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Tom Hooten – Principal Trumpet, Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra Interview Part 2

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

In Part 2, Tom discusses endurance, articulation, his experiences in other orchestras, being an effective leader, the desire to keep improving, and focused practicing.

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

Tom Hooten:             To get back to your question of endurance, to me, endurance is all about efficiency and maintaining that efficiency for as long as possible. I would often make a funny analogy between American Ninja Warrior. This is like these people come up to this crazy larger than life obstacle course, and there’s water so you can … It’s like starting at a recital, and you’re happy, maybe you’re a little nervous, but you’re pumped, you’re excited, and you’re going along and all of a sudden, boom! Something doesn’t go well, or you miss a note.

Usually, when somebody gets messed up or gets hit, they’re done. They’ve lost their ability to hold their form, to run through the obstacle course. They’re done. Maybe the analogy’s not that great, but I think the lesson is, “How familiar are you with perfect form that you can get a little bit knocked off and, boom, you come right back.

Dan Gosling:             You get back, mm-hmm (affirmative).

Tom Hooten:             Most of us, we spend, I think, a fractional amount of time working on efficiency. Look at an oboe player. They make this reed. They go, “Bop, bop, bop, bop, bop, bop,” and, “No …” Then, they shave a little bit, and they fix it, and they, “Bop, bop, bop, bop, bop, bop.” Imagine an oboe player that picks up any reed and just plays. You ask an oboe player, if you play a bad reed, all these horrible things happen. You have terrible endurance. You get really tight because you’re trying to force it. This is my reed, and I need to be sensitive to it, and I need to cultivate simplicity and ease, and then when I find that, I try to create the environment to hold that form as long as possible. Does that make sense?

Dan Gosling:             That makes total sense. You’re not talking about building strength per se. You’re talking about …

Tom Hooten:             I’m talking about building strength within a certain premise. I want to build strength to hold something that’s easy.

Dan Gosling:             Right, that’s a fascinating way of putting it, and that’s something that I don’t think … I think brass players have always been sort of behind the curve compared to our athletic brothers out there … and sisters. People that, if you’re going to run a marathon, you don’t go out there and run marathons to train for marathon. You figure out ways to acclimate your body to that task whether it’s throwing a disc, or lifting weights, or running. I think, for too many brass players, especially young ones maybe without some guidance … I certainly went through this, where it was just, “If I just pound harder, I’m eventually going to get stronger.” It took me a long time to finally figure out, no, there’s an efficiency here that needs to improve, and an ease that needs to be more easy to get to.

Tom Hooten:             Accessible.

Dan Gosling:             Yeah.

Tom Hooten:             Yeah, it makes me think of two things. One, there’s a running analogy you can say. I love doing this in a lesson. I’ll have a student like this, and I’ll stand up and I’ll say, “Okay, tell me how to walk.” They look at me kind of funny at first. “No, I want you to describe to me, how do you walk?”

First thing they say is, “Okay, you stick out your foot,” so I stick out my foot. They’re like, “Now what?” They get stuck, because to walk, they think of feet, but no, that’s not how you walk. The first thing you do when you walk is you lean, and then the feet follow you. That’s efficiency. I don’t put my lips in a place and like, “Okay, that’s really inefficient.” Imagine trying to walk without leaning. It’s just no possible, so the leaning is the air. The chops are like the legs. Make them easily able to follow the air. I don’t know if that makes sense.

Dan Gosling:             No, that’s a great analogy. That’s one I’ve never heard before, and that’s terrific.

Tom Hooten:             The other one is, real quick, is Chris Gekker, he put together an endurance routine for recitals. I just remember he had all these etudes. He was very systematic about it. There were 5 etudes, maybe 5 or 6, and they were all really simple. It really challenged you to get endurance in the right places. I’m full of analogies I guess, but it’s like I feel like arm wrestling. When you arm wrestle, and if you’re winning, everything is benefiting you. If you’re 55% like you’re going to win, you feel pretty confident, and things are all working for this. The second that you get here, you start employing anything possible, whatever it takes, and that’s what rest is about: allowing yourself to remember what here, and then learning to get everything to work in the right direction. I guess that’s the way I think about it.

Dan Gosling:             The resting, are you maniacal about that? Do you say, “Okay, yesterday was a hard day. I’m really going to force myself to …”

Tom Hooten:             I try not to ever have a hard day. I try never to get here.

Dan Gosling:             Got you, okay.

Tom Hooten:             Of course, sometimes it happens, but in general, I think what allows me to be, what I hope to be, I think is considered a consistent player, is that I never get to the point that I’m doing whatever it takes to get by. I don’t want to be surprised. I just want to be prepared and efficient.

Dan Gosling:             Okay, let’s take that, let’s do one more discussion of playing technique a little bit, just extending where we are. Articulation, your legato playing is impeccable. It’s a joy to listen to.

Tom Hooten:             Thanks.

Dan Gosling:             Again, I know how much work goes into that. What are you thinking about? Do you have a variety of tongue strokes that you work out? It is imitating singers? Is it mouth piece buzzing? What gets you there? What gives you that …?

Tom Hooten:             Are you talking about articulation?

Dan Gosling:             Yeah, articulation, and the whole pallet. The legato playing all the way through the most strident sforzando type articulation.

Tom Hooten:             What is articulation? Have you tried to just describe what it is? You might say something like, “It’s the way that the lips respond to the air,’ right?

Dan Gosling:             Right.

Tom Hooten:             A lot of the time, if somebody puts air over the lips and it goes, “Huh,” you might think you have response problems, but what’s your articulation going to be like if the first half second of your air going over lips is not even a sound, it’s just “huh?” That’s sort of a glimpse of how I think about articulation. If the chops respond on the size of a pin. If it’s like, “Buzz,” then I have a lot more possibility of choosing what type of articulation I want because it was responding when I want.

Dan Gosling:             You haven’t even talked about the tongue yet.

Tom Hooten:             The tongue has nothing to do with the quality of your articulation. It has to do with the character, and I think when people talk about articulation, they get confused about different types like, “I’m going to play this however I can,” versus, “Which way do I want it.” I’ll say real quick that Håkan (Hardenberger) had me think about this in a different way, which I thought was really brilliant.

He would say, “Let’s say you have 10 different types, for arguments, of articulation: 1 to 10. One would be like the most perfect breath attack. It’s an articulation in the fact that it’s so subtle it’s just beautiful. Ten is the air absolutely explodes and you have the most emphatic left edge to the note.” What I learned in that is that, for me, I still think that 0 or 1 is where you develop efficiency, and then number 10 is where you notice how tight you are, because if you can go, “Boom,” and hit it, and then be relaxed, it’s just such a glimpse into efficiency and how relaxed you are. That’s when I noticed that I was tense. I guess I started thinking really analytically about it, but I like that I guess.

Just to go down that thought process a little bit more, let’s say you can do a really delicate breath attack. You can always add a little bit of tongue to change the character of that, but if you can explode the air where the body is sort of intuitively saying, “Don’t do that. You’re not going to like the result,” then you might need to explore, again, that you can’t maintain the form of simplistic vibration. Does that make sense?

Dan Gosling:             Yes, yeah.

Tom Hooten:             When it comes to articulation, and maybe some people don’t like that maybe my articulations are a little bit more rounded or soft, but I tend to think, and Phil really inspired me with this, Phil Smith, is that I always heard, in his articulation, the beginning of sound. I never heard the stick on the drum. I heard the drum. Great timpani players probably would say that they don’t want you to hear the stick on the drum. They want you to hear the drum.

Dan Gosling:             The sound, yeah.

Tom Hooten:             To me, that’s the way that the lips vibrate, so articulation is that, at least the possibility of that.

Dan Gosling:             Prior to Los Angeles Philharmonic, you were Principal Trumpet in the Atlanta Symphony for 6 …?

Tom Hooten:             Yup, 6 years.

Dan Gosling:             Was it 6 years?

Tom Hooten:             Yeah.

Dan Gosling:             Then, you were 2 years here as Assistant Principal in Indianapolis.

Tom Hooten:             Right.

Dan Gosling:             What did you learn in Atlanta? What was your big takeaways of your 6 years in Atlanta?

Tom Hooten:             If I would just say the first couple of things that come to my mind, one of the biggest ones had nothing to do with trumpet or music. This was a tough lesson for me. It was how to look at situations through another person’s eyes. I wish I had sort of done things differently, but it was a really valuable lesson to me, how to deal with things. There’s a difference between wanting something to be great and helping somebody be their version of great. I don’t know if that makes sense. The way I approach things just doesn’t work for some people and vice versa, and understanding where they’re coming from. This recent book I just read was … Oh man, I’m blanking on the name of it … but it talked about being in their there. Like, trying to really look at the situation …

Dan Gosling:             Being in T-H-E-I-R …

Tom Hooten:             T-H-E-R-E, right, like really being in their there. I think that that was sort of the beginnings of thinking about leadership and what really great leadership was. Of course, I’m still learning about that. We all struggle with that at some degree, but that was a really big lesson because I was really inspired to do great things in terms of what could I facilitate in that role. Some things I did, I just went about them all wrong, because I felt like I was justifying them through ideals, and that just … People just …

Dan Gosling:             People have different ideals.

Tom Hooten:             Right, and people will look at you differently rather than saying, in a sense, “How can we do this together?” There’s that. Then, I did learn a lot about trumpet playing, again, the tension thing. When I was going from Atlanta to LA, there was a year where I was going back and forth a lot because Don Greene was on sabbatical, and just playing in two different orchestras in two different halls, I had really cool perspective on just trying to triangulate. This happens here, and this happens here, and then understanding where that sweet spot was of getting awareness of listening, and body tension, and stuff like that. Atlanta was a great orchestra. I would’ve been perfectly happy staying there for the rest of my career, great traditions there.

Dan Gosling:             Then, your two years here, your first orchestral job. What do you remember most from that time?

Tom Hooten:             Oh my gosh … I remember Chappy (Marvin Perry II) telling me not to play too soft, or too loud, or too short, or too long. Every time I would play “Now Tom…”

Dan Gosling:             “Remember,” (laughs)

Tom Hooten:             “Don’t play too short, but don’t play too flat!” First think I think, I just ha this endearing feeling towards this orchestra. It was my first orchestra job, and great, great group of people that are just very accepting. It was great. It’s just been like a homecoming in a weird way for me even though I’m not from here.

Jennifer and I, my wife, we were not living together because she was finishing her time in the Marine band in my first year, and the second year she went to Nepal, so I had the opportunity to practice a lot. I was taking lessons with John Hagstrom, and so I was sort of in hot pursuit of … I wasn’t in hot pursuit of a job. I was in the hot pursuit of, “I want the skills are are going to enable me to make great music,” and maybe that might be in a principal chair. I don’t know, but I knew that, at least at point of my life, what I was focusing was like … I mean, I want this job, but I still felt that I didn’t have the skills, that I didn’t have the upper register. I didn’t have the power, and I really wanted to figure that out. John helped me a lot with that.

Dan Gosling:             How did he do that in a nutshell, because I would just say I was privileged to perform with you for the time you were here, and those of us that were in the orchestra … I would always tell people that when I’ve had a chance to hear you since your time here, and even the two years you were here, it was so apparent to me that, “Okay, this guy one the audition fair and square, and he’s a great player,” but you were just doing this. You were improving every week, and it was just so apparent that you weren’t satisfied. You weren’t, “Hey, I’ve got my job. Now I can …” You were woodshedding. You were consulting. You were finding out new ways. You were talking to other people, whether it was John or other people, and all these other aspect to your playing just started blossoming. It was really kind of cool to watch that.

Then, when I heard you down in Atlanta, I think I heard you play Zarathustra, you were, I think, 3 years into the job, and it was stunning. I just remember thinking, “Man, he’s figuring out so many aspects to his playing,” which is really an honor to just witness that.

Tom Hooten:             Oh, thanks.

Dan Gosling:             What, specifically, if someone’s saying, “Wow, he did what I want to do.” What worked best for you? What concepts…

Tom Hooten:             It’s really hard to quantify.

Dan Gosling:             Right, I’m sure it is.

Tom Hooten:             I think you’re right in terms of that I … I think there’s a difference between being driven and being purpose driven. I think in that one small aspect of my life, trumpet playing, I was purpose driven. Other parts of my life I was just driven, which kind of drove me nuts, so I had to learn a little bit more balance with that. John Hagstrom in Chicago helped me learn to gain awareness of certain thing that … He’s brilliant in that he understands what tools, like Bud had, some of the things that Bud could do in terms of color of sound and what that color and balance of sound, when you got it, what it meant, like what it sort of ensured.

He would do these exercises where I would play with a straight mute, get the buzz like crazy, pull the mute out, and then keep the buzz but while now having this vocal bottom to the sound. I don’t really remember some big epiphany. I do remember when John showed me this exercise, and he got my ear attuned to this energy and this sound. I remember coming home to this house I had over here on the east side, and doing it one minute at a time. I would try to hold a buzz intensity in the sound, stop, rest, think, rest, again. I remember doing that for hundreds of individual minutes, so the thing I learned was, “Become an expert at simple, fundamental qualities.” Then, that ensures you have to be honest with yourself.

You can’t be practicing to hide something. You have to be practicing to reinforce good habits. I think a lot of times people will practice because they have something coming up and it’s outside of them, or they can’t do it yet, and so how can I do whatever it takes to get around this? That’s a different place than, “How do all these things fit together in one simplistic approach?” I think it was that.

When I won the job in Houston, Atlanta … Houston was the first audition. I was the most surprised one there. I remember the personnel manager came out, and none of the other candidates had come back yet, and he congratulated me in private. “What?! Are you kidding me?” I don’t know. I know it feels good for me to say that because …

Dan Gosling:             You didn’t think you played that well, or you just …?

Tom Hooten:             I had no idea who the competition was. I really didn’t. I think I was just trying to do the best I could. I wasn’t playing things faster than I could play them. I think the other aspect is that I was intrigued about the mental aspect of this. Maybe we can talk about this later, but I’m developing a few seminars that I want to help people … It seems a tragedy that so many music students practice for so long, so many hours, only when they get up to the audition or the performance to lose 50%, 60% of their skills because of nerves. Trying to really connect all of the aspects that we need to do, all of the skills that we need to acquire as musicians.

We have to manage our nerves. We have to have technical proficiency. We have to have an understanding of how to communicate certain human aspects through music, like vibrato, and color of sound, and time, and stuff like that. I think there’s an underlying common thread to all these things, and I think it comes from a sense of honesty with where your skills are, and then a sense of integrity in regards to doing what you have to do to make those skill better from where they are for you, not from where they are with somebody else. Integrity is like, “You know what? I need to become a better communicator or better with my sound.” You know the right way to do it, or you have an idea, and to really stick with that, and to sort of honor the word that you just put out there.

I think, without knowing what I was doing, that was kind of the idea. It’s like, “I’m just going to be honest.” This all came from the embouchure change. I lost everything in grad school, so I was like, “Well, I might as well just get it better from where it is, better than where it should be because I’m a grad student.”