In Memory of Kendall Betts: An Interview with Wayne Lu

Wayne would like to dedicate this interview to Kendall Betts, a true inspiration to Wayne and many other musicians around the world. We are all saddened by his recent passing but are proud to carry on his legacy of caring, generosity, and loving life. 

Name: Wayne Lu

From: Iowa City, IA

Age: 45

Job Title/Position: Instrumental Music Director at Eldora New Providence Community School District; High School Band Director at South Hardin School;

Instrument: French Horn

Favorite Brew: 100% Kona Coffee

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

Wayne Lu: I started in 5th grade like many other band kids. I took private lessons on French Horn in 7th grade with Gary Reeves, continued on in high school with Virginia Thompson. I did auditions all over the country and decided to go to the University of Illinois and studied with Kaz Makala there.

CR: That’s awesome! Kaz is such a nice man.

WL: Yeah, and I was the very first freshman class that Kaz ever had; it was a fantastic experience overall. But, after undergrad I took a year off because I didn’t get into any graduate programs. I was waitlisted at NEC, but it was a good opportunity to refocus. I spent a year playing Kopprasch and scales, and the second time around I auditioned at NEC, BU, Northwestern and Minnesota. At Minnesota Kendall [Betts] really liked my audition and in fact told the Assistant Director at the School of Music to give me as much money as possible because I’d played the best audition he’d heard in ten years. It was the first time a teacher had really believed in me and was so outspoken about it, so I was convinced. I had to go and study with him.

CR: That’s fantastic to have a teacher advocate so heavily for you.

WL: Yes, it felt great. So I went and studied with Kendall for my Master’s for two years, and I have all kinds of interesting stories about Kendall. Studying with Kendall was both one of the best things I ever did and also one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. In fact, when I was studying with Kendall he was also teaching private lessons to Bernhard Scully, because Bernhard was in high school when I was a Master’s student. So I would have lessons all the time where Kendall would yell and scream at me and say things like, “Wayne you’re terrible! I have a high school student that can play this stuff better than you!” One time he said it just one too many times, and I got really frustrated and I said, “but that student is Bernhard Scully!!” All these years later, I was right about Bernhard all along. *laughter* He’s amazing! Bernhard and I are really good friends now, but being compared to Bernhard all the time was really, really tough.

CR: Would you say that that was one of your most intense struggles that you’ve endured?

WL: No, definitely not. I mean I’ve had a lot of different challenges in my life, but the hardest challenge I had was overcoming self doubt. I didn’t get into grad school the first time around, so I had to re-evaluate why I was doing it. I could have easily quit, I could have started another career. I’m a smart guy, I could have made a lot more money doing something else. But in the long run, I knew that this was what I was supposed to do, so I just had to find a way. I took a year off, dedicated myself to horn fundamentals, re-auditioned, got in, and everything else turned out to be better. I had some pretty tough lessons with Kendall. There was one lesson where he looked at me and he said, “Wayne, have you ever thought about doing something else?” I paused, collected my thoughts and responded, “No Kendall, this is it. This is who I am.” Then he said, “Alright, well let’s do it again.” Kendall figured out I was in for the long haul, and he worked really hard with me. He was very patient. Thinking about Kendall stories, he also once told me, “Wayne you could be the most untalented horn player I’ve ever met in my entire life, but you work harder than any student I’ve ever had. You’re going to be OK.” Honestly Carrie, that’s when I figured it all out. I didn’t have to be a principal player in a major symphony by the time I’m 30. I have to be the best musician that I can be eventually. As long as I have that as my goal, I will always be OK.

CR: Kendall sure had his own unique way of bringing out the best in us. He was tough, but he knew how to draw out the best in people and show them what they were capable of. So, we’ve touched on it a little bit but in relation to self doubt and the negative self talk, what were some of the thoughts that were going through your head?

WL: I think every horn player wonders ‘am I good enough’. I was on the audition circuit pretty big and heavy for about a two year span, but I never advanced anywhere. During that time I remember listening to a lot of the other people and thinking, “Wow, am I ever going to make it?” That’s natural to think though, when you don’t advance and everyone else does. I knew all along that I had to be a musician, I just didn’t know what form that was going to take. I had to go on blind faith, I had believe in myself and that if I worked hard enough, did the right things day in and day out that eventually it’s meant to be. That’s really, really hard, but if you want to make it in the music industry, you just have to believe in yourself.

CR: I really like the way you describe it as having blind faith.

WL: I mean, none of my teachers felt like I was going to make it in the professional world. I was the only one that really believed that it was going to happen. If you would have told me that when I was 18 years old that by the time I was 45 I would have 3 solo CDs, a composition CD, a conducting CD, be president of a publishing company that is the fastest growing classical music publishing company in the country, have more than 40 chamber compositions performed all over the country, be the director of an award winning high school band program, and work at the world’s greatest french horn camp, I’d laugh at you, I’d tell you that’s not possible. But somehow it all came true, and I can’t explain how it all came true other than the fact that I went on blind faith. I kept believing in myself, and I just kept working hard at it every day. There were several people in grad school who were infinitely more talented than I was that were headed on a path to be very, very successful in the music world. Guess what. They don’t play anymore, and the reason they don’t play anymore is that they were more worried about the end product of getting a job instead of understanding that they had to build a career. If you have an idea about all the things that you want to accomplish in a career, it makes your goal setting much easier day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month, year-to-year.

CR: Yeah, I relate to that completely. I’ve seen so many people give up on themselves at the first time of failure, so I think that’s something I’m hoping to showcase more of with musicians around the world. I want to encourage people that regardless of the inevitable setbacks, everyone has a process that they can figure something out. Showing more of that brushstroke aspect is going to help us.

WL: I’ll tell you a quick story. After my Junior recital at Illinois Kaz came up to me and asked, “do you have a couple of friends who are going to take you out afterwards?” I said yes, and he asked where I was going, and I said, “Kaz, we’re going down to Green street, we don’t know which bar we’re going to, but we’re going somewhere.” I’ll never forget this when he said, “Good. Now you remember this: it’s very important that after you work hard, you also play hard.” That basically told me that Kaz, this Eastern European, Polish man that went to Julliard, that demands perfection all the time, believes that in order to enjoy the journey you have to let loose a little. That was the first time that someone told me that it’s OK to let loose. The other neat thing I learned from him is that it’s not good enough to just play the horn. There are too many people who just play the horn. You have to do other things too. You have to be more complete as a musician and as an artist, and we all have to try and make a difference in some way. It’s not OK to just play horn; we have to be more than just a player”.

CR: Yeah, and it’s especially important for music students to be taught that. Playing devil’s advocate, a lot of people feel that they don’t have the time or because of the expectations in regards to performance quality, but what’s something you would say to someone to re-emphasize the point of how important is is to be well-rounded?

WL: As far as being a complete musician, to me it’s very simple. The more diverse you are as a musician, the more marketable you are just from a practical standpoint. The more things I’m capable of doing, the more marketable I am to the various communities that I’m in. I know that there’s this conservatory mentality of only focusing on playing, but let’s say you do that. In an 2015 article looking at the graduates of Juilliard from 2005, of the percentage of Juilliard graduates that finished their degree, less than 20% of them are still playing. So instead of the question being “which job will I win in the music industry” the question becomes “how much do you love music, and how are you going to make your own music career?” I’ll be honest with you, when I was an undergrad we used to make fun of the music education majors. Well, now I’m a music educator, and it serves me right for making fun of them. You just never know. Every time I said I would never do that, my career took me more in that direction.

CR: For sure. I think it’s a doubled headed coin situation too, because as much as music can be the thing that gets me out of bed and the thing that I deeply love, I keep discovering really dark places in my head. Even though the love is there, the want, the drive, the dedication, the discipline, I don’t know, there are still things that hold me back and I haven’t quite figured out why.

WL: Well, another thing to consider is that it’s really important that you have balance in your life. I mean, we all know that a music career demands more work than almost all other career paths. There are a million things that you either compromise or give up like being in the practice room for hours and hours with no real job security to fall back on. You don’t get to pick where you go for a job. I mean, you’re a perfect example of that; you have to go where you get a job. A lot of times you compromise your personal life. It wasn’t always like this, but now I have three beautiful kids, I have a lovely wife, and next year we get to celebrate 20 years of marriage. I am very easily engulfed by the things that my kids want to do, and I can go be a daddy and escape music at any point in time. I coach basketball for my sons, go to track meets, baseball games, soccer practice, all that. It’s important to find a balance so that it’s not just horn and music 100% of the time. You have to be able to re-focus and find the outlets in order to keep you more balanced and more sane. That’s really hard, especially when you’re still trying to drive your career. I was very lucky along the way, my wife is very understanding, and we have the same belief system when it comes to raising our kids. But, you have to work at it in order to find that balance. If I was a musician 100% of the time, I think I’d actually be miserable.

CR: Right. So since we’re talking about success and all of that, what is your definition of success?

WL: I have a definition of success for my students, and I have a different one for myself. It can be very difficult for some band directors to judge if a student is successful. But, it’s actually very simple: a successful student is someone who puts in effort and improves. I judge on effort and improvement, and so for my students, success is built around that. Success for me is very simple too. I want to be the best that I can be. Since it’s a marathon and not a sprint, it’s going to take time, and that’s OK, because I’m very happy with what I’ve been able to accomplish up to this point in my career.

CR: Great. Specific to advice, I have a lot of friends who are music educators in their first and second years of teaching in smaller schools and smaller programs. How can you advise them to be resilient to that process of sticking with any administrative hardships?

WL: That’s a great question, I’m so glad you asked that question. When young band directors ask for advice, the very first thing I tell them is to put great music in front of their kids. Do not play crap, only play good repertoire. The quality of music will eventually turn the quality of the program around. I’m a big believer in that. If you put good music in front of people the more they want to play. The more they want to play the more they want to get better. The more they get better the stronger the program you have; it’s a direct correlation. The second thing I tell band directors is to not give up on your high expectations. There’s a very famous saying from a famous teacher. There was a math teacher in East LA named Jaime Escalante. There was a movie made about him called “Stand and Deliver”. He said, “Students will rise or fall to the expectation of the teacher.” My expectations for my kids are way high, and even if I don’t get 100%, that’s still more than from a teacher that doesn’t expect much.

CR: That’s great advice. Especially with teachers, and that goes for any subject, because all the things I loved learning in school was a direct relation to who my teacher was. I’m terrible at chemistry, but I loved my AP Chemistry teacher. She was so awesome of a teacher that I just struggled through it and was like “I don’t care, I’m trying anyway because I love my teacher and I want to make her happy!” So, that’s really great advice. So, the last few questions pertain to yourself as a person, so if you had to try, how would you describe yourself as a person?

WL: Passionate, hardworking, loving. I don’t know. Everyone always says that I’m passionate about what I do, I hear that all the time, and I know I work hard. I love what I do, I love my kids, I love my wife, I love the opportunities that I have, I love what I can do with the publishing company, I love playing my horn. I’m a guy that lives with my mistakes but can’t live with any regrets. I’ve made plenty of mistakes, but I get to claim them. I’ve screwed up, and I’ve learned from my mistakes, and I like to think that I’ve made up for them. But I don’t have any real regrets.

CR: Great. So this is a new question, but what are some qualities you believe are shared by people regardless of their passion?

WL: Let me tell you about a book that I read that will bring to light some of these things. There’s this very famous chess player called Maurice Ashley, and he was the first African-American chess Grandmaster. After he became a chess Grandmaster, one of his fans was Wynton Marsalis who invited Maurice Ashley to his penthouse apartment in NYC. So he goes, and as he walks into the apartment right on the corner of the table is a chess board. He walks by, goes into the living room, they start chatting. When there was a lull in the conversation Maurice Ashley asked, “Well, I saw the chessboard. Are we going to play?” and Wynton goes, “Oh no, I’m not going to play you in chess. You’re a Grandmaster. It’d be a total waste of your time to play me. I’m a nobody.” Maurice Ashley says he realized in that moment just how good Wynton was at music *laughter* At the end of his book Maurice Ashley asks, “Why? Why are we put on this earth? What are we supposed to do?” And he says, of course, the first thing we have to do is be a decent human being. That’s the first rule, but after that, our job as human beings is to be excellent at one thing. It doesn’t even matter what that one thing is, but in going through the process of becoming excellent at one thing we will then appreciate excellence in everything else around us. So, why do we play the horn? We want to be excellent at it, so that we can understand the excellence in others. So, if we as people never go through the process to truly become excellent, we won’t really understand life to its fullest.

CR: Wow, that’s really interesting. I’ve never thought about it that way before, but it makes total sense. So, what other things are you passionate about other than music?

WL: My kids, I mean I love my kids so much. They are so incredibly different, and they’re so unique in their own spirits. My oldest son, Brock, is in every sport right now, he loves basketball, he ran track, he’s in baseball right now, he’s a soccer referee, he ran cross country in the fall, he’s a little stud. He’s the only 7th grader that got all A’s first semester. He’s a little stud. My oldest son Brock is basically the kid that I never was, he’s the cool kid. My middle child is Braxton, and he just turned 9, and he’s the artistic one in our family. Free spirit, free thinker, he can sit down and play Legos for hours on end and create entire worlds in his mind. He can sit down and draw for hours. My daughter, Bella, just turned 7, and she’s the CEO of our house. She keeps everyone in line, bosses everyone around. She’s the sweetheart in the family, tough as nails, opinionated, hardworking. She’s pretty incredible. My wife and I focus a lot of our time focusing on what our kids do. We’re in that stage of life where it’s all about their activities.

CR: Great. So is there a charity or a cause that you want to raise awareness to?

WL: I used to volunteer for the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program. I like that organization a lot, and really glad I got to volunteer for them even though I haven't done it in a while.

CR: So my final question is, talking about all this brings up a lot of memories, but if there was one thing you’d like to round everything out, what would you say?

WL: Enjoy the journey. While you’re in the process of making yourself better, enjoy the journey. Every day is an opportunity to make yourself better, and just take time to meet people and genuinely connect with them. Enjoying the journey is how you have a music career.

CR: Great. Well thanks Wayne!