One of the many things I enjoy that are a part of my chosen career is talking to interested groups of music lovers. I also enjoy talking to people who have limited experience with music and sharing what little I know.
A story that comes up very often is one that virtually all musicians share. That common story is usually known as “The Day I Got My Butt Kicked”. In my case, the real subject of this story is a decent guy I knew at Juilliard named Scott Wharton. He was a good player who was a few years my senior and also studied with my teacher, William Vacchiano, solo trumpet with the New York Philharmonic for 32 years, a long time to sit in that hot seat.
Vacchiano was what would now be regarded as a master of the “Old School” of trumpet teaching. He learned from a man who was born in the 19th century and his students learned many of the same lessons. This is especially wonderful when you think about the theory of the Six Degrees of Separation which states that we are only 6 people away from knowing anyone on planet Earth. I think of that historically, as well. By studying with Vacchiano I am two people away from Gustav Mahler and Giuseppe Verdi by virtue of the conductors Vacchiano played for who knew those two composers. In other words, when Vachiano would talk about interpreting Mahler or Verdi, he would refer to the conductors Bruno Walter and Arturo Toscanini. Each man knew those composers respectively. The information was secondhand, to be sure, but irresistible.
It’s obvious, then, that we, Vacchiano’s students, had what amounted to an earned hero worship. I was among those. His presence was powerful and firm. He was the master and knew how to play it and teach it. As evidence I would offer that at one time Vacchiano’s students were present in most American orchestras and we all went to him to learn what he had to teach. I was among those, as I wanted to play in a great orchestra one day.
I was not a great student, though.
Because I came from a background where playing orchestral music was not part of my family’s daily culture, there was a lot that truly went over my head walking through the halls of a place like Juilliard. While I knew how important it was to be there and that it was a unique opportunity for this boy from the projects of East Harlem I have to be honest and say I really didn’t get it. I think I was under the illusion that all the school had to offer would be somehow absorbed through just being there with just nominal practice. Just play and you’ll learn, I thought.
The kind of intense practice I needed to ascend the brightest heaven of invention was something I had never experienced. I liked practicing the things at which I was already good. This is very typical of young trumpeters. We were warned against it by no less a figure than Herbert L. Clarke, admonishing us to practice the things that were most difficult rather than the easy things.
It was a Monday in April and I showed up for my 10 o’clock lesson. I had had a mixed year as far as orchestra was concerned. I had had success and failures but I was having a devil of a time with something called transposition. That’s where we look at one set of notes and play them anywhere from a half step lower, a step higher, a fourth lower, and even a tri-tone higher. It’s part of life for trumpet and french horn players. I wasn’t very good at it and I avoided it, even though I was told to work harder at it by Mr. Vacchiano.
I listened but didn’t work nearly as hard at it as my colleagues. This Monday in April, 1974, of my first year at The Yard, Mr. Vacchiano had had just about enough.
After about 35 minutes of listening to me flounder he said the words that I’ll never forget:
“Laureano, you’re no better than when you first walked in here.”
Those were the days when someone of his stature said something like that to you, you sat there and took it. You didn’t cry because there’s no crying in music. You didn’t protest because you knew you had been busted, found out. You sat there and took it because he knew. You just got your butt kicked and you deserved it.
The lesson ended a few minutes later and I left quietly.
I went to the cafeteria, sat at a table with cup of coffee and stared out the window that looked out to the Chinese embassy on 66th street.
Soon after, my friend, Scott Wharton, saw me and sat down across from me. He took one look at the Bassett Hound on the other side of the table and asked, “What’s the matter with you? You look like you just got his by a truck.”
“Okay, what’s going on?”
“I had a terrible lesson with the Old Man. I got my butt kicked.”
I described the lesson to Scott who listened quietly. When the whine festival was over he was also looking out the window, as though he were recalling something from his past. He cast his eyes down for a moment and then raised them to me. He said, “Yeah, I’ve been there. We’ve all been there. We’ve all had “that lesson“… but the way I see it, you’ve got two choices. You can sit here and feel sorry for yourself, like you’re the only guy that’s ever felt that hurt or you can finish your coffee and get your arse into a practice room and change things.”
Damn, it seemed so simple and the choice so obvious.
I did exactly that. I had confessed my sins to Fr. Wharton, recited my Act of Contrition, and set off to do an hour of Hail Marys and Our Fathers. I continued with my penance and had a tremendous summer and subsequent second, third, and fourth years.
There are any number of aphorisms regarding failure and how we react to it. They’re pretty much all true.
“Those afraid to fail will never succeed.”
“Failure: it’s not for the weak.”
Overcoming failure and turning what you learned into success requires a massive bit of of commitment. Commitment to doing what is uncomfortable, tedious, and downright difficult. It takes courage and a realization that whatever it is you’re wanting to accomplish is NOT going to happen without that requisite bit of work but it IS possible. You just have to be smart enough to turn those challenges into something you can enjoy. All it takes is imagination plus understanding that you also need to do what you’ve been told to do by the teachers to whom you’re paying large sums of money.
Scott Wharton was right and I owe him a great deal. It’s only partially about getting your butt kicked. The rest is about how you CHOOSE to react to that event and don’t be dissuaded; it’s always about choice when it comes to the way you react to adversity.
I have lost track of Scott but live with the hope that this, which was written to honor his tough love and kindness that one Monday in April, will someday find his eyes.