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3 Life-Changing Pieces of Advice from a Jazz Trumpeter

Back when I was working at the La Jolla Music Society, I had the privilege of attending an open sound check with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis. The sound check was followed by a Q&A with trumpet player Kenny Rampton. When asked what advice he'd give to aspiring professional musicians, he summarized his method of success in 3 points I'll never forget:

  1. Show up on time.

  2. Play everything the best it can be played.

  3. Be cool.

That was it! Succinct but powerful. Let's break it down:

Show up on time.

Fill in the blank: showing up is...? Half the battle? The hardest part? Both are correct! This may seem like a given, but showing up on time (early) is probably one of the most crucial skills you will learn as a musician. By showing up on time (early), you are showing that you are committed to your ensemble and that you respect the time of your colleagues and the conductor. By showing up late, you are doing exactly the opposite. Personally, I like to arrive about fifteen minutes before call time (for a performance), and be in my seat, ready to go at least five minutes before the downbeat is given (for gigs and rehearsals.)

As my high school band directors would say: "Early is on time, on time is late, and late is you-don't-wanna-know."

Play everything the best it can be played.

Mr. Rampton emphasized that he truly meant "the best it can be played" and not "the best you can play it."

But what does "best" mean? When we think of what "the best" looks like in the flute world, we often hear names like Rampal, Galway, Pahud, Bouriakov. I think that assigning faces to the word "best" is a dangerous trap to fall into, because it often creates either frustration ("I'll never sound like them") or idolization ("That is the only acceptable way to play"). I think what Mr. Rampton was getting at is this image of the Ideal. What does the Ideal version of, say, A Midsummer Night's Dream sound like? Clear tone in the low register, clean articulation, musically phrased, etc. By focusing on parameters we can control, suddenly the "best" doesn't seem so daunting.

Though Mr. Rampton was speaking specifically to those who were pursuing music professionally, I think his statement can also apply to beginning students. When you're practicing your Bb scale, for example, do you play it just to check it off your to-do list, or do you challenge yourself to play the best Bb scale that ever was played?

Challenge yourself. Strive for the Ideal. Be intentional in your pursuit of excellence.

Be cool.

This is basically jazz lingo for be a nice person to work with! People want to work with nice people. Nice people get called back for other gigs. Rude people don't.

In an industry that relies heavily on networking, friendliness goes a long way. At its base level, this might look like speaking kindly to your colleagues during rehearsals, but it could also look like supporting them by attending their concerts and recitals, referring them for gigs and to students, and offering career advice (if solicited).

What I love about Mr. Rampton's three points is that they can apply to life too! Showing up, pursuing excellence in all that you do, and being gracious to others is definitely a blueprint I'll be following both in and outside the concert hall.

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