Interview by Rachelle Jenkins
Christopher Still joined the Los Angeles Philharmonic as 2nd trumpet in 2007. This spring, he is launching Honesty Pill, an online resource designed to help people teach themselves how to be better musicians. Through practical courses and informative articles, Christopher aims to give musicians of all levels the tools they need to “ditch the excuses” and truly take their playing to the next level.
Honesty Pill launches on May 30th! Below the interview you will find links to Honesty Pill and other ways to reach Christopher. Enjoy.
First, can you talk a little about your audition journey from school, to your first few jobs, to landing a job at the LA Phil?
The first professional audition I took was for second trumpet with the Oregon Symphony in Portland. I was still in school and had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I was completely unprepared, and I didn’t have a clue how the audition process worked. It was a total disaster.
Looking back, I’m glad I took it. The experience prompted a lot of questions: What did I do wrong? What am I going to do differently next time? The entire process was eye-opening, and it helped me understand that I had a lot of work to do if I was going to be successful.
Was it a pretty steady climb or a difficult, winding road?
It was a long road, and there were plenty of times when I wanted to give up. After Portland, the next few auditions I took were also disasters, and I was starting to realize that just showing up and “hoping for the best” was not a strategy. If I had to plot my progress during those years on a chart, it would be a series of circles, going nowhere. And then all of sudden, it shot straight up.
What do you think made it to shoot straight up?
The moment I started doing well in auditions was the moment I started recording myself. And I’m talking about self-recording as a daily practice and listening back to it right away while it’s still fresh. For me, recording myself was the “X” factor––it changed everything. You think you know how you sound, but until you record yourself and listen back, you’re wrong.
Putting time and money into an audition without actually knowing what you sound like is a foolish thing to do. You could say it’s like an artist who paints all day with a blindfold on, not understanding why nobody wants to buy anything. You have to be brave enough to look at your own work.
I see a lot of people procrastinating on this by making it complicated. It doesn’t need to be. The device you should be using is probably in your hand right now––your phone.
What was the first audition that you won?
The first real job I won was Principal Trumpet in the Charleston Symphony in South Carolina. Walking off the stage after the last round, I was frustrated that I hadn’t played a “perfect” audition. There were a lot of negative thoughts in my head. When the personnel manager announced that I was the winner, it was surreal. After getting cut at so many auditions, it was hard to believe I had won.
That audition is a good example of how you can’t let your emotions influence your mindset. Sometimes you think you’ve played perfectly, and you don’t advance. And sometimes you think you’ve made too many mistakes, and you end up getting the job.
The takeaway is to stay focused on what you need to do in each moment and ignore the negative thoughts bouncing around in your head. Mastering your excerpts is an important part of the process, but mastering your mindset is the thing that wins auditions.
As a member of the LA Phil for over ten years now, you've probably been on the other side of the screen for quite a few auditions. What are the trends — positive or negative —that you are noticing?
First, there is a large number of people applying for a small number jobs. For example, last year the LA Phil received over 400 applications for a single violin opening. Additionally, the level of coaching available to musicians who are motivated enough to seek it out has never been higher, so the top players keep getting better. There are exceptions, but I would say that the quality of playing we hear at an LA Phil audition is usually very high.
The reason I mention this is not to be discouraging, but to point out that if this is something that you want to do for a living, then you really have to take advantage of every tool that’s available. Get a coach, take some lessons, make a plan. Talk to someone who is always in the finals and ask them what they are doing to prepare. Figure out what you need to fix in your playing and then deal with it.
Is there something in particular that people seem to be missing?
I think there are a lot of people who walk away from an audition with no idea why they didn’t advance. Some of them have gotten so used to the flaws in their playing that they don’t hear them anymore. That’s obviously a problem they need to address. Recording themselves and playing for others are the ways to fix that.
But there are some who, despite having the basics in place, still aren’t advancing. What these players are usually missing is that they haven’t learned to put the music into context––they don’t really know the piece. And the committee can tell almost immediately. Having an understanding of how your excerpt fits into the rest of the orchestra is critical.
This is why I don’t recommend using excerpt books as part of audition preparation––they don’t give you all of the information. Excerpt books might be okay as an initial point of reference, but you need to study the full parts, listen to recordings with a score, and figure out how it all fits together.
A lot of people these days worry that panels only want to hire "note-perfect" musicians —technicians who don't miss anything. Do you think this is an accurate depiction of audition committees today?
I can certainly understand why people might feel that way, but that’s usually not true. It’s definitely not the case with LA Phil auditions. Of course you need to have good sound, rhythm, intonation and technique, but you also have to show that you can play with musicality. Because auditions are so competitive, it’s easy to forget that the point of playing an instrument is to create and express. It’s not about being a machine. I’ve never heard (or played) a note-perfect audition in my life. You need to play accurately enough that the committee can hear the rest of the orchestra in their heads as you play—you don’t want to jar them out of the imaginary concert, but note-perfect is not what we’re looking for.
Remember that the committee is hearing a lot of people, one after the other. If you’re playing wrong notes and rhythms, it doesn’t matter if you’re musical—you’re going to sound bad next to the people who are playing well. The committee needs to be able to imagine the whole orchestra accompanying you. If you’re doing basic things wrong, you’re making their inner soundtrack screech to a halt. You’re not going to advance.
Why do you think some musicians believe this?
I have noticed that some of the people who complain about the need to be note-perfect are the same people who don’t record themselves. It’s easy to think you’re a genius musician if you don’t really know how you sound.
It’s human nature to blame others when you fail. If you’re only aware of the one note you missed (and you aren’t aware of your wobbly rhythm, or your fuzzy tone, or your non-existent dynamics), it’s much easier to blame the committee for being unreasonable than to consider the possibility that you have some playing issues that you’ve swept under the rug.
Another reason for this belief is that players get so focused on playing a note-perfect audition that they miss any opportunity of playing musically. This is more rare than musicians think, but it does happen.
If you really want to win, spend your energy figuring out what’s going on instead of making excuses. In our age of digital communication, there are a million ways to get to the bottom of the mystery.
What do you wish you would have taken more seriously or done differently in school?
I wish I had realized sooner that the only person responsible for my success was me—not my parents, not my band director, and not my teacher. I was motivated and worked hard, but I always figured somebody else would tell me what to do every step of the way and that they would help me course-correct if I was wrong. It never occurred to me that they wouldn’t have all the answers.
Also, it never occurred to me that there are many ways of being a good musician. I just assumed that my teacher’s preferred method was the right method for me. Later, I realized that orchestras are made of individuals, and that not everyone has the same idea of what a beautiful Haydn concerto sounds like. I needed to find my own answers to how to be a good trumpet player, and my own idea of what the music should sound like.
It also would have been nice if I’d understood what I was getting into with student loans, but that’s another discussion entirely…
What are the big differences between practicing for an audition versus practicing for job? Do you think people compartmentalize and separate these too much?
It depends on the individual, but it’s easier to figure out how to practice for the job than for the audition. Focus on the audition—when you have a job, you only have to learn a few pieces each week. Of course, some people don’t understand ensemble playing, but that’s another topic.
What is Honesty Pill? How did you decide to name it such?
Honesty Pill is an online resource that helps people teach themselves to be better musicians. I like to talk about auditions a lot because they require such complicated and focused effort, and because those same techniques apply to all areas of musical performance and practice.
I chose the name “Honesty Pill” in reaction to a common issue with performers and artists—people are afraid to take a close look at what they’re doing wrong, even if they desperately want to succeed. My goal is to help people to tackle their issues, so they can achieve their goals. I like to call my approach “swallowing the Honesty Pill.”
I offer practical courses, informative articles, and activities to help you ditch your excuses and really improve.
Is Honesty Pill only for classical musicians? Is it only for preparing for a specific event, such as an audition or performance? For certain levels of players?
Classical music is so specific that it takes really specific methods to succeed. Other musical forms are not as strict. The approach in Honesty Pill is probably more formal and rigorous than musicians who work in other styles are used to, but the format would still work for them, especially if they are preparing for some event like an audition or performance.
In terms of levels, intermediate through professional instrumentalists and singers can benefit from Honesty Pill courses. This includes motivated high school students, college students, serious hobbyists, and professionals of all ages and levels of accomplishment.
Honesty Pill is for anyone who wants to master their art. Even if you’ve already achieved some level of success, Honesty Pill has information and tools that will help you take your musical life to the next level.
How did you come to develop this?
It was from seeing different people make the same mistakes over and over again. There are some typical traps that everybody falls into. Not everyone has access to a private teacher or someone who can point these things out.
Students frequently travel long distances to play their audition lists for me, usually a week or two before an audition. Often, they’ve got some big problems with their playing or their ability to handle the list. There’s only so much that they can accomplish in such a short time frame. Lasting change doesn’t happen overnight, and the stress of an audition can rattle even the most prepared player.
My goal with Honesty Pill is to get people to adopt my approach in their daily practice so it isn’t a panic-stricken hustle at the last minute.
How will the content be delivered?
The content is mostly video-driven online courses that include downloads and other supplemental materials. I put many months’ worth of private instruction material into each course. There will be some opportunity for one-on-one video coaching and some occasional boot camp-style workshops, but most of it will be online courses. All you need is an internet connection and you’re good to go.
Honesty Pill founder Christopher Still joined the Los Angeles Philharmonic as Second Trumpet in 2007.
Before coming to California, he was the Principal Trumpet of the Colorado Symphony. He has also held the positions of Associate Principal Trumpet of the Dallas Symphony and Principal Trumpet of the Charleston (SC) Symphony. Additionally, Christopher has served as Assistant Principal Trumpet with the Grant Park Festival Orchestra in Chicago’s Millennium Park and Guest Principal with the St. Louis Symphony.
Christopher has recorded extensively with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Grant Park, Dallas, and Albany symphony orchestras. Active in the Hollywood recording studios, he can be heard on major motion picture and television soundtracks. He is a Yamaha Artist, a dedicated educator, and an active clinician.
Having grown up in a musical household, Christopher originally intended to become a band director and earned a Bachelor of Music Education degree from the Crane School of Music (SUNY-Potsdam). Switching to performance, he received his Master of Music Performance degree from the New England Conservatory in Boston. He was a Tanglewood Music Center Fellow in 1995 and 1996.
Christopher’s favorite aspect of his job is the orchestra’s frequent performance of contemporary music, especially the Green Umbrella concert series.
Christopher lives in Altadena, CA with his wife, Amanda McIntosh, and two children. He enjoys long-distance running, skiing, brewing beer, and hiking in the trails behind his house.
For more on Christopher Still and Honesty Pill,
please visit the following links:
@honestypill on Facebook
@honestypill on Instagram
@honestypill on Twitter