A Musician’s Life – some working insight

Recently, I reached out to my FaceBook friends for help preparing upcoming lectures I am presenting regarding the personal aspects of being an orchestral musician. Some rather interesting questions poured in, most of which I will incorporate into my lectures next week. However, one batch of extensive, specific questions came in from a young trombonist I met while visiting Baylor University several years ago as a guest artist. Jacob Small is a talented young man who is now pursuing his DMA at the Cleveland Institute of Music, and I think you’ll agree that these are some tough questions! I figured this would make a good blog post, so here we go!

How did your practice change from before your gig to after winning your gig?

This is a multi-pronged answer.

1) Winning an audition gives you confidence and a sense of validation. Everything you invested in pays off in a very measurable kind of way: employment! However, there is still so much growth that should continue to happen, which leads me to…

2) My practice became about bettering myself as a trombone player, which in hindsight was misguided. I falsely convinced myself that I needed to become more accurate, consistent, and virtuosic as an instrument operator, when in reality, I needed to become a better listener, story-teller, and interpreter. It took a few years to realize this, and several poor audition performances, until…

3) I invested in musical voice. I decided to play repertoire I wanted to play, and not repertoire that was popular, or that I thought I should play. For example, I started working on more song cycles and gave up on Pryor. The songs spoke to me, therefore motivated me, while the Pryor pieces just seemed to be technical exercises and a basis to compare trombone-operation to others. I also used the stability of my position to explore bass trombone, which I had spent a year on in college. Having several opportunities to ‘slide over’ (nyuk nyuk) in the orchestra eventually led to me becoming Acting Bass Trombone for two years, and also gain several other opportunities outside of the Buffalo Philharmonic.

(Post-publication edit: I believe it is imperative to continue taking lessons after winning a job. Winning a job makes you an expert on very little — continuing to gain experience, knowledge, and skill are necessary. Growing as a musician keeps you fresh!)

What is a common piece of advice given to young musicians you think is false?

“Take any gig you are offered.” Sometimes it’s just not worth it, or you end up de-valuing yourself. Experience is tremendously important, but sometimes the job itself can be damaging – physically and/or mentally!

How do you keep excerpts (as a student) fresh and how do you keep daily orchestra rehearsals and music (as a professional) fresh and exciting?

The temptation with excerpts is to “run them” over and over again, when they deserve to be broken down into simpler steps. Often, breaking them down into simpler patterns or motifs proves to be more mentally engaging! I further believe that not enough attention is paid to the origin of the excerpt and it’s musical significance. At some point we’ve all been guilty of this, as it is part of the learning process, but…if you can find what makes it tick, and in turn, how that makes you tick, then you have something musically engaging which with to work. I don’t believe that can ever get old, as long as you take some breaks (even years!) and are well-rounded in your overall practice.

As for daily orchestra rehearsals and music, the honest truth is that sometimes it really does feel like a job. You have little say in WHAT is played, and often, HOW it is played. That being said, you learn to listen to different areas of the orchestra and incorporate your practice goals into the job. I often work on air attacks during rock/pop shows or anything else where we just play whole notes. For the last few years, I’ve been working on efficiency and trying to keep the ‘song’ in what I’m playing, not just operating the trombone. I will freely admit that I don’t always succeed!

When you have a busy schedule, what things in your practice session don’t make the cut and why?

A full warm-up/maintenance routine is the first to go. Sometimes the time just evaporates (my fault, usually) or I am too physically tired. Any professional musician with children can attest to being tired, or lacking sleep! When it’s a fatigue-inducing week, I try to focus on staying supple through soft playing, and keeping my best sound going as simply as possible.

One thing that time and experience will teach you is what you need to do to be comfortable and ready to play. In general, 10-15 minutes is all I need to be ready for rehearsal or a concert. I don’t like to depend on this, but sometimes there are other factors that determine your schedule. Sick kid? Dog won’t come back inside? Decided to clean your slide and the cleaning rod got stuck? Forgot your music at home? Yeah, it can happen.

Any advice on avoiding work place conflict?

This is a tough topic. We wrap our egos so completely in our playing and musical personalities, and most of these egos are super-fragile. It’s not a job we just execute between 9-5, but rather one that we allow (sadly) to define us as people. We all hear the horror stories of people not getting along, sitting next to each other for decades and not speaking.

As a student and rookie professional, I never understood how this could happen, but after a decade of being a professional, I do now. Learning to respectfully disagree is an invaluable skill, and having tact goes a long way! The best advice I can give is to remember why you got into this field, and try to keep that at the forefront of your thoughts when things get tense. Everyone needs the benefit of the doubt sometimes, but like one of my mother’s refrigerator magnets states: “When people show you their true colors, believe them.” Sometimes you just need to steer clear.

What mental preparation did you find most helpful and which did you find have the adverse effect?

Zero mental preparation has the most adverse effect! I’ve gone through different waves of self-doubt, overconfidence/hubris, and being ‘in the zone’. The best audition I ever played followed a 10-day orchestra tour. I had little time and space to play the trombone, but I had many hours on a tour bus. I had my sheet music, recordings, a tuner, and my headphones on that bus, and would mentally perform each excerpt. I used the tuner to see if I could ‘pluck’ the first note of the excerpt out of thin air. Great practice!

Nerves have been an off/on issue for me since graduate school. The funny thing is that recitals and most solo performances don’t bother me. Auditions are another story. I played some very confident, in-control auditions circa 2009-2011 – everything before and after that was pretty shakey. I could get into all sorts of reasons why, but in order to stay relevant to your question, I believe it’s because I was trying to prove something to myself. As a student and rookie professional, I was trying to prove that I belonged. As an experienced orchestra player and auditioner, I was trying to prove I was still relevant! During that golden period, I was just trying to play great music. We can be our own worst enemies, and there are so many wonderful resources for working through this: Bulletproof Musician, Don Green, Jeff Nelson, etc.

For me, feeling passionate about the music and having the absolute commitment to every detail is the key. Excerpts still provide a challenge, as frankly, I don’t like some of them!

What do you feel solo repertoire/recital rep accomplishes in the grand scheme of audition preparation?

Learning to play with style. Also, the practice of performing. As previously stated, I have a much easier time with recitals than auditions. I believe this is because I choose my recital repertoire; it is not dictated to me. The trick is to carry that over to the excerpts!

Do you have any tips for a young musician doing the “real person/out of school thing” especially if they haven’t won any jobs yet?

You must be creative about finding performance/teaching opportunities that not only pay, but also challenge you to improve. While freelancing in Chicago, I kept a journal in my car and would write down every church, retirement community, school, or other possible gig/teaching location that I could pitch a performance or my pedagogical services. My quartet was a tremendous resource for me — Tim Higgins, Tim Owner, Chris Davis, then Steve Menard. On that note, be in a serious chamber ensemble. Holding each other to high standards is extremely beneficial, and great preparation for section playing!

You must be extremely proactive about finding/creating opportunities for mock auditions, substitute work, band director networking, chamber music, and lessons. This is where most people with talent fail, as they expect that opportunities will arrive because they are good at the instrument. Doesn’t work that way.

What role has the quality of your sleep played in your performances?

You don’t realize how important sleep is until you have kids. You also don’t realize your capabilities on little sleep until you have kids! Honestly, I try not to think about it. If I allow myself to be enslaved to sleep or lack thereof, it becomes a distraction. 7.5 hrs is ideal for me, which nowadays, is pretty regular. But, even a 10 minute power nap an hour or two before concert time can be a real boost.

What purchase ($100 or less) has effected the quality of your life the most (music or otherwise)?

Ummmm…

1) First retirement account contribution. I know it’s a repetitive ‘purchase’, but get one going now! It’s harder the longer you wait. (also one of my best lessons from Charlie Vernon)

2) New socks. I love how amazing a new pair of socks feels. My wife can verify my love of new socks.

3) Date night. Gotta make time for quality time with my wife, Danielle, as we are the foundation of the family and keepers of each others happiness.

What is your most gifted book?

Gotta admit, I don’t read much anymore. Well, I never really read a ton, but if there is one book I could come back to every week it would be “Zen in the Art of Martial Arts” by Joe Hyams. So many literal applications to what we do. I also love anything WWII.

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