I was young when I first started teaching college-level applied lessons. Really young. I had a teaching assistantship and eight students at age 22, an adjunct faculty position at 24, a non-tenure track instructor position at 25, and my first tenure track position at 26. Was this by design? Yes and no. I went straight from college into graduate school, continuing through my doctorate, because I had the financial aid to pay for it all. I emerged with three degrees and zero student debt. As I neared completion of my doctoral coursework I applied and auditioned for both playing jobs and teaching jobs, and a big part of me thought—and still thinks—that some time out there “in the real world” performing full time would have given me some valuable experience and even additional credibility, though I hoped all the while to end up in a university position not unlike the ones I have held for over ten years now. As it turned out, that the people with playing positions didn’t offer me work and the people with teaching positions did. The rest, as they say, is history.
I have to admit, though, that despite repeated success on the academic job market and mostly glowing teaching evaluations, I had quite a bit of insecurity in those early years. Not insecurity regarding what I knew—I really did know what I was doing, even though we all improve with additional experience—but insecurity with the idea that I didn’t know everything about brass playing and teaching. Looking at myself in retrospect, I see a fear of having visiting artists work with my students because they might have a technique or idea or piece of music of which I was unaware. There was also a fear of trying new methods, ideas, and techniques, because finding a better way would force me to admit that I had been playing or teaching in a way that was not ideal on some topic. I felt as if I needed to have already “arrived” (at age 25!), and if I hadn’t then I had little business teaching. Sounds crazy, but that’s where I was in the recesses of my pea-brain.
So what happened? Well, life happened. I developed problems with my neck, jaw, and back. None of this was caused by brass playing but forced some adjustments in the way that I approach my instruments. Along with these problems came some of the worst performance anxiety I’ve ever experienced. These physical and psychological issues still creep up from time to time, but for the most part they are under control, and in some respects I play better today than I ever have. I can sound good even when I don’t feel good, and the reflections of Arnold Jacobs (1915-1998) on playing well despite physical challenges have been reassuring to me.
Thus it was that in my late twenties and early thirties I went from thinking that I had arrived (or at least that I needed to have arrived) to having to do some substantial retooling of my approaches to brass playing and teaching. I got a good bit worse before I got better again. And do you know what? I am a better teacher for having experienced this. Why? Because I have realized the fallacy of thinking that one ever “arrives.” There are always new ideas, new repertoire, and new techniques to be tried. There are always physical difficulties to be overcome as a result of aging, illness, injury, incorrect techniques, or some combination of these factors. There are always students who will present new pedagogical challenges. And besides all of this, there is the little axiom that certainly holds true in the music business: if you aren’t getting better you’re getting worse. There is no such thing as “arriving;” there is only growing or dying.
These days, instead of trying to present myself as some sort of wizened old sage of low brass (at age 35!), I instead emphasize to students that I am simply a fellow traveler with them on the path to great musicianship. I’m simply farther along than they are, and am more than willing to share my past and current challenges with them whenever I think this will further their progress. Gone are the insecurities that plagued my younger self; instead I am more transparent and even vulnerable in how I present myself as a player and teacher, and I think I am more effective for being so, particularly with students encountering significant difficulties in their playing. Being a good teacher requires that I do whatever will best enable my students to succeed, even when that means jettisoning my own ego or false sense of “having arrived.” Those things weren’t helpful, anyway.
As I’ve considered these ideas in recent months I have found myself drawn to a statement spoken by the Twelfth Doctor in the finale of the most recent season of Doctor Who. Throughout that season The Doctor experienced something of an existential crisis, wondering whether he was a “good man” or a “bad man,” knowing that he always tried to do the right thing but sometimes failed, and sometimes his choices were between “bad” and “worse” outcomes without the possibility of a genuine “good.” In this episode, having encountered the latest incarnation of his arch-nemesis The Master (now “Missy”) and trying to figure out how he can defeat his enemy’s latest evil scheme, he joyfully concludes
“I am not a good man! And I’m not a bad man. I am not a hero. I’m definitely not a president. And no, I’m not an officer. You know what I am? I… am… an idiot. With a box and a screwdriver, passing through, helping out, learning.”
There is much freedom to be found in not trying to present oneself as the greatest musician ever or as some sort of hero of the trombone. I’ll be content to be “an idiot. With a trombone and a euphonium, passing through my students’ lives, helping them out, and still learning myself.”
And when I see some former or even current student pass me on that path to great musicianship, I’ll gladly and without any insecurity give him or her a high-five and all the encouragement I can.