Trumpet players are notorious for large egos. However, you do need a certain amount of confidence/ego to blast a very audible note across the orchestra and be heard all the time. You cannot play the trumpet and not want to be heard and visible to a room of 100+ people. An ego driven performer will scream confidence, but are they one and the same? Spoiler alert… Absolutely not! Ego does scream confidence kind of like a model Ford Mustang looks just like a real Ford Mustang.
I remember as a young trumpet player, I had natural talent. I had a good ear and my face just seemed to follow whatever I needed to play. I was playing at the top of every section that I was in and I had everyone telling me I was a phenomenal trumpet player with a promising future. However, I was not really progressing forward. When we say someone has a big ego, it generally is describing someone who is boastful, hard to work with, and a bit of a jerk. I was a nice person and got along well with everyone, but I had a very inflated ego about my playing. I didn’t really start to realize this until my junior year of high school, at Interlochen Arts Academy. I was getting relentlessly bullied by another musician. As I grew more and more stressed by this, I developed a debilitating chop injury. For one year I could not play any music outside of the middle staff. I lost my first chair ranking and moved to third, and pretty much thought my future career in trumpet playing was over. I’d have to quit Interlochen and move back home. The process of going through the bullying and my inability to find my way back to effortless playing was humiliating. By the following school year, though, through patient and wise counsel from a visiting professor, Ed Carroll, I found my way back.
What remained as I moved on from that horrible year were the things that I learned about my playing during the long trek back. Mental preparation, tension release, proper air usage, to name a few. This was my first experience in working toward owning my skills as opposed to waiting for them to appear. It wasn’t until graduate school where I was blessed to be able to study with John Hagstrom, that I really finished the process of owning my trumpet playing. He very strictly made sure that I learned how to play every single last detail of my trumpet and knew how I was doing it. It was the most difficult two years of performance I have ever experienced, but I believe what John accomplished was removing the last traces of ego that kept me from moving forward.
In any learning situation, ego is a really dangerous substance that can creep in and fill all the open learning spaces. Like me, you may think, “I’m a nice person, and I know I’m not the best…” but still be held back by your ego. Ego at its root tells you that you do not need to learn something because you know it already. If your skill was taken away though, would you know how to get it back? Confidence always knows it’s way back home. Confidence owns whatever skill is present and allows optimism in the skills that still need to be learned. Confidence is not ruled by good or bad days, but it knows how to harness both.
If you are a performing musician, the chance for humiliation is very high because you will never be perfect. Though humiliation hurts, try and look at it as an exterminator of all your unhelpful ego. The part of us that is hurting is the part that says “I’m incapable of screwing up…. This could never have happened to me.” Instead, allow the humiliation to follow it’s natural course, and use it to inspire you to learn whatever skill didn’t work, in a new way. Find a new way to own, or get closer to owning, that thing that you still didn’t get right. Humiliation is the last thing we want, but it really is the best tool to push every last bit of ego out so that all that remains is the confidence that you own your performance.
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