I took lessons from Phil Holland for six years, but only some of them involved the trumpet. In the year since our final one, I’ve headed down a path that has almost nothing to do with music. And while the “fullness of my tone” and my “indistinct articulation” haven’t really transferred over into my life outside of band, Phil’s wisdom (he’s a young guy, I know, but I look up to him like that) certainly has.
There’s a mentality running beneath his approach, the kind of thing that gets stuck in your head even when you pack your instrument away for the last time. The way I look at it, it’s about moments. It’s about preparing the right way, with the right mindset, for the right amount of time, and then pouncing on very clear moments with the control and confidence afforded to you by that preparation. Phil’s philosophy has helped me conquer nerves and stage fright, it has shaped the way I approach complex problems, and, most importantly, it has transformed my definition of “success.” Those ideas extend far beyond a three-valve metal tube.
I walked in to my first lesson during the first week of seventh grade, and I sat down while he introduced himself. I remember being more than a little nervous and he being more than a little aware of it. He made no assumptions; I had already been playing for one year, but we started with mouthpiece buzzing. This was square one, the first limestone block in the foundation. So we began like beginners should, and over the course of the next year, my trumpet playing improved dramatically.
I could continue on and explain how I started to find success in my band placement auditions, and in my chair tests, and in all those other things that matter so much less now than they seemed to back in the day. But I’d rather not, because the most important thing that I learned from Phil in that first year had absolutely nothing to do with the trumpet.
Phil understands why middle school and high school are difficult. He was very in-tune to the fact that sometimes I couldn’t have cared less about how a phrase should’ve been inflected, because I was tackling bigger problems behind the scenes. Underneath my little bright-eyed face and my smile filled with braces, I was in turmoil. I saw my parents’ marriage collapsing, and I felt lost, and I couldn’t control myself at all. In more than half of my lessons I broke down crying. My expectations were too high, maybe. I was afraid of disappointment, perhaps. All of these things might have been contributing factors, but it really boiled down to having a lack of solid ground on which to stand. My weekly trumpet lesson, which started to look more and more like a counseling session, became that anchor for me.
Phil did more than just teach me that first year. He listened to me. I realize now that I probably threw him into some situations where it was almost impossible to find the right words, but I feel like he always did. I slowly gained composure, and I mellowed considerably. And then, as these things tend to go, everything started to work itself out.
Fast forward to my senior year of high school. I find myself seated in a black chair in the front of a room at Allen High School. I’m about to take a no-nonsense breath before I begin my final run of the last etude of my last All-Region audition. In 45 seconds, the source of all the stress in my life will be gone. Realizing that a few costly mistakes earlier in the day would probably ensure my failure to qualify, I want nothing more than to end with a bang and bid an appropriate farewell to a ridiculous competition. So I begin. I move from silence into sound with a hopeful tenacity. As my eyes scan the page, the lines of little notes move like a teleprompter in my mind. And I just keep hearing Phil’s advice over and over again: “breathe like you mean it,” “don’t dwell on mistakes,” “be peaceful instead of frantic.”
If you haven’t already figured it out, I’m an insanely sentimental person. But of all the memorable, emotional, cinematic experiences in my 19-year life, that 45-second etude still stands out in my mind because of what it felt like. Not how it sounded, which was the basis for the judges’ results. For all I know, it didn’t sound that great, or at least that’s what my ranking at the end of the day suggested. But I left before those rankings were posted, which is something I’m still very proud of. I didn’t need the scores to feel satisfaction of reassurance. For that brief three quarters of a minute, I owned something that the judges were powerless to deprive me of. I had control: over my own breath, over the sound in my horn, over the other nervous kids in the crowd who waited with bated breath and hung on my every note with a scrutinizing ear. So I unhinged, and I let something unconscious take over while my focused mind soaked in all those sensations. I think it was the best thing I ever played.
That is Phil’s mantra through my eyes. As comparisons go, Mr. Miyagi is a pretty good one, or maybe Old Ben Kenobi from that little hut in Tatooine, but they’re both a bit too one-dimensional. Phil is disciplined and irreverent, which seems like a contradiction. He’s got a humble braggadocio (don’t we all?). He’s the consummate trumpet player, with a cocky demeanor and a wall of sound to back it up. He tells it like it is, but he respects people if they’ve earned it (if not, they’ll probably be the subject of a biting limerick or two).
Last year I graduated from Plano Senior High School. As I walked across the stage and grabbed my diploma, I felt a flood of emotion rush over me, but I didn’t cry, I promise. When I walked out of my final lesson with Mr. Holland, I did. No one besides my parents had watched me grow up the way Phil did. No one had helped to make that process of “growing” possible. He will always be a cherished teacher, mentor, and friend.
I’m still hungry the way Phil told me to be. I’m chasing life and art in the kind of way that is paradoxically totally different and exactly the same as we what we used to strive towards in those little soundproof, fluorescent rooms. I’d like to thank Phil for those seven formative years, and encourage anyone who is reading this to run towards hard things instead of away from them.
May 14, 2014