“What was your most rewarding experience as a musician?”
On the surface, there were multiple answers. But, one immediately leapt to mind. As is the theme of this entire blog, the answer was unexpected.
Despite a life in performing arts, nobody has ever posited the question above. Regardless, the response was at the forefront of my subconscious. Likely one of the easiest answers I’ve ever fielded. My own reply surprised even me.
A few years ago, some of us were asked to perform in an orchestra comprised of alumni from our undergraduate school. Having not recently practiced on a regular basis, my trumpet playing was rusty at best. I took about a month—maybe less—and methodically got back in shape.
During the performance, it was as good as I had ever played. It was exciting. Not only did I get back in shape, but I also exceeded my own expectations. My tone was full, intonation was solid, and most importantly in the trumpet world, I did not tire. Two days of rehearsals and the performance went without a hitch. My sound was as strong at the end of the concert as it was earlier on that day…Success!
How It All Started
A group of us received an email from an alumni liaison from The Crane School of Music. An orchestra was being assembled in our area comprised entirely of alumnus of all ages for a one-time performance. Knowing that I had not been practicing regularly (or maybe not at all), the decision was difficult. Anxious about performance by nature, it took a few days to make up my mind. Finally, seated nervously at my computer, I took the plunge and responded in the affirmative.
The problem—there were only a few weeks until the performance. What had I done?! This is sure to be embarrassing. Why did I put myself in this position? How can I possibly prepare in time? How do I even begin?
Then, a simple solution presented itself. Do exactly what my students have heard me preach my entire career—use slow, steady practice. Pick up the trumpet and just do it, to steal the famed and HIGHLY overused Nike slogan. I even referred to “just do it” in one of my other blog posts…I’m a slogan-usage hypocrite.
The First Few Days
Ignition. There was no time to waste. During the first two or three days, I simply played easy tunes that would motivate me to continue. I did so utilizing what is called a harmon mute in my trumpet. This is the mute that jazz trumpeter Miles Davis is often heard using. The beauty of getting back into shape with a harmon mute is that having good tone is mostly taken out of the equation.
That solution may seem counterintuitive or might not make sense to a non-brass player. You must believe me when I tell you that there is nothing as demoralizing as taking time away from practicing the trumpet and then hearing the horrible tone that comes out of its bell. Picture, if you will, a professional basketball player not being able to make a layup. Or a pro soccer (football) player suddenly unable to make a free kick with no goalie. Or take it out of the sports realm and imagine trying to retrain yourself how to eat soup! It’s that bad.
Back to the Grind
Now it was time to get down to business. Each day after work, I set myself up in an area of the house where there would be minimal disruptions. My wife, herself a musician, knew to leave me be. I proceeded to do the exact routine that was taught to me by my 1980’s high school band director, Mr. Topalian (aka “Mr. T”, like in the old television show The A Team, but without the mohawk haircut!) [Read more about high school here]
Mr. T assigned the same warm-up to all of his students. He simply added more pieces to the puzzle as players improved. Famed jazz trombone player Michael Davis has a series of books that follows a similar progression. His books, which include a CD accompaniment, are titled as literally as possible. 10 Minute Warm-Up Routine, 15 Minute Warm-Up Routine, and 20 Minute Warm-Up Routine. [Find the books and more here] The Michael Davis books were also part of my arsenal to get back into form.
Revisiting An Old Strategy
In any case, with a major time crunch and being in worse shape than expected, drastic action was necessary! Okay—that was a bit dramatic—let’s just say a different approach was required.
In the music world, some of us use the phrase, “My chops are in good shape.” It basically means we are at our normal, working musician level of playing. Mine were not in good shape at all, but they had been just a few years earlier. However, during that previous time, my chops inexplicably began to falter. Grasping at straws, I decided to play the same warm-up, but on three different trumpets consecutively; B flat trumpet, C trumpet, and flugelhorn. I effectively played my warm-up three times in a row, but with different equipment. This is the musical equivalent of doing push-ups, then bench presses, and then finally using one of those snazzy machines that are changing every six months at the trendy neighborhood gym.
This strategy had accomplished its goal before when my chops were in shape. Why not try it now? Low and behold, despite mighty daily struggles, it worked! Within about ten days, I was back in shape.
Now it was time to get to the music. The repertoire was ambitious. It featured the brass section much more than your average concert. Audiences love loud brass music, so they were in for a treat. The brass section, on the other hand, might need ice afterwards. In the spirit of Mr. T and Michael Davis, additions to my warm-up were piled on. I even did my three-trumpet-tango, and THEN played one of Michael Davis’s books. This was followed by the next step—learning one piece of concert repertoire at a time. Nothing was left to chance.
Some, like Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture, were not very difficult. Others were in the medium category, and the concert would conclude with an abridged version of the Tchaikovsky’s taxing 1812 Overture. Due diligence was put into each piece. Difficult passages were worked on slowly, then repeated, and gradually performed up to tempo.
This is a typical practice procedure, but it has been recently discovered that what has been termed “deep practice” actually helps to create a substance called myelin within the brain. As described in Daniel Coyle’s book, The Talent Code, myelin creates an insulating sheath around axons, which causes electrical synapses to fire much more rapidly. One’s brain literally changes and becomes increasingly efficient with continued deep practice. The role of “myelination” in skill development is relatively new to neuroscience. It is included in the burgeoning research about neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to change itself by forming new neural connections.
It’s Rehearsal Time
I was prepared and had gradually built up to three or four hours of practice a day. I knew I SHOULD be ready, but my degree of certitude could be categorized as…what’s that word?…uncertain! The bottom line is that in music, you just never know how your body is going to react in the heat of the moment. This is especially true in my case, as I have battled with stage fright for most of my trumpet playing career. Stage fright is much more common than you might be aware. The famed pianist Vladimir Horowitz had to interrupt his career numerous times to take care of himself, despite being amongst the best to ever play the instrument.
Once the rehearsal began, niceties were exchanged with people I hadn’t seen in years. Truly happy to be there, the outcome was still in doubt. But once we began, my body went on autopilot. I was in “the zone.” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (try saying that ten times fast…or even once!) termed this phenomenon “flow,” and has written about it extensively. Finding Flow is his seminal work. This flow state continued throughout the two rehearsals and my chops remained strong.
Now it was time for the performance. My nerves were unexpectedly calm. I had completed a one-trumpet version of my warm-up early in the day, before the dress rehearsal. Then there was a quick, ten minute mini warm-up before heading onto the stage. The conductor gave the downbeat and we were off and running.
To my surprise, my performance was even stronger than the rehearsals. The entire orchestra rose to the occasion. Melodies and harmonies tightened, intonation solidified, and the concert was a success. The crowd, admittedly biased—it was filled with family and friends of orchestra members—rose to its feet with a standing ovation.
We in the brass section smiled and shook one another’s hands. Members of multiple generations all coming together to make music. Were we to listen to a recording, there would certainly be some rough patches to be heard. It didn’t matter. We were making music for the same reason that we began making music as youngsters—for the pure joy of it and the camaraderie it brings.
Why So Rewarding?
“What was your most rewarding experience as a musician?” This question is the reason for this story. You knew the answer up in the third paragraph. But the reason is different than you might expect.
It was not my ability to get in shape musically, nor the successful performance, and not even the lack of stage fright. It was much more simple than that:
After decades of highs and lows in my professional trumpeting career, I still had it in me to perform well. An integral part of my identity was intact and I now know that it will be there waiting for me when I need it.
A reliable friend still exists in an unpredictable world.
Author’s Note #1: I do not receive any compensation for the books linked in this post.
Author’s Note #2: My wife hates the word “chops.” I used it multiple times. I might need to borrow someone’s couch for a while.
In My Unexpected Life, I will share stories, thoughts, and simple ideas to entertain and maybe even inspire others to engage with new food, travel, and more…no matter how big or small those experiences may be.
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