Life is full of surprises, unexpected things that intersect our lives. Sometimes a surprise is shocking, such as a car accident, or the sudden death of a friend or loved one. Sometimes surprises are joyful, like getting accepted to a college you thought was out of reach. No matter how they come, surprises always get our attention. A recent surprise got me thinking of how interesting this theme of surprises (good ones!) has been in my life recently.

Among my many ongoing projects, I have been doing a study of the Stephanovsky 20 Etudes for Bass Trombone. As my friend, Peter Ellefson (Professor of Trombone at Indiana University) pointed out to me a few weeks ago, Keith Brown’s 1964 edition of the Stephanovsky 20 Etudes contains a great deal of common material with Brown’s edition of Fritz Werner’s 38 Studies for Trombone. What? Two composers whose books contain much music that is identical? Keith Brown died last year so he isn’t here to explain what happened. So I’ve been trying to figure out this little puzzle.

In my research, I learned that the 20 Etudes were first published under Stephanovsky’s name in the Soviet Union, first around 1950 and then again in 1961 (Werner’s book was first published in 1927). I hunted around for copies of Stephanovsky’s Russian editions to obtain via Inter Library Loan and finally located a copy of the 1961 edition (I did locate a copy of the c. 1950 edition but the library that owns it is in Europe and does not participate in ILL) in the library at University of Texas, Austin. In a few days, it was heading to me for examination.

SURPRISE! When I opened it, the title page revealed that this copy had been previously owned by Donald S. Knaub, former professor of trombone at Eastman School of Music and University of Texas. Knaub is one of the most respected trombone teachers of the twentieth century; I was very privileged to meet him a few years ago when I gave a masterclass at University of Houston. A book from his personal library? Nice.


SURPRISE! Someone (it was probably Knaub since the handwriting looks like his) made some assumptions about the name of the composer of this music. No, it was not Kruschev, nor Ivan. Stephanovsky’s first name was Karl. The University of Texas librarians got the name right when they entered the music into their catalog.

Whenever I hold music that was owned by someone else, I have great anticipation when I open it up since there are often hand-written markings that prove to be as interesting to me as the music itself. Knaub’s music didn’t disappoint.


SURPRISE! When I turned to Etude 14 I saw Knaub’s handwriting that marked out several bracketed staves where he had written “ONE BREATH” next to them, after having changed the dynamic of mezzoforte to pianissimo. I had to smile. I have made the same indications in many copies of this book when I have assigned that same etude to students over my many decades of teaching. Pushing ourselves to play long phrases is an essential part of learning good breath control. It was nice to see that Knaub asked the same thing of himself – and he probably asked it of his students as well.


SURPRISE! When I turned to the final page of the book, Knaub had written “SNIFF BREATHING” at the top of Etude 20. Another big smile from me. I have been extolling the virtues of sniff breathing – that is, taking quick breaths through the nose rather than breathing through the mouth while playing – as a way to deal with playing music like this where there just isn’t a good place to take a breath. I was taught this technique by my former Boston Symphony tuba colleague, Chester Schmitz, and it has served me (and my students) well ever since then. To see that Knaub suggested using sniff breathing on this etude was a great verification to me, since this is the very kind of etude I assign to my students to practice this useful breathing technique.

In 2010, I was in Rouen, France, doing some teaching and performing en route to a conference in Paris that was devoted to the musical instrument called the serpent. Whenever I go to Europe, I always seek out cathedrals and large churches. I have a great interest in Gothic-era church architecture. Rouen, of course, has one of the most famous cathedrals in the world, made all the more famous by the more than thirty paintings of its west front by Claude Monet (below).


My oldest daughter, Linda (who was accompanying me on the trip), and I spent some time inside and outside this magnificent church, but my host and friend, Volny Hostiou, told us of another interesting church in Rouen that is much less known. And it had a surprise.

SURPRISE! Actually, when Volny told me about the Abbey Church of St. Ouen, he was surprised it was not the first time I had heard of it. I’ve been aware of its architecture ever since a set of twelve aquatints by the English artist, Charles Wild, came into my possession many years ago. Wild’s “Twelve Selected Examples of the Ecclesiastical Architecture of the Middle Ages, Chiefly in France.” In 2001, I wrote an article about one of these prints, “The Choir of the Cathedral of Amiens,” where I discussed the serpent players depicted in the print (you can view and download my article about this in the Historic Brass Society Journal by clicking this link). Among the prints in Wild’s set are two of the Abbey Church of St. Ouen in Rouen. One is of the outside of the church:


And the other is of the church’s transept:


These are beautiful images, ones that have taught me a great deal about Gothic architecture and cathedral/church life. But now Volny had a surprise for me. “When you go inside,” he said, “look up. You will find a serpent player.” Linda and I made a trip to the Abbey Church to find out what Volny was talking about.


SURPRISE! We looked all through the church for the serpent player and finally we found him. High up on the ceiling in a side chapel, there it was, a remarkable painting of an angel playing the serpent. Nothing there about harps in heaven!


The serpent, which had been invented sometime in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century and then evolved to be an instrument to accompany the singing of chant in the Church in France, would have been well known to every person who had worshipped in St. Ouen in the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries. The painting is heavily damaged but it is still remarkable nonetheless. Who painted it? When? Questions. . .


SURPRISE! But there was more. As we looked more carefully at the painting, we realized that the serpent player was not alone. Look at the image, above. Just to the right of the serpent-playing angel’s left wing you see another face. It’s very faint and hard to find. (Maybe this will help: look at the chin of the serpent-playing angel, then move your eyes to the right until the stonework of the ceiling appears. The second angel’s face is there, just to the side of the larger angel’s wing.) You can clearly make out the face of another angel who is looking at the serpent-playing angel. An unexpected surprise on top of a surprise. Did this other angel originally have an instrument in hand? What did the rest of the ceiling look like when the paint was all intact? Questions. . .

Some of my biggest surprises come in books. Because of the nature of the research I do, I purchase a lot of used books, and mostly books that are out of print. I get all of my used books through, a website that serves as a massive catalog of the holdings of thousands of bookstores around the world. I can usually find any book I want there, and usually for only a few dollars. And sometimes when I open up a used book, I find a surprise.


SURPRISE! My wife and I enjoy football and one of the first things we did when we moved to the Chicago area last fall was to become season ticket holders for the Chicago Bears. We’re all in with the Bears and since we want get to know the team better, I’ve been acquiring several books and DVDs about its history. Last week, I ordered a used copy of Halas by Halas (New York: McGraw-Hill Co., 1979), the autobiography of George S. Halas who was not only the first coach, then player, then owner of the Chicago Bears, but was the driving force behind the creation of the National Football League in 1919.


You can imagine my surprise when I opened this book – which I purchased for under $20 – and I found several autographs inside the front cover. There is Doug Atkins, defensive end for the Chicago Bears from 1955-1966 and a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And Mike Pyle, center for the Bears from 1961-1969. And George Connor, another member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame who played linebacker/tackle for the Bears from 1948-1955. There is also the signature of Jeanne Morris, a pioneering female television sports broadcaster, and two members of the short-lived Chicago Bears cheerleading squad, the Honey Bears. Also of interest is the book plate that celebrates the event where books were distributed and the autographs were probably inscribed. I wonder who else was there at that Chicago Bears Reunion Dinner? Who was “Charlie,” to whom some of the autographs are signed? Questions. . .


Among the several books I am writing at the moment is a biography of Homer Rodeheaver, the trombone-playing song leader for evangelist William Ashley “Billy” Sunday in the first third of the twentieth century. Rodeheaver is a fascinating character who was a driving force in the promotion of gospel music in the twentieth century through his publishing company, record company, and evangelistic work. With my friend and co-author, Kevin Mungons, we are moving along in the process of bringing this book to publication with University of Illinois Press.

In the course of our research, both Kevin and I have acquired many (hundreds, for sure, maybe thousands?) of books that inform our understanding of Rodeheaver, his life, times, and work. Among them is Rodeheaver’s own book, 20 Years With Billy Sunday (Winona Lake, Indiana: Rodeheaver Hall-Mack Co., 1936), the story of his years as songleader for evangelist Billy Sunday. While long out of print, copies of the book are not especially rare. But. . .


SURPRISE! When I opened my used copy of Rodeheaver’s book, I found his inscription inside the front cover, with a reference from the Bible, Colossians 3:16, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” I’m not an autograph collector, but to hold and own a copy of Rodeheaver’s book in my hands that he had held in his own hands was a very nice surprise. As to Watts Franklin (or Franklin Watts?) of Elizabethtown, Kentucky, a previous owner of this book – his (her?) return address label appears on the page with Rodeheaver’s signature – I have not been able to learn anything. Did Watts meet Rodeheaver and ask him to sign the book? Was it a gift to him/her? Questions. . .

Unlike Homer Rodeheaver whose life has never been chronicled in a biography, Billy Sunday is the subject of many books. Some were written during his lifetime (he died in 1935) and others are more contemporary. Books about Sunday – whether authorized by the evangelist or not – provide a fascinating window into his life and ministry as seen through the lens of the time in which he lived.


One of these books is by Elijah P. Brown, The Real Billy Sunday (New York: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1914). My used copy has a stamp in the back that says it was owned by Sarah A. Kemmerer of Allentown, Pennsylvania. Who she was I do not know. More questions. . .


SURPRISE! When I opened my used copy of Brown’s book, a small, six page pamphlet fluttered to the floor. It was a program for the 1916 convention of the Lehigh (Pennsylvania) County Christian Endeavor Union, November 1916. Held at the Moravian church in Emaus, Pennsylvania (this spelling was used for the borough from 1830-1938; before and after that time it was/is spelled Emmaus), the convention featured sermons, singing, devotionals, and other activities for youth and adults. It provides a fascinating glimpse into the schedule of one of these meetings which were common occurrences at the time.


SURPRISE! Another among my many biographies of Billy Sunday is “Billy Sunday” The Man and His Message by William T. Ellis (Philadelphia: John C. Winston Co., 1914). This used copy contained a remarkable surprise: an original copy of the brochure that Billy Sunday put into the hands of tens of thousands of people who attended his tabernacle meetings and “walked the sawdust trail” up the aisle to shake hands with the evangelist as they made a public profession to trust Jesus Christ as Savior. The fact that this tract was kept in the book made me wonder if a previous owner bought the book at one of Sunday’s meetings and then put the pamphlet inside that very night for safekeeping. Names of two previous owners of the book are inscribed inside the front cover: a signature of Arthur S. Beale, and a label with the name L. Wilkins of Watertown, Massachusetts. Who were they? When and how did they come to own this book? Questions. . .

The pamphlet is a remarkable historical document and one that is as fresh today as when it was first used by Sunday in the early twentieth century. There are many things I find interesting about this pamphlet, including the fact that it bears the imprint of a union publishing house, Allied Printing of Paterson, New Jersey. Could this brochure have been printed for the 1917 Billy Sunday meetings in New York City? Questions. . .

Sunday asks some important questions and gives some important advice. Have a look.


Life is full of surprises. Sometimes they cause you to ask questions. Sometimes they can change your life.