Wednesday, February 05, 2014
Following Your Musical Dreams vs. Facing Harsh Reality
I was in New York a couple of months ago and looked up an old friend - a really old friend. I met Chuck when we were both about 13 years old. We were in the John Muir Junior High School bands together - concert band, jazz band, orchestra, etc. We were in thrall to the high-energy music teacher at Muir, Tony Caviglia. Mr. Caviglia played lead trumpet in the Oakland (California) Symphony and he was also a monster jazz player. Chuck was a Caviglia protégé on trumpet. I was a mediocre, but ambitious, trombone player. We both had dreams of musical glory then, and throughout high school. Chuck made a commitment - he was going to play trumpet for the rest of his life, and he would do the best he could to become an elite player. I was a big chicken and hedged my bets - I went to Cal Berkeley and became a music major with an economics minor. Within a year, I was an economics major and my musical pursuits were restricted to extracurricular activities.
When you are a brass player (especially a trombonist), you eventually have to face harsh reality. Fact #1: It is a stone cold bitch to become an elite brass player. It takes 5 - 10 hours work each day; mostly solitary, physical, tedious work. Of course, this work will only pay off if you have talent and passion, but fierce determination to master your instrument is the most important thing. I lacked the steely will to master my horn. Chuck had the will, in spades. Fact #2: Even if you succeed in becoming an elite brass player, that doesn't mean you will make a decent living. There are many more aspiring trumpet and trombone heroes than there are paying positions for brass players. You must possess a thick skin and a certain Zen-like serenity to get through the ordeals and rejections associated with auditions. You have to patch together multiple sources of revenue - teaching, private lessons, gigs, and perhaps even the hated non-musical job. I know great musicians that are part-time IT consultants, restaurant wait staff, bus drivers, you name it. The time you devote to making a living outside of music is time you can't spend practicing or seeking employment as a brass player. The day job keeps you alive, but reduces your chances to succeed as a musician.
I threw in the towel early and became a working professional person in an office with a MBA and all that. The trombone went into the closet; I took up harmonica (easier to carry and you can practice while driving to the office). I felt some regret because I didn't pursue my dream, but I was convinced not every dream should be pursued. I still believe this.
Chuck refused to give up. He went to San Francisco State and received degrees in music education and performance. He moved to New York and got a masters from the Manhattan School of Music. He studied and practiced the trumpet for countless hours, he taught others, he auditioned, he got gigs, he became an adjunct professor at a college in New Jersey. Chuck is one of the top classical trumpet players in the country, but it is a hard profession. This is not a path to massive wealth. If you are a top player, and hustle, you can make a good living.
I have deep respect for my old friend Chuck. He is still working on his art and taking auditions. The quest for musical excellence is a lifelong pursuit.
I have forgiven myself for putting away the trombone, but I still feel a small ache when I think about this road not taken.