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10 Things I wish I had known at 20

It's only natural for us to think back and wish we had done things a bit differently- as musicians, our focus is always on bettering ourselves, and often our focus can become so wrapped up in our own betterment and self education that we can lose sight of why we make music (or any other art, for that matter.) Art isn't like a video game: We're not trying to simply 'level up', 'unlock achievements', or anything of that such. Remember that with each Level we reach in our playing, there are also moments leading up to, during, and after in which we are making music- creating beauty and emotion in a direct communication with other people. This is something that most artists lose grasp of as they constantly compare themselves to their peers, their inner vision of where they want to be, or the disconnect between how they view themselves on a bad day as opposed to a good day.

With that introduction of perspective, I'd like to offer a list of 10 things I wish I had understood better at 20 years old as a young trombonist. Not that my current age (32) is venerable in any way, but as time is indeed the only resource we cannot GAIN, I want to highlight some thoughts for any young reader to ponder and reassess as to maximize their own perspective, quell their own fears, or just help them trim their own sails.

1. The single biggest resource you have is TIME, and at the moment, you're rich in it.

Time is something that has so much value, we literally fight endless philosophical wars over it. Billionaires like Mark Cuban and Bill Gates build countless systems around their own private lives for the exclusive desire to maximize time (Mark Cuban talks at length about owning his own plane being exclusively a decision based around saving him a few hours on either side of a commute). This is a truth that young musicians don't really grasp. As a young person, money is often scarce, and the idea of trading time for money can be automatic. If you have a job and are making ends meet tightly, you've often (as I did) looked for freelance work and settled for small gigs and tasks that utilize your musical skill set (transcribing, arranging, rehearsing) for very little money and a decent chunk of your time. I'm not saying this isn't a good idea- who am I to tell you about your own financial decisions. All I'm suggesting is that you should never squander your time. Many people would trade colossal amounts of money for just another 6 months or year of time. If you have an hour a day to play Arbans slowly as an undergraduate, make sure you consider it. When you're in your 30's, and maybe have a family of your own, or an older family member that requires your time to care for, you won't have that hour free per day, and you may wish you had capitalized on that time in your youth. Give it some thought- If I could go back and redo year 20, I would certainly guard my time as far more valuable than I did.

2. Every single person you speak to in music can make or break your future.

This seems extreme, but it's a great way to live your day to day at 20. I remember distinctly many people who were my friends and colleagues at 20. In one class, I sat next to an alto saxophone player that would go on to win a spot in Pershing's Own, perhaps the most coveted job for a saxophone player in America. In another, a guy who would go on to become a world famous pop singer. There were people that would win jobs in orchestras, become conductors, and so on. My point here is that I went out of my way to be nice to everybody, but like many other people, I liked to gossip a little too much. I was young, and it's of course excusable for young people to make mistakes, but believe me- there were moments where I looked pretty stupid to people I wish I hadn't. If you go through your time in school with general rules in your head that look something like: "Everybody can succeed, and we should all try and help each other do so" and "Be as kind as you can be to everybody" you'll be far happier, and you may very well set yourself up for great success as one person that can do great for you in the future will remember that kindness.

3. Talent is meaningless, if it even exists.

Controversial, I know. I'm a pretty firm believer that talent may exist in terms of some people starting ahead of others, but time and time again I am reminded by example that hard work wins. If you stay focused and practice slowly over a long time, you will overcome talent. I know of many examples of this, but I also remember the feeling of being in a studio with a guy who was FAR more talented than me. For multiple years, I lived in his shadow, and it wasn't until my final year that I began to pull ahead of him. Was that important? No, of course not- there were people at many other schools or even younger than us that were far better players than either of us, but what was important to me was seeing talent lose. Work always wins- remind yourself to stay the course and slowly build your playing up brick by brick- Remember, the largest and most impressive monuments of history were built brick by brick over years, not days.

4. Slow Down.

Moving slowly in everything is fastest. My teacher often said to me in my Master's program that teaching a student is like trying to guide somebody blindfolded out of a burning building- you can give them instructions on how to walk and which turns to take to get out, but because of the pressure, they can often run instead of walk slowly, and they'll miss turns. Then you have to guide them back and make them turn around- if they had any knowledge of their orientation, it's gone now. The fastest way for them to get out is to calmly move slowly and follow your instructions. I remember this constantly when I try and practice and fix things in my playing. If the mouthpiece buzzing helps you get better, but you just buzz for hours a day, you're going to create other problems. If you practice frantically fast and too much, you'll either injure yourself or simply burn out. At the end of the day, you need to pace yourself through everything, and favor SLOW and CONSISTENT rather than quick.

5. Your brain is your best tool.

Thinking and organizing your practice and study makes everything change. If I had practiced with more focus as a 20 year old, I'd be twice or thrice the trombonist I am today. Asking questions out loud as you play, noticing things, taking notes, slowing down, listening to more recordings, recording my practice, paying more attention in theory, attending more recitals on other instruments, listening to classical rep and learning it by listening rather than sight-reading, taking voice lessons, asking friends questions about how they practice for their own instruments... the list goes on and on.

6. The single biggest way people win playing jobs is by not giving up.

Nobody wins their first audition, and few people win their 5th or 6th audition. Many people take 15 auditions before making final round. With 3-4 auditions happening per year that can be taken by a given trombonist, and each costing between 3-700 dollars minimum, as well as time prepared and travel, you have to accept that you're in the audition life "for a long haul". I myself, at the time of writing this, have taken 9 auditions, made finals a few times, and been last person standing zero times. Admittedly, with the pandemic raging right now, auditions are not really happening, but time and time again I see more proof that as you take auditions, you get better at it. Learning to lose auditions is the key to learn how to not lose auditions, so to speak. From this, you have to get used to redefining success as continuing to get up when you're kicked down. I know many of you have heard this before, but in truth, learning to be comfortable feeling it is different. If I could go back to 20, I would tell myself to consider treating auditions as a very expensive mock audition where I can learn a lot about how I'm doing in terms of 'learning to win employment'. When I talk to people a step ahead of me that have closed the gap, they all say the same thing- Nobody really 'feels' like an audition won was any different- just another audition, only the committee calls their name at the end.

Don't fixate on the prize- fixate on the process. Each time, you're learning something about yourself- each time, you're mining for data. Keep a journal, keep recordings, do mocks, record often, use EVERY advantage you can to grow.

7. The minute you become inflexible mentally, you have 'peaked'.

This may be harsh, but I believe the single biggest reason some people find themselves 'not getting better' or 'having hit their peak' is a mental stubbornness and inflexibility. I myself have been guilty of this too- I spent a good period of my mid 20's, and again a half a year or so in 2018, being mentally stubborn. When you believe you have a lot of answers to questions, you stop searching for new answers. Within this search, you make self discoveries that allow you to learn and grow. Within your social circles, challenging preconceptions or stubborn judgements helps you grow as well. When you meet people that have 'made up their minds' about something, it often means they are not going to get better in that area, for they have closed themselves off to new ideas.

The truth of the matter is that as people, we redefine ourselves constantly. As humans, growth is optional, but change happens regardless. As we experience distress, change, or challenge, our best bet is to stay curious and grow from it. Remember that coal can only become a diamond when it is exposed to immense pressure for a long period of time. If you find yourself confronted with new ideas constantly, and you embrace the mystery of trying to learn from them, you'll improve faster than you could otherwise, and you will remove growth limits on yourself.

8. Record yourself for the record, not to share.

So many people today are posting videos on social media of their playing. Not that this is inherently a bad thing, it can often be really inspirational, but for a different reason, you should try and record yourself for your record. As you age, your playing will both grow and shift. Your sound may change as your body changes with age- your sound concept may shift as you change your goals as a musician. You may sustain an injury and want to go back and see how it was caused. Whatever the reason, keeping a record of your playing over time is incredibly important. I made it a habit starting around age 25 to record myself playing for posterity every few months, and I have all of these recordings saved on a hard drive. You'll be very thankful that you've done this when you are a few years older and want to see how far you've come.

9. Never allow yourself to become vindictive about music.

Look, there just ISN'T enough money in classical music to get petty. When somebody gets a big job you wanted, celebrate their success. When somebody gets put on a sub list you wish you could, celebrate their success. When somebody seems standoffish to you about your playing, be kind and supportive of them. You never know what people's internal dialogues look like in music, and considering how toxic our industry can be, often people that act in less than supportive ways are secretly suffering the most inside. Believe me, you lose NOTHING by being overly nice, and you gain so much internally, as well as the support and friendliness of other players around you.

Nothing about our field is always 'logical', 'fair', or 'right'. Nobody wins all the time, and when people do in your eyes, you're often seeing only part of the picture. A good friend I used to play with always got all the gigs I wanted. I thought he was a better player than him, but was always envious of his luck or favoritism in getting work. A few years later it became clear that the reason he was getting more work than me wasn't that he was better, more connected, or anything of the sort- it was mostly luck. What's more, he was supporting his mother financially with the work because he had lost his father very recently. Such experiences put things in perspective fast- If I had gotten the work, and known what he was using the pay for, I would have GLADLY given up the work for him to take- The lesson here? My insecurity was something that caused me to rush to judgement and make assumptions that only haunted me and made me miserable. It's not healthy, it's not based in truth, and it's no way for an artist to live. Instead, celebrate everybody's success as your own, and remember the truth- we're all in this career together- there isn't enough money for us to be any other way.

10. (Perhaps the most important one) Practice gratitude- this thing is temporary.

Your musical life of playing is temporary. I know that's a scary sentence to read, but truly, there will come a day for all of us when we have to pass our trombones onto their next owners. Our individual ability to play is based upon our health, and as our age grows, the reality shall set in more and more. Playing music is both a gift for us and those that listen, but we must remember that we are indeed artists first, and trombonists second. Make sure to cultivate a love of making art for that day long off in the distance, and learn to love the art and not just the tool we use to make art.

Fall in love with sharing art- whether its learning to compose, to arrange, to teach, to paint, to write, to draw, to dance, to speak- as members of a community of one of the last apprentice crafts, it's important to come to terms with the reality that the trombone life is not ours to own, but ours to borrow temporarily. Don't waste one second of joy on anything petty (hence many of the previous numbers above) and make sure to remind yourself each time you pick of the horn of the joy you can bring to people. Music really is what makes us who we are in so many ways.

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Jun 08, 2021

Thank you very much for this wonderful resource!

Kesem Ninio, Manhattan School of Music, graduate student

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