The Trumpet Student's Dilemma

For a certain number of people, playing the trumpet is never all that hard. Some of them come from musical families. Perhaps the constant evidence at home that playing at a high level is possible for regular human beings lets them bypass the self-doubt that those of us without this advantage feel. Some of them might just stumble into the perfect combination of mouthpiece, instrument, and sonic models to imitate. I hesitate to use the word “talent” here because of how unimportant it tends to be in the long run, but there is no denying that some people are simply predisposed toward excelling at particular activities, trumpet playing and music being among them. Through some combination of genetics, environment, personality, and luck, these players slalom around the pitfalls that plague other learning trumpeters, and grow at an accelerated rate, taking to the trumpet like fish to water. This blog entry isn’t for them.

For more of us, learning to play the trumpet is a series of briefly-enjoyed accomplishments surrounded by long stretches of wondering why we are even bothering to try to tame and befriend the brass bully in our hands. It is a Stockholm Syndrome-reminiscent relationship that finds us so obsessed with improving and so in love with the good times that we are willing to overlook what is essentially narcissistic abuse at the hands of an inanimate captor trapping us in an invisible prison of our own making. Still, it is undeniable that when everything is working, and we can ignore the tool (the trumpet) and embrace the product (musical expression), it is an immersive and beautiful experience unlike anything else. And for those of us who deem that experience valuable enough to chase after at all costs, the price of admission is well worth it.

So, what do I mean by “The Trumpet Student’s Dilemma?” What I mean is this: To improve as players, students (and I believe that we are all students) must balance the humility required to learn from our teachers and experiences with the confidence necessary to put the mouthpiece to our lips and just play. Humility and confidence can be a tricky combination for many of us because we need to bypass the concerns of our ego in order for them to coexist in harmony. How else can we leave a rehearsal in which nothing worked and then come back the next day and play brilliantly in a concert? How else could we ever recover emotionally if the brilliance came in the rehearsal but nothing worked in the concert? More to the point, how could we possibly learn all that someone has to teach us if we are so tied up in our ego and so lacking in humility that we can’t take criticism? I would argue that criticism, along with modeling great playing, is one of the most important things we should be getting from a teacher. To quote one of my own jazz studies professors who had observed me just barely coaching a chamber ensemble:

“A one-hour feel-good group therapy session is no substitute for real teaching.”

I didn’t have to refer to my files for the exact wording; that sentence has been etched in my memory for ten years. And it is true. This is not to say that cruelty or constant negativity should be part of a teacher’s M.O., but merely that in order for a student to be able to learn, the teacher must be able to teach. This is a two-way street that involves trust, honesty, and all parties concerned believing that everyone is making a good-faith effort toward the shared goal of student success. If the aforementioned professor had been too meek or incompetent to be as blunt as he was, I might have been led to believe that what I was doing was good enough. It wasn’t. And if nobody else had disabused me of that notion, every student I worked with following that chamber coaching would have benefited less from my teaching, and a cycle of dishonest mollycoddling would have been perpetuated. The question we must all ask ourselves is this: Do I want to be told I’m great now, or do I want to actually be great later? As far as I can tell, you can’t have it both ways.

Nikola TomicComment