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Tom Hooten – Principal Trumpet, Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra Interview Part 1

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Tom Hooten, Principal Trumpet of the Los Angeles Philharmonic (and ChopSaver fan!) recently sat down with The ChopSaver Guy, Dan Gosling to talk about how he does what he does so well.

In Part 1, Tom discusses life in the orchestra, how he structures his practice, basic sound production concepts, how to improve your weaknesses, how he use a training app for practice, and success formulas learned from Tony Robbins.

The opening is a live performance of Tom playing Mahler’s 5th Symphony. Listen to all 3 interviews to hear the whole solo!

Dan Gosling:             Hi everyone, I’m Dan Gosling, also known as the ChopSaver guy. I’m pleased and excited to bring you another great interview with friends of ours from the music world. Today I’m speaking with Tom Hooten, Principal Trumpet of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. Tom has been here in Indianapolis performing as guest principal with the Indianapolis Symphony, a week of Mahler’s 5th Symphony, three performances of which I was privileged to hear two of those performances and I must say what a thrill it was to hear Tom playing live, again. Tom, thanks so much for being here.

Tom Hooten:             Thanks Dan, great to be here.

Dan Gosling:             Awesome to have you here. I also want to thank our friends here at Bohlsen Group for allowing us the space to conduct this interview. That was, in fact, Tom at the beginning playing that very famous opening call from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. We do have some questions that we took from our ChopSaver Facebook page and we’ll try to weave those in as best we can. It’s often common to start … when you’re talking about someone’s career, to start chronologically. I started with when I was eight and work your way up. I’d kind of like to go backwards. Why don’t we start with what you’re doing now, what does it mean when you say, “I’m principal of a major orchestra,” like the Los Angeles Philharmonic and what does that entail and we’ll start there and work our way back.

Tom Hooten:             Okay. We are a 52-week orchestra and we have a winter season, which we just finished and we … the LA Philharmonic is a really exciting place to be because we’re trying to pioneer commissions and stuff like that. It’s a fairly busy winter season, from a classical stand … classical music standpoint. Then, when I go back in July, we’ll shift into the Hollywood Bowl mode which is an 18,500 seat venue, great venue for the LA Phil in terms of our budget and opportunity to reach out on a large scale to people that maybe never heard classical music.

Dan Gosling:             You’re still billed as the Los Angeles Philharmonic?

Tom Hooten:             Yes.

Dan Gosling:             Not the Boston Pops changes their name for certain venues.

Tom Hooten:             Right, it’s the LA Philharmonic, we play certain nights. Under the LA Phil organizational umbrella is the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. They play concerts there too. The LA Phil, from what I understand, presents other solo acts like maybe Josh Groban or Dave Matthews or something like that. It’s a really great place to work. It is, I wouldn’t say, excruciating in terms of the schedule, but it does keep me on my toes. I love it. It’s a great group of people, it’s musically challenging and enriching.

Dan Gosling:             How long have you lived in Los Angeles now?

Tom Hooten:             I just finished my third year.

Dan Gosling:             Fantastic. When you look at the season or you’re looking at what’s coming ahead, how do you balance busy days or busy weeks versus not so busy weeks versus your solo career, your traveling? How does that work for you? How do you make sense out of all of that?

Tom Hooten:             It’s a learning process but I try not to get surprised. I like to … I wouldn’t say I’m a big planner but what seems to be the best approach is I do look ahead and I have a couple big marker boards in my studio and I will list about every three or four months, I will list chronologically all the playing responsibilities that I have. Everything’s mixed. Orchestral demands, I think chronologically I have this solo appearance or we have a quintet thing. I want to make sure I have an understanding of what’s coming up.

Then, from the practical standpoint of practicing, it is motivation to not let anything go. Oh, Alborada coming up in four months, I don’t want to be cramming for Alborada that week. Then really I feel like it trips me up and now I’m on damage control. What’s worked well for me so far is planning ahead, understanding what my responsibilities are and then again, we’re doing this timeline of my career, going backwards to say what does that mean for me right now? What do I have to practice? Hopefully it will stay working but it does allow me to integrate solo work and stuff like that.

Dan Gosling:             Let’s go to the essence of what a musician is, and that’s someone who creates beautiful sounds. In your case, you create them on a trumpet in a big orchestra but again, it always has to come down to your calling card, your sound, one of the questions that we had on the Facebook page was; they were in high praise of your resonance … this amazing resonance that you get, which is actually true if you’ve never heard Tom play live, there is an incredible sparkle no matter what part of the instrument he’s playing, low register, high register, soft, loud, which is truly remarkable. I know, as a trumpet player myself, that doesn’t just happen by accident. What are you really focusing on when you’re … that basic sound trying to create out of a horn?

Tom Hooten:             I appreciate any time somebody compliments me on sound or anything, it’s always that someone appreciates what I love … it’s great, that’s why I do what I do. I want to effect change in somebody’s outlook, whatever that might be. If they appreciate the sound, maybe there’s some collateral benefit to that in their life and in the way they want to be a musician so that always feels good. I could go really technical.

Dan Gosling:             Go a little technical, just for the trumpet nerds that really want to know what are you actually doing but understanding that that’s just a tiny part of it. I think a little bit of that will inform, okay, what is it he does but maybe more important, what is he thinking about while he’s doing it?

Tom Hooten:             I think the first thing that comes to mind is I’m trying to make it as simple as possible. That doesn’t start from my lips into the trumpet. That starts with my breath and how I’m holding my body and I’m still working on this, I still feel like I have room to grow. The more simplistic and straightforward that I can make my breath go into my lips, that make them vibrate, goes into the instrument in the most consistent, organic way, then I think the results will be consistent and organic and resonant. Resonance of the voice, when I was … I met Håkan Hardenberger in the last couple of years and was talking to him about how he approaches things and it’s a much … a really vocal connection between … even how you hold the soft palate and as a trumpet … I think too many people think of it as they’re trying to sing the soprano part but they’re really an alto.

They’re holding their body kind of … singing with their chest voice. I try to really allow myself to sing almost in a way that I would posture my body like a soprano in the head voice. I guess women don’t necessarily have a head voice but men, you can absolutely go to your falsetto and that creates the possibility of freedom and I guess if my body is, in a sense, vibrating then hopefully there will be some effect in that into the trumpet. That’s how I’m approaching it now.

Dan Gosling:             Do you incorporate things like yoga or Alexander Technique or meditation … ?

Tom Hooten:             I’ve done all those things. I’ve done yoga, the Alexander Technique, I studied it a little bit one summer and I incorporated those things. These aren’t things you own, these are things you practice. It’s not an idea, it’s something you practice every day. When I am able to really have the kind of warm up that I want, which is my job, so I try to make it every day. First thing is stretch, stretch every day, even if it’s for a couple minutes, then it goes right into breathing and then breathing turns … I go into making a sound. All while trying to do the things that I did in the breathing. I breath like this, well let’s turn that breath into a sound.

Dan Gosling:             So you’re stacking?

Tom Hooten:             Absolutely stacking and I did this in teaching today. I was telling students, it’s not necessarily that here we are and we’re going to get better and better and better and better like this and then look how far I’ve gone. I think it’s more accurate to think, here’s where I am and I’m getting better. I’m actually thinking backwards. All the things that I know that I think are really good, I’m scanning and I’m aware. I’m trying to deepen the quality of the absolute fundamental. Really, then I feel like the possibilities become two-fold. I don’t know if that makes any sense.

Dan Gosling:             It actually leads into one of the other questions we had, it was how do you work on weaknesses and … Which might also inform how you decide what to practice and when to practice it? If you’re going for these basic fundamentals, are there things that you are … I know this is something that’s just not my strong suit. Or maybe there was five years ago or something that you’ve since solved.

Tom Hooten:             I think one of the biggest things that we can do as students and whatever you do, you can be a student of what you do, is to be open minded and creative and curious.

Dan Gosling:             That’s a great word.

Tom Hooten:             Be really curious about what can I learn from this? My ego is not involved in this process and I’m curious like a child. If something was bad, I don’t judge necessarily. I mean, of course there’s times I’m disappointed, I wanted something to go better but when I’m in the practice room I’m trying to do it in the most open minded, curious … I just felt something, that was amazing. What did I do? I had an idea, I’m looking for that again, I’m searching. I’m really flexible so of course I have weaknesses, there are things that I wish, I wish they were easier but I’m curious and I’m looking for, is there something between my weaknesses and my strengths that I fix in my weaknesses that makes my strengths even stronger?

I’ll be totally honest, I have no problems talking about my weaknesses in public, it’s fine, it doesn’t bother me because I’m not hiding them in the practice room so why would I hide them when I talk to somebody? I hope that’s inspiring to some student. When I tell them, in college I barely had a high C on my c-trumpet, I mean barely. Recently when I met with Håkan and he talked to me about some things and I realized, I had no idea how tight I was in certain parts of my playing.

Dan Gosling:             This was recently?

Tom Hooten:             Recently, this was a year and a half, two years ago and so I’ve spent the last couple years really exploring, wow, you know where I thought the bottom was, I realized, oh man-

Dan Gosling:             There’s a whole other floor.

Tom Hooten:             -Wow and then it makes all of this like whoa. Wow this could be really amazing. It doesn’t … what inspires me, what excites me about that is this makes me a better musician. Trumpet is fine but trumpet is the vehicle but maybe it can allow me to say something with even more vulnerability or more power or something.

Dan Gosling:             You reference warm up routine, so you do … do you have a set routine or is that also very flexible?

Tom Hooten:             Yeah, I have a … to talk geeky trumpet thing, there’s an app. If anybody out there is an app developer and a musician, maybe you could contact me. I’m looking to build an app but right now I use this thing called Seconds Pro, it’s an interval trainer. One of the things I noticed in my abundance of energy when I was younger is that I wouldn’t rest enough. Without rest … not only am I not physically resting, I’m not thinking enough. This app allowed me to create routines and you can add drones to them as music tracks. I have a routine right now but usually I don’t do any routine more than six months or nine months, I change it up because I get really bored and I feel like it gets stagnant. I do have this thing that I click on and it says, “Beep, stop playing you idiot, you need to rest.”

Dan Gosling:             You actually have a timer to make sure you’re not … ?

Tom Hooten:             Yeah, it started out as a little kitchen timer and then it turned into this, you can use an app for a timer and this program, Seconds Pro, is totally customizable for the kind of routine, workout routine you want to do. I can label them, it says Double Timing and it says Double Timing. I like it and I’m not doing anything for an extreme long period of time. It might be … it literally says stretch, two minutes. Breathing, a minute or two minutes. Then it goes to lip set up. It goes through things with little breaks and I change it and I mess around with it. Oh it’s too much break, not enough break.

Dan Gosling:             You’re paying attention to it, you’re not … you let it remind you and you pay attention to those … ?

Tom Hooten:             It’s like a little guide that says, you can spend more time on this but it’s time to move on because you have intervals, you have scales, you have arpeggios, you have all these things you have to go through. The cool thing is, eh, if I don’t get to it today, I can start there tomorrow when I have time or something like that.

Dan Gosling:             Does that … I’m trying to dovetail with one of the other questions of course. People are, young brass players especially, always looking for tips on endurance. How do I get through that recital or how do I get through this long passage or it could be a kid in a marching band who has a heavy show or it could be a an up and coming, like the gentlemen you were just teaching this morning. It’s the never ending thing for all of us, we’re all looking to improve that aspect of what we’re doing. I think you did touch on something, and maybe you’ll speak more about it, is resting, knowing how to incorporate … because I think, especially young players, who tend to think, “I’m going to get strong by beating myself up to get there,” how do you avoid that?

Tom Hooten:             From a logical standpoint, when I was in college I really had major … I changed my embouchure in grad school. I was always thinking about, how am I going to play higher and I had teachers say, “It’ll come.” Really concerned about getting through what today would be considered a pretty basic recital legend, what’s the Purcell? Kids in high school are playing that now. I was really concerned about this. Logically I realized at some point, how is some 14-year-old kid, who’s been playing maybe a quarter of the time I’ve been playing, how do they have way better endurance than I have? This makes no sense. They’re not stronger-

Dan Gosling:             You’re a grad student at this point?

Tom Hooten:             Yeah.

Dan Gosling:             To give some perspective to this, this to me is it’s fascinating that someone of your stature went through all this. I think it’s inspiring. It’s really cool to see that someone just figured it out and didn’t take no for answer. I didn’t mean to interrupt.

Tom Hooten:             No, it’s fine, I appreciate it. I just stopped judging myself. I stopped labeling myself, you’re a weak player. You’re not a strong player. It’s the trumpet, I can figure this out. This not like I have no ability to feel what somebody else … I don’t know how to buzz my lips and use the air in a way that … I think that’s possible. Maybe that’s the lesson, think that it’s possible, that’s where you start. I love the four things that Tony Robbins says, this little success formula. He says, know your goal. Okay. Sometimes people don’t have that, they say, I just want to get better. You have to be a little more specific. Take action. You have to get in the practice room.

The last one … and a lot of people do these, the first two are pretty common, people say, I want an orchestra job or I want to get into grad school or I want to get into a really good college. Okay, that’s great, now you have to practice, I think that’s pretty logical. The next two are what people, I think, get stuck with. Third, notice the results. Are you actually getting closer? Sometimes we work, work, work and you’re like … I barely got better and then you think, I’ll never get strong enough. That’s kind of what I thought. There’s no way, I feel terrible when I play. The fourth one is, be flexible. Know your goal, practice, take action, notice if you’re getting farther or-

Dan Gosling:             Are you figuring out ways to actually measure that and giving yourself ways to-?

Tom Hooten: No, no. It was a struggle. You’re going with it. Okay, if somebody comes to me and says I have endurance and range problems and if I say, how long have you had these issues and they say, forever. It’s time to try something different. I don’t judge them. I’m saying it’s time to take off the barriers of how this is going to happen. We have to be more open minded.