Because It’s Pretty…Or, The Downside of Musical Competition

Once again this week I am finding myself without very much time to write, with the International Trombone Festival coming up in a few days and a new recording project just a couple of weeks after that. So, I thought I would re-share another older post that has taken on new significance in the post-pandemic environment.  With so many music educators (myself included, if I’m honest) facing greater or lesser amounts of burnout after the stresses of the past eighteen months or so, the question of why we bother to teach and make music takes on a renewed importance. I am convinced that any answer that does not at least include “because it’s pretty” will ultimately fall short. We make beautiful sounds and teach others to do the same because creating beauty is innately good. Other benefits may and do exist, but they are only ancillary, and can never bear the weight of being a primary motivation for what we do.


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Although it is extremely “nerdy” of me to say so, one of my treasured possessions is this framed collection of medals earned during my time as a student in the Pearl Public Schools band program. The awarding of medals for achievement in school bands is an old tradition that harks back to the militaristic roots of the band movement, but has largely died out in recent years—even when I was a student over twenty years ago our school was one of the few that still awarded medals in significant numbers. Some of those medals were earned through tremendous effort and some quite a bit less, and I could no longer tell you what achievements all of them represent, but at the time it was nice to have effort and achievement recognized in a tangible way. My wife has no desire to have these displayed prominently in our home so they have hung in the stairwell outside my home office for several years. I’ve recently considered moving them to my office at the university, more as a nod to my affection for all things traditional than as an expression of pride in secondary school musical achievements. (Update: I ultimately decided to do that not long after writing this post.)

One aspect of school music represented by those medals is the importance of competition to these programs. Whether bands, orchestras, choirs, or other types of ensembles, performing for ratings and comments from judges and often being ranked compared to one’s peers is a key part of the group experience. This engenders a certain pride in successful programs in addition to serving as a metric by which school boards and administrators might determine funding, staffing, and other provisions for musical organizations. Solo and small ensemble festivals serve a similar role on a smaller scale, and seeking membership in all-state and similar organizations provides another layer of competition for ambitious students. This can lead not only to more exciting and more advanced musical experiences but can also affect college scholarship offers for these students.

For those who decide to enter music professionally, the competition mentality can often endure. Those pursuing advanced performance careers might spend years on the competition and audition circuits seeking to build reputations and ultimately secure employment. But even those seeking teaching and other non-performance musical careers still have to prepare for lessons, recitals, and juries. The need to compete and achieve under pressure is clearly bound up in the very fabric of musical training and career establishment.

Playing

During the recent Christmas holidays I spent quite a bit of time recording videos of Christmas tunes with my wife, using various combinations of low brass instruments, guitar, and vocals. These were not of particularly high quality in terms of the videography or sound mixing (honestly we just played in front of an iPad with no advanced equipment at all), but we had a good time making them and sharing with friends and family on social media. Through that process I began to more fully develop a thought that I had been brooding on for a while but never fully articulated: more than twenty years into my professional career as a musician and teacher, I had never really learned to enjoy making music just to make music. There had always been some other motivating factor at work, whether a competition, a rating, an audition, a grade, a job, or a paycheck—always something else other than simply creating beautiful sounds to share with others or simply to enjoy for myself. That has been to my impoverishment, and the change in attitude that has begun in me has affected my views of teaching, of promoting music education, and even of church music. Perhaps I’ll have time to write about all of this in the coming months.

For my students, I intend to be all the more earnest about impressing upon them the importance of making music for its own sake. Most of my students are aspiring music educators, and many struggle to see the importance of individual practice for their development as teachers. Certainly a certain amount of demonstrated performing competency is an obvious necessity, but I’m beginning to see that my students suffer from the same deficiency in their thinking that plagued me for so long. They are concerned with competitions and ratings and lesson plans, and with learning about budgets and parent organizations and fundraising. And these are all important things. But if we aren’t experiencing and sharing a love for music as music rather than for all of these ancillary things, are we not missing the boat? And ironically, in the midst of all of this frenetic activity are we not failing to communicate why music is so important for our schools, our churches, and our communities?

Why make music and teach others to do the same? Because it’s pretty, and because it brings joy to ourselves and others. There’s more to it than that, of course, but there cannot—must not—be less.

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (Philippians 4:8)

Posted in Beauty, Christian Worldview, Music, Music and Theology, Music and Worship, Music Education, Pedagogy, Performing, Practical Christianity, Practicing, Teaching Low Brass, Work and Leisure | Comments Off on Because It’s Pretty…Or, The Downside of Musical Competition

No Place for Truth

Instead of writing something new this week, I am republishing the following post from a couple of years ago. As we approach the Independence Day holiday, I remain convinced that present challenges in our public discourse stem from more than just differences of opinion; we can’t even agree upon what the facts are! This is a fundamental problem that few in the media seem to get, or at least they don’t talk about it.


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 | Comments Off on No Place for Truth

Make Sure It Stays Fun

Believe it or not (I’m not sure I can), I just finished my twentieth year of teaching at the university level. I started as a terrified twenty-two-year-old teaching assistant with nine students and no experience, spent time in both the part-time and full-time adjunct ranks, won two tenure-track jobs…and got tenure at both of them. (I hope never to go through that process again!) While some of my friends and former classmates who became public school teachers are deciding when to retire in the next 5-10 years, college and university retirement looks quite a bit different in that most of us have a 401(k)-type plan rather than a defined benefit plan through the state. Long story short, I have way more than 5-10 years left, God willing, so I had better make sure I enjoy it!

And yet, there have been times when I did not enjoy being a musician all that much. I earned my three music degrees in only eight years. Two of those years I was teaching half-time, and two of them I was teaching full-time, either in a single full-time position or in a combination of part-time positions. I was rather burned out when I finished my doctoral degree, and while I have no regrets about the path my life and career took, it did take a while after finishing school for me to learn to really love music again. And even in the years since then, my love of what I do has ebbed and flowed, usually due to external circumstances such as health concerns (I had a long struggle with back and neck pain that I have sometimes discussed here), budgetary concerns, frustrations with administration, and the like. Interestingly, I made it through the COVID-19 event with my love of music intact, even though the restrictions on teaching were sometimes frustrating.

I have been teaching undergraduate music students long enough now to expect most of them to experience a serious professional crisis, usually in the junior year. At that point, they start to struggle under the heavy workload, experience a greater or lesser degree of burnout, and wonder for the first time if careers as music educators (most of them are education majors) are right for them. While I tailor my advice to each individual student, my counsel to them through these struggles typically follows the following outline:

1. It is okay to wonder whether a music career is “for you.” As a profession, music education has a way of cheerleading for itself (through professional associations, journals, etc.) that extols the meaningfulness of music instruction as part of the educational experience and the importance of having quality and engaged educators. A perhaps unintentional side effect of this is that those who doubt whether they want to enter (or remain in) the profession can feel demonized for reconsidering. This same tendency is present, but more muted, in music performance and other areas. Students should be reassured that these thoughts are normal, advised that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” as Socrates (c. 470-399 B.C.) said, and encouraged to seriously work through their doubts to determine if they really need a change of major/career, or if they are simply momentarily overwhelmed by the workload. That brings me to my second point.

2. Get a non-musical hobby. Despite the insistence of music educators that music should be considered an academic, or at least “co-curricular” subject, the reality is that in grade school most students, parents, and schools consider music to be an extracurricular activity. In other words, it is a hobby, something done at least in part as a release from one’s “real work.” This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it can become a bad thing when students enter the university studying to be musicians or music educators…and they have cultivated no real hobbies other than music. The difficulty comes when the thing that one formerly engaged in as an escape from work has become one’s work, and there is nothing else to which that person can escape. The answer is to let music be the job and find another hobby. I began my habit of reading and studying theology as an undergraduate student and have only broadened my reading habits in the over twenty years since. I either know or know of top-level musicians who have all kinds of non-musical hobbies, including studying trains, racing cars, and making craft beers. While non-musicians often come to our concerts or listen to our recordings in order to “unwind,” good mental health demands that we musicians find something else for the same purpose.

3. Expect your love of music to ebb and flow, and accept that it will do so. I mentioned this already with regard to my own experience. It is not possible for a person to be supremely excited about anything all the time. As I am writing, the top Mississippi high school band students are in the middle of the three-week-long Mississippi Lions All-State Band event, which includes rehearsals, training, multiple concerts, parades, and a trip to perform at some exotic location. A student in the band just wrote me a very nice email thanking me for my help in his preparation and really riding the emotional high of playing great music with great musicians. And that is great, but it won’t last. Emotional highs never do. Some days I am so pleased that I get to make music for a living that I can’t wait to practice and perform. Some days I have to make myself put the trombone to my face. Most days are somewhere in the middle, though even on the “middling” days I am very thankful to be playing and teaching music, just not on the “super emotional high” kind of level. It is just fine to normally have only this kind of “low-level thankfulness,” as my pastor calls it, and students should be told that.

4. Make sure it stays fun. When music is your job, I really do think that a balanced life and good mental health demand taking up one or more other hobbies. Even so, it is still possible to experience burnout if one plays music only for training or performance. Finding some music to play just for fun also helps one to maintain joy in the whole musical enterprise. One way that my wife (also a music educator) and I have found to do this is by making home recordings of tunes that we enjoy. We started really doing this in earnest during the COVID-19-related lockdowns (see an earlier post about this here), but have occasionally made other videos since then, and hope to continue doing so. Here are a few samples.

If you’re a music student, teacher, or other musician rethinking your career choices, know that it’s okay to wonder about this. If you are burned out, get yourself another hobby, and don’t “freak out” when your love of all things music goes up and down from time to time. And whether you stay in the music business or find some other job, make sure you find some fun music to play and sing, both for yourself and to share with others. Have fun!      

Posted in Career Choices, Education, Higher Education, Mississippi Lions All-State Band, Multitrack Recordings, Music, Music Education, Pedagogy, Performing, Practicing, Professional Organizations, Teaching Low Brass, The Business of Music, Work and Leisure | Comments Off on Make Sure It Stays Fun

The Importance of Story, Part 2: Why the Right Needs Great Art

Before beginning the content of this post in earnest, perhaps I should go ahead and answer one question that might have occurred to some of you: am I speaking about the Right with regard to politics, or with regard to religion? The answer to that question is “yes.” For reasons that I hope will become clear very shortly, conservatives in both spheres (and I identify as such in both) face similar problems when it comes to the importance of beauty, artistry, and story.


While I identify as a person of the political Right, my political involvement has been limited mainly to keeping abreast of the issues so that I can make informed decisions at the ballot box. I read and listen to political commentary on a regular basis but have neither the time nor the means to become involved in large-scale political efforts. Thus, the annual Conservative Political Action Conference typically escapes my notice. However, this year’s meeting was brought to my attention—and to that of many in my profession who do not share my political views at all—by the rather off-key singing of a young lady invited to sing the National Anthem at the opening of one of the conference’s events. That singing was hilariously parodied by a number of musicians on YouTube, and while I feel sorry for the singer enduring so much ridicule, at the same time public performance includes subjecting oneself not only to praise, but also to critique and parody. CPAC should have chosen a more skilled and seasoned performer, and compensated him or her appropriately.

Now at this point you might ask, “but Micah, we’ve all heard popular acts butcher the National Anthem over the years, and those people were certainly not all conservatives.” Granted, but if we of the Right are going to hold ourselves out as those who stand for what is true and good in our nation, we should also stand for what is beautiful. These hold together, as I have noted many times in this space, and when one is missing the others begin to falter, as well. For better or worse, The Star-Spangled Banner is a notoriously difficult song to sing well, and for an event of the scope and resources of CPAC to give that role to an obviously unsuited amateur creates bad optics, to say the least.

One could say similar things for the church. I have for years advocated for a certain simplicity in the music used in Christian worship. I have argued that the primary musical expression in public worship ought to be congregational singing, and that contributions from choirs, instrumentalists, and solo or ensemble singing ought to draw attention to the texts being sung, read, and preached, avoiding a performance-type environment at all costs. This is not to say that I think the music should be an afterthought, or of poor quality. On the contrary, I think everything we do in worship ought to be thoughtfully planned, carefully prepared, and skillfully executed. I only mean that artistic contributions—including music but also including things like decorations, vestments, and the like—ought to heighten our attention to the Word as it is read, preached, and sung. The arts ought never to detract from our attention to the Word, sacraments, and prayer.

Sadly, we run into similar issues with regard to worship as in politics. The more Word-centric churches—perhaps particularly in my own Reformed tradition—can have very plain services where the music is in fact an afterthought. On the other end of the spectrum, in some places music is a major budget item, where the resources, staffing, and planning of the music used in worship borrows techniques, values, software, and often people from the world of theatre. Even when the intent is expressly otherwise, the combination of high decibel levels, advanced lighting techniques, and unfamiliar songs can prove distracting. The latter type of church is certainly more exciting while the former is seen as uncompelling, but there are problems in both examples.

Conservatives in both American politics and in Christianity share a similar problem. One holds to principles of free market economics and individual liberty, and the other proclaims the infallibility of the Word of God and the power of the Gospel to change lives. Both groups have well-formed positions with solid arguments and counterarguments. Yet these are not heard, because their presentation is not compelling, not beautiful. It is plain at best, hokey or even ugly at worst, and totally devoid of a story that really moves people.

You see, those of the Left long ago gained dominance in the culture making industries in our society. Perhaps it has always been so, because artists tend to be people who ask hard questions and challenge assumptions, both tendencies which can seem threatening to entrenched conservative positions. The problem is that the Right has ceded that ground entirely, and while we still have good arguments, we fail to get a hearing because people are not moved to action or to change by good arguments. They are moved by beauty, by story, by emotion. The Right—in both politics and religion—wants to view people as primarily rational creatures. Maybe we can wish it were so, but it isn’t so, or at least it isn’t the entire story. We are also emotive creatures, and lectures on free-market economics and the infallibility of the Bible simply do not engage people on the visceral level where real change takes place.

Now, am I suggesting that we abandon the formation of solid arguments for our positions? By no means. These certainly have a place, though that place lies largely in further developing the thinking of the already-convinced. If our ideas really are true, just, and right, then they will withstand the most rigorous intellectual challenges, and should be thus tested. I am saying that we must stop settling for the true and good only, and instead bring renewed interest to the beautiful. We should find the artists within our midst, address their (often legitimate) questions and challenges, and encourage and support them in the great work of culture-making from our own worldview, rather than telling them to “get a real job” and then send them into the open arms of the Left. We must relearn the importance of beauty and of story, understanding that right principles alone are not compelling. Seeing a beautiful presentation of how those principles are played out in the lives of people and societies is.

I’ll close by reminding all of us that the Book we believe to be the Word of God is not a list of commands and prohibitions (though it contains such lists). It is, rather, the story of how God made the world and all it contains, how human beings—made in God’s image—fell from their perfect created state, and how God worked through thousands of years and the lives of one man and his descendants to bring about a Redeemer who would restore all things. It really is The Greatest Story Ever Told, a story that is that much greater because it is true.

God himself, in whose image we are made, knows that people are moved by beauty and story, and revealed himself to us accordingly. We who strive to exemplify the principles held in his Word should do likewise.

Posted in Beauty, Bible, Christian Formation, Christian Worldview, Church, Church Choirs, Conservative Political Action Conference, Doctrine, Economics, Liturgy, Music, Music and Theology, Music and Worship, Political Systems, Politics, Popular Culture, Practical Christianity, Story, The Gospel, Theology, Truth, Virtue, Worship | Comments Off on The Importance of Story, Part 2: Why the Right Needs Great Art

The Importance of Story, Part 1: Developing Musical Interpretation

I joined a brass quintet during my first semester of college, and the professor coaching the group assigned for us to play the Quintet No. 3 by Russian composer Victor Ewald (1860-1935). I have become very familiar with and fond of Ewald’s quintet works in the almost 25 years since then, but at the time tackling this work seemed daunting. Not only was it a major work with a lot of notes, but the professor wanted me to play the part on the euphonium, as Ewald wrote with an ensemble of all valved instruments in mind. That assignment would be commonplace for me now, but at the time I had little better than a passing familiarity with that instrument. Still, I borrowed an instrument, used a thoroughly inappropriate mouthpiece (my trombone mouthpiece), and practiced until I could play the part competently. After the performance, my trombone professor (who had also at one time been first euphonium in the Eastman Wind Ensemble) said something to the effect of “if you are going to play the euphonium, you’re going to learn to do it correctly.” I purchased an instrument and began lessons the next year, and thus began my career as a serious doubler.

That’s a good story, but my purpose in writing today has more to do with how we as a group of undergraduates (including two freshmen) got through a major work for brass quintet. Although I do not recall all of the details, I do remember that we came up with a fairly elaborate story as a program to help us to interpret at least the first movement. (It had something to do with a knight riding a horse, and I’m pretty sure there was a swordfight in there.) While we still had to practice to meet all of the technical demands of the piece, having even a very basic storyline to guide our interpretation enabled us to deliver a more compelling presentation of the piece than would otherwise have been possible for us.

Ewald’s more famous contemporary, the Austrian composer and conductor Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), also was fond of storytelling through music. Interestingly, he apparently would sometimes write early drafts or versions of instrumental pieces with some kind of program in mind, but later try to retcon his own works and say that they were absolute music rather than program music, or at the very least to portray only very broad themes rather than specific stories. In any case, the listener quickly becomes aware of the thematic ideas that the composer was trying to create, which become even more apparent in Mahler’s works for vocal soloists and/or choirs with orchestra. Mahler was, like his friend Richard Strauss (1864-1949), a masterful musical storyteller.

While the importance of story in musical composition, interpretation, and performance might seem obvious, advanced musicians sometimes “pooh-pooh” the use of stories or programs to give direction to performances, particularly of instrumental music. In one sense, one does want to move beyond the level of making up very specific plot lines the way my quintet colleagues and I did in college. However, while something like this might be abandoned in the specifics, the general dramatic or thematic shape of each piece of music must be conveyed to the listener. This is typically quite simple. Most pieces will begin with a brief introduction, then rise to a climactic moment of tension, and then resolve again in a way that resolves the tension and leaves the listener both relieved and delighted. And within those broad areas there will be numerous smaller risings and fallings of the constituent phrases. Experienced musicians become accustomed to identifying these large and small sections and shaping their interpretations accordingly. Even when the only identifiable storyline is “beginning-tension-climax-release-resolution,” that rudimentary story is present, giving direction to both performers and listeners.

If you think about it, practically every good story follows that same “beginning-tension-climax-release-resolution” pattern, and it is the task of the musician to portray this, even when there is no specific program or story in mind. This is why we assign phrasing studies for students…and ourselves…to practice. As I’m fond of telling my students, we practice Bordogni etudes not because the melodies are interesting and profound—they really are campy and the phrasing obvious. But once these are understood and mastered, the instruction to “phrase this like a Bordogni etude” works for nearly any piece of music, in any genre. It works even when the musician doesn’t necessarily feel the emotions involved. In that way, a skilled musician is like a good actor portraying a role, projecting the appropriate expressive content regardless of his or her inner feelings.

Arnold Jacobs (1915-1998), the famous tubist and pedagogue, exhorted his students to become “storytellers in sound.” Do we always have to have (or invent) a specific storyline for every piece of music you play? No. When the musician becomes skilled enough at portraying the general dramatic contours of a piece, the listener can then bring whatever story he or she desires to the experience of hearing the piece. The result? A pleasing experience for all involved.  

Posted in Arnold Jacobs, Gustav Mahler, Marco Bordogni, Music, Music Education, Musical Interpretation, Pedagogy, Performing, Teaching Low Brass, Victor Ewald | Comments Off on The Importance of Story, Part 1: Developing Musical Interpretation