This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. For the complete interview, you can access here.
Kristine Dizon: Hello! My name is Kristine Dizon, and I'm the CEO and Founder of The Modern Artist Project. Today, I'm with bass trombonist and recent graduate of the Global Leaders Program, Adrián Nájera-Coto, who is currently a graduate research assistant at the University of Texas, Rio Grande Valley. Thank you, Adrián, for joining us today.
Adrián Nájera-Coto: My pleasure, Kristine. Thank you very much for having me.
KD: I wanted to ask, can you tell us a little bit more about your background with music and where you’re from?
ANC: Sure, it's a long story actually. I'm a professional musician, and all my degrees so far have been in music performance. I started when I was ten playing the saxophone, and then I didn't like that and switched to trombone when I was 11. Long story short, I finished my undergrad in Costa Rica, where I was born and raised, and then I moved to the states where I did my masters, and then I did a professional diploma. That was two more years.
When I was done, I ended up moving to Mexico where I got a full-time orchestra job. I did that for seven years and then I did some teaching on the side. I ended up transitioning into full-time teaching at the university level, teaching music theory, music appreciation – nothing related to trombone, actually.
It was a very nice experience, teaching these types of courses and teaching non-music majors as well because you get a different appreciation of what you do and how they interact with music. Then, I transitioned again into educational leadership within the institution where I was teaching, and I ended up being associate director of an academic unit, which was very rewarding but very challenging too. It wasn't even close to playing bass trombone in a symphony orchestra, but it was great.
I learned a lot and, at the same time, I was doing the GLP Program, the Global Leaders Program, so everything was making a lot of sense to me. I ended up applying for the tutorial program in educational leadership with a concentration in higher education administration.
That's how I started as a musician, and I'm still a musician, I consider myself a musician, and I will always be a musician, but I've been learning quite a different set of skills along the way. It's been very interesting!
KD: Wow! That sounds like you've lived a very full life of being able to do so many wonderful things. Not only fulfilling a passion for performing but also being able to make a difference in someone's life through teaching. One of the things I have a question about is, what inspired you to take this journey? In regards to being a professional musician and the different interactions you've had.
ANC: I would say that I've had different inspirations along the journey. When I first started playing the trombone, I had this great teacher that was a great inspiration for me, and he was always practicing. Every time I went for a lesson, he was sounding better and better. Even though he was a professional musician, he kept improving, and that was a very big influence on me.
I started improving myself, I kept changing references. When I decided that I wanted to be a professional orchestra musician, I started looking for different references. I started looking for recordings of different symphony orchestras. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra was a big influence on me and many brass players, and it still is, but to the point that I ended up moving to Chicago and studied with Jay Friedman, who is the principal trombonist of Chicago's symphony, so he was a huge inspiration as well.
His commitment to making music to the best of his capacities and always being there, delivering and employing the highest level possible. It was a big influence on me. Plus, he's a great person, he's just a great human being! He was always willing to help students – not only with music-related things – and that makes a big difference when you are looking for these kinds of figures or references for your life.
This is something that I was actually talking about in a different conversation this morning. I've been blessed with very intense and fulfilling educational experiences, even when I was little. My parents managed to enroll me in a German high school and that was very, very different for my brother and me. We were born and raised in Costa Rica, but we were going to this German high school with a very different mindset. That's something that I think had a very deep impact on me. The way that you approach things, the way that you learn to learn new things, I think that was a key element in this journey that I've been living for all these years. Those educational experiences are something that I would love more people to have, and that’s one of the main reasons for me to transition into this degree of educational leadership and part of what we did in the GLP last year. My idea is to somehow generate these kinds of experiences for more people, and that’s a very big inspiration for me too.
KD: Wow! Thank you, that was really beautiful to share. It's important to feel inspired, and it sounds like you've been inspired by a lot of different types of people. Not just one particular profile of a person, but people that you feel have made an impact in your life.
When we think about that through the lens of music, or even within the lens of education, from your point of view, what are ways that we can think about this, or be able to apply this within different types of educational settings?
ANC: To apply this inspirationally?
KD: Yeah! When you think about music programs or even art programs, and across the board, there are cuts, people are focusing more on sciences and math, and they aren’t really viewing them as, “Oh, these should be part of the curriculum.”
ANC: Oh yeah, absolutely!
KD: If anything, it’s something we need to have in regard to being able to connect with people in a different way.
ANC: That's a great question and a great point! I have been exchanging ideas with Eric Booth. You know Eric, he's the father of the teaching artist concept, community, and collective, and it's something that I've been talking to him and we got to this conclusion: that part of the reason why all these cuts are happening is that the people making the policies and making the decisions speak a different language than the language that we speak as artists. Right now, we need to build different bridges and connections so that we can communicate what we need and what we can bring to the table in their language, so that they can understand the importance of what we do and the reasons behind what we do as artists.
After some conversations with Eric, I realized that part of the reason why I'm now working on the doctoral program is that I want to bring my expertise with music to this academic context and somehow reach that connection between what we do and the people that are making the decisions, by generating research and research-based data. Then, we can go to the people making the policies and making the decisions and – speaking their own language – explain to them why this is important and why this has to be part of the everyday life of children, teenagers, and even adults.
We bring to the world perspectives that are very different and very valuable too. We create different stories and different ways of looking at the same things, and this creativity that we bring to the table is also very important for the development of the human being. But, we need to start talking in the same language and understand ourselves.
KD: Yes, I agree with you on all fronts. Sometimes, when we think about being able to communicate something that we're passionate about, we have our emotions and feelings. Even through the gestures that we show or with the language that we use, we try to use the language that's not offensive, but at the same time, you're still trying to push something to happen. How do you think we could make it relevant to that particular group of people that make the decisions?
ANC: That’s the biggest question for us, right? Based on my experience as a teacher – especially teaching non-music majors – you have to make sure that whatever you do with people and art, they need to get connected and relate to whatever you're doing.
What I did in my music appreciation classes was that I put together the syllabus of the class. We put it together as a group. So, I would ask the students, “What do you want to do?” I would present them with the goals for the class, and I was very clear with them, saying “We have to stick to this. Anything we do has to somehow be related to music, but this is what we have to cover.” So, I've invited them to be part of the design of the class. It's a risk because you never know what they would come up with, but if you give them this confidence and make them part of the decision-making [process], you build a connection that is very unique, and you can start pushing for different things based on what they are proposing.
It’s very risky, but as long as you can make people part of the art making, that’s a very effective way of building connections and building bridges between different parts [of education], and also to building an understanding of what we do. I realized that when you are very passionate about something – in our case, music – you start taking things for granted and start thinking that anybody around you thinks the same way as you do about that specific discipline, and that's not the case. That's not even the case between musicians. We have to somehow find a way of making it very evident that our passion goes beyond that passion, and that it's something that anybody could relate to. I know I'm not answering your question in a specific way, but that's just my experience so far!
KD: I think it answers the different aspects of what we encounter! With connections, sometimes it's difficult for people. In education, at least with the Music and Language Learning Center which is my other business, when I interview teachers, I always say, “This is not transactional learning.” When I say transactional learning, it's like, “Here you go, take my money! Now I'm going to learn something from you!” It’s a matter of being able to actually make genuine connections, and being able to say exactly what you mentioned with your class: you're gonna become involved, and your opinion matters. A lot of times, the difficulties we encounter is the fact that young people don’t feel like they have a voice, because they're in a position of, “I am going to be told what to learn and I'm not going to be taught how to think. I'm going to be taught what I need to know.” What you said will resonate with a lot of people, and I definitely hear you. That being said, how did the class actually turn out?
ANC: It was a very cool class, and we ended up putting together some episodes for a podcast. I gave them some framework for them to select the music that they wanted to explore. One of the frameworks was – since these kids were non-music makers – that you have to somehow link music to your degree.
I had political science people and engineering people, it was a very interesting combination! For example, the guys that were in political science said there is a very close relation between politics and music, and it's been like that forever. So, they started researching a little bit and came up with very cool examples of music where politics was very present – and they did all this by themselves! I wasn't telling them what to look for. They had to do the research and, I'm not gonna say they ended up liking the symphony that they picked, but they ended up appreciating it because of the context of the piece. That made a very big difference for them because they understood that music was related to whatever was happening at that specific point in human history.
Then, I had the kids from the engineering class working with electronic music and figuring out how that worked. I would say it was a risky approach, but the kids really appreciated it because they were part of the process all the time. I lectured, maybe, 2 out of 16 sessions that we had, and the rest was just them presenting, talking to each other, and exchanging ideas from one group with the other, [asking] what are the commonalities? What are the differences? How come this is different than this? It was very cool, and they really liked it! I got very good reviews and feedback from those students because they felt like they were empowered to learn.
I think that's a keyword here, too. We have to somehow empower people to learn, and we have to empower people to appreciate the arts. It's very difficult to do because, when you go to school to study music, you start building this ideal career, say, in a symphony orchestra, playing three concerts per week every week. That could become very transactional, as you mentioned. I think that's part of the reason, or one of the problems, with classical music nowadays: that it’s mostly transactional. You pay for a ticket, you go sit, listen, enjoy, and go home. But, there's always this wall between the audience and the musicians. There are some orchestras and ensembles that are slowly breaking that tendency, but it's still a big tendency.
KD: For sure! I agree with everything, it's really beautiful! You trusted your students. It wasn't just like, “All right everyone, you guys are going to make a class and I'm going to watch guys do it.” What was great was that you trusted them. You trusted their capacities as humans and shaped [the class] in how you would be able to engage with it, and that's really great! Have you tried encouraging your colleagues to approach pedagogy in this way? And if so, do you have any ideas on how to do that?
ANC: Yeah! When I was playing in the orchestra full-time, I started teaching on the side. I ended up going into full-time teaching at this university in Mexico, which is called Tec de Monterrey. It's a very bold institution, I would say. Three years ago, they started implementing a brand new educational model, which is a model based on competencies, which is very different from the traditional way of assessing things. They even came up with this idea of different setups for classes. They had five-week courses and then full-semester classes. It was like a LEGO right? Students were putting together their learning experiences in a very non-traditional way.
Within that context, I got to teach a class on creativity. It was called Creative Experimentation, and it was for kids in semesters one and two from eight different degrees. All of the degrees are related to creative processes, right? I was teaching this class with two other professors, so it was three teachers teaching the same class at the same time. We had one teacher from language, one teacher from design, and myself for sound and music.
It was super interesting because for some sessions the three of us were there. Students were working on a proposal and they had to somehow include the three different languages within the proposal. The three of us were there in front of the class, and students will ask questions to one of us, but then we could relate the question to some other discipline. It was super intense and it was a learning experience for the teacher as well. I don't even remember your question at this point, but I've been working in this kind of setup for quite a few years now, and it just makes sense because that's how life works, right? You get to interact with very different people pretty much every day, and you have to be able to navigate that and make the best out of it.
KD: And make it work.
ANC: Yeah, you have to make it work!
KD: I think it's really great to be able to encourage that with your colleagues, not in the way that it's like, “This is the way to teach because this is how our society has developed.” It could be different for other subjects too! When we think about the arts and the humanities and being able to be advocates for those, when we think about music, it's not just music. We have film, we have theater. These are ideas of storytelling, ideas of engaging with people, whether or not we pay to be entertained or pay for that connection.
And the thing is, I sometimes find it difficult because there are some people who are very set on finding different ways of being able to convince them, like, “If we try this approach, let's just see what happens.” A lot of times we get so bound by the fear of failure if it doesn't work. “What if the student body doesn't mutiny, and they're holding signs and going on hunger strike because they don't approve?” Ultimately, if it doesn't work, it doesn't work. Then, we change, right?
It sounds like you've done a lot of that, thought a lot about experimentation and really going into it being fearless. We need more people like that in our world because that's how we make the impact, that's how we make the difference.
ANC: You actually learn by failing, right? When you fail is when you learn the most. As I mentioned, I was blessed to study with Jay Friedman, who is the principal of the Chicago Symphony. In many lessons, he would tell me, “If you're gonna screw up, make sure that everybody noticed. Don't be apologetic in your playing.” But, I also translated that into whatever I do.
I'm not saying you should be arrogant, but you shouldn't be apologetic about what you do or what you say if you really think you have the elements to make the argument. I'm not saying you're right or wrong, but if you have a strong belief about something and you have ways of backing up that opinion or action, you should go for it and don't be apologetic about it.
KD: I agree. A lot of the time, I see this with students and young professionals, this fear of failure. At least for me to get to where I am, I've had to make a lot of mistakes! But those mistakes shaped who I became as a person and how I try to help others. This is really powerful because of the fact that, even with professionals or older professionals or seasoned professionals, they experienced this fear of failure. Failure is a really big hindrance to our society. It prevents us to progress.
When it comes to your students and the people that you interact with, when you think about being a professional in today's age with digital media – we have Youtube, Tiktok, Instagram, all of these crazy things – what advice would you give to someone in regards to how to approach a career? When I was in school, you had this idea of an orc being an orchestra musician. Now I feel like the world has changed.
ANC: For many of us, it has changed. Based on my experience, I would say that you need to be able to adapt. That adaptability is gonna take you very far. This is something that I've been working on for the past ten years. It's not like I was always willing to adapt. I've been forced to adapt, but I would say it's been great because I was able to look to other sides and realize that there are way too many things you can do that are related to music.
Being a full-time orchestra musician was great, and if I could go back in time and do it again, I would do it. For me, the orchestra is the most beautiful-sounding ensemble that you can ever think of, but it's just one part of the world of music. There are way too many things that you could do. You could be a producer, a publisher, an arranger, a composer, you could be a soloist, or you could combine five or ten of these things and be a super well-rounded musician. Adaptability is key right now. There is access to so many resources just by clicking on your phone or your computer that you have to take advantage of.
That takes me to the second thought, which is this growth and learning mindset that you need to have – all the time. No matter how young you are, no matter how old you are, there's always something that you could learn. There's always something that you don't know anything about! If you keep open to this idea of constant learning, it could be very rewarding for you on a personal level, and even on a financial level.
I've been working with a software company for three months now, and this is something that I never thought I would do. It's been a very interesting learning process that I was willing to open up to and, you know, I'm learning! I'm a student there and it's very exciting, and it's not even close to playing the trombone, right? You just have to keep your mind open. Be aware of your opportunities and always be willing to learn. I think that's essential as well.
KD: I think that's really phenomenal advice, especially for our audiences. This idea of the growth mindset, the fact that we have so much more agency and how things turn out that, when we think about the one part of acting on ideas is really important, and being able to have that mindset of being able to grow something into a great movement. That's something really valuable.
I'm sure you've seen this with your students or students that you've worked with in the past, that a lot of times people say, “My only goal is to be an orchestra musician. If I don't achieve this goal, that means I'm a failure.” That doesn't mean they're not capable of getting to that level.
ANC: At some point I had that type of mindset, and it was very useful when I had it because it helped me stay focused and really helped me go to places just by concentrating on that. Maybe I was too naive when I started out playing the trombone, but my teacher told me the very first class after I played an F major scale, and I remember it vividly. He said, “Okay, that sounds okay.” And he goes, “From now on, every time you pick up the trombone, you're gonna try to be the best trombone player in the world.” And I still remember that! When I was 11 and I heard that, I was like, “Okay, I'm in for that!” and I bought the idea and, for many years, I concentrated on that.
You build skills when you have that kind of commitment to something. You build discipline, hard work, goal-oriented work. You learn how to prioritize things. And yes, you missed a lot of things too, but I'm trying to see the positive side of having this unique goal in your mind. But, you get to the point in your life where you need to look for more things. You could even be forced to look in different directions.
That happened [to me] at some point. I had to leave my full-time orchestra career, and I was lost. I didn't know what to do. It was a very tough moment and a very tough period of time, but somehow I ended up finding more outlets to do what I wanted to do. At the end of the day, it was a good thing. It was a bad thing that I managed to turn into a good thing, and that's another skill too, that it's connected to resilience. You have to be resilient and deal with the bad situation and somehow turn it into a positive outcome. It just takes time! But, going back to the initial idea, at some point in your life – especially when you're a young student – a very clear goal could help you get into places.
KD: Thank you for sharing that. It takes a lot of courage to be able to share one's failures or to share one's successes. A lot of the time, how we present ourselves on social media, or when we present ourselves to the orchestra, or when we have to do things with television or social media, there's always this one part that we have to present. At the same time, we lose sight of the fact that – exactly with what you said – when we think about life, it's kind of like this movie, right? The movie doesn't have all these bad moments, but in order for us to move to the next part of our lives, the bad moments sometimes give us clarity of what we actually need, and the actual things that we can do, the potential of what we can share with people. That's something that's really important.
ANC: Now that you mentioned social media, I think we need to somehow humanize our societies again, and the arts are a very effective way of doing that. I've gone to concerts where I see people crying. They're just sitting in the audience and you can see them crying. It's not like you're gonna approach them and ask them what's going on. Maybe you would, I don't know. But you can tell that the fact they're sitting there at the concert and the experience they're having is touching some nerves. The power of music is able to do that. Same thing with dance, or the same thing with painting. Going back to the teaching artist concept, one of the main “homeworks” that we have as teaching artists is to rehumanize people. We need that for sure.
KD: Wow, thank you that's really great. That's something that I'm also going to think about, what I can also do to make music or art more humanizing, or more human to humans, I guess you could say that! This is really great.
Adrián, this was really lovely. Thank you so much for joining us today, and for sharing your experience and thoughts with us. We look forward to seeing the amazing things that you continue to do for your students and for the arts and music. Thank you!
ANC: No, thank you! My pleasure.
Kristine Dizon is a multi-faceted performer, teacher, writer, author, linguist, and entrepreneur. She is Founder & CEO of the Music & Language Learning Center, The Modern Artist Project and co-founder of the Gran Canaria International Clarinet Festival and American Single Reed Summit. She is an artist for Uebel Clarinets and Silverstein Works. Learn more at www.kristinedizon.com.