Failure

When I see the word failure, I think of a day many years ago in San Antonio.

I was 25 years old and had been playing with the San Antonio Symphony for three seasons (the first season as associate principal trumpet, the second and third as principal). The orchestra was leaving on tour for a week, but I was staying home, because I had caught chicken pox from a friend’s young daughter. The doorbell rang. The postman handed me a registered letter. I opened it and read that I had been fired from the orchestra for “lack of development in phrasing and musical articulation.”

It was not a good way to start the week and, more importantly, not a good way to start a career. You could say it was a failure with a capital F.

I still had to finish out the final four months of the season and wondered how I should handle the rest of the season. So I called Irving Bush, who not only was one of my teachers but a close family friend and a man of great integrity. I asked Irving what I should do, and he told me to play as well as I possibly could, handle myself with dignity, and leave with my head held high.

It was valuable advice, and I did my best to follow it the rest of the season. The politics in the orchestra were very tense and paranoid at that time, and I was just one of a group of musicians who had been fired. But because of Irving’s advice, my final months with the orchestra went well, and I learned a lot. As a result, what started as a failure ended up being a great experience for me. In fact, as crazy as it seems, I look back on it with a certain fondness.

I learned a number of important lessons from that experience, but two stand out. First, you can’t control outside circumstances; you can only control yourself and your actions. And second, people who talk the loudest in a crisis are often the first to fold, while the quiet ones are sometimes the strongest. I think, for example, of Leland Sharrock, a hornist in the orchestra. Leland was married with a young child, and yet he put his job at risk in order to support the musicians who were fired. That kind of courage is not forgotten.

So, although failure is never fun, I try to see it (in the words of self-help author Tim Ferriss) as a feedback mechanism. To me, that means to reflect honestly on the experience and, if possible, determine what could have been done differently.

I also try to remember that if you take risks, you will inevitably fail at times. I love a quote from the actress Vera Farmiga, who said in an interview, “You can only go as far as you risk.” Which means I will have to keep pushing myself to risk more, which means I will fail more.

So although it is never fun, I am trying to embrace failure as much as I want to embrace success.

I’m not an expert.

I’m not an expert… on anything. This idea occurred to me gradually over many years, and I’ve now come to terms with it. Here’s why:

For me, an expert is someone who knows a lot about a little. Take, for example, the field of Baroque or Renaissance music. Bruce Dickey is arguably the world’s greatest cornetto player, while Friedemann Immer has recorded Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto #2 at least nine or ten times on the Baroque natural trumpet. (He’s so good that I’ve lost count.) These two players are world-class experts in their field. Yet they would not be my first choice to play Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. For that I would go to one of the many great orchestral players around the world.

Yes, there are players who are experts in several different fields. As an example, Gabriele Cassone is equally brilliant in his approach to both Baroque and modern music. But I believe he’s the rare exception and not the rule.

I’m not a person who knows a lot about a little. You might say, instead, that I know a little about a lot. I’ve played in orchestras, I’ve played natural trumpet (with varying degrees of success), and I’ve played modern music, chamber music, and solos. Of course, that was in the past. These days I teach and compose.

Is it better to learn a lot about a little, or a little about a lot? I’m not sure you have to choose. I think it’s possible to be an expert in one area of music while continuing to learn and be a non-expert in other areas. And conversely, a person who is broadly based and without a speciality can study with an expert to improve in that particular area. This kind of cross-pollination is a healthy thing. In sports it’s called cross-training, and it’s an accepted part of any athletic regimen.

I try to improve in all the different areas of music I participate in, and I’m happy not being an expert. But it sure is fun to try.

Motivation and the Three Tier-System

Motivation seems to be a hot topic these days. There are motivational speakers and motivational authors. People constantly are looking for motivation. And motivation does have its uses. It’s great for getting started on a project or even a career.

But there’s a problem: motivation doesn’t last forever, and then what happens when you don’t feel motivated? A lot of sports stars use the idea of “Go hard or go home,” but nobody can go hard indefinitely. For most of us, it’s more like “Go hard, eventually lose motivation, and go home.” If you are counting on motivation as a lifelong stimulus, I think you’re destined for disappointment.

Motivation is important, but it’s not the only way or even the best way to get things done. A better approach is what I call the Three-Tier System. The three tiers are motivation, discipline, and habit.

The first tier, motivation, is a good way to get started on most projects. It can carry us during the early stages, when we’re excited about the project. To me, it’s a little like having a crush or falling in love—it’s a thrill and a rush. But then you form a relationship and maybe get married, and over time the thrill begins to fade—to be replaced, we hope, by a certain maturity. Joseph Campbell called this going from passion to compassion. Maybe you show compassion by washing the dishes or mowing the lawn, which are not exactly a thrill. This is where the second tier comes in: discipline.

As a composer, I can’t count on always being motivated to sit down and write. My schedule can vary greatly from day to day or even month to month, so I often need discipline to get the work done. I can distinctly remember several evenings when I had two hours to compose and basically had no creative ideas at all. Two hours of practicing the trumpet with bad chops is certainly no fun, but two hours of composing with no ideas can seem like an eternity. In spite of that, I look on those particular sessions as being very important for me. I was beginning to build my discipline muscle.

But even discipline will only take us so far, which brings us to the third tier: habit. It has been shown that we have a limited amount of discipline, much less than we think. The challenge, then, is to build a system that still works when discipline fails. That system is habit. You don’t have to be motivated or even disciplined to brush your teeth every morning; it’s simply a habit. And so, if we can move our important work into the area of habit, that work will get done. In my career as a trumpet player, practicing was a habit; if I didn’t practice a lot and consistently, not only did I not play as well, I just didn’t feel right.
It would be nice if we could move every long-term task from discipline into habit, but I’m not sure that’s possible. With some tasks, as with my composing on a schedule that may change every day, I have to rely more on discipline than habit.

The three-tier system can be used not only for specific projects but also for the building of a successful career: motivation gets us started, followed by the hard work of discipline, and finally the routine of habit. Following that pattern means that when motivation fades, it’s not the end of the game; it’s simply part of the transition to attaining mastery.

“Who cares?”

It seems as though some of the best lessons in life come when one is least expecting them. 
 
One such lesson for me came years ago when I was still a member of the Summit Brass Ensemble. This was after a two-week summer seminar, and we were warming up for the second day of a two-day recording session. The first day had been brutal… a full day of recording difficult and very strenuous music. But it was even more brutal for Ray Mase, who was the designated piccolo trumpet player with Summit. As I was passing by Ray while we warmed up, I was just making conversation when I said, “So, how are your chops feeling this morning?” And Ray answered, “Who cares?”

What Ray meant was that it didn’t matter at all how his chops felt; he had a job to do and somehow had to find a way to do it. I think that, like most people, I have had a tendency to rely too heavily on how I feel on a given day or at a given moment. As in: (as a trumpet player) ”My chops feel bad, so it will be hard to play well”; or (as a composer), “I didn’t get nearly enough sleep last night, so it will be difficult to compose well.” That approach, of course, was and is a recipe for disaster, and also a clever excuse for not doing my best.

As a young player, I had one lesson with Adolph Herseth of the Chicago Symphony, and during the course of the lesson I asked Herseth what he did when he had to play a difficult solo with bad chops. He replied that he concentrated only on how that excerpt would sound if played beautifully—and said that he felt some of his best concerts were played with bad chops, simply because he had to concentrate with total focus on how an excerpt should sound. So over time I gradually adopted a rather strange way of viewing difficult future concerts, and it seemed to help me quite a bit. Whereas in the past if I had a difficult concert to play I would think, “I sure hope I have good chops for that concert,” I now would just assume that I would have bad chops for the concert. That way, if I had bad chops it would be no problem because I was expecting it, but if I had good chops it would be a bonus.

To me this question pertains to all aspects of life: how to do our best when conditions are not optimal. Because, if you really think about it, conditions are rarely optimal. That is the challenge we face every day. To help me in my daily struggle with this challenge there are several quotes that I keep at the piano where I compose. One is from Alistair Cooke: “A pro is someone who can do great work when they don’t feel like it.” The other is perhaps my favorite, and it comes from Gil McDougald, a Hall of Fame second baseman with the New York Yankees from 1951-1960. The quote is crude but also direct and to the point: “Anybody can have a great day when they feel great and a horseshit day when they feel horseshit. The question is, can you have a great day when you feel horseshit?” That is the challenge.