Chris Still is a renowned musician and educator, and I was delighted that he was able to find time to do this interview. He is currently a member of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the founder of ‘Honesty Pill’.
Regular readers will have read Chris’ feature a couple of weeks ago – If you haven’t already, please do follow this link to find out more about his incredible project.
In THIS feature, Chris talks about all things trumpet! …
Please can you give a bit of background to what got you started playing the trumpet and who your early musical influences were?
My father was a really big early influence for me. He was an amateur trumpet player in the local fire Department band and would often take me along with him for rehearsals. Actually, one of my earliest musical memories was of him playing an old Shelton Brooks Dixie land tune, “The Darktown Strutters’ Ball”. I’m sure I still have that sheet music lying around in a box somewhere.
He also had a pretty extensive record collection including the Phillip Jones Brass Ensemble, and too many Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass records to count.
Like every other teenager growing up in the 80s, I also thought I was going to become the next Maynard Ferguson, but luckily, I realized at an early age that probably wasn’t a really good career path for me.
At what point in your early trumpeting did you realize that an orchestral job would be your aim?
I actually did not set out to become an orchestral trumpet player, but initially thought I would become a band teacher. In fact, I did my undergraduate double major in music education and performance at the Crane School of Music SUNY Potsdam in NY. And I think that undergraduate degree in education was one of the best things that ever happened to me. It made me a better performer, clearly a better teacher, and has helped me become a better coach as well.
I think that every performer should do some teaching, and every teacher should still get up and perform regularly. That is one of the strongest takeaways from my early career.
It wasn’t until a performance of Stravinsky’s “The Soldiers Tale”, that I realized I wanted to switch my focus to orchestral performance. I ended up going to do a Master’s degree at the New England Conservatory in Boston and that sort of set my trajectory towards orchestral performance.
How do you manage to juggle all of your other projects alongside keeping your trumpet playing at the highest level?
Other projects aside, I think the best way to answer this question is to first address how to just keep your playing at a high level in any case. And that comes from being efficient and effective in the practice room. I think this is an area most people could improve a lot. I mean, think about it. One of the biggest questions i get is how long should I practice something? This would dictate how much time you have leftover afterwards right? And there are several ways to answer this. Number one, when your mental focus begins to fade and it becomes diminishing returns, it’s time to move on. Or, if you have become physically exhausted to the point of diminishing returns that’s another good indication it’s time to move on to something else.
But the number one way to be efficient in the practice room and know when to stop, is when you have achieved your goal for that session. The problem is most people don’t actually set goals or have any metric to know if they’ve improved or achieved anything. Most musicians just spend their wheels in the practice room. So how would you ever know it’s time to move on? And that’s the problem with efficiency right there.
So to get back to your original question, I have found I have time for other projects in my life by becoming efficient with the work that I have to do for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Of course sometimes I realized that I’ve taken on too much and I have to put a project on the backburner for a while. Developing some skills to balance work life as another area I think most musicians could improve a lot.
I guess the last point to make answering this question is that the trumpet section of my orchestra is a pretty efficient machine. Everyone pulls their weight and everyone has the skills and mindset control to be effective and efficient and get the job done. When you are surrounded by people with that type of work ethic, it makes it really easy to stay in stride.
Have your practice routines and practice sessions changed much over the years?
Oh completely. My practice routines change regularly depending on what type of challenge I need to face. A great tip here is to try and practice the opposite types of challenges at home then you have to do at work. For example, if we are playing a lot of Beethoven on Rotary trumpets for a week or two, I will be sure to practice some high horn work like piccolo. Or, if we are playing some world premiere with a ton of really loud playing, my practice sessions at home look a lot more soft, low and relaxing.
But to answer the question in more of a big picture, I think it’s important to know why you are practicing a certain thing or using a certain tool in the practice room. If you understand the “why”, then you can switch up what you do whenever you want and still accomplish the goals. I think when people don’t know the purpose of a particular approach or exercise, their practice becomes a little mindless, and certainly can become boring or routine.
Another thing i should mention here is, as the years go by my level of awareness continues to rise. Every five years or so I realize that I could probably be doing something even more efficiently than I have been doing it. So I make adjustments. This is good news though because this means I am on an upward trajectory with my playing. And the only other option is to be on a downward trajectory, and I’m really not interested in that.
What are the key things that young aspiring players should concentrate on?
This is a big question. And it depends on the context. However if I were to answer generally, if I were to give you the number one thing that would fast track your improvement, is to record yourself. And I don’t mean once in a while. I mean record yourself every day, for a very short period of time, and then listen back right away while you still remember what it felt like. That is how you improve quickly. That is how you raise your levels of awareness. That is how you swallow the honesty pill and deal with the things in your playing that need to be dealt with for you to improve.
Also, take your work seriously, but don’t take yourself seriously. Musicians are really good at forgetting why they started playing an instrument in the first place…because it brought us joy. That is something that we all need to remember to connect to as we strive to become better musicians. And that is something you can do when you’re first starting out or if you’re a seasoned pro. Find the joy.
Would you say that your approach to trumpet teaching has changed much over the years, and if so, how?
One of the things I’ve noticed having been a coach and teacher for so long, is that everyone tends to make the same exact types of mistakes. In fact, in the study of excerpts, many people make the exact same mistakes over and over. So when someone comes in to study with me, my default is that i already know most of what they’re probably going to do wrong. This has saved me a lot of time and made me become a much more effective teacher.
However, one of the things that has evolved and my teaching over the past 10 years or so, is I try to create more of a thinking space for my students. I am letting them find these solutions themselves with my guidance, instead of just telling them what they’re doing wrong. I think I have realized that my number one job as a teacher is to help my students do their own best independent thinking. That is what will give them the tools to solve problems when I am not around. And that’s sort of the point of teaching isn’t it?
Trust me, I still call my students out when they make mistakes, but I have been making an effort to lead them more than just tell them what’s wrong. Funny thing is, when they record themselves, they hear their mistakes right away anyway, so I normally don’t have to say anything.
You have worked closely with a number of makers and manufacturers in making sure that you are playing gear that is best suited to you. Please can you talk a little about your relationships with any of these?
I have been a Yamaha performing artist since I was the principal trumpet of the Colorado Symphony, and can’t say enough great things about the support I have gotten from Bob Malone and my colleagues at Yamaha. The equipment is unparalleled in my opinion, and the support network that comes with it is really aligned with my needs.
Joining the Yamaha family was a really easy decision for me because i already loved their equipment and it just keeps getting better.
What has been your most enjoyable project or concert to be a part of?
That’s a tough question to answer. I’m lucky to work in an orchestra that experiments with a wide variety of genres and types of projects, so it’s hard to pick just one. I’ll narrow it down to three.
• Mahler 9 with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Gustavo Dudamel at the Musikverein in Vienna. It doesn’t get much better than that for me.
• Anytime John Williams conducts the LA Phil at the Hollywood Bowl for 18,000 screaming, light saber waving fans
• Playing with Herbie Hancock at Walt Disney Concert Hall and talking to him about his dogs after the concert.
What are your trumpeting ambitions for the future?
Happily, the trumpet section of the LA Phil is pretty ambitious and we are always pushing each other to improve and discover things about our playing. So I guess my ambition is to keep contributing and supporting that mission in every way I can.