy—is to prize innovation, not repetition. There must be new songs, new décor, new lighting, new dress, new preaching, even new elements in the worship service, all in an apparent attempt to draw crowds with the allure of the new. If Smith is right, the problem with this is obvious: these churches are robbing their congregants of the formative power of habit by never allowing there to be a necessary sameness in worship. Even if the preaching in such churches is of the highest doctrinal and oratorical quality, the liturgical instability creates a problem for spiritual growth and formation.

So what do we do with this understanding? At the very least, we should take steps to craft worship services that are marked by repetition and habituation, not innovation. I am so thankful that at the church we attend the services are basically the same every week. There will be a call to worship, hymn, prayer, the Apostles’ Creed, corporate confession of sin and assurance of pardon, offertory, children’s sermon, hymn, Old Testament reading, New Testament reading, hymn, and benediction. Once monthly the order is modified slightly to accommodate communion and the Nicene Creed is recited instead of the Apostles’ Creed. No innovation. Repetition. Habituation. Formation. I am thankful to worship in a place like this.

While my thinking is really focused upon the worship service at the moment, it is worth noting that this importance of habit extends to other areas of life. Every parent realizes in time that children learn much more by what they observe and do than what they are told. The same is true, really, of adults. By all means, let us read, study, and learn the best information we can, first in scripture and then in other areas of knowledge. But let’s not pretend that we are formed primarily by information—we are not “brains-on-a-stick,” as Smith would say. Rather, our loves and desires are formed not just by what we think, but by what we do. So let us make sure that our doing orients us and our families to the true, the good, and the beautiful, and ultimately to the One who is the only rightful primary object of our love.

Posted in Christian Formation, Christian Worldview, Church, James K.A. Smith, Liturgy, Worship

Maybe the Problem with Contemporary Worship Music…Isn’t the Music

A couple of months ago I wrote a review of the book Lovin’ on Jesus: A Concise History of Contemporary Worship by Swee Hong Lim and Lester Ruth, which was published on the White Horse Inn/Modern Reformation blog. What I appreciated most about this book is its decidedly nonpolemical approach to its subject matter. While many books on contemporary worship are written to either attack or defend these practices, Lim and Ruth simply present the development of contemporary worship as it happened and is happening. Their plain presentation is helpful and refreshing, and has—perhaps ironically—brought me to understand more clearly just what troubles me about so much of contemporary worship, especially with regard to music.

While I have written on this subject on a number of occasions, I have never been fully pleased with my arguments against contemporary worship music. Those favoring contemporary styles often accuse traditionalists of opposing newer music for reasons of personal taste, and refuting those arguments is difficult because they contain a grain of truth. The accusation that I do not prefer contemporary styles because they do not “feel worshipful” to me is at least partially accurate—they do not, in fact, “feel worshipful” to me. But if my opposition to contemporary worship is simply a matter of personal taste, that is not a valid argument against it and should be ignored. To further complicate matters, in other contexts I very much enjoy many of the styles of music—and in some cases even the same songs—that I do not prefer to have present in the worship service. So one cannot say that I do not prefer contemporary music simply because “I don’t like it.”

Better arguments against contemporary worship music have to do with singability—so many songs that are common on Christian radio and such are doctrinally sound, but are difficult to use as congregational hymns. Others are shallow (or even erroneous) theologically, thus neglecting the teaching function assigned to congregational singing in the New Testament (cf. Colossians 3:16). These and similar concerns are valid, but can be (and in some cases have been) overcome by better contemporary songwriters, and certainly one can present examples of more traditional hymnody with the same problems.

Here I was stuck for quite a long time, with an uneasy feeling about contemporary worship music but having few good arguments against it, and not even a clear way to understand and articulate why I had this uneasy feeling. Enter Lim and Ruth, who unintentionally helped me to understand what was bothering me. To put it briefly, contemporary worship practices treat music as a sacrament, as a means of bringing people in to the presence of God. While those defending contemporary worship against its detractors tend to minimize or negate this idea, Lim and Ruth own it, celebrate it, and present it repeatedly, speaking of a well-designed “worship set” as “a journey of being ushered into the presence of God” (18). They go so far as to claim that those seeking to appropriate contemporary worship’s forms without owning this approach to music in particular “[overlook] the Pentecostal sacramentality that lays behind the rise of contemporary worship in many critical respects” (139).

What’s the matter with this approach to music in worship? Simple. The Bible nowhere treats music as a sacrament. The New Testament—which speaks very little about music in worship—assigns to music a role having to do primarily with instruction (cf. Colossians 3:16, Ephesians 5:19). Even the expressions of praise, pleadings, laments, and other types of sung texts found in the Psalms are full of content that teaches us about who God is and what he has done, not merely how we feel about him. Granted, we are to “enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise” (Psalm 100:4), but assuming that these praises are sung we come into God’s presence with praise; we are not ushered into his presence by praise.

Yet one cannot deny that the emotions of the worshippers are stirred up in many contemporary services. Is it wrong to say that they are being “ushered into the presence of God?” Because Scripture nowhere tells us to use music in this way, the answer to that question must be “yes.” So where do those feelings come from? Simple. They are being stirred up by the music itself. Music has a powerful effect on the emotions, and the driving rhythms and loud volumes of much modern music can “work people up” very easily. That’s manipulation, not worship, and little different than what happens at a concert. Of course, it is perfectly appropriate to feel powerful emotions during God’s worship, but we must take care that these emotions truly are a Spirit-wrought response to who God is and what he has done, and not strong but shallow feelings wrought by musical performance.

Maybe the problem with contemporary worship music isn’t the music at all. Like I said, in another context I would like much of that music just fine. And perhaps there is a way to utilize at least some of these musical forms in a way that does not assume a sacramental function or otherwise manipulate the feelings of the congregation. But the tendency for people to mistake the inherent emotive power of the music itself for some special moving of the Spirit seems almost universal in contemporary services, even in churches whose leaders have no intention of assigning music this special role. Considering that those who pioneered contemporary worship music embraced this sacramental function, there might just be a built-in tendency for this music to assume such qualities, and that is reason to be wary.

At the very least, I have found a way to articulate the nagging concern I’ve had for some time.

Posted in Church, Music, Music and Theology, Music and Worship, Worship

Multitrack Christmas Carols!

One little project in which I have been engaged for the better part of the past year has been improving my understanding of recording technology. Not that I have ambitions of becoming a professional recording engineer, but I would like to be able to make credible recordings of lessons, rehearsals, concerts, students’ audition and competition entries, and my own practice sessions. Learning how to do this has involved a certain degree of trial and error, and a number of pieces of equipment purchased and returned before I found setups that work for me. At some future date I will write a post introducing the equipment I use and the reasons for choosing it. For now, though, I’ll just share a fun project from the past couple of weeks: making multitrack recordings of Christmas carols arranged for low brass instruments.


The equipment used to record these videos is as follows: an Apple iPad Pro, an Audio-Technica AT2020 Microphone, a Behringer Xenyx Q1202USB Mixer, and the Acapella app by Mixcord. Again, I’ll discuss all of that in more detail in a later post. For now, please enjoy the recordings, along with my best wishes for this season in which we celebrate the birth of our Lord and Savior.

The first link here is for a complete playlist, followed by the individual videos. Enjoy!

Deck the Halls (Traditional/Pederson)

Sleigh Ride (Anderson/Wagner/Everett)

You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch (Hague/Seuss/Buckley)

Jingle Bells (Pierpont/Robertson)

I Saw Three Ships (Traditional/Elkjer)

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day (Calkin/Niehaus)

Good King Wenceslas (Traditional/Geese)

We Wish You a Merry Christmas (Traditional/Garrett)

Adeste Fideles (Traditional/Pederson)

Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring (Bach/Elkjer)

Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming (Praetorius/Niehaus)

God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen (Traditional/Pederson)

Joy to the World (Mason/Pederson)

Salvation is Created (Tchesnokov/Everett)

The last one was originally intended as a Communion hymn rather than a Christmas or Advent one, but it works for this purpose. Its text is based upon Psalm 74:12, and is more or less translated “Salvation is created in the midst of the earth, O God. O, our God. Alleluia.” Generations of American band students have been introduced to this great work through a wind band arrangement created by Bruce Houseknecht in 1957. I created this version for mixed low brass ensemble in 2008; it is available for purchase here if you are interested.

Posted in "Gadgets and Gizmos", Acapella App by Mixcord, Accessories, Bass Trombone, Christmas Carols, Digital Revolution, Euphonium, iPad, Multitrack Recordings, Music, Practicing, Recording Technology, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Trombone Ensembles, Tuba, Tuba-Euphonium Ensembles

Suite for Trombone and Orchestra by Axel Jørgensen: Complete Performance Recording

Despite having every intention of posting at least a couple of articles here since my last post on November 11, various responsibilities have kept me from doing so. I’d like to share a couple of things between now and the end of the year before taking a short break and resuming writing in the spring. Both this post and the one that follows will consist primarily of recordings. While it might seem odd to share performance recordings in the context of a blog post, since this blog primarily concerns brass playing and teaching it is helpful to know that its author can indeed play these instruments competently! Sharing these recordings here also allows me to put them “out into the world” without clogging my faculty page at Ole Miss or relying solely upon the vicissitudes of Facebook and YouTube algorithms to get them to interested listeners.

Today’s recording is from November 18 of this year, when I played the Suite for Trombone and Orchestra by Axel Jørgensen (1881-1947) with the Lafayette-Oxford-University Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Dr. Selim Giray. As you might gather from the name, the L-O-U Orchestra is a “town and gown” orchestra, in which our university students are joined by players from the community, mostly music teachers and other local professionals. This was my first time appearing as soloist with the orchestra since 2012, and I was honored to have the opportunity. While the performance had the minor imperfections one expects with live music, these were very few, and overall the piece was very well received.

Jørgensen’s piece shares some similarities with the better-known Concerto by his contemporary and fellow Danish composer Launy Grøndahl (1886-1960). Both works are decidedly neoromantic in character, a quality shared by a number of other Scandinavian trombone works of the time. When he first asked me to perform with the orchestra Dr. Giray suggested the very well-known Concerto by Jørgensen’s younger Swedish contemporary Lars-Erik Larsson (1908-1986). Because I had already performed the Larsson with orchestra I wanted to use this opportunity to play something I had not yet performed with orchestral accompaniment, but I thought something similar out of that neoromantic Scandinavian repertoire would be a good choice, being enjoyable to the audience and not too taxing for the orchestra. Having already performed at least one movement of Grøndahl with orchestra,  I chose Jørgensen. Incidentally, Jørgensen lies right about in the middle of these three works in difficulty, and since I performed a very challenging solo recital only a month before this performance not overdoing it seemed like a good idea, as well.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the performance!

Posted in Axel Jørgensen, Music, Performances, Performing, Selim Giray, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, University of Mississippi