Honesty Pill

The Honesty Pill Story

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The Beginning

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!).

The shoe wall at Marathon Sports, Boston

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.

This is where the supposed ‘clueless critics’ would sit

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.

The “Honesty”

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.

The “Pill”

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.

My Sony Pro Walkman, circa 1995

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 wayIf 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.


Please feel free to comment below if you want to chime in. Or even better, let’s continue the conversation over in the Honesty Pill Facebook Group:


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