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.
Spitwads and the Smoking Trombone
Spitwads and the Smoking Trombone
My first real experience playing with an orchestra came when I was eighteen years old and joined the American Youth Symphony in Los Angeles. At the first rehearsal I was fifth trumpet; by the second rehearsal I was second trumpet. That’s not as impressive as it sounds—the other three players never showed up again.
The principal trumpet was Ron Kidd, and ever since that first rehearsal we have been close friends. Ron eventually left the orchestra and the trumpet to become a writer. He was always a good trumpet player, but now he is a great writer. After Ron left I became principal trumpet, but when I think back to those days, my favorite time in the orchestra was when I was second trumpet. At that time Ron sat to my right, and immediately to my left was Jock Ellis, the principal trombonist. And, believe me, there is only one Jock Ellis!
But there was another person who made playing in the AYS such a memorable experience, and that was the conductor Mehli Mehta (father of Zubin). He loved big pieces from the Romantic era and in addition loved loud brass playing. And we loved to give it to him. That was a time of such idealism, of listening to records all night long and comparing different orchestras. Of course, our only criterion was this: which brass section could play the loudest.
So, we were a very loud brass section. But we were also a very funny brass section, and in this area there was no doubt as to who our leader was. It was Jock.
Jock had a fascination with his trombone and loved to fool around with it. He quickly discovered that the leadpipe, with the slide removed, was perfect for blowing spitwads. Now, all orchestras, youth or professional, have a couple of musicians who are, well, impressed with themselves. In the AYS it was a horn player. Jock took care of him one day during a horn solo by shooting a spitwad that landed on the guy’s left ear. Mehta yelled at the horn player for missing the notes, and we couldn’t stop laughing. In addition to Jock’s aim, his power was also impressive, and he hit a wall clock on the other side of the room. That spitwad was on the clock for at least five years and may still be there.
Jock’s fascination with his trombone didn’t stop there. Once he came to a rehearsal with a beautiful new trombone, a silver Conn 88-H with an F-attachment. Although he didn’t smoke, Jock lit up a cigarette during rehearsal, took a big drag, and blew smoke into his trombone, capturing it inside with the F-attachment. He then waited for a loud brass passage, and when he started to play he released the F-attachment, sending smoke out the bell. Jock had achieved what every brass player dreams of. We were on the floor.
In a recent email, Jock reminded me of an incident that involved the Rossini Overture “La gazza ladra.” It’s probably best if Jock tells this in his own words: “As the long orchestra crescendo built, I raised my horn for the wonderful ladders of scales dear Rossini had written for me. I turned to you and Ron, cupped my hand as if cradling my hanging nuts, and exclaimed, ‘Molti testi!’ Then I blew as loud as I could. Probably louder. Mehta threw down his baton, undo, and suddenly he started laughing. When he composed himself and picked up his stick, he said to the orchestra, ‘You see the power! You see the power of that one instrument! By himself he can slow down the entire orchestra!’”
When I think back to those days, I remember the fun and crazy times we had. Mostly, though, I’m grateful I was able to play for a conductor who shared our passion and love for music. All young musicians should have such luck!
God’s First Temples
GOD’S FIRST TEMPLES
In the summer of 2016, for the first time in almost forty years, I did a backpack trip in the High Sierra mountains, hiking part of the famous John Muir Trail with my son Jason. We had planned on a three-week trip, but Jason’s knee started to swell badly, so we had to come off the trail after only about a week of hiking and camping. Even so, we were able to hike about sixty miles.
It was an amazing experience. As anybody who has backpacked knows, most of the day is simply spent walking. The JMT has 11 passes, so very little of our hike was on level ground…… we were either going uphill (hard on the body and very tiring with a heavy backpack in hot weather) or downhill (hard on the knees). Even though I had trained well and really prepared for the trip, I was still quite exhausted a lot of the time.
But the other side of the story was the immense beauty, the peace and calm one felt as the light settled when evening approached, and a real reverence for nature and the mountains. I remember thinking that, upon seeing a majestic range of mountains behind Silver Lake, that those mountains were basically the same during the time of the Caliphate of the eighth century, and also during the time of Jesus Christ. And then the thought came to me that it would only take a year or two for some ignorant, misinformed, or bought-off politicians to destroy this magnificent landscape.
Because I felt so whole and complete in the mountains early on, I became drawn to the writings of John Muir, the famous naturalist and founder of the Sierra Club. Muir wrote extensively of the Sierras (he called them “the Range of Light”), and so it followed that over time I would write several pieces that used the writings of John Muir as text. The most recent of these is a large oratorio called “God’s First Temples” (https://anthonyplog.com/?compositions=gods-first-temples), based on the first major environmental battle in the United States, over the Hetch Hetchy Valley, which was part of Yosemite National Park. I have also written a shorter song cycle of the same title for soprano and chamber orchestra.
During my hike with Jason, the thought came to me that I had written my oratorio too early; I should have waited until I had hiked the JMT so that I would have a better feeling for the wonder I felt at being among God’s first temples. But then I realized that after such a trip I probably could not have written such a piece. The enormity of this battle to preserve nature would have put too much pressure on me, and I probably would have felt blocked.
I will be going back to the Sierras with Jason again, and my hope is to hike the entire John Muir Trail, all 211 miles of it. If I am able to do the entire trail, it will no doubt be one of the most profound experiences of my life. For on and off the trail I am always moved by the words John Muir wrote a century ago: “The hills and groves were God’s first temples, and the more they are cut down and hewn into cathedrals and churches the farther off and dimmer seems the Lord Himself.”
Online Teaching and Coaching
For many years I’ve had the great opportunity to teach brass players from around the world, but they’ve always come to me or I’ve gone to them. However, that’s about to change. Starting in April we will meet halfway between, in cyberspace. And anyone in the world can join us. I’ll explain… but first I need to tell you something about myself.
In 1976 I left a secure position with the Utah Symphony to follow a very insecure dream: being a trumpet soloist and composer. At that time, the only full-time trumpet soloist in the world was Maurice Andre, so the thought of making a living as a soloist was idealistic. And making a living as a composer? That was way past idealistic, bordering on foolish. My plan was to return to Los Angeles, my hometown, where I would do some freelancing and struggle with being very poor for a couple of years. Once my career got off the ground, I figured I would be, well, less poor.
But I caught a break about a month before I left the Utah Symphony. My teacher, Tom Stevens, called and said he had arranged a teaching job for me in Los Angeles at California State University Northridge (CSUN). So I could start my solo career being less poor, rather than very poor. When I began at CSUN in September 1976, my first student was Elia Pirozzi. Elia and I developed a friendship, lost touch with each other, and then spoke on the phone last summer. Elia no longer plays the trumpet, but he has had a distinguished career as a judge in Southern California.
In the 41 years since leaving the Utah Symphony, I’ve gone from being an orchestral trumpet player, to being a trumpet soloist and composer, to giving up the trumpet and composing full-time. During all those years, the one constant in my professional life has been teaching. Teaching has taken me to colleges and universities across the United States and to countries throughout the world, including Japan, Australia, Switzerland, France, Spain, all of Scandanavia, and Germany, where I live. Being a teacher has enabled me, ironically, to be a student my entire life, to learn about different cultures and to experience our shared humanity.
But now, with the Internet, the possibilities for teaching and learning go beyond geographical boundaries. To study with someone, you don’t need to be in the same room with them, or the same city, or even the same country. Technology has opened up new ways of learning (master classes and interviews on YouTube are favorites of mine), and clearly we’ve just scratched the surface. In my own case, technology means I’ll be able to teach anyone in the world, as long as they have access to the Internet and Skype or a similar program.
This is my way of announcing a new venture: online teaching and coaching. In a few months I’ll have a website giving all the details, but I’m open for business in the meantime, starting the week of April 10. If you’d like more information, please email me at [email protected].
This will be an exciting time for me, and I think the possibilities are huge. So… stay tuned!!