Maybe the Problem with Contemporary Worship Music…Isn’t the Music

A couple of months ago I wrote a review of the book Lovin’ on Jesus: A Concise History of Contemporary Worship by Swee Hong Lim and Lester Ruth, which was published on the White Horse Inn/Modern Reformation blog. What I appreciated most about this book is its decidedly nonpolemical approach to its subject matter. While many books on contemporary worship are written to either attack or defend these practices, Lim and Ruth simply present the development of contemporary worship as it happened and is happening. Their plain presentation is helpful and refreshing, and has—perhaps ironically—brought me to understand more clearly just what troubles me about so much of contemporary worship, especially with regard to music.

While I have written on this subject on a number of occasions, I have never been fully pleased with my arguments against contemporary worship music. Those favoring contemporary styles often accuse traditionalists of opposing newer music for reasons of personal taste, and refuting those arguments is difficult because they contain a grain of truth. The accusation that I do not prefer contemporary styles because they do not “feel worshipful” to me is at least partially accurate—they do not, in fact, “feel worshipful” to me. But if my opposition to contemporary worship is simply a matter of personal taste, that is not a valid argument against it and should be ignored. To further complicate matters, in other contexts I very much enjoy many of the styles of music—and in some cases even the same songs—that I do not prefer to have present in the worship service. So one cannot say that I do not prefer contemporary music simply because “I don’t like it.”

Better arguments against contemporary worship music have to do with singability—so many songs that are common on Christian radio and such are doctrinally sound, but are difficult to use as congregational hymns. Others are shallow (or even erroneous) theologically, thus neglecting the teaching function assigned to congregational singing in the New Testament (cf. Colossians 3:16). These and similar concerns are valid, but can be (and in some cases have been) overcome by better contemporary songwriters, and certainly one can present examples of more traditional hymnody with the same problems.

Here I was stuck for quite a long time, with an uneasy feeling about contemporary worship music but having few good arguments against it, and not even a clear way to understand and articulate why I had this uneasy feeling. Enter Lim and Ruth, who unintentionally helped me to understand what was bothering me. To put it briefly, contemporary worship practices treat music as a sacrament, as a means of bringing people in to the presence of God. While those defending contemporary worship against its detractors tend to minimize or negate this idea, Lim and Ruth own it, celebrate it, and present it repeatedly, speaking of a well-designed “worship set” as “a journey of being ushered into the presence of God” (18). They go so far as to claim that those seeking to appropriate contemporary worship’s forms without owning this approach to music in particular “[overlook] the Pentecostal sacramentality that lays behind the rise of contemporary worship in many critical respects” (139).

What’s the matter with this approach to music in worship? Simple. The Bible nowhere treats music as a sacrament. The New Testament—which speaks very little about music in worship—assigns to music a role having to do primarily with instruction (cf. Colossians 3:16, Ephesians 5:19). Even the expressions of praise, pleadings, laments, and other types of sung texts found in the Psalms are full of content that teaches us about who God is and what he has done, not merely how we feel about him. Granted, we are to “enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise” (Psalm 100:4), but assuming that these praises are sung we come into God’s presence with praise; we are not ushered into his presence by praise.

Yet one cannot deny that the emotions of the worshippers are stirred up in many contemporary services. Is it wrong to say that they are being “ushered into the presence of God?” Because Scripture nowhere tells us to use music in this way, the answer to that question must be “yes.” So where do those feelings come from? Simple. They are being stirred up by the music itself. Music has a powerful effect on the emotions, and the driving rhythms and loud volumes of much modern music can “work people up” very easily. That’s manipulation, not worship, and little different than what happens at a concert. Of course, it is perfectly appropriate to feel powerful emotions during God’s worship, but we must take care that these emotions truly are a Spirit-wrought response to who God is and what he has done, and not strong but shallow feelings wrought by musical performance.

Maybe the problem with contemporary worship music isn’t the music at all. Like I said, in another context I would like much of that music just fine. And perhaps there is a way to utilize at least some of these musical forms in a way that does not assume a sacramental function or otherwise manipulate the feelings of the congregation. But the tendency for people to mistake the inherent emotive power of the music itself for some special moving of the Spirit seems almost universal in contemporary services, even in churches whose leaders have no intention of assigning music this special role. Considering that those who pioneered contemporary worship music embraced this sacramental function, there might just be a built-in tendency for this music to assume such qualities, and that is reason to be wary.

At the very least, I have found a way to articulate the nagging concern I’ve had for some time.

Posted in Church, Music, Music and Theology, Music and Worship, Worship

Multitrack Christmas Carols!

One little project in which I have been engaged for the better part of the past year has been improving my understanding of recording technology. Not that I have ambitions of becoming a professional recording engineer, but I would like to be able to make credible recordings of lessons, rehearsals, concerts, students’ audition and competition entries, and my own practice sessions. Learning how to do this has involved a certain degree of trial and error, and a number of pieces of equipment purchased and returned before I found setups that work for me. At some future date I will write a post introducing the equipment I use and the reasons for choosing it. For now, though, I’ll just share a fun project from the past couple of weeks: making multitrack recordings of Christmas carols arranged for low brass instruments.

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The equipment used to record these videos is as follows: an Apple iPad Pro, an Audio-Technica AT2020 Microphone, a Behringer Xenyx Q1202USB Mixer, and the Acapella app by Mixcord. Again, I’ll discuss all of that in more detail in a later post. For now, please enjoy the recordings, along with my best wishes for this season in which we celebrate the birth of our Lord and Savior.

The first link here is for a complete playlist, followed by the individual videos. Enjoy!

Deck the Halls (Traditional/Pederson)

Sleigh Ride (Anderson/Wagner/Everett)

You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch (Hague/Seuss/Buckley)

Jingle Bells (Pierpont/Robertson)

I Saw Three Ships (Traditional/Elkjer)

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day (Calkin/Niehaus)

Good King Wenceslas (Traditional/Geese)

We Wish You a Merry Christmas (Traditional/Garrett)

Adeste Fideles (Traditional/Pederson)

Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring (Bach/Elkjer)

Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming (Praetorius/Niehaus)

God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen (Traditional/Pederson)

Joy to the World (Mason/Pederson)

Salvation is Created (Tchesnokov/Everett)

The last one was originally intended as a Communion hymn rather than a Christmas or Advent one, but it works for this purpose. Its text is based upon Psalm 74:12, and is more or less translated “Salvation is created in the midst of the earth, O God. O, our God. Alleluia.” Generations of American band students have been introduced to this great work through a wind band arrangement created by Bruce Houseknecht in 1957. I created this version for mixed low brass ensemble in 2008; it is available for purchase here if you are interested.

Posted in "Gadgets and Gizmos", Acapella App by Mixcord, Accessories, Bass Trombone, Christmas Carols, Digital Revolution, Euphonium, iPad, Multitrack Recordings, Music, Practicing, Recording Technology, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Trombone Ensembles, Tuba, Tuba-Euphonium Ensembles

Suite for Trombone and Orchestra by Axel Jørgensen: Complete Performance Recording

Despite having every intention of posting at least a couple of articles here since my last post on November 11, various responsibilities have kept me from doing so. I’d like to share a couple of things between now and the end of the year before taking a short break and resuming writing in the spring. Both this post and the one that follows will consist primarily of recordings. While it might seem odd to share performance recordings in the context of a blog post, since this blog primarily concerns brass playing and teaching it is helpful to know that its author can indeed play these instruments competently! Sharing these recordings here also allows me to put them “out into the world” without clogging my faculty page at Ole Miss or relying solely upon the vicissitudes of Facebook and YouTube algorithms to get them to interested listeners.

Today’s recording is from November 18 of this year, when I played the Suite for Trombone and Orchestra by Axel Jørgensen (1881-1947) with the Lafayette-Oxford-University Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Dr. Selim Giray. As you might gather from the name, the L-O-U Orchestra is a “town and gown” orchestra, in which our university students are joined by players from the community, mostly music teachers and other local professionals. This was my first time appearing as soloist with the orchestra since 2012, and I was honored to have the opportunity. While the performance had the minor imperfections one expects with live music, these were very few, and overall the piece was very well received.

Jørgensen’s piece shares some similarities with the better-known Concerto by his contemporary and fellow Danish composer Launy Grøndahl (1886-1960). Both works are decidedly neoromantic in character, a quality shared by a number of other Scandinavian trombone works of the time. When he first asked me to perform with the orchestra Dr. Giray suggested the very well-known Concerto by Jørgensen’s younger Swedish contemporary Lars-Erik Larsson (1908-1986). Because I had already performed the Larsson with orchestra I wanted to use this opportunity to play something I had not yet performed with orchestral accompaniment, but I thought something similar out of that neoromantic Scandinavian repertoire would be a good choice, being enjoyable to the audience and not too taxing for the orchestra. Having already performed at least one movement of Grøndahl with orchestra,  I chose Jørgensen. Incidentally, Jørgensen lies right about in the middle of these three works in difficulty, and since I performed a very challenging solo recital only a month before this performance not overdoing it seemed like a good idea, as well.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the performance!

Posted in Axel Jørgensen, Music, Performances, Performing, Selim Giray, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, University of Mississippi

“Gadgets and Gizmos:” Tablet Computers as Sheet Music Replacements, Part 2

A little over four years ago I wrote an article defending my decision to not yet use a tablet computer for music reading, ending with the following words:

Again, I am sure that at some point in the not-too-distant future reading sheet music from tablet computers will be the usual practice. Nevertheless, until some standardization in the software applications used for this purpose occurs—particularly for marking parts for musical enhancements and avoiding errors—I remain unconvinced that the time has arrived. When such industry standard applications emerge I will be more willing to overcome my other two objections and join the “Sheet Music on iPad Revolution.”

euphWell, last year I decided to end my Luddism and begin performing and teaching using an iPad. I began in the summer of 2018 with a 9.7-inch device, but was able to upgrade to a used 12.9-inch iPad Pro a few months ago for even greater visibility. So far I have been very happy with the change, particularly as I now rarely have to travel with large binders or folders of sheet music. The more streamlined appearance at recitals is also a plus, with the iPad stand obstructing the audience’s view less than a music stand. I still have yet to digitize a large segment of my paper music library, a lack which remains the most serious drawback of this effort. However, as “sheet music” purchasing becomes increasingly digital and wifi access to cloud-based storage systems nearly ubiquitous, many of the concerns that prompted my initial reticence to adopt the iPad as a music-reading device have been alleviated.

forscore iconThe app that has been most helpful in this endeavor is called Forscore. I mentioned in my article four years ago that I saw the inability to efficiently mark music to correct and avoid errors was a serious drawback of reading from tablets, a problem that this app addresses very well. Accidentals and other markings are easily inserted using a tap-and-drag placement method that is very intuitive, and can be done in different colors in order to best draw attention (red seems to be the usual choice). Additional markings can be made using a finger, stylus, or Apple Pencil, including writing or highlighting in multiple colors. My parts now are rather colorful, with corrections indicated in a way that immediately draws my attention. Page turns can be done by hand or with a Bluetooth pedal, and can be configured for half or full page turns at each swipe or tap. My only complaint about this app is that scores and parts have to be loaded into it manually from the cloud drive and metadata entered for indexing; in some ways this resembles the way one would organize music for a recordings library like iTunes rather than a sheet music library. Nevertheless, Forscore seems to have emerged as an industry standard in this area, and its functionality more than makes up for this one oddity.

A further complaint about Forscore is that it is available only in iOS. In fact, that is a common issue with music-related mobile apps. While I have become rather fond of my Samsung smartphone, I have retained an Apple tablet because the software I use for my work is available only in that system. Additionally, Android tablets tend to be shaped more for viewing widescreen movies and videos than for documents. Perhaps one day music reading won’t be an iOS-only endeavor, but for now that seems to largely be the case.

fireflyRegarding other accessories, the most important is my PageFlip Firefly Bluetooth pedal, which I use to turn pages when playing. This device connects easily, has extremely long battery life, and simply works. I have seen and heard others complain about their page-turning pedals from other makers sometimes being a bit touch-and-go but that has not been my experience at all with this device. Highly recommended.

iReal-Pro-Logo_website_highr-1024x252I’ll mention one more app before leaving this post, one that is not directly related to music reading per se but has been extremely helpful in my practicing and teaching: iRealPro. To put it briefly, if something like this had existed when I was 18 years old I would be a FAR better jazz/commercial/popular musician than I am now. In this app one can download chord changes for thousands of songs, transpose them, change the tempo or style, and explore practically unlimited ideas for practicing and developing style and improvisation. While this app does not have complete lead sheets (i.e. with notes and rhythms in addition to chord changes), paired with lead sheets from The Real Book or other sources it is a formidable resource. And, unlike Forscore, it works on both iOS and Android.

I knew when I wrote that 2015 article that at some point I would join the “Sheet Music on iPad Revolution.” I’ve been there for a while now, and so far I’m liking it. In fact, I need to go and check the charge on the batteries: I’m going to be conducting a rehearsal using the iPad in a few minutes.

Posted in "Gadgets and Gizmos", Forscore, Improvisation, Instructional Technology, iPad, iRealPro, Music, Pedagogy, Performing, Practicing, Smartphones, Teaching Low Brass

The Bell is Lava!

Touching the bell in order to locate third—and sometimes even fourth—position is a common bad habit among trombonists. The reasons for this are fairly obvious. When first learning to play young musicians are taught to visually locate some of the slide positions in relation to the location of the bell, and third position in particular lies close enough to it that touching the bell with the index and/or middle fingers becomes a means of ensuring that one has found the right “spot.” Some teachers of beginning students even encourage this practice, unfortunately. A few students will extend this approach to finding fourth position by reaching back with the right thumb, which becomes particularly unhelpful as the student grows and the placement of fourth position moves further and further out as the thumb lengthens.

The problems with this approach are as obvious as the reasons for adopting it. While young students with untrained ears must be taught to locate slide positions using various visual or tactile clues (i.e. judging by the location of the bell or the feeling of a more or less full extension of the arm), the hope is that they will move as quickly as possible to locating slide positions aurally, by the sounds and intonation of the pitches being played. Touching the bell to locate slide positions disrupts this process, as students will essentially shut off the ears in favor of finding positions solely with the hands. As I’m fond of saying “fingers are great, but they don’t hear very well!”

An additional problem with touching the bell is disruption of technique. As students become more advanced and the technical requirements of assigned music increase the impulse to touch the bell when passing third and/or fourth positions hampers the execution of fast-moving passages. While I am ultimately not a “don’t-touch-the-bell purist” (i.e. I don’t usually correct the habit if it occurs only occasionally and doesn’t seem to be causing problems with tuning or technique), when a student’s bell-touching detracts from the quality of performance it must be corrected immediately.

Gavin

Ouch! (I’m a bad person.)

The question is how does one break a student (or oneself) of this habit? Often it goes away on its own as the music becomes too difficult to execute while touching the bell. Likewise, as students’ listening skills improve they become too dissatisfied with the poor tuning when touching the bell to continue doing so. I have occasionally resorted to extreme illustrations like taping a thumb tack or push pin to the student’s bell. This is for illustrative purposes only—I do not actually place the sharp point in a location where the student will touch it and be injured—but it sometimes communicates the message. A less extreme version of this is to modify the children’s game “the floor is lava” and instead say “the bell is lava.” I tried that one just this afternoon with a student and his execution immediately improved. Maybe that’s a healthier visualization than taping sharp implements to students’ instruments!

In the end, bell-touching tends to decrease as students practice and improve. When it persists, this habit is very likely indicative of insufficient practice as much as anything else. A healthy, daily regimen of fundamental exercises and scale studies is called for.

And remind them that “the bell is lava!”

Lava Bell

 

Posted in Alto Trombone, Bass Trombone, Pedagogy, Playing Fundamentals, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Trombone

“The Good Sound:” Complete Performance Recordings

Last week I performed a recital of music for euphonium with piano or electronic accompaniment as part of the University of Mississippi’s Faculty Recital Series. The program’s title, “The Good Sound,” is a tongue-in-cheek play on the meaning of the word “euphonium.” Although I perform euphonium solo and chamber works fairly regularly, this was my first full-length solo euphonium program in ten years. The program went relatively well and was well-received, and I’m happy to share the live performance recordings, “warts and all,” with readers of The Reforming Trombonist.

Julius Klengel (1859-1933), arr. Micah Everett: Concertino No. 1, op. 7

Ennio Morricone (b. 1928), arr. Adam Frey and Kevin Kaska: Gabriel’s Oboe (from “The Mission”)

Herbert L. Clarke (1867-1945): From the Shores of the Mighty Pacific

Benjamin McMillan (b. 1984): Mandelbrot’s Dream

Franz Liszt (1811-1886), arr. Patrick Hoffman: Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2

Peter Graham (b. 1958): The Holy Well (from “On Alderley Edge”)

 

Posted in Euphonium, Micah Everett, Music, Performance Videos, Performances, University of Mississippi

“Gadgets and Gizmos:” Dry Mouth Spray

A long-term debate exists among brass players regarding the advantages and disadvantages of dry and wet lips when playing. Some insist that playing is easiest when the lips are relatively dry, while others prefer that they be moist. This is largely a matter of personal preference, and in any case the debate, such as it is, is between two forms of a moderate position; most players would agree that excessive moisture becomes problematic, and practically no one wants a completely dry mouth and oral cavity. Far from being desirable, the sensation of dry mouth is an experience dreaded by players when it occurs.

Dry mouth is not an unfamiliar phenomenon. It is a common symptom of various forms of performance anxiety, and is usually considered harmless. Those experiencing dry mouth during public speaking, for example, can take a glass of water with them and usually continue without difficulty. For the brass player, though, dry mouth can cause serious difficulties in performance, hampering tone quality, response, and flexibility. While having water on stage can help, drinking water during rests can be distracting. More importantly, the water can rinse out what remains of the mouth’s natural moisture, ensuring that the first drink taken will not be the last. I am therefore perhaps too reticent to have a bottle of water with me on stage, and recently found myself in quite a bit of peril because of it.

When performing at the recent International Trombone Festival at Ball State University, during the third movement of a four-movement piece I felt as if all of the moisture in my mouth was simply gone. Having no water on stage, between the third and final movements I stood and silently chewed the sides of my tongue for a couple of minutes to stimulate salivation, and then continued the performance. That was a disappointing experience, especially because I was certain that without the dry mouth my performance of the third movement would have been considerably better.

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Later that same day, some of my students attended a performance by a prominent trombonist and one noticed that he periodically sprayed moisture from a small bottle into his mouth. Intrigued, the student found that player later and asked what the spray was. He told him that it was a spray used for dry mouth, with which he had become familiar when a relative experienced dry mouth during treatment for an illness. Knowing of my own dry mouth experience the same day, the student sent me a text message about this, and later that day I found a bottle of Biotène Dry Mouth Moisturizing Spray at a local store. I used it before later performances at the ITF and had a much better experience. I have continued to use this product, even before and during my solo recital last night at Ole Miss. It is an effective product, and similar formulations are available from several manufacturers.

The advantages of a spray like this are two. First, it is discrete. The bottle is small, can be easily carried in one’s pocket, and is used very quickly without drawing much attention. Second, and perhaps more importantly, these sprays stimulate salivation, rather than providing only a brief period of moisture before another drink is needed. Indeed, only a small amount of the dry mouth spray is needed at any particular time, and I am still using the bottle I purchased back in July.

Are dry mouth sprays a total replacement for water? No, and I still advocate hydrating generously on the day of a big performance. I even had a bottle of water to drink a bit between pieces last night. But do such sprays provide one more “tool in the box” that can help to improve performance? Absolutely, and I am thankful for the discovery.

Posted in Alto Trombone, Baritone Horn, Bass Trombone, Biotène Dry Mouth Moisturizing Spray, Contrabass Trombone, Embouchure, Euphonium, International Trombone Festival, Music, Performance Anxiety, Performing, Playing Fundamentals, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Truth, Tuba