Good Student/Professional Realities

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John Hagstrom, a trumpet player in the Chicago Symphony, produced these notes for a clinic. It has some good things to think about.

What is a Good Student?

The best students are conscientious. They bring out the best in their teachers and generally are a positive influence on their educational environment, which can be just about every place they go! Conscientious means being “painstaking and careful, or having the quality of acting according to the dictates of one’s conscience. It includes such elements as self-discipline, carefulness,
thoroughness, organization, deliberation (the tendency to think carefully before acting), and a need for achievement.”

A respect and willingness for the process of trying new ideas and considering unfamiliar information is equally necessary. Students must also invest in respecting one another and learning from each another in ways that add up to at least as much as they learn from their teachers. If there is a quality in the educational environments of the schools that produce the most successful students, it can be summed up in this instruction: be conscientious and help other students to do the same as you all learn from one another! This was the environment of the Eastman School of Music while I was a student there in the 1980’s, and also for Allen Vizzutti there in the 1970’s. Working together in this way can happen anywhere, and every student has the power to make a much better—or worse— environment for everyone attempting to improve.

I have been in contact with notable players and teachers who are distressed at the attitudes of many students they currently encounter. I have seen these attitudes firsthand in some of the students I have encountered too, and the best word to describe what makes these students difficult to teach is entitlement. In some cases, students do not intend to communicate the idea that that they
deserve thoughtful instruction and praise no matter how little effort they contribute. But in other cases, certain individuals are brazenly certain of the best path they should take toward mastery of information they have yet to discover. Just a few misguided individuals can completely spoil the chances for an otherwise effective educational environment for everyone else. Check yourself to
make sure you aren’t holding others back, or that you may be improperly expecting your teachers to help you to reach your best abilities without experiencing any discomfort. Effort is a necessary part of improvement of any kind. Discomfort can be a sign of growth. If you feel unchallenged during your student experience, you are surely not growing at any rate that is worthy of your potential. Schools may not always enforce the levels of challenge and accountability that students need in order to grow effectively toward professional viability. As a result, it is your responsibility to keep rebuilding your motivation and commitment toward learning and mastery.

Too often, students have made a game out of how little they can do to still receive a passing (or some other acceptable) grade during their public school education. When this attitude is brought to college—or eventually into a professional working environment—the results are less than extraordinary. Whether or not you ultimately keep your job as a student or professional colleague, this attitude will result in lost opportunities to make meaningful contributions to your own development and to the quality and relevance of your organization. The concept of aesthetic “profitability” can seem somewhat abstract in the world of the performing arts, but we can take some cues from the business world in how conscientious accountability leads to innovation and relevance both now and in the future.

Professional Realities

Students should pay close attention to professional realities, particularly to how much these realities differ from the way that they imagine professional playing as they progress through school. I am not criticizing the protocol that is a part of being a professional; in many ways, the decorum that is prevalent in professional circles is the best possible way to accomplish all that must be done within the time allotted.

However, professional music making is not a family. This is a good point to remember as you begin work in the professional arena of making music of any kind. The strong emotions contained in music can make you feel like you are part of a family along with the rest of those who are making the music. The people with whom you work professionally, however, may not necessarily be our loyal friends despite the shared background experiences and common acquaintances.

In school, students often do perform with friends who are a strong source of support through difficult times. School gives students second chances as a matter of course, and committed teachers often will sit students down and explain what went wrong and how to do better next time. This is not necessarily the case in professional circles, however, and most often a player who does not perform well is simply dismissed without explanation. If your playing or professionalism has not met the expected standards of a particular group with which you have been hired to play, the players around you may tell you that you sound good but privately comment among themselves about what they did not like in your performance. This happens frequently in professional circles. Professional music making ultimately operates much like a business. It is up to you to be critically analytical of your own playing and aware of the areas in which you need to improve. By making sure to be competent and prepared in good faith, the professional environment can be made more collegial and collaborative. Unfortunately, even steadfast competence is not always enough, and for reasons that are truly unfair, players can be dismissed without a clear explanation. As students, we often come to expect fairness and suitable recourse when we feel like something unfair has occurred. However, as you’ve surely heard before, “life isn’t fair”—and professional music making is no exception!

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