“I Don’t Like That Answer”

2018-2019 Comparison

Left: January 2018; Right: January 2019

As I mentioned in a recent post, I have lost over sixty pounds in the past eight months or so. While I’ve enjoyed the positive comments that I’ve received from others about my appearance, I am even more thankful for the improvement in my health engendered by this weight loss. At the same time, I am sobered by the realization that I will to some extent have to maintain this diet and exercise program in order to keep the weight off. Having already lost and regained this much weight once before in my adult life, I’m well aware that on some level my body seems to want to weigh well over 250 pounds, so keeping it off in the longer term will require greater discipline than I have exercised in the past.

While the comments that others have made about my current appearance have been uniformly positive, I have on several occasions over the past few weeks had some version of the following conversation:

Other Person: “Wow. You look great! Have you lost weight?”
Me: “I’ve lost over sixty pounds.”
Other Person: “That’s awesome. How did you do it?”
Me: “By eating less and exercising daily.”
Other Person: “Hmm. I don’t like that.”

That last remark is always tongue-in-cheek, of course, but my interlocutors really are on some level hoping that my answer to “how did you do it?” will include protein shakes, magic beans, hypnosis, or some other quick fix requiring little or no effort or lifestyle change. The prospect of real effort and change, though an expected answer, is comparably unwelcome. In the end, practically everyone wants to get in shape, but not everyone is willing to do what is necessary to make it happen.

Why is this relevant to brass playing? Because the same is true for us as musicians. Of all the concepts, instructions, and assignments I give to my students, the hardest sell by far is the expectation of daily and systematic practice of fundamental exercises and scale and arpeggio patterns. Granted, it is hard to fault students for not wanting to spend several hours per week playing repetitive and sometimes boring exercises, as they have an understandable desire to move past such things and on to “real music.” And yet, just as diet and exercise are necessary to achieve weight loss and improved health, so fundamentals and scales are necessary to develop the habits of body and mind needed to consistently perform music at a high level. Furthermore, continued practicing of those things is needed to maintain these playing skills. Just as my failure to maintain a diet and exercise regimen in the past led to a steady increase in my weight and decline in overall health, so a lack of diligent fundamentals work leads to an inevitable decline in brass playing skills. Health and fitness, both generally and as a brass player, demands due diligence!

“I don’t like that answer,” they say. To be honest, I don’t either. I don’t always enjoy swimming laps or lifting weights, and playing long tones is often uninspiring. But I like being in shape, and I like playing well, so until I discover those magic beans I’ll have to stick with what works.

(And if I ever do find them, I promise to report back here to that effect.) 🙂


Posted in Alto Trombone, Bass Trombone, Daily Routine, Euphonium, Music, Physical Fitness, Playing Fundamentals, Practicing, Scales and Arpeggios, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Tuba

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

IMG_3741Although it is extremely “nerdy” of me to say so, one of my treasured possessions is this framed collection of medals earned during my time as a student in the Pearl Public Schools band program. The awarding of medals for achievement in school bands is an old tradition that harks back to the militaristic roots of the band movement, but has largely died out in recent years—even when I was a student over twenty years ago our school was one of the few that still awarded medals in significant numbers. Some of those medals were earned through tremendous effort and some quite a bit less, and I could no longer tell you what achievements all of them represent, but at the time it was nice to have effort and achievement recognized in a tangible way. My wife has no desire to have these displayed prominently in our home so they have hung in the stairwell outside my home office for several years. I’ve recently considered moving them to my office at the university, more as a nod to my affection for all things traditional than as an expression of pride in secondary school musical achievements.

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

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

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

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

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

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



Posted in Beauty, Christian Worldview, Music, Music and Theology, Music and Worship, Music Education, Pedagogy, Performing, Practical Christianity, Practicing, Teaching Low Brass, Work and Leisure

“A Well-Regulated or Orderly Church Music…”

I have heard that the price of becoming a thinking adult is the need to deal with all of the paradoxes and inconsistencies that life presents, the cognitive dissonance that is inevitably present as we flawed and fallen humans do our best to make sense of the flawed and fallen world in which we live. As a worldview, Christianity makes better sense of this than its competitors; its explanation of a perfectly created cosmos with humanity set at its head as bearers of the imago Dei, but then fallen and broken because of Man’s sin, is fully consonant with reality as we observe it. In both the created order and in Man himself we see immense capacities for truth, goodness, and beauty, but equally immense capacities for falsehood, evil, and ugliness. Both the world and our own souls yearn for redemption, for completion, for “fixing,” that which has been inaugurated by the life, death, and resurrection of Christ and will be consummated upon his return. In the meantime, we deal with the contradictions that continually present themselves in our originally-good-yet-now-fallen world, hoping to arrive at solutions that honor God, serve others, and satisfy our own desires for those cognitive dissonances to be resolved.

Perhaps more so than any other subject, church music is the area in which my intersecting professional, ecclesiastical, spiritual, and intellectual background and interests have generated conflicts and contradictions requiring tremendous amounts of thinking, studying, and praying to resolve. I should also say at the outset of this essay that I don’t think I’ve satisfactorily resolved all of this yet, but I’m trying, and writing about it helps me to continue to do so. Perhaps I should begin by describing the disparate yet intersecting threads that inform my thinking in this matter.

The first is my upbringing in medium-sized, conservative Southern Baptist churches. As is the case in evangelical churches both then and now, the liturgies of these congregations (not that they would have used the word “liturgy,” but every church has them) grew not so much from historic Protestantism as from the revival meetings of nineteenth-century America. Specifically regarding music, the selections had texts that were frequently—though not always—centered upon feelings and experiences rather than upon scriptures and doctrines, and “specials” by choir or soloists were largely popular in orientation, if “behind the curve” of trends in popular music. I began to wonder as a young man if this was really the best way to “do church,” and my early experiences as a professional musician exposed me to the music used by more traditionally liturgical congregations. Still, I was in my late twenties before I developed a theological understanding and vocabulary sufficient to give voice to my reservations about evangelical worship music. By then I had both discovered and embraced Reformed theology and decided to leave broader evangelicalism behind. Having observed further developments in this ecclesiastical “world” from the outside, I don’t regret that decision, and I have a hard time “biting my tongue” when observing similar developments in my present denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America.

The second of these threads is my work as a professional musician. As a primarily “classical” low brass player (but with increasing excursions into jazz and popular music), I’ve been asked to perform over the years in services for nearly every Protestant denomination and even an occasional Roman Catholic service. Unsurprisingly, I’ve enjoyed the music in the more traditionally liturgical mainline denominations the most, but of course have not been able to accept those churches’ abandonment of biblical orthodoxy. I should also confess that I have had a great time playing in horn sections like those of Tower of Power or Chicago in certain large evangelical churches, but “enjoying the music” and “worshiping” aren’t necessarily the same thing, or at least they shouldn’t be. I’ve also long nursed an uneasiness with the tendency of many professional musicians to eschew regular involvement in a particular church in favor of constantly moving from church to church as itinerant performers. Without the discipline promoted by church membership it is difficult—or impossible—to maintain a consistent Christian life and witness, and indeed many of the musicians playing in churches every week are not professing Christians at all, a fact that would likely scandalize many in the congregations they serve if they knew about it. Although this is against my professional and financial self-interest, I have reduced my performing for a fee in church services to fewer than five weeks per year, and even in my own congregation I more commonly sit in the pews as a congregant than perform as a musician.

The decision to limit my performing in church services was influenced not only by my uneasiness with the current practices of professionalized church music, but also by my increasing exposure to Reformed theologians’ teaching on worship generally, which is the third of these intersecting threads that have informed my present thinking. Historically speaking, worship music throughout Protestantism was centered upon congregational singing, a practice which had been practically abandoned prior to the sixteenth century. Lutheranism and later Anglicanism still favored a more developed and professionalized music than did the Calvinists (whether Reformed, Presbyterian, Congregational, or Baptist), the latter groups largely eschewing instrumental music and in many cases limiting congregational singing to settings of the Psalter. In the intervening years the worship music in Reformed and Presbyterian circles has become less austere, but at least until very recently there has been a broad understanding that the worship service is to be centered upon the Word, sacraments, and prayer, with music placed in a subservient role. Regular readers of this blog know that I believe this understanding to be correct. Music is important, it is commanded, and it ought to be done well, but it also ought not be able to grow beyond its assigned place.

So what would a worship service with music in its rightful place look like? It should be primarily characterized by congregational singing, and the texts sung should be useful for instructing the congregation in scripture and doctrine. Consider Colossians 3:16, where we read

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord. 

Here the singing is directly tied to “teaching and admonishing.” That doesn’t necessarily mean that songs expressing our feelings about God or our religious experiences are entirely out of place, but care should be taken that the texts sung primarily communicate objective scriptural truths.

Other than ensuring that music is subservient to Word, sacrament, and prayer and primarily focusing on congregational singing, I don’t think one can create universally applicable rules. The prohibition of musical instruments practiced by some groups seems unnecessary in light of the Psalms speaking of worship using instruments, and yet my own experiences working as a professional musician in churches leads me to think a certain austerity is advisable. What does that austerity look like? I don’t know. Questions like what instruments to use, whether or not a choir or soloists might be used, etc. seem to defy the crafting of simple answers to apply to all situations, and I have more than once inadvertently caused offense in the attempt to do so. Perhaps it is best to say only that we should choose good music, do it well in whatever configuration we choose, and limit it to its proper functions of expressing praise to God and instructing the congregation. And we should always strive for better reasons for our choices than “that’s the kind of music that I like.” That’s a good method for choosing concerts to attend and recordings to buy, but it is at best an incomplete method for choosing music for Lord’s Day worship.

Like I said, I still don’t have all of this worked out in my mind, and trying to approach church music with theological and intellectual rigor on the one hand and with the ear, tastes, and motivations of a professional musician on the other leads to much cognitive dissonance. Perhaps you’ll remember a review I wrote of John Eliot Gardiner’s 2013 biography of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), a review which later appeared in Modern Reformation magazine. As I stated in that review, Gardiner presents Bach not as a perfect man, but certainly as a believing Christian who was doing his best to honor God in his vocation. At one point in his life Bach saw that his professional goals were not consistent with the policies of his employer, and was offered a new position elsewhere. Quoting from Gardiner, who in turn quotes Bach himself,

It is against this background, and in his request to the church council of the Blasiuskirche for his release from Mühlhausen, that Bach defined for the first time an Endzweck (artistic goal)—“namely, a well-regulated or orderly church music to the Glory of God and in conformity to your wishes.” (180)

“A well-regulated or orderly church music.” That’s a laudable goal for sure. Maybe one day I’ll be able to fully articulate what I think that looks like.

Posted in Beauty, Calvinism, Christian Worldview, Denominations, Doctrine, Doctrine of Vocation, Johann Sebastian Bach, Lord's Day, Music, Music and Theology, Music and Worship, Practical Christianity, Theology, Truth, Worship

The Best Breathing Exercise in the World

Regular readers might have noticed that I have not published here with the usual frequency in the past few months. Part of the reason for this is having a much larger teaching studio this year than has normally been the case. This is a great blessing for sure, and I enjoy my work, but teaching for over 30 hours per week leaves little time for practicing, performing, necessary administrative work, and trying to maintain some semblance of an active family and church life. Writing—both here and in the print venues where my articles and reviews sometimes appear—has sadly taken a back seat, especially with my recent addition of a regular exercise regimen.

Weight and fitness have never been strengths of mine. Except during a couple of periods of serious illness I was generally an overweight child and young adult but managed to lose about 75 pounds during graduate school, and then kept that weight off for nearly seven years. “Life happened,” as they say, around that time, and after becoming a parent and developing some back problems the weight slowly returned, until by a year or two ago I had regained about 60 of the 75 pounds I had lost. Predictably, “bad numbers” in my yearly physicals, with cholesterol, triglycerides, liver enzymes, blood pressure, and pulse rate all “out of whack,” accompanied this weight gain. Having gotten my back issues largely under control (something about which I hope to write in the future, but for now will simply recommend this book), I resolved to set about trying to become healthier. I reduced the portion sizes in my meals and eliminated soda entirely, and began exercising daily, swimming laps four days per week (currently one mile per day) and doing strength training and stationary bike riding on the remaining days. At the time I am writing this I have lost over 50 pounds, so I have nearly returned to the weight I maintained throughout my mid and late twenties. I will readily admit that losing weight was easier at “twentyish” than it is at “fortyish!”

While massive weight loss would seem to be a boon to the physical aspects of brass playing, the first time I lost this much weight that was not the case, at least not initially. Instead, the weight loss was accompanied by a marked decline in my playing ability, particularly with regard to breathing and with a corresponding decline in tone quality. After I had struggled for months trying to understand why my playing was suffering, my teacher (I was still a full time student and taking weekly trombone lessons then) theorized that the problem might be that the muscles throughout my torso and elsewhere in the body had become accustomed to having to work harder to support all of that weight. With those muscles always somewhat activated to keep me upright and mobile, engaging them in the task of moving large volumes of air was relatively easy. But with the weight gone, those muscles became more relaxed, and breathing in the way that had felt right previously no longer resulted in efficient air movement. I had to become more mindful about how I was breathing and moving air, and after a few months I had regained my previous playing skill. Since then I have shepherded a few of my own students through similar playing difficulties after their own weight loss efforts. Counterintuitively, losing weight seems to make brass playing worse before it makes it better.


The pool at the Turner Center at the University of Mississippi. My new “home away from home.”

The potential for playing disruptions due to weight loss was one of the reasons that I chose swimming as the primary exercise for my current weight loss efforts. I hoped that the need for regular and efficient breathing while swimming would prevent me from having the same breathing issues as I had experienced fifteen years earlier. (And, given my history of back problems, the low-impact but high-energy nature of swimming was appealing.) Happily, this time around I have experienced none of the breathing and tone quality difficulties that I had during my previous weight loss. That’s probably partly due to my anticipating problems and addressing them in advance, at least unconsciously, but the breathing requirements for lap swimming undoubtedly played a role. Not only has my breath management while playing not suffered; it is better than it has ever been.

I have long been an advocate of breathing exercises such as those found in The Breathing Gym. I still do them daily and encourage my students to do the same. Still, after all of this swimming I look better, feel better, and am breathing better than ever. Lap swimming is the best breathing exercise in the world!

Posted in Alto Trombone, Bass Trombone, Breathing, Daily Routine, Euphonium, Music, Music Education, Pedagogy, Performing, Physical Fitness, Playing Fundamentals, Practicing, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Tuba, University of Mississippi

On the Importance of “Faithful Plodding”

plodding 2I am always moved by stories of pastors with long tenures in small congregations. In a time when “celebrity pastor” is a term that makes sense and so many build careers by moving to increasingly larger churches every 2-3 years, there is something peculiarly beautiful when one hears of a man serving the same congregation for 30, 40, or even 50 years. We’re talking about a person who has faithfully loved, prayed for, preached to, counseled, comforted, admonished, baptized, married, and buried successive generations of the same families, and received the congregation’s continued love and devotion in return. Such stories rarely generate headlines except perhaps locally on the occasion of the minister’s retirement or death, but I am convinced that such faithful men will receive special rewards in heaven.

While the work of a music professor is of far less eternal importance than that of a minister, I am in a lesser yet similar way moved when I hear of the retirement of a colleague who has served the same small school or department for an extended period. While major conservatory and large university programs will necessarily attract a significant portion of the most talented and ambitious students, smaller programs in both state and private institutions still train a large percentage of aspiring music teachers and performers, students who will in turn impact hundreds and thousands of students and concertgoers in schools and communities of every size. Often these students begin their college or university careers with notable deficiencies in one or more areas of music study and execution, yet with hard work under the tutelage of dedicated professors, they are able to remedy those difficulties and build meaningful careers.

To participate in the success of such students is immensely fulfilling, but it is not flashy. It can’t be distilled into brief soundbites nor does it generate a lot of exciting YouTube videos. And yet to see students who really struggled to begin music careers not only find jobs but succeed in teaching or performing yields an enduring satisfaction. Teaching more “naturally talented” students is fun in its own way, of course. The repertoire they are able to perform is more advanced and the problems are smaller and easier to solve. Turning a willing student who doesn’t “get it” into one who does is harder, and maybe that is why it’s in a way more rewarding. The same could be said for taking a studio or program which is not reaching its full potential and slowly but surely turning it into one that is. That work of building and sustaining excellence, one student at a time, is the work of a lifetime.

Both the minister and the professor in my examples—and in neither case am I thinking of a particular person—are engaging in what I sometimes like to call “faithful plodding.” Day by day, one sermon after another, one congregant after another, one student after another, diligently doing the work of teaching, admonishing, correcting, encouraging—of building up individuals in their lives and work. The one deals with infinitely more lasting and important matters than the other, of course, but for both faithfulness in their callings seems to entail mainly quiet, consistent, diligent effort that receives little notice and few accolades, but in the end delivers the desired results. For the one that means simply greater musical achievement, which is wonderful, but for the other it means the salvation of human beings, which is far better.

This is not to say that I do not desire more publicly visible indicators of success. In recent weeks the trombone and tuba-euphonium ensembles under my direction at Ole Miss were both invited to participate in their respective professional organizations’ international conferences, and I am immensely gratified to have seen our programs grow to this extent in the past 6.5 years. God willing, I look forward to more growth, more students, and more success in the coming years, but the work of getting there will be the same slow and steady “faithful plodding” that brought us this far. There’s not a lot of “flash-bang” in this approach, but it works.

Posted in Alto Trombone, Bass Trombone, Christian Worldview, Church, Doctrine of Vocation, Education, Euphonium, Higher Education, Music, Music and Theology, Music Education, Pedagogy, Performing, Practical Christianity, Practicing, Prayer, Preaching, Salvation, Teachers, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Theology, Trombone, Trombone Ensembles, Tuba, Tuba-Euphonium Ensembles

“Captain Obvious:” How Water Keys Work

Allow me to interrupt your holiday recuperations or Black Friday shopping for just a moment to address a pet peeve of mine. I titled this little piece “Captain Obvious,” but given the prevalence of this misunderstanding among my students and others, clearly this is not so obvious after all. I want to address a simple, slightly disgusting, but vitally important part of playing a brass instrument: emptying the water keys.

Honestly, this isn’t as gross as non-brass players in particular seem to think. The colloquial term “spit valve” is funny, but not particularly correct. While there is a small amount of saliva in the liquid that collects in the various nooks and crannies of brass instruments, the majority of it is condensed water vapor, just like the water droplets that form when one breathes warm air on a mirror or window. While there are valid reasons to collect this material in a spittoon, cup, or garbage can in certain situations rather than emptying it on the floor, those have to do more with the tendency of wet spots on thick carpet to promote mildew, not with the unsanitary nature of “people’s spit.”

spitMy real concern this morning is not with the composition of the condensate emptied from the water keys, but rather with how the water keys actually work. To me, the most disturbing part of how students empty water keys is not what comes out of them but how students try to operate them, namely by blowing vigorously and loudly through the instrument in order to force the water to exit. This is not only distracting; it is often ineffective when compared to quieter methods. Consider the picture of a water key here (sorry for using a trumpet; it was the clearest image Google returned). Although there are a few variant designs, the usual water key is a slightly raised opening made at a point in the tubing where condensation tends to collect, and sealed with a small piece of cork or rubber that is held in place with a lever and spring which can be opened periodically to release water from the instrument. Gravity dictates that the water collects at low points in the instrument’s tubing, so this is where water keys are typically placed.

At this point more technically minded readers might ask, “if gravity makes the water collect at the instrument’s low points, wouldn’t gravity alone make the water exit the opening when a water key is engaged?” The answer is YES. Although there are times when a bit of vigorous blowing or tilting of the instrument is needed to move the water to a point where it can exit through a water key, once the water is there it will exit through the hole without any blowing at all. Humorously, I have even seen students look to see where the water key is, open it, and then have all of the water run out before they (loudly and unnecessarily) blow through the instrument. Not only is the loud noise of blowing to empty the “spit” unnecessary; it can even be counterproductive if the air is blown so vigorously that the water actually moves past the opening rather than exiting the instrument, and then returns to its former place when the water key is disengaged. Then the familiar sound of gurgling water continues to mar one’s performance.

Of course, there are cases in which engaging a water key without blowing will not cause the water to exit. As I have already mentioned, tubas and horns are notorious for having bends in the tubing without water keys that necessitate some blowing and tilting of the instrument in order to remove the water. Many instruments have tuning slides without water keys in the valve system that must be removed in order to empty water. I have even noticed that a bit of water can collect between the two valves in double-valve bass trombones, in which case removing one of the tuning slides and blowing a puff of air to force out the water is needed. Except in instances like these, if the condensate will not exit the instrument through a water key with very little or no blowing the likely culprit is “cheese” or “gunk” caused by food particles collecting in the instrument and promoting…growth. In that case your first step should be to get a professional cleaning, and after that to buy a toothbrush.

“Spit valves” are (usually) not as gross as people think, but incorrect operation can be a distraction. Instead of loudly and obnoxiously blowing through the instrument just open the water key and allow gravity to do its thing.

Posted in Alto Trombone, Bass Trombone, Euphonium, Euphonium Maintenance, Music, Performing, Practicing, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Trombone Cleaning, Trombone Maintenance, Tuba, Tuba Maintenance, Water Key

On Exercise Equipment and Musical Development

620-Downsizing-Ditch-these-10-items-Exercise-Equipment-ESP.imgcache.rev1442607571108.web_-1The phenomenon of unused home exercise equipment is so pervasive in our society that it has become something of a trope. With the holiday season fast approaching, many families will soon see this in action once again. Typically, a person purchases or is given a treadmill, stair climbing machine, weight bench, or even a more elaborate piece of workout equipment, vowing that *this year* will be the year that “I finally get back in shape.” Nevertheless, the resolution to become healthier rarely lasts through the month of January, after which that workout equipment becomes at best a place to hang laundry, and at worst only an unused occupier of space, a constant reminder of the healthier life that might have been.

Although I have sometimes been guilty of neglecting the exercise equipment in my home, that has not been the case this year, as I have lost over 40 pounds in the past few months through diet and exercise. But I didn’t write today to brag about weight loss. Instead, I want to address another kind of often ignored “exercise equipment,” one whose neglect was—with some exceptions—quite noticeable among my students this week.

I have on occasion used this space to extol the virtues of daily, systematic fundamentals practice, including the use of a comprehensive daily routine (see here and here) and some regular program of scale and arpeggio work. While it has become fashionable among some in the low brass community to disdain this type of practice because of its repetitive and supposedly uncreative nature, I find the daily routine to be an indispensable tool in the development and maintenance of brass playing skills.

While the daily routine might vary in length and in the specific exercises used from day to day (I have routines of several different lengths depending on the amount of time available for fundamentals practice), some time should be spent each day systematically addressing the following items:

  • Breathing exercises. While such exercises are usually a form of overtraining, they do improve the efficiency with which one moves air.
  • Mouthpiece buzzing exercises. A few minutes of buzzing each day promotes efficiency in the use of the air and embouchure.
  • Long tones. Use this time not only to “warm up” the embouchure, but also to ensure that the breath, attack, tone quality, steadiness of tone, and release are all optimally timed and of the highest quality.
  • Articulation exercises. Each day’s practice should include a review of all types of articulations, both single and multiple-tonguing. Trombonists in particular should work on legato articulations.
  • Lip-slur exercises are extremely helpful for building strength and flexibility. In the upper register this same technique is used to produce lip-trills, an important skill for trombonists especially.
  • Fingering/slide movement exercises. Use diatonic and chromatic patterns to develop speed and dexterity of the fingers and/or slide arm.
  • Range extension. Each day’s practice should include exploration and extension of the tonal range, both high and low.
  • Scales and arpeggios. I recommend having scale and arpeggio routines in each key area, and performing these in at least one key area each day. Besides developing familiarity with the playing requirements in different keys, these routines can be used for further development in the other areas mentioned above.

At this point you might be thinking, “That all sounds good, but surely it takes a long time to do. Are you really suggesting that I spend 30 minutes or more each day on playing fundamentals?” YES. Yes, I am. Amazingly, students who would not dream of entering a race or some other athletic contest without training first seem to think that they should be able to achieve optimal musical development without taking the steps needed to develop the strength, stamina, and flexibility needed to play well. As I noted a few weeks ago, the similarities between effective sports practice and music practice are so pervasive that they seem to be essentially the same thing, only applied in different areas. That 30 minutes—or more—of daily fundamentals work might seem like a lot, but in the end it saves practice time, as errors and failures due to lack of basic skill development become rare, or even nonexistent.

If you spend a few hours watching late night television or even browsing the internet you are likely to encounter advertisements for hundreds of different pieces of exercise equipment for sale at different price points. All of them promise the ability to “become a better you” physically speaking, and many of them can actually deliver on those promises…but only if they are used. In the same way, lots of brass players and teachers make regimens for playing fundamentals practice available online (mine are here and here), all promising the ability to “become a better you” musically speaking. And similarly, most of these can actually deliver on these promises…but only if they are used.

Students, don’t make the daily routine into an unused piece of gym equipment. Put the laundry away and get to work!

Posted in Alto Trombone, Articulation, Bass Trombone, Breathing, Daily Routine, Embouchure, Euphonium, Mouthpiece Buzzing, Music, Pedagogy, Playing Fundamentals, Practicing, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Tuba