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.
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
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.
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!
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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!
“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.
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.”
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.
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!
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.
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.”
My son, who will turn eleven in a few days, has been playing violin for four years. While his sight reading ability remains well behind his overall technique, over the past year or so he has begun working through what low brass players would consider high school or even undergraduate level repertoire, including works by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741), and Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706). This is normal material for a fifth-year violin student, while a trombonist of his age playing the same repertoire would be considered quite prodigious, indeed. The main feature that makes these works so seemingly difficult to us: long series of sixteenth notes and sometimes thirty-second notes. For young string players, quickly moving notes are introduced by the time one reaches age nine or ten. Most students are a little older than that when first taking up wind instruments, but even woodwind players can expect to see such technical passages by the eighth or ninth grade. By the time they reach college, woodwind and string players seem generally unfazed by the appearance of sixteenth note “runs,” while low brass players tend to greet these with varying levels of panic. Why is this so?
The primary reason for this is simple technical difficulty. Although it can be disadvantageous to admit this to oneself in practice, executing fast technical passages is more difficult on our instruments than on many others. For trombonists, the reason for this is obvious. The handslide has a certain elegance in skilled hands but learning to move it deftly at great speed requires many years of diligent practice. It simply takes longer to learn to play quickly on the trombone than on the violin or clarinet. The euphonium and tuba do not share this particular difficulty, but they do share with trombonists the challenge of achieving embouchure accuracy when moving quickly. All of these skills can be mastered with diligent practice, and I can say that all of my university students and nearly all of my high school students have developed the technical skill needed to play fast-moving passages.
The skill to play them, that is. Reading and executing them at sight remains a problem for most, even when the passages consist of known patterns. That brings me back to my earlier question: Why? Ultimately, this is a problem with mental processing. Players of other instruments that encounter fast-moving passages earlier in their playing careers become accustomed to seeing, processing, and executing such passages at young ages. By contrast, trombonists and tubists can easily walk into college band for the first time having never encountered a thirty-second note. This represents a serious deficiency, especially considering that low brass players majoring in music education will one day need to teach those difficult technical passages to woodwind and string players. Addressing these problems with cognition or processing is harder, though there are some steps that one can take to improve in this way.
1. Admit that slowness in processing fast-moving passages is a problem. As a teacher, I am far less frustrated by students’ inability to read sixteenth-note passages than I am by their failure to see this as a problem. Granted, the dearth of technical challenges for low brass in large ensemble music can feed the perception that learning to read faster passages is an “extra” skill rather than a necessary one. Still, I am convinced that if my students who want to become teachers cannot read sixteenth notes effectively, they will struggle to teach those instruments that encounter moving passages more frequently. Besides, the technical challenges of our instruments do not somehow give their players corresponding cognitive challenges. A trombonist can learn to read and understand complex parts as well as a flutist or violinist…and should!
2. Incorporate daily exercises that maintain and develop speed. Every brass player should have a daily routine of some kind that provides systematic development of various playing skills, including moving through scale and arpeggio patterns at great speed. I have written about this here on several occasions over the years, and also provide several routines for this purpose on my faculty website at Ole Miss. Such routines not only provide necessary physical development of the muscles and tissues used in playing, but drills of assorted diatonic and chromatic patterns become particularly helpful when applied to sight reading.
3. Read and play music that demands increased reading ability. If your music making activities consist entirely of the low brass parts in band and orchestra music, your development as a musician will remain stunted. Our parts are, frankly, usually much simpler than those for more traditionally melodic instruments. One might ask whether band music has easy low brass parts because the musicians can’t play harder stuff, or if they can’t play harder stuff because they are never given such parts. The answer to that question might be “yes,” but even in the best of circumstances large ensemble music including many intricate technical passages for low brass would become incredibly “muddy.” Quality orchestration thus demands that our parts usually be simple, so in order to grow we must make special efforts to find, read, prepare, and even create challenging repertoire, including solo and chamber music and challenging method books. If you don’t have a private teacher that will introduce you to new practice materials and push you to achieve them, get one!
4. Learn to recognize patterns in the music being played, and execute accordingly. When my son was in Pre-K and kindergarten, he would read by sounding out words one letter at a time. This was an appropriate level of skill development for him, and we praised him for it. If he was still sounding out words in this way as a fifth grader, though, that would be considered a serious problem. Why, then, do so many young musicians persist in trying to read music one note at a time? This is the musical equivalent of “sounding out words!” Most music you will encounter consists of scale and arpeggio patterns, and derivative patterns such as thirds and fourths. This is perhaps especially true when you encounter long series of sixteenth or thirty-second notes. If you will learn to recognize and execute these patterns as groups of notes rather than as individual notes, your reading will improve in both speed and accuracy.
(Of course, success here demands the kind of daily fundamentals work mentioned earlier….)
5. Develop an expanded vision of what is possible. This is a more positive corollary to the first point, and its importance cannot be overstated. If you have a limited vision of the possibilities of your instrument or the level of understanding that is necessary, you will likely fail to realize even those small aspirations. If, however, you develop and diligently pursue lofty and aggressive goals for technical achievement and reading ability, you will eventually achieve much. Sight read everything you can find. Make yourself learn to quickly read, process, and execute challenging repertoire. If you can do this you might sometimes find your band and orchestra parts to be a little boring, but you will be a better musician and a better teacher for it, and when one of those last-minute calls comes for you to “sight read the gig,” you’ll be ready.
I was planning to write a new post this weekend, but in light of conversations with several students this past week, this post is worth sharing again. While it can be tempting to neglect fundamentals in favor of working on other assigned materials, ultimately this is not a path to success…in music or in football.
Vince Lombardi (1913-1970) was one of the most successful football coaches in the history of the National Football League, leading the Green Bay Packers to an extended period of dominance in the 1960s. Today the trophy awarded to the winner of the Super Bowl is named in his honor. A firm believer in the importance of playing fundamentals in building successful football teams, Lombardi famously began each year’s training camp by holding up a ball and saying “Gentlemen, this is a football,” followed by a review of the very basic elements of the game. His teams were composed of some of the most accomplished and successful athletes in the world and some no doubt though this approach to be unnecessarily pedantic, but they couldn’t argue with his results. Lombardi demanded excellence and pursued it methodically, beginning with building the foundations needed for successful competition.
Over the years I’ve come to realize more and more that the elements necessary for success in sports are very similar to those required for progress and success in music. In trying to teach my seven-year-old son (edit: now almost eleven) just a bit about how to throw a football, shoot a basketball, or catch a baseball (and, trust me, I know only a bit about these things) I can see that his successes are tied directly to correct fundamental execution and his most marked failures come when he becomes so enamored with trick plays and lucky shots that he has seen on television or online clips that he ignores the basics and tries to do something spectacular. This is no different than most young boys, of course, and I was certainly no better at his age (in fact, I was considerably worse), but thirty added years of life experience and at least some success in the music business have provided me with some additional perspective on what is happening when he succeeds or fails in his sporting endeavors. He is slowly learning to focus his efforts on correct basic execution, and his skills are improving as a result.
In music I see very similar tendencies with my students. Even since high school I have been both a proponent and a practitioner of the daily routine as a means of reviewing and extending fundamental playing skills each day. Over the years I have noticed that diligence in this area has been tied to my greatest successes as a brass player, and negligence has led to failure. I constantly seek to impress the importance of this upon my students, but they usually require some convincing before they learn to develop their fundamental playing skills before tackling the most challenging repertoire. Despite my efforts, most have to learn this lesson “the hard way,” as I sometimes have.
Why is the daily routine so important? Part of it is because of the need to warm-up, to gently exercise the muscles and tissues used in playing, though this can be accomplished without the use of a repetitive and systematic routine. I think even more important is the mental aspect. The daily routine provides an opportunity to systematically review how to play the instrument, beginning with the most basic elements and moving to more advanced concepts. In essence, during the daily routine I teach myself all over again how to play the trombone correctly and fend off the development of unproductive habits.
In that sense, the daily routine is our version of the “this is a football” speech, given to ourselves each day. It worked for Lombardi and the Packers, and it works for us brass players, as well.