Tidying up

With apologies to cartoonist Eric Lewis…

I have had an incredible run of luck lately.

Two weeks ago, I won my first orchestral audition in 24 years–I’m now the principal trumpet of the Fort Collins Symphony, a leading regional orchestra in Colorado. A few months before that, I won my very first tenure-track teaching job at Colorado State University–also in Fort Collins. Almost a year before that, I retired from a 20-year career in the U.S. Navy Band in Washington, DC. These were all big, really big, items to check off in my bucket list.

This summer was filled with other big-ticket events in our lives: the graduation of my oldest son from high school, playing in the Vintage Band Festival in Minnesota, the 25th wedding anniversary of my wife and me, and the retirement of my wife (also from the U.S. Navy Band).

When this type of external growth comes down the pipeline, I think about my internal approach to life and music-making.

Driving to New York City and back recently, my wife and I listened to an Audible recording of Marie Kondo’s “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.” I had never seen her on TV and only vaguely knew about her work up to that time. Kondo’s approach is not conventional. Basically she urges her readers to focus on discarding quite a lot–because most of our possessions don’t really mean that much to us. Sometimes we cling to the past or we fear the future, and these mental states hijack our mind into reactively keeping too many things and things that simply do not “spark joy.” She has a few basic rules:

  1. Commit to tidying up
  2. Imagine your ideal lifestyle
  3. Finish discarding first
  4. Tidy by category, not location
  5. Follow the right order
  6. Ask yourself if it sparks joy

This was the perfect book to listen to together for my wife and me as we were getting ready to move from the DC area to Colorado. It resulted in about 150 bags of unwanted things thrown away; about 20 boxes of books donated to our local library; about 15 boxes of documents that we didn’t need–shredded or recycled; donated furniture that had served its purpose; my CD collection given to a former colleague. All of these things had served us well, and we were grateful for them, but we were ready to let them go. We were ready to focus more on who we really had become.

Kondo writes about her method as being life-changing to her clients. They are happier, more successful and more focused. Her book made me wonder if some of her principles could be adapted to trumpet playing. Her first two rules certainly made sense–we have to totally commit ourselves to our trumpet craft and we have to imagine the best version of ourselves as trumpeters. I think it’s always a good thing to ask yourself, “does trumpet playing itself spark joy in my life?” There is no right or wrong answer for everyone. Just the correct answer for you. What kind of trumpeter do you want to be? If trumpet playing sparks joy in you and if you really see yourself as a jazz, rock, band or orchestral player, then great! You’re reading the right blog!

But if you are like me, you probably have lots of hobbies and interests. You have reached an impressive level of mastery in some of these areas. This is normal. But at some point, instead of amassing more skills and interests, you can ask yourself what interests resonate more naturally with who you really are. Yes, it’s good to have a few other skills that can compliment your trumpet playing, but when they begin to sabotage your growth, reconsider them. Do your other interests really spark joy? Keep coming back to that. And if you’re not sure, it probably doesn’t spark joy. Move on and let that half-baked dream go. Don’t waste trumpet time!

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When can you speak up in rehearsal?

One of my teachers, Bernard Adelstein, told me a funny story about when he was just a teenager during the 1940s, playing second trumpet in the Pittsburg Symphony Orchestra under the famous conductor, Fritz Reiner. Reiner was rehearsing outdoors for a summer concert. The principal trumpet player, Irving Sarin, got frustrated with Reiner, slammed his music shut on the stand and walked out of rehearsal. Reiner then looked at the young Adelstein and asked him what was wrong. Quick-thinking, Adelstein replied, “I think Mr. Sarin is allergic to bees. He tried to kill a bee with his music, but he missed. He walked out quickly, so that he wouldn’t get stung.” Because conductors at this time had absolute power in an orchestra, Adelstein probably saved Sarin’s career by coming up with this wonderful excuse.

Being a musician in an ensemble requires that you learn how and when you can speak up in a rehearsal. If you monopolize rehearsal time with your personal questions and observations, or, worse, if you openly criticize the conductor, then you are hurting your relationship with the conductor and holding back your ensemble. You want to nurture great relationships with your colleagues and with the conductors you play under.

Here are some of my guidelines on how to ask questions diplomatically in an ensemble rehearsal:

  1. First of all, do not chat during rehearsal. If you have to talk to your neighbor about important things related to the music, then you can whisper. But be careful to not distract from the rehearsal or from the conductor’s comments.
  2. Quick fix. If you have an obvious wrong note or some other serious error in your part, you can raise your hand during rehearsal when the conductor does not seem too pressed for time (or when he or she asks if there are questions).
  3. Timing. The best times to ask questions are after rehearsal (or before). If you’re in a chamber group of something like 15 people or less, then you can talk about your view points, as long as you don’t monopolize the conversation.
  4. Size. In large ensembles, make it a general rule to not question the conductor’s tempos out loud in rehearsal. It usually comes across as disrespectful.
  5. Your tone of voice. This can be difficult to figure out sometimes, since what might seem an innocent question to you sounds like an insolent question to the conductor. 
  6. What part do you play? If you are the principal and/or section leader, then you can more understandably ask questions in a large ensemble. If you play a lower part, then you should limit your questions to your section leader. The power flow in a large ensemble is pretty much top down. That’s the most efficient way a group like that works. Work within that system.
  7. Ask yourself, will my observation benefit the performance or will it simply point out some mistake? For instance, if the conductor chooses a tempo that is too fast for you, you might be able to say something like, “I’m having a hard time playing my best at this tempo, and I was wondering if we could try it a little slower?” Unfortunately, this question does not work as well in a professional ensemble, because you are supposed to be capable of fast tempos.
  8. Spidey sense. Use it. If your intuition (that little voice at the back of your mind) is saying, “Don’t say it”—then listen to that intuition.
  9. If damage is already done by making the conductor angry, then try to talk to the conductor after rehearsal. And, above all else, be conciliatory. Make SURE you understand the conductor’s viewpoint before leaving the conversation. Then apologize for the perceived wrong—even if you still feel like you were in the right. 
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