Revisiting the Word “Euphonium”


A humorous diagram showing the differences between the euphonium, baritone horn, double-bell euphonium, and ophicleide.

In a tongue-in-cheek article posted here a few years ago I confessed to a certain dissatisfaction with the word “euphonium.” While that is the correct term for the large, conical-bored, valved brass instrument with a fundamental pitch of B-flat1, I have also contended that the word “euphonium”—following a similar Greek word meaning “pleasant sounding”—is really a remnant of nineteenth-century marketing. It is something of a “three-dollar word” coined as much to sell instruments as anything else. Because the history of low brass instrument nomenclature is not as “nice and neat” as current players might like to think, I’ve tried to avoid an elitist mindset which faults band directors and others for calling this instrument and labeling its parts as “baritone.” The distinction between the baritone horn and euphonium, while significant, has never been as clear in the American context as the British one, or at least it wasn’t before British-style euphoniums began to take hold in this country around 1950. In working with band directors and students I have emphasized means of conceptualizing and achieving a characteristic euphonium sound, but have downplayed the importance of the word “euphonium.”


Playing and speaking at the ASBDA Region 5 conference.

Yesterday I presented a clinic at the American School Band Directors Association Region 5 Conference, entitled “Getting the Right Euphonium Sound.” In that clinic I took the approach indicated above—I discussed and demonstrated what the characteristic sound of the euphonium is, how it differs from a trombone sound (or, for that matter, a baritone horn sound), and how to instruct students to achieve that sound. At the same time, I was less insistent about using the term “euphonium,” especially in concert band contexts where most of the parts are often labeled “baritone,” even where the euphonium is the intended instrument and timbre. We had a great question-and-answer time at the conclusion of the clinic, and one question in particular made me begin to rethink this approach.

The director who asked the question teaches at a school where most students rent or buy their own euphoniums, rather than using school-owned instruments as is the norm in many districts. She has begun to encounter a significant problem in that parents of “baritone” players have been perusing online catalogs and then purchasing British-style baritone horns, rather than the euphoniums that are the actual desired instruments. This particular problem might not have occurred in previous generations, when American manufacturers in particular had a habit of labeling their top-line instruments as “euphoniums” and their lesser-grade ones “baritones,” despite there being little or no distinction in sound or construction. But in the current global market quality manufacturers such as Yamaha and Besson that market instruments to American wind bands also make instruments for British brass bands, where the “baritones” and “euphoniums” are markedly different animals. Well-meaning parents who have always heard the terms “baritone” and “euphonium” used interchangeably (if they have heard the latter term at all) are understandably displeased to learn that the baritone horns they have purchased for their children are not usable due to their not having the correct sound for the American concert band context.

In the previous post mentioned above I indicated a wish that the low brass community would dump the word “euphonium” and use “tenor tuba” instead. I would still be glad to see this, and the distinction between this instrument and the baritone horn would remain. But for now, “euphonium” is still the correct term, and while composers for American wind bands have not always appreciated the distinction between baritones and euphoniums, manufacturers do, and the instruments currently marketed as “baritones” are almost never called for in wind band repertoire. While sound is more important than nomenclature, directors who want their parents and students to purchase the correct instruments will have to insist that they buy euphoniums. As it turns out, precision in terminology is important, after all.



Posted in Baritone Horn, Euphonium, Mouthpieces, Music, Music Education, Musical Instrument Manufacturers, Nomenclature, Pedagogy, Teaching Low Brass

My First ITEC…Not Really…but Kind Of


University of Mississippi Tuba-Euphonium Ensemble, with composer Kenyon Wilson

As was the case with my previous post, I’m writing this morning from a hotel room near Iowa City, where I am still attending the International Tuba-Euphonium Conference at the University of Iowa with my students. The University of Mississippi Tuba-Euphonium Ensemble had a successful performance on Tuesday, and we have enjoyed the remainder of the week attending concerts, lectures, master classes, and exhibits. This was my first time bringing a large student group to a conference like this, so this was a new experience for most of them. As we were preparing for this trip a few students were obviously skeptical that attending ITEC would be worth the trouble and expense (some of which the students bore themselves), but in the end I think all of them decided the trip was worth it. Some seem to have preferred the concerts, others the exhibits, and still others simply having the opportunity to meet and get pictures with their “tuba heroes,” but all have greatly enjoyed the experience.


Students participating in a group warm-up class.

For me, this experience is not new at all, and yet it is. I attended my first ITEC in 2002, when I was a graduate student at the host institution, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Because my entire career has spent with one foot in both the trombone and tuba-euphonium worlds and funding is limited, I have not been able to attend the ITEC or its counterpart, the International Trombone Festival, every time they have been held, but I have been to both events enough times that attending is, in a sense, “old hat.” While I enjoy attending and participating in performances and presentations, as well as making and renewing connections with colleagues, I see little at these events that is truly “new” for me. But watching my students experiencing all of this for the first time has been reinvigorating, and reminds me of the sense of amazement that I had when attending events like this for the first time. I told the students all along that their opportunity to take in everything at the conference was more important than their own performance, but I’m not sure I realized just how true this was until I actually saw it. I find myself even more excited now about taking my “other” student group to the International Trombone Festival in a few weeks, and determined to find ways to fund more and more frequent opportunities to participate in conferences like this.

Speaking of which, I should stop writing and get ready to leave—this morning’s class with tuba virtuoso Øystein Baadsvik begins in less than an hour!

Posted in Conferences, Euphonium, International Trombone Festival, International Tuba-Euphonium Conference, Oystein Baadsvik, Pedagogy, Performances, Teaching Low Brass, Tuba, Tuba-Euphonium Ensembles, University of Mississippi, University of North Carolina at Greensboro

Summer Concerts and Activities Preview

While my usual practice for the past several years has been to take most or all of the summer off from blogging, this year I instead took a break for most of the month of May, and hope to write regularly for the next couple of months with a series I’m entitling “Essential Concepts in Brass Playing.” For the seven years that I’ve been writing here I’ve endeavored to address fundamental issues with wide musical applications and these 6-8 planned topics will be in that same vein.

But for this morning I’d like to give TRT readers a rundown of what my students and I will be up to this summer. While last summer was rather relaxing, this year’s summer months will be filled with activity, with a number of conference presentations on the local, regional, and international levels, interspersed with lessons with high school students, freshman orientation advising, and the usual assortments of local gigs, church preludes or offertories, etc.

ITEC_logo_blackMay 28: International Tuba-Euphonium Conference
This summer’s big activities begin this afternoon! I’m writing from a hotel room just outside of Iowa City, where this year’s International Tuba-Euphonium Conference is taking place at the University of Iowa. The University of Mississippi Tuba-Euphonium Ensemble will be performing as part of a 90-minute program shared with two other university ensembles. The rest of the week will be spent attending concerts, visiting exhibits, and learning from great players and teachers from around the world. This is our group’s first appearance at an ITEC, and I am excited for the opportunity for my students.

June 6: American School Band Directors Association Region 5 Convention
This will be my first time presenting at an ASBDA event, and I am honored to have been invited. My clinic, tentatively entitled “Getting the Right Euphonium Sound,” will address a topic that, while simple enough, is a perpetual issue in high school and middle school ensembles that I hear: euphoniums that sound too much like trombones and not enough like the tenor tubas that they essentially are. Happily, this problem is usually relatively easy to correct, and I’ll present steps to help make that happen.

June 17: Ole Miss Band “The Pride of the South” Directors Workshop
This workshop is a new event for school band directors in our region beginning this year, and I hope that it will become an annual event. I’ll be presenting a clinic entitled “Taking the Mystery out of Trombone Legato” at the end of the first day of the workshop. The content will be similar to that of an article I published in School Band and Orchestra Magazine a few years back.

itf_blue_date_logo-01smallerestJuly 10-13: International Trombone Festival
Not to be outdone by their colleagues on the tuba-euphonium side of things, the UM Trombone Ensemble will be making its first appearance at the International Trombone Festival, to be held this year at Ball State University. Besides the ensemble performance, I’ll be appearing twice as soloist, performing the unaccompanied alto trombone work Mythos II: War of the Wood by David Herring on a “faculty showcase” program, and then Worlds Apart for bass trombone and piano by Frank Gulino as part of a composers’ workshop in which Frank is participating. Once again, attending and participating in an event like this is a great opportunity for our students.

In case you’re curious, here’s a movement of the David Herring work, entitled “The Gremlins,” from my first performance of it in 2015. It is certainly not the usual fare for alto trombone!

July 28: ClarinetFest®
You’ll be unsurprised to learn that this will be my first appearance at an International Clarinet Association event. 🙂 UM clarinet professor Michael Rowlett and I will be reprising our clarinet/euphonium duo performance from last year’s CMS/NACWPI conference at this year’s ClarinetFest®. The program will consist once again of two pieces, a duo originally for clarinet and bassoon by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), and our adaptation of Musical Flower Garden with Leyptziger Allerley by Paul Hindemith (1895-1963). Something tells me that this will be a somewhat different experience than the low brass conferences to which I am accustomed!

Those are the big events for this summer. I’ll also be preparing for several major fall programs, including repeat performances the newly-dubbed “Insanity Brass Duo” program with Michael Wilkinson, this time at Ole Miss and the University of Alabama, a solo performance with the Lafayette-Oxford-University Symphony Orchestra in November, and hopefully—if I can find time for it—a euphonium solo recital. I’d also like to finally make progress on the brass methods textbook I’d like to write. We’ll see if I can get all of this done!



Posted in Alto Trombone, American School Band Directors Association, Bass Trombone, ClarinetFest, Conferences, David Herring, Euphonium, Frank Gulino, International Tuba-Euphonium Conference, Michael Rowlett, Michael Wilkinson, Music, Performances, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Tuba, University of Mississippi

Placing Scriptures and Praying for “Phillips:” an Exhortation for the Oxford Gideons “Rally Day”

Early this morning (28 April 2019) Gideons from throughout our region gathered at First Baptist Church of Oxford. The occasion was this year’s “Rally Day,” a day on which Gideon speakers visit numerous churches in an area in order to speak about the Gideon ministry and to raise funds to purchase scriptures for distribution. While I normally speak in a church on these occasions, today I was instead asked to provide a word of exhortation to those assigned to speak. The following is the text of that talk.

Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” This is a desert place. And he rose and went. And there was an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning, seated in his chariot, and he was reading the prophet Isaiah. And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over and join this chariot.” So Philip ran to him and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. Now the passage of the Scripture that he was reading was this: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter and like a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he opens not his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” And the eunuch said to Philip, “About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus. And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” [And Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” And he replied, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”] And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he passed through he preached the gospel to all the towns until he came to Caesarea. (Acts 8:26-40)

While attending Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina, an unbelieving student noticed a Gideon giving away little green New Testaments to students entering the cafeteria. Relieved that the man did not stop him and try to share the Gospel with him right then, the student took the Bible out of politeness, never really intending to read it. He threw it onto the shelf of his dorm room, and didn’t look at it again until the end of the semester.

After final exams, the young man had to wait a week for his parents to pick him up and take him home, and he found himself with nothing to do. He found that New Testament with Psalms and Proverbs while cleaning his room and, without something better to do, he began to read in Psalm 62: Truly my soul waiteth upon God: from Him cometh my salvation. He only is my rock and my salvation; he is my defence; I shall not be greatly moved. He didn’t understand those words at first, but providentially he found a commentary on Psalms and Proverbs in a pile of unwanted books in the dorm basement. Armed with extra help, he began to study that Gideon Bible some more, and the Lord began to open his mind and heart to the Gospel. After returning home, he went to a church where he heard the Gospel preached, and gave his heart to Christ. He later served God as a minister, and as a Navy chaplain.

I’m sure we’ve all read the story of the Ethiopian eunuch a number of times, and I’ll bet that at different times various aspects of the story jumped out at us. Maybe it was the miraculous way in which Philip was instructed to attend this divine appointment, and then the even more miraculous way that he was carried away. Maybe it is the way that Philip used Isaiah 53—a very directly messianic passage in Isaiah—as a starting point from which to preach Christ crucified to the man. As a former Baptist-turned-Presbyterian I’ve even read a number of interesting arguments from various perspectives about what it means that Philip and the eunuch “went down into the water.” Of course, the most important thing is that this man confessed Christ as Lord and Savior, and indeed a Christian church has existed in Ethiopia practically since the time this man returned home.

But for our purposes this morning what I want to point out is that, in God’s providence, this man’s conversion began with him reading the Bible himself. There aren’t too many examples of what we would call personal Bible study recorded in the Scriptures, given how difficult to produce and expensive to obtain those documents were at the time, so it is especially remarkable that Luke, under the Spirit’s direction, records for us a conversion story that begins in precisely this way. Let me share another testimony with you.

This is the story of a girl raised in a family of avowed atheists. These were loving, hospitable people, yet they were openly hostile to the Bible and to the Gospel. Still, her curiosity piqued, this girl “stole” a Gideon hotel Bible while on a family trip. Inexplicably drawn to the Book, she read in her bedroom at night, hoping her family would not find out. After leaving home for college she met a Christian girl in her dorm that explained the meaning of the stories she had read in that Gideon Bible, and as a result she was saved. In process of time, and after much prayer, most of her remaining family members also came to saving faith. Her mother, however, was stubborn and resistant, not even allowing the Bible or God to be discussed in her presence. She softened, though, when she was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. One afternoon, the woman that had “stolen” a red Gideon hotel Bible years before found that same Bible in her mother’s house, and used it to lead her mother to Jesus Christ. In this case, a single five-dollar copy of God’s Word was used by God to bring about the salvation of an entire family.

I chose to include these two testimonies with the discussion of Acts 8 this morning because all of the stories take a similar shape. First we have a person reading the Bible on his or her own—perhaps for reasons the person doesn’t yet understand—and having the beginnings of spiritual life stirred within. We know from Scripture that even this is from God working upon their souls—in John 6:44 Jesus himself says

No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day. (John 6:44)

And yet none of these individuals were brought to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ from reading alone. While this sometimes happens and we are thankful for this, more often it is through Christian witness and especially the preaching ministry of the church that the Holy Spirit brings those awakened through reading the scriptures to the place that they understand, repent, and believe the gospel. This ought not to surprise us either—Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 2 that

The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. (1 Corinthians 2:14)

The scriptures are impossible to fully understand and believe without the Spirit’s enabling, and thus faithful preaching and Christian witness by those already so enabled are most often needed to bring people to repentance and faith.

So what we have in these three accounts—one scriptural and the others selected from among thousands of Gideon testimonies—is a person reading the Word, coming to some spiritual understanding on his or her own, and finally coming to saving faith when Christians come alongside them and lead them to Christ.

So what are we as Gideons to do? Three things.

1. Pray. We must pray for both opportunity and ability to distribute scriptures, and then pray that God would use those scriptures to save sinners. From beginning to end we are dependent upon God to provide funds and opportunity to do this work, to provide “Philips” to those who read the scriptures so that they can understand and respond, and then finally to bring people to a saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus. In Acts 16 we read of Lydia’s response to Paul’s preaching with these words:

The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. (Acts 16:14b)

Saving souls is God’s work, not ours, and it is a work in which he delights. It is our privilege to have a small part in that work, and that part begins with our praying for every aspect of this ministry, and especially for the salvation of men, women, boys, and girls around the world.

2. “Sow Seeds.” I often speak of the Gideon ministry with reference to the Parable of the Sower, speaking of these Bibles and Testaments as seeds that we are scattering everywhere we can, and once again praying that God would bring forth a great harvest. Sometimes we get the opportunity to “water those seeds” also through a word of witness or inviting a person to church, sometimes not. Either way, again, it is God who gives the growth, just as Paul said to the church at Corinth,

I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. (1 Corinthians 3:6)

I suppose that brings us back to prayer again, since we pray for faithfulness and opportunity in planting and watering, and just like a farmer we depend upon God to provide the harvest.

3. Encourage One Another. Finally, we are to encourage one another, or to use “Gideon-speak,” we are to associate together for service. The author to the Hebrews wrote this in Chapter 10:

And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:24-25)

This text is most often used to exhort people to regular church attendance and participation, and rightly so, but the idea applies to us as Gideons also. As much as it rubs against my introvert tendencies, God does not intend for his people to be isolated. He intends for us to work together, pray together, encourage each other, admonish each other, and to seek one another’s material and spiritual well-being. We need this; it is how God made us.

That has been my aim this morning, men. To “stir us up.” The task you have before you today seems simple. Very likely you’ll stand in a particular pulpit for the first and last time, and deliver a message you might have given in almost this exact form dozens of times to people you probably don’t know and might never see again. It would be easy to go through the motions in your own strength, rely solely on your oratorical skills and persuasive demeanor, and achieve a predictable result. I’m ashamed to say that I’ve done that before and I’ll wager that most of you have, too. I’m asking you not to do that.

Instead, I’m asking you to pray that both you and the congregations that you will visit will be “stirred up.” After all, they are our brothers and sisters in Christ, and thus a part of the “one anothers” we read about in Hebrews. Pray that they will get a small part of the vision that you have for placing scriptures into as many hands as possible, that they will contribute financially to that effort, and that qualified men and their wives will consider joining with us in membership. Most of all, pray and exhort them to pray that God will use the scriptures placed as a result of your speaking today to draw men, women, boys, and girls to himself in repentance and faith.

And even though we’re not supposed to preach, find some way to give them the Gospel as you speak. Tell them Jesus Christ saves sinners, that he lived, died, and rose again for us. Tell them that salvation is free and open to all who will come. We serve a gracious God who takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked but rejoices over even one sinner who repents. Maybe God will be pleased to save someone even today.

Giving Gideon New Testament

Posted in Bible, Evangelism, The Gideons International, Theology

Toward a More “Evolved” Right Hand Position on Trombone

Despite its many benefits for intonation, elegance (in accomplished hands, at least), and vaudeville effects, the trombone’s handslide presents technical difficulties for young players unlike those encountered by players of other wind instruments. While hard work is required to master slide technique, the difficulty of this is lessened considerably when trombonists use a right hand position that facilitates efficient movement. In my article “Demystifying Trombone Legato: A Simple Approach,” published in School Band and Orchestra Magazine in 2016, I wrote the following regarding the right hand position:

While there are a variety of hand positions advocated by professional trombonists, whatever hand position is used should allow the player to use all of the joints of the fingers, wrist, elbow, and shoulder in order to move the slide, making finer adjustments with the smaller joints, and larger adjustments with the larger ones. This helps to prevent jerky motions that often take place when the elbow and shoulder have a dominant role in slide movement, and also enables better tuning.

 I took a more specific approach in my 2014 book The Low Brass Player’s Guide to Doubling, where, in a chapter coauthored by University of North Florida professor Marc Dickman, we wrote the following:

Figure 8.2 Trombone Right Hand PositionThe handslide should be held with the tips of the first and second fingers and thumb of the right hand, with the third and fourth fingers extended, so the entire hand is able to move together without unnecessary tension. (See photo.) Strive to use all of the joints of the fingers, hand, wrist, elbow, and shoulder in tandem so that slide motion is quick, efficient, and fluid.

It is very important to hold the handslide using the fingertips rather than closer to the hand (the jointed knuckle area). Holding the handslide correctly makes the smaller joints of the fingers available for fine intonation adjustments, a task for which these joints are far better suited than the elbow or even the wrist. This also promotes a gentle slide action in which gravity and inertia do much of the work, rather than a more muscular approach which is inefficient and can cause both intonation difficulties and slide alignment problems.

While I am unwilling to contend that the hand position I use and advocate is the only one that works, problems ensue when the hand position is allowed to “devolve” into one where the slide brace is held closer to the hand. When that happens one loses the ability to use the joints of the fingers to make finer slide movements, and is left trying to make sometimes very small and delicate movements with the elbow and shoulder, which are ill-equipped for the task. I have been fond of comparing this to using a sledgehammer to drive small nails for hanging pictures on a wall. This is theoretically possible, but you are more likely to find yourself patching drywall!

In the past few weeks I’ve taken to using another humorous comparison, referring to the Evolution of Man charts that we all remember from high school science textbooks. For whatever reason, the incorrect hand positions to which I am referring remind me of the drawings two or three steps back from Man in his current condition—or perhaps forward to the additional figure seen in the humorous comic below. Either way, for the sake of good intonation and efficient technique, let’s all make sure that we operate the handslide in the most “evolved” manner possible!


Posted in Alto Trombone, Bass Trombone, Contrabass Trombone, Marc Dickman, Music, Music Education, Pedagogy, Playing Fundamentals, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Trombone

Want to Succeed? Try Doing What the Teacher Says!

This fall I will begin my nineteenth year teaching applied low brass lessons at the university level. Having begun as a wide-eyed twenty-two-year-old graduate assistant, I was in those early years eager to embark on my teaching career, terrified of failure to help students, and ready to deploy all of the pedagogical tools at my disposal to help students with their difficulties in performance. Students with both an appreciable level of “natural talent” and a strong work ethic were and are easy to teach, and even less talented but hardworking students present few difficulties. But the unmotivated, regardless of innate ability level, were for me then a seemingly insurmountable challenge.

As a young teacher, my tendency when a student came to a lesson having made little progress from the previous week was to immediately conclude that some deficiency in my teaching was to blame for the student’s lack of improvement. I would then make an extraordinary mental effort to devise new ways to explain, practice, and execute the assigned material in the hopes of spurring student success. To be sure, this practice led to a number of improvements in my teaching, as through study and experimentation I developed new understandings, new explanations, and new exercises to help struggling students. Nevertheless, after several years of exasperation it occurred to me that at least some of the time the fault was not with my teaching but rather with the student’s failure to put into practice the instructions I had already given.

I’m reminded of a satirical piece from several years ago entitled “Student Has Amazing Breakthrough by Doing What Teacher Says.” In that fictional account, violinist John Man struggled for years with little progress until discovering this long-hidden recipe for success. Here’s a short excerpt:

“I tried just playing the way I want over and over and over again, hoping that it would get better,” he said. “It never did! It was like, the more I played it the same way the more it would sound the same. What could I do?”

Finally, out of sheer desperation, Man started doing what his teacher had been telling him to do in every lesson for the past five years. “The results have been incredible!” said Man. “It’s as if following the advice of an older, more experienced musician allows me to somehow cultivate effective working habits better than my own.”

This fictional account has been replicated by numerous students who have come through my studio over the years, and I’ll confess to experiencing a delightful satisfaction when a student comes to a lesson playing exponentially better than the week before, and then finally says something like “I started doing [insert instruction here] like you said and it worked.” Of course, sometimes the fault for a student’s lack of success really does lie in my teaching, and I am always looking for better ways to motivate, teach, and correct young brass players. But if a struggling student has yet to at least try the suggestions I’ve already made, my usual direction is “Go to the practice room and do what I’ve already told you. If it doesn’t work, then I’ll come up with something new.”

The ones that finally try it often end up with “amazing breakthroughs” of their own.


Posted in Alto Trombone, Bass Trombone, Education, Euphonium, Higher Education, Music, Music Education, Pedagogy, Practicing, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Tuba

Changing My Tune (sorry…) on Church Choirs

A few months ago my family and I began attending a different church in our community from the one of which we have been members for several years. The reasons for that are not the topic of this article, nor do I plan to discuss them in this space other than to say that so far we find the overall culture and particularly the liturgy of the new (to us) congregation to be more suitable. One big difference, which you might be surprised to learn did not influence our decision to visit and begin attending this church, was that it has a choir that sings one or two Sundays per month. Although we had intended to visit quietly for several weeks or even months without actively participating, the choir director also happens to be our son’s violin teacher, and we quickly found ourselves “drafted” into membership. This has been a delightful experience that has both confirmed and furthered changes in my thinking on church music that I have been processing for a while.

You see, prior to our attending this church we had not been members of a congregation that had a choir in over a decade. In most cases the reasons for this had largely to do with size. We spent four years as part of new church plants (yes, more than one, which is itself a long story) and nearly eight in churches whose membership or facilities were not large enough to facilitate regular choral singing. Additionally, after coming to the Reformed faith I had drunk deeply from the writings of staunch Presbyterians of the old school who were suspicious of choirs, instrumental music—pretty much anything other than unaccompanied metrical Psalms. While I never came to the point of embracing that level of austerity (though I enjoy and appreciate singing from the Psalter), between reading these authors and processing my experiences as a sometimes itinerant church musician through that lens I began to think that a greater simplicity in church music was called for. I wanted to see church music dominated by congregational singing—vigorous, quality congregational singing—with somewhat minimal instrumental accompaniment. At no point was I willing to say that churches shouldn’t have choirs, but I had been reasonably happy without them in the smaller churches of which I had been a part.

So what changed? In a way, very little. I still think congregational singing should be the primary musical experience in corporate worship, and I am always on guard against the tendency for church music—of any genre—to overflow its banks, as it were, and turn the worship service into a concert. What has changed, though, is my opinion of the place of choral music in the church’s life, a place that I find myself after all this time once again heartily promoting. Here are a few reasons why.

1. Choirs teach God’s people to sing well. It was perhaps too easy for me, as a classically trained musician with perfect pitch, to take for granted the ability to sing vigorously, in time, and in tune during the worship service, and then in turn to expect everyone else to do the same. And in some cases the choir-less congregations of which we were part, a couple of which had very good congregational singing, had above-average amounts of musical training among their members, as well, training which, incidentally, sometimes had come in prior churches with graded choral music programs. When done well, church choir programs from preschool and children’s programs through adult choirs provide a forum in which members of congregations learn at least something of the fundamentals of tone production and music reading. This necessarily leads not only to fine choral performances, but also to improved congregational singing, both by the choir members themselves and by other congregants who follow their lead.

2. Choirs teach God’s people to sing good things. Like many others of my particular theological and musical stripes, I have lamented the increasing loss of the great hymns of the faith as they seem to be giving way to contemporary selections of often inferior quality. This is not to say that all contemporary hymns and songs are poor, but the typical hymnal contains selections which have encouraged, instructed, and admonished God’s people for centuries, and have been in effect vetted by their continued usefulness over the generations. The tendency to jettison all of this in favor of the new and trendy is shortsighted and hubristic. Children’s choirs in particular are a perfect place to combat this tendency by teaching young people to read and sing using the old hymns and psalm settings. More advanced choral settings of these beloved hymns should form part of adult choirs’ repertoire, as well.

3. God is pleased and glorified by beauty. In Philippians 4 Paul tells us to think on those things that are often summarized as “good, true, and beautiful.” Although I think the argument can be made that New Testament worship ought to be simple, simplicity is not synonymous with ugliness. The God who directs us to sing his praises also delights in his own beauty and in that of the world he created. As we fulfill the command to teach and admonish one another using psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, we should seek to do so in the most beautiful manner possible. Once again, choirs provide a means to that end.

4. Choirs provide opportunity for fellowship, support, and growth. I read an article recently in which the author described the adult choir as the best “small group” a church can have. At its best, the choir is not only a forum for training singers or enhancing corporate worship. Rather, it is a multigenerational community within the congregation that becomes a place where people are encouraged, admonished, loved, and prayed for. Given the tendency toward atomistic living even among Christians in our society, a forum for greater connection is both welcome and necessary.


Posted in Beauty, Choral Music, Church, Church Choirs, Music and Theology, Music and Worship, Practical Christianity, Worship