With six years of university and two degrees under my belt, I was excited to start my career. After receiving a Master’s degree in orchestral performance, I noticed that I had not been automatically offered a full-time trumpet position with a major symphony orchestra. Go figure. And I didn’t have any audition committees begging for my resume either.
The one thing I did have was a bone-chilling amount of student loan debt. So despite having multiple music degrees, I wound up with a job in a shoe store (to be fair, it was one of those fancy running shoe stores where we analyzed runners’ gaits—totally my style!).
When I wasn’t selling running shoes, I played brass quintet gigs in front of Dunkin’ Donuts, weddings, Chinese funerals, and I taught trumpet lessons. I even played fanfares at a local Renaissance fair dressed in an embarrassing costume. My desire for a full-time orchestra gig was the only thing that kept me motivated.
I was taking auditions, but not having much success. When I asked committees why they didn’t advance me, I didn’t like their answers. So I stopped asking.
I was certain that any negative opinions about my playing were biased, and I rationalized my failures with excuses. I ignored suggestions and dismissed my critics as clueless, convinced that they simply didn’t understand what I was trying to do artistically.
Every month, those massive student loan payments were due. Panic set in as I considered my financial situation. I realized that if I kept paying at the same rate, I wouldn’t be done until I was in my mid-fifties. I freaked out.
I had been clinging to a specific style of trumpet playing for years because it was how my idols played. That style was related to the criticisms I’d been hearing. I had made the style a big part of my musical identity and I told myself that people who didn’t like it were just wrong. I never considered the issue objectively.
I realized I had two choices: keep blaming the listeners for their poor taste or figure out what they were talking about. I saw that if I wanted to get a job doing what I loved, I might have to take the critics seriously.
My first step was to buy a decent recording device. I then rearranged my schedule to include regular practice sessions. Midnight until 3am was the only time I was free, so I also had to find a place to practice that wasn’t my apartment building. Finally, I found a practice buddy who shared similar goals.
I wasn’t sure how to reevaluate my entire way of playing without a teacher, but I wound up creating a great plan–I bought a recording of orchestral excerpts played by Phil Smith (former Principal Trumpet of the New York Philharmonic). It included brilliant commentary and stellar examples of all the audition repertoire I had been struggling with. More importantly, it represented a style that was widely accepted as the industry standard.
I gave myself the following challenge: I would record myself playing every excerpt on the album until I matched Phil Smith. I would emulate Phil Smith in every way. If it didn’t match, I had to figure out why and record it again. This was not an easy goal, and I worked towards it for years.
I can’t say I’m Phil Smith’s trumpet double, but if I had never done this, or something like this, I would never have won a job in an orchestra. It was the beginning of a long and difficult, yet rewarding, process.
Not everyone has to take the long route to success like I did, but almost everyone will need to look at themselves critically at some point. To play at your true potential, you’ll probably have to break through a barrier of some kind. At some point, you’ll have to take an Honesty Pill of your own.
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