Friday, July 6, 2018

10 Lessons I Learned While Hiking

10 Lessons I Learned While Hiking
By Matt Vangjel

Recently, my wife, Jena, and I were hiking the Face Trail up to Table Mountain just outside
Grand Teton National Park. This trail had been recommended to us by my fellow Mirari
trumpet player, Alex Noppe. He told us it would be a challenging hike, but that the view
made it worth it. When Jena and I realized how cloudy it would be by the time we got to
the top of the mountain, she made a joke about how it parallelled the career of a musician.
So, thanks to her, on the way down my brain started applying many of our experiences on
the hike to being a musician, student, teacher, and human. In no particular order, here are
some of my thoughts.

1. You can never be too prepared.
This one seems pretty obvious and easy to apply to ourselves as musicians. The thing I want to stress here is, are you even close to being what some consider “too prepared?” Sometimes we think we are prepared but it turns out there are some very obvious things that we’re missing (like an extra pair of socks). So, what are you missing in your preparation? Are you satisfied with being prepared “enough”? What if you’re wrong about what “enough” is?

2. Belief in yourself is more powerful than you know.
Many of the reviews of the hike I read in preparation, especially the ones posted in May and June, mentioned that the hikers had had to turn around because they lost the trail in the snow. For some reason, though, Jena and I had no doubts. Alex had said we’d be fine, we both had hiking boots and are relatively fit people; “we’ve got this,” we thought.
It is possible that if we had known just how hard that hike was going to be, we would’ve said, “you know, maybe not today.” We even had a point where we thought about turning
around, but we agreed that neither one of us would be the one to say uncle. We did
successfully complete the hike, which means we could do it. But how many times do
we just *know* that we can’t do something and so we don’t even try? Sometimes all we
have is believing. Sometimes that’s all you need.

3. Use the tools at your disposal.
We talked to someone who had successfully completed the hike and who gave us the
confidence to take on the challenge. But the most important tool we had was our
phones. We had the trail on our map app and a blue dot (thank you, GPS) that kept us
heading in the right direction and helped us not to stray too far from the trail.

Again, this is an obvious parallel. Your phone is a recorder, metronome, tuner, tone
generator, and more! All of those applications help keep you on track. How many times
a week do you ignore the metronome and just tap your foot? How many times do you
get a pretty good sound and assume that you’re in tune? What if the consequences were
as dire as losing your way on a strenuous and dangerous hike? Maybe they are.

4. Expect snow.
Something you should know about reviews on hiking websites and apps is that some of
these people might as well be professionals. “A bit of snow” to one person is like a blizzard to another (Minnesota vs. Louisiana). We assumed there would be maybe ankle-high snow. We were very wrong. We could see snow at the top of the mountains, so why did we think there would be so little?

What warnings are you receiving and possibly ignoring? I am aware that I just recently
said our blind faith and belief in ourselves was what propelled us forward and helped
us to be successful. But if we had heeded the warnings, we definitely could have been
more prepared (see: Lesson 1).

5. Let music inspire you.
About half a mile from the top, I was sure that I was dying. I had to stop about every ten
steps and rest for at least a minute. Every time I rested, up to my knees in snow, I was
reminded that I had standing water in my shoes, up to my ankles. Needless to say, for
someone who lives at sea level in a very warm climate, 10,000 ft. and 40 degrees was
not exactly comfortable. It was at one of these moments where I was gasping for air and
trying to tell myself I could make it that I turned to Jena and said, “I might need some
of that inspirational music now.”

Jena has a playlist she uses before races and auditions that helps her feel powerful and confident (think Summon the Heroes and Fanfare for the Common Man). Besides beautifully
fitting the scenery around us, it helped us push on.

Sometimes when we’re in the practicing trenches, it’s hard to remember why we do
what we do. Stay inspired every day by listening to great music. It doesn’t always have to
be John Williams and Aaron Copland, but they do have great trumpet parts.

6. You will fall (fail). Fall well.
At one point on the hike, I slipped on an icy log and fell into the snow. I was inches away
from having my leg stuck under this large log and probably broken. I was very lucky, but I
did not fall well.

Later, when we were hiking down the mountain, Jena fell. Well, it didn’t look like a fall,
it was more like, she started to fall and then sat down. She fell well. We do the same thing
when we’re performing. It may seem like a defeatist mentality, to practice failing, but think
of it as practicing recovering. The other part of failing well is not flailing about and getting
yourself into an even worse situation. Sometimes the best thing to do is to accept the fall
gracefully and artistically recover. You’ve heard people do it before, make it part of your
preparation as well.

7. The view at the top isn’t always clear.
It took us five hours of grueling hiking to get to the top of Table Mountain. Once at the top,
you are so close to Grand Teton that you feel like you could throw a rock and hit it. By all
accounts, the hike is worth it for the view at the top. Except, when we got there, the
clouds had rolled in and we couldn’t see the peaks of the three tallest mountains or anything
behind them. All that work and no payoff! We laughed about it and hung around long enough
to eat some food and wring out our soaking socks, but the clouds only got thicker and the view
was more obstructed. So, was it worth it?

Setting goals is hugely important. Sometimes our goals are visible and tangible, and
sometimes they’re not. Either way, we have an expectation of how we will feel, what we will
sound like, what people will say when we achieve certain long-term goals. This is dangerous
because sometimes it’s cloudy at the top. Sometimes it’s not the postcard picture you thought
it would be.

Your biggest success may not be as “big” as someone else’s. Does that matter? Does that
diminish what you’ve done to get there? Of course not. You’ve heard it said a bunch of
different ways but in this case it’s definitely about the journey. It’s being able to look back
and say, “it wasn’t always fun or easy, but I did it.”

8. The way down is hard work.
So what happens when you get to the top? You can’t stay there. You’ve got to come back
down. You can either jump off the mountain and plunge to your death or you can hike down.
It’s true that the hike down goes a little faster and it is less strenuous in some ways. But it’s
not easy by any stretch. It takes work to get down safely.

We have to work really hard to achieve anything—it’s like a constant uphill climb
(maybe there are a few plateaus but they are small, relatively speaking). Once you achieve
your goal there is no coasting, there is no quitting practicing because you’ve made it. You
still have to work just to maintain some level of movement and to not tumble down the
mountain too fast. You don’t want to lose all you’ve worked for so quickly. You could go
ahead and not do the work—just don’t be surprised at how quickly you end up back at the
bottom (with a lot of bumps and bruises too).

9. Get your head up and look around.
There were moments where I felt like all I could do was keep my head down and will myself to take another step. We get like this in our practice and in our journeys to progress. We get so focused on the step right in front of us that we forget to observe the beauty around us on our way to that goal.

If you are learning a piece, changing the way you play, just starting an instrument, it
doesn’t matter.
Pay attention to those beautiful things that happen every day in every practice session. It may be one note that makes your ears perk up, and that’s enough. Appreciate it and store that away in your memory. It’ll help you take that next difficult step and help your potential become your reality.

10. Sometimes you’ll leap, sometimes you’ll crawl, and sometimes you’ll stand still.
Know when to do which.
This is the hardest thing to do when you are in unfamiliar territory. As musicians we are
always striving to get better and pushing to be the best we can be, so standing still and
crawling seem pretty depressing to us. However, it’s crucial that you do them from time to
time. Standing still lets us get our head up, get away from the grind, and appreciate the beauty
around us (or check the GPS to make sure we’re still on the right track). Crawling is, at times,
the only way to continue to move forward because if you jump at the wrong time, you end up
stuck in the snow, under a tree, with your leg (almost) broken.

The more you go through uncertain terrain, the more you are able to recognize which rocks
are stable enough to put your weight on or where the snow is most shallow. You’ll still be
surprised from time to time (fall well and recover) but you will have a better idea of when
to jump, crawl, or wait and that prevents you from wasting precious time and energy.

11. Bonus Lesson!
Don’t just sit in a practice room and surf the internet and think it’s going to make you an
interesting musician. Go do things that challenge and inspire you. You will be amazed at
the lessons you learn and how they apply to every aspect of your life. We are storytellers!
You can’t tell great stories if you don’t have any.