Trumpeter · Educator · Author

Lessons Learned, Minus the Nostalgia, Hail to Old IU

This post is for the education of my students and the amusement of my friends and colleagues.

This week I went back to my Alma Mater, Indiana University for some outpatient trumpet therapy with my teacher John Rommel.  I love going to Bloomington, I really do.  It's one of my favorite places in the world.  I thank the good lord every day that I went to school there and outside of marrying my wife and having our two children, going to the IU School of Music to study with Mr. Rommel was the best decision I could have ever made.

I arrived on Sunday night, and Monday had a long lesson with Rommel, then went to a masterclass given by Tony Plog, who was one of my first (and still is) trumpet heroes.  If I had listened to his 20th Century Settings for Trumpet recording on vinyl rather than CD I would have worn it out.  Then I went to one of my favorite bars, The Irish Lion, with another of my heroes, Manny Laureano, who was in town to conduct the IU Concert Orchestra.  I have known Manny for about 10 years now, not only is he an incredible trumpet player(good luck finding a better recording of Alpine Symphony!!!), but he is also a very positive and supportive friend who has passed on a lot of encouragement to me when I have gone through some rough patches.  All in all, a pretty amazing day.  I could write tons about what I learned in that one day, but that's not what this is entry is about, at least not totally.

As I drove from North Carolina to Indiana I thought a lot about the time I spent in Bloomington as a student.  These thoughts, mostly nostalgic, increased as I got into town.   The masterclass on Monday night was the first of the school year at IU.  John Rommel was giving the students an introduction to who was in the room, he introduced Manny and Tony, and he mentioned me as well, noting that I was one of his first students at IU.  Then as he introduced himself to the students he mentioned that it was his 19th year teaching in Bloomington.  19 years! Holy Cow I thought! And then my thoughts turned from nostalgic feelings to remembering what I learned, and didn't learn there.  I thought about the things I did right and the things I wish I could take a mulligan on.  As I said I love IU and I had a great time, but it was not all wine and roses.  That's what this post is about. It's about what went right and what I could have done better.

So I will start with the good stuff.

-I worked really hard.  I woke up early most every day and had a real desire to become a great player. Work ethic on the trumpet was not an issue.

-Because I worked hard I got better! (Notice how I have not mentioned working smart, yet.)

-I went to hear major orchestras several times every year.  I drove to Chicago, Cleveland and Cincinnati often and heard so amazing concerts that I still remember and still inspire me.

-I was open to learning from almost everyone.  I learned from all of the trumpet faculty.  At that time in addition to Rommel; Ed Cord, Stephen Burns and Dominic Spera were on faculty.  Burns has since departed to run his highly successful new music ensemble, Fulcrum Point, in Chicago and Spera has retired, but by all accounts still sounds fantastic.  From Mr. Cord, I learned how to play exactly what the composer wrote by sitting next to him in summer Festival Orchestra. I learned great ways of thinking about phrasing orchestral excerpts (a lesson he taught me in masterclass on the Ravel Concerto I still use all the time) and he taught me that in the end we are all people trying to get better and he showed some real compassion when I was really down about my playing.  From Steve Burns, I learned a ton about phrasing, intensity and about getting my tail kicked.  One semester I played a spring orchestra audition that apparently was pretty awful.  Burns was very honest about it.  It hurt, bad.  But his honesty made me tough and I fought as hard as I could to improve.  After my initial devastation I worked smarter and improved so much that I went from last (out of about 25 students) to second when we auditioned the next fall.  The audition was screened and Burns, who had been so honest before about what was wrong with my playing, was equally forthcoming about how much I had worked and improved.  For that and many other things over the years I will always be truly grateful. Steve is an intense guy with a huge heart.  And from Dominic Spera, I learned how to model his disciple and his kindness.  Anyone who knows Mr. Spera knows he is one of a kind.  After he came along they truly broke the mold.  He came to school everyday, even in his last year, like clockwork at 7:30 AM!  Then he spent the next hour and a half practicing in his office then emerging to walk around the practice rooms, telling funny stories, giving encouragement and exuding good will. He constantly taught little life lessons to people and always reminded us that we can't forget that playing the trumpet is an "athletic event".  In other words you must keep up with your conditioning and treat your body, including your chops, like an athlete.  You push it but don't over train.  For me, Mr. Spera defined class act.  As for John Rommel, I know I have not learned everything he was trying to teach me, and every time I think I get it, I realize there is a lot more to learn.  I tried to model his sound, his concepts, his musicality and the excitement in his playing.  He was and still is a great teacher for me.  I try everyday, and everyday miss the mark, to try to play and teach like him.  He is one of the most exciting and efficient players I have ever heard and has a really clear way of explaining the concepts he learned from Vincent Cichowicz and Bill Adam, and then demonstrating them.   To say I had a great trumpet education at IU would be an understatement.  I knew what I had and I took advantage of it.  Did I learn everything I could?  Of course not, but I knew what was there was really outstanding. 

-I observed my colleagues, both good and bad and learned from them. I saw some players who really knew how to make the most of their time.  The best players knew what they were going to accomplish when they went into a practice room.  They kept a schedule and were very consistent. Steve Lange, now second trombone in the Boston Symphony, is the first person who comes to mind with this.  Steve was steady.  He was talented, worked hard, smart and consistently.  Consequently he has had a very successful career first as assistant principal in the St. Louis Symphony and now in the BSO.  Steve was and is a role model to me.  There are many others I could name, but that would get to long, and possibly offensive.
On the converse I saw players who did nothing but play loud, or loud and high.  I saw players who used drugs and drank too much on a consistent basis.  In general, they did not turn out so well.  (Not naming names here!)

-I had a good time. You should have a good time in college! You should go to parties, sporting events and enjoy your time.  It only gets busier and more stressful.  I had stress, but I enjoyed college.

-I made life long friends. The close friends I made in college I stay in touch with.  The ones who were my trumpet buddies I speak to or make an effort to see very often. (Nothing against any violist or oboe players, we just run into each other more).  We still call each other for advice, and encouragement and to complain.  When I do talk to friends I haven't heard from in a while, it usually feels like we pick up right where we left off.  When you grow and struggle with a group of people for a while you tend to have a bond.  That bond is important, because often you learn more from your colleagues than you do from your teachers.

-I became friends with David Rahbee.  David Rahbee is a friend of mine who is a conductor.  I know you might want to read that last sentence again in case it didn't make sense. (Go ahead and read it again.) David is a great conductor, but more importantly David loves music more than almost anyone I know.  I learned so much from him; staying up late on weekends with him, eating pizza and listening to recordings.  I learned players, conductors and composers.  He is also constantly curious about music.  He is a violinist but loved the trombone so much some of our trombone friends taught him the trombone solo from Mahler 3.  He could actually play it!  I mean, was it going to pass at an audition? No.  But he learned it.  He still is asks me questions about the trumpet.  He loved Sir Georg Solti.  Once after a concert he saw Solti conduct in Chicago, he wanted to meet his idol.  He made his downstairs to Solti's dressing room.  After being told by a guard that he could not go in. David did it anyway. But he did it with style.  He went in and said "Maestro Solti!" and then proceeded to show him the T-shirt he was wearing that he had made.  The t-shirt was Solti's image off a Chicago Bruckner album.  Solti loved it! They struck up a relationship and David watched every concert and rehearsal Maestro Solti did for close to a year, all at Solti's invitation.  Everyone should be so fortunate to know a David Rahbee.

Now here is the part where I talk about what I did wrong.

-I didn't take my ear-training and music history classes as seriously as I should.  I should have learned as much as I could, but like many others I tried to get by so I could get back to my instrument.  Not smart!  Without a doubt those are the two most important classes a musician takes.  I now probably practice ear-training and sight singing more now than I ever did as an undergrad.  But how much more would I have developed if I had really taken it as something I wanted to master, rather than just something I needed to get through?  A few years ago, I interviewed Hakan Hardenberger.  He told me that when he was a teenager at the Paris Conservatory he had NINE HOURS per week of solfege.  And what did that kind of work get him? Um, pretty far.

-I didn't take advantage of some of the opportunities I had because I didn't get my you know what out of bed on a Saturday morning.  Janos Starker gave a masterclass almost every Saturday and it was open to everyone.  Did I ever go? Nope.  Joseph Gingold was still alive, did I go see his classes? Nope.  Did I go watch the Beaux Art Trio with Menahem Pressler? Nope? Were these mistakes? Yes, huge mistakes.

-I didn't cut loose disruptive influences fast enough.  People that think it's okay to just get by, or that suck the energy out of you should have no place in your plan.  I was slow to get rid of some of these. Again, not naming any names.

-I didn't get out much in the way of college activities like basketball games and going to the great museums on campus.  Balance is good.  I didn't learn this until later.  

-Probably the biggest mistake I made though was being in a hurry to become a good trumpet player that I got in my own way by practicing poorly.  I didn't slow down enough.  I was so concerned with the immediate result and not the process of how to get the result I wanted.  Then making sure that I follow that process every single time.   Part of this was immaturity and part of this was insecurity.  I still have to fight this battle, most of us do.  Now, I hope at least I win it more than I lose.