The Best Advice: Prologue

I know I am not saying anything new when I observe that musicians differ from professionals in other fields largely because of how early most of us start learning our craft. I count among my friends and close relations lawyers, a trained chef, a political scientist, a real estate asset manager, an HR consultant, an alternative process photographer, and others who either don’t play music or who do, but chose another career path. Not one of them was given practical experience in his or her respective field in elementary school. I was first handed a trumpet and given initial instruction in the fourth grade. The special place this early, very specific exposure to music and trumpet playing as a discipline came to occupy in my life and in my psyche fluctuates between deeply fulfilling (usually) and cruelly oppressive (not as rarely as I would like). In a way, when I look back on my many musical opportunities in the public schools of Ithaca, New York, it seems dangerous that young people are allowed to fall in love with something so beautiful and so tragically undervalued as playing a musical instrument. Every so often, I remember the anger and resentment I felt toward members of my high school band who didn’t seem to care very much about playing well. On darker days, I envy them a little bit. There are paths of far less resistance than this one. That is why so many professional musicians give students the advice: “If you can think of something else you would like to do for a living, do that instead.”

In an upcoming series of posts over the next month or so, I will be exploring advice I have received in trumpet lessons over the years. The thing about truly great teachers is that they know when to be brutally honest and when to blunt the edge of their criticisms. They know whether to attack a problem head-on or from the periphery. They know that keeping a student engaged is a prerequisite to the student making real progress. They know how to elicit a small momentary success that keeps the student’s fire burning over the months or years it might take to really advance to the next level. As I wrote in a previous post, some people pretend to teach, but really just play the numbers, assuming that a certain percentage of students will be self-motivated and predisposed to enjoy success that the teacher can then take credit for, and other students will fail, for which the students themselves will bear the blame. These people take a my-way-or-the-highway attitude, prescribing all the same materials to every student without either considering or making their students aware that the how is far more important than the what in almost all things trumpet. In so doing, they deprive many students of the opportunity to find the intrinsic motivation needed to excel. I’ve been very lucky not to study with anyone like that.

My own teachers, whether I’ve studied with them over many years or merely taken a couple of lessons, have guided me in ways that few, or perhaps no others could. Each had things to say that were so profoundly important to me that they reverberate in my mind almost every time I practice my trumpet. In some cases, I realized the depth of what they were saying in the moment. In others, it took years to recognize the value of what I had been told. Without exception, the messages from these teachers have rippled through my playing, my teaching, and my outlook on life itself, taking on new meaning over time as I become equipped to reinterpret them.

Stay tuned for The Best Advice, Part I: Frank Gabriel Campos, coming next week. In the meantime, as always, I welcome any questions and comments below. Thank you for reading!

Nikola TomicComment