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Selling Lessons From A Trumpet Lesson

It was an exciting week. I started out in St. Paul on Sunday afternoon. I was there Monday and Tuesday to attend a few meetings with a special client, deliver a few presentations, facilitate some discussions and attend their annual sales awards dinner. It was two of the best days I’ve ever spent with a client. More about that another time.

Several months ago, after already having this trip booked, I was hired by a company in Dallas to deliver the keynote at their sales kickoff meeting on Friday, first thing in the morning. No offense to those in the Midwest, but what was I going to do between Tuesday evening in St. Paul and Thursday evening in Dallas? Flying home to Martha’s Vineyard wasn’t an option. I considered meeting clients, some friends, but I came up with a much better idea…

I gave up playing the trumpet professionally in 1975. The reason was this: no matter how many teachers I went to, no matter how long I practiced (six hours a day, generally), and no matter how insightful, creative and analytical I tried to be, I couldn’t overcome significant problems with range (high notes) and endurance. Busy professional trumpeters, such as I was, can have two or three gigs in a single day, sometimes amounting to eight or even ten hours of playing. Having to play in the upper registers, needless to say, adds a lot of weight to that burden. One day, frustrated with my lack of ability to overcome those technical obstacles, I just packed it it. Done. Over.

Thirty-two years later I picked up the horn again. I sounded horrible at first, but began to get my chops back, little by little. But my previous obstacles—range and endurance—were still obstacles. I was no better off.

Back in the 1970s there was a remarkable young trumpeter for whom range and endurance didn’t appear to be even a consideration. He could play as high or low as he desired with no visible effort or strain. Hours of playing lead trumpet in Maynard Ferguson’s band every night, perhaps the most demanding job anywhere for a trumpet player, was a breeze. At 24 years old and 124 pounds (!), he rocked the community of trumpet players back on their heels, me included. His command of the instrument stared me right in the face—and it contributed to my quitting.

Knowing I had an extra two days in the Midwest, I looked up that amazing trumpeter, Lynn Nicholson. He now lives in Las Vegas, and gives trumpet lessons! A few emails back and forth and we were set. I would head to Vegas from St. Paul. Lynn would pick me up at my hotel, and he would give me a two-hour lesson. What I found curious, though, is in every email we exchanged during the eight weeks prior to my visit, he would remind me to keep an open mind. Again and again he wrote it. Keep and open mind.  I assured him that this wasn’t an issue for me, but nevertheless he kept insisting that these two-hours would be very different for me and an open mind was what was required.

The lesson was yesterday.

I hate hackneyed cliches. I try not to use them. But here goes. Yesterday was a paradigm- changing, out-of-the-box thinking, smack-in-the-side-of-the-head day. Some of the core beliefs that I had about playing the trumpet (from some of the “best” teachers anywhere), were not only wrong—but get this—not even applicable. What he showed me was so counter intuitive, it defied logic, at least at first.

Talk about needing an open mind… One new paradigm for example: the higher you play the more relaxed your lips should get. Picture that. I sure couldn’t. Every trumpet teacher I ever had implored me to strengthen my lips with exercises, because the higher I needed to play the tighter they were going to have to be. So very wrong. Lynn proved it to me with a demonstration of his range and dynamic capabilities. The sheer volume of bright, cutting, healthy sound, up and down three-and-a-half octaves was astonishing. Lynn is capable of producing a sound so big that he wears sound-reducing headphones. Then he told me his embouchure (lip and muscles around his mouth) are weaker than mine. He’s actually played only 10 hours in the past three months. Less is more? Weak is strong?  All that and more.  My mind was spinning.

Lynn talked about the adaptive algorithm that trumpet players (and everyone else) naturally employ to get past an immediate obstacle. After the lesson I was back in my hotel and had to play with a mute, which not only dampened the sound, but altered the physical characteristics of the trumpet, mainly in the amount of additional resistance to blowing the mute caused.  I felt off-balance and confused working on what Lynn taught me.

I emailed Lynn telling him where I was with what I learned, with a question about how to manage it. His response, “Great news! You are making substantial progress, for sure. Don’t worry about the mute. It is simply another aspect of the adaptive algorithm, and will be handled appropriately as you allow the concepts to be implemented in the absence of thought.” And it was. Ten minutes later more progress in the right direction. My range had increased from two-and-a-half octaves to four.

Understand, I’ve got a long way to go. Not ready to be up on YouTube for all to hear, but the old, incorrect foundations are intellectually and physically broken down. Now, new habit building, doing the right things the right way. Major progress, and this time, for a change, in the right direction!

I think you understand where I’m headed relating to sales, selling and leading a sales team. Times are seriously tough. We all need range and endurance. Are the foundations we’ve built, during very different times and under very different circumstances applicable? Is the answer to a significant challenge the color yellow when the options you see in front of your are only fast or slow? Is your mind open?  Do you understand that change is the only option?  And what adaptive algorithms will enable solutions to manifest themselves from the absence of thought?

Here’s a video of Lynn in 1974. His solo is 2:09 into the clip.

And here he is now.

Total and complete command of the instrument. Effortless.  Gives me the chills every time I hear this clip.

I’m in Dallas now, and gonna practice for a little while…

Photo:  This blogger, the subject of “show-and-tell” at the grandkids’ pre-school.

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6 Responses

  1. Great post Dave. I love the way you describe in thoroughly modern terms the ancient wisdom of letting go and trusting your inner self to do follow your intention.

    Bravo, Bravissimo!

  2. Great post, Dave.

    It is difficult to appreciate how much our world is colored by our assumptions – about what people will or won’t buy, why they do what they do, what is good or bad, how the world really works.

    Reminds me of the old saying: “The last thing a fish discovers is water.”

    We all need to rely less on what we’ve been told, more on first-hand judgments.

    Doing that requires deliberate purpose, and method, and sometimes we need help doing it.

    This reminder is valuable to everyone, especially those responsible for leading organizations!

    And, congrats on renewing your music.

    Michael Webb
    http://www.salesperformance.com

  3. I don’t understand the embouchure, adaptive algorithms, octaves of music, etc, but I can relate it to dance– ports de bras, ballon, Cecchetti & Vaganova method, and the like, and how every teacher’s approach is different. How one teacher is so technical that you freeze up and lose your soul; while another may be so loose that you forget the technique and become the music, etc.

    Great story and comparison to open minded sales approaches in this upside down economy.

    • Thanks for the insightful comment, Johanna. Having never taken ballet, I can see the parallel. Note: Johanna has been our graphic designer since the old Stein Advantage days.

  4. Hello Dave

    How can I contact Lynn Nicholson about a lesson ?
    Thank You so much for the post at TM that lead me here .
    If your ever in Alaska please contact us !

    Michael

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