Monday, June 6, 2016

On The Ideal Student, Good and Bad Horses.

The Ideal Student, Good and Bad Horses.

Over the past several years I’ve done more and more teaching, which has been a deeply fulfilling part of my life.  I’ve had such a wide-range of people walk through my door.  All ages, all backgrounds.  One of the things I enjoy most about teaching trumpet lessons is the one on one nature of the lesson itself.  We are two people coming together to work on something.  Each person brings their own personality, history, approach and goals to the lesson, and I try to treat each of them as their own unique experience.  The more I hear them play, the more information I get and the better I can prescribe certain exercises and guide them towards improving their playing and technique.  The more I talk to them and understand who they are as people, the better I can communicate with them and more clearly relate to their own individual outlook.  Every student is different, and that’s what I love most about teaching.

Recently I’ve been reflecting on who I was as a student.  I’m sure that changed at different points in my life.  I began playing trumpet when I was 6 years old and I can tell you now that I didn’t care at all about the trumpet until I was 16 years old and heard a recording of Dizzy Gillespie.  This experience totally opened my mind to what this instrument could do.  So from 6 to 16 I was probably a fairly bad student, in that I simply didn’t care or practice much.

After I finished my undergraduate degree in Music, and had put so much time and energy into music, I moved to New York City to study with Laurie Frink, who was widely considered the greatest trumpet instructor in the world.  I desperately needed help on my technique, which was the reason I sought her out.  Throughout my entire time working with her(2 years weekly, then once a month for several years, then eventually just once a year: 8 years total), I always thought I was her worst student.  I never felt I was someone with natural talent or ability, but I was always willing to work as hard as possible and to practice with discipline every single day, whatever she told me.  I was so singularly focused on the process, I really didn’t think at all about a social life or even what it was to have a natural balance to my life in general.  For these reasons, I made a lot of progress in my playing under Laurie’s guidance.  I still remember one October Laurie telling me to take the night off from practicing and to go to the Halloween parade in the village.  Essentially she was telling me to go enjoy my life and that it was bigger than just trumpet.  She never had to worry about me not practicing.  Beyond our work together, I always got along really well with Laurie as a person and felt like we had a natural understanding and related easily(part of me feels like everyone she interacted felt this way.)

As a teacher now, it’s funny to think with my current view that I wasn’t actually her worst student.. I was probably one of her best, but it had nothing to do with my ability.  I was supremely committed, downright obsessed with improvement and structured my entire life around it.  I was disciplined, believed in her method and practiced everything she told me without any excuses.  I was enthusiastic, motivated and eager to work.  As I teacher, I now realize THESE are the traits of an ideal student. These are the students that you can do a lot with.  These are the students that you really get excited to teach.

Several months ago I had a mother contact me about her son’s desire to learn the trumpet.  His school’s band director wouldn’t let him play trumpet in school because he thought it was too difficult, so the boy was forced to play saxophone instead.  The boy was so obsessed with the trumpet, he begged his mom for months to let him play.  She eventually found me, we talked, got him a trumpet and he’s been studying with me since.  He loves the trumpet, practices every day, he listens to great recordings every night and even writes poetry in his school’s english class about the horn.  He has made more progress in the past 3 months than several other of my students have in a full year.  He has no natural gifts that the others don’t have, he just loves the trumpet.  Working with him is such a reminder of the importance of motivation.  He is the ideal student and through that realization, I’ve come to see that I was the ideal student when I met Laurie.  A teacher can do so much with a motivated, committed student, who has the right mentality.  The ideal student isn’t the one to which things come easily.  The ideal student is the one who is passionate and works hard.

I want to end this post with something I re-read recently from a favorite book of mine: “Zen Mind, Beginner’s mind” by Shunryu Suzuki

“In our old scriptures , it is said that there are 4 types of horses: excellent ones, good ones, poor ones, and bad ones. […] When we hear this story, almost all of us want to be the best horse.  If it is impossible to be the best one, we want to be the second best. [..] If you think the aim of zen practice is to train you to become one of the best horses, you will have a big problem.  This is not the right understanding.  If you practice Zen in the right way it does not matter whether you are the best horse or the worst horse.  When you consider the mercy of Buddha, how do you think Buddha will feel about the four kinds of horses?  He will have more sympathy for the worst one than for the best one.

When you are determined to practice zazen with the great mind of Buddha, you will find the worst horse is the most valuable one.  In your very imperfections you will find the basis for your firm, way-seeking mind. [..] Those who find great difficulty practicing Zen will find more meaning in it.  So I think sometimes the best horse may be the worst horse, and the worst horse can be the best horse.[..] One who thinks he is one of the worst husbands may be a good one if he is always trying to be a good husband with a single-hearted effort.”

Sunday, April 24, 2016

2016, what a year.

I’ve noticed I haven’t written these blogs as much in the past several years.  I’m getting older, busier, it’s hard to keep up, and especially hard to keep ‘em interesting.  I could write that I’ve been practicing 5 hours a day as always, writing music, working with Destiny Records on developing the art and concept, and all that goes into releasing an album, or about how I’ve been teaching more and more trumpet lessons, which has been great, but it would hard to make that into an exciting entry since it’s really just a day-to-day grind.  I’ve been in New York City for 10 years now.

I guess I’ll just give you the bullet-points of the past several months: First we shot photos, came up with album art concept and developed them, all coordinated between myself, Agnes Fohn(photographer), Sashico Asano(graphic artist) and Cam Mizell(label coordinator).  The visual concept was to juxtapose the concept of feeling disconnected and “not-human” with an image that was “The most” human, thus making the person look at the image and question their initial impression.  To me, the most human quality is one-on-one connection, so I used an image of two people holding hands to represent that human connection.

The end of last year into this year were pretty rocky.  First off, my girlfriend and I broke up in January, and I had a number of friends have certain emotional(and spiritual) crises at the same time.  I’ve done a lot of reflection these past few months about what truly is important in life and where we derive our meaning and value from.  I think it’s important to think about these things, even though they can be very difficult.

We played our record release show on Feb 28th, and “I Walk Amongst The Humans” was out a few weeks later.  Feedback has all been really positive, I just wish more people could hear the record.(you can listen to it on youtube, in it’s entirety or here:  I’m really proud of this album.  When it finally came out I reflected on the fact that it was almost 2 years after I recorded it, and on the fact that since I was 16 years old all I wanted to do was create a record I felt was good.  It took me almost 15 years to do that.  I feel my first two records(“Connections” and “At the Edge”) are fine, but “The Rehumanization EP” and “I Walk Amongst The Humans” are my first records I’m really proud of.  I finally feel like I’m playing a style that’s uniquely my own.

After the album came out, I went back into the studio and have started recording my next album.  No title yet.  We did one day so far, and we’ll do a second in mid-May.  The music is for a larger group: Trumpet, Alto Sax, Bari Sax, Bass Trombone, Piano, Bass, Drums.  We got a lot of great stuff on the first day.  I’m hoping it’ll be out fall of ’17.

I think I’m making the best music I’ve ever made… it really takes a long time to create something you think is good.  No one ever tells you that when you’re starting out and basically hating everything you play.  As Miles Davis once said “It takes a long time to sound like yourself.”  Still, this is a tricky time to put out music, with the music industry basically tanked.  Everyone consumes music via streaming which generates zero income.  I wonder what will happen in the future, and what music’s role will be in our society.

Band photos:
Jon Crowley - Trumpet
John Beaty- Alto Sax
Alden Banta- Bari Sax
Owen Caprell- Bass Trombone
Brad Whiteley- Piano
Julian Smith- Bass
Dan Pugach- Drums