Getting the Hang of “The Hang”; A guide to being a good colleague for newly graduated music students. – An essay by Steve Trapani stevetrapani@gmail.com

Much has been written on the subject of improving as a musician, but not much gets put out there on the subject of interacting with your colleagues once you start working in the business. To be sure, the vast majority of your time as a young musician needs to be spent in the practice room perfecting the craft of your chosen instrument. However, I believe it’s also important to have some guidelines to help navigate the incredibly complicated social world of the professional musician.

There was a Xerox floating around Los Angeles in the late ’80’s or early ’90’s that addressed the subject, however, things have changed quite a bit since that time – the internet, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. I thought that perhaps it would be useful for there to be a reminder for those that were around back then, and that maybe a new guide should be written for those who weren’t that takes our current reality into consideration. By the way, lest you believe that I am preaching from some moral high ground, I have done many of these things at some point in my career and have been politely, and sometimes not politely, instructed in the correct way in which to comport myself. Some of these suggestions also come from observations on the job, and some come from cautionary tales passed on by more experienced and wiser people than myself.

Some basic stuff:
– Be respectful and courteous. You’d be surprised that something so obvious would need to be addressed, but some folks seem to forget that there are actual people around them with actual feelings. Say “thank you” when someone holds a door open. Say “excuse me” if you almost run into someone backstage. Introduce yourself and say, “It’s nice to meet you/see you again.”

–  Smile. People are attracted to those who put out positive energy. A smile and a “hello” can go a long way towards making your colleagues feel more comfortable with you around. They may be more likely to remember your face or name, and possibly want to meet you if there was something positive that happened the first time they saw you.

– Don’t practice anything remotely resembling a solo that a colleague is going to play on the gig that day. This too may seem like a no-brainer, but some people just haven’t stopped to consider the head-trip that their fellow performers put themselves through when they have an exposed solo or passage to play. Nor have they thought that it might be somewhat distracting to hear someone else playing said solo in the building beforehand.


Warming up

– Have a functional warm up that actually, you know, just kind of warms you up. Try to get to the point where you don’t need to play a 45 minute routine in order to be ready to do the gig. 5-10 minutes of soft exercises should really be enough. No matter how young and good you are, you are sure to be surrounded by dozens of musicians who were you once upon a time. Once marriages, mortgages, kids, and aging enter your life, yes, you too may find that you don’t have time to practice that amazing warm-up routine that impresses everyone with its speed and technical wizardry. Now’s not the time for the fastest, highest, or lowest notes you can play. Unless you’re playing lead trumpet on a pops set, we don’t want to hear any screeching coming from your horn. Bass trombonists (and some tenor trombonists), we don’t need to hear your pedal note exercises now either. As wonderful as it feels, fortissimo pedal F’s are just kind of obnoxious when people around you are trying to quietly work out a passage or two before the gig starts.
– Don’t play your audition list on stage while people are trying to prepare for rehearsal. I love to take advantage of the opportunity to practice in a good space, and I’m the first guy to discover that vacant foyer, lower level rehearsal room, or stage. But doing so, when people are putting their instruments together and warming up is somewhat distracting. If people are around, stop the mock audition about an hour before the service so everyone else can prepare to work.
– If you’re new to the group, take your cues from those who have been there before. Sometimes people don’t mind if everyone is noodling around, but sometimes they do. They really do mind, and they expect for everyone to just sort of respect the mellow mood of the room before the recording light comes on. If someone asks you if they make a practice mute for your horn, stop playing.
– If possible, warm-up at home before the gig. If not, find a corner of the parking garage, or a room in the performing space that no one is going to go through. Stairwells, janitor closets, boiler rooms, trap rooms, and unused offices make good places to get the cobwebs out.

When the gig starts:
– Don’t shuffle, give “the foot”, thumbs up, or any other affirmation to your colleague who just played a really hard lick, unless you know the group. Some ensembles are very reserved and consider it a possible jinx if you prematurely congratulate them before the set is finished. Again, read the room. If everyone’s doing it, then ok, but don’t be the first one. You don’t want to be perceived as the possible reason that your colleague chipped a note just because you wanted to be supportive and inadvertently got inside their head. If in doubt, wait until you’re packing up your horn after the last performance before you give anyone an, “atta boy!”
– Develop a poker face for when you’re in performance. Try to not give away with your facial expression the fact that you missed a note, your stand mate missed a note, or that you’re upset with anything. Audience members are drawn to any facial movements that differ from the unmoving landscape of 100 stoic classical musician scowls. The running commentary that your face is expressing will become their focus instead of the music.
– Sit still if the colleagues around you are playing and you are not. It is very distracting to be playing while people are flitting about. If you must move in order to get a drink of water or pick up your iPad, please do so without bringing any unnecessary attention to yourself.

Break time:
– This is a very potentially hazardous 10-20 minute window during which you should concentrate on taking care of “break” type business. This includes going to the bathroom, filling up your water bottle, and taking care of any paperwork that needs to be completed. Only after you’ve completed these tasks should you attempt to be social with anyone and “network”.
– Read. The. Room. Are the people who are talking together old friends? Is the group you are about to try and join talking about serious stuff? If so, stop. Don’t go crashing headlong into a conversation in which you are not welcome. If you inadvertently find yourself in the middle of one of these situations because of an honest mistake, just stop talking. If you made a gaff, politely apologize and leave the general area to do some break time activities mentioned above. If you’re lucky, no one will remember you.
– When in doubt, just keep to yourself. Wait for people to come up and talk to you. If no one does, don’t take it personally. This may be your first time on the job, but many of these folks have literally been on thousands of breaks and have a routine that doesn’t include making sure the new guy/gal feels ok about him/herself.
– When approached, be polite and courteous. Follow the rule of thumb of only speaking after having been spoken to. Answer questions and be friendly, but don’t take the opportunity to plug yourself or your band or your girl/boyfriend who’s also a musician. Just be cool. In time, like in any social situation, when the people are comfortable with you being around they will begin to try to get to know you.
– Find your peeps (if any) and hang out with them. Think back to the playground at grade school. When you were in 3rd grade you hung out with 3rd graders. Before you knew it you were in 6th grade looking down pitifully on all the poor scared 3rd graders. Don’t worry. Soon enough the big kids will ask you to play.
– Jokes. I’m not a particularly jokey kind of guy, but the telling of jokes fills a large amount of break time in some groups. Obviously, inflammatory jokes about sex, the disabled, and politics need to not even enter your mind during break time. If you must tell a joke, make sure you know your audience. Do not assume anything in this regard. People do get fired for insensitive remarks heard by the wrong person at the wrong time.

Internet: Oh boy, this is a tough one and the protocol for decent behavior is evolving every day.
– Tread carefully. Assume that any recording, video, picture, tweet, or blog post you make will be dissected, examined closely, and possibly eviscerated by the haters. Write the post then delete it before pulling the trigger. Examine, proofread, repeat. If you still find yourself compelled to post after doing this a few times, perhaps the recording, video, picture, tweet, or blog post is worthy to put out there for the rest of eternity. Understand that this is what you are doing. Somewhere out there, there is a computer that is recording everything you post, and despite your most thorough privacy settings, it could come back and bite you. (You better believe this was the process used in constructing this post.)
– Technology will always favor the youth and each new generation brings its own set of ideas and social rules to the table. However, some of the best musicians I know, both young and old, have little to no internet presence whatsoever. You know why? Because they’re busy playing on your favorite movie, or winning that audition for the job that you’d love to have. By and large the people you hear the least from are the ones doing the most work and having the most success. Facebook and an internet presence are necessary evils for the modern freelancer, no matter what your age, and the rules are not set. Try to err on the conservative side and proceed with extreme caution.
– The guys/gals are the guys/gals. You don’t have to live in a region for too long before you know who is doing the good work. They are likely in those positions for a reason and you have to respect that. No matter how you dress up your Facebook profile, Instagram account, or website, you have to have made a splash in the business first before you are accepted to the club. Don’t learn the wrong lesson from that fancy website or Facebook page of your favorite musician – they got great on their horn first, then they made the fancy website. You may get noticed because you’re young and hot, but sooner or later you’ve got to produce. It would be a shame to waste the opportunity by finally getting the shot without being able to back it up. Focus on winning competitions, auditions for summer festivals, regional orchestra auditions, and getting into a good masters program. Get established in the scene. Wait on the overly narcissistic website.
– When you start to have success, you have to balance your desire to let everyone know about it with the knowledge that music jobs are a limited commodity. You doing the gig means that others didn’t get the same opportunity. Being gracious in this regard can be tricky. On the other hand, it can be frustrating to stoically avoid self promotion while those around you seem to post about every single opportunity they have – especially if you’re doing better stuff.
– You must understand the pecking order and know who got you the gig. Acknowledge your benefactor and don’t go too crazy about posting about doing cool stuff when you know that you’re the 2nd, 3rd, or even last call on the list. Those folks above you who don’t post too much about themselves might just decide that you’re obnoxious or ungrateful and stop using you.
– If everyone around you is having a tough time, don’t do the backdoor brag about how you are just so busy that you can hardly keep up. This should be self-evident, but some folks seem to lack empathy for the mostly-suffering fate of many of their colleagues. You can be proud of yourself, but try to take the high road and celebrate your well deserved victory in private more often than you brag about your successes in public.

I recently heard someone use the following mantra when describing a way of behaving when dealing with large and varied group of people: “Don’t do stupid stuff.” I like that. The problem is that we don’t always know that what we’re doing is stupid at the time were doing it. All you can do is try to make the best choice at the time. Understand that we’re all just trying to survive in an extremely competitive field. Music is a social endeavor and unless you’re planning to be a soloist, you’d better start to get the hang of “the hang”. You’re going to make missteps along the way, but perhaps with the help of a guide such as this you’ll make fewer bad ones. Maybe you’ll be saved from yourself before the stakes get really high and you lose a gig.

The best piece of advice I’ve ever heard about this subject comes from a friend’s father, who played Assistant Concertmaster with a major orchestra for 46 years. He said, “Just go in there. Sit down. Do your job. And keep your mouth shut!”

Good luck!

Steve Trapani – May 7, 2016 (Updated 11/12/18)


This is a post I recently made on my Facebook page which seems to have touched a nerve.

The Straight Dope

What follows are some thoughts for my students or any other young person thinking about becoming a professional musician which they will probably ignore – but they shouldn’t.

It’s a hard life and a difficult way to make a living. This was something I heard people say, but it didn’t really sink in. “Fine”, I thought, “it’s hard. So what? I’m a hard worker and I’m talented. It’ll be different for me.” This began a long period of bargaining with myself, I suppose, up until this day. A series of justifications and denials, without which, it just wouldn’t have been possible to move forward. I think if you know what actually lies ahead of you as an artist, that you would simply not be able to go on.

Let’s cut to the chase and say that, at least in some measurable ways, I have succeeded. I have been working professionally for 25 years and have been making my living exclusively as a musician for the last 12 years. I have worked with conductors such as Zubin Mehta, Ricardo Muti, Charles Dutoit and Gustavo Dudamel. I’ve played with orchestras including, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the San Francisco Symphony, the Seattle Symphony, the San Francisco Ballet and Opera, and New York City Opera National Company. I can be heard on recordings with the LA Philharmonic, as well as several movie and TV soundtracks including Godzilla, Pacific Rim, The Simpsons, and Family Guy. I can play.

The goal, however, was to win my teacher’s job when he retired with the LA Phil. I had a shot. And I failed. I have actually failed so much that it is easier to count the things that I have won than to count the number of things I’ve attempted and failed. When I was a student, I won positions in the Debut Orchestra and the American Youth Symphony, two concerto competitions at Long Beach State, and the Pacific Symphony Institute concerto competition. I won a one year position with an Italian opera orchestra when I was 23, a spot with the John Tesh tour at 26, a job as the trombone teacher at CSU Fresno when I was 33, and I won the audition for bass trombone with the Oakland Symphony when I was 40. That’s it. Those are the “wins”.

In between those wins I took and lost over 40 professional bass trombone auditions. I effectively lost that one year Italian orchestra position when the principal decided to plug in his student instead. I became the bass trombonist with the New York City Opera National Company after working very hard for 4 years to get the job only to have the whole thing fold two weeks after I got my welcome letter when the management decided it wasn’t worth their time or money – a loss. I became the in-house bass trombone/tuba player for the Sacramento Broadway scene and lost it when I subbed out one too many performances.

Are you starting to get the picture? You lose more than you win in this business. You have to become very resilient and thick skinned. And you have to begin to look at the whole thing a little different. Any paradigm that has you winning should be thrown out immediately. You don’t ever win at this thing in terms of being done improving. Even if you achieve your goal, you’re not done, unless you have so much natural talent that you can coast. There are those people out there – bastards.

For most of us mortals, however, it is more useful and beneficial to have a different paradigm. Winning is a byproduct of a good work ethic and a healthy understanding that what you’re a part of is a discipline. A daily set of routines that build exponentially upon one another to create a well practiced and well prepared musician. It’s the every day part of it that is the key. You are allowed to take an occasional break in order to not burn out, but you have to commit to a discipline of working towards your goals and getting better every day.

Every musician I know who is successful, even the very talented ones, spent some extended period of their life “in the shed”. A time when there was no tv, no sports, no vacations, no video games, no time for anything else that wasn’t their instrument. Think of it as a bonding period with your instrument. Most of us brass players did it in college. Most string players and pianists did it before their 10th birthday. Woodwinds did it sometime in between the two. Generally speaking, of course.

The hard part is after this initial growth spurt, or, God-forbid, after you actually win a job or achieve another big early success. If you decide to coast, you will invariably begin to decline as a player and either lose your work or begin to alienate your colleagues who have to pick up your slack. Many people who find themselves in this position have forgotten what won them the job in the first place. It’s easy to high-five yourself and get into a mindset where you believe that you are just better at what you do than the other poor slobs who didn’t make it as far as you. Certainly, talent plays into this equation, but the biggest reason people succeed is that they just worked harder than the other people who showed up that day.

I believe a more productive paradigm is to just try to do better than you did the day before. Simply practice to improve. I think it sets you up psychologically to be in a stronger position. You “win” your competitions and auditions because you were the one that worked the hardest. Most importantly, if you end up not achieving your goals, you are better equipped to deal with the grieving period that follows each loss.

This is a very real thing and should not be underestimated. I’ve grieved for years over some losses because I didn’t recognize the feeling for what it was. I tried to run away from the hard parts of the grieving process. It’s just like the hard parts of real life – no matter how you try to distract yourself, one way or another you will be forced to deal with them if you are to move on and grow from the experience. Some people get stuck here.

You will lose. It’s how you deal with the loss that will ultimately determine your success.

Now let’s stop speaking of winning and losing and discuss some other parts of the business. Everyone you meet, and I mean everyone you meet in the music business, beginning with your first music teacher is part of your lifelong network. You can and will get work from people that you met when you were still figuring out how to play 16th notes or how many key signatures there were. Personally, I have received much more work over the years from my own personal network than I ever did from any audition. For some professionals I know it is a different situation, but the importance of developing and maintaining your network cannot be overstated.

In my experience, you want to shy away from the Dale Carnegie “How to Win Friends and Influence People” approach where you risk alienating people who think you’re trying to manipulate them. Professional musicians, for the most part, are street smart and can recognize it when someone is just trying to get to know them in order to get something from them. When I say develop and maintain your network, what I mostly mean is to just be cool. Be yourself and try to not piss anyone off. If you do contact people who you want something from, the best thing is to be honest. If you’re looking for work or you’re trying to get into the school where they teach, tell them so in as diplomatic a way as you can come up with. They’ve all been there, and there’s no harm in asking.

One reality that you need to be aware of is that there is simply not enough work out there for the number of qualified people being graduated from the nation’s music schools. However, Gene Porkorny, tubist of the Chicago Symphony once told me that there will always be work for good players. I have found this to be mostly true for folks who stick around an area for long enough, but you do have to be lucky as well.

Another piece of wisdom I received from my first major teacher and former bass trombonist of the LA Philharmonic, Jeff Reynolds, is that if you want to be a player you have to begin to compare yourself with the best there is on your instrument. If that statement throws you for a loop, then you may want to “get a new gig” (another Jeff-ism) and look to something else to make your money. The thing is that if you can not see yourself playing as well as the best players on your instrument, then you should not enter the competitive world of being a professional musician. It’s too brutal and there is no such thing as being good enough. You have to accept the challenge of becoming one of the best or you need to do something else.

The good news is that music is one of the few things in this world where your success is largely self-determined. What I mean by this is that the harder you work at it, the more you get out of it. You want to be first chair in the top band? Then find out how hard the person currently in that chair works and work harder than them. Some people will have a head start on you, but natural attrition, either by them graduating out or changing their own life focus, will often create future opportunities for you. In my experience, if you work hard and wait for your opportunity, you will be rewarded. This model also holds true for the professional music world as well, however, the stakes are much higher.

Perhaps a more honest and realistic way to say this is if you work hard and wait for your opportunity, you CAN be rewarded. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try the opportunities don’t come, or other folks get them instead of you. This is a hard one. I’ve known some amazing musicians over the years that just weren’t given the same shots as their more successful colleagues and simply do not work. Jeff used to also say, “Right time, right place, with the right stuff.” If one of those parameters are off, the calls may not come. It’s unfair – no other way to explain it.

There’s more good news here, though. You see, the whole time you’ve been pursuing this dream you have also been doing things like getting degrees, juggling the complex reality of making a living while having the discipline of practicing, and essentially just learning to survive. I can honestly say that I don’t know anyone who I went through music school with who is not succeeding at what they do today. It might not be making a living with their instruments, but they’re doing well. It’s not wasted time or energy. Plus they have the added bonus of having gone after their life passion – something that many more people than you probably think have never done. Nor will they they ever do until they retire or make enough money to feel comfortable – two life goals that can be elusive.

Go for it, I say! But have open eyes. It’s hard – really hard. No, I mean really hard. But if you’re willing to accept the challenge of becoming one of the best there are at what you do, there are some wonderful experiences waiting for you.

Words cannot adequately describe what it is like to sit on the stage in that wash of sound while something so sublimely beautiful as Debussy’s Nuages from his work Nocturnes goes on all around you. Or the viscerally satisfying feeling you get as a bass trombonist of playing the last page of Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony. Or being the only member of the brass to answer the orchestral fanfare in the middle of the second movement of Tchaik 5. As I mentioned above, I didn’t get my dream gig with the LA Phil, but I have had the honor of playing both of those last two pieces as a very grateful sub in my teachers old chair. And somewhere along the way in between all of these struggles of winning and losing, a valued friend from my lifelong personal network gave me the opportunity to teach at my alma mater, CSU Long Beach. A job I’ve had the great privilege of doing for the past 10 years.

I know it’s a cliche to say this, but if I can do it, you can too. I started at Long Beach State as an ok sophomore transfer student – 3rd best bass trombone (I’m not sure there was a 4th). I found my people and went for it, because sometimes a place chooses you. I believe Long Beach chose me. Maybe, if you’re lucky, some place will choose you too. I hope so! Maybe it’ll be Long Beach?

Steve Trapani August 21, 2015

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