“Musicians for Christ” Interview

I am pleased to have been the first interviewee in what will be a series of interviews with Christian musicians on bass trombonist Calvin Audis’s new website. This material might be of interest to readers at The Reforming Trombonist also, and covers topics that have been discussed here periodically over the past eight-and-a-half years. Enjoy!

Posted in Beauty, Bible, Calvin Audis, Career Choices, Christian Formation, Christian Worldview, Church, Interviews, Micah Everett, Music, Music and Theology, Music and Worship, Online Resources, Practical Christianity, Teaching Low Brass, The Business of Music, The Gospel, Theology, Truth, Worship | Comments Off on “Musicians for Christ” Interview

On Church Cemeteries

General. Why do I sit here? To escape from the pirates’ clutches, I described myself as an orphan; and, heaven help me, I am no orphan! I come here to humble myself before the tombs of my ancestors, and to implore their pardon for having brought dishonour on the family escutcheon.

Frederic. But you forget, sir, you only bought the property a year ago, and the stucco on your baronial castle is scarcely dry.

General. Frederic, in this chapel are ancestors: you cannot deny that. With the estate, I bought the chapel and its contents. I don’t know whose ancestors they were, but I know whose ancestors they are, and I shudder to think that their descendant by purchase (if I may so describe myself) should have brought disgrace upon what, I have no doubt, was an unstained escutcheon.

This bit of dialog from the 1879 comic operetta The Pirates of Penzance by W.S. Gilbert (1836-1911) and Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) came to mind during a study group discussion at my church earlier this week. The exchange is meant to be humorous, but during our discussion I began to think that Gilbert and Sullivan, through the person of their “very model of a modern major general,” perhaps accidentally hit on something profound. I’ll explain why shortly.

Ephesus Baptist Church Cemetery

The country church where my parents grew up (and where they currently attend) has a feature not uncommon to rural Southern churches in that it has a cemetery on the property. Members of at least three generations of my family are buried there, and though I have not frequently done so I have never found it difficult to visit the various markers there after a Sunday service. Somehow, having the deceased members of a congregation buried on the property has always seemed normal to me, even though until two years ago I had never been part of a church that had this feature (aside from periodic visits to my parents’/grandparents’ church). As a young person, I tended to think it strange that modern urban and suburban churches do not have cemeteries on their properties. As an adult, I have come to think that this not just a quirk of modern urban development, but rather something that is to the impoverishment of church members. I have three primary reasons for this.

1. Cemeteries remind us that we will die. At College Hill Presbyterian Church, the education building and sanctuary are separated by a somewhat lengthy walk past (though not through) the cemetery. The sanctuary dates to the 1840s, and thus both it and the oldest grave markers on the property are rather old by American standards. I have visited or read of other old churches both in Europe and America where the markers are not just near the buildings but are immediately around them or even in them. In modern societies we take great pains to avoid contemplating the transience of this life, but one major purpose of Christian worship and practice is, quite literally, to prepare ourselves to die. Walking by those headstones has a way of forcing us to think about such things.

2. Cemeteries remind us of history generally. Our church property served as a headquarters for the Union Army under Generals Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885) and William Tecumseh Sherman (1820-1891) during the Civil War, which probably explains why it survived the war unlike just about every other building in Oxford. Along with members of the church, both Union and Confederate soldiers are buried on the property, as well as a number of slaves. Walking through old cemeteries like this has a way of making one reckon with history, including parts we might prefer to forget.

College Hill Presbyterian Church Cemetery

3. Cemeteries remind us of our history specifically. Visiting the cemetery at Ephesus Baptist Church is like walking through my family history. Looking around, I see not only my family name but those of grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and relations I can’t begin to trace even with the best web-based tools. To my knowledge, I have no family connection to anyone buried at College Hill Presbyterian Church. And yet, by becoming part of this congregation I have established a connection not only to my fellow worshippers there in the present, but in some sense to those generations of Christians who came before, many of whose resting places I walk by a couple of times a week. Those people’s lives no doubt included joys and successes as well as sadness and failures, both material and spiritual. And yet they established and sustained a place of ministry that has endured for nearly two centuries, and, God willing, the faithful ministry of the Word, sacraments, and prayer will continue there for many years go come. It is helpful, I think, to have such tangible reminders of the past so near at hand.

Gilbert and Sullivan’s general was not a particularly effective soldier, and his fear of dishonoring his “ancestors by purchase” was absurd and at least somewhat misguided. And yet, whether accidentally or on purpose, he reminds us that the history of a place matters, and when we adopt a place or institution as our own its history becomes to some extent ours to remember, learn from, and, where appropriate, honor.

Posted in Cemeteries, Christian Formation, Christian Worldview, Church, Church Cemeteries, Civil War, College Hill Presbyterian Church, Ephesus Baptist Church, History, Salvation, The Future, Theology, Worship | Comments Off on On Church Cemeteries

Influential Recordings: Cornerstone

Through a mix of unusual circumstances, some related to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, I found myself able to attend Christmas Eve services at my own church, instead of visiting family several hours away. I volunteered to perform a prelude for the service, and selected an arrangement of O Come, O Come Emmanuel by Stephen Edward Gerber. That arrangement was just one of many quality settings of hymns on Douglas Yeo’s album Cornerstone.

Douglas Yeo (b. 1955) was bass trombonist of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra before moving to the same position in the Boston Symphony Orchestra, where he was a member from 1985-2012. Since retiring from the orchestra he has served as trombone professor at Arizona State University and later at Wheaton College, his undergraduate alma mater. Mr. Yeo’s website, established in 1996, was the first major trombone-related website on the internet. Internet service at my high school was established around that same time, and I quickly became familiar with Mr. Yeo, his writings, his playing, and his Christian faith. As a young Christian preparing to step into the music business, I found his reflections to be particularly helpful as I began to navigate our professional world. I continue to find his thoughts on matters both professional and spiritual to be edifying, which I have enjoyed both through his writings and through a few personal interactions over the years. Most of Mr. Yeo’s online activity these days takes place through a blog entitled The Last Trombone, which readers here will almost certainly enjoy.

Released in 2000, Cornerstone includes sixteen tracks, mostly arrangements of old hymns but a few more recent tunes, as well. None of the arrangements are technically difficult showpieces but are instead in a vocal style to which the bass trombone is particularly well-suited. While listeners will appreciate Mr. Yeo’s beautiful, warm sound, as a trombonist always looking for quality material to play in worship services, I found this album to be a helpful tool for sorting through the morass of lesser arrangements to find the “really good stuff.” I have performed several of these arrangements multiple times over the past twenty years, including the aforementioned arrangement of O Come, O Come Emmanuel.

An added benefit of this album was my first introduction to the work of Bill Pearce (1926-2010), a trombonist, singer, and Christian radio broadcaster who contributed one arrangement and several narrations to the album. As a trombonist he had the “chops” to keep up with many of the great commercial trombonists of his generation, but chose a career working largely in the Gospel music and Christian radio industries. Mr. Pearce’s arrangements were all out of print by the time Cornerstone was released, but through the magic of Interlibrary Loan I managed to reproduce a complete set, and have played several of his settings in church services and even in recital.

Cornerstone is not available through the various streaming platforms but can still be purchased in audio CD format through Hickey’s Music. It is highly recommended.

Posted in Bass Trombone, Bill Pearce, Christian Formation, Christian Worldview, Church, College Hill Presbyterian Church, COVID-19, Douglas Yeo, Influential Recordings, Music, Music and Theology, Music and Worship, Practical Christianity, Recordings, Sheet Music, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Worship | Comments Off on Influential Recordings: Cornerstone

Preparing for Sight Reading in Auditions

A few weeks ago, I served as an adjudicator for the second-round trombone auditions for the Mississippi Lions All-State Band. I do this most years, yet in 2020 this provided a particularly enjoyable bit of near-normalcy for me. While we heard some very fine playing, sight reading was a weakness for the majority of students we heard, even those who performed more strongly in the other portions of the audition. The errors tended to follow fairly predictable patterns, all of which can be alleviated by a systematic approach to both preparing for and executing the audition.

Before the Audition

  1. Master scales and arpeggios. Most auditions at the middle and high school levels require scale and sometimes arpeggio patterns as part of the audition, which itself is a reason to master these patterns. Not all students seem to realize that these patterns have applications far beyond the scale portion of the audition. I will explain their particular application to sight reading shortly; for now, suffice it to say that failure to learn these patterns very well will compromise your playing in many ways, not just in auditions based upon scales.
  2. Feel time, think rhythm. With a few exceptions, more students have difficulty with counting rhythms while sight reading than with executing pitches. A prerequisite for being able to play with good rhythm and time while sight reading is to be able to do so all the time. Some students have a good sense of the beat or pulse (i.e. “time”) but fail to understand how to correctly place rhythms in the context of that pulse. Conversely, some theoretically understand the mathematical relationships expressed in rhythmic values but cannot feel the pulse internally. Both thinking and feeling must be involved. We must intuitively—even viscerally—feel the pulse while at the same time cognitively and reasonably apprehending the rhythm. Trying to “feel rhythm” doesn’t work and trying to “think time” is worse. Practice getting both elements of this. A metronome is your friend!
  3. Sight read difficult things. I have heard people claim that practicing sight reading is impossible. False. Sight reading can be practiced and should be practiced regularly and systematically. You can begin by reading literally anything on hand. Method books that you have, old band music, things you find that aren’t even for your instrument—anything can give you a place to start. If you want more direction, the All-State Sight Reading series provides some good material, and the Sight Reading Factory app can provide endless reading material at different levels. I am very fond of Develop Sight Reading by Gaston Dufresne, an especially challenging book that my teacher used to prepare me for all-state auditions 25 years ago. That is one key to this—sight read things that are far more difficult than you expect to see on the audition. If you can learn to work through the “really hard stuff,” you will find that you have a much easier time in the actual audition.

In the Room: Before Playing

  1. Look at the key signature, time signature, and tempo. Resist the temptation to immediately begin reading through the passage. Look carefully so that as you begin to conceptualize the piece you are thinking in the correct key, meter, and speed.
  2. No, for real, look at the key signature. Key signature errors are exceedingly common in the sight reading portion of these auditions, and to a judge’s ear they indicate that you are not careful and thorough in reading. In an all-state audition situation, judges are looking for people who read well and are thus able to absorb a large amount of challenging music very quickly, and inattention to detail in sight reading can be an indicator that the person is not ready to perform at that level. In the professional world the stakes are higher. In situations with little or no rehearsal time, frequent reading errors—perhaps especially key signature problems—can quickly lead to a person not being hired back.
  3. Look for accidentals, dynamics, articulations, and difficult passages. After fully apprehending the key, meter, and tempo, still resist the urge to immediately begin reading through. Scan through the passage and look for details like accidentals, dynamics, and articulations, making note of where these occur. Then look for particularly difficult passages and try to figure those out next. You don’t want to run out of time when looking through the piece and then discover to your horror that there was something very challenging that you didn’t notice.
  4. Look/blow/finger through as much as possible in the remaining time. After taking these initial steps, look through the passage and “air study” or finger through as much as possible. Depending on the amount of time available, you might not even get through the entire thing, but that’s okay. The next two steps should be undertaken as part of this read-through.
  5. Look for known patterns, and read them in groups, not as individual notes. Remember: we learn scale and arpeggio patterns not just to create artificial challenges or provide material for auditions, but because music is really made out of these patterns. Look for known patterns in everything you play and read notes in groups whenever possible. This will make your reading faster and more accurate.
  6. Try to “hear it in your head.” Brass instruments are rather unique in that the vibrations are produced by a part of your body (the lips), not a reed, string, or other external device. From a mental perspective, brass playing is a lot like singing. If you accurately “hear” the piece internally, you are much more likely to be able to execute it correctly. Provided that your embouchure is “in shape” and responsive, he lips will respond to the concepts presented by the brain.

In the Room: While Playing

  1. Maintain steady rhythm and time. A graduate school professor of mine was fond of saying that “the wrong note in the right place is half-right, but the right note in the wrong place is completely wrong.” There is truth in this. At least a missed pitch with correct rhythm is a note occurring where a note ought to occur. A correct pitch with missed rhythm is a note occurring where a note ought not to occur. That is a problem. Additionally, players with steady rhythm and time tend to have better physical coordination also, particularly of the breath and articulation.
  2. Be aggressive with large intervals. Sadly, with brass instruments correct fingerings do not guarantee correct pitches. The player must conceptualize and then “buzz” the pitch. Fear or nervousness can have a negative effect on this process, and even players who normally read very accurately will compress large intervals, perhaps, for example, moving only a third when a fifth or more is needful. A reticence to “stick your neck out” with large intervals often guarantees that the feared mistake will occur. Go for it!
  3. “Sing” (mentally) and play. Again, internal “hearing” of the desired note or notes is a vital part of correct brass playing. Hopefully you began to develop an internal concept of how the passage should sound while air studying, etc. When playing, think of the sight reading (and the etudes, and everything else) as “songs” that you simply need to hear and sing internally as you play.
  4. Prioritize rhythm over pitch. Accurate pitch production requires not only internally hearing the notes and the use of the correct fingerings, but the precise coordination of all of the bodily systems that contribute to playing. If you are accurately feeling time and counting rhythms, you will find that many supposed “chop problems” go away. That’s because many (not all) chop problems are actually timing problems. This also means that stopping and going and playing with an erratic tempo in a bid to “get the pitches” can often lead to some pitches not “being gotten.”
  5. DO NOT STOP. If you have used your sight reading preparation time well, you should have at least a fairly good idea of how the piece should sound. So, when it is time to play, keep playing. Stop-and-go playing can cause some response problems due to poor timing, and besides, it is unmusical.
  6. Play “musically.” In the end, no one wants to hear a mediocre reading of any piece of music, not even “just a reading exercise.” As much as possible, think of this sight reading as another opportunity for expressive music making, and then do it. This will demonstrate both maturity and right concepts, and in the end will yield a higher score. Good luck!
Posted in Alto Trombone, Auditions, Baritone Horn, Bass Trombone, Embouchure, Euphonium, Mississippi Lions All-State Band, Music, Music Education, Musical Interpretation, Playing Fundamentals, Practicing, Sight Reading, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Tuba | Comments Off on Preparing for Sight Reading in Auditions

Beauty Matters (Or, Why the Right Needs Great Art)

The title of this post might be strange enough to generate interest, but I will begin with a statement that isn’t strange at all. I went into music for two reasons: I was good at it, and I enjoyed it. That’s it, and thus a politically and socially conservative, (then-)Southern Baptist kid went off to music school. And I stayed in school a long time, finishing three degrees in eight years (four of those years also teaching part- or full-time), and having such a laser-like focus on practice and study that I remained only vaguely aware of how aberrant my views on basically everything else were in the professional milieu into which I was entering.

Emerging from school back into “real life,” then, was rather jarring. I discovered very quickly that my professional colleagues not only did not share my views on many topics, but also did not understand them, and in fact considered them rather ignorant and backward. At the same time, the people I met in church and other religious and civic organizations did not understand my profession or why it was important…and considered the views of the people with whom I worked to be ignorant and backward. To be sure, people on both sides were mostly prejudging caricatures of those on the other side, an effect that has been amplified rather than reduced in more recent years by the advent of social media. Meanwhile, my intellectual tug-of-war was only beginning.

One great thing about finishing my university training is that I found myself with time to read and study and explore other topics that interested me. I’ve written a great deal here about my theological studies and how these have been a blessing to me, and left me more convinced than ever that Christianity as a Weltanschauung—a “worldview,” though the German term conveys a bit more meaning than that—is not only defensible, but is the view most consistent with reality. Nevertheless, I was dismayed by how little regard the Calvinists, whose views on basically everything I found to be most congruent with my own, seemed to have for the arts.

At the same time, I was reading some of the better conservative political, social, and economic commentators, and they, too, seemed to have little regard for the arts. Not only do people on the Right view most in the arts community of being of the political and ideological Left (and they are), but many are suspicious of any industry that cannot survive on a for-profit basis in a purely free-market economy. Anyone who has ever been involved in or studied the history of the arts knows that the arts have seldom been able to survive or thrive on a purely market basis. They have always depended upon some form of subsidy or patronage. Whether or not that patronage must come from the government via taxation is an entirely separate question and is best left for another time. (The short answer is, no, it doesn’t have to come that way.)

Suffice it to say that developing my own worldview did not do very much for my sense of my place in the world. Studying theology did not make me a theological liberal and studying politics and economics and philosophy did not make me a political or social liberal. Yet here I was, still having a sense that being a musician somehow mattered, but unable to figure out why this was so through the lens of my views on basically everything else.

The answer has come to me somewhat slowly, but I’m finally landing at a place that works, I think. In a nutshell, it’s this: beauty matters. It matters first of all because God says it does. When God gave commandments to Moses regarding the furnishings of the tabernacle and the garments of the priests, he commanded that they be made “for glory and for beauty.” (Exodus 28:2) Centuries later, the Apostle Paul wrote of what we often summarize as “the good, the true, and the beautiful,” saying “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) In a time when political, social, and religious conservatives are more interested in utility and pragmatism than in beauty for its own sake, it is helpful to remember that the God we worship is neither utilitarian nor pragmatic. The Jewish places of worship did not have to be beautiful, but they were, and God was glorified by it being so. For that matter, God did not have to fill the creation with beautiful scenery, interesting creatures, and tasty food, but he did, and he was glorified in doing so. When Paul tells us to think on beauty, he is telling us to do so not for some utilitarian purpose, but simply because beautiful things honor their Creator.

So, the primary reason that beauty matters is that God is glorified by it. But there is a lesser but still important reason: a beautiful presentation makes our views compelling. The story of conservative Christian cultural engagement in the past 150 years is remarkable primarily for the lack of a story. Rather than engaging in the arts, culture, politics, the academy, etc. in meaningful ways, Christians withdrew from these areas, and with some notable exceptions our cultural products, when they existed at all, have been kitschy, saccharine imitations of what the broader culture was doing ten years earlier. Needless to say, this was neither winsome nor compelling. We might have had our theology right, and we might have had right thinking in the political and social realms, but without a beautiful, compelling presentation it is hard for these views to gain an audience. Those of us on the Right must learn to engage the arts winsomely, first of all because beauty is an objective good, and secondly because people are rarely drawn to truth bereft of beauty.

What, then, is the way forward? While this view will have some effect on how we view Christian worship, better conservative and Christian cultural engagement must be much broader than that. We must create great art, music, literature, and film that is simply beautiful, simply compelling, even when these products have no secondary evangelistic or other pragmatic purpose whatsoever. We must create beautiful things because beauty is good.

J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973)

As a preliminary model, I would like to suggest a work of literature that many of us will know and love: The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973). I am currently on my third reading, this time reading aloud to my son at night. If anything, reading aloud has made the beauty of Tolkien’s prose even more evident to me. The thing is, these books could have been MUCH shorter if Tolkien had just told the story, but instead he chose to present noble acts both simple and heroic with beautiful and ornate prose. A practicing Roman Catholic, Tolkien’s fundamentally Christian worldview is evident, yet he was not fond of allegory and, to my understanding, disdained people trying to impose a Gospel presentation on the work. (This is not, in other words, The Chronicles of Narnia with its obvious Christ-figure in Aslan.) Those sharing elements of Tolkien’s worldview will see echoes of that worldview everywhere in these novels, but his overall commitment to creating beautiful art resulted in a work that is beloved by people of all stripes, Christian and secular, liberal and conservative.  

Perhaps, then, beautiful art not only glorifies God and serves as a way to make conservatism and Christianity compelling, but also provides a common ground for people of widely divergent worldviews to come together and talk about things that all agree are “true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy.”

It’s at least a place to start.

Posted in Apologetics, Beauty, Books, Calvinism, Christian Formation, Christian Worldview, Church, J.R.R. Tolkien, Music, Music and Theology, Music and Worship, Politics, Popular Culture, Practical Christianity, Society, Theology, Truth, Virtue, Worship | Comments Off on Beauty Matters (Or, Why the Right Needs Great Art)