The Value of Being an Underdog
Oct 3, 2018
Now that I'm into my first semester of collegiate teaching, I've taken a lot of time to reflect on my own educational opportunities as I think about helping my students. I've realized that so much of my identity has been formed out of one key identifying factor for the professional world: "I'm an underdog."
For a classical musician, by current stigmas and standards, I should've already given up. I didn't attend a conservatory. I'm not coming fresh out of Julliard, Northwestern, Curtis, NEC, Thornton, Lawrence, Frost... and the list goes on. I got my Masters from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. It was a fine program with amazing teachers. I had the luxury to study with two bass trombonists of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, wonderful musicians, educators, and human beings that together have been members of Orchestre Symphonique de Quebec, Utah Symphony, Toronto Symphony, Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra and Shanghai Broadcasting Symphony Orchestra. But still, by national standards, Duquesne is not really on the map. (Can you get where I'm headed?)
For my undergraduate though, I was even further away from "the path to greatness." In fact I've made it a habit that when someone asks me where I went to undergrad, I remark, "Oh, I went to a small liberal arts college in the middle of nowhere, West Virginia." If they care enough to keep prying, I eventually let them know that I attended Alderson-Broaddus College in Philippi, WV, about an hour south of WVU. And I do this for a specific reason; not because I'm ashamed of where I come from, but because no one's ever heard of it, the music program no longer exists, and again, no one's ever heard of it. As far as the name dropping game goes, my deck is pretty low. But, I own that.
My undergraduate professor and mentor sent me off with an amazing foundation and a decent head on my shoulders. Most importantly (for this blog post) he reminded me that no matter where I went with my career, that I came from a small liberal arts college in West Virginia. That experience set me up for success unlike any conservatory or major institution ever could have, and here's why. While every major institution in the country struggles to develop a plan for creating working musicians in today's competitive environment, that need to both be phenomenal technicians of their craft and entrepreneurs, I was taking Accounting classes, advanced Philosophy and English courses, in small class sizes, with time to form close working relationships with my professors. I dropped an easy work-study in the music office for a chance to learn how to run a professional recording studio. I performed in everything, and had the ability to practice in the performance hall whenever I wanted. I traveled constantly to educational symposiums, potential graduate schools, masterclasses, and brass events. I participated in a mass brass event every Spring where I learned how to play in a group with various levels of experience, how to open up and network with older professionals and younger students, and assisted the director so I could learn what it took to put on something like that.
For those, and another thousand reasons, I am mighty proud to have come from a small liberal arts college in the middle of nowhere. That will always be a part of my identity. And now that I have the luxury to help guide undergraduate music majors and minors to their next stop on the path to their own greatness, I remind myself of this fact weekly. Great schools and great teachers are great, but they are just resources. It's easy to float through 3 degrees across multiple big name institutions and still have nothing to show for it. Being an underdog, coming from some school in the middle of nowhere and owning it, can set you up for a very rewarding life of making the most of your opportunities, seeking out and creating the ones you don't have, and cherishing every luxury you can pick up along the way.
If you're somewhere unremarkable to the elite, cherish what you have and seek out the opportunities to set yourself up for future luxuries. If you're at the top, cherish that by continuing to work your butt off, using all of the resources at your disposal.
Cheers, from somewhere on some path.
Enjoying the Transition
Jul 28, 2018
The summer, in more recent years, has been a highly susceptible time for me for lethargy and emotional complacency to creep in. As a young adult, these few months are right at the cross roads of times of transition (starting school, ending school, moving, starting new jobs, starting summer day jobs, friends moving away, etc.) and heightened stimuli from the world of those who are currently enjoying their stages in life. This is a dangerous place for the reflective individual, or at least for me, and can lead to overwhelming melancholy.
The first important realization I've found is understanding. Understanding why you have these emotions. Understanding that looking at your friend's vacation pictures while struggling to pay the rent; understanding that stressing over time not spent doing what you ought or need to do, whilst not making the most of your mundane, underpaying day job; UNDERSTANDING that these emotions are all pouring out of the void of expectation towards what lies beyond this stage. This expectation is the real cause of your destructive thoughts, and that's okay, because the expectation represents a desire for the future happiness and ease that you imagine.
The second realization, that I've only recently stumbled upon, is that there is a way out of the dark place beyond just biding time. Every self-help book in the world will respond, "be your best self, do what makes you happy, surround yourself with good people." That's all well and good, but there's a reason that those worn out phrases just triggered an eye roll. What I've just recently begun to understand is that the key to unlocking happiness in these troublesome periods of transition is forming activity cues: finding the activities that trigger a moment of ignition that takes you right to the most productive and healthy head space you can achieve. For me, there are several cues, ranging from taking the time to listen to a certain artist, or enjoying a rare leisure activity in a lull in my day. Whatever it is, identifying these historical activities that provide a pattern of head space ignition is the key. And once I force myself to do this activity, as it is not a habitual tendency that would normally occur in my day, I am overcome with clarity and satisfaction.
Once the ignition is provided, suddenly I'm making proactive steps to improve my day-to-day for the upcoming weeks. I find myself finally doing those things that dance around in the back of your mind, those things you ought to do, and planning out ways to do more of what makes me and those around me happy while I have the time. Tomorrow's great plan that caused all of that expectation and longing for the future can wait now, because I'm too busy enjoying today. Whether or not this is just a fluffy over-explanation of using mindfulness to improve mental and emotional clarity, this is what has consumed my day as I once again experienced this cue. And now, I'm ready to tackle the time I have left this Summer.
Life's Short, Go for the Gig
Jun 18, 2018
Much to the chagrin of my fiancée, I love watching motorcycle vlogs on YouTube. Among those, Adam Sandoval (@adamsandoval) takes up a lot of my screen time. One of the most popular quotes of his branding is this:
"Life's short, buy the d**n motorcycle"
Beyond my itch to actually start riding (again much to the chagrin of my better half), this quote manifested in my recent job search. This idea has been bouncing around my head the past few months as I've been going through the exhilarating transition in life of the recently-graduated, unemployed musician looking for a day job. Somewhere around the thousandth day of the job search, I started to realize that the mind can really get in our way when it comes to decisions that will not only help you "live indoors and eat food," but that will also provide additional intrinsic value. I found myself not following through with applications for positions that checked the boxes: applicable to my experience, offered by companies that I find relatable and interesting, likely will provide me with a "good-enough" paycheck, etc... I found reasons to tell myself "no, that job isn't for you," or "you're not qualified," or "you probably wouldn't know what you're doing."
As I found myself at the end of my final semester of graduate school, my daily schedule had completely opened up. Now my mind was free to furiously fire anxiety cues at me about my lack of employment for the immediate future. As the walls of self-deprecation and stress were becoming firmly entrenched, I got a very exciting phone call. I was suddenly presented with an opportunity at a career path that has been at the center of my goals since my undergraduate. Even though I was one lucky son-of-a-gun to get that call, my mind was immediately at play, firing the same cues to me, doubting my ability and chances at this great opportunity. This is when the quote hit me: "Life's short, go for the gig." I applied myself to go for it, regardless of how little my ego wanted to reassure me of my aptitude. And though this is not always going to be the case, I got the gig.
In retrospect, this message revealed itself to me when I had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. James Gourlay of River City Brass for an episode of Iron City Incline. Dr. Gourlay took several pivots in his career, and surprisingly enough, most of those opprtunities were presented to him as an offer to one of his students or from an employer looking for a contact that he might have in mind. He acted immediately and pursued these positions, not assuming anything was below or above what his resume said he could do for work, and as you might hear in that episode, he was certainly better off for going for those gigs.
I was recently listening to Episode 142 of The Entrepreneurial Musician with Andrew Hitz, and a whole bunch of confirmation hit me in the face. Andrew has a great conversation with Buddy Deshler of the Fredericksburg Brass Institute, but at about the 15 minute mark, he drops this nugget of gold: "Don't ever tell people when something isn't gonna work, let them tell you it's not gonna work." I'll say it a hundred times that I got lucky to even be considered for this position, and especially for the employer to have reached out to me (which sorry guys, is almost never the case these days). However, had I let those ugly monsters (doubt and self-deprecation) hold me back from going for it, I would be kicking myself for years to come.
Now I can say that I'm very excited for this next stage in life, the recently-graduated, EMPLOYED musician. I'm not sure how I got this lucky, but I know that from now on, I'm always going to go for the gig.
Lost In The Woods
Feb 22, 2018
Searching for change and transitioning into a new stage of your life is a beautiful thing. In these times, we can find extreme personal growth, and open our eyes to defining opportunities that will shape our professional and personal development.
The downside is that no path to success is made entirely with butterflies and rainbows. When you can't seem to find where your path is leading and the opportunities just aren't there *at the moment*, you can feel very lost. This is where self-doubt, pity, and disparaging thoughts dwell. Realizing that you have ventured off the path can bring a rush of overwhelming doubt that you have made a grave error. You just cannot see where you can move forward from here.
Recently, I have drifted towards this feeling, of being "lost in the woods." As I transition from being a student to being a working young professional, I have felt the onslaught of reality screaming at me, "what are you going to do to eat food and live indoors!? What am I going to do to pay the bills? Will I be able to work as much as I would like to as a musician? How am I going to fit in being a working and STUDYING musician with a day job? What kind of job can I even get?"
As soon as I realized I had drifted to this very real and scary mental space, I recognized the need to do something about it. Staying in this place is very dangerous, as relying on your own frantic consciousness is very likely to draw you further into the woods. So I did something about it: I reached out. I confided in a few close friends with where my head-space was being consumed. I reached out to other friends that I had not been communicating with as much as I'd like and reconnected with what they were up to. This combination of vulnerability and thinking outwardly to my friend's daily lives, their struggles, and finding ways to help boost their mood got me moving in the right direction.
I have found that I cannot get myself out of the woods alone. It is so important to have a reliable network of close friends with whom you can share vulnerability and foster safety. Nothing can guide you out quicker than reaching out to a friend in confidence, or discussing and considering their path. The safety of your tribe will uncover many of the same issues you struggle with, and help build the process of getting back to the path. If you are feeling "lost in the woods," try reaching out to someone. And more importantly, be a friend that reaches out to others to see where they are. Show and be shown the way back.
Jan 5, 2018
As musicians, we're in the business of analyzing our deficiencies, or paying others to analyze them for us, with the intent to discover solutions. That's how we get better at our craft.
With this gift of self-awareness, it is very easy to fall into the pitfall of self-improvement giving way to self-deprecation, which eventually leads to discontent and the classic "paralysis through analysis." I've found that this slippery slope is more often than not encouraged by what I do in the "now," and just like every other student, I have struggled with apathy and procrastination. These are the tools of compounded depreciation.
As problems emerge in our playing, it can be very easy to treat them like a room in our house. "Yeah it's a little messy, but I can enjoy this other tidy room for now and it will be waiting for me tomorrow." It is so easy, especially during lulls in our playing to sit back and enjoy the facets of ourselves we enjoy the most: maybe the tone, or response, or how well we can play through this one piece... The problem is that everyday we leave that messy room alone, it's just going to get messier.
In the Rick and Morty episode "Meeseeks and Destroy," helpful characters named Mr. Meeseeks are created to solve a specific task. As the protagonist, Jerry, begins to ignore the task at hand (taking two strokes off of his golf game), Mr. Meeseeks begins to create additional Meeseeks to aide him in redirecting Jerry to improving his game. As the unattended Meeseeks begin to unravel, they frivolously begin attacking each other and creating more of themselves, all of which are subject to Jerry's attention to the task at hand.
Despite the weak analogy, there's a helpful caution here. As we leave facets of our playing unattended in favor of more comfortable ones, they will compound immensely. Brass playing requires constant attention to every facet, and leaving areas alone will only cause more depreciation in our playing. As a problem arises, it can either be dealt with immediately, carefully addressed until it goes away, or it can left to itself. When we let these problems sit around, they will slowly infect the better facets of our playing by interconnecting to more fundamental issues.
If you begin to find yourself slipping down the slope towards lethargic inattention, stop, choose one issue, and start crafting a creative way to address it. As you approach the singular issue, the reward for your action will motivate you towards further improvement.