As an undergraduate (it feels like a previous life sometimes), I was a music major. I spent the first two years of my undergrad experience immersed in the life of a musician – lessons every week, playing in three (sometimes four) ensembles, practicing upwards of six hours a day, taking ten or eleven classes per quarter. It was a rough time, and yet I still somehow found time to socialize and make lifelong friends.
Since I am a linguist now, obviously this kind of existence was not for me. (It was the intense competition that broke me, and the fact that there is an unremarkably small market for symphonic trombonists in the world.) However, some lessons from my time as a music major, and a musician, have stayed with me. Here are just a few that I’ve been thinking about recently:
1. Sometimes you just have to adjust to the people around you. You simply cannot spend your entire existence as a musician doing your own thing, especially not if you play in an ensemble. You have to tune, you have to mimic the style of people around you, you have got to pay attention to your environment. This is why music sounds like music and not a cacophony of randomness. This is a life skill – a good team works well because everybody adjusts to each other instead of insisting that they are right and everybody else had better adjust. Learn to adjust to the rules of the environment – if you go to Rhode Island and you’re trying to drive around Providence and you realize that people just stop in the middle of busy streets, you’d better learn to adjust, or you’re going to have a bad day.*
1a. …except when it’s your time to shine. When you have that solo, you’d better stand out from the crowd, or people will be left wondering what they just heard. When you’re giving a presentation or defending your thesis or leading a discussion or whatever you have to do, it’s your time to shine, and that’s the best time to showcase your abilities.
2. Repetition makes better. There’s the old adage “practice makes perfect”, which all musicians know isn’t true. Most often, this gets modified to “practice makes better”; however, I learned that really isn’t the case. Many times I would practice until I got that lick right and then I would stop and hope it was good enough for my lesson later that day. It never was – I would always screw it up somehow. The key was that once I got it right, I had to repeat it and repeat it and repeat it until I could get it right every time. This carries over a lot into my teaching. How do I explain these concepts? I can sit there and write lesson plans as much as I’d like, but actually getting in front of a class – and teaching the same class several times – has made me a better teacher. How do I learn to transcribe so quickly? By doing it a lot.
3. Good equipment does not make you better… but it sure helps. A great trombonist will sound great on a $20,000 horn and a horn she picked up out of a dumpster. I once knew a guy who played on the oldest, rustiest, biggest piece of crap trombone I had ever seen, but he could outplay me on my Conn 88H with one hand tied behind his back.** However, sometimes your equipment can really hold you back, and if you refuse to at least try to get out of your comfort zone, you may be missing a great opportunity. If you try something and it doesn’t work for you, then at least you tried and you’re expanding your world of knowledge a little bit. Don’t conflate “best” with “most familiar”.
4. You have got to prioritize on all levels of your life. Spending six hours in a practice room eats into your schedule. Some days you have to decide which is more important, practicing or eating lunch. Other days, you may have to choose whether to sacrifice practice time or social interaction time. If it’s always one or the other, you may have to rethink your priorities on a larger scale.
5. Sometimes, you are the supporting actor in another person’s story.*** I have heard this in many incarnations, but most effectively just last year from the composer Sam Hazo. He was explaining to us that most of the band needed to play more quietly so that the melody line could be heard, and he said something to the effect of, “Sometimes you’re the star, and sometimes you’re the tree. Nobody wants the tree to steal the show; a good tree makes the star look better.” Sometimes, whether in music or at work or in a relationship, you have to be a good tree.
*based on a true story.
**not actually physically possible; I may be embellishing.
***often, if you’re a trombonist.