The Best Advice, Part III: Douglas Prosser

Last week, I related some concepts taken from my work with Clay Jenkins, as a graduate student at the Eastman School of Music. The only time I ever got to meet the late, great Laurie Frink was at an International Trumpet Guild conference the summer after I finished my master’s degree. When she heard I would be continuing my studies at Eastman with Clay, she immediately suggested that, if at all possible, I should take some lessons with Douglas Prosser, as well. She spoke in no uncertain terms, telling me that his was one of the most beautiful and expressive trumpet sounds of any player she had ever encountered. I filed away this information, resolving to act upon it.

It took some time, but eventually I worked up sufficient employment and courage to write to Mr. Prosser and ask for a lesson. It was one of the best decisions I have ever made. I only met with him a couple of times, but that was enough to be life-changing. My entire approach to practicing, playing, and teaching the trumpet shifted to a significant degree after these lessons, in no small part because of one thing Mr. Prosser said to me. This was a statement in response to my habit of stopping playing at the slightest imperfection or error, and my seeming inability to quell this behavior, even when instructed to do so. Seeing my inner turmoil, self-doubt, and excessive attention to the minute at the expense of the big picture, he said, and I am paraphrasing here:

Every relationship you ever have, whether it is with the trumpet, with music, with another person, or with an idea, will to an extent be the same, because all of them will share one inescapable factor in common…you. Ultimately, the way you play will always be a function of the way you are. If you want to change the way you play, you might have to change yourself to do so.

This resonated immediately as I was hearing it, and has continued to do so over the years. I have probably interpreted it in ways far from what was intended, but that is the point of this blog series, so I will mention some of the ideas to which this comment has led me.

To Be A Musician Is To Be An Actor

Unless you choose only to play music that is all more or less the same, you will need to adapt yourself from one piece or project to another. In effect, this means taking on different roles, just as a skilled actor does. I firmly believe that it is possible simultaneously to retain one’s authentic identity and to convincingly inhabit a role reflecting traits that are not part of that identity, or at least that are not prominent within it. An extroverted trumpet player who is a real character without a trace of social awkwardness is perfectly capable of performing quiet and sensitive music. A shy and neurotic trumpet player can dazzle when playing a virtuosic showpiece. Your comfort zone is as large or small as you allow it to be.

Audiences Aren’t Paying To Witness Your Uncertainty

Artistic vulnerability is something that I personally see as desirable in many, if not most cases. If you aren’t stretching, you aren’t growing. I would much rather hear an imperfect performance that is expressive, well-conceived, and delivered with real intent than a note-perfect performance without a point of view. That said, I have no interest in hearing someone fall apart onstage. What Mr. Prosser pointed out to me was my tendency not to commit. Commitment can often be the divide between trying to do a thing, and actually doing it. For someone plagued by uncertainty, this is a difficult pill to swallow. Committing to doing something difficult always carries with it the risk of failing. Failing is not fun, so most people don’t really commit. They hedge emotionally against the failure that they fear by committing only partway, and in so doing, they virtually guarantee that failure. This turns into a downward spiral fueled by self-fulfilling prophecies of doom. Every time I stopped playing when I shouldn’t have, I was letting the fragility of my ego control me, and it was not only holding me back from a relatively successful playing experience, but denying the man in front of me the opportunity to hear music. Sure, that was a lesson situation, and it led to me learning valuable stuff that I needed to hear. But the same lack of commitment that led to me stopping in the lesson didn’t just disappear in other settings; it was manifested in other ways, all of which can be summarized as hiding. Listening to someone hiding isn’t worth the price of admission even if the tickets are free.

Life Is One Giant Practice Room

Overcoming obstacles of trumpet technique is child’s play when compared to overcoming obstacles of personality. If you aren’t moving forward, you are moving backward. I’ve heard that said about trumpet playing. It applies to much more, and if you are genuinely interested in playing better, and buy into the above idea that the way you play is the way you are, then it follows that to play better, you must be better. We all have different challenges in this department, but a lot of players struggle with confidence. Practicing being confident without the trumpet in our hands will certainly help when we pick it up. Recognizing that extreme lack of confidence or intense performance anxiety often has, at its root, unhealthy self-centeredness, can be a painful but important step toward gaining confidence. It’s easy to obsess over oneself as a musician. You spend hours alone in a room, often with a mirror in it, analyzing your own playing, relating the examples of other performers to your own artistic goals, and preparing to be on a stage where you, possibly alone, perform while others watch and listen. Since we perform music (hopefully) for the enjoyment of our audience and fellow performers, it is essential to practice generosity and having an other-centered state of mind.

Stay tuned for The Best Advice, Part IV: Brian Pareschi, coming in two weeks. As always, I welcome your questions and comments below. Thank you for reading!

Nikola TomicComment