The Importance of Story, Part 1: Developing Musical Interpretation

I joined a brass quintet during my first semester of college, and the professor coaching the group assigned for us to play the Quintet No. 3 by Russian composer Victor Ewald (1860-1935). I have become very familiar with and fond of Ewald’s quintet works in the almost 25 years since then, but at the time tackling this work seemed daunting. Not only was it a major work with a lot of notes, but the professor wanted me to play the part on the euphonium, as Ewald wrote with an ensemble of all valved instruments in mind. That assignment would be commonplace for me now, but at the time I had little better than a passing familiarity with that instrument. Still, I borrowed an instrument, used a thoroughly inappropriate mouthpiece (my trombone mouthpiece), and practiced until I could play the part competently. After the performance, my trombone professor (who had also at one time been first euphonium in the Eastman Wind Ensemble) said something to the effect of “if you are going to play the euphonium, you’re going to learn to do it correctly.” I purchased an instrument and began lessons the next year, and thus began my career as a serious doubler.

That’s a good story, but my purpose in writing today has more to do with how we as a group of undergraduates (including two freshmen) got through a major work for brass quintet. Although I do not recall all of the details, I do remember that we came up with a fairly elaborate story as a program to help us to interpret at least the first movement. (It had something to do with a knight riding a horse, and I’m pretty sure there was a swordfight in there.) While we still had to practice to meet all of the technical demands of the piece, having even a very basic storyline to guide our interpretation enabled us to deliver a more compelling presentation of the piece than would otherwise have been possible for us.

Ewald’s more famous contemporary, the Austrian composer and conductor Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), also was fond of storytelling through music. Interestingly, he apparently would sometimes write early drafts or versions of instrumental pieces with some kind of program in mind, but later try to retcon his own works and say that they were absolute music rather than program music, or at the very least to portray only very broad themes rather than specific stories. In any case, the listener quickly becomes aware of the thematic ideas that the composer was trying to create, which become even more apparent in Mahler’s works for vocal soloists and/or choirs with orchestra. Mahler was, like his friend Richard Strauss (1864-1949), a masterful musical storyteller.

While the importance of story in musical composition, interpretation, and performance might seem obvious, advanced musicians sometimes “pooh-pooh” the use of stories or programs to give direction to performances, particularly of instrumental music. In one sense, one does want to move beyond the level of making up very specific plot lines the way my quintet colleagues and I did in college. However, while something like this might be abandoned in the specifics, the general dramatic or thematic shape of each piece of music must be conveyed to the listener. This is typically quite simple. Most pieces will begin with a brief introduction, then rise to a climactic moment of tension, and then resolve again in a way that resolves the tension and leaves the listener both relieved and delighted. And within those broad areas there will be numerous smaller risings and fallings of the constituent phrases. Experienced musicians become accustomed to identifying these large and small sections and shaping their interpretations accordingly. Even when the only identifiable storyline is “beginning-tension-climax-release-resolution,” that rudimentary story is present, giving direction to both performers and listeners.

If you think about it, practically every good story follows that same “beginning-tension-climax-release-resolution” pattern, and it is the task of the musician to portray this, even when there is no specific program or story in mind. This is why we assign phrasing studies for students…and ourselves…to practice. As I’m fond of telling my students, we practice Bordogni etudes not because the melodies are interesting and profound—they really are campy and the phrasing obvious. But once these are understood and mastered, the instruction to “phrase this like a Bordogni etude” works for nearly any piece of music, in any genre. It works even when the musician doesn’t necessarily feel the emotions involved. In that way, a skilled musician is like a good actor portraying a role, projecting the appropriate expressive content regardless of his or her inner feelings.

Arnold Jacobs (1915-1998), the famous tubist and pedagogue, exhorted his students to become “storytellers in sound.” Do we always have to have (or invent) a specific storyline for every piece of music you play? No. When the musician becomes skilled enough at portraying the general dramatic contours of a piece, the listener can then bring whatever story he or she desires to the experience of hearing the piece. The result? A pleasing experience for all involved.  

Posted in Arnold Jacobs, Gustav Mahler, Marco Bordogni, Music, Music Education, Musical Interpretation, Pedagogy, Performing, Teaching Low Brass, Victor Ewald | Comments Off on The Importance of Story, Part 1: Developing Musical Interpretation

“Fast Notes:” A Problem in Low Brass Instruction

My son, who is now eleven, began taking violin lessons at age six. While he has occasionally had the opportunity to perform in small ensembles of some kind, his musical experience thus far has consisted primarily of working alone on solos and etudes. Because of the years of individualized instruction, he has progressed at a reasonably fast pace, to the point that he is working on some of the easier sonatas and other pieces by Bach, Vivaldi, Pachelbel, and similar composers. He barely understands that his musical abilities are far ahead of those of students with five years of study on some other instruments, or in other contexts. While he still requires a great deal of coaching to work out the counting and complex figurations of long sixteenth-note passages, he has already encountered and executed far more rapid passages than the average low brass student who enters my university studio at age eighteen. This normal experience for a violinist would be exceptional for a trombonist, and that is a problem. I addressed this to some extent in my previous post and want to continue working through these ideas today.

While private study is the usual means of introduction to music for string players and pianists, wind players tend to enter musical life by way of school bands. Is that bad? No. The social and communal aspects of being part of a large ensemble make music appealing to many students in ways that individual practice alone does not. Both school and community bands once formed important parts of the social fabric of many communities, and I for one would love to see them do so again. However, those students who decide that they want to pursue careers in music will need to move beyond the band experience alone in order to be successful. I don’t mean that they should abandon wind bands—far from it—but that students should also seek to build a larger, wider musical experience. This is, for reasons I discussed last time and will continue to do here, perhaps more important for low brass players than others.

Why is this the case? Individual musical development, especially in the areas of rhythm and technique. I began thinking through the content of this article several weeks ago due to experiences with a particular student, but in twenty years of teaching I have encountered this same phenomenon multiple times. The low brass student I am envisioning will read and execute rhythmic patterns from whole notes down to eighth notes with relative ease and efficiency, but once a sixteenth note appears (or—gasp—even a thirty-second note), a certain panic ensues. The student loses all sense of rhythmic consistency or cohesion and in some cases begins flailing about on the pitches themselves, engaging random fingerings or slide positions and moving in the general contour until returning to more comfortable territory. The reason for this is very simple: Many low brass players move all the way through middle school and high school band having rarely or never encountered a sixteenth note. And thus, what has already become commonplace for my eleven-year-old violinist son is exceptional, unfamiliar, and frightening to some low brass students. Some of these students have so loved their school band experiences that they want to become music educators themselves, yet their understandings of and abilities to execute complex musical figures are literally years behind those of their colleagues on other instruments, including colleagues who also have only played in school bands, but on instruments whose assigned parts presented greater technical demands.For these low brass players, the common note values consist of whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, eighth notes, and “fast notes.” This latter category effectively includes everything sixteenth notes and faster, all “fast notes” that are of non-specific rhythmic value and very scary.

Is this phenomenon of “fast notes” a real problem? For the average band student who wants to play in the band and have a good time but does not aspire to a musical career, perhaps not. But for those who do aspire to more, especially for those who would be teachers, it is a huge issue. How do these students expect to teach the complex figures found in woodwind, string, and percussion music if they cannot comprehend—much less execute—anything faster than eighth notes? This problem needs to be addressed, preferably beginning while students are still in high school, but in any case continuing at the college or university level, where a certain amount of remediation will have to occur.

The main key to addressing this problem is simple: exposure. The sooner students begin to encounter faster and more complex rhythmic figures, the easier time they will have learning to execute these and becoming comfortable with them. This can largely be addressed through the means I discussed in my previous post, namely purposefully choosing band music with challenging low brass parts, and encouraging private lessons along with solo and chamber music. As students become better acclimated to the existence sixteenth and thirty-second-note patterns, they can set about the work of actually learning to count them.

In order to master counting challenging rhythms, I advocate isolating rhythm, working on rhythm comprehension and execution independent of any real playing demands. “Clapping and counting” using any of the various rhythm verbalization methods out there is very effective, my favorites being those that require the musician to speak all of the subdivisions of the beat while clapping the written rhythms. There are a number of methods available that provide rhythm exercises; I came up using the rhythm pages in Exercises for Ensemble Drill by Raymond Fussell, and I am also a fan of Rhythmic Training by Robert Starer. These and similar exercises can be executed by clapping and counting or by playing the written rhythms on a single pitch; in either case the point is to work on rhythm alone without allowing demands in pitch, dynamics, or other areas to cause additional difficulty. Use of a metronome to maintain steady time while doing this is of obvious value.

Isolating rhythm in this way can be helpful when learning any piece of music. Students encountering a difficult passage for the first time should address only the rhythm first, using clapping and counting, playing on a single pitch, or both, to work out the rhythm and articulation before adding other elements. Slow practice—using the metronome for consistency—is also helpful. Add other stylistic elements in order to have an almost complete interpretation of a passage, including rhythm, articulation, dynamics, and other style markings—basically everything but pitch—before adding the pitches. When thus taken in isolation from other musical demands, the “fast notes” become a little less scary, even after the moving pitches and their technical requirements are restored.

The above steps work with students at any level, but for older students who are a bit “behind the ball” on this—especially those hoping to become music educators—some additional philosophical work may be necessary. I have found that some students who have gone through 5-8 years of band without learning to play or understand “fast notes” are reluctant to work to remedy this deficiency, believing that they are already “good enough.” It is vital that they come to understand not only the individual musical benefit of developing greater competency in this area, but also that their success as teachers will depend in part upon it. Once the need for developing this competency is understood, the importance of systematic work should be emphasized. While it can be tempting for both teacher and student to try to accelerate the development of rhythmic understanding as much as possible, skipping steps in the process is ultimately unfruitful, as it leads to “faking” that will benefit neither students’ musicianship nor teaching. The above steps for working through challenging passages should be carried out diligently, along with making sure students understand the mathematical relationships between different rhythmic figures and the importance of the perception of musical time (i.e. “the beat”) as a prerequisite to success in understanding and executing rhythm.

But again, more than anything else, the key is exposure. Students who rarely or never encounter rhythms faster than eighth notes will find those faster rhythms to be foreign, confusing, and frightening. Make sure that low brass students—just like players of other instruments—encounter a fulsome array of rhythmic challenges and learn to both understand and execute them. And even if remediation is necessary for an older student, address both the how and the why of rhythmic development in a systematic fashion.

Posted in Alto Trombone, Baritone Horn, Bass Trombone, Contrabass Trombone, Euphonium, Music, Music Education, Pedagogy, Playing Fundamentals, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Timing, Trombone, Tuba | Comments Off on “Fast Notes:” A Problem in Low Brass Instruction

The Care and Feeding of Low Brass Players

As a university low brass instructor, I have a vested interest in seeing thriving low brass players in the school music programs around me. While I want to see and hear great playing in schools simply because I want school bands to flourish, more selfishly I want those bands to produce great players that will one day join my studio at the university. I have had the privilege of working with some very fine students over the years both at the high school and university levels, but my broad observation has been that cultivating serious and accomplished low brass players is a challenge for many programs. The following are some ideas that I hope will help to both explain and improve this situation.

“Prepare the Soil:” Make Low Brass Appealing

Cultivating a strong low brass section begins well before students start playing or even select instruments. Few students will have had much exposure to the trombone, euphonium, or tuba prior to enrolling in band, so students may need to be convinced of their desirability. When introducing new students to band instruments, play recordings of professional performers on each instrument (not just low brass) for the class. These can demonstrate that all of the instruments, including low brass, are capable of playing beautiful, challenging, and interesting music. Additionally, you might have accomplished high school players play short demonstration pieces for the class. Played in person, the bass parts of “stands tunes” are often familiar, impressive, and exciting to young students, though “real” solo pieces or etudes are preferable where possible.

While these steps might not generate an overwhelming preference for low brass, some students will be interested, and you will at least dispel negative stereotypes that students might have.

Choose Players Most Disposed Toward Low Brass

When testing students on different instruments, encourage those that make good initial sounds on low brass instruments to choose one of those instruments. If a student is especially eager to try and to play trombone, euphonium, or tuba, that choice should be honored unless testing the student on these instruments reveals that he or she is extremely unlikely to be successful. Students that will play low brass instruments need to not only have compatible embouchure characteristics but also must be of sufficient stature to manage large and heavy instruments. Gender stereotypes are unhelpful, as are those associating instruments with personality types or identifying players of certain instruments as somehow socially awkward. 

It is often difficult to determine which students might grow up to be of sufficient size to manage larger instruments based on their appearances at age ten or eleven. The initial parent meeting can be very helpful in this regard. A small-statured student who really wants to play the trombone will necessarily raise doubts, but if you see that one or both parents are very tall, chances are that the student will grow into that trombone just fine.

Select Challenging Repertoire

Moving beyond the beginning stage, if you want your low brass players to develop and retain high-level performing skills, make a special effort to choose performance repertoire with interesting low brass parts. Many band pieces at all levels include challenging material for traditionally melodic instruments, while the trombones, euphoniums, and tubas are left sitting in the back playing long notes, rhythmic ostinatos, or “oompahs.” Good orchestration makes this necessary to some extent—a piece that is thickly scored with challenging figures for the low brass throughout will become frustrating and  cumbersome for both performers and listeners—yet it sometimes seems that composers and arrangers expect low brass players to be incapable of the technical accomplishments demanded of their peers on other instruments. A “chicken or the egg” question follows: is writing for low brass usually simplistic because players are incapable of more, or are they incapable of more because of low expectations? (The answer to that question might be “yes.”)

Seek out pieces with at least occasional challenges for the low brass, and perhaps even short features. The high brass and woodwind players will welcome the respite from bearing the responsibility for all of the melodic material while the low brass players will be spurred to greater technical achievements because of the demanding music you have chosen.

Provide Chamber Music Opportunities

Pursuing chamber music is good for players of all instruments, but is particularly beneficial for low brass players. This can be an effective means of providing these students the greater technical challenges that their band parts lack, while thrusting them into new musical roles to which they are unaccustomed. Furthermore, have students take charge of their groups. Provide repertoire and some minimal coaching, but otherwise insist that students be responsible for their groups’ musical development. This prevents such groups from adding additional items to directors’ schedules, and pushes students to greater levels of leadership, achievement, and interest.

Promote Private Lessons

Encourage low brass students to take private lessons on their instruments. The more players of every instrument a program has studying privately, the better that group will be. As with chamber music, the benefits here are particularly profound for low brass players because of the inconsistent diet of technical and musical challenges in their band music. Students studying privately will not only perform their band music better, but will also learn solo repertoire and perform better on all-state auditions, thus gaining further opportunities to perform more and better music. The possibility of greater college music scholarships might help to win over parents skeptical of assuming the extra expense. Additionally, the vastly expanded interest and capabilities for online teaching in the post-pandemic era mean that location is no longer an obstacle to private instruction for those with high-speed internet access.

Start as Many Low Brass Players as Possible

Finally, and returning briefly to considerations related to beginning players, start as many low brass players as you possibly can. Even diligently following the above suggestions will not completely eliminate attrition. Experience tells us that many low brass players will decline to continue in band for their entire middle and high school careers, perhaps choosing athletics instead, and this likelihood should be prepared for as much as possible. Nevertheless, taking the above steps will at least help to generate both achievement and interest, leading to more and better low brass players continuing in music throughout their high school careers and beyond.

Posted in Alto Trombone, Baritone Horn, Bass Trombone, Euphonium, Instructional Technology, Music, Music Education, Pedagogy, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Tuba | Comments Off on The Care and Feeding of Low Brass Players

New Performance Recording: Larsson Concertino for Trombone and Orchestra

The past year has been frustrating in many ways, with multiple restrictions, adjustments, and cancellations occurring due to the COVID-19 event. Like many people, it seems that I have been doing twice as much work to get half as much result. My ability to write regularly at The Reforming Trombonist has been a casualty of my newly-crammed schedule, but now that the spring semester is coming to an end I hope to have additional time to write for a while. I certainly have several topics that I would like to address.

One sign of slowly increasing normalcy is the slow return of playing gigs. The North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra, which I have served as principal trombonist since 2013, resumed performing in December 2020, giving two performances of Nutcracker with the Tupelo Ballet (presented in a large arena with social distancing). A resurgence of the virus in the winter led orchestra management to decide to present the planned spring concerts via recordings, which are first broadcast on local television and then posted to YouTube.

The third program of this abbreviated season, recorded in March and broadcast today, opens with a lovely arrangement for English horn and strings of À Chloris by Reynaldo Hahn (1874-1947) and closes with the wonderful Reformation Symphony (Symphony #5) by Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847). Between these pieces is the Trombone Concertino, op. 45, no. 7 by Lars-Erik Larsson (1908-1986). It is an enjoyable and varied program, and I was very pleased by how well the Larsson went…and that I had enough stamina left to pick up the alto trombone and play in the orchestra for the Mendelssohn afterward!

This was my first time performing as soloist with the NMSO and I am delighted to have had the opportunity. It was not, however, my first time performing the Larsson with strings; I performed it with the University of North Carolina at Greensboro Symphony Orchestra in 2003 when I was a graduate student there. In many ways, the Mendelssohn was more of a “bucket list” piece for me than the Larsson, for reasons that will be obvious to regular readers of this blog.

Here is the entire performance. The Larsson is introduced at around the five-minute mark, and the concertino itself begins at 6:40. I would encourage you, though, to enjoy the entire performance, as well as the interviews afterward. At one point Music Director Steven Byess shares a powerful and personal story about the importance of sharing great music with young people.

Thanks for listening. I hope to share new reading material very soon!

Posted in Alto Trombone, Felix Mendelssohn, Lars-Erik Larsson, Micah Everett, Music, Music Education, North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra, Performance Videos, Performances, Performing, Tenor Trombone, Trombone | Comments Off on New Performance Recording: Larsson Concertino for Trombone and Orchestra

Thinking about Exile

The assertion that being a Christian in contemporary America is more difficult than it once was will garner widely divergent responses from the two poles of our divided society. Some on the Right will claim that there is widespread persecution of professing Christians in our land; on the Left, Christianity is sometimes viewed as a dominant and even oppressive cultural force. Despite isolated incidents that might lend credence to either of these extreme viewpoints, reality—as is often the case, even in our highly fractious cultural moment—lies somewhere in the middle. The fact remains that many of our society’s laws, institutions, and mores reflect a sort of vestigial Christianity, since that faith formed or at least informed the worldviews of so many of our ancestors. It is, in that sense, still a very influential part of our culture. Nevertheless, while churchgoing remains a respectable activity, it no longer provides the cultural cachet that it once did. Ours may not be a moment of widespread persecution, but it is also not one where the message of the Bible enjoys uncritical acceptance. That might actually be good in some ways, but it brings difficulties, as well.

In this environment, the question sometimes asked is “how do we as Christians regain this lost influence?” If the American politics of my entire lifetime offers any indication, the answer is not “organized political action.” The past 40+ years have seen some conservative and Christian electoral and legislative victories, but also many defeats. More tellingly, the cultural momentum has moved steadily in the other direction regardless of which individual or party was in office. This does not mean that politics and government are unimportant or that Christians should not seek to serve therein. We believe that civil government is ordained by God for the good of humanity and is a worthy calling. Nevertheless, even the most faithful public service will not by itself reverse the cultural trends of the better part of a century or more.

So, if the answer is not to be found in government or in politics, where is it to be found? Honestly, I’m not even sure this is the right question. What if instead of asking “how do we regain this lost influence” we begin to ask if we can or even should embark on a deliberate and organized attempt to regain Christianity’s cultural dominance. The Christendom of past centuries was not an unmitigated good, after all, and in any case the New Testament does not lead one to expect true, believing Christians to ever constitute a majority in civil society. The recipients of Paul’s letters received a message that, when it touched on civil matters, seemed focused on how to live faithfully as a minority faith within a pluralistic culture. Perhaps the better question to ask, then, is “what does it look like to live faithfully in this post-Christian age?” Happily, both the Old and New Testaments provide ample guidance in response to this question (which suggests that it is the right question to ask).

Two texts come immediately to mind as I think about this. One is Jeremiah’s admonition to the people of Judah who were exiled to Babylon.

Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Jeremiah 29:4-7)

The recipients of Jeremiah’s message were no doubt both confused and demoralized. Although the prophets of Yahweh (including Jeremiah) had been warning the people for decades about a coming judgment, their message had been mostly ignored. Moreover, false prophets were encouraging the people to rise against their conquerors and return to their own land. But this people, the descendants of those who had through God’s enabling escaped Egypt and then conquered Canaan centuries before, now found the hand of that same God turned against them. God’s message to them is one of hope, but a tempered hope. There will be a return to the land one day, but in the meantime their calling is not to convert Babylon to the religion of Yahweh, but simply to live as faithful citizens where they are, until such time as God returns them to their own place.

In the New Testament, Paul’s message to Timothy has similar overtones.

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Timothy 1:1-4)

The vision of faithful Christianity Paul gives here is not that of a mighty and conquering faith wielding great political and societal influence. It is, rather, one of communities of believers living simple, faithful, quiet, and dignified lives. When we pray for our leaders, we do not ask that they would establish Christianity as an official state religion or even a dominant cultural force. We simply ask that they would govern in a wise and righteous manner that allows us to go about our lives as Christians without interference. That includes evangelism and hopefully the spread of our faith to our families, friends, and neighbors, and even to the ends of the earth (cf. Acts 1:8). But more often it simply involves being good friends, neighbors, workers, and citizens.

Of course, Christians may sometimes find themselves possessing greater than usual amounts of political and social power. Paul did not hesitate to leverage the rights bestowed by his Roman citizenship when doing so would benefit his mission, and both Joseph and Daniel stand out as individuals who offered decades of faithful civil service to pagan governments while never compromising their allegiance to the One True God. But while these exceptional cases offer valuable insight as to how a Christian might live faithfully when in such a position of influence, they are the exceptions that prove the rule. For most of us, the simple instructions of Jeremiah and Paul are much more applicable.

Would it be nice if our society at large still had the widespread Christian influence it once did? Sure, but the Bible does not lead us to expect this or to make it a priority. Faithful Christianity is most often smaller, simpler, more local, and can exist in even the most difficult of circumstances. Pursue a quiet life, serving God and man where you are, and pray for the freedom to continue doing so, all the while looking forward to one day obtaining “a better country, that is, a heavenly one.” (Hebrews 11:16)

Posted in Bible, Christian Formation, Christian Worldview, Church, Political Systems, Politics, Practical Christianity, Society, The Future, The Gospel | Comments Off on Thinking about Exile