by Brad Tatum
As hornists, we live in a society full of musicians who are aspiring to win that position with a full-time orchestra or other performing arts organization. It is easy for musicians who are fresh out of college to feel a sense of failure if they have not yet achieved this. Sadly, the old and inappropriate adage that those who can’t, teach, has always seemed truer for musicians than any other field. However, I am fortunate that at this stage in my life I have achieved a degree of success as a teacher and performer and find that they are quite complementary to each other. In this article, I hope to share some lessons I have learned along the way of how to be successful doing both, and to demonstrate how teaching can make you a better performer and vice-versa.
In addition to being blessed with a wife and two kids, I currently teach band and orchestra full time at Elizabeth Seton High School, play principal natural horn for the Washington Bach Consort, instruct a large studio of horn players, give recitals and masterclasses at universities, and freelance in the Washington, DC area. Most recently, I had the wonderful experience of hosting the first ever D.C. Horn Choir Camp at my high school. It was a terrific way to use my skills as a hornist and band director to benefit others.
I started my teaching career while completing my DMA at Maryland, and I have been teaching for nine years. My struggles to be a good music teacher and hornist have always seemed to coincide; so far, success in one has brought success in the other. It is safe to say it all began when I established a routine of practicing first thing in the morning before school. Not only has this created a great habit, but also it has made me a better music teacher. Some days this was my only chance to practice, and on the days I got distracted by other tasks, I always wished I had practiced first. It forced me to use my time wisely and to learn to practice with an emphasis on quality over quantity. It also helps me wake up and feel more focused before my school day begins.
Now that I teach high school, I have been able to connect with my high school students by emphasizing these same goals in practice. Today’s high school students are split between dozens of activities and have limited practice time. I always emphasize that when they find time to practice, they should focus on being productive and efficient. Ironically, when they learn to practice efficiently, they are also likely to practice more!
The best teachers have the highest standards for themselves and hold their students to the same standards. My instruction carries weight because the students know that I actively apply the same techniques I give them. This makes success feel more attainable and even worthwhile. Students can spot a fake from a mile away. If you have high standards for them, but not for yourself, they will respond accordingly. In addition, teaching has made me a better performer. It is impossible to spend an entire day reinforcing subdivision in your students without bettering your own personal subdivision. As I’ve raised my standards for my students, my standards for myself have gone up as well!
Fresh out of the University of Maryland with my DMA, I had very little work as a performer. At that time I did not feel very successful and had several bad habits that I still I needed to work out in my playing. My horn professors had served me incredibly well, but some lessons just can’t be taught until you are in the real world looking for a paycheck. I began studying natural horn during my DMA, and my lack of performing work gave me time to focus my energy on further developing my natural horn skills. I founded my chamber group Opus 40, scheduled concerts at a variety of venues, programmed the music I wanted to play, and forced myself to prepare pieces on the natural horn. I learned more about the nonmusical aspects of planning a performance: logistics, choosing a program, organizing musicians, and planning rehearsals. I had to learn how to manage performances and people, not just practice! While this directly helped me as a performer, it also served my band and orchestra students. When you are regularly programming concerts as a soloist or chamber musician, you make sure to choose repertoire that will be successful, interesting, and in your ability range. As a teacher, you have to know what you can teach, how far your students can be pushed, what their endurance and abilities are, and what audiences (or judges) want to hear. This is a constant balancing act.
When you aren’t a member of a full-time orchestra, you have to innovate and create your own opportunities to keep performing. Frequently, these efforts will lead to more opportunities! Starting a chamber group and creating performing opportunities brought all my training together. Most of my regular, quality playing gigs, and guest appearances at universities started because of my initiative when I had a lack of performing opportunities! In a region full of great horn players, I built my own niche and marketed myself at workshops, improved my technique by programming tough repertoire, and listened to the tough criticism of my colleagues. It is so valuable to collaborate with instrumentalists who aren’t wind players (or hornists). They don’t allow you excuses and don’t consider the things that make your instrument difficult; they just want it played correctly!
Finally, maintaining a teaching and performing career takes careful balance. To be a successful performer, teacher, and husband you have to choose your performing options wisely. After you have established yourself, there will always be opportunities to play your instrument, paid and unpaid. Many opportunities will improve your playing, while others can be detrimental to your family, playing ability, or budget. Playing the natural horn, and particularly the works of Bach, I have to weigh these options carefully. Successful natural horn performances take a significant amount of practice, and there is always the very real possibility of failure! On top of that, maintaining a successful horn studio means you need to be available for regular lessons. Otherwise, students will go elsewhere. This is especially important when balancing a full-time teaching career and family. At the end of each school year, I always reconsider which performing groups I will continue playing with in the coming year, basing on how my time and schedule has worked out.
Finally, I strongly encourage any hornist to remember that success can be found many places. I came to truly love where I am in life when I realized I could be a successful musician even if I hadn’t won a full-time performing job. I love the variety in my life, am thankful for the opportunity to inspire and teach students every day, and wouldn’t trade my family for anything! Every musician and teacher has a different story. What has worked for me isn’t for everyone, but I hope these thoughts and lessons are helpful.