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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fall Concerts and Activities Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 27: University of Mississippi Low Brass Ensembles

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

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

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

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

Mississippi Brass Quintet 201808

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


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

Rediscovering Leisure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

Three Areas of Tension that Brass Players Miss

Brass instruments are amazingly simple devices. In their simplest form, these “lip-reed aerophones” as Anthony Baines called them are just tubes into one end of which players vibrate their lips to generate musical tones. The overtone series native to a particular length of tubing determines which pitches are available, or at least which ones will resonate. The function of valves and slides is to vary the length of tubing so that more resonant-sounding pitches become available. Beyond that, variances is design and construction serve only to provide particular tonal ranges (higher and lower), different tone colors, improved ergonomic or mechanical function, and even greater visual interest. Maybe that’s an oversimplification, but not by much. We brass players operate delightfully simple machines.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, these simple machines generate the best sounds when the players operate them in the simplest manner possible, using “minimal motors,” as tubist and pedagogue Arnold Jacobs (1915-1998) would put it. Indeed, much of my effort in my own practice and in teaching students is devoted to eliminating unnecessary, extraneous, and sometimes even painful physical actions from one’s approach to playing the instrument. To put it differently, while an important aspect of practicing is the development of the strength, skill, and coordination needed to play a brass instrument, of at least equal and sometimes greater importance is the elimination of unneeded tension.

While the deleterious nature of excess tension in the jaw and embouchure muscles, neck, shoulders, arms, hands, and chest is no doubt obvious, these are not the only areas of the body in which tension can negatively affect brass performance. Here are three areas where brass players too often harbor unnoticed and unhelpful muscle tension.

1. The abdomen. Although this type of breathing instruction is becoming less common, many of us were taught in one way or another to “breathe low,” with the focus being upon abdominal expansion. While the movement of the diaphragm and pelvic floor with associated shifting of the abdominal organs does introduce some movement in that part of the body with each breath, the lungs themselves are in the chest, not the abdomen. An unwarranted focus on the abdomen can often lead to excessive engagement of the abdominal muscles when breathing, which in turn creates a tension that can negatively affect tone quality and resonance, free movement of the arms and hands, and even embouchure flexibility. Should the abdomen move when you inhale? Yes, but there should be movement throughout the torso, and movement should occur as a result of the air coming in, not because of unnecessary and unnatural engagement of the abdominal muscles or other muscle groups. Let the abdomen expand, but maintain a “flabby belly” as much as possible (though there will be a bit more muscular engagement here when playing in the high register).

2. The legs and glutes. A few years ago I heard another trombonist give a lecture on this topic and when sharing his own struggles with tension he mentioned an orchestral concert in which he proudly reflected at the end that he had remained more or less tension-free in his arms, shoulders, and neck—or so he thought. His pride evaporated when the conductor asked the orchestra members to stand and he discovered that his legs were so tight that he couldn’t move from his seat! Brass players are quite prone to recruiting unnecessary muscle strength in the hamstrings, glutes, and other muscles when playing, especially when seated. Over the course of a performance this tension can creep up the back until the body is literally pulling against itself during the act of performing. Because Western medicine tends to treat the various parts of the body atomistically we are prone to forget that tension, injury, disease, or other maladies in one part inevitably affect other parts of the body in some way. Tight legs might seem immaterial to brass playing, but tight legs lead to tight back, then tight breathing apparatus, then tight shoulders, then tight arms, neck, and embouchure. Keep the legs relaxed when playing. When sitting, make sure whenever possible that your feet are flat on the floor in front of you rather than drawn back underneath the chair, as the latter position promotes this tension. When standing avoid locking the knees or otherwise flexing these muscles. As with the abdomen, it is loose, relaxed muscles that lead to free, comfortable playing.

3. The forehead and eyebrows. Emory Remington (1891-1971), longtime trombone professor at the Eastman School of Music, was known to admonish his students to “keep your eyebrows out of your playing.” I’ll confess that I did not understand the importance of this until a few years into my teaching career. Excessive tension in the forehead and eyebrows tends to manifest itself in two opposite but equally destructive ways. Either the player will furrow the brow, making an angry sort of face and causing the opposing musculature around the embouchure to tense excessively, or he will lift the eyebrows in a bid to open the eyes more widely, thus lifting the musculature of the top half of the face and to a certain extent pulling the upper lip away from the lower lip. The player thus has to expend extra effort in order to keep the embouchure together. The solution to this problem is simple; keep the eyes relaxed. An angry face won’t enable you to play with greater intensity and focus, and slightly more open eyes will not improve your reading ability. A relaxed face will, on the other hand, lead to better, easier tone production in addition to giving the appearance of effortless playing, which audiences always receive positively.

Tension in any of these areas is easy to overlook, as these muscle groups are removed from the embouchure and might not seem immediately relevant. And yet, such tension destructive of great playing, and exceedingly common, at least in my teaching experience. Happily, eliminating tension in these areas is also rather simple, and the benefits immediately realized.

Posted in Alto Trombone, Arnold Jacobs, Bass Trombone, Breathing, Embouchure, Emory Remington, Ergonomics, Euphonium, Music, Pedagogy, Performing, Playing Fundamentals, Practicing, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Tuba

The Boring Part Comes Before the Fun Part

Our society’s obsession with fun is, I fear, one of our most harmful collective traits at the present moment. We see this in the workplace, where positions in challenging yet necessary and well-compensated trades go unfilled. We see this in family life, where most parents—and I am at times as guilty as anyone—make it a mission to see that their children are never without stimulation of some kind. We even see it in the church, where people have seemingly little desire to engage with the sacred and the holy unless it is presented in an entertaining fashion (perhaps that could be a topic for a future post). The reader could no doubt cite other examples of how as a people we have little taste for that which is not immediately rewarding, and too often forego that which in the long term is more pleasing, more enriching, even more fun in favor of that which gives an immediate reward yet is really unenduring, trite, and banal.

This creates a particular challenge for those of us engaged in the fine arts, as our best works demand of both performer/creator and audience a level of commitment, of preparation, of “pre-engagement” that is off-putting to most. Speaking specifically of music, popular songs are often entertaining and even clever, but most are one-dimensional; there are no deeper levels of meaning to be found through repeated listening. The same is true of Muzak and other forms of music intended to serve only as background noise. They are not without redeeming qualities, but there is little depth. Art music, on the other hand, is usually more complex, with multiple layers of both compositional craft and expressive meaning that are revealed progressively through repeated listening and even musical analysis. The great composers are recognized as such not because their works yield an immediate emotive effect (though they often do) but because repeated engagement is rewarded with additional discovery. The same can be said of great works in other artistic media.

Of course, the ability to comprehend music (or literature, or visual art, etc.) at this level often requires years of study. Even the dedicated amateur reaches the height of his understanding through repeated engagement, if only as an audience member. The music theorist who is best able to understand great works reaches that point after a great deal of analytical training and examination of scores, often specializing in the works of a particular composer or school of composers. This training is not always immediately “fun”—in fact, I can testify from my somewhat limited training in music theory that it is often manifestly not so—but the perceptive tools that it engenders lead to music reading and listening experiences that yield a deeper, better “fun,” one which makes both listening and performing better for all involved.

Many readers will recognize what I’m speaking of as the concept of delayed gratification, the idea that the payoff after hard work—whether monetary, emotional, experiential, or some combination of these and other types—is greater than when one takes the first superficial reward that presents itself. In brass playing this is most evident in the practice room, and not in the repeated playing of exciting musical works. I am often amused when I hear “overnight success stories” in our little corner of the music business. Almost without exception, these “overnight” successes were born out of years of a different type of overnight, the kind that involved staying in a practice room into the wee hours honing one’s craft. And what do these successful players work on? Concertos? Sometimes. Entertaining chamber works? Occasionally. Jazz and popular standards? Sure. Orchestral excerpts? Yeah. How about long tones, lip slurs, scales, and arpeggios? All the time. I am reminded of a story one of my teachers told of a visit by a popular touring jazz ensemble to the university where he then taught. The students asked the visiting trombone section what kinds of materials they practiced, hoping to spur a curriculum change to more entertaining and popular fare. To their disappointment, the guests listed the same “boring” fundamental studies and method books that the students were already studying as the materials for their training and continued practice.

As a teacher, I strive to assign enjoyable and rewarding solo and chamber works for my students’ performances, but rarely do I assign something that they will be able to achieve on a first reading, much less something that they will have the strength and flexibility to play without regular fundamentals work. My students are assigned a rigorous daily fundamentals routine and accompanying scale and arpeggio studies in order to help them to hone these skills, yet many of them will skip some or all of those “boring” calisthenics in favor of going immediately to the “real” music…and then wonder why they fail to reach their potential. They don’t understand (or refuse to accept) that the boring part comes before the fun part. A precious few really “get it.” They succeed.

I am aware that the concept of repeating a consistent daily routine has fallen on hard times among many in the brass teaching world. Some say that the routine should be varied, and while I freely modify my routine to address peculiar issues that a student or I might be facing, I still find undeniable value in the daily and systematic review and extension of fundamental playing skills. Others advocate accommodating the desire for “fun” by inventing “cool” MIDI accompaniment tracks for otherwise “boring” exercises. I am not opposed to this, but it seems to me that this would work for only a limited time before that which was once cool became boring through repetition, and I am not inclined to constantly compose and create new tracks to satisfy a perceived need for what is in the end an only superficially more enjoyable approach. At some point if you want to be a successful brass player you will have to buckle down and do the hard work, even the boring parts!

I am not opposed to music being fun—far from it! But the best fun comes after diligent practice and study of materials which do not yield immediate enjoyment, for it is mastery of these “boring” things that makes the musician a better player, a better listener, a better “understander” of music.

Now if you will excuse me, I need to go and practice some long tones.



Posted in Alto Trombone, Bass Trombone, Daily Routine, Education, Euphonium, Music, Music Education, Music Theory, Musicology, Pedagogy, Playing Fundamentals, Practicing, Scales and Arpeggios, Society, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Tuba

Why I Still Hand Out Printed Bibles

While as an older child and teenager I was always keen on having the newest technologies available to me—particularly with regard to entertainment—as I’ve gotten older I’ve definitely become a “late adopter.” I resisted exchanging my desktop PC for a notebook until 2008, was slow to start using text messages and smartphones, and I have only recently begun using a tablet computer for displaying sheet music in practice and performance. And after years of resistance I have at last sharply curtailed buying printed books in favor of using a Kindle Paperwhite. Both my wallet and my shelf space have benefited from these changes, and traveling is certainly easier with a small device or two replacing the multiple books and sheet music scores with which I once stuffed my carry-on bag. I have even begun doing my daily Bible reading on the Kindle, something I would never have imagined even a couple of years ago. I may be slow to adopt new technologies, but once I feel that a new piece of hardware or software is proven I am happy to put it to use.

540700717The proliferation of Bible reading apps in particular perhaps calls into question the continued mission and activities of The Gideons International, the association in whose scripture distribution ministry I have participated for the past twelve years. We are coming close to meeting our goal of distributing 100 million scriptures annually by 2020, but in a time in which even committed church members have exchanged printed Bibles for reading from phones or tablets during corporate worship, is giving away printed Bibles passé? Even The Gideons International itself has a free Bible reading app! Still, I don’t think the time for distributing printed Bibles has passed. Here are a few reasons why.

1. Printed text is an enduring technology. Digital archives are a wonderful thing. Because of the multiplied thousands of articles available in PDF format even 10-15 years ago I was able to complete my doctoral dissertation in considerably less time and with less expense than if I had done so a decade or two before. I well remember reading British brass band journals from over a century ago on my computer in my basement; in previous years I would have had to exchange my own basement for a musty library archive someplace in England. Despite the great promise of digital archives, though, I have also heard stories about how digital resources from even 40-50 years ago are no longer accessible because the hardware needed to access them no longer exists. Conversely, library books from the same period are still enjoying a long and useful shelf life. What does all of this have to do with Bibles? The Bible apps on my phone, tablet, and eReader are useful and convenient, but sooner or later (probably sooner) they will be obsolete. I have a Gideon Bible from the 1910s on my shelf, and its text is as plain and readable as it was when it was first delivered from the printer. Printed Bibles endure.

2. Electronic Bibles are not everywhere convenient. One of the most remarkable developments in the “Two-Thirds World” is the proliferation of digital communications to rural areas that were entirely bypassed by their analog counterparts. Cellular telephones are relatively common in parts of Africa that were once chronically underserved with regard to telephone service, electricity, etc. Still, digital media can be expensive and unreliable, whereas the Gideons have managed to bring the cost of printed New Testaments down to around $1.20 on average. Those Testaments rarely break, and never run out of battery!

3. It is still nice to hand someone something tangible. One of the things that I sometimes do not enjoy about my teaching position in a secular university is that religious expression is often effectively curtailed by regulations and expectations both real and perceived. I don’t have as many opportunities to personally hand out Bibles as would someone in a working environment more amenable to proselytizing. Still, when I do have an opportunity to place a Bible in a hotel room or hospital room or hand a New Testament to someone personally there is a sense that something tangible, something real is being given, something that came at a cost to the giver. People still appreciate that, even as we hope and pray that those receiving scriptures will read therein of the ultimate Giver, the One who gave Himself that we might live.

Giving Gideon New Testament4. God still uses these Bibles to save souls. Last night our Gideon camp held its annual banquet for area pastors, and while I regularly speak in churches to raise funds for buying Bibles I very much enjoy hearing others speak about how God is using the Gideon ministry, hearing new testimonies of lives changed through the giving, receiving, and reading of His Word. Will the time come when printed Bibles are no longer useful or relevant? Honestly, I doubt it, and in any case it is clear that God is still pleased to bless the distribution of scriptures around the world, now in 201 countries, territories, and possessions, and in 107 languages. I’m happy to still be a part.

Posted in Bible, Books, Digital Revolution, Evangelism, Practical Christianity, Salvation, Smartphones, Tablet Computers, The Gideons International, Theology

A Reliable Predictor of Music Majors that Succeed…and Those that Quit

Nearly ten years ago now I began a certificate program in systematic theology that consisted of five courses plus a substantial final project. I completed that program in 2011 and still consider it to have been a great blessing to me, one about which I have written here in a previous post. At the same time, the process made me aware of a major flaw in distance education that, while not entirely negating the value of online instruction, represents a marked lack in that model compared to on-campus instruction. That flaw is the lack of mutual support and camaraderie among fellow students and even between students and faculty. In traditional face-to-face courses students often study together, share ideas, and even socialize outside of class. Occasionally professors are involved in such informal gatherings, and “unplanned teaching moments” can end up being as vital to the student’s development as the lectures and activities during class. While online instructors sometimes try to replicate this via discussion forums and even scheduled “virtual gatherings” in chatrooms, the spontaneity of these interactions and even the “ministry of presence” among one’s peers is difficult to replicate in a virtual setting.

In the course of my online theological instruction I became aware of how men studying together for vocational ministry formed support groups which continued throughout and even beyond their time in seminary. The pastorate can be a lonely calling, and I can’t help but think that those in that profession who either lack a seminary education or who were educated online or via correspondence keenly feel the lack of this support group. In a similar way, albeit with much less eternal significance, music educators form similar support groups. The band directors whose former students I teach and then send back into that profession operate in a largely friendly professional milieu that builds upon relationships built during their time as college music majors. Over time one’s peer group within the profession expands to include mutual friends and acquaintances of others within the group until a very healthy and effective support network exists. Something similar exists among my colleagues and acquaintances within the university low brass teaching community. Being a band director or other type of music teacher can be, like the pastorate, very lonely, so having a support group in which one can confide and from which one can receive counsel is vital to success. And like I said, this begins in college.

In a healthy college or university music department students are hanging out at the music building all the time. Sometimes they are practicing, sometimes they are studying for theory exams, sometimes writing drill or arranging music, and sometimes they are just “hanging out.” The point is that they are together, learning together, performing together, and simply being together, helping one another through what might not be the most difficult degree program on campus, but it is certainly one of the more labor-intensive ones. This group that helps one overcome the challenges of the music degree program—especially the music education program—forms the nucleus of that support group which will last throughout a student’s career. Without it, succeeding in the degree program is difficult, to say nothing about the rigors of the music profession itself.

While I don’t have hard data to share in this little essay, over twenty years’ casual observation tells me that a significant percentage of students who begin their university careers as music or music education majors do not complete the program. Most simply decide that the “music life” is not for them and choose some other major in which they can be more successful. Others drop out of college altogether and pursue some other path, and some simply seem to “wash out.” Regardless of their reasons for leaving, a common factor that exists among many of these folks is that they are rarely in the music building more often than they absolutely have to be. They don’t participate in study groups, they don’t practice at the same times as others or engage in mutual critique, and they don’t spend time just “hanging out” with their fellow musicians. I am never surprised to see such students end up pursuing some other profession or way of life. The support of fellow students is too vital to success, and even continuation.

Now, please do not take me as somehow judging those students who leave the music program for some other pursuit. I’m glad whenever students build careers that enable them to have happy, fulfilled, productive lives, whether inside or outside of the music field. Students leave music for any number of reasons, but a common thread is the lack of engagement with and building support groups among their peers. Students looking to become musicians or music educators should find friends among their fellow music majors, and do it quickly. Trust me, you’ll need them!

Posted in Career Choices, Distance Education, Education, Higher Education, Instructional Technology, Music, Music Education, Pastoral Ministry, Teaching Low Brass, Theological Education