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Tom Hooten – Principal Trumpet, Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra Interview Part 3

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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 3, Tom talks in depth about his embouchure change in college, his early goals, the importance of being honest with yourself, investing in yourself, staying curious, preparing for and taking auditions, and techniques to combat nerves.

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:             Let’s talk about the embouchure change a little bit, because I was watching some of the videos on your website, and it struck me that, as is often the case when something “bad” happens to us, that we think is bad, there’s usually great learning to be had from it. There’s usually somebody’s tapping us on the shoulder saying you need to pay attention to something, you need to stop and learn something. The tragedy is most people just keep focusing on the bad thing and they’re not seeing the potential learning to come from this. Would it be too much of a stretch to say that that embouchure change was the best thing that ever happened to you?

Tom Hooten:             Yeah, I think so. For sure. It’s really easy to say that now. “The embouchure change, oh, man, that was awesome.”

Dan Gosling:             “I’m so happy this … ”

Tom Hooten:             It was by far the most difficult time for me relative to where I was as becoming a better musician. It really knocked me down emotionally. I remember I went to a counselor a few times, like, “I’m confused, because I’m supposed to be a grad student here at Rice University, and I can’t play the instrument here that gave me the full ride.”

Dan Gosling:             Is this something that Mr. (Armando) Ghitalla said you need to do, or was this something you decided to do?

Tom Hooten:             It was both. I was so lucky to have him as a mentor, but one of my best friends went to Rice a year before me, and he played the top, his name is Brian Brown, the top of the mouth, he had pretty big lips, but the top of the mouthpiece was in the red.

Dan Gosling:             Really? Okay.

Tom Hooten:             He still was a very strong player, but he had a little bit of ups and downs. He would get beat up a little bit, but still a really fine player. He met with Ghitalla, and Ghitalla said, “You need to give that up.” What I didn’t know was that within three months or five months, I can’t remember exactly, but Brian made this unbelievable transformation and won auditions for the Dallas Symphony and New World Symphony. What I later found out was that was the fastest embouchure change that Ghitalla had ever seen.

Dan Gosling:             So it’s good you didn’t know that. (Laughs)

Tom Hooten:             It’s good that I didn’t know that. I had problems, big problems with range and endurance. I had good technique, at least coordination. I heard Brian play and I thought, “Oh my God.” Ghitalla, I need to do that. I heard he went from great to … I heard other great trumpet players in his sound. Wow. I was very open to it and I think I was really naïve. I didn’t really know that it would take nine months for me to realize where my footing was. I think the two big lessons that came out of this and I think I might have put this on my website was that I’m not a trumpet player, I’m a musician.

I play the trumpet and that’s helped me separate. I can figure this out and I’m a musician on a mission. The other one was, at some point I had to trust myself and Ghitalla was giving me these parameters, say M, do this, blah, blah, blah. At some point I said, “You know what, I understand the information you’re telling me, I’m going to have to apply this in the best way that I can. I can’t do it exactly like you.” At that point, I really started going from a more intuitive standpoint and that really helped open up. Okay, this is not as bad as you thought it was, trust yourself, listen, use your own ears. Listen to your body. Think in terms of balance and all this kind of stuff. That really was the catalyst for me to start improving.

Dan Gosling:             Where do you suppose that kind of mental maturity even came from?

Tom Hooten:             It was absolutely out of desperation. I started the embouchure change in June. He said, “Say M. I want you to play from middle C to high C for a week. Close your teeth.” I was too open. June, July, August, September, October, November, I had to turn down … I won a concerto competition on the Hummel and I had to turn it down. I think it was either November or December, somewhere right around Thanksgiving. I go into my lesson and Ghitalla says, “Tom, I don’t think we’re doing the right thing.”

Dan Gosling:             You’re how many months into this?

Tom Hooten:             Eight or nine and I’m halfway through my first year of grad school. I completely broke down. I was giving it 100% and … “Are you kidding me?” At that point, I was the only thing I had to fall back on. “Tom, just figure it out. Just do what you think you need to do.” I had all this great information. I had parameters I had to follow but at some point it was, trust yourself and trust your judgement. Here are some of the rules, be honest with yourself, don’t judge yourself because you can’t play well, just figure it out.

Dan Gosling:             That’s what I mean by mental maturity, giving yourself that kind of space and freedom mentally, it’s not something I think everybody would jump to. Oh, Armando Ghitalla just told me I need to hang it up or whatever and you … luckily, for yourself and for the rest of us, were able to see a different way and not … I’m curious, that’s a wisdom that’s rare. Was that something you remember as a kid you had this open child naïve, I’m going to figure it out kind of … ?

Tom Hooten:             I was definitely naïve. I definitely was oblivious to, “Oh I’m going to be at trumpet player,” I had no idea. I went to my hometown college, I didn’t audition anywhere else.

Dan Gosling:             But you wanted to be a trumpet player?

Tom Hooten:             I wanted to be a band director.

Dan Gosling:             Okay, so that was your musical impulse, your musical career at that point was, “I’m going to be a band director”?

Tom Hooten:             Yeah, my dad picked up all these instruments at garage sales … I would say, some people would say, “What’s your super power? What’s your thing?” I think my thing is that I’m coordinated and I’m pretty flexible. We had all these instruments so in band I played … I started as a double major in piano, I had good coordination. I played solo and ensembles on tenor sax and clarinet. I had good coordination but the mental maturity thing, I don’t know if I would 100% agree, you can call it what you like but for me I think it was … I think I was naïve. “Okay, what’s the next step?”

Dan Gosling:             You didn’t give up, obviously?

Tom Hooten:             I didn’t even think it was an option.

Dan Gosling:             Okay.

Tom Hooten:             It never crossed my mind, no.

Dan Gosling:             He said, you’re going to figure this out on your own and was-?

Tom Hooten:             He was frustrated with me, he said, “I give you something and the next week it sounds worse. What’s going on?” I would do exactly what he said and it would pigeon hole me and at some point it just flipped. I was, “Tom, use your own damn ears.” Common sense, “You have a lot of good information. Start using your own brain. Stop trying to imitate. Stop trying-” … That being said, I really listened to him and I continued to listen to him for many things but it was a different perspective, a different approach, rather than mindlessly.

This made me think that, who’s responsibility is it to figure it out? It’s not Ghitalla’s responsibility. It’s the other part of integrity that I want to share with music students. You are a 100% responsible for your musical future. Nobody else is going to care or do or is responsible to do the things that are necessary for you to have a great, vibrant career. I think sometimes, students get confused, “I’m going to go to a good school and that’s going to mean this.” That means you’re going to get good information but you still … and they know this but just to reiterate, you have to be 100% responsible.

Dan Gosling:             After that particular lesson, was there some turning point?

Tom Hooten:             Yeah, friends of mine told me, “What the Hell happening? Tom you could all of a sudden play.”

Dan Gosling:             Really?

Tom Hooten:             Yeah … okay this feels right.

Dan Gosling:             Within a couple weeks after that?

Tom Hooten:             A couple weeks after that, I remember my friend Dave Dash, he said, “I don’t know what you did but something shifted.” The thing is, I don’t play the same as I did then. I’ve learned a thousand small minute adjustments in efficiency and approach.

Dan Gosling:             Fairly soon after that, you’re winning the Marine Band job right?

Tom Hooten:             I won the Marine Band by the skin of my teeth. I barely could play a high C on my C-trumpet. There’s a recording out there I’m sure of me playing my trumpet studio recital on the Tomasi, not going well.

Dan Gosling:             Don’t you love the internet?

Tom Hooten:             Let’s hope that’s not floating around anywhere, it would definitely be a good party tape. I got in the Marine Band and it was a perfect environment to … on the East Coast, that’s when I started taking lessons. One of the unfortunate things about Ghitalla even though I learned so much from him, I am totally indebted to him, he didn’t play anymore. It was really good to go take a couple lessons with Phil (Smith), with (David) Bilger, with Langston Fitzgerald, with Steve Hendrickson, Chris Gekker, anybody that was doing it respectably as a full-time job, I was at their door when I could afford it. Marine Band was great.

Dan Gosling:             Which again, to me, speaks to no ego. You were open to … here’s a guy doing what I want to do, here’s a guy that I respect, here’s a guy he’s an hour drive.

Tom Hooten:             Five hours.

Dan Gosling:             Whatever, I should go spend some time with him because there’s something there for me to learn. Which is a huge lesson right there.

Tom Hooten:             I think the other thing that maybe be a little bit of a soapbox is that, there are many schools out there, really fine institutions that are offering free tuition and board … room and board. I think there’s a possibility of losing a lesson there is that you have to invest in yourself. I hate to say the over-used word entitlement but I don’t know if it’s entitlement, it’s just that sometimes I feel that these students don’t realize that you could sacrifice a little resources.

Whether it’s buying a CD or buying a five dollar app and not a dollar app … I remember not knowing where my next lesson money would come from, “How am I going to pay for this?” But I would schedule it anyway and figure it out. I invested in myself a lot. I took Tony Robbins seminars, walked over coals of fire, understanding human development, human interaction, all that kind of stuff. I invested in myself and I think that’s something I would encourage young students to do. Don’t be afraid to break the trend, “Oh I have this one teacher, I’m going to do” … there’s a lot of great ideas out there. Create the environment for you to learn more.

Dan Gosling:             Tom has a remarkable record of success when it comes to taking auditions. You and I both know really great players, top of their game, some of them you talked to … I took a couple auditions, worked my way into a major orchestra. There are others, equally fine players, took five, ten, fifteen, maybe twenty auditions to get to the top of the heap. You won the Marine Band job, you won the Indianapolis Symphony job, you then won the Houston Symphony and the Atlanta almost simultaneously. You then went on to win the Los Angeles Philharmonic. It’s an amazing achievement. What would you tell someone who’s going to ask what I’m going to ask, how did you do that? How do you have such a high level of success when it comes to that most stressful time for any musician? The audition.

Tom Hooten:             It’s a big question. I think where these, that I mentioned before, these seminars where they’ve come from is what pattern am I noticing. What traits … character traits, I guess you’d say are at the backbone of people that are doing well in this type of stuff? One thing that I would notice is that people would get, the ego would come in. I’m not a psychologist, if somebody’s watching this and they’re a psychologist, they might be saying, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” That’s fine. I’d love to learn from them but what I did notice is that I was always honest with myself. I never tried to posture. I always asked questions. Always asking questions. “Can I get better at this? Is that the best I can do? Is there a better way to communicate this intention of music that I’m about to play?”

I would say that’s probably the backbone but then I, again, I really think that’s the backbone. Almost every audition I was at I heard people playing things that were beyond me. Wow, what amazing big sound that person has or what a technique. I hear this guy in the next room, girl in the next room, but I think I came to these auditions with a trustworthy, concise assortment of skills that I had no problems with addressing every single one of those at their most fundamental level. I would create that environment. I would take a sheet and I would write down all the skills I need as a musician to play all of these excerpts so I would never let anything go more than two, three, four days without touching it. To me, that brings a degree of openness to say, you know what? I’m not smart enough to keep this all in my head. I’m just going to put it on a piece of paper and then notice, oh you know what, one of my weaknesses is soft playing. Shock. I haven’t done it in five days. Then it takes out the judgement and that elicits confidence.

Dan Gosling:             Because you know it’s all right there when you need it.

Tom Hooten:             Right, yeah. When I take away that, oh you know what, I’m not going to label myself, I don’t have a good low register. No, low register is on my list of needs because we have to play Carmen so I’m going to work on it. I’m not going to avoid it because it’s a weakness and spend all my time trying to get by with that. No, I’m going to address right between the eyes. How can I have a low register that is also the same approach as the high lick in Bartok Concerto? There has to be some commonality. I don’t know if that makes any sense on the larger scale. There’s that aspect of approach to your skills to play the trumpet. The other one is I invested some effort in understanding human psychology. How to manage your nerves.

Tony Robbins talks about the neuro-associative conditioning and how you can get yourself to elicit an emotional response to a physical action. I talk about this in the seminars to get people to understand that whether you think it or not, you’re creating those associations all the time. The one I use is … maybe Tony does this, I don’t know … you’re driving in a car and all of a sudden your whole car lights up blue and red and you hear a siren. Why does your heart start beating? Because there is a meaning associated with that. We can create meanings to actions we have to play the trumpet. I can create a meaning to this.

Dan Gosling:             Either positive or negative?

Tom Hooten:             Right.

Dan Gosling:             It’s up to you to figure out way to make this something that makes you-

Tom Hooten:             Positive and it’s me, I can tailor it for my personality. If someone is listening to this and they want to apply it to theirs, say, what do you want to channel when you want to communicate music? For me it was s sense of joy and strength and calm. Some formula of that but I did it enough times that it became a self-fulfilling … now, it’s this little thing that happens. I put the trumpet up and I … even right now as I do this, I tend to think a little more focused and a little bit more game time.

Dan Gosling:             You have trained that. You’ve taken countless hours to make sure your mind isn’t, “Maybe I’m going to be confident tomorrow or today,” you make it so you associate the act of playing with those emotions that you want.

Tom Hooten:             Yes, what I want. I picked a certain time I had a great performance, I get my body in that state and then I connect that emotion to this and so you do that enough times and it really starts to-

Dan Gosling:             Self perpetuate.

Tom Hooten:             I’m not saying that I don’t ever feel nervous. There are times where, of course, I feel nervous but when I need to reinvigorate that connection, I know how to do it. When I took the audition for Houston, it was one of the most powerful, calm states I’ve ever been. I remember sitting on stage and being absolutely present like I’m sitting here with you. It’s the finals and I remember thinking, “Okay, I feel like whatever they need me to do,” and it wasn’t ego, I just felt like a vessel, it was weird. There have been times after that … I didn’t quite feel that in LA. I think I really wanted it and I had some sense of-

Dan Gosling:             Anxiety.

Tom Hooten:             Yeah, but I still worked on it. I did this action at least 300 times and I wrote these down. Check. Ba-ba-ba-bum. Check. Ba-ba-ba-bum. It wasn’t by chance. I respected every aspect of what I needed to bring and I addressed it where it needed to be addressed, for me. Some people might not get nervous at all, great, but this is what works for me. You have the nerves, you have the musicality and then you have the technical preparation and all of them serve one another. I think, in some way. When I’m more calm, I can make better music. When I’m more technically proficient, I can make better music.

Dan Gosling:             Wow. We could go on for hours. This has been fascinating.

Tom Hooten:             Thanks, thanks for having me.

Dan Gosling:             I’ve really enjoyed this. I hope you all enjoyed it too, thanks once again Tom, for being with us.

Tom Hooten:             Pleasure. Bravo to you, everything with ChopSaver, I really admire your tenacity and your … your drive is really spectacular and I wish you all the success.

Dan Gosling:             Thank you, thank you. It’s in great part to people like you that use it and talk about it and I’m very honored that you do.

Tom Hooten: ChopSaver, do it.