Preparing for College and University Auditions

One of the first articles posted on this blog back in 2012 was a list of Fifteen Steps to Playing a Better All-State Audition. That piece was so popular and, I believe, so important that I have reposted it yearly in the early fall. Because auditions for college and university music programs typically occur in the spring, it is appropriate for a comparable article on that subject to appear at this time of year. All of the items listed in that previous article apply equally to college and university auditions, so I have repeated only a few of them here in cases where some targeting to a different audition context is necessary. The suggestions here mainly address items specific to college and university auditions.

The type of student that I have in mind as I write is the typical aspiring undergraduate music education student auditioning for admission, scholarships, and ensemble placement in a moderately selective music department at a state college or university (in other words, the type of student I usually hear and the type of program in which I teach). Those auditioning for conservatory programs or other highly selective environments will apply these words of advice somewhat differently. While these ideas appeared previously in separate posts targeted toward freshmen and transfer students, I have decided that the two scenarios are similar enough to warrant combining the ideas from those previous articles into this current form.

1. Practice daily…and not just when the audition is near.

This should not even need to be said, particularly for aspiring (and current) music majors, but it does. Perhaps I’m becoming less patient as I get older, but it seems to me that students practice less and less as the years go by. This is definitely true among the high school students I hear (an observation confirmed by their band directors), and is even true among college music majors (performance majors excluded…mostly). Students will attempt to cram for big auditions, juries, or sometimes even lessons, but we all know this doesn’t work. The ability to play an instrument well has to develop over time, with deliberate and repetitive practice serving to increase physical strength and facility, eliminate errors, and reinforce good habits. The music faculty members that hear your audition will know the difference between a student who has crammed and a student who has been practicing diligently over the long haul. They want the latter type of student and will make every effort to get that student to come to their school. (In other words, they will offer you more money!) Practice diligently and daily, even when there isn’t a big audition coming.

2. Take private lessons.

Even the best band director lacks the time and expertise to work individually and on a high level with students on every instrument. As with the decreased practice time I just mentioned, it seems that fewer high school students are taking regular private lessons than did a generation or two ago. And yet this is the best way to ensure that you will play at the highest possible level (provided that you are practicing, of course). Ask your band director for the names of capable teachers in your area. Local professional players, band directors that are specialists on your instrument, and college and university faculty and students are possible sources of such lessons. If the cost is prohibitive or you have to drive a great distance to reach the nearest teacher, biweekly or even monthly lessons are better than none at all, and many teachers are willing to set up such schedules. Nowadays online lessons are even a possibility, and I have begun teaching several high school students this way. Remember that these lessons really will pay off, not only in improved musicianship but also in higher scholarship offers. They might literally pay for themselves!

Community college students will, of course, have lessons included with their curricula. Make sure you are coming to each lesson thoroughly prepared so your teacher can help you position yourself for success at the next level.

3. Develop playing fundamentals.

One of my trombone teachers was a student of Emory Remington (1891-1971) at the Eastman School of Music, a name that is virtually synonymous with the phrase “daily routine.” Remington advocated the daily practice of fundamental exercises in order to develop his students’ playing to the highest possible level, and if anything, I have only expanded upon that, recommending that high school and most university students complete a 20-minute routine each day before moving on to practicing scales and repertoire. (For performance majors, my recommended routine is more thorough, requiring 45-50 minutes.) The temptation to forego repetitive exercises in order to spend additional time on repertoire is tremendous, and many students give in to it. Resist that temptation, and invest the time to seriously develop your fundamental playing skills on a daily basis. You’ll soon find yourself able to tackle more and better repertoire in less time as a result. Diligent fundamentals practice isn’t a time-waster—it’s a time saver! Remember, too, that unlike an audition for all-state bands or similar groups, those evaluating your playing in a college or university audition are not listening for your present playing ability only, but are also gauging your potential for further development. If you already have at least most of your “ducks in a row” fundamentally speaking, you will be a much more desirable recruit for university-level programs.

4. Master your scales and arpeggios.

For college and university auditions scale and arpeggio requirements will vary from school to school; if you are unsure what the expectations are at a particular school, check the music department website for instructions. If you are still unsure, call or email either the band director or the professor who teaches your instrument. In most cases all of the major scales are required for entering freshmen along with a chromatic scale. Community college students wanting to transfer to a university and enter at the junior level will also need to know minor scales (all forms) along with major and minor arpeggios. Students demonstrating familiarity and facility with required scale and arpeggio patterns will be very well received, indeed.

5. Learn clefs and transposition.

I started learning to read in tenor clef during my junior year of high school and added alto clef during my senior year. While learning clefs is certainly approachable for high school trombonists (at least for those that aspire to becoming music majors), few do so, and I end up introducing them during the initial semesters of college-level study. Likewise, with euphonium players reading both treble clef and bass clef parts—I occasionally get an aspiring freshman that can already read both, but only occasionally. Still, if you come to the audition having already begun to develop these skills, you will show yourself to be an ambitious student that will be a desirable addition to a college or university program. If you play an instrument for which transposing at sight is commonly required (such as trumpet or horn), beginning to develop these skills before beginning college is similarly advisable. As is the case with major and minor scales and arpeggios, students transferring from community colleges should make sure to be proficient in all required clefs and/or transpositions when entering the university. Including repertoire that demonstrates these skills in your audition materials is often wise.

6. Choose good repertoire.

College and university auditions typically require scales, possibly arpeggios, a prepared piece or two, and sight-reading. While some schools have a list from which prospective students are required to choose audition pieces, others simply want to hear any piece or pieces which give an accurate representation of your abilities. At the latter type of school, many high school students choose to play their all-state band audition etudes, which is usually acceptable but uninteresting. If you want to impress the faculty members on the audition panel (and particularly the teacher for your primary instrument), perform selections from the standard solo or study repertoire for your instrument. Playing a piece from this repertoire sends a message to the audition panel that you are developing a basic familiarity with your instrument’s standard literature. This indicates curiosity, usually a desirable trait among university students. If you are not familiar with your instrument’s solo and study repertoire or are otherwise not sure where to start, see if the applied teacher at the school for which you are auditioning has a solo list for freshmen published online, perhaps in a course syllabus for applied lessons. If you can’t find such information at that particular school, a Google search will yield listings of appropriate pieces from comparable institutions. You can also call or email the applied professor; trust me, he or she will appreciate the initiative taken to ask for help in choosing a great audition piece. Of course, if you are taking private lessons (whether as a high school student or community college transfer) your teacher will be able to help you make a good choice. Listening to recordings of great professional players on your instrument is also a good way to develop an awareness of your instrument’s repertoire. Real, commercially produced recordings, that is. Not YouTube.

7. Choose good repertoire for you.

Don’t just choose any standard solo work or etude, though. Choose something that makes you sound good, something that exploits your strengths while drawing less attention to weaknesses. This will require purchasing and reading through several pieces in order to choose the best one for you. Great players will make even the hardest pieces sound great on their recordings, and sometimes your first reading of a piece that sounded interesting and approachable on the recording will reveal that it is presently beyond your reach. Every player—at every level—has “chinks in his armor,” and the audition panel will be at least somewhat aware of yours regardless of the piece you play. Still, there is no need to give undue exposure to weak areas of your playing. Choose a piece that challenges and excites you, and that ultimately allows you to sound your very best.

8. Prize beauty, expression, and taste more than technical display.

Perhaps the biggest difference between all-state type auditions and college and university auditions is that in the former context playing “high, fast, and loud” is often rewarded, while in the latter beauty of tone and maturity of expression are most prized. Although at the college level we want to hear a prospective student demonstrate technical mastery, in many respects, this is easier to teach and develop than “musical” skill. Playing with a great sound and demonstrating even the most nascent sense of musical direction will impress university faculty members more than showing us how many notes you can play in two minutes. (Of course, if you can deliver the whole package of technique, tone, and expression that will be even better!)

9. Practice sight-reading.

Sight-reading is a big part of just about every audition, yet many students neglect to practice it. While some perhaps think of sight-reading as a “you’ve either got it or you don’t” type of skill, in reality, it can be developed and improved with regular practice. While there are method books published with the express purpose of being used for sight-reading development, practically any piece of music can be used for this purpose. Read anything and everything you can find, spending at least a few minutes each day on this kind of practice. If you aren’t sure you’re getting it right, ask your band director, applied teacher, or some other knowledgeable person to listen and evaluate your reading. Recording yourself and listening to the playback can also be helpful (for this and every other part of the audition!). Sight-reading practice can also be a good forum for developing basic familiarity with the standard repertoire for your instrument. Purchase as many solos and method books as you can afford and get to reading!

10. Remember the purpose of your audition.

Finally, remember that while you are auditioning for admission and scholarships, the initial audition for a college or university program is usually not competitive in the sense that you are auditioning for chair placement or otherwise determining your place in the “pecking order” at that school. Your goal should be to give a favorable but accurate demonstration of your playing and knowledge, showing yourself to be a capable, curious, and ambitious student with the desire and ability to grow as a musician and contribute to great performances during the course of your time in the music department. Do that, and both admission and scholarships will follow.

Additional Advice for Community College Transfers

One peculiar aspect of teaching music at a university in Mississippi is that many of our students transfer here after spending one or two years at a community college. While the presence of community colleges and of transfer students is not unique to Mississippi, not every state has community colleges with large and active music departments, complete with highly qualified faculty, private lessons, ensembles (including marching band), theory courses, etc. While the transition from community college to university is relatively seamless for students in some majors, music students can find themselves repeating many or even all of their sophomore music courses based upon the results of entrance auditions and exams. These remaining thoughts might be of help to transfer students hoping to make the transition as smooth and as free of repeated coursework as possible.

11. In music theory, take great notes, study hard, and find out what the university courses cover.

Music theory is perhaps the area in which the greatest number of music transfer students find themselves repeating material. In some cases, this has to do simply with poor preparation or study habits on the part of the student. If you are “barely getting by” in theory at the community college and studying very little, chances are that you are not truly mastering the material and will find your recall to be severely wanting when you take your theory placement exam at the university. Sometimes, though, even bright, diligent, well-prepared students experience difficulty in some area or another, leading to a recommendation that one or two semesters of theory be repeated. This might be due to some incongruity between the theory curricula at the two schools. Perhaps the courses at the university cover certain concepts that the comparable courses at the community college do not, or perhaps there is simply a difference in terminology used at the two institutions that might cause confusion. Reach out to students that you know at the university and ask them if you can see a syllabus or even some assignments to see what you need to be learning. You could even email the university theory faculty with your questions. Finally, check the music department website; there may be a study guide to help you prepare for the placement exam. I have seen students avoid an entire year of repeated work simply by asking questions, finding information, and diligently reviewing their theory class notes for a few weeks before the placement exam is given.

12. In applied music, practice diligently, learn standard repertoire, and master your scales.

While applied faculty members will gladly admit adequately prepared transfer students at the junior level, my colleagues and I usually find ourselves having transfer students enter at the second-semester sophomore level in the lesson sequence. More rarely, a student is asked to repeat both sophomore semesters. Why is this so? In most cases, the cause is simple: lack of overall practice and preparation. A student who plays with an uncharacteristic sound, poor technique, poor sight-reading ability, etc. is simply not ready to enter at the junior level, likewise, a student who does not know all of the major and minor scales and arpeggios or lacks familiarity with standard instructional and performance repertoire. For trombone players, I would add lack of skill reading tenor and alto clefs and for euphonium players reading both treble and bass clefs. While in some cases a student’s deficiency is due to some physical issue that needs to be addressed, most often the culprit is lack of diligent practice and study. Go to the woodshed and get to work!

13. Remember that faculty members’ primary goal is to see you succeed.

As a teacher, I often say that the truest measure of my success is not my playing ability, my knowledge of advanced pedagogical techniques, or my published writing or recording projects. Rather, the truest measure of my success is the success of my students in the professional world. Most students who pass through my studio are aspiring school band directors, and nothing is more professionally fulfilling for me than seeing students with whom I have worked for two, three, four, or more years go out into the world and use the tools I and my colleagues have provided them to build great music programs of their own. Indeed, not only my professional fulfillment but also my continued good reputation and that of my colleagues and my institution depend on having our students be as successful as possible in the profession. If we think having you make a seamless transition from the community college to the university with no repeated coursework will best contribute to your success, we will do that. If we believe that the review and development of concepts and skills that come from repeating some material will best for you, we will recommend that you do that. And by the way, this policy is not limited to transfer students—we will just as readily demand repeated courses from current university students when we deem it necessary and have often done so. There are no double standards. Whether you choose to start at a community college or go to a university immediately after high school, good, old-fashioned hard work will be required if you want to be successful in the music business. Good luck!

Posted in Alto Trombone, Auditions, Baritone Horn, Bass Trombone, Career Choices, Community Colleges, Contrabass Trombone, Daily Routine, Education, Emory Remington, Euphonium, Higher Education, Music, Music Education, Music Theory, Pedagogy, Playing Fundamentals, Practicing, Scales and Arpeggios, Sight Reading, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Tuba | Comments Off on Preparing for College and University Auditions

Why I am a Christian

Earlier this evening I had a nice discussion with my son about some of the ideas covered in this article. It has been several years since it was published and I have not had time to write something new recently, so I thought a re-post might be in order. Thanks for reading.

While this blog is dedicated primarily to my teaching and performing work as a brass player, over the nearly four years of writing here I have enjoyed occasionally writing about my views on various aspects and implications of the Christian faith. Today I want to briefly step back and write about something even more fundamental: why I have been and remain a confessing and practicing Christian. The following five headings provide a cursory overview of my thoughts; I have made no attempt to be comprehensive. Strangely enough, I will begin and end with more subjective items and place the more objective ones in the middle. That might seem to weaken the force of my reasoning a bit, but this sequencing is the most honest and the truest to my actual experience and, I’m sure, to the experiences of others.

1. I was raised to be a Christian.

The first reason that I am a Christian is that I was raised as one. That is not a compelling argument for Christianity to the outside observer, but it is an honest observation, as I have never experienced evaluating the Christian faith from a position of ignorance, indifference, or unbelief. My parents brought me to church from infancy, and made efforts to ensure that I knew and understood the scriptures and in time came to own their faith for myself. Adult conversions sometimes happen, of course, and we rejoice at those, but it does seem that God’s ordinary way of building his church is through the faith being passed down from parents to children, and I am thankful that my parents did just that. Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it. (Proverbs 22:6)

2. Christianity is grounded in historical events—things that actually happened.

Setting aside for brevity the various arguments about the timing of creation, the age of the earth, and the historicity of the early chapters of Genesis, the Bible has proven to give us a very accurate portrayal of historical personages, places, and events in the parts of the world it directly addresses. Archaeologists have found it to be a supremely reliable guide to the locations of the ancient cities and civilizations it describes, and documents from other contemporary cultures normally verify what the Bible says about the peoples and events of that time. Most of all, the Bible tells us about Jesus Christ, a man whose existence and activities are as well established as any other figure in antiquity, if not more so. Rather than having us believe in a myth or fable to help us to “be better people,” our faith ultimately rests upon a person who really existed and events that really happened to him—and which the New Testament’s authors invited their original readers to verify by questioning eyewitnesses. (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:3-8) Christianity stands or falls on whether or not this Jesus really was who he said he was, died for our sins as the Bible says he did, and “rose again the third day according to the Scriptures.” Absent any a priori bias against the miraculous, one finds that the Resurrection is one of the best attested events in all of history, and one upon which our standing with God depends. For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. (2 Peter 1:16)

3. Christianity accurately describes and accounts for the conditions of the world and humanity.

The great Christian apologist Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984) spoke often of the importance not only of becoming believing Christians but of developing a “Christian worldview.” He said that everyone has a worldview—a lens through which one views all of life—and that Christianity was only one of any number of such views held by individuals in our society. Of course, these offer competing and often contradictory ways of seeing the world, and Schaeffer opined that every worldview will, at its basis, provide answers to the following three questions. The worldview whose answers agree with reality is the one that should be adopted.

  • Where did we come from?
  • What’s wrong with the world?
  • How can it be fixed?

Biblical Christianity answers these questions rather simply. Humanity was created “very good” in the image of God, marred that image through sin and rebellion, and its problems (and those of the entire creation) will be solved only when Christ returns at the eschaton. The last item especially sounds like “pie in the sky” to many readers, I’m sure, but the first two in particular seem to me to correspond to reality better than any competing views. The idea of an originally “very good” humanity that fell from that goodness accounts for humanity as we observe it—as capable of great goodness and with an innate sense that there is an objective “right” and “wrong,” and yet capable of unspeakable evil both to one another and the creation as a whole. Neither the views that everyone is “basically good” or somehow starts out morally neutral account for all of this, nor does a pessimistic view of man as entirely evil. Still, there is evil in the world, not just among people but even in the physical creation itself. What is the solution to those?

4. Christianity provides the only compelling solution to our problems.

Out of all of human history, the twentieth century is particularly marked by spectacularly failed utopian visions in which people attempted to create a perfect society without reference to God. Marxism cast one such vision, yet resulted in the deaths of millions. Nazism had another (though with a veneer of faux-Christianity) and ended similarly. Various lesser movements have been underwhelming at best and comical at worst. Proponents of all of these movements saw rightly that our world and societies are broken, but failed to correctly diagnose the cause—that we have sinned against a Creator-God to whom we are accountable—and to recognize that ultimately our hope must lie outside of ourselves. So what does Christianity offer? A promise that Christ will return one day to restore all things (cf. Revelation 22:12), and that in the meantime his people are to be not fatalistic, but rather faithful stewards, doing good where they can in anticipation of the Master’s return. (cf. Jeremiah 29:7)

This begins not on a societal level but a personal one. Sin infects not only the society but the individual, and the individual must be redeemed. Just like we are powerless to “fix the world” by ourselves, so we are powerless to save ourselves from the consequences of our own sin. Happily, the same Christ that will one day restore all of creation will freely save all who will repent of sin and believe in him. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)

5. The Spirit’s internal witness.

The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God…. (Romans 8:16)

I am aware that I am ending with what probably appears to be my weakest point, but once again this is true to experience. In the scriptures we find the promise of a supernatural, internal witness of the Holy Spirit that we are indeed God’s children, and the context there in Romans chapter 8 suggests that this witness is strongest at moments of particular weakness or distress. While I have experienced this in some small measure in my own life, this also explains how persecuted believers in previous generations and in our own in some parts of the world have faced suffering and death not only with patience and resignation but with joy and comfort in the loving Father they would soon meet. Lots of people have died for various causes, but to face suffering and death—and even the smaller trials of everyday life—with perfect joy and peace speaks to the supernatural ministry of the Spirit of God.

Most of the time when I read, think, or write about Christianity, the Bible, and the church I like to focus on some particular point of theology, experience, or practice, and to explore them in more depth than I have here. While I don’t imagine that I have convinced anyone to embrace Christianity with these brief reflections, I hope I’ve provided something to think about. When I open the Bible and begin to read I see people like me and like people I know, with problems, virtues, and sins not unlike the ones I observe in myself and in others around me, despite their being removed from us by twenty centuries or more. Most of all, I see the most plausible explanation for the condition of our world, and the only hope for its redemption. I was raised to revere and to believe the Bible, and to entrust my life to the Christ revealed therein. I hope and pray that everyone reading this will do the same. I can’t imagine a compelling reason to do otherwise.

Posted in Apologetics, Assurance, Bible, Christian Worldview, Doctrine, Fatherhood of God, Francis Schaeffer, Practical Christianity, Salvation, The Future, Theology, Truth | Comments Off on Why I am a Christian

Insanity Brass Duo Performance at the 2021 International Trombone Festival: “Better Late than Never!”

This past summer, my colleague Dr. Michael Wilkinson from the University of South Carolina and I were able to bring our multi-instrument “Insanity Brass Duo” program to the International Trombone Festival. While time limitations forced us to shorten our program slightly, removing movements from the Telemann and Shostakovich works and eliminating repeats from the Marcello, we had a great time performing for an enthusiastic audience. We did get a very nice recording from the event, but it arrived in the middle of the fall semester, and I have only now had free time available to edit the video into separate tracks for each piece (with the talking in between eliminated) and share here. Enjoy!

Canonic Sonata No. 3, Movement III (Telemann/Everett)
Everett—alto trombone
Wilkinson—alto trombone

Sonata No. 3 in A minor (Marcello)
Everett—tenor trombone
Wilkinson—bass trombone

Preludes 16 and 24 (Shostakovich/Yeo)
Everett—bass trombone
Wilkinson—tenor trombone

Slide and the Family Bone (Davis)
Everett—bass trombone
Wilkinson—tenor trombone

Trombone Institute of Technology (Davis)
Everett—tenor trombone
Wilkinson—bass trombone

Lokk from the Green Island (Aagaard-Nilsen)

Duo Divertimento No. 2 (Deddos)
Everett—baritone horn

Duba Dance (Verhelst)

The Walrus Ordered Waffles (Pederson)
Everett—bass trombone
Wilkinson—contrabass trombone

Don’t Be Absurd (Wilkinson)
Wilkinson—contrabass trombone

Complete Playlist

To read more about our group and see previous recordings, visit here and here. To learn more about my approach to doubling on multiple low brass instruments, check out The Low Brass Player’s Guide to Doubling from Mountain Peak Music. Mike and I are hoping to resume our duo concerts in the next year or so with new music and even more instruments. Coming to the next iteration of our program: double-bell euphoniums! Stay tuned.

Posted in Alto Trombone, Baritone Horn, Bass Trombone, Benedetto Marcello, Contrabass Trombone, Dmitri Shostakovich, Doubling, Euphonium, Fernando Deddos, Georg Philipp Telemann, Insanity Brass Duo, International Trombone Festival, Micah Everett, Michael Davis, Michael Wilkinson, Music, Performances, Steven Verhelst, Tenor Trombone, The Low Brass Player's Guide to Doubling, Tommy Pederson, Torstein Aagaard-Nilsen, Trombone, Tuba, University of Mississippi, University of South Carolina | Comments Off on Insanity Brass Duo Performance at the 2021 International Trombone Festival: “Better Late than Never!”

“The Old Paths,” Part One

There is an ongoing debate among brass players that pops up from time to time on social media and internet message boards. The subject: “What do you do to warm up?” What should brass players do to prepare for the day’s playing demands as well as to maintain and extend one’s physical capacity to play the instrument in terms of strength, flexibility, breath control, etc.? Brass players face a unique set of challenges among instrumentalists because the vibration—the actual tone—is produced not by a reed, string, drumhead, wooden bar, or other implement exterior to the body, but by a part of the body, the lips. The instrument merely provides amplification and color to the vibration produced by the body. One way or another, the lips and surrounding musculature need to be maintained at a certain level of fitness in order to perform this rather unnatural “buzzing” function in an efficient manner that leads to a beautiful tone. The oft-answered question is how to best achieve that.

Emory Remington (1892-1971)
Emory Remington (1891-1971)

There are many nuanced answers to this question among brass players, but broadly speaking they can be sorted into two camps, which I will identify using famous low brass teachers that represent these schools of thought. I’ll call the first group the “Remington camp,” after Emory Remington (1891-1971), longtime trombone teacher at the Eastman School of Music who was famous not only for establishing the modern iteration of the trombone choir as a teaching tool, but also for his emphasis on the use of a comprehensive daily routine of long tones, lip slurs, articulation exercises, etc. These exercises were intended not as mere warm-up material and certainly not as ends in themselves, but as tools to give trombonists “the physical wherewithal…to be the most musical being possible.” (ed. Donald Hunsberger, The Remington Warm-Up Studies, p.5). Remington believed in using a more or less repetitive daily set of exercises to build the player’s physical capacity to then go and make great music.

Arnold Jacobs (1915-1998)
Arnold Jacobs (1915-1998)

The other group I’ll call the “Jacobs camp,” after Arnold Jacobs (1915-1998), the famous tubist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and during his lifetime (and perhaps since) the world’s leading expert on pulmonary function as related to wind playing. Interestingly, even though Jacobs possessed great knowledge of the physical aspects of brass playing, his “Song and Wind” approach placed primary emphasis on the “song,” one’s mental concept of the desired sound, and he exhorted students to avoid overthinking about what the body is doing while playing beyond efficiently moving air in and out (“wind”). Although I have less immediate familiarity with Jacobs’s teaching than with Remington’s, the sense I get from his students (and their students) is one that places far less emphasis on a daily regimen of technical exercises than on simply playing musically and allowing the body to work.

In the often-polarizing environment that is the internet, advocates of these two extremes rarely seem to find a way to “meet in the middle.” But can they? I think so. My students certainly have heard me invoke both Remington and Jacobs on numerous occasions when the approach of one or the other will yield the best result. I have a great appreciation for Jacobs’s approach—in fact, one of the great regrets of my professional life is that I was unable to take a lesson with him before he passed. Besides a general appreciation for his knowledge of and approach to the breath, I think that many, many brass players think too much about “what to do” when playing and far too little about “how it sounds.” Jacobs’s fundamentally musical approach frees players to focus on the music and not on the body…and then to their surprise and delight they discover that only then does the body “work right.”

Nevertheless, I suppose if I were forced to align myself with one of these “camps” or the other, I would choose Remington. My trombone teachers at the collegiate level included a Remington student and student-of-a-Remington-student, so my training was largely in that tradition. My own daily routines, which I have developed over nearly 25 years, have a small following in the brass playing world and immediately betray a decidedly “Remingtonian” influence. While I use routines of varying length (depending on factors such as student ability, available practice time, etc.) and will vary the exercises somewhat to address immediate concerns, I find that returning each day to familiar patterns helps me to prepare not only physically but mentally for the demands of my profession. Incidentally, I find that this daily repetition (though not necessarily first thing each day) leaves me free to approach the “real work” of performing and teaching in a much more “Song and Wind” manner.

Although I have occasionally experimented with abandoning the daily routine approach, I’ve never lasted very long doing that. These “old paths,” this familiar way of approaching brass playing has a centering, almost catechetical effect, as I am each day reminded of the very basic elements of playing a brass instrument correctly before moving on to focus on “the music.”

And that deliberate word choice (“catechetical”) hints at the topic I’ll address in Part Two, Lord willing.

Posted in Alto Trombone, Arnold Jacobs, Baritone Horn, Bass Trombone, Breathing, Daily Routine, Emory Remington, Euphonium, Music, Music Education, Musical Interpretation, Pedagogy, Performing, Physical Fitness, Playing Fundamentals, Practicing, Scales and Arpeggios, Teachers, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Trombone Ensembles, Tuba | Comments Off on “The Old Paths,” Part One

The Limitations of the “Pyramid of Sound”

From an early age, many band students are drilled in the “Pyramid of Sound” model for achieving a properly balanced ensemble sound. This model was perhaps most prominently championed by the prominent band composer and conductor W. Francis McBeth (1933-2012) and is used by band conductors throughout the United States. When rightly applied, the Pyramid of Sound is an effective tool for balancing not just concert bands, but practically any type of ensemble. The concept is very simple: the lowest instruments and parts in the group should be loudest, forming a foundation upon which higher parts build, becoming progressively softer until the highest notes are played most softly. Because human beings tend to perceive high pitches more readily than low ones, ensembles that are balanced in this way tend to have pleasing sounds where all parts are easily heard.

So far, so good, but difficulties arise when students try to apply this concept in situations where it is not appropriate, such as in solo playing or even in soloistic passages in ensembles. Think about most melodies you know. The highest notes tend to be the climactic ones, so the best phrasing occurs when the lower notes at the beginning of the phrase are softer, then crescendo to the higher notes, and diminuendo again as the phrase concludes or resolves. Sometimes a slight increase in tempo is appropriate when moving higher, as well, and then a corresponding slight decrease in tempo to bring the phrase into balance metrically. While this might sound like common sense, low brass students that have had the Pyramid of Sound preached to them their entire musical lives will sometimes instinctively soften on the highest notes and then get louder on the lowest notes, even when good phrasing would dictate the opposite. Because of their supporting roles in most ensemble situations, low brass students just beginning applied study are often inexperienced at playing and interpreting melodies and simply bring the approach they have used in their bands to solo literature, phrasing studies, etc. The resulting interpretations are not just strange—they are exactly backwards!

Happily, through instruction, demonstration, and patient reassurance that it really is okay to forgo the Pyramid of Sound in the right situations, most students quickly figure out a better approach to shaping melodies. I will usually illustrate this to them by drawing the above Pyramid diagram and labeling it “for ensemble playing,” and then place another, much simpler diagram alongside it, labeled “for solo playing.” That diagram looks something like this. It is simple, but effective.

Many great bands and their directors are devotees of the Pyramid of Sound, and when rightly applied this approach leads to warm, beautiful, yet clear sounds. But accompanying material is one thing; melodic and soloistic lines are another. In those cases, the Pyramid must be abandoned in favor of the Line.

Posted in Alto Trombone, Baritone Horn, Bass Trombone, Euphonium, Music, Music Education, Musical Interpretation, Pedagogy, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Tuba, W. Francis McBeth | Comments Off on The Limitations of the “Pyramid of Sound”