End the Tyranny of the Green Smiley Face!

As I feared might happen, the absolute busy-ness of my schedule this fall has prevented me from consistently writing here on a weekly basis. When I first started writing a weekly blog in 2012, I was teaching about twenty hours per week; that number has now crept up to about 35. That’s actual contact hours per week working with students. Add to that practicing, performing, grading, other administrative tasks, and trying to maintain some semblance of family and church life, and you can see how blogging can easily get crowded out. Still, I enjoy using this space to develop my thoughts on various topics and am glad to have a little time to do so this afternoon.


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TonalEnergy Tuner

I have a real problem with electronic tuners, or rather the mobile apps that we now use for that purpose. Even though I have two different tuner apps on my devices and will use them occasionally, my students will testify that I very rarely use them in applied teaching or ensemble situations. While tuners are great for ensuring that brass players’ tuning slides are optimally placed, once playing begins their utility declines dramatically. (The same applies to tuning open strings on string instruments, adjusting the various joints on woodwind instruments, etc.) Instead, once that baseline placement is established and playing begins active listening must take over, as must willingness to violate “what the tuner says” in favor of what sounds good.

The proper tuning of both melodies and harmonies in just intonation demands that a given note actually have slightly different pitches in different contexts. For example, when playing the tonic chord in the key of D major a written D3 should be played more or less where the tuner says, a frequency of 146.8Hz. However, for a B-flat major triad to be played in tune that same pitch will be lower (145.7Hz) and for a G major triad it will be slightly higher (147Hz). Unless the tuning app is configured to account for these differences, a D that is “correct” according to the tuner will sound rather sharp in the B-flat major triad, and quite flat in the G major one. And even if those configurations are made, wouldn’t it be better just to listen and match with one’s ears, rather than chasing the visual confirmation of the needle—or, in the popular Tonal Energy app, the green smiley face? At the end of the day, if 19 people in a 20-piece band are listening and playing in tune together, but the one person with a tuner on the stand insists that the rest of the band is sharp, who is wrong? The one with the tuner. Pitch is relative!

I’m aware that the previous two paragraphs read a bit like a rant, my excitement brought on by seeing so many ensembles check their pitch with an electronic tuner at the beginning of rehearsal and then essentially forget about pitch afterward. While the intricacies of just intonation are certainly beyond the grasp of younger students (and even of teachers—I had to look up those frequencies cited in the last paragraph), learning and employing a few basic principles can help players and groups of almost any ability level to improve their intonation. Here are some ideas.

1. By all means, use the electronic tuner to set the instruments at the correct lengths before beginning. The “green smiley face” can become a tyrant if it is followed too religiously, but in its place it is a useful servant. Once players have warmed up a bit, the tuner should be used to set the tuning slides at optimum lengths. With brass instruments, my preference is to set the main tuning slide so that the fourth partial note (B-flat3 on tenor trombone and euphonium; B-flat2 on BB-flat tuba, etc.) is correct according to the tuner. Next, I will set the first, second, and fourth valve tuning slides so that their fourth partial notes are correct, and the third valve tuning slide so that the fourth partial note with the 2-3 combination is correct. With trombones I will check both the second and fourth partials with the F-attachment, and on bass trombone I will check the second and fourth partials with the two valves combined. Things get a little more complicated with five and six-valve tubas, and advanced players and other teachers might have their own preferences, but this is what I do to establish a good, reliable starting place for playing.

2. Once that baseline is established, the rule should be to “listen and match.” The proverbial “dude with a tuner on his stand” that I mentioned earlier is no fun at all to have in the band. Instead of listening and trying to blend with the group he has shut off his ears and is trying to “tune with his eyes.” Instead, everyone in the group should be encouraged to listen to the players around them and adjust pitch as needed so that discrepancies are eliminated. I understand that this sounds rather advanced—and for beginning players it almost certainly is—but even intermediate players can be taught to eliminate the “beats” that occur in the sound waves when intonation is faulty. Moreover, admonish students—especially the more proficient students—that matching pitch is not something for “other people” (i.e. people further down in the section) to do. Playing in tune is everyone’s responsibility. If it’s out of tune, everyone is wrong. Even better, when everyone is listening accurately suddenly more than just pitch is being matched. What if through listening people started to match articulation, note lengths, phrasing, etc., etc.? Wouldn’t that be great?

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W. Francis McBeth (1933-2012)

3. Match volume, then tone quality, then pitch. I have heard more than one great musician say that it is impossible to really tune when one has an uncharacteristic tone. More specifically, I remember how my college band director, Ken Lewis, constantly admonished us to “match volume, then tone quality, then pitch,” an instruction I believe he received from the great band composer and conductor W. Francis McBeth (1933-2012). The idea is that many apparent tuning discrepancies are actually instead problems with balance and blend. When these are solved, a majority of apparent intonation problems disappear as well, either as a result of improved listening or because the supposed intonation problems weren’t actually intonation problems at all. I have applied these principles in my trombone and tuba-euphonium ensembles, and can confirm from experience that they work.

4. Three rules that will instantly improve intonation. There are lots of principles involving tuning tendencies—both tendencies of the instruments themselves and tendencies of certain harmonies—whose mastery will greatly improve intonation. Advanced brass players ought to be familiar with the overtone series and the tendencies of each partial, and the following chart, which originated in drum and bugle corps circles in the pre-internet days, suggests a number of very specific adjustments to be made in given harmonic contexts.

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However, players at almost any level can learn these three rules that, when applied, will have an instant and positive effect on any ensemble’s intonation. They are:

  1. Lower major thirds.
  2. Raise minor thirds.
  3. Raise perfect fifths.

That’s it. Is there more to tuning chords than that? Sure, and notice that I didn’t indicate in any way how much to raise or lower those things—that is useful information, but not always necessary to have in one’s memory. When students are taught to tell by hearing whether they have the root, third, or fifth of a chord and what the likely problem is when a discrepancy is heard they can instantly correct—or even anticipate—problems with intonation. If they learn what to do with sevenths and other intervals that’s even better, but learning about thirds and fifths will take care of a lot of issues.

And above all, teach your students what I call Rule Number One: “Make it sound good.” Every other rule is intended to make it easier for students to determine what to do in order to fulfill Rule Number One. If it sounds good, it (probably) is good!

Tune with your ears, not your eyes. End the tyranny of the green smiley face!

Posted in Music, Music Education, Music Theory, Pedagogy, Performing, Playing Fundamentals, Practicing, Teachers, Teaching Low Brass, TonalEnergy, W. Francis McBeth

Why I Enjoy Teaching in the Church

This past year during the fall and spring semesters I shared teaching responsibilities for an adult Sunday school class on the book of Colossians, after teaching part of a shorter series the previous summer. These were my first opportunities in several years to teach adults in that setting, and I was very grateful to be able to do so. Our church is blessed with more capable teachers than space for classes, so I’m once again taking a break from teaching responsibilities. I sincerely hope there isn’t another years-long wait before the next opportunity, though, because there are a number of things that I really enjoy about teaching in the church, particularly classes for adults.

1. I get to study a subject other than music. I’m sure some folks at church find my participation in the church’s musical activities—or rather my usual lack of active participation—to be somewhat enigmatic. After all, shouldn’t a professional musician want to have a hand in all things music-related? I’ve written about this before and won’t rehash those ideas here. Suffice it to say for now that I like for my experiences of worship and service in the church to be unrelated to my day-to-day work during the week. If I’m spending most of my time Monday through Saturday making music, Sunday doesn’t feel like much of a “Sabbath” if I spend it doing exactly the same things as every other day. It is nice—not to mention spiritually and psychologically healthy—to step out of my professional role and do something else on the Lord’s Day. The time spent in preparation during the week is likewise refreshing, as I am able to take my mind off of its usual focus for a bit and delve into the Word more deeply than usual. This brings me to my next point.

2. I am motivated to make time for in-depth study of the Scriptures. I have read the Bible through on a yearly basis for about fifteen years now, and have listened to it read via audio recordings several times over, as well. This is an important part of my regular devotions, but it isn’t particularly in-depth, nor does it have to be. There is a place for cultivating and maintaining a general sense of what the Bible says in that way. However, there is also a place for more rigorous study, something which I found easier to do before becoming a parent. Now time for challenging reading and study is precious and hard to find in the midst of other important responsibilities. Preparing to teach an adult Sunday school class requires—at least for me—several hours of reading commentaries and other reference works, writing a full manuscript (which I will not read verbatim but this exercise helps me to organize my thoughts), and time spent in prayer for myself and for the class. The last part in particular is important, because…

3. Teaching challenges me to grow spiritually. I sometimes have a bad habit of allowing Bible study to be a merely academic exercise. I find the study of history, of anthropology, of systematics, and all the things that go into good theology to be intellectually stimulating. However, while the Bible touches on all of these fascinating subjects, its primary purpose is to point its readers to the Lord Jesus Christ, and to teach those who believe how they are to live as God’s people in the world. If I do not walk away from these studies more convicted of my failings and more enamored with Christ, I’ve missed the point! Teaching through Colossians was particularly encouraging, since the initial recipients of Paul’s letter to Colossae weren’t descending into flagrant sin and unbelief like those in Corinth or like those rebuked by Christ himself in the opening chapters of Revelation. Rather, the Colossians were “regular Christians” just trying to believe and live rightly. Paul’s challenge to them to continue to look to Christ alone as their sufficient Savior is relevant to all of us who try to live well, avoiding particularly scandalous and public sins, but still very much in need of exhortation to look to Christ.

4. Hopefully, teaching challenges others to learn and to grow, as well. As is the case with any teacher in any subject, I’m sure some of the folks who attended my Sunday School class liked my teaching, others probably didn’t, and some thought it was “okay.” Although I have a small amount of formal theological education I have no degree in that field, nor do I hold church office, so to stand before a group of people and say “this is what the Bible says” sometimes feels presumptuous. I suppose all I can do is stick closely to the scriptures and to the books of those more learned and pious than myself, continue to pray, and hope that the things I have to say are of benefit to others. In the end, if we’re not all walking away from such a class knowing more about Jesus and feeling challenged to be more like him, we’ve all missed the point!

Posted in Christian Education, Christian Sabbath, Church, Colossians, Reading and Study, Theological Education, Theology, Work and Leisure, Worship

Discovering Similarities between Music Practice and Sports Practice

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Our son, Brody, pitching in a recent game.

Any parent will tell you that the experience of raising a child or children is an adventure, one in which parents often find themselves improvising, trying to do the best they can for their children but not always sure of what that “best” actually is. Parents of adopted children have an additional challenge in that they cannot based upon their own abilities anticipate what natural giftings those children might have, and “nature versus nurture” questions frequently arise. In our son’s case, being raised by two music teachers certainly has some bearing upon his budding skills as a violinist, though inherited traits undoubtedly play a role, as well. More obviously “natural” are his skills in sports, traits which neither his mother nor I possess. While I am still able to be of some use coaching him in baseball, this has to do mainly with my having the hand-eye coordination of an average adult combined with 30-plus years as a spectator. His abilities far exceed mine at the same age (I played right field in Little League, and we all know what that means), and will undoubtedly surpass my current skills before very long.

Observing and assisting with my son’s development as a ballplayer has led me to notice some interesting similarities between building skills in a sport and the same process on a musical instrument. In fact, the processes are identical in some respects, thus rendering my experience as a musician surprisingly relevant to his baseball practice. Here are a few thoughts on the subject.

The Necessity of Innate Ability
In music lessons I place as little emphasis as I can on the idea of “natural talent,” preferring to emphasize the importance of disciplined hard work. My students often hear me exhort them to practice “daily and systematically” in order to most efficiently increase their playing skills. Nevertheless, innate ability certainly plays a role in skill development. The physical “chops” needed to play the instrument well come very naturally to some students, while others must engage in a daily regimen of exercises just to remain functional. Similarly, some students have a “good ear” seemingly from birth, while others spend hours drilling musical passages, listening to recordings, and practicing solfège just to keep up with those in the first group. Every student has a certain amount of “chops” and “ear” naturally; those with above-average skills in one or both areas have marked advantages over those of average ability or less.

The same is true in sports. This fall my son has moved up to a “kid-pitch” team for the first time, and currently pitches one inning per game. While he has to spend time perfecting his skills on the mound for both accuracy and speed, his natural abilities give him a head start over kids of very limited athletic ability, as I was. At his age I could have spent hours throwing pitches and refining my wind-up and delivery, and still might not have reached the same skill level that he has. Nevertheless, a child with less innate ability than my son, but more than me, might with practice meet and exceed his skill level because of…

The Limitations of Innate Ability
I once heard a great trombonist say that the players that enjoy the greatest success are not those with the most natural talent, but those just below the top in that respect. The implication was that supremely talented individuals, many of whom move through their early and advanced training with minimal effort, become totally derailed when they at last encounter a significant obstacle to further progress. Those in the second tier, as it were, while still above-average in innate ability, have developed the conceptual, physical, and psychological tools needed to overcome significant difficulties, and thus eventually surpass their more “talented” colleagues. My students have heard me refer to “The Wall,” my term for the point at which an individual can no longer rely primarily on natural talent and has to actually work to solve problems and overcome difficulties. For some, this point comes in the first week, while for others it might be in the second or third year, but it nearly always comes. Figuring out how to physically and psychologically overcome these challenges and continue to grow and progress is an important part of the musician’s development. Although we are still quite early in my son’s sports career, I am beginning to observe a similar pattern there.

The Type of Practice that Brings Results

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Brody and me practicing scales together.

As I am sure is the case with most eight-year-old violinists, getting our son to practice without argument is a perpetual challenge. While at the end of a productive practice session he will grudgingly admit that he enjoys playing, he is less fond of practicing scales, perfecting his bowing, and correcting minor errors once he has the gist of a piece. Yet it is this daily and systematic practice of playing fundamentals that spurs his greatest growth as a musician.

It is the same with baseball. With an eight-year-old pitcher the primary objective is to throw strikes. The pitches do not have to be extremely fast, nor is this the time to practice curveballs, changeups, and other specialty pitches. They only need to be accurate. Yet getting him to systematically develop the pacing, technique, and consistency to throw across the plate most of the time is a challenge when the desire to try exotic pitches is so great. Throwing not-all-that-fast-balls over and over again is not exciting, but it is effective. The same can be said for time spent in the batting cage.

Effective practice—in music and in sports—is usually repetitive and sometimes boring, but it works.

The Necessity of Quality Instruction
When we decided a couple of years ago to have our son begin violin lessons we considered whether or not to teach him ourselves or to hire a teacher to give him lessons. While neither my wife nor I are violinists, we are both trained music educators and have sufficient knowledge to teach beginning strings. Despite this, the desire to have an outside authority figure behind his instruction (besides “just mom and dad”) led us to engage a teacher. Two years later, his skills have reached the point that, although my wife in particular can observe his practice and remind him of certain elements of his teacher’s instructions, the superior knowledge and experience of his violin teacher is necessary for him to make further progress. Similarly, if he continues in baseball—particularly pitching—too much further we will have to consider getting professional coaching for him. The limited abilities of an observant father simply will not suffice for very long, no matter how talented the son happens to be.

The Need to Have Fun!
I am getting old enough now that I can credibly grumble about youngsters’ apparent disdain for hard work, but the pursuit of both music and sports should not be so dominated by disciplined activities that there is no room for enjoyment. Pick-up games of baseball among neighborhood kids are still important. Sitting around playing Real Book tunes is fun, and easier than ever now with free accompaniments so readily available. My son even enjoys playing his violin along with videos of Queen and other classic rock groups, barely aware of how much vital ear training is happening as he does this.

Playing music and playing sports—the operative word is “playing,” and we must never forget that these activities should be enjoyable both for us and for listeners and spectators.

But let us also remember that the greatest enjoyment is usually of the “delayed gratification” variety, the satisfaction that comes with the mastery of a new skill or new piece after weeks and months and years of hard work. Hard work and great fun can and should go together!

 

 

Posted in Baseball, Music, Parenting, Pedagogy, Practicing, Scales and Arpeggios, Sports, Teaching Low Brass

“I Was Like WOW: Music for Trombone Alone and With Multimedia” — Complete Performance Recordings (well, almost)

A week ago this evening I performed a solo recital which I entitled “”I Was Like WOW: Music for Trombone Alone and With Multimedia.” As the title suggests, all of the programmed works were either unaccompanied or have multimedia accompaniment. I had no collaborators, and the experience of being alone on stage for the entire performance was new, exciting, and, honestly, a bit scary. The performance went well and was well-received, and I am happy to share the recordings with all of you.

Well…most of them. Apparently Christian Lindberg’s people do not want a recording of his piece on YouTube other than his own, so you’ll just have to take my word for it that my rendition was good!

Michael Davis (b. 1961): Mission Red

Domenico Gabrielli (1651-1690), arr. Micah Everett: Ricercar

Brian Lynn (b. 1954): Doolallynastics: A Brief Torture for Solo Trombone

Howard J. Buss (b. 1951): Alien Loop de Loops

Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006): Fantasy for Trombone

David Fetter (b. 1938): Variations on Palestrina’s ‘Dona Nobis Pacem’

JacobTV (b. 1951): I Was Like WOW

Christian Lindberg (b. 1958): Bombay Bay Barracuda

I had always wondered why the only recording of this piece on YouTube was Lindberg’s own recording; now I guess I know why. Just listen to this one and imagine that I sounded at least as good as him…but please do not imagine me in the same outfit!

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Brian Lynn, Christian Lindberg, David Fetter, Domenico Gabrielli, Howard J. Buss, JacobTV, Malcolm Arnold, Micah Everett, Michael Davis, Music, Performances, Tenor Trombone, Trombone

Fifteen Steps to Playing a Better All-State Audition (Repost)

Today I am reposting, for the seventh year, one of the more popular posts on this blog. With high school students preparing for auditions for all-state groups and similar ensembles around this time of year, posting this article every fall seems appropriate.

Let me also remind Mississippi band students that I have posted a series of videos on my Ole Miss website specifically related to preparing low brass players to audition for the Mississippi Lions All-State Band. While some of the material below repeats information covered in those videos, the ideas here are intended to be more broadly applicable, both to students that play other instruments, and to those taking auditions in other states. Teachers, please feel free to share these ideas with your students if you think they will be helpful.

1. Keep your instrument in optimum working condition. This should be obvious, but often a student’s playing is hindered by a slide that doesn’t move well, frozen piston valves, noisy rotary valves, etc. If your instrument has a problem of some kind, have your band director or private teacher check it. Perhaps all that is needed is a thorough cleaning, or a minute adjustment. If your teacher is unable to resolve the problem, take your instrument to be serviced by a qualified technician.

When your instrument is in good working order, make sure to clean and lubricate it regularly. Often mechanical problems that can “make or break” an audition are the result of a lack of proper care and maintenance, and these always seem to occur at the most inopportune times. Regular maintenance will not only prevent damage, but will make your instrument easier and more fun to play, help your practice sessions to be more productive, and very likely lead to success in the audition.

2. Practice. Every day. When you’re not practicing, one of your competitors is. The students that earn the top chairs in all-state auditions have a disciplined and consistent approach to practice, often practicing for 10 to 15 hours per week (or about 1.5 to 2 hours per day), if not more. I recommend conceiving of your practice time in terms of a weekly schedule rather than a daily one, as this has the advantage of allowing you to plan for days that you might not be able to practice as much (because of band festivals, extra homework, church activities, etc.) and compensate by practicing more on the days when you have more time available. Do make sure that you do at least some practicing every day, though. Even 10-20 minutes on an extremely busy day is better than nothing.

3. Begin each day with a thorough warm-up/maintenance routine. Some time each day should be spent on playing fundamentals, including breathing exercises, mouthpiece buzzing exercises, long tones, articulation exercises, lip slurs, and range extension exercises. Make sure that you have some way of systematically addressing each of these areas every day, seeking to both maintain and extend your fundamental playing skills. Some routines that I have constructed for this purpose can be found here.

4. Spend 20-50% of your practice time on playing fundamentals. Continuing with the previous thought, the ideal “warm-up” routine contains much more material than the body needs to be ready to play a band rehearsal or even give a concert. Rather, successful players spend a significant portion of their practice time working on fundamental skills like those mentioned above. In my own playing I have found that the more time I spend on developing fundamental playing skills, the less time I need to spend in order to prepare actual repertoire for performance or auditions. And, since these fundamental skills apply to essentially every piece of music, I do not have to “reinvent the wheel” every time I learn a new piece. Instead, I am able to quickly discern what skills and techniques are needed for a given piece and immediately apply them, thus greatly reducing the amount of practice needed to learn and master a new piece of music. This means that I am able to cover a very large amount of music in each practice session.

When you are preparing for an important audition or performance, aim for spending at least 20% of your practice time (approximately 12 minutes of a one-hour practice day or 24 minutes of a two-hour practice day) on fundamentals. If you have nothing “big” coming up, consider spending as much as 50% of your practice time on fundamentals. This can seem repetitive at times, but it pays huge dividends for your playing in the future!

5. Play everything with the best sound you can produce. Ambitious high school students tend to place a lot of emphasis on range and speed; to use a common expression, playing “higher, faster, and louder.” This tendency is not altogether bad, as one of the purposes of activities like all-state auditions is to push students to extend their technical capabilities on their instruments. However, it is easy to forget that none of these things really matter if one plays with a poor or uncharacteristic tone.

I often illustrate this concept to my students by playing “Flight of the Bumblebee” on the trombone. By most accounts, this is a difficult technical feat. The first time I play it, I play with a good, characteristic trombone sound, and students are usually quite impressed. But then, I play it a second time, this time with an extremely poor sound. I’m playing just as quickly, double-tonguing just as much, and moving the slide just as accurately, and yet students usually find this second performance to be rather unimpressive. Nobody cares how “high, fast, and loud” you can play if your sound is poor.

Make a concerted effort to play everything with the best sound you can produce. Even scales can sound great, and since scales are usually the first things played in an audition, you can set a positive tone (sorry) for the entire audition by playing them with a good sound. Then maintain that great sound through the prepared pieces and sight reading. This will certainly improve your score for the entire audition.

6. Memorize your scales, and practice them at least once per day. They have to be automatic! Scales are a big part of every all-state audition, and yet they are so often played poorly. Successful students memorize all of their scales (this is required in most states, including Mississippi, but some states allow the use of a scale sheet during the audition, unfortunately). If you don’t have your scales memorized yet, make this a priority—you don’t want to enter the audition room still unsure about one or more of the required scales.

When the audition is several weeks or even months away, it is helpful to practice your scales slowly, in order to foster playing with a great tone quality (see above), and playing in tune. As you increase in proficiency, keep working to play faster, but if intonation or tone quality begin to suffer, return to practicing slowly. The goal is to play fast, AND in tune, AND with a good sound.

Most band students are more familiar with the “flat” scales than with the “sharp” scales. This makes sense, as most band music is written in “flat keys” (at least when referring to “concert” pitch). If you are having trouble with certain keys, then practice those scales twice as much as the ones with which you are more familiar. When you walk into the audition room, you want to be equally comfortable—or at least sound like you are equally comfortable—with every scale.

Regarding range, in some states all students play each scale in the same prescribed range. In others (including Mississippi), students are rewarded for pursuing extra octaves. If yours is a “prescribed range” state, then make sure you can play all of the scales in the prescribed range. Playing less than that will result in a huge deduction from your score. If your state rewards extra octaves, then play as many octaves as you can in the allotted time, but do not attempt range that you cannot play well every time. Hearing a student “nail” a “high R-sharp” is always impressive, and that student will earn a high score. However, the student that strains and reaches for that “R-sharp” might have scored better if he stuck with a range he could play well.

7. Know the definitions of all of the musical terms in your etudes. Musical instructions are usually written in Italian, sometimes in German, and sometimes in French. Rarely are these instructions written in English. And yet, those listening to your playing will expect you to know what the terms in at least your prepared pieces mean, and to observe them in your performance. There is no excuse for ignoring these terms, and yet I have listened to auditions in which 70% or more of the students completely ignored one or more terms, and as a result gave performances that were wildly “off the mark.” If you want to earn a high score, follow the instructions, regardless of the language in which those instructions are written. To do even better, try to memorize a large number of common terms, so that you can also correctly observe any markings in the sight reading part of the audition.

By the way, “in the old days” we had to purchase music dictionaries in order to look up the meanings of musical terms, and sometimes we had to refer to Italian-English dictionaries, for example, in order to find more obscure terms. Today, you can quickly and easily find the definition of any term simply by “Googling it.” In short, there is no excuse. Know what terms mean, and do what they say!

8. Use a metronome, and practice your scales and etudes both slower and faster than the prescribed tempos. These days, there is no excuse for not owning and using a metronome in one’s daily practice. Not only can simple metronomes be purchased inexpensively at most music stores, but also cheap or free metronome programs can be found to work with computers and most smartphones or tablets. I recommend using the metronome not only to foster correct rhythm and timing when practicing scales and etudes at the prescribed tempos, but also to enable systematic practice at both slower and faster tempos. The process I use is as follows:

First, practice materials at 50% of the indicated tempo. This is for the purpose of working out fingerings, articulations, and tone quality without the pressures created by playing faster. For etudes that are already slow, practicing at half tempo will foster better phrasing. Try to phrase in the same way and breathe in the same places as you would when playing at tempo. You will then have a much easier time making your phrases when you resume playing faster.

Second, practice at 75% of the indicated tempo. This provides a convenient “halfway point” between the slower tempo you practiced before and the tempo for which you are striving.

Third, practice at the indicated tempo. Having followed the two steps indicated above, you will find that playing at tempo will be much easier for you than if you had begun by practicing this quickly. Continue using the metronome to ensure that you are counting and keeping time accurately.

Fourth, practice at 125% of the indicated tempo. This is especially helpful for the scales and faster etudes. This tempo will feel extremely fast, and even frantic, but still attempt it, even if you are never able to make your playing as clean as you would like at this tempo.

Finally, return to the indicated tempo. Having worked out notes, fingerings, tone, tuning, and phrasing at slower tempos, and then at least tried to master the necessary technique at faster tempos, playing at tempo will feel balanced, even, and relatively relaxed. Alternate playing with and without the metronome for this step.

Not all of these steps need to be completed each day, particularly as you become more proficient at playing your scales and etudes, but these are necessary when first beginning work on your audition materials, and later on are still useful for occasional “refreshers.”

9. Mark your breaths. One helpful practice that is neglected by many students is that of planning and marking breaths. While you will be playing your scales from memory, go ahead and practice breathing at the same place(s) every time you play a given scale.

In the prepared pieces, make a clear mark at the places where you know you will breathe, and then some smaller markings in parentheses in places where you can breathe “if you have to.” By planning your breaths and then breathing in the same places every time you practice your scales and etudes, you will deliver a more consistent and pleasing musical result, and will also take an important step toward mitigating the effects of nervousness. Because you will have practiced breathing—deeply—in the same places each time, when you are in the audition room you will be likely to continue breathing deeply in those places, rather than taking unplanned and shallow breaths as people tend to do when they are “on edge.”

In order to determine where to breathe, sit down with your prepared pieces and a pencil, without your instrument. Note the places where musical phrases end (look for the ends of phrase markings or slurred lines in particular), and mark breaths in those places, as well as during any rests. In short, figure out where the music itself indicates pauses, and plan to breathe in those places. If this yields too few breaths, or if you are afraid you might need some “extra,” mark additional possible breaths in parentheses. Because you are using pencil, you can always erase and adjust your planned breathing if necessary, but by planning breaths without your instrument you are allowing the music to determine where you breathe, rather than your subjective “felt need” for air. This will yield a very mature and pleasing performance.

10. Don’t practice something until you get it right once. Practice it until you can’t get it wrong! As an applied lesson teacher, I can easily tell when a student has not practiced, but I can also tell when a student has practiced something until he “got it right once.” This student will play with a good tone quality and pretty good technique that are indicative of regular practice, but when playing scales, etudes, and solo literature he will make interesting mistakes. When questioned, he will say that he made that same mistake repeatedly when practicing. Immediately, I am aware that the student practiced that etude at least three times each day, making the mistake twice, and “getting it right” the third time. What’s the problem with this? The student has practiced playing incorrectly twice as many times as he has practiced playing correctly!

When preparing for the audition, don’t run through troublesome passages until you play them correctly one time—repeat those passages until you get them right five or even ten times successively. By doing this, you will make a habit of playing these passages correctly, instead of having to address the same mistakes each time you practice.

11. Sight read something every day. The sight reading portion of the audition is the scariest part for many students, largely because it is the most “unknown” element of the audition. While it would be impossible to prepare for the specific piece that you will encounter during the sight reading portion of a given audition, you can greatly improve your chances of succeeding at this part simply by sight reading something each day. There are a number of books available with short etudes designed for sight reading practice, and I have even recommended a few of them, but the main thing is that you find unfamiliar music of a variety of styles, time signatures, key signatures, tempos, and levels of difficulty, and sight read as much of it as you can. This will make you more familiar and comfortable with the process. Make sure also that you have a teacher or some other knowledgeable individual listen to your sight reading from time to time, to make sure that you aren’t making any unnoticed mistakes.

12. Get a private teacher. Even the best band director has too many obligations, too little time, and not enough expertise on every instrument to effectively coach all of his or her students for all-state auditions. If at all possible, arrange for regular lessons with a private teacher that is knowledgeable about your instrument and the audition process. This person will help you to put the ideas listed here as well as other helpful concepts into practice, and will (provided that you follow his or her instructions) greatly increase your chances of playing a successful audition. Ask your band director for names and contact information of qualified teachers in your area. You might also look for professors and students at nearby universities and community colleges, and perhaps even professional players if you live near a large city.

An added benefit of private instruction is that your teacher’s ideas will apply not only to the immediate goal of making the all-state band, but to making you a better player overall. If you want to continue playing in college—and particularly if you want to major in music—this extra help might literally “pay off” in the form of higher band scholarship offers.

13. Dress for the occasion. One change in the “culture” of auditions that I have observed over the past fifteen years or so is the increasing informality of dress among students auditioning. When I was a high school student, it was not unusual for young men to wear a shirt and tie and perhaps a sport coat for auditions and for young women to wear a blouse and skirt or even a dress. In recent years, I have noticed more and more students auditioning wearing jeans and t-shirts—and not even their “good” jeans and t-shirts! This is not a positive development, in my opinion.

The way that you dress communicates something about the seriousness with which you take a given endeavor. When you make an effort to “dress up” for an occasion, you communicate to others (and yourself) that you believe you are doing something important. When I serve as an audition judge, a student that walks into the room smartly dressed communicates to me that he takes his playing seriously, and before the first note is played, I have unconsciously begun to form positive expectations about how that student will perform. Conversely, a student with a slovenly appearance communicates a negative image, and my expectations are likewise negative. That might not seem “fair,” but judges are human, and will inevitably form “first impressions” of some kind. Make sure you the impression you make is a good one!

By the way, this counsel even applies in the case of “blind” auditions (those in which the judges cannot see the student auditioning). While it might seem absurd to “dress up” when those evaluating your playing will not be able to see you, there is something to be said for how your dress affects your own self-perception and carriage. By dressing well for the audition, you are mentally preparing yourself for the important task at hand, and you will be more likely to conduct yourself throughout the process in a manner most conducive to playing a great audition.

14. Be confident. Part of playing a successful audition is carrying yourself and then playing in a confident manner. If you have prepared diligently for the audition, you have no reason not to be sure about yourself and your playing, and your entire presentation, from the way you dress (see above) to the way you play each of the required items should communicate confidence and poise. While this may not directly impact your score, self-assured students to tend to play better, which does have a direct impact on the final score.

Perhaps you are like me, and inevitably have a greater or lesser degree of “butterflies in your stomach” every time you play a high-stakes audition or performance. In such situations, you feel anything but confident! If this describes you, you might find it helpful to “fake it.” Put on an air of confidence, even though you don’t feel that way at all. Not only will your judges view your playing in a more positive light, but you might find that by feigning self-confidence you “psych yourself in” to actually being more confident, and thus playing better.

15. Have FUN!!! Auditions are nerve-racking experiences, and the entire process—from practice and preparation to the audition day itself—can become anything but fun. In such situations, it is easy to forget that one of the main reasons we took up playing our instruments in the first place was the enjoyment that our playing provides to ourselves and others. Make sure that you include something “fun” in your practice time each day, and as you prepare the “hard stuff,” keep the end goal of the audition in mind. Performing great music at a high level with students that take music seriously is an exciting and fun experience afforded to relatively few high school band members. The hard work required to get there is worth it!

Posted in Auditions, Bass Trombone, Daily Routine, Education, Euphonium, Music, Music Education, Practicing, Scales and Arpeggios, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Tuba

Fall Concerts and Activities Preview

After taking the summer off from blogging, I am happy to again be writing weekly this fall. My plan is to write every week in September through November, then again in late January/early February through May, and perhaps take the summer off again in 2019. While writing every week is a good discipline for me, it can sometimes crowd out other things, so taking some breaks is helpful. Besides, with over six years of archival material I can use the blog’s Facebook page as a forum for sharing older posts that new readers might have missed, and keep folks engaged with The Reforming Trombonist that way.

Once again this year I have a very full teaching load, with 31 applied students when high school and other private students are taken into account, 17 players in the University of Mississippi Trombone Ensemble, and 15 players in the University of Mississippi Tuba-Euphonium Ensemble. The semester is already off to a fast and furious start, with a solo recital later this week. It promises to be a bit calmer after this coming Thursday, though still with enough activity to keep me busy.

September 6: “I Was Like WOW: Music for Trombone Alone and with Multimedia”

FlyerRealizing that this fall’s teaching load was going to be unusually large, I opted to schedule my solo recital for very early in the semester, so that most of the practicing could occur in the summer. The easiest way to perform this early was to do so alone, so I selected a program of unaccompanied works and works for trombone with multimedia. It is a varied and interesting program. The title piece, I Was Like WOW by Dutch composer JacobTV (b. 1951), is a multimedia presentation of images from the 2003 Iraq War, interviews with veterans, recorded vocal and percussive sounds, and a solo trombonist using various traditional and extended techniques. I compiled a short preview video after the dress rehearsal this past Friday, which appears below.

October 11: College Music Society/National Association of College Wind and Percussion Instructors National Conference, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

After a successful performance of our adaptation of Musical Flower Garden with Leyptziger Allerley by Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) this past spring, UM clarinet professor Dr. Michael Rowlett and I decided to apply to perform at the joint CMS/NACWPI conference this fall. Our application was accepted, so we are looking forward to performing the Hindemith again as well as a duo originally for clarinet and bassoon by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), and in one of North America’s coolest cities.

In case you missed it when I posted video back in February, here is our performance of the Hindemith piece from that recital.

October 27: University of Mississippi Low Brass Ensembles

Our fall low brass ensembles concert is earlier this year, occupying a “bye” weekend in the Ole Miss football schedule. Highlights of this semester’s concert include Jim Nova’s arrangement of the Superman Fanfare by John Williams (b. 1932), and two of my own arrangements. The first of these is a new one of the first movement of Symphony No. 13 by W.A. Mozart (1756-1791) for tuba-euphonium ensemble, and the other is for the combined ensembles, a setting of Rolling Thunder by Henry Fillmore (1881-1956), which was published several years ago by Cimarron Music Press.

 October 27, December 1, and December 8: Performing with the North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra

This will be my sixth season with the North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra as first trombonist, and the schedule for this fall is similar to those in past years, with a classical concert, a performance of The Nutcracker with the Tupelo Ballet, and a Christmas program for chorus and orchestra. While my role in the orchestra is usually as a tenor trombonist, at various times I have found myself playing alto trombone, bass trombone, or euphonium in the group. (And, yes, somehow I’m going to make having an orchestra concert and a low brass ensembles concert on the same day work!)

Besides these events, there will be a number of student solo and ensemble performances, several senior recitals, and the usual mix of “church gigs” and other smaller engagements for me. Of particular interest is that this year I have moved to the tuba/bass trombone chair in the Mississippi Brass Quintet, and am happy that our colleague Dr. Michael Worthy has joined the group in the trombone spot. We are looking forward to having him and trumpet student Jesse Gibens along with us.

Mississippi Brass Quintet 201808

Mississippi Brass Quintet. Michael Worthy, Leander Star, Micah Everett, Jesse Gibens, John Schuesselin

 

Posted in Bass Trombone, Brass Quintet, Euphonium, Higher Education, Micah Everett, Mississippi Brass Quintet, Music, NACWPI, Performance Videos, Performances, Performing, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Tuba, University of Mississippi

Rediscovering Leisure

The first week or two after the end of the spring semester might be my favorite time of each academic year. While it is true that I only teach full time about eight months of the year, those eight months are so packed with activity (60+ hour weeks are not uncommon in November and April particularly) that the 15-30 hours per week I typically work the rest of the year (musicians rarely get days that are completely “off”) seem positively restful.

One of the ways that I have long facilitated productive academic years is by spending a week or two in mid-May organizing. I will spend a fair amount of time during these weeks cleaning, filing, scanning, reading, thinking, and planning so that when school starts again in August I am able to allow those plans to work themselves out with only minimal retooling and redirecting along the way. Among the casualties of the frenetic activities of the fall and spring are the cleanliness and orderliness of my offices both at home and at the university; as I write now I sit in a half-cleaned office that seems to long as much as I do for the coming return to order and balance. The time spent cleaning and filing gives me time to think and formulate plans for future teaching, practicing, performing, and writing, and I relish the time to do simple work that allows me to be alone with my thoughts for a bit.

While taking a short break from cleaning today I received the regular weekly email with a few selected articles from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. Those familiar with ISI will gather from my being on their email list (in the unlikely event that they have not already reached this conclusion) that I am, unlike many of my faculty colleagues, a man who identifies with the political and cultural Right. ISI is, to my reading, more politically conservative than distinctly Christian, though there is a vague, more or less Roman Catholic element to its ethos. In any case, the articles in these weekly emails often exhort readers, particularly those pursuing lives of teaching and scholarship, to return to older ways of thinking, teaching, being, and doing.

The article that I found most compelling this week is entitled “Redefining Leisure,” and in it the author laments that modern Americans structure their lives around overwork, followed by wasting their dwindling leisure time in mindlessness. In contrast, she exalts “low art” and crafts-type hobbies as desirable forms of leisure, activities that “instill virtue and discipline, humility and wonder,” activities which through their repetitive nature provide opportunity for deep thought and reflection while creating simple beauty that edifies and fulfills the craftsman and others. She even suggests that “high art” cannot well exist and thrive in a society without a foundation of thoughtful craftsmen and artisans.

I can’t say that I really enjoy cleaning and filing and organizing, but I do enjoy having time to think, and that is my favorite aspect of this time of year. Applying this to my musical career throughout the year, maybe this is part of why I cling to the Remingtonian idea of a daily routine. That time of repetitive, daily fundamentals practice not only enables me to maintain my performing skills but also allows me to be alone with my thoughts as I play the same long tones, lip slurs, and scale studies as the day before. Sure, I’m listening and evaluating and fixing playing issues, but there’s still plenty of time for contemplation in there. Interestingly, with each passing year I spend less time listening to music for leisure. That might seem unfortunate, but with music making occupying the largest portion of most days for me, the return to silence (or perhaps a quiet news broadcast, sermon, audiobook, or podcast) is most inviting, and maybe even necessary.

Reading between the lines of the aforementioned article just a bit, what the author is suggesting is the forsaking of franticness in both work and leisure. Instead of overworking and then collapsing into mindlessness, she encourages a measured pace and thoughtful pursuits both in our vocations and avocations. I’m not sure our modern workplaces and schedules will permit this, but it is a lovely thought. Come to think of it, didn’t the psalmist give a similar exhortation three millennia or so ago?

Be still, and know that I am God…. (Psalm 46:10)

 

 

Posted in Beauty, Christian Worldview, Doctrine of Vocation, Education, Emory Remington, Higher Education, History, Playing Fundamentals, Practical Christianity, Practicing, Society, Teaching Low Brass, Truth, Work and Leisure