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Never Settle

June 8, 2016

Each year I ask every one of my new students this question:  “When you graduate, if you get to choose exactly what you get to do, what would that be?”  It’s shocking to me how many times the answer starts with, “Well…I guess it would okay if….”  Before these students have even started, they’re settling.

Let’s be clear: I’m not saying that by saying it out loud, you magically walk out of school with your dream job.  What I am saying is that without having an idea of what your dream job might look like, it’s nearly impossible to get there.

So how do you get there?

First-Choose Something.

 You might think that because you don’t know what you want to be doing forever that you don’t have any decisions to make yet.  This is a dangerous road to travel.  Remember this:

Not Making a Choice is a Choice.

If you choose nothing, you’re making the choice to be stagnant.  I don’t know anyone that enjoys that life.

Second- Give It Everything You’ve Got.

This can be the hard part for a lot of people.  Most of the time the first job you get is not the one you will want to keep forever.  This should not change how you approach it.  One sure way to stagnate is to give the bare minimum.  Treat every job like an opportunity to show how well you can do it.  Be the best person who has ever held that position- no matter what the position is.

If your first choice turns out to be the right thing for you, then keep at it.  If not, then choose something else, and give that everything you’ve got.  Keep doing this…forever.

Keep Asking: What Do I Want To Do next?

To get to the job you want usually takes more work than the job you’ll settle for.  You must be willing to do the extra work, both at your current job and in striving for your next.  And once you have the job you want, you’re in the position of deciding what your future holds.

There Is No Right Answer.

This is the most difficult part to discuss.  It can be difficult to realize that your dream job is one someone else settled for.  Similarly, a job that you might settle for could be someone else’s dream job.  One of the most common, and dangerous, examples is this age old gem:  “You should major in Music Education, so that you have something to fall back on.”  I’d like to officially call for the retirement of this ludicrous sentiment.  Here are just a few of the problems with that statement:

  • There are people that really want to teach…if you’re not one of them, please don’t teach.
  • The last thing students need is teachers who think of their career choice as a “fallback.”
  • You’re now working really hard on something you know you don’t want instead of on something you do want.

Be an Individual

Just because a lot of your colleagues may want similar things doesn’t mean you’re wrong to want something different.  There can be a peer pressure to go a certain direction because that’s what you’re “supposed to do.”  There can also be a certain macho attitude of “I only work in my chosen field” that looks down on anything not directly related to “The Chosen Path.”  All of that is garbage.  Here are a few jobs that I’ve had, in chronological order:

  • Lead Trumpet- Maynard Ferguson’s Big Bop Nouveau
  • Customer Service Representative- America Online (that’s right, the person that answers the phone to help you change your billing info, cancel, etc.)
  • Kindergarten Teacher
  • Education Department- Chicago Symphony Orchestra (a part time office job)
  • Assistant Band Director-St. Joseph’s College, Rensselaer, IN (among many duties, I ran the Girls Basketball Band, which I enjoyed immensely.  Go Pumas!)

Make your own decisions, then work tirelessly to give them the best chance of leading you somewhere positive.

 

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Fact Resistance

May 13, 2016

Last week I was perusing my favorite trumpet related internet sites and came across a staggering statement.  I’m paraphrasing here, but what was written stated that all players that have great range, power, and endurance play small equipment.  The person posting went on to write that all of the people that claim to not be able to play small equipment can’t play with good tone, pitch, power, range, or endurance.  This was not just some anonymous person posting.  This is someone who moderates a forum.

So here’s the problem.  All of that is garbage.

There are successful players with amazing range, power, and endurance on all kinds of equipment.  That all people successful in this way play the same kind of equipment is a ridiculous contention.

The bigger problem is this:  People keep repeating silly statements like this with no regard for them being truthful.  When called out on making verifiably false statements, people will often dig in deeper, with such excuses as:

  • “…well, it’s true in MY experience…”- the copout
  • “…that’s what I heard from Teacher A or Player Z…”- the abdication of responsibility
  • “…your facts that disprove my statement are just exceptions..”- the refusal to accept truth

Why is This a Problem?  

Access to information is more easily accessible than at any time in history, but there is no built in truth filter.  When there is no filter, all information- true, false, misleading, outright lies- can be treated equally.  So what happens when people go looking for information?  They get bombarded with all kinds of information, and sometimes don’t know how to differentiate the facts from the garbage.

Too often, people that want to convince you that their way is the right (and sometimes only) way are the loudest voices, working hard to drown out any that disagree.  There seems to be an idea that if something is said loudly enough and often enough, it must be true.

People who know better are often unwilling to engage in the discussion.  Imagine a street corner that you walk past frequently.  Now imagine there is a person there who is screaming at the top of their lungs, “All great trumpet players are lefthanded!”  Most people, even knowing this to be false, would opt to ignore the rantings of a lunatic on the side of the street.  Now give that lunatic an internet connection.

I’ve read “serious” posts discussing why:

  • To be a great lead player, you need to be overweight (with listed examples of overweight lead players)
  • To be a great lead player, you need certain dental structure (with listed examples of lead players with said dental structure)
  • To be a great lead player, you have to be tall (with listed examples of tall lead players)

These are real examples of things that people actually believe.  Why?  Because it’s been said so often, so loudly, with so little opposition that it becomes accepted.

Imagine me saying:

  • To be a great trumpet soloist, you must be a European blonde woman.  It’s obvious!  Look at Alison Balsom and Tine Thing Helseth.

Although I believe Ms. Balsom and Ms. Helseth to be fantastic, I don’t believe where they were born, their hair color, or their gender have anything to do with why they play the trumpet so well.

It’s time to stop it.

How Do We Stop It?

We must be willing to engage in rational conversations with people with whom we disagree.  It’s interesting to me that with all of the information available to us, people seem to gravitate to what it easy, comfortable, and familiar.  It’s harder to learn if you’re not exposed to new and challenging information.

We must realize that words have meaning.  Choose your words wisely.

We must realize that opinions are not facts, and facts are not opinions.  Facts are verifiably true, whether you like them or not.

An Example

So let’s go back to the beginning of this post, with the idea put forward that all trumpet players with good range, power, endurance, tone, and pitch play small equipment.

First, beware of all encompassing statements.  All I need is one trumpet player to disprove this statement.  Hmmm……can I think of someone who has made a living as a lead trumpet player- playing in the bands of Maynard Ferguson, Woody Herman, Glenn Miller, the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, the U.S. Army Jazz Ambassadors, who doesn’t, and can’t, play on small equipment?  You know what- I can.  Me.  I won’t bother mentioning others, as if they want to enter the discussion on their own, they are more than welcome.  I’ve also been teaching for a while now, and have seen students succeed on all kinds of different equipment.

Now it will be easy for someone to say that they didn’t know anyone personally, or that’s just what they heard from someone else, or that I don’t really count because I’m an exception.

But now we all know the truth.  The truth is that the original idea was garbage.  No matter how loudly, forcefully, or often it was spoken- it was never true.

 

 

 

 

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Playing Well With Others

November 6, 2015

The past month has been great.  Aside from getting married (which was a truly great day- but not really the point I’m writing about- but bringing up last month without mentioning it seems wrong- oh well, back to my original point, which I haven’t started yet), I had the pleasure of filling a few different musical roles.  October started with a Tromba Mundi tour that ended in Carnegie Hall.  Last weekend I was in Houston to play lead for a Pops show with the Houston Symphony.  And this weekend I’ll be the guest soloist with the Indiana Wind Symphony.  This has me thinking about how we function in ensembles, and the responsibilities for each role. Problems in ensembles often occur because people are either unaware of their roles, or unwilling to serve in them.

There are three settings that make up a majority of our performances.  They are: Soloist, Chamber Musician, and Ensemble Member.  Much has been written about how to work well with others (show up on time, have proper equipment, have a pencil ready, etc.), so today we’re going to focus on the musical responsibilities.  All three share this responsibility:

Show up to rehearsal prepared

Rehearsal is not a time to learn your part.  Rehearsal is the time to put parts together and make decisions about how the music will be played.  The better prepared each person shows up, the easier it is to get meaningful musical work done.

1.  Soloist

As a soloist, you dictate the musical style.  It is your job to be clear, both when playing and speaking, to the other musicians about what your vision of the music is.  Your job is to be a great leader.  Being a leader isn’t just telling others what to do- it’s also listening to other opinions and being someone people want to follow.

2.  Chamber Musician

What I mean by this designation is anytime you are performing in a group of any size without a conductor or designated leader.  Here your job is to be part of a team.  Your responsibilities include offering your opinions as well as listening to others to build the best possible musical product.  Being flexible is very important.  It’s okay to have disagreements.  How those disagreements are handled can dictate the future of a group.  Learning to work well in this situation is one of the most valuable skills you can have.  You want to be someone others want as part of their team.

3.  Ensemble Member

As a member of an ensemble with a conductor or designated leader, your job is to commit to that leader’s musical vision- whether you agree with it or not.  Be the person that helps get everyone on the same page.  If you do this, you will be someone that people want to work with.

Looking at these three descriptions might have you wondering which one you would like to be.  My recommendation is to be all three.  The more you appreciate each role, the easier you understand how others operate.  If you are a soloist, think about how you communicate with your ensemble.  When you are in a chamber setting, consider that others in the group could feel just as strongly about something as you do, and yet not agree with you.  As an ensemble member, know how difficult it can be to run a group and keep everyone moving in the same direction.

If you do this, you can be someone people always want to work with, no matter what the circumstances.

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“In addition to,” not “Instead of.”

September 23, 2015

Now that it appears to actually be Fall and school is going full speed ahead, practice time is at a premium.  I’ve written about Time Management before, and though this topic is related, today the discussion focuses on what you want to accomplish.

I’m a big believer in versatility.  Versatility, for our musical purposes, means capable of playing in a wide variety of musical styles and musical settings.  It does not mean there must be a compromise in how you play.  There are still people out there that insist that each player is only allowed to do one thing well.  They will throw around the phrase “jack of all trades, master of none” to those trying to do more than one thing.  They are wrong.

Before you say, “but what about Player X?  That player only does one thing, and does it exceedingly well,” let’s be perfectly clear.  As a player, you get to decide what kind of music you want to play.  Some might choose jazz.  Some might choose orchestral.  Others might choose integrating Tuvan Throat Singing with trumpet.  Just because a player you respect has chosen to focus exclusively on one style does not mean that is the only way to achieve excellence in that style.

Here’s what my performance schedule looked like for one week in June:

Wednesday June 10- Solo Recital – Bert Truax School of Trumpet Camp

Saturday June 12- Faculty Brass Quintet Concert – IU Summer Music 2015

Sunday June 13- Music of Simon and Garfunkel – St. Louis Symphony Orchestra

These are three very different performances, all happening in the same week.  To be able to do this takes us to the title.  When people are looking to expand their musical horizons, that means something new must be introduced into the practice regimen.  When introducing something new, it can be easy to remove something that you’ve been practicing to make room.  This is “Instead of” practicing.  While practicing the new material instead of something else, you might be gaining some ground on the new stuff, but you’re losing ground on the old.

If you want to be versatile, it means more practice.  Being able to play a variety of styles requires regular practice on everything you want to be able to play.  That’s “In addition to” practice.  I know there is only so much time in each day, so you must be smart about it.

Here’s how:  Make a list.  That’s right- make a list of all of things you want to be able to do.  It can be technical- “I want to be able to play a Double C.”  It can be musical- “I want to be able to actually swing.”  It can be general- “I want my piccolo trumpet playing to sound like Maurice Andre.”  It can be specific- “I want to be able to perform the Chaynes Concerto.”

Once you’ve made your list, you have a blueprint of what you need to practice.  This list is added to the daily practice that you’re already doing which includes: fundamentals, stuff your teacher assigned you, and music you’re responsible for performing.

Here’s where most people make a huge mistake and give up.  They start at the top of the list, and might get halfway through it on Day 1.  On Day 2 they start at the top of the list again, and might get just past halfway through.  Try this instead.  Wherever you stop on Day 1 is where you start on Day 2.  Wherever you stop on Day 2 is where you start on Day 3.  You get the picture.

Too often, we get wrapped up in the short term thinking that we need to learn to do something…NOW!  If you can start thinking long term, then you’ll be working steadily and consistently…and getting better at all of the things you want.

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The Simplicity of Auditions

September 2, 2015

It’s back to school time.  In addition to a new Trapper Keeper (yes!), that usually means auditions.  As someone auditioning, your job is simple.  You have exactly two things to do.

1)  Play your instrument well

To audition well, you must be fundamentally sound.  Think of this as your Music Delivery System.  Without great Sound, Articulation, Flexibility, and Facility, your best musical intent will go unheard.  This is why practicing your fundamentals is so important.  The better your fundamentals are, the easier it is to play (especially challenging material) musically.

2)  Make great music

This may seem obvious, but it needs reinforcement.  Too often I have heard from people that they “didn’t miss any notes.”  While that is certainly a good technical feat, it’s not a good answer to the question, “how did you play?”  Playing all of the right notes in the right order in good time is not the same as playing musically.  If you’re playing solos and/or excerpts, did you:

  • find great recordings?
  • listen to them over and over…and over?
  • play along with the recordings? (if you’re matching everything- sound, pitch, style, etc.- with one of your favorite players on a great recording…you’re on the right track)

With solos and excerpts, generally there are accepted ways to play.  In other words, “it goes like this.”  Learn “how it goes” and be able to do it fundamentally well and musically.

With etudes there may not be reference recordings, so you’re left to make sure your audition is musical.  Here are a few tips to get you started:

  • study and obey all markings on the page- tempo, dynamics, articulations, etc.
  • consider what it should sound like (majestic, somber, joyful, etc.)
  • commit to both the style you’re performing and to every marking on the page.

That’s it.  Don’t make it more complicated than this.  Here’s why:

You are not in charge of anyone else’s playing, or of judging the audition.

For some people, this is the hardest part.  You can play your absolute best and not get the result you want.  You can win an audition not playing your best.  The results and the other people involved are not your responsibility.  If you try and take that on, it will likely get in the way of the only two things you need to do:

1-Play well.  2-Play musically.

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What I Did Over Summer “Vacation”.

August 18, 2015

It’s that time again.  My lovely hometown of Bloomington, Indiana is being overrun with moving trucks, nervous parents, and new students.  Target looks like a warehouse of dorm supplies.  A new school year is upon us.

That means it’s a good time to take a quick look back over the summer and see what, if anything, got done.  When you live on an academic calendar, the year breaks into three distinct parts:

FIRST SEMESTER- where we can use the excuse, “but it’s just the beginning of the year” way too long…right up until “well, it’s almost Thanksgiving, so the semester is basically over.”

SECOND SEMESTER- where we can start with “but I just got back from Winter Break” until Spring Break is in view.

and

SUMMER- where “but I was in school all year…I’m just going to take a little time off” can leave you heading back to school wondering what happened.

So let’s take a look back at this Summer and see how we did.

Summer can be the time you can really focus on what you want to be doing.  During the school year, your responsibilities also include what your teacher is giving you and what you’re playing in ensembles.  Part of your regular practice should always include what you want to be doing as well.  Summer can be a time where this gets more attention.

There were three projects I was really looking forward to this summer.

First was being part of Bert Truax’s Trumpet Camp.  It’s a terrific camp in Dallas.  Bert brings in a different guest artist, with a different performance emphasis, each day.  The guest works with the students during the day, and puts on a recital that evening.  Being brought in as a lead/commercial player makes programming the recital difficult, as I am working with only a pianist.  I took this opportunity to program works I’d never performed before, but always wanted to play, that would highlight stylistic versatility.  I included two movements of Toot Suite (the C trumpet and Flugelhorn movements), and the unaccompanied piece I Remember… by Dana Wilson.  My experience at the camp was fantastic, and the recital was very well received.

Second was a Faculty Brass Quintet concert at with some of my colleagues at IU.  We’ve talked about doing something like this in the past, but our schedules never line up exactly right.  This summer it finally happened.  We got together for several rehearsals over a three week period and put together quite a program.  Having Jeff Nelsen as the hornist, we included some Canadian Brass pieces- the Little Fugue in G Minor and Beale St. Blues.  With Dan Perantoni playing tuba, we played pieces written for the St. Louis Brass Quintet- Tony Plog’s Four Sketches and Joey Sellers’ arrangement of Sweet Georgia Brown.  Carl Lenthe brought Enrique Crespo’s Suite Americana No. 1 to the group.  It’s a very challenging piece that is well worth the effort. John Rommel and I do a fair amount of recording together in Indianapolis, but getting to play with him, Jeff, Carl, and Dan in this setting was truly a treat.  I hope it’s something we’ll do again.

Third was a recording project with Tromba Mundi.  This will be our third recording, and on it is a wide variety of music for trumpet ensemble.  Several of the pieces on the recording are brand new and written especially for us.  I always enjoy the time we get to spend together, and the week we had in August was no exception.  Those of you who know me know I like playing a wide variety of horns on a daily basis.  The bass trumpet has become a fixture in the group.  On this recording I played six different trumpets: Bb, C, Eb, piccolo, alto, and bass (what…no flugel?).  As much as I did not enjoy carrying all of these instruments around, I did enjoy the opportunity to record with each of them.  I’ll let you know when the recording is out, but (shameless plug alert!) we are playing in Carnegie Hall on October 7.  Come on out and hear us.

These three experiences would all be much more difficult to accomplish during the school year.  And that’s not to say that the rest of the summer was spent with my feet up.  I had a great time playing with the St. Louis and Indianapolis Symphony Orchestras, and teaching at Performing Arts Institute and Birch Creek Performing Arts Center.  Getting the time to prepare and perform a full solo recital, a brass quintet concert, and a trumpet ensemble recording leaves me feeling that my summer was well spent.

I hope yours was as well.

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The Power of Mental Focus

May 13, 2015

In the time I’ve been teaching trumpet lessons, I’ve worked with students of all ages, interest levels, and experience- beginners getting their horns for the first time, high school students, professionals, come back players, and of course college students.   For the long term growth as a musician and trumpet player, one of the most important concepts (and sometimes the most difficult to teach) needed is mental focus.

When I first started teaching beginners, this is what I told them:

“If you practice everything I give you, the stuff you are responsible for in band is going to be pretty easy.  You’re going to sound really good in band, and your director will be very happy with you.  Your director and the other kids in band will think you’re very good.  But we’ll know the truth.”

Then I would explain to them what I meant by “the truth.”  The truth is that our playing is always changing.  Done right, our playing is always growing.  In the big picture we need to do two things:

  1. Practice how to play the horn. In other words- fundamentals.
  2. Practice what to play on the horn.  In other words- music.

(There’s a lot of overlap here, as fundamentals should be played musically, and playing music can certainly inform our technique and spur fundamental growth…but that’s a discussion for another day.)

So “the truth” is that there is always work to be done on our playing.  Always.

There are two reasons I told my beginners this.  They are:

  1. to give them confidence when playing in a group, whether in a performance or rehearsal, that they have the tools necessary to do a terrific job.
  2. to stave off the stereotype of the “cocky trumpet player” by letting them know that there’s always more work to be done.  When things go well, it’s a result of good practice, and not because they were anointed by magic fairies at birth with a special potion that made them the greatest players the world has ever heard.

This worked well. Since I started teaching college, it has surprised me how many students get this backwards.  I hear how their thought process in rehearsals and performances focuses on what is lacking, and the thought process in the practice room focuses on how good everything is.

I found this troubling.  So, like always, let’s start with the easy stuff:

Everyone has strengths and weaknesses

This seems like a simple enough statement.  Here’s why I bring it up.  When in a group, it can be easy to focus on someone else’s strengths, especially if they are your weaknesses.  This is a quick road to Insecureville, which is right next to Underconfident City.  Once you arrive there, it’s very difficult to play your best, as you will be telling yourself how much you can’t do.  Similarly, there are those that like to focus on someone else’s weaknesses, especially if it matches their strengths.  This is the express lane to Conceitedton, which borders Cockyberg.  Once you arrive there, you are so sure of yourself you don’t play your best because, no matter what comes out of your horn, you’ve already convinced yourself you’re the greatest thing since the invention of nachos (mmmm….nachos).

These are bad places for your mind to dwell.  Here’s how mental focus can help.

When practicing, focus on your weaknesses

Again, this may seem simple.  For a lot of people, closing the door to the practice room and really admitting to and working on a weakness can be very difficult.  Once you really commit to this kind of focus while practicing, you’ll see the benefits.

Which brings us to:

When performing, focus on your strengths

When it’s time to play with others, your mental focus needs to shift. Finding the mental place of being confident without being cocky can be a challenge.  Your mental focus will be most beneficial if it is focused on what you bring to the performance.  If you’ve been practicing well, this can help, as you’ve built a habit of playing the instrument well fundamentally and musically in the practice room.

The Circle of Growth

If you can take charge of your mental focus, you can build a circle of growth.  At the top of the circle is practice.  Since you’re focusing on your weaknesses in the practice room, you’re getting better and better at the instrument, building your confidence in what you’re able to do.  At the bottom of the circle is performance.  Since you’re focusing on your strengths in performance, your performances become better, building upon the good habits you’ve build in the practice room.  After your performance, you take what didn’t go as well as you’d like in the performance into the practice room and treat it as a weakness to be worked on.

Keep doing this.  Forever.

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