Tom Hooten: On Being Curious, and Elevating Learning and Growth Above Ego

Legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden once said “If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?”

It’s one of my favorite quotes now, but I wonder if I could have grasped this when I was younger, and in the thick of weekly lessons, rehearsals, performances, auditions, and so on. 

In the sense that when I look back now, I can see how much of my practice was oriented around simply trying to not sound bad at my next lesson, or rehearsal, performance, and just doing what I had to do to sound presentable at the next thing.

And what exactly is wrong with that?

Well, someone once said that we overestimate what we can do in a day, but underestimate what we can do in a year.

Meaning, when we are too focused on sounding good tomorrow, it can be easy to neglect to explore new techniques or approaches that might appear to set us back today, but actually lays the groundwork for a much higher level of playing months or years from now.

Like continuing to make do with our less than ideal chinrest/shoulder rest setup, because we’re afraid to go through the growing pains and adjustments of a new setup.

Or turning a blind eye to our vibrato, rather than exploring ways to develop a more varied vibrato, even though we know this would enable us to be a much more communicative player in the long run.

Meet Tom Hooten

Tom Hooten is Principal Trumpet of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and has previously held positions with the Atlanta Symphony (principal), Indianapolis Symphony (assistant principal), Richmond Symphony (2nd), and “The President’s Own” Marine Band.

Despite getting serious about the trumpet a little later than most, and encountering his share of challenges along the way, Tom seems to be uniquely capable of putting his ego aside, and focusing relentlessly on learning, growth, and being curious. It’s a mindset that’s ideal for learning and performing, and one that I hope this episode will help you incorporate into your own practice and approach to learning as well.

In this 38-min chat, we’ll explore:

  • The problem with practicing to avoid sounding bad – i.e. practicing to hide weaknesses vs. practicing to fix the actual underlying problem (though this may take longer). (1:53)
  • The importance of having the courage to play the long game, and not feel like you have to prove yourself every single day at the expense of your long-term goals. (6:22)
  • How the emphasis he put on playing the right way, and cultivating ease and flexibility are now paying off in his ability to meet the demands of his day-to-day responsibilities with the LA Phil. (8:07)
  • The 5 key basics that he came to feel were really important in auditions. (10:38)
  • The potential downside of finding a “shortcut” that seems to work pretty well. (12:00)
  • How he came to be able to put his ego and pride aside and elevate his commitment to learning and open-minded-ness. (13:40)
  • I ask Tom how he cultivated curiosity and his relentless focus on wanting to figure things out vs. proving himself. (18:58)
  • A way of conceptualizing knowledge that could help you become more open to learning. (20:54)
  • The best remedy for dealing with nerves and ego in auditions. (26:05)
  • Feedback about imperfections as nutrients that sustain him and his continued development. (32:58)
  • Be wary of information overload; Tom suggests taking one thing and seeing how far or deeply one can take it, rather than moving from one thing to the next, engaging in each on only a very shallow level. (34:22)
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Noa: I have to say that there are a number of things about your story and experience that I find really intriguing, and I’d love to explore. I heard you say something in an interview that really stuck out to me, and I thought maybe we could start there and see where it goes. Something to the effect of, you can’t practice to hide something. And I’m probably not saying that right, but do you remember saying that? I mean, I can guess what you meant by that, but I’d love for you to expand on that a little bit.

Tom: Well, it’s just the idea that when, oftentimes, in my own life, I always think about, I tend to go to, try and understand, is there a psychological underpinning of the choices I make? Of course there are. Either they’re circumstantial or they’re sort of just mission based of what I want to produce in my life.

Tom: But I often find that a lot of times what motivates people to practice is a negative. I don’t want to sound bad. Or I don’t want to be embarrassed. Or I don’t want this person to think of me a certain way or … We all have our own story. So I think sometimes people go to the practice room and the front of their mind is, “How can I not sound bad? How can I just … ” Whatever it takes. And sometimes I think that’s a positive thing, but sometimes it really keeps us from addressing the real issues.

Tom: So I try to encourage students and say, “When you go to the practice room, don’t go there just to hide your issues from other people. Go there to actually fix the problem. Don’t go there to just learn the piece for this week. Don’t cram for the test that’s coming up in three days. Why don’t you just actually learn the material?” And that’s one of the issues that I sort of in a very casual way that I have with our educational system, is that whether it’s the quarter system or the semester system, is that our mindset is compartmentalized into these places, to these mile markers that many, many times have absolutely no bearing on the physiological changes that need to occur.

Tom: That’s sometimes I say this comment to students to try to get them to think past their jury or to get them to think past their recital and to invest their time in the practice room in a way that’s going to yield long-term results, not just short-term.

Noa: Which I imagine is hard to do, like you said, in the educational system where we had deadlines that feel really pressing. Does a particular example come to mind as far as illustrating the … Because I like the idea of practicing for a specific purpose other than trying to avoid some negative consequence.

Tom: Well, I mean you could think of a million of them, but, and this might be trumpet specifically but I think it works for any instrument. Let’s say I’m working on Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, which has a scary opening for the trumpet, and I need to start soft and I need to start with a relatively fluid tongue … Rather than go into the practice room and work on the actual production that I need to have, my “reed” as a trumpet player and my lips and the air and how they balance together, well, I could introduce throat tension, I could pinch a little bit, and I could squeeze my trumpet. And I might get close to the same short-term result. But that particular posturing doesn’t work for anything else because it’s complicated and it’s uniquely tailored to that situation.

Tom: Now, how hard is it for me to go from that to Ravel Piano Concerto or that to something that I’ve learned to be relaxed and open. Let’s say I play Pines of Rome, second movement, which is like, “Ah, that’s a good excerpt for me. It’s nice and relaxed.” But I’ve just come from Mahler Five where I’ve learned that this little positioning works. Well okay. Hold on a second here. Here’s, okay, here’s Ravel. Oh, here’s Don Juan. It’s over here. And man, life is way too complicated and you’re never going to be consistent.

Tom: So if I worked on production and I worked on the simplicity of that and my tongue to be relatively relaxed, which is a little bit longer road than the short-term thing, it works for maybe all of my excerpts. So even though it feels like the shorter progressive timeline, you’re actually working on many, many, many, many excerpts all at the same time. Because if you take a step back, and you look at all of the … what are the values that I’m trying to instill in my trumpet playing or my musicianship, wow, they … Oh, I see them. They’re everywhere. Now what’s keeping me from having those easily accessible to each place? So I try to work on that kind of mentality.

Tom: And that’s why I say like it’s hard to have the courage to work through deadlines or maybe you’re a little tired for a concert in school. I’m trying to get my students to not be so overly concerned. They say, “Well, I have so many playing responsibilities.” I’m like, a lot of times students will find themselves in band and especially brass players, they just get their face beat to a pulp. Say, “Well, take it off your face.” Every day doesn’t have to be some sort of ego reassuring sort of like, “I did it. I did it.” Just, “Hey, this is not the battle. This is not the war I’m waging right now.” So like you take it off your face for three bars and so somebody says, “Wow, that guy doesn’t seem like he’s that strong.” Yeah. But I have to practice later.

Tom: It’s about this whole mindset of where being efficient and what are you trying to re-instill and what are your values on a daily basis of your time and where am I trying to go.

Noa: It reminds me a lot…I’ve been watching the basketball playoffs. You often hear people talking about making the smart play, taking the right shot. If a player hits a shot, but it’s a horrible shot that they really shouldn’t have taken, the coach isn’t going to complain too much when they make it, but if they don’t make it, then that doesn’t bode well for their continued playing. It sounds a little bit like that. You’re trying to make sure that you’re developing good technique and good efficient ways and habits of playing that are going to be more broadly applicable beyond just making it work in this one moment for this one thing. But it may not work consistently.

Tom: Yeah. And I feel that I could … My job in the philharmonic here, especially this centennial year, we are jumping through hoops left and right. This week I have to, I’m doing a world premiere by Thomas Adès, which is like, “Oh man.” And the same concert I’m playing Mozart. Last week was a premiere by Louis Andriessen. We’re jumping through a lot of hoops. A lot of different skillsets are needed in a relatively quick time. And I’m just thankful that I’ve put my values in deep, trying to get in a deep sense some of the basic building blocks of production and ease because I started noticing that.

Tom: I mean, because imagine the other cases that like in the little micro sense in an audition you have to jump from piece to piece to piece to piece. Imagine immersing yourself deeply in a piece for a week and then you have to totally change up everything. Not totally, but in a significant way like, “Oh man.” Or in the same concert, I have to play Mozart too. Oh my gosh, it’s like, it feels different. But if I can really find the similarities between all different styles of playing and put my time into that, then I feel like I actually in the end I have a lot more flexibility.

Noa: I’m smiling because I know on your website, the first book on there was Tim Ferriss’ 4-Hour Workweek, and that sounds very Tim Ferriss of you to describe things that way.

Tom: I was doing this a long time ago, but I love his book. I mean, it is really helping me from a business standpoint and in time management standpoint because I find that, especially with kids like you. You have one or two? Yeah, time is of the essence. I’m just super grateful, honestly, because for the longest time I would see other people or hear other people when I was taking auditions, like, “Oh my gosh, they can do so many things I can’t do,” whether it’s some crazy slur or they’re playing really high or something. I’m like, “Okay.” But then I win the audition. You’re like, “Well, okay.”

Tom: So maybe after a while, I started trusting my instincts, and what are my values in terms of the listener, in terms of the audience, in terms of the committee, I started having a little bit more confidence then, because I sort of felt a little like the tortoise and the hare. It’s like, look, these things are important, pitch, time, sound, musicality, and your ability to … your mental ability to have access and awareness of all of those in real-time. I think those are the things, pitch, time, sound, musicality, and your mental state.

Tom: Now I always talk to people about the first two and what are unique about the first two, pitch and time. Well, we have ways to measure those better than anybody can ever play. So the better that we can have those, the better chance you’re going to have to be judged on the other two, musicality and sound. The better pitch center I have, usually the better sound I have. I just feel like there’s a logic to all of this that seems to make sense when it comes of how you spend your time. Get really, really, really good at the absolute basics.

Tom: I know this is … We’ve heard this a million times from people. But I feel like musicians, there’s such a emotional component. We bring so much of ourselves into the performance that it’s extremely vulnerable and it’s hard to have sort of this calm, maybe somewhat logical mindset about this. I was like, “The last thing I want to do is be embarrassed in front of all these people.”

Tom: So you make any shortcuts that you might need. And then maybe the worst thing is that maybe sometimes that works. And then you’re like, “No, that’s the way I’m going to go about this.” It’s like, “Oh.” And then you … It makes me so sad when I see musicians that have, maybe they have a skillset of being really malleable and fast and reactive, but then they get a job, something doesn’t work and they don’t know how to actually fix the problem. Then they become a nervous wreck. That’s sad to me that they have something special to offer, but they’ve set themselves up in a way that isn’t resilient in the face of a season or in the face of like a …

Noa: You’ve sort of alluded to this now and also even brought up the word earlier of ego. We’ve only just met, but you strike me as being remarkably capable of putting your ego aside to experiment with something or to learn something or to just put that on the back burner while you’re trying to figure something out, which I think is really challenging for a lot of folks and gets in the way of actually experimenting with things that might enable them to in the long-term develop a skillset that, like you said, is more resilient. Do you have a sense of, is it a conscious thing you do, or is there something that enabled you to do that at some point?

Tom: Listening to a lot of things like Tim Ferriss or Tony Robbins or whoever in the last 20 years, I sort of started connecting the idea of some of the greatest minds. Like one of my favorite guys in this realm, Richard Feynman. I mean, this guy was brilliant beyond brilliant. He could speak to the layperson about physics, and he understood the nitty-gritty, and he was the first guy to say, “I don’t know.” And I love that.

Tom: What I don’t understand with so many people today is like why? There’s nothing wrong with having a strong ego. But why does ego, why is it always paired with closed mindedness? Why can’t you be really confident in what you do and really … and that confidence leads you to be incredibly open? That makes a lot more sense to me. If you are truly confident in what you can do, then be truly confident that no matter why you’re open to trying, it’s not going to make any difference. If it’s something new and different, like, “Hey, that’s awesome.”

Tom: You know what? I thought I was really good at high playing, but that idea, I’m going to try that and maybe it’ll make me better. But it’s not that way. Most of the time ego leads to close mindedness. That to me, I’ll skip all the crap in between and say all the closed-mindedness is dumb, like, because that closes me off from any possibility of improving or growing, or like the mind of a child which is completely curious.

Tom: So, yeah. Picking up and learning from, whether it’s coaches like Tony or reading books or like a biography of some of our world’s greatest minds, it seems that they can be really confident and open minded at the same time. So I just, I’m sort of like, I believe in that.

Tom: The other day I was giving … I did a recital tour through the Midwest and I was talking about this idea of experimenting and trying new things, and somebody said, well, like, what do you … Like, what does that mean? Okay, that’s fair enough. Like what does that actually sound like? And so I picked up my piccolo trumpet and I said, “I’ve been …” In trumpet and brass, we have these things called pedal tones. Nobody ever said do a pedal tone in piccolo trumpet. That seems why. But I just am curious. I’m curious if there’s something to be learned there. And it sounded all bloody horribly. It sounded terrible.

Tom: But I said, “Hold on, hold on. I know this is crude. This is crude. This is me in my practice session every day. 10 to 15 minutes I am wildly curious at trying things.” So I said, “Hold on. There’s maybe a diamond here. Hold on a second. Hold on a second time.” I’m really coarse and rough and I got this pedal and I was like, and I play the octave above the octave above, and then the octave above that, and they were like, “Whoa.” I’m like, “If you just weren’t so concerned about sounding good all the time, I just figured out something about how to play extremely high on the piccolo by crazily weird doing something.”

Tom: And I think that’s normal. I think if you look at all the people that have figured out stuff, it’s just been, they’re just wildly curious. And you can be curious if your ego is at the front of your mind all the time. It’s really … It makes me nauseous when I see an abundance of ego coupled and paired with closed-mindedness because it just, I kind of want to label it as ignorant. I know that’s maybe too judgmental, but I love, I love the idea of this book by Carol Dweck.

Noa: Yeah. Mindset.

Tom: Yeah. I love that book. I share that all the time in my workshops, talking about how do you label yourself. Have you labeled yourself as a ‘talented smart person’ or you labeled yourself as an ‘open-minded, curious musician’, that kind of thing. Especially to kids that are in high school and young college where they’re grappling a lot with where do I fit in with this, and trying to give them a little bit of encouragement to not base all their decisions on finding that kind of social security.

Noa: Do you have a sense of how you cultivated that sort of curiosity? Because one of the things I wanted to ask you is what are you experimenting with now? Or what are you … What are these micro epiphanies that you’re seeking out at the moment? The piccolo trumpet thing was a great example of that sort of thing, because I imagined that you probably were experimenting with stuff. And it sounds a little bit like the Google’s 20% time sort of thing that you almost have for yourself in the practice room. But do you have a sense of how to cultivate that sort of curiosity or how you’ve managed to cultivate that?

Tom: Yeah. Well, how did I cultivate that? I think it was … As a kid I was always very … I was always very interested in watching people and seeing if I could figure out what they’re doing. Even if it was like, I remember when I was 12 years old, some guy came over to a party in my parents’ house, and he was doing all these trick shots with the Frisbee. I just remember my focus being 100% on, “How do you do that? How do you do that?” And spend the whole afternoon just trying to imitate, and just playing a game of imitation. I don’t know. I just, I’ve always kind of had that annoying kid sort of I want to ask you a million questions kind of vibe.

Tom: But I think if I could put it into one thing, and Tony Robbins again helped me kind of have confidence with this and said … I’ll tell because when students feel like they get stuck, I want to get better and I want … I have a teacher. Or maybe it’s the summer. I don’t know. And there’s a lot of I don’t knows. Like what do I do? And I said, “Well, that’s where you start, with a question. Just question after question after question after question after question, and where does that lead you?” Then the coolest places to view with a question into question with what if I … Or what happens if I … And I love that. It’s just, I love that sort of blank canvas.

Tom: The other one, have you ever heard of Landmark Learning?

Noa: I haven’t.

Tom: So Landmark Learning is, I have to preface it by saying I think it’s amazing information. Unfortunately there’s a … Honestly, I don’t understand why there’s a really strong sales component to what they do. It doesn’t seem congruent, like great information about how to live your life and really pushy sales. It seems like one should sell the other one.

Tom: But one of the things that I learned from them that I start all my seminars with is, I’ll just explain it to you. Imagine you have a circle like this. And inside this circle, and I’ll start this for brass players, but more and more I’ve been doing it for school of musics and stuff. So I’ll say, “Inside this circle is all the knowledge that was ever known about trumpet playing.”

Tom: I just pause for a second. “Okay. Now, all you guys, all you people here as trumpet players, what percentage of all this knowledge … You guys are involved in your careers. I mean, you guys are in a conservatory. You’re serious. What percentage do you know?” I’ll pick somebody. You would not believe it’s all over the map. Let’s just pick an average. I mean sometimes some people will say 50%. Some people will say 1%. Some people say 70%. It’s just, and I can’t really figure out why. It’s just an individual thing. I don’t think it’s so much a culture thing. It’s more of individual.

Tom: Let’s say somebody says 50%. Okay. So I draw the line right down the middle. “Now we’re going to label this K, this is your know. Okay. Let’s say, are there things that you know about but you don’t know? All right, how many trumpet players in here can play the Brandenburg Concerto?” And nobody raises their hand. “How many of you know what it is?” They all raise their hand. “Okay. So what portion of this pie are things that you know about, but you don’t know?”

Tom: We’ll say you don’t know. And I can tell they’re starting to think, “Oh man, I don’t know where we’re going with this,” because it can’t be the rest. Okay, so they picked something. “25%.” “Okay, 25%.” I said, “Okay. But hold on. Let’s back up for a second. We said that this is a ‘don’t know,’ but in terms of learning and knowledge, you know about it, so you have an opinion about it. How many of you think the Brandenburg is hard?” They all raise their hand. “Okay, so we’re going to have to take this don’t know because you already have a biased opinion about some of these things because they’re just becoming to your knowing. So that’s no. So what is the rest? What’s the other 25%?”

Tom: They go, “I don’t know.” I’m like, “Right. It’s what you don’t know you don’t know.” I said, “Okay. So here’s the problem with this graph, you guys, is that in terms of the percentage of where your mind is curious and open, we’ve got a little tiny section over here that you’re willing to say you don’t know. That’s pretty small. Now let me ask you this. Where does learning happen?” It happens coming from the I don’t know what I don’t know, and bringing that into the ‘know’. And let’s reduce this ‘know’ down to like 5%.

Tom: Now what kind of minds, because that’s the truth. And I say, “Let’s back up to the question again. This is all the trumpet knowledge that was ever known. Think about that. Not today. For all of time every person’s interpretation of how to play anything high, low, fast, loud, every interpretation of every solo that was, I mean this is an incredible amount of information. So let’s get that to be like 2% because that’s what I’m going to write, 2% is what I know. Maybe. Now if I want to expand that, look at all the places I can learn from. Everybody in this room can learn from anybody else. Get your ego out of the way. Maybe you can learn something from somebody that can play 90% as good as you, but they play one thing better than you. That’s a possibility to learn.”

Tom: So Landmark really helped me articulate that, and I think I had some of that intuitively, but it really helped me. That is the truth. I really believe that. Does that make sense?

Noa: It’s humbling, but in a way that doesn’t make us feel like we know nothing. It just sort of opens up the possibilities of all the things that we could explore because it sort of gives us permission to explore a wider range of things instead of feeling like we need to prove that we have this sort of block that we figured out.

Noa: So this idea of ego, I wonder if it also translates to the audition experience or the audition process, because I think a lot of times it’s difficult to whether it’s seeing the proctor being somebody we know, or thinking we know somebody behind the screen, or even if we don’t know anybody behind the screen, worrying about what they might think. Is there a way that you found to take ego out of the audition part as well to a degree?

Tom: I think you can’t show up on the day and try to think that that’s the time that you’re going to remedy that problem. One analogy could be somebody learned to drive with a Lamborghini with flat tires and they’ve spent a lot of time learning how to drive on the flat tires. You can’t expect to go on the race day. “Oh, sorry. Can I fix my tires?” And then you expect your driving to be great. I mean, there’s too much learning there. I find that it has to be … That’s why I do these whole talks on this, is like in the first one of the talks is honesty and integrity, is like being honest with yourself I think in some ways is the best remedy for nerves and dealing with the ego in these situations.

Tom: The more that you’re honest with where your skills actually are and you fix them, the better chance that you have at not trying to be more than you are on the audition day. Because if we spend the time in the practice room, trying to be more than we maybe our skills actually should be and we’re trying to be complicated and like … Oh man, that seems like a big facade to hold up. And I just don’t … I don’t know if that’s …

Tom: But I think there’s a natural homeopathic, authentic way to deal with that. And that is your mindset in your practice room and how you address problems and in your interactions with people in your normal community. That’s why one of my big flags that I want to hold up at these seminars that I give is because let’s practice that now. Let’s be a resource for each other.

Tom: One of the Latin roots of competitive is to conspire together. Let’s work together. It’s not against each other. It’s us all working together and learning from each other. I try to encourage students to have that mindset because I think we’re all better off for it and music is better off for it. I think we’re going to communicate more authentically rather than living in this sort of postured kind of reality. I don’t know if that makes sense.

Tom: I mean, I have nuts and bolts. I mean, I have the neuro associative conditioning stuff that is more physiological … a mix between the physiological and the mental. But I think there’s only so much that that can do. If you believe deep down certain things, there’s only so much that this kind of work can help steer it.

Noa: By getting an honest sense of where things are really at in the practice room well in advance, I mean, do you mean things like recording yourself to see how you really sound, or are you thinking other things?

Tom: Yeah, recording yourself, sure. Or again, having the mindset of you’re not scared to look in the mirror. I say this funny thing in my workshops, is like how many of you each morning take all your clothes off, you stay naked in front of the mirror and you say, “Good morning, sexy.” Most of us don’t do that. Why? Because we see the truth looking at us and we can’t really lie to ourselves. Maybe that’s a terrible analogy, but you get the idea.

Tom: I think the underlying root is to be honest with yourselves, and put yourself in situations and ask questions that leave you a little vulnerable. You have to be willing to accept the answer. Like one of them, I don’t know if you’ve tried this app, it’s called Smart Record. There’s a lot of apps that do it, but it’ll play it back half speed down the octave. And it is humble pie. I mean every little scoop and pitch, every little like rushed little pairing of notes, it all is like … Who was it that said, I can’t remember, some famous businessmen said, “Your success is going to be directly tied to your ability to accept criticism.”

Tom: Again, it’s going back to the ego. If the ego is a block in saying, “No. I know it. I got it.” Well, okay, I mean then you’re not growing. But the more important is the one, the conversation we have with ourselves in the practice room. How many times do we … What is the other saying? It’s “integrity is what we do when nobody’s watching.” So in the practice room, are you actually doing that work where you’re like, “Oh god, that sounds terrible”? Or do you put your favorite recording in this year and a recording of yourself in this year and compare them like this and be like, “Oh God, it’s not that … ” I mean, how much can you stomach of that?

Tom: But see, I’m putting the question on right there. That’s not where my personal focus is. My focus is like, “This is awesome. Oh my God. Oh, make that note a little longer. Oh, my articulation needs fixing. Oh, that’s easy.” And it just, I make a little checklist like, “Sweet, I’m chiseling away.” And this is as raw as it gets. Then you notice that you’re setting the bar really high. And that’s easy.

Tom: These things are easy to fix because I’m just putting them right in my face. I love that. It’s just so much easier to have that kind of open, authentic, honest, “Here it is. Fix it,” and again, asking people questions like, “What’s the best way I can fix this?” Or, “Do you have any advice?” Or, “Here’s the big one.” I cannot believe when people take auditions and don’t get comments. What? It’s free. It’s free advice and it does come with the … You have to take it with a grain of salt and people have a different vernacular.

Tom: I think sometimes people will hear the same thing and describe it totally different. One person could say, “Your sound was a little thin,” and somebody else would say, “You played on the upper side of the pitch.” So we have to be sort of flexible in how we interpret some of these comments and look for clues about how things could relate. But the idea is just ask and get comfortable with that.

Tom: I skipped a step with the pain of like, “Oh, this needs improvement,” and I go right to, “This leads to improvement.” Skip all that stuff in the middle, which causes people pain and go right to this leads to this. The pain leads to improvement. I don’t actually identify it as just pain. I identify it as opportunity.

Noa: Well, it seems like you’re so much more interested in opportunities to improve than opportunities to prove yourself in a way that seeing, “Oh, this is as bad as it can be right now because this is where it’s at,” and I can hear ways of making this better. I can identify little tiny tweaks I can make that I know will make a difference, that that is so much more exciting to you than trying to, well, not pretend, but trying to … I forget the word that you used.

Tom: Yeah. Or whatever. I don’t know what the right word is, but yeah, exactly. Yeah. I’m much more curious about that. This is about investing in myself. This isn’t about a McDonald’s meal for me. This is like nutrients for my craft, nutrients for my … I’m feeding it. And the more that I shut off those lines of information, which is nutrients for me to grow, the more I shut those off, well, I’m going to starve and I’m going to atrophy. And I don’t want that.

Tom: I think there’s also a balance the other way, is like when is enough is enough. That’s tough. I think as musicians we’re always, we’re always struggling with, I don’t clock in at 9:00 and clock out at 5:00. It’s like that’s another conversation.

Noa: Right. Right. Right. Are there any books you feel are a must read for folks that maybe don’t get talked about a lot, or maybe even podcasts that you think people should be listening to that you think might be helpful?

Tom: Well, I don’t read as much as I should or want to. Again, maybe another conversation about life balance and kids and work. But one thing that I like to do, and this is kind of Tim Ferriss thing on top of a Tim Ferriss thing, in listening to his book, I bought the actual book and I listen to it when I’m driving, is be careful not to have information overload or information saturation. I would make a parallel between this and my craft as a trumpet player musician is that I tried to take …

Tom: Sometimes I feel people will get advice and they’ll throw it away looking for another piece of advice and throw it away and looking for another like what’s, oh … I can see how that’s good because maybe you’re looking for something that resonates with you, but … Or like a student might say, “Well, I didn’t really connect with that teacher.” And I’m sure that happens that a teacher’s not a good fit. But the mindset of a student is like, “I’m going to get really good at every piece of advice you gave me.”

Tom: That might be five things that I’ve learned in the last five years, and I’m going to take a breath the best as anybody has ever taken a breath. I’m going to release it the best as anybody has ever taken. I’m not going to use too much pressure. And then a couple basic things and I’m going to go really far, really far with those basic things. It’s kind of the same thing with reading an information. There’s so much information in the Tim Ferriss’ book, it’s unbelievable, that I could probably chew on that book for a year and see how far it can actually do the exercises.

Tom: We could pick a book like mindset and say, “Chew on that for a while. Get good at it.” Or the Daniel Coyle book about The Talent Code. Don’t just look for the next answer. Like actually apply. Some of the stuff that we can talk real quick about the neuro-associative conditioning, that stuff is pointless unless you actually make it physical and repeatable, because if you don’t, then the information, it stays as information and you can’t apply it.

Tom: I try to read and I’m reading books now on plant-based diets. There’s a book called How Not to Die, which is kind of a cool book, basically advocating for a whole food plant-based diet. There’s an another book that’s on my shelf called Your Microbiome, which I don’t know that much about. I’m kind of curious about that. I can’t remember the author, but a book on Elon Musk, like biography on him, or I love the book on Walter Isaacson and Steve jobs and just … There’s another one by Ed Catmull called Creativity, Inc. It chronicles Pixar’s rise and their business practices. And man, there’s so many things you can parallel between their ability to plan for failure and how they …

Tom: One of the coolest things, I’ll share this with you. At first when Pixar, I think Disney bought Pixar, but they kept them separate. Disney Animation was failing and Pixar Animation was going crazy. So Disney bought Pixar, I think I have this right, but they kept their division separate. When they did some kind of, there’s some crossing over in terms of administration, the Pixar people, they wanted all of their animators like, let’s see everything you got. It was either every day or every week. And they were like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. No, no, no, no.” “We have like stick figures and storyline.” They’re like, “Great. Let’s see.” And they’re like, “No, look, it really doesn’t look that good.” There’s this battle and they, finally they changed the culture. They’re like, “Let’s review our shit every day.”

Tom: I think sometimes as musicians we get into this like, “No, it’s not ready, it’s not ready, it’s not ready.” It’s like, I’ve heard so many times, “Oh, I don’t think I’m ready for a lesson with Tom.” There’s no preparation. Show me where you are right now. So that book, I love that book, and I brought a lot of that book into my seminars, talking about the mix between resiliency and mindset and creativity and what kind of questions, what are you planning for and how do you define failure? I mean, that’s a huge one.

Tom: So anyway, I threw out some books there. I guess that’s what’s on my mind now.


[1] Tim Ferriss and his book The 4-Hour Workweek comes up. (9:31)

[2] Tom mentions life coach/speaker/author Tony Robbins and physicist Richard Feynman (13:40)

[3] Tom mentions Carol Dweck’s book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, which she speaks a bit about in this TED talk. (17:41)

[4] I allude to Google’s “20% time,” which you can read about here. (18:38)

[5] Tom references the Landmark organization. (20:23)

[6] Tom references neuro-associative conditioning, which Tony Robbins describes here .

[7] Tom mentions the Smartrecord app (iOS only), which can slow down your recording to half tempo. If you’re an Android user, it looks like RecForge II has a variable speed feature too. (29:10)

[8] Here’s a list of some of the books Tom mentioned at the end. (36:28)

Hear Tom

Check out Tom’s collaboration with John Williams (yes, that John Williams!): Hooten Plays Williams

And if you happen to be in Aspen TODAY (Sunday, 7/7), Tom will be in the Festival Orchestra concert at 4pm (Sibelius #5).

Work with Tom

You can learn more about taking a lesson with Tom, or requesting a workshop.

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And in addition to his website, which includes links to great interviews and instructional videos, you can keep up with his latest activities here:


Photo credit: Rob Shanahan

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2 Responses

  1. Noa,

    Thank you for the conversation. It was really interesting and helpful. I started reading the book Mindset and am way into it. While I find the explanation of fixed versus growth mindset spot on, and see it in myself on the fixed side unfortunately, the question I still have is why we end up with one or the other. What in our background or character has put us in either one?

    1. Hi John,

      Good question – I think there are a number of influences, but one thing Dweck has found is that the type of praise we get can reinforce one type of mindset or the other. Being praised for smarts or natural talents can contribute to more of a fixed mindset, while being praised for effort can facilitate more of a growth mindset.


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