Is The Trumpet Community Toxic?

August 20, 2018

I have seen post about this subject many times, and while this topic doesn't pop up often, it pops enough to trigger a discussion here, particularly because this very question turned up again very recently in a forum I watch and participate in. This blog post will be a tough one for me to write. I will be vague on names as I am no interested in hurting anyone, but I will not sugar coat things. 


I want you to read this post (I did NOT weigh in on the recent thread), so I'll answer the question directly and then I'll get into the meat of the article. NO, I do NOT believe the trumpet community is really toxic. It is made up of people with a myriad of ideas, opinions, behavioral characteristics, et al. The trumpet community is no more or less toxic then any other.


So what follows are my feelings and experiences. I really won't cite any references here. So, you'll have to consider the source.


I have lead a life of a double career for 25 years - high school physics teacher by day and professional musician by night.  I have experienced some spectacular friendships in both. My teaching peers are brilliant, thoughtful individuals and I consider it an honor to have been included. My musical peers have been serious comrades in arms, too. Nothing beats a post gig hang with a bunch of musicians after any performance. There are always just great stories blowing through the air. There is also so much to be learned about the music business during these hangs. 


In short, now that I am back to music full time, I am so grateful for the chance to interact with these wonderful trumpeters/musicians. 


Now, the recent thread bringing up the query about why is the trumpet world so toxic addressed a situation in which one trumpeter was acting in a particularly territorial way when a younger newbie was working his way into a musical organization and with some success. Apparently it was all by invitation and on the up and up. The more established player went to the administrators of the organization and told them he would never work with the new guy and that they had to choose. Needless to say, the newbie was quite hurt and discouraged. I'll leave it at that.


There was a great deal of fine advice proffered in the subsequent comments. I would have weighed in, but my comments would have been too long, hence this week's blog post.


So now to the really difficult part of this post.


When I first decided to quit my job as an electrical engineer and go into music full time, I was an idealistic naive kid - about 26, who had never studied music formally. I had never had the recital experience or juries or the experience of challenges for chairs, all of the competitiveness that most serious trumpet players deal with in college. So, I was totally starry eyed and excited - thrilled - about the future as a completely self taught musician (with the exception of trumpet lessons I paid for with lawn mowing money as a kid).


I started playing in a couple of rehearsal bands around Chicago. I was pretty stupid about protocol and behavior and did some incredibly offensive and silly things (like topping the lead player from an inner chair, occasionally). I was taken aside by a couple of more experienced trumpeters who liked me and recognized an over enthusiastic naivety and they toned me down. I felt incredibly dense for not recognizing the obvious breaches I had made, but I had to learn somehow. Yes, there were some who did NOT react so kindly. I once had a whole pitcher of beer poured over my head as part of my lesson in big band behavior. That one hurt my feelings the most, but it did have the effect of getting my attention - something like the old hitting a mule over the head with a 2X4 to get their attention. 


In spite of my rocky start in the music biz, I did make some great friends during those days. I can sit and laugh about how dense I was with those same folks today. 


There was an odd feeling, though, that I picked up on as I progressed in the biz. It was a strange sense that there were folks who were involved in an undercurrent of blockage to my professional progress. I found myself shut out of some of the paying gigs I would have loved to have been involved in. To be 100% honest, this simply could have been my personal insecurity kicking in and not recognizing the fact that I had yet to pay my dues as the others had already done in college. This strange feeling of being excluded was exacerbated by the fact that I was an agonizingly shy kid who just loved playing his horn. Nevertheless, I had this strange feeling in the pit of my stomach whenever I interacted with players I wished I could work with more professionally. This also contributed to my struggles with stage fright (the subject of another blog in the archives).


What I had not realized was that professional musicians, even in a reasonably "busy market" like Chicago (was), tend to regard the business as a zero sum game. For a new guy to get in, someone else had to be pushed out. Now, I am not saying that there was a conspiracy to keep me out. I am just saying there is an atmosphere of fear that many trumpeters unconsciously buy into and this fear was also getting ahold of me without my realizing it. 


I managed to get onto few big bands that did some touring, including one of some significance. This did, indeed open a lot of doors for me, and that sense of feeling excluded was lifted somewhat. However, that blasted zero sum mentality had gotten grip of me, and I was in the same fear based miasma as many others. My naivety as a young musician didn't drive me to the territorial behavior that many others had adopted and I still had an idealistic tendency to idolize some of the very guys who were acting in a territorial manner towards me. It was quite heartbreaking to find out that some of those who I admired so harbored such animosity towards me. Now this was not merely insecurity on my part. This was something I had to address directly in my own thinking. I could change the behavior of the "haters" but I could change MY thinking. I had no choice.


Let me offer some examples of what I ran into. There are definite parallels to the situation in the thread I saw recently.


Often on gigs where the contractor added me to the section, I would find myself ostracized by the section - they wouldn't even speak to me unless I was really persistent in insinuating myself into the conversations. This was not imaginary on my part. I remember having a busy week of recording sessions in Chicago's jingle scene and running into one of the local lead players walking across the street to get into Universal Recording. His reaction to seeing me for the third time in as many days? "What? YOU again?" He was not just ribbing me. There was an air of disgust and frustration in his voice and demeanor. I was devastated for two reasons. I had high hopes for really developing my career as a studio trumpeter and seemed on my way to doing so, but this guy had the ear of many producers. One bad word from him and I was out. I also admired him as a musician a great deal. I had no idea he was capable of such meanness. From then on I approached him with great caution and could never trust him as a friend. 


At one point a very famous trumpeter moved from LA to Chicago. He immediately started gobbling up all of the studio work. I found myself quickly out of work by virtue of the LIFO maxim - "last in first out." The belief of zero sum game came to get me. This guy quickly ticked off every producer in the area with his prickly behavior, but I was out, and getting back in was almost pointless as the business was changing dramatically due to tech and union missteps at that point. Strangely enough, I sort of got along with the guy as I had a great deal of admiration for him, too! I played a few gigs with him on which he just flat out yelled at me for some sort of infraction he felt I had committed, but I was getting to a point of just beginning to realize that I could separate behavior from artistry. He ultimately left town, but the damage had been done.


One of the most devastating experiences I had was with a trumpeter who was a manger of a band I worked on (there were several bands I toured with that had trumpeters as managers). Almost from the moment he met me, he hated me, and I don't throw that word around lightly. It bordered on irrational. I treated this guy with open admiration and respect from the start, and it was 100% sincere. I was, in a sense, a fan. I knocked myself out to do exactly what he told me to do at every turn, but there always seemed to be something I was doing wrong. I could not satisfy him. At one point, at a social gathering after a gig, he told me point blank that I didn't deserve to be on the band. I'll spare you the circumstances of the conversation that lead up to that remark (this post is personal enough). However, I felt that I was being fired. Fortunately for me, none of this got back to the band leader, so I was not fired. Sadly, though, I did feel I was being forced out, and left the band much earlier that I had ever considered to avoid that possibility. Leaving of my own accord with leave me with a career. Getting fired would follow me around for the rest of my life. On a side note, I did work up the nerve to talk to the leader about it to see what I could do to bring harmony to the situation. He just laughed it off and told me to just knock the other guy down a flight of stairs and that would get him to back off. He was joking, of course, in an effort to settle down the scared (and pissed off) kid. In any case, this is not how I deal with things. 


These examples of dubious behavior visited upon me are from other trumpeters. Some of the worst behavior I have ever witnessed came from other instrumentalists who were band leaders. I have experienced martinets of incredible cruelty. I was hired to play a show to last a week with a famous crooner who didn't like the kid with a Russian name playing lead trumpet for him. He and his conductor waged a war against me that was quite obvious. I was doing a good job and was determined to make them happy. Alas, my PLAYING was not the problem. They were mad at the contractor for NOT hiring the lead player they had asked for up front (the contractor and the other trumpeter had a falling out). I got caught in the crossfire. Ultimately they added the other trumpeter, but the show was now a mess since the new guy had not worked on any of the material and was not a strong reader. Yet, the singer and his minion leader kept at us all, refusing to admit to a mistake. Again, the hatred bordered on irrational. 


Here is one last example. I have worked for many contractors over the years and I've played for conductors who can be tough, but tough and mean are two entirely different things. I can handle tough, but I draw the line with mean. One contractor I've worked for had a habit of denigrating and insulting his musicians on the bandstand in front of everyone. I can't emphasize this enough. He would target someone and then just savage them on the spot. Nobody was immune. What was weird was that, during breaks, if you called him out on it (at this point, I would) he'd say, "Yeah sorry about that. It's no big thing. We've got it worked out, now." This behavior would happen over and over. My wife likened it to a toxic relationship in a marriage. Eventually you just have to get out. That was exactly what I decided I had to do.


Now, there is a couple of points to these examples. First, if YOU are experiencing some difficulty, welcome to the club! We all have. The second point is that this is not just a trumpeter thing. The last two examples, the troublemakers were NOT trumpeters. 


There is something that we all have to consider. As I get ready to write about this part, let me say that I am NOT an advocate of "blaming the victim." I will never excuse the way the folks mentioned above treated me as a musician. However, my own demeanor, behavior and attitudes contributed to these situations. 


There we be absolutely NO POINT to writing this blog post if I didn't suggest a positive way of dealing with these situations - HEALING these situations. So, let me outline what I did to help myself feel better about all of this.


FIRST: Band leaders have a tough job, particularly if their jobbers. Clients can be difficult and apply tremendous pressure to these folks. Not all band leaders are good about bottling in their feelings and a few will take it out on their musicians. Again, I am not excusing this, but if I keep in mind what is happening to them, it allows me to forgive them and feel more peaceful about the abuse. By far most of the band leaders I have worked for and continue to work for are decent professionals who don't vent on the musicians. I was a music contractor for a while and I totally understand what these people are going through. That also helps me with a sense of forgivness. 


SECOND: That darn "zero sum game" thing does drive a territorial vibe amongst trumpeters. I do not personally subscribe to it, but I try to understand it. I always strive to teat my trumpeting peers with the utmost respect. When I turn up in a new market or scene, I always aim for the lowest chair and figure that I'll gradually work my way up as I am allowed to. Patience and love are the two operating ideas here. I am never after another person's job - EVER! I am just looking to work as much as I can and contribute to the music scene in a positive and loving way. 


THIRD: I have to monitor my own thought - vibe. When I work with other musicians or band leaders under pressure, I OWE IT TO THEM to respect who they are and the hard work they have put in to get get to their position. By this I mean I have to THINK of them this way. I can't sit on the bandstand and think, "Gee! I have to sit through three hours with this creep!" Now matter how much of a smiley face I can put on, to do so would be to make myself a hypocrite and that sort of negativism WILL affect my playing. That is unacceptable to me. So, I work at keeping my thought clear of any sort of hatred on MY part! This is tough to do if you feel you are being attacked, but it is really your only way out. 


I have used this expression in another blog post: "Clad in the panoply of love, human hatred cannot reach you." This something I was brought up with and I had to revisit this in dealing with the challenges with interacting with other trumpeters. I had (have) to love them as I would myself. I have to sincerely and honestly respect their skills and accomplishments - not just in word, but honestly and internally respect them. There are two benefits from doing this. One is that I can really enjoy playing any chair next to someone who is truly good and gives it their best from wherever they are as a musician. Second, doing this expunges the possibility of MY BEING a hateful person on my part!  This will allow whatever goodness I hope to bring to the game to come through. If I am filled with any sort of resentment, that WILL stifle my efforts to do something good. 


The other aspect of that little expression I was brought up with is that if I fill my thoughts surrounding my music with love, no matter what happens with interpersonal relationships with my trumpeting peers, I cannot be touched by any jealousy or irrational hatred on their part. When that band manger told me I didn't deserve to be on that band, I called my wife and told her I thought I was being fired. In our conversation I have no  doubt I was reminded of the sentiment behind that little expression my mom brought me up with. I had a positive loving outlook in spite of what seemed a pretty dismal situation. When I found I was not only not fired but that the situation leading to my concern had seemed to vaporize, I honestly felt it was "loving my way through it" that protected me. My only reaction to the comment that I didn't deserve to be on the band was "I'm sorry you feel that way. You've got to do what you've go to do, but no hard feelings." Then I just walked away and called home.


In a couple of the examples above, it came to me to leave the musical organization. I felt that I couldn't bring enough good to the situation to change the atmosphere, so I had to move on for the sake of everyone. For me, it was important to breathe only positive atmosphere. For the other gentlemen, it was important to not have a guying hanging around as an irritation to them. The most loving thing I could do for THEM was to take myself out of the picture.


Here is what allows me to think that way now, though back then, leaving the way I did was agonizing from a professional working point of view (what was I going to do for income?). I do NOT believe in the zero sum game as a trumpeter. I believe that what blesses on blesses all. If I see another musician succeeding, I see that as evidence that i can, too! I realize that there is  place for me to contribute. You can do this, too.  


Do I still run into what one might call a toxic situation in the music business? Certainly. However, after all the years I've been playing, I no longer let the hatred get to me, but strive to recognize that when I run into it, loving my way through it will, in the long run, be the best course of action for ME. 


It just might be for you, too. Only you can judge your own situation.


Thus ends my contribution to this recurring thread.


Now, if you are reading this, you made it through the post. Thanks! I hope you'll consider subscribing to my blog. If you found this interesting, please read the blogs in the archives. I also hope you'll consider supporting my work. As the blog evolves and as I get ready to launch my podcast later this summer and as I continue to record audio and video, please remember, I am totally self funded. If you enjoy my music and have benefited in some way from reading the blogs and or watching the videos, please consider a donation to the cause. I am seeking advertisers and backers, but every individual can contribute in some way. No donation is too small, and no donation is too large! ;-) This is tantamount to digitally passing the hat on a no cover gig, but so be it. If you wish to make a contribution, just use and send your tip/donation to me via Paypal. 


Thank you for at least considering. 


Respectfully submitted:

Nick Drozdoff










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