Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Tuning Slide: Who Do You Hang With?

Weekly Reflections on Life and Music

I want to be around people that do things. 
I don’t want to be around people anymore that judge 
or talk about what people do. 
I want to be around people that dream 
and support and do things.
― Amy Poehler

Let's be honest- trumpet players have a reputation. (Undeserved, I think. Well, maybe.... Okay, it's complicated.) The old joke:
How does one trumpet player greet another trumpet player?
Hi. I'm better than you.
The implication is very clear. Trumpet players think highly of themselves and believe that any other trumpet player they meet is obviously inferior to them. We might make an exception if we are meeting the first chair of the Chicago Symphony, Doc Severinsen, or the faculty at Shell Lake Trumpet Camp. That's our reputation- and at times- our attitude. I could go into some detail on that, but I will leave that to another week.

The problem with having that attitude is, as you might guess, that we always think we are surrounded by inferior musicians. If we are, each of us, the best around us, that means we have nothing to learn, nowhere to grow, and can become pretty damn obnoxious to be around.

Yes, there are players like that, and they aren't all trumpet players. But overall, my experience has often been that we are often more willing to be in a learning position as in a superior position. Learning takes humility which can be defined as "a willingness to learn." That does not mean that we take an inferior position any more than it means taking a superior position. It means that we enter into each other's musical presence with openness to what we have to learn- as well as share.

One of the quotable lines from Trumpet Camp last summer brought all this to mind:
Surround yourself with people who are better than you are.
I realized that this statement is as much about attitude as it is about musical ability. If you are the first chair in the top group at your school or in your community, chances are that you are a pretty good musician. It may very well be that overall you might be better than the other people in your section. But the attitude that could come with that can be downright destructive to the group making good music.

And it could get in the way of you discovering new ways of making music yourself.

If any of us project the kind of attitude that says "I'm the best!" the others will wonder what good they are to the group. If that obnoxious first chair looms over the proceedings like the great judge of the universe- I for example will hold back, play more timidly, see my part as a "small" part. Many of us have heard the comeback to that- there are no small parts, only small players. A "superior" musician among us, though, can make us feel "small." The section will never produce good music if that is the case.

In reality, thankfully, these type of trumpet players are few and far between. Oh, admittedly it might not seem that way at first when you hear them play or watch them in action. It is intimidating to many of us to play in a section, especially next to, one of these top quality players.  But once we get to know them, my experience has almost always been one of openness to assist me in growing. It's not about the other trumpet player's attitude- it's about mine! With that attitude on our part we can discover that this otherwise superior musician is weak in a certain area. They minimize the things they are not as proficient at and maximize the things they are good at.

That I can learn from!

When the better player is open to sharing and accepting a role as a leader, which they often are(!), the whole section gets better. I appreciate the section leader who suggests I take a lead that will push me. It says the leader believes I can do it. I will work harder in the group when the section leader gives us all the "Thumbs Up!" after the concert and says we did well because any of us could have played the lead- and played our parts appropriately.

For those who are at least arguably the best player in their section, to take that to heart as grandiosity will get in the way of your ability as well. You will get easily bored and move on if no one else around you has anything to teach you. You can become a prima donna- a very temperamental person with an inflated view of their own talent or importance.You will become a point of dissension in your group. You, even as good as you are, could very well contribute to your section or group being less musical.

It is interesting that so often across these months of writing this blog I have moved away from technical musical learning. I have often moved to more general ideas that, applied specifically to trumpet playing can have significant impact. One of these, over and over is summed up in "attitude." And attitudes are choices. We can be educated into good or bad attitudes; we can make certain attitudes habits. We all know the perpetual "wet blanket" who never does anything but whine. We also know the cheerleader type who is always up and perky.

These, and all attitudes in-between, will color how we see the world. There's nothing new in saying this. The wisdom is as old as humans who began observing their neighbors' behavior. They then decided they liked being around people with certain behaviors and stayed away from those who others. Or we discover that we may gravitate to those with the same attitude, you know, misery loves company, other people who are as miserable as you are and love to complain about it.

That can be more than just difficult. It can be downright unhealthy and keep us stuck.
Great minds discuss ideas;
average minds discuss events;
small minds discuss people.
-Eleanor Roosevelt
One more thought came to mind. What if you are the best player around? What if there is no one you can easily get together with that is better than you? I can think of a couple of options.
  • Find a teacher in some nearby community who might be willing to take you on as a student. It might not be able to be done weekly, but set up a schedule
  • Gather other musicians who would be willing to "jam" or even become a group and push each other. Don't be the "leader". Be just another group member as you seek to blend in with the whole group. Dream with them, have common visions, don't be satisfied for the "good" which is almost always the enemy of both the "better" and the "best" you can be.
  • Find camps, workshops, jam sessions, that you can attend.
  • Listen, listen, and then listen more to great recordings. All types of recordings. Watch videos online or on the various media. Find lessons online that may be in an area that you are less proficient. 
  • Go back to the first item and do it again.
It's not always convenient or easy, but if we are committed to being quality musicians, no matter the level of our ability (!!!), we will find the ways.

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