Doc Severinsen discusses heffers, Snow White, and the Key to Success

by Katie Giffin

“Ya’ll like Subway sandwiches?”

The crowd chuckles as a man with fluffy white hair shuffles into the room. He finds his place by a music stand and a microphone as he gazes out on a crowd of about 150 people, both young and old, that fill a rehearsal hall at the University of Dayton. The man, Doc Severinsen, is a legend to all brass players. He played with the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson for close to 20 years and later became leader of the show’s band. He has just finished up a nation-wide tour of his latest release and last year he had an appearance on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, performing with The Roots. However, despite his experience in the blinding city lights, Severinsen wears his cowboy boots and flannel shirts to remind him of his small town roots in Oregon.

“Now what I have to talk to you about, you can get off down little alleys… but you see, I’ve been playing trumpet since I was six years old.”

What the audience expected from this masterclass was what any experienced musician would expect from a masterclass. A setting similar to a private lesson except this time there are a 100 or more people looking on taking notes. However, this “masterclass” was not the typical masterclass. Severinsen only picked up his trumpet to play three times, and then only to play a single note. Instead, he spent the time discussing how his roots inspired his playing and how he has continued to learn everyday since he played his first note and plans to keep learning until the day he dies (which, the 88-year-old noted, could be any day).

Severinsen grew up in a small “cow town” in the wilds of eastern Oregon. He describes how they would have to lock their doors when they went out or else they would return home to find a “heffer and a calf uninvited in your house.” In this town back in the 1930’s, they didn’t have the modes of entertainment, or distractions as Severinsen describes them, that we have now. “You had to make your own  entertainment.” And so that’s what Doc did. He started practicing on a trumpet they found in the neighbor’s attic and soon enough he was playing in church on Sundays. Then, at the age of 9, his father entered him into a state playing contest and he won. The judge approached him at the end of the competition because he recognized the untrained talent in this country kid. He asked him if he wanted to discuss lessons with him over dinner, but the 9-year-old apologized and said he wouldn’t be able to make it, he had a movie to catch – Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.  Later, he would learn that he turned down one of the best trumpeters in the country for the sake of an animated film.

Severinsen then goes on to discuss his journey to New York as he began to look for work and his struggle trying to stay afloat. When asked by an audience member what keeps him motivated, he said, “Fear.” There was a small amount of laughter from the crowd, but there was no smile on the good-humored man’s face. He said, “First, it was fear. Then it was self-preservation.” Every moment that he wasn’t practicing was a moment wasted. His trumpet was his lifeline, his only way of supporting himself. When he started a family, it became the only way of supporting them.

He admits that he has good days and bad days, setbacks and injuries, but he has also had “glorious moments.” These glorious moments were the result of consistency, of always showing up and doing the best work possible. He refuses to take mediocre as acceptable but strives for excellence in every detail. Even through the times where he faced setbacks–at one point he could not stand up without assistance–he fought through those times and learned from them (his solution to that particular problem was to go to the gym and start lifting). That grit has propelled him to success and now he remains a legend to all musicians as he continues to grow and improve daily. Severinsen is the model of the work ethic that not only every musician should aspire to have, but any person looking to have success in anything.

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