The Singing Trombone

At this time last week I was preparing to perform Canzon “La Hieronyma” by Giovanni Martino Cesare (1590-1667) as a prelude to the Sunday service at College Hill Presbyterian Church. It has been over fifteen years since the last time my wife and I were members of a church that has an organist, so one of the great pleasures for me since we began attending College Hill is getting to explore the trombone and organ repertoire a bit. While the repertoire of original music for this instrumentation is not excessively large, what is there is significant, and most of it is appropriate for use in the worship service, at least in more “traditional” churches with regard to music selection. Playing through some early music is a special treat—the Cesare piece was composed in 1621, and congregants are usually surprised to learn that trombone and organ is most likely the originally intended instrumentation. Apparently the trombone’s long history—going back to at least the mid-fifteenth century—and particularly its historic role in liturgical music is not common knowledge.

Besides expressing surprise at the existence of a trombone solo repertoire, the comments I most often receive in this context have to do with the lyricism of which the trombone is capable. People whose only exposure to the instrument is in athletic bands and perhaps to a lesser extent jazz and other commercial genres are accustomed to trombonists playing loud and articulate passages, or perhaps comical effects, not lyrical, vocal-like lines. Developing a lyrical approach to the trombone is perhaps more difficult than on some other instruments, which explains the unfamiliarity, but people seem to enjoy it once they’ve heard it.

Interestingly, one of the greatest compliments I’ve received regarding my playing in church happened on a day when I was not playing at all. At a Sunday evening service several years ago my wife and I found ourselves seated behind a young family that did not normally sit near us. At the conclusion of the service the gentleman turned around and offered a compliment regarding my singing, saying that my singing reminded him of my trombone playing, which he had by then heard in worship services on a few occasions. I thanked him, but at the same time explained that his understanding of causation in this case was backwards. I do not try to mimic my trombone playing while singing—I try to mimic the voice while playing the trombone!

Why this “singing” approach? First of all, it sounds nice, and you might remember from another post here some time ago that “because it sounds good” is the number one reason for playing in a certain way. But there is a historical reason for that “singing” approach, as well. The trombones of the first three centuries or so after its invention, while functionally similar to modern instruments, were smaller in their bore and bell sizes than current models. These “sackbuts,” so called using this old English term to distinguish instruments of ancient dimensions from those of modern ones, had as one of their primary functions to reinforce the voice parts in choral singing and sometimes other contexts. This traditional way of writing for trombones with voices persisted well into the eighteenth century and beyond. Keeping this in mind, the cultivation of a “singing” approach to trombone playing not only sounds good—it is historically appropriate.

A lyrical approach to trombone playing is not a departure from historical norms. If anything, the various more aggressive or more comical approaches that seem more common today are such a departure. I guess I’ll need to keep playing preludes in church from time to time so that more people will become aware of the majesty and nobility of this great instrument.

Posted in Alto Trombone, Bass Trombone, Choral Music, Church, College Hill Presbyterian Church, Music, Music and Worship, Pedagogy, Performing, Pit Orchestras, Stepping Stones for Bass Trombone, Vol. 1, Teaching Low Brass, Trombone, Tuba

No Place for Truth

Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world–to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate said to him, “What is truth?” After he had said this, he went back outside to the Jews and told them, “I find no guilt in him.
John 18:37-38

“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”
—Daniel Patrick Moynihan (1927-2003)

I’ve been thinking about these two quotes for quite a long time now, so while they might seem particularly relevant in the present cultural and political moment, like most of the things I write here the initial idea for this post came some months ago. I suppose that the pairing seems a bit strange at first, considering together the conversation between Pontius Pilate and the Lord Jesus on the one hand, and those of a Democratic United States senator on the other. But taken together these quotations remind me that while we in our conceit believe that the cultural and political crises of the present day are somehow historically unique, in fact the milieu of the Roman Empire in New Testament times was not altogether different from our own. As Solomon said a millennium before the conversation between Pilate and Christ, “There is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9)

In Pontius Pilate we have a character who is at best a morally weak political leader. At worst he is a petty tyrant. His flippant rhetorical question “What is truth?” suggests that he has little regard for actual reality when the facts on the ground do not serve the ends that he believes to be politically expedient. In the end he delivers the Lord over to torture and death, not because he believes Jesus to be guilty of any crime—he doesn’t—but because he cares only about placating the crowd, maintaining order, and assuring his own place as the facilitator of that little slice of the Pax Romana. For Pilate, “truth” is at best malleable, at worst irrelevant.

Sadly, that same attitude persists among the political and cultural leaders of our own day. Once again, “there is nothing new under the sun.” The most pressing manifestation of this at the present moment is the discussions surrounding the impeachment inquiry against President Donald J. Trump recently initiated in the House of Representatives. As is so often the case in such matters, one side looks at the evidence and concludes that it is damning. The other side examines the same evidence and concludes that it is a “nothing burger,” to quote one senator. Who is right? What really happened? Was a crime committed, and if so by whom? I have no idea, and I’m not sure that anyone in Congress or the executive branch has any idea either.

But what bothers me more is that I’m not sure that anyone in Washington even cares what really happened. They only care about winning. Truth is replaced with spin, and the integrity of our society and its institutions continues to erode.

There was a time in our country when people with widely divergent political and social opinions could enjoy civil conversation and even come to some agreement based on certain common assumptions and understandings. At the very least, everyone agreed that “true” and “false” were objective categories not subject to individual interpretation, so a shared understanding of “the facts” formed the basis for dialogue and even consensus. But in a time when “truth” is no longer considered to be an absolute category but rather a relative one, that broad agreement on basic factual propositions has collapsed, and people on opposing sides of issues find their interlocutors to be not merely mistaken, but unintelligible…or perhaps dangerous. That’s what is so scary about the present moment. It’s not that people have disagreements about government, public policy, societal norms, or the like. It’s the disappearance of a set of common assumptions that allows profitable conversation to even begin.

So how do we get to that place where people can even talk? I don’t know. I’m just a trombone player who thinks about things and sometimes writes little blog posts that ten or twenty or a hundred people might read. But I think Sen. Moynihan’s words are relevant. Diversity of opinion is fine. It’s even good, prompting people to refine, sharpen, and revise their views in the light of new and better ideas. But “diversity of facts” is a problem. It’s a problem because the lack of agreement that some things are so and some things are not-so prevents the formation of a shared understanding that enables civil discussion to take place. More importantly, it’s a problem because “diversity of facts” is a nonsensical term. Some things are so and some things are not-so whether or not you or I or anyone else understands or agrees with this. Truth is absolute, not relative. It’s sad that so few in our day acknowledge this. It’s even sadder that they don’t seem to care.

And then there’s the matter of the One who called himself “the Truth” (John 14:6). The rejection of that Truth is the most tragic of all. But in a time when so many ask with Pilate “What is truth?” it is sadly unsurprising.

Posted in Apologetics, Bible, Christ's Person and Work, Christian Worldview, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Doctrine, Donald Trump, History, News and Commentary, Politics, Pontius Pilate, Practical Christianity, Society, Truth

Distraction: An Enemy of Great Performance

One does not have to be a very keen observer to conclude that ours is a society that is continually distracted. The devices that give us instantaneous access to so much information and were ostensibly intended to simplify our lives have instead become agents of repeated diversion. I have heard and read a number of accounts from educated, well-read individuals lamenting their own loss of the ability to sit and read a book for an extended period of time without looking away at email, social media, or some other electronic fix. I’ll readily confess myself to be far from immune to this problem, and am aware of its far-reaching effects in my own life and work.

For the Christian, this loss of concentration is especially acute, since ours is a faith that, at its best, sometimes demands extended periods of reading, reflection, meditation, and prayer. While that is an interesting topic of consideration, that’s not where I’m going today. Instead, I’d like to address something of less eternal significance but still of importance for me: the effects of distraction on musicians. Although I have no way of measuring this with precision, I am comfortable saying that distraction is the primary cause of both musical and technical errors in my own practice, and I suspect this is the case for my students, as well. Playing music at a high level simply demands a singular focus upon the task at hand; performance quality suffers tremendously when the player’s attention is otherwise directed.

While I have yet to arrive at a definitive solution to this problem, I’d like to suggest the most common causes of distraction observed in myself and in my students, and then suggest some possible solutions or strategies for improvement. Readers with other ideas they would like to share are welcome to do so in the comments on this post over at The Reforming Trombonist page on Facebook.

Causes of Distraction

1. Insufficient familiarity with the music being played.

Last week I reposted on our Facebook page an article from a few years ago entitled “‘How it Goes:’ A Missing Element in Many Students’ Thinking.” That article, in a nutshell, stated that too many music students approach practicing with little or no internal concept of how the piece at hand is supposed to sound, and that having a well-developed end goal in mind would lead to more effective practice and improved performance. One could say that not knowing how a piece should sound is a species of distractedness, since in the absence of a clear conception of the desired result one’s thinking will be directed to any number of unproductive things that are not “it should sound like THAT.”

2. Wandering mind.

This is the one of which I am most guilty, particularly when practicing fundamental exercises, scales, etc. My mind will turn to all kinds of things other than what I’m playing, and this tendency is not helped by the usual presence of a smart phone, tablet, and computer in the same room, all continually seeking my attention. Add to that family members, students, or others knocking on the door, and focusing on the task at hand becomes very difficult, indeed.

3. Obsessive focus on errors.

While this might seem at first glance to not fit under the umbrella of “distractedness,” focusing too much on one’s playing errors prevents due attention being paid to the music going forward. This is one reason that each mistake made in performance seems to beget two others in short order—the mind stops focusing on the music being played and instead fixates on the error that occurred.

4. General or performance anxiety.

I have over the years worked with many students carrying diagnoses of anxiety, depression, and similar conditions, and I myself suffer from not a little performance anxiety from time to time. Whatever the nature of one’s anxiety, it becomes a significant barrier to quality playing in that attention is fixated on one’s heightened emotional state rather than the task at hand.

5. Anxiety due to pride.

When I attended the Alessi Seminar several years ago New York Philharmonic principal trombonist Joseph Alessi rightly—and pointedly—indicated to me that performance anxiety was often the result of being more concerned about one’s reputation than about the music itself. While not all performance anxiety stems from pride, I am forced to conclude that much of mine does, a matter that required then and now a certain amount of honest self-examination and then repentance.

Ways to Fight Distraction

1. Know how the music goes.

If one type of distraction is due to lack of familiarity with the music, then the obvious solution is to learn the music better, even before beginning to practice and play the piece. The tremendous number of recordings, scores, and other resources now readily available means that one should rarely if ever have to approach a new piece without some kind of reference. Of course, sometimes in the real world one must sight read the gig, so ear training is important for learning to know how a piece should sound simply by looking at it.

2. Make yourself focus for extended periods in practice.

Often when I make a practice mistake that is entirely due to distraction I will make myself go back to the beginning of the piece, movement, or etude and try again. This forces me to focus on what I’m doing rather than continuing to make mistakes due to a wandering mind.

3. Change habits that limit focus generally.

One tremendous downside of our hyper-connected society is the expectation that one be able to be located and communicated with at practically any time of the day or night. While it might sound reasonable to say “if you find the phone, tablet, and computer to be a distraction, then turn them off,” disconnecting completely during practice sessions is often impossible. Still, to the extent that you can do so make your practice space one that is free of interruptions and distractions. Looking at social media, answering text messages, or even watching videos between exercises or pieces during a practice session wastes time, and causes a loss of focus when playing. Train yourself to focus on your practice goals during breaks or rests, and begin preparing mentally for the task even before you start.

4. Learn when to wear the “Investigator’s Hat,” and when to wear the “Performer’s Hat.”

One of the greatest distractions encountered by musicians is precipitated by a missed note or some other error. While “nobody’s perfect,” obsessing over and trying to diagnose a problem while continuing to play takes the player’s focus off of the music being played and instead fixates on what has already been played. The result is inattention to the music at hand, and predictably results in additional errors. The famous tubist and pedagogue Arnold Jacobs (1915-1998) described musicians as needing two “hats.” The “Investigator’s Hat” is used when practicing or listening with the intention of correcting errors, while the “Performer’s Hat” is worn when giving or practicing for live performance. Wearing the Investigator’s Hat while performing causes one to lose focus on the big picture, becoming mentally bogged down in details of error correction instead of putting on the Performer’s Hat, thinking of “how it goes” as mentioned earlier, and thus giving a quality rendition of the piece as a whole. If you must analyze a performance (or performance-practice) do so via recording after the fact, not while playing.

5. Address causes of anxiety, develop coping mechanisms, or both.

Anxiety is undoubtedly the most difficult of these distractions to overcome, and depending on the source of the problem might be addressed in a number of ways. Generalized or clinical anxiety disorders beyond performance anxiety experienced in the moment should be diagnosed and treated by a qualified healthcare professional. Even those who experience performance anxiety only might find counseling, antianxiety medications, or other medical interventions to be helpful. Others might overcome their issues by simpler coping mechanisms like visualization, deep breathing, developing awareness of and eliminating unnecessary muscle tension, or measures to replicate the feeling of a performance situation. Examples of the latter might include aerobic exercise to elevate the heart rate just before practicing, recording oneself, or performing for family and friends.

Anxiety due to pride is more insidious, since often the person experiencing this is unaware of the underlying attitude. Indeed, sufferers of performance anxiety often believe themselves to be not prideful, but rather humble to the point of self-deprecation. When Mr. Alessi suggested that my own anxiety might be due to concern for my own reputation I was initially taken aback, but I quickly concluded that he was correct. Those who share my Christian faith will understand this attitude to be sinful, requiring both confession and repentance. Both Christians and non-Christians might find this anecdote to be helpful.

During a talk at the 2001 International Trombone Festival in Nashville, Los Angeles Philharmonic associate principal trombonist James Miller stated that he won his current position after a string of unsuccessful auditions when he realized that “it’s just a trombone.” He described his previous attitude as attaching some sort of existential importance to the result of each audition, or at least overestimating the long-term importance of who won each position. The humble realization that the success or failure of a given audition or performance bears practically no long-term significance goes a long way toward curing anxiety of this type. While being a musician is rewarding work, hopefully uplifting to both performer and listener, it is freeing to remember that, in the end, “it’s just a trombone.”

Posted in Alessi Seminar, Alto Trombone, Arnold Jacobs, Auditions, Bass Trombone, Distraction, Euphonium, International Trombone Festival, James Miller, Joseph Alessi, Music, Pedagogy, Performance Anxiety, Performing, Practicing, Pride, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Tuba

The Gig Acceptance Trifecta      

Before even beginning today, I want to give due credit to Andrew Hitz, whose podcasts The Brass Junkies (cohosted with Lance LaDuke) and The Entrepreneurial Musician ought to be required listening for every low brass player. I honestly can’t remember which one of those shows was the source for this idea, as I heard the episode some time ago, but it was brought to mind by a recent interaction on Facebook.

69677204_2447974078642828_4044581873853136896_nThe occasion was a humorous post about a subject familiar to all working musicians: the suggestion that one should be willing to play for “exposure.” For better or worse, certain segments of our society seem to believe either that musicians ought to perform for free and earn their living doing something else, or that “if musicians are given enough (free) exposure from me, surely other people will discover these musicians and offer them paid work.” The first idea might seem reasonable—make music a hobby that you share with others simply for the love of it—but performing/teaching/writing/doing music at a high level requires time for individual practice and development, and that time is lost whenever one has to take a day job. And even if that job allowed adequate time for practice and preparation, good mental/emotional/spiritual health requires that one have some time for leisure. To put it briefly, for the musician a day job, while sometimes necessary, detracts from the time necessary to develop and maintain high-level execution of his or her craft. If performing/teaching/writing/doing music can’t pay the bills, musicians by and large won’t start working for free. They’ll have to do something else, and any music making that remains as a side hustle won’t be nearly as good.

The second idea, that of performing for exposure, also might seem reasonable to those offering such engagements, and admittedly musicians sometimes make calculated decisions to perform for free in certain venues—more on that in a moment. Too often, though, the “exposure” gained from such engagements is simply to other people who also want free musical services. While exposure can be a good thing, you can’t eat it, fill your car with it, or pay your rent with it. At some point real remuneration becomes a necessity.

So how should one decide whether or not to take a gig, especially one with low or no pay? Here is the great idea that I got from one of those podcasts. There are three elements that one must consider:

  • The music.
  • The hang.
  • The money.

The rule of thumb is that one should only accept an engagement if at least two of those elements is satisfactory. I have played some great music with great people for little or no money, and left fully satisfied. I have played not-that-great music with great folks for really good money, and also left fully satisfied. I have played great music with people I didn’t know very well but got paid pretty well, and…well, you get the idea. There is, of course, a limit on the number of “good music-good hang” gigs one can take before going broke, but generally speaking this is a good guide when considering an offered engagement, particularly when the pecuniary rewards are small or nonexistent. Sometimes “exposure” really does work out, especially when the music is great and you get to play with great musicians or even meet new people who might help you get paying work in the future. But only sometimes.

The Gig Acceptance Trifecta is a simple scheme, but it works. And go listen to those podcasts. There is much great advice to be found there.


Posted in Andrew Hitz, Economics, Lance LaDuke, Performing, Podcasts, Society, The Brass Junkies, The Business of Music, The Entrepreneurial Musician, Work and Leisure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Success Flows from Rightly Ordered Thinking…In Music and In Life

Instead of taking my usual summer break from blogging, over the past few weeks I have written a little series I have called “Essential Concepts in Brass Playing.” A recurring theme in each of those posts is the importance of conceptualization. I attacked from several different angles the problem of trying to perform music with an excessive focus on process rather than result, as well as problems that arise from misconceptions of the physical processes used in playing. The longer I teach—and the longer I work on my own playing—the more convinced I am that big problems in brass playing grow out of seemingly small errors and misunderstandings at the most basic level. Just as a very small problem in the foundation of a house can lead to very large and noticeable problems higher up, so very big and obvious performance problems so often stem from a very slight misconception in some fundamental area of playing. And yet in both the house and in the musicianship in my examples any corrections of the larger, more obvious problems will be short-lived if the foundational problem is not addressed. Again, for the musician this error is nearly always a conceptual misunderstanding of some basic aspect of how to play. Success will only come when this conceptual error is corrected. The player’s disordered thinking must become rightly ordered for him or her to realize success.

I’m sure by now you are thinking, like me, that this concept applies to more than just music (or building construction). Wrongheaded concepts in all kinds of areas can lead us to erroneous thinking or actions. To use another personal example, a little over twelve years ago I started experiencing chronic neck and jaw pain, which spread to my low back and elsewhere after an automobile accident about a year later. After an MRI showing some congenital malformation of the spine and some minor disc herniation and deterioration, I concluded that I was irrevocably “broken” and that at some level I would always experience back and neck pain.

51Xa+ehwX0L._SX308_BO1,204,203,200_Fast forward now about ten years. A couple of years ago I discovered the work of Dr. John Sarno (1923-2017), Professor of Rehabilitation Medicine at New York University, and other physicians and authors who built upon his work, such as Dr. David Hanscom, Dr. Howard Schubiner, and Steve Ozanich. These folks theorized that much chronic pain lacks a clear structural cause, instead having to do with stress, tension, and repressed emotions. After ten years of almost daily pain I was willing to try anything, especially since the physicians with whom I consulted about my back and neck issues were not fully convinced that the structural abnormalities observed on the MRI were the primary cause of my symptoms (and one even suggested that my main problem was stress). In studying these ideas I discovered that there was much there that did indeed apply to me. By becoming more aware of how stress and even more unwelcome emotions resulting from it, like fear and anger, affect my body, my pain levels have gone down tremendously. Once again, rightly ordered thinking—in this case understanding that my pain issues were not entirely structural in origin—improved my quality of life. In time this facilitated my return to a more active lifestyle and some significant weight loss.

And there are even more important areas of life to which this applies. Politically I would call myself a conservative, and lean to the right on most issues. Why is this the case? Mainly because I believe that conservatives view the world and human nature as they are (or at least strive to do so), whereas progressives view the world and human nature as they wish them to be. Conservatives oppose socialism, for example, not because they think socialism’s goal of a just and fair society is somehow evil, but because both human nature and the observed experience of the past century dictate that such a system can never deliver on its promises, no matter how much its proponents wish it to be so. Good social and political policies must flow from—once again—a rightly ordered understanding of the world and of humanity. This isn’t to say that conservatives always live up even to their own ideals in concept or in action, but the ideals are at least the right ones.

francis-schaeffer-contemplatingSpeaking of human nature, that brings me to the most important area to which this idea applies, that of religion. After all, if God exists, created all things, and will demand an account of all of his creatures, then the most important area of life in which our thinking must be rightly ordered is our thinking about who this God is and what he demands of us. What we find when looking at religions is that Christianity alone gives us a worldview that is consistent with observed reality. Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984) would say that every worldview must answer three questions: Where did we come from?, What’s wrong with the world?, and How do we fix it?. He would then say that Christianity’s answers alone answer these questions in a way that fits the world as we see it. Those answers are that human beings were created by a good and holy God in his image, that we fell into sin and dragged all of creation down with us, and that this will be fixed in small measure as people work to serve God and others, and ultimately with the return of Christ to judge the world and reign in the new heavens and earth.

To the non-Christian perhaps that sounds like a bunch of nonsense, but think about it. To posit that human beings are “basically good” doesn’t fit the world as we see it. People of all walks of life, when left to themselves, will lie, cheat, steal, and sometimes even kill to get their way. And yet to say that they are totally evil or even morally indifferent doesn’t fit either, because human beings are capable of acts of great kindness, generosity, and charity. But to say that human beings were made in the image of a holy God, and that this image is still present yet distorted by sin—that fits what we see around us, a humanity that is bent toward evil yet capable of great good. Once we understand and accept this, the desire to know and be reconciled to that perfect and holy God who made us follows quite logically. Happily, God has made the Way plain in his Word.

Clive Staples Lewis (1898-1963)

Of course, Christianity cannot be forced to exist only in the “religious” area of our lives, since it is, among other things, a lens through which one sees the world. But that understanding of a broken or “bent” humanity (as C.S. Lewis [1898-1963] might put it) has implications for all kinds of areas. It teaches us as individuals to love and care for our fellow man, but also to be wise and circumspect, knowing that that fellow man might turn and rob us. As societies it tells us to construct laws and policies that encourage the good while restraining the evil, neither assuming the worst about humanity nor naively hoping that the evil can somehow be educated or rehabilitated out of existence.

I could go on but this post is already lengthy. Success flows from rightly ordered thinking. As a musician, I must rightly know what I want to sound like and how to get there in order to be successful. Good health flows at least in part from a right understanding of one’s strengths, weaknesses, and ailments. A rightly ordered society flows from a correct understanding of the world and of human nature, a nature that is capable of imaging its Creator by doing great good yet is bent toward evil. And this right understanding drives us to seek the God who has redeemed a people for himself in the Person and Work of Jesus Christ, who saves all who call upon him in repentance and faith, and will one day return to make all things new.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” (Revelation 21:1-5)



Posted in Alto Trombone, Apologetics, Baritone Horn, Bass Trombone, Bible, Books, C.S. Lewis, Christ's Person and Work, Christian Worldview, David Hanscom, Essential Concepts in Brass Playing, Euphonium, Francis Schaeffer, Howard Schubiner, John Sarno, Music, Pain, Pedagogy, Performing, Physical Fitness, Playing Fundamentals, Political Systems, Practical Christianity, Practicing, Repentance, Society, Steve Ozanich, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Theology, Trombone, Truth, Tuba

Essential Concepts in Brass Playing 6: Technique Flows from Music

At any given time I will have at least one student—often more—who tends to think of music making like a chef following a recipe. I mentioned this in the first article in this series several weeks ago. These students approach playing as if quality performance must result from simply following all of the “instructions” with regard to execution and interpretation. The problem, as I noted then, is that the physical act of playing is more complicated than we think, involving a number of minute actions of which we are not often consciously aware. In that article—as well as most of the others that have followed in this series—I have emphasized this intuitive aspect of playing the instrument, and argued that a key to great performance is having as much of the physical activity of playing as possible operating subconsciously, allowing the conscious mind to focus more simply on “how it goes.”

To conclude this series, I’m circling back to this initial idea but approaching it from a slightly different angle. While in the first article I discussed how skilled, efficient technical execution should flow from a well-developed sound concept, today I want to suggest that the development of technique itself should flow first of all from musical ideas. The development of technique—particularly of new techniques—is basically the art of figuring out how to make the instrument reproduce the idea in your head.

266px-Arthur_Pryor_001As a doctoral student I devoted a significant part of my dissertation work to studying the life and music of Arthur Pryor (1870-1942), a trombone soloist and assistant conductor with John Philip Sousa (1856-1932) who later formed his own band and had a long career conducting broadcast and recording sessions for the Victor Company. Pryor’s father was a local bandmaster in St. Joseph, Missouri, who taught his son to play a number of instruments, but no one in town had ever seen a slide trombone until the elder Pryor received one in a seemingly chance occurrence. The younger Pryor was instructed to go and figure out how to play it on his own, and in time developed prodigious technical skills that would one day revolutionize trombone playing everywhere, his position touring and recording with Sousa giving him a worldwide audience unlike any experienced by a trombonist previously.

What’s my point in bringing up Pryor? Having had no instruction in slide trombone or any access to instructional materials or teachers familiar with the instrument, he had no preexisting ideas of the supposed limitations of his new instrument. He simply figured out how to play the music he had either performed himself on other instruments or heard performed by others. He had the musical ideas in place first, and then developed the technique to make that happen. I’m sure the same is the case with everyone who has developed some revolutionary new technique on his instrument. Think more recently of the development of extended techniques like multiphonics, or the various effects now possible by running brass instrument sounds through electronic processors. There were no instructional materials on any of these things, just musicians with ideas and a willingness to experiment and develop new techniques to bring those ideas to pass.

In the first article in this series I admonished readers to “Begin with Sound Concept,” and my point was really that even as you are learning and practicing various playing techniques you should always proceed first of all with an inner idea of the sound you want to produce. My point here is similar, but takes it a step further. Don’t learn techniques and then figure out music to play with them. That is rarely how great music happens or new ideas are developed. Instead, get a sound in your head—whether a traditional one or something innovative—and then develop the technique to do it. If an established technique is what is needed, then still let that musical concept lead the way as you improve that skill. If a new technique is needed to bring your ideas to fruition, then experiment until you find and perfect something that works. Either way, technique flows from music.

Posted in Alto Trombone, Arthur Pryor, Baritone Horn, Bass Trombone, Essential Concepts in Brass Playing, Euphonium, Music, Pedagogy, Performing, Practicing, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Tuba