Month: October 2016

The land of the free. Yes. The free.

The land of the free. Yes. The free.

I’ve recently returned from a week in Baltimore, Maryland, a trip that had many facets and which returned me to the place where my professional orchestral career started. Before joining the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1985, I was bass trombonist of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra from 1981-1985. In those four years, I was part of a great low brass section along with Jim Olin, David Fetter, Eric Carlson and David Federley (tuba); the photo below was taken in the fall of 1981.


Returning to Baltimore brought me down to the city’s Inner Harbor, a superb urban development project that began just before we came to Baltimore more than 35 years ago. It was nice to see the changes to the area over the years, particularly the new stadiums for the Baltimore Orioles and Baltimore Ravens, both very much tied to the fabric of downtown Baltimore. The U.S.S. Constellation, the 1854 “tall ship” that served as part of the US Navy for over 100 years and seen in the background in the photo above is still there.


I also gave a master class at the Peabody Institute where I was on the faculty during my time in the Baltimore Symphony. It was quite nice to be back in that venerable place, with so much that was familiar but so much that was new. I very much enjoyed working with several talented Peabody students, including Jahi Alexander, shown below, who is a student of the Baltimore Symphony’s current bass trombonist and my former student, Randy Campora.


We also visited Fort McHenry (photos at the top and bottom of this post), particularly known as the site of a ferocious battle during the War of 1812. I had never been there before but I as very happy to finally get there. Our visit was a very strong moment, even emotional, as we learned the history not only of the battle but of its lasting consequence: the writing, by Francis Scott Key, of the words to our National Anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner.”

Our National Anthem is in the news these days, in particular because a small number of athletes have decided not to stand when it is played before the start of a game. They are doing this, they say, to protest the the anthem’s final words, “The land of the free and the home of the brave,” which they feel do not apply to all people in our country.

Everyone, it seems, has an opinion about this, although some writers have seen evidence that people  overwhelmingly see the gesture as being, in the words of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, “dumb and disrespectful.”

Yes, our country has problems. Injustice exists. But I have been to 30 countries in the world on five continents and have seen how governments work. There are many good things about many countries in the world. But my late father had it right when he often said, “The American system of government is the worst in the world. Except for all the others.” The glory of the United States is the freedoms we have. Freedoms like those in no other place in the world. Our National Anthem is a symbol of our hopes and aspirations. In the face of injustice, we turn to that hope and work in meaningful ways to make positive change. Choosing to not stand at the playing of the National Anthem does not protest against injustice; to many, it is a selfish, narcissistic gesture that accomplishes nothing but draw attention to an individual. When we stand for our National Anthem – even while we are fully aware of the imperfections of our country – we honor those who have served our country to ensure our freedoms, we express gratitude for all that is good and right in our land, and we resolve to do better to improve the lot of everyone in our country. Standing while our National Anthem is played or sung is a rare gesture of unity in a country that is deeply divided over many issues.

Yes: athletes and others have the freedom to not stand for the National Anthem. That freedom is enshrined in our Constitution and Bill of Rights. And that freedom is celebrated in the words of the National Anthem itself. But those freedoms also include the right of others to call out those who do so as being selfish and “dumb and disrespectful.” See injustice? Work for justice. The battle of Fort McHenry and our National Anthem remind us of this.

O say, does that star spangled banner yet wave,

O’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave!



Improvisation: A Careful Carelessness

Improvisation: A Careful Carelessness

Last month I had the great joy of traveling to Duke Divinity School in North Carolina to take part in a two day Convocation titled, “Call and Response: Two Days of Theology and the Arts.” I was involved in a program called “A Careful Carelessness: An Evening of Theology and Improvisation.” Organized by Dr. Jeremy Begbie, the event included both classical and jazz musicians in a thought provoking evening that related the idea of improvisation – a skill that is careful but also careless – to both jazz and classical music, as well as our view of God.


In Christian circles today, much is often made of so-called “freedom in Christ.” By this, many people conflate salvation and sanctification; they say: “I am God’s child, I am saved, therefore I can do pretty much whatever I want. The Law is not in force with me; I am a child of grace.” But just because an idea is popular doesn’t make it true. In fact, this way of thinking leads to spiritual anarchy and antinomianism, and is the anthesis of the Christian Gospel.

As Jeremy Begbie insightfully said at the Duke Convocation:

“All music making depends on improvisation to some degree. This interweaving of order and openness is built into the way music works. . . . In improvisation we learn that freedom comes from the interplay between openness and constraints. Of course in the modern world, freedom usually means something like the absence of constraint. . . Improvisation makes us rethink all that. It makes us wonder if true freedom comes only from leaning into the constraints. Flannery O’Connor once said, ‘Art transcends its limitations only by staying within them.’  When God gave the law to the Israelites, it wasn’t to cramp their freedom, but to liberate his people to be the people they were meant to to be. Walk outside the laws and you became unfree, slaves again. When Jesus says the “The Son makes you free, you will be free indeed,”  he didn’t mean free from everybody else and free from all limits – but free to love people the way they were meant to be loved.”

Indeed. Think of music. Within rules – chord changes and such – comes tremendous freedom and beauty. Rules don’t mean “no fun” – they mean great fun, great freedom. The Duke event was a reminder of just how hilarious – and I use that word in its meaning, “unbridled joy” – music can be when we work within a series of constraints, whether in jazz or classical or any style.


In all of this this I was joined with colleagues from symphony orchestras from around the country and some fine jazz musicians as well. I played in a brass quartet with Andrew Balio and Nate Hepler (trumpets) of the Baltimore Symphony, and my good friend Megumi Kanda, principal trombonist of the Milwaukee Symphony. We played a canzona of Giovanni Gabrieli and also took part in large group performances of “Sing, Sing, Sing” and “Sweet Georgia Brown” where we were joined by Anne Martingale Williams, principal cellist of the Pittsburgh Symphony, Scottish violinist Alan Torrence, and John Brown (bass) and Donovan Cheatham (drums). Jeremy Begbie also contributed his skills as a superb pianist.

I also played an arrangement I made of a Bach two-part invention along with my Boston Symphony friend and colleague, associate principal flutist Elizabeth Ostling (who also played in the large group pieces). A highlight of the evening was Duke’s Dean of Chapel Luke Powery leading a call and response with the audience of the spiritual, “Wade in the Water,” over which I improvised a trombone solo. What a joy it was to work with such capable, flexible, and positive friends and colleagues while at the same time being musically and spiritually challenged myself.


There will be more from me on this theme of order and openness in future posts. For now, you can read more about the Duke Convocation in this article on the Duke Divinity School website, Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts (DITA) Celebrates New School Year with Theology and the Arts.

[Giving credit where credit is deserved: photos in this post were taken by Jessina Leonard and Pilar Timpane.]