Pursuing a Career in Music: Some Reflections

cropped-cropped-cropped-cropped-100_21508.jpgIt’s been a while since my last post; I’ve been preoccupied with my move to Muncie, Indiana, where I will assume the trumpet professorship at Ball State University this fall. Though the obvious pedagogical topic here is, “How to Stay in Shape While Making Major Life Transitions,” I’ve already written a similar post about practice sessions over the holidays. So instead I would like to deviate into the realm of the personal, and express some of my thoughts surrounding this move.

It should go without saying that the opportunity awaiting me at Ball State is unrivaled by any of my previous experiences. Almost any way you slice it, moving to Indiana was something of a no-brainer. But this knowledge can only partly compensate for the sheer difficulty of locking up a house that I had come to think of as my home, loading one unhappy dog and a pile of trumpets into the back of my car, and driving northward at 70mph, leaving behind everyone and everything that I had grown to love in Tuscaloosa.

Why, I have wondered at various points in my life, would any woman do this to herself? Why five different cities in the span of a decade, why holidays spent at paying gigs instead of nestled in my family’s living room? My fervent hope, of course, is that finally I have come to a city where I can stretch out and put down some real roots. But the process of getting here…this is what I wish I could explain to my students.

Music is a war of attrition. People talk about talent, but talent will not allow you to bypass the risks of injury or illness, the exhaustion of trying to maintain a committed relationship amidst the competing demands of rehearsals and performances at inconvenient hours, or the loneliness that comes from giving the performance of your life in an unfamiliar city knowing no one in the audience. And if your talents are plagued by imperfections, as almost all everyone’s are, hard work will not spare you from the decisions that we all must make: how much sleep, exactly, are you willing to lose to better your product; how many other things–marriage, children, your first home, time with your aging parents–are you willing to postpone if all does not go according to plan; and, above all, how will you protect yourself so that you still know who you are without music if, after all of this, you find you have been running down a dead-end road?

These things, my students do not think about, even when I try to enlighten them. They have not lived them yet, and they are hell-bent, as I was, on having their chance.

No one could have talked me out of majoring in trumpet performance. Two months into my double-degree program, I changed my second degree–my “backup plan”–to a minor. I thought I would work harder without a net. I was stubborn, I was naïve, I was absurdly optimistic–but I had a teacher who knew how to guide me, how to pick apart my playing right down to the tiniest detail, all the while making it clear that what she saw in me transcended the trumpet, in fact had nothing to do with the trumpet, and would endure regardless of my professional success or failure. In her studio I learned resilience and initiative and balance. And I learned how to wrestle my way through a crucial and lifelong relationship, my relationship to the trumpet itself.

Do not be fooled by the musician who claims that he does not, on some level, anthropomorphize his instrument. My history with the trumpet runs through the deepest parts of my life–I have played it at my mother’s grave, my father’s wedding, my grandfather’s funeral. It has caused me to meet the love of my life, has brought me close to certain relatives and torn me far from others, has been the mirror in which I see my God’s reflection. It is no light thing to say, when the music world is not spinning well on its axis, “I’ll just walk away and move on.”

And this is precisely why I have made the decision to train more trumpet players. This instrument is closely connected to the human heart, and most especially to the hearts of those who seek to master it. Do I want my students to become professional musicians? No, not exactly. It isn’t my job to decide what they should do with their lives. Rather, it is my job to equip them to play the trumpet well enough that they have the chance to choose for themselves, so that the choice is not made for them by a lack of ability or professionalism. For this is what my teachers gave me: the skill to match my ambitions, the freedom to choose, at every step along the way, whether I really wanted to stay in this business or not.

And I’ve chosen to stay, despite the cost, because some things are worth sacrificing for. Like the pride in the eyes of the student who had to overcome paralyzing performance anxiety to give her senior recital. Like the woman moved to tears as she listened to “Be Thou My Vision” and remembered the friend she had lost. Like the chance to look back on my life and know that I made the choices that defied my own worst fears.

The music world, and perhaps trumpet playing in particular, is much like high wire artistry with no net. The drop is severe and the risks are obvious. But when you’re out above the Grand Canyon on a wire, you certainly have a breathtaking view.

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2 thoughts on “Pursuing a Career in Music: Some Reflections

  1. Don Wyrtzen
    July 30, 2013 at 7:12 pm

    What you said really resonated with me. I used to have some Ball State faculty on my recording sessions.

    1. bmhendr1
      July 31, 2013 at 10:36 pm

      I’m so glad that you found it meaningful; thanks for taking the time to read and comment! This was, as you probably gathered, a rather special post for me, so it’s nice to know that it could touch someone else as well.

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