The Student of Today: Part 2 (Traditional Values)


I believe that to do well in anything in life we must have passion, a love for the work. Steve Jobs, in his 2005 Stanford commencement speech, put it well: “The only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work, and the only way to do great work is to love what you do.”  Normally one does not choose music as a profession due to financial considerations.  In fact, quite often the reverse is true – we pursue a career in music in spite of financial considerations.  We pursue a career because of our love and passion for music.

As a teacher it is easy to spot students who have this sort of passion for music.  They work harder, but because of their passion the work is not work; it is play.  That is one very easy way to spot a student who has passion: is practicing fun or work?  If it is fun the passion is there; if it is work, then better to work in another profession, for at least the weekends will be enjoyable.  The great chess master Bobby Fischer was once asked, “What is chess to you?”  His opponent had, in the same interview, answered by saying, “Chess is like life.”  Bobby Fischer said, “Chess is life.”  The same could be said for our profession: music is life and life is music.  Or, as the great American scholar Joseph Campbell put it, you must “follow your bliss.”

If you love what you do, there are a couple of ways you can develop and even increase your passion.  The first is to simply be around passionate people, the type of people who inspire and energize you.  These can be friends or teachers, for example.  They will make you feel that you not only can do more or better than where you currently are, but that you should do better.  The flip side of this coin is that you should spend as little time as possible with people who are negative.  As with positive influences, these people can be friends, and unfortunately, also teachers.  It is said that we are the average of the five people we spend most of our time with, so choose those five people carefully.

A second way to build your passion is to have heroes.  Know that some of your heroes will change over the years, while others will remain.  Some early heroes for me were trumpet players – Adolph Herseth, Maurice Andre, and my own teachers.  But I have added heroes as the years have gone by – Arthur Ashe (integrity under extremely difficult circumstances), Tchaikowsky (for his body of work), American historians David Halberstam and Robert Caro (for their passion and work ethic), Atticus Finch (the fictional father from To Kill a Mockingbird), and, most recently, Charlie Rose (for the breadth of his knowledge and his love of life).  And I have lifelong friends who are also heroes.  All these people have traits that I seek to emulate.


If  passion is there, work will be like play.  And I believe that the purpose of this work, as in any field, is to develop talent into skill.  It is easy to confuse talent with skill, but in my mind they are two different things.  Talent is what we were born with and has to do with our own potential (which is usually greater than we believe), while skill is what we do with our talent, how we develop our talent.

Over the past decade or more, experts have studied the subject of talent and skill and how these lead to success.  And one of the standard, if at times controversial, findings is the concept of the 10,000 rule.  This rule states that  in order to be really good at almost anything, a person needs to put in at least 10,000 hours of practice (or roughly 20 hours a week for 10 years).  As a student I would practice six hours a day during summer vacation and would try to get in four hours during the college semester.  Most college students practice 2-3 hours a day, and so practicing more than that is an advantage.  Just recently I heard a concert of the Tonhalle-Orchestra in Zurich where an ex-student, Heinz Saurer, is co-solo trumpet.  When Heinz was preparing for his audition he put in about 7 hours of practice time a day.  And even now, 10 years into the job, he will be at the hall by 7:30 a.m. for a 9:30 rehearsal (1-1/2 hours for his warm up, 30 minutes for a coffee).  Heinz is an extremely talented player, but it was and is his work ethic that separates him from the pack and makes him such a superior player.

And yet… there are many people who practice a lot and don’t seem to improve much. Which brings us to the second part of this equation, which is effective, or deep, practice.  There is a quote from the famous physicist, Richard Feynman, that is a favorite of mine: “The main principle is that you must never fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”  And I think it is very easy to fool yourself with practice.

Several years ago I happened to read two books back to back that contained phrases which, to me, constitute a perfect definition of practice : “simple things understood deeply” (Coincidences, Chaos, and All That Jazz, by Edward Burger and Michael Starbird) and “caring more and more about less and less” (The Violin Maker, by John Marchese).  To me, those phrases indicate a perfect recipe for practice.  The current principal trumpet of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Tom Hooten, uses three Asian words as guidelines for his practice concept. The words mean small improvements, perfect concentration and form, and repetition.  There is nothing fancy or new about this, but quite often students don’t go back to the basics as often as they should.  Patience should always be combined with discipline; indeed, I think it is a part of discipline.


I gave a talk about this subject at the Trossingen Musik Hochschule, and when I asked for questions after discussing work ethic, my friend Wolfgang Guggenberg, trumpet professor at the school, said, “Curiosity is also very important.”  Wolfgang is so right.  I think curiosity can turn a great player into a great musician and finally into a great artist.

I heard a story once about a very young Vladimir Horowitz taking a lesson from the famed Russian composer and pianist Alexander Scriabin.  After Horowitz played only one piece, the Russian maestro said to Horowitz something like, “Good, thank you, goodbye.”  When Horowitz asked if Scriabin was going to teach him anything, Scriabin replied, “Know everything.”  At 85 years of age, Horowitz said he had always tried to follow Scriabian’s advice.

This may be exactly what you don’t want to do, but I would suggest trying to be the dumbest, not the smartest, person in the room.  If you are “dumb,” you can ask questions and consistently learn about new areas of life.  In addition, read as much as you can.  Follow your passions (such as favorite authors and subjects) and see where they will take you.  One of the great joys of my life in recent years has been listening to interviews on YouTube while copying music.  We are surrounded by genius, beauty, and challenging ideas. I believe that if you spend your time hearing a stimulating interview or reading a great book, your inner life will be far richer than, for example, if you watch some of the junk we find on television or the internet.

In closing this section on traditional values, I’ll quote from an interview with the American author James Baldwin.

Interviewer: What do you tell younger writers who come to you with the usual desperate question: How do I become a writer?

Baldwin: Write.  Find a way to keep alive and write.  There is nothing else to say.  If you are going to be a writer there is nothing I can say to stop you; if you’re not going to be a writer nothing I can say will help you.  What you really need at the beginning is somebody to let you know that the effort is real.

Interviewer: Can you discern talent in someone?

Baldwin: Talent is insignificant.  I know a lot of talented ruins.  Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but, most of all, endurance.