The Resilient Artist: An Interview with Devin Cobleigh Morrison

From: Pinckney, MI

Age: 24

Instrument: Horn

Job Title/Position: 3rd Horn, South Dakota Symphony (Trial Year begins 2016); Veritas Musica Publishing Contributor and Editor; Freelancer

Favorite Brew: A good dark roast, or Ristretto Shot.

Carrie Rexroat:How’d you get started in music?

Devin Cobleigh Morrison: I started on violin at an early age, but dropped it for some reason. I then picked up trumpet because an older student told me it was ‘cool,’ so I played that for a little while. In February, my band director played the Rondo of Mozart’s Third Horn Concerto in a class and asked who wanted to switch to horn. Before saying ‘yes,’ I asked who the player was. It was Dale Clevenger- ever since then, I say Mr. Clevenger’s recordings are the reasons why I play horn.

CR: That’s really cool! I feel similarly about Dennis Brain. You and I have known each other for a long time, but when did you decide to pursue music as a career?

DCM: That exact day, at 12:48pm. I remember it like it was yesterday.

CR: Wow, I didn’t realize it had such an immediate effect. One of the things that I love most about you is that you have a drive and a passion towards music that honestly I’ve found to be unmatched by any other person. So what is it that you love most about music?

DCM: There are many things. I love that with music you’re given an opportunity to understand ‘the person behind the instrument.’ It gives me a look into their personality, as well as their strengths, which I feel are important to understand and appreciate. I’m also very passionate about my family and friends on and off the horn, and I try to make sure my influences know that they are appreciated as much as possible. Life is too short to be questioning your worth.

CR: I couldn’t agree more, and it’s great that you do that. I see you post pictures with different people all the time--what got you started in doing that?

DCM: I started posting a few things here and there when I realized that the most amazing people I know have confidence problems, just like everyone else. I always saw my idols, even people my age or younger, as ‘invincible.’ When I realized that these people are people too, I came to understand that the more support you can give in person and even in writing, the better.

CR: I see. So what have been some challenges you’ve faced both personally and in your career? How are you working to/have overcome those challenges?

DCM: I’ve had a lot of issues with injury from overuse, as well as intertwining self-worth with horn playing. That especially is a slippery slope, and each day is a slow climb out of overcoming it. I have a great support system of friends from my undergrad, masters, and DMA schools that talk to each other freely about problems, and we do a good job of helping each other out. The most important thing I do to keep pushing forward is to ask questions, and never be ‘too proud’ to accept help should I need it.

CR: Specific to your lip injury, how have you able to get through that?

DCM: I’m still getting through that, and I’ve injured my chops more than once; the scariest one with the longest downfall was by far, this year. I have a tremendous support system in my best friends and teachers: the ones that come to mind are Ben Bacni, Alex McCoy, Natalie Douglass, Liz Freimuth (Mom!), Tom Sherwood, Aaron Brant, and Randy Gardner. The thing that I have to remind myself of constantly is personal patience-- especially at the beginning of the day. As for the mental game, well, that will come back in time. It’s a very slow process that is unfolding yet again. I recently got a tattoo of the word that changed my life- “Intent.” This helped me channel my nerves into something personal, and calm the mind. This is more meaningful to me, as one of my best friends, Ben, did the artwork.

CR: Yikes, I’m glad that you always seem to be able to come back from a lip injury! Is there something that you think can be done in the way of injury prevention, especially in music schools and between a teacher and a student?

DCM: Absolutely. Tell them that we are human. We’re not robots, and things don’t have to ‘feel’ the same every day. Things, and people, change, and more specifically we all recover differently. The biggest thing I learned was pacing, personal patience, and when to swallow your pride and hold off in rehearsals. I would urge teachers to communicate to students that they can feel a variety of different things, but in the end support, positivity, and syncing with your body's natural mechanisms is your ticket to a calm mind, and healthy outlook. The biggest influence that helped me recover in 2015 (‘14 injury) was Liz Freimuth. She, Ben Bacni, and Randy Gardner helped me immensely this year as well, and I cannot thank them enough. It’s always better to be safe than sorry, and if a teacher is not educated enough on the subject of injury prevention, communicate with your students openly about who CAN help them, or read up on it yourself. I feel this subject is a two way street. It is both the responsibility of a teacher and a student to at first communicate the problem, then together find a solution in how to resolve and further prevent this from happening.

CR: What type of mindset do you feel yourself getting into especially during times like this, when dealing with an injury?

DCM: My thoughts can be very negative. In the past year or so, I have had persistent, relentless thoughts that everyone I play with would rather have a different person playing my part, or playing with me in general. Unfortunately, even though it’s started in music it has bled over into my personal life, and it has been difficult to truly feel like I’m really contributing to anything.

CR: What sorts of things do you do to remain positive when you feel that way?

DCM: I try to come home and make sure that I have at least 5-10 mins of horn playing that I really enjoy. Something that puts me in my own world. 99% of the time, that’s flexibility work, or pesky passages in the horn’s musical canon that often go overlooked. Lately, the passages have been the quirky duet in Harry Janos, the third horn solo in Saint- Saens’ “Organ Symphony,” Mendelssohn’s “Scottish” Symphony 4th horn, the Second Cello Suite (Bach/Hoss), and opening of Bernstein’s On the Waterfront in multiple keys. These things tend to even out some harsh thoughts at the end of the day, and contribute to comfort and positivity. I do think being comfortable in your own skin, or face, is of the utmost importance.

CR: Going back, in relation to the thoughts you said you have regarding feeling like you're not contributing to anything, is that influenced more by internal or external forces?

DCM: Both, actually. Very much both.

CR: What are some things that you tell yourself to remind yourself that you really are contributing something to society?

DCM: I try to tell myself that sometimes just being physically present with a human is contributing. You’d never fully know what anyone could be feeling. In any moment you could really be helping someone out just by talking, or being with them. I hold onto thank you cards, or times where colleagues or friends have expressed gratitude for something previously done, or discussed.

CR: I see. What sort of impact do you want to have on the world? What do you most want to be known for and remembered by? This seems like this is very important to you.

DCM: I just want to make sure my students feel like they are appreciated as people first, then musicians. From what I know, they all take that with them. I keep in touch with everyone to this date. I’m not sure what I’d like to be remembered by... that would be something for the other human to decide I guess. I just like to be someone that gets the ‘gears turning,’ so if that happens with someone, then great!

CR: Definitely! So for you, does inspiration or motivation have anything to do with overcoming negativity? Is that something that’s important?

DCM: Kind of? I find myself inspired by my colleagues and past mentors. Elizabeth Freimuth changed my life when I was at CCM. Every time I talk to her I feel refreshed, and ready to tackle any challenge on an off the horn. In Kansas City, I’ve been finding inspiration in my woodwind colleagues. Their ability to throw down difficult passages and look as if they are barely playing is inspirational. Allison Watkins Duncan, Sandra Fernandez, and Trevor Stewart has been huge sources of this inspiration this year.

CR: How exactly do you define words like inspiration, motivation and discipline?

DCM: I define that in one word: Personal. Each person feels, and grows in a completely different way. They absorb and repel different things in different ways. How we do this, and how we harness it to better ourselves, to me, is ‘discipline.’

CR: Very interesting. I definitely relate and similarly define those words, that each person understands what each of those mean in their own way. How do you define the word ‘success’?

DCM: Success is impact. If I know that I’m inspiring someone, either a colleague or friend, I consider that a success. Making some kind of impact- large or small.

CR: Do you feel that you are successful by your definition?

DCM: It depends on the day. This academic year I would say absolutely not. Each day is a small step forward.

CR: You mentioned earlier that you had issues with self-worth being related to your horn. How have you learned to separate your value as a person from your 'success' with horn?

DCM: That’s an ongoing process that I feel like is progressing every day. Frankly I couldn't tell, you except for the fact that it's just easier to let go. When the going gets tough, I look down at the word on my arm- ‘Intent.’ This also reminds me of my support systems, and influences.

CR: Absolutely. What’s your best advice you can offer to young musicians?

DCM: Never take on too much too soon. I really bit myself hard for this. Take a step back, make sure you have time to appreciate your instrument and what you do, and build from a place of comfort and love. Appreciate yourself as a person as well--that’s the most important.

CR: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

DCM: You can’t control what other people do and do not hear. You can only work on yourself in the moment and do what you feel is your best.

CR: That’s great advice, Devin. So getting into some more personal questions for readers who may not be musicians, can you describe what a day in your life looks like?

DCM: That's changing day by day, seeing as I am no longer in school. It usually involves a 3:30am wake up, working at Starbucks, an hour of fundamental horn practice, 1.5-2 hours of repertoire practice, some down time, score study, lots of contact with my best friends and mentors, orchestra rehearsals, Brass Trio or Quintet, and more.

CR: Wow, you’re a busy guy! Being that you love people so much, what are some qualities that you believe are shared by all people regardless of their profession?

DCM: I think we all question the world around us, but most question themselves to a fault.

CR: What are three words you would use to describe yourself as a person?

DCM: Inquisitive, forward, and supportive.

CR: Do you have a favorite quote/mantra?

DCM: “You do not ‘squash’ your nerves. Nerves are part of everyone. You need to harness them, and channel them into something greater. Channel them into intent.” -Liz Freimuth. February 7, 2016. 3:16pm.  This absolutely changed my life.

CR: That’s awesome! What are some of your hobbies?

DCM: I love flying skyburner kites, and going to amusement parks.

CR: How'd you get into kiting?

DCM: Mary Poppins. I wish I was kidding, but “Go Fly a Kite” sounded like a good idea when I was 4. 20 years later…. welp!  

CR: *laughter* that’s awesome! Is there a charity or cause you wish to raise awareness to?

DCM: Mental health/child abuse awareness, and performance injury awareness.

CR: Great! Well, thank you so much Devin! This was a really wonderful interview, and thank you so much for talking about all of this with me.

DCM: Thank you!