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Contacting Established Professionals (go ahead, send that email)

When I was in college I had a colleague who wanted to play a relatively unknown, unpublished piece by a relatively well-known living composer. She emailed him, asking how she could acquire the music for her recital. He responded, and she programmed the piece. While preparing for the same concert, she also had to contact a very well-known trumpet player. She wrote in her program notes, “I guess I like emailing famous people.” That comment has always stuck with me.

Earlier this week I stumbled across a book offering career advice for recent college grads. Among its many salient points was the suggestion that graduates should consider contacting their idols. While this idea is sure to strike terror into the hearts of probably 90 percent of young people everywhere, it is an idea worth adopting.

When we’re waiting for our own plans to take off, we can get so caught up in trying to make a good impression, or trying to imagine how it must be to stand in these people’s shoes, that we forget that they did, in fact, stand in our shoes at one point in time. Most people want to know that their contributions are valued and their hard work has produced results. The older I get, the more I realize that is principle is true for so-called “famous people” as well as for the rest of us. I can’t really imagine reaching the point where I wouldn’t value someone’s telling me that my efforts have been meaningful. And I haven’t ever met a famous person who has dismissed my appreciation when I have expressed it. These thoughts are at the forefront of my mind this weekend, because I just spent part of my week with one such person.

Jim Stephenson has never dismissed my appreciation for his trumpet compositions, but I suspect that he would immediately dismiss my classification of him as a “famous person.” Jim is approachable with a capital A. In every interaction I have had with him, starting when I was a master’s student, he has been gracious and engaging and normal. He made the trip to Ball State this week, to give a masterclass for my students and to coach a wind ensemble rehearsal, since director Tom Caneva has generously agreed to program Jim’s first trumpet concerto. Having never had the opportunity to solo on a major concerto with the composer standing six feet away, I gained a lot from the opportunity. (Thank you, Ball State University!!)

With Jim Stephenson (left) and Tom Caneva (right)
With Jim Stephenson (left) and Tom Caneva (right)

What strikes me the most, however, is the way in which Jim’s relationship with me has been consistent since the first time I met him. When I first made his acquaintance, he was indeed a “famous person”–at least compared to me, who was struggling to find a means of getting noticed that didn’t involve obnoxious name-dropping. But I appreciated the fact that he took me seriously–as a customer but especially as a musician–even at that stage. You’d think I would have expected as much, since my opportunities for name-dropping were the fruit of my interactions with several other people who also took me seriously, but I didn’t.

Looking back, this history tells me two things: first, contacting famous people is worth the risk, depending on how you do it. Secondly, you should cultivate enough self-esteem to be willing to take those risks before you’ve “made it,” or else you will miss out on a lot of opportunities.

Remember when I said I was struggling to find a way of getting noticed? I am here to tell you that it didn’t work. None of the major milestones in my career have come about because I tried to get someone’s attention. All of them happened because I was going about my business, being myself and pursuing projects that genuinely interested me. When in the course of those events it seemed prudent for me to contact someone, I did, and sometimes that resulted in a meaningful connection.

So I am not suggesting that you should “come up with” a reason to contact your heroes. Those sorts of exchanges usually come across as fake and insubstantial, because the only real goal is that your hero would learn of your existence. What you should consider doing, the next time you have a real question about a contemporary piece or enjoy a new recording, is to act on the impulse to respectfully contact the person whose work you are exploring and voice your thoughts. Those types of communications are nearly always welcome.

Sometimes, this initial contact leads to a conversation. Sometimes, the conversation leads to an opportunity. But many of the most successful people are successful because they are always looking for ways to offer opportunities to people they’ve met, instead of seeking self-advancement. Jim Stephenson, I would argue, is such a person, and as such he has had a tremendous impact on me. Without question, the most rewarding part of this week was the opportunity to finally host him on my campus, to thank him in some way for the value that he brought to my career when I had hardly any career to speak of. Most of us will have the chance, one day, to count as famous in someone else’s eyes. I am fortunate that the celebrities in my own life have responded to me with enthusiasm and encouragement and advice. Those relationships have been well worth the risk.