Passley shares career wisdom with students

Music faculty Oscar Passley plays the trumpet during a Jan. 26 private lesson. Photo by Rory Moore/The Et Cetera

Music faculty Oscar Passley plays the trumpet during a Jan. 26 private lesson. Photo by Rory Moore/The Et Cetera

JORDAN LACKEY, Contributor

Oscar Passley was in his comfort zone as his trumpet sang, glistening in the light of the performance hall during a recent performance. He couldn’t have looked any more relaxed as he finished his solo. Shortly after, melodic notes echoed through the room as beginning trumpeter Hazel Behning finished her first solo of the performance.

Passley wore a musician’s mask, equipped with a snap away piece of cloth, but it couldn’t conceal his smile and the look of pride in his eyes when Behning looked to him for a sign of approval.

Since 2007, the Eastfield music instructor has been guiding students and teaching them lessons he’s learned in over two decades as a classical and jazz artist.

“I teach them what to say, what to do, what to wear,” he said.

“How much to charge. That’s a big one. Like, who’s your audience? What to program. What to play. It’s a whole thing.”

Passley played his first gig the night of his 17th birthday. Ironically, it was for someone else’s party.

“We started playing ‘Happy Birthday,’” he said. “We pulled it off and everyone was clapping and I was hooked. Man, they handed me 50 bucks cash. I was like, ‘Oh boy! That’s it? That’s all I had to do? Happy birthday to me!’”

His performance with Behning on Dec. 1 was a stark contrast to his early years as a performer.

Passley said he learned many lessons the hard way, and he hopes sharing his experiences with students will prevent them from making the same mistakes he did as a young musician.

[READ MORE: Alumnus’s passion leads to successful music career]

When Passley was around 19 years old he was asked to perform at a wedding in his hometown of Baltimore. It was one of the worst performances of his life.

“So I get there and I’m late,” he said. “Not even a little late. Like 30, 40 minutes late. Not to mention I’m like the only black dude within a 10-mile
radius. So, I’m like that black, young musician that’s new, that’s super late. Super embarrassing.”

Lesson one: never be late to a wedding.

The wedding was a big opportunity for him because he was booked to play alongside members of the Baltimore Orchestra. However, before the days of GPS, MapQuest led him astray.

Things didn’t get any better once he arrived.

“I’m playing with these Baltimore Symphony people,” Passley
said. “They’re like, ‘Who are you?’ I’m like, ‘I’m the late guy.’ … So they hand me the music and I’m like, ‘I should have got here earlier.’”
He could play that music with his eyes closed now. But, at the time, he didn’t have the same level of experience.

“We start playing and I’m all over the place,” he said. “I’m jacking up the music. Worst gig ever. Like it was so bad they couldn’t even look at me.”

Sometime later, Passley received a phone call from the contractor who booked him. The contractor cussed him out and refused to pay him.

Passley now understands his role as a musician with a lot more clarity.

“Musicians, when we get hired to go in, we’re helping to create a moment in time,” he said. “You know, I feel sorry for that bride. I hope they’re still married. Because that moment I created, I mean, God, it was bad. … I was very talented … I just wasn’t
disciplined enough.”

Since then, Passley has been able to create moments for audiences all around the globe, including South Africa, Bolivia, Russia and Finland.

“Music has taken me all over the world,” he said.

Passley takes great pride in his history as a performer, but he takes even greater pride in seeing his students succeed. “When you’re in music, it’s like being a coach,” he said. “It doesn’t take much to figure out if a kid has something that another kid doesn’t have.”

Behning had only been playing trumpet for a few short months when she performed alongside Passley in December. Most of her background was with the piano. But, under Passley’s instruction, she’s come a long way in a short amount of time.

“[Passley] tried to get me to improvise on the first day,” Behning said. “Basically, the lesson was just throw yourself in the deep end, and you know, you’ve got to swim. No pressure.”

As an instructor, Passley has developed his own brand of tough love when it comes to teaching.

Gabe Rodriguez, music major, said it’s all for the betterment of students.

“He can be hard,” Rodriguez said. “Every little bit is because he wants us to improve. … He can be a little hardnosed without
being horrible.”

Passley believes that if someone is going to do something, no matter what it is, they should do it to the best of their ability. He
learned this from his Jamaican immigrant parents.

[READ MORE: English professor Rufel Ramos overcomes difficult childhood through writing]

“They always emphasized education and hard work,” he said. “They didn’t really care what we did. We just had to do the heck
out of it.”

His parents wanted a better life for their children. Passley and his brothers were always encouraged to aim high and pursue their ambitions.

“I’m basically living the dream of my family,” he said. “At the end of the day, you know, just got to work hard. I mean, yeah, it’s not easy, but it could be worse. There are places on this earth where you can work as hard as you want and it doesn’t even matter.”

Passley’s passion for teaching and music are only overshadowed by one thing, his family. As a young man, he liked the idea of being hugely successful as a performer. However, he now sees the obvious tradeoff that comes with that level of success.

“When you kick it into gear and you strictly perform, you trade something when you do that,” Passley said. “It’s very hard to have a functional personal life when you’re on the road all the time.”

This is a tradeoff Passley isn’t willing to make.

“Some people are like ‘Man, family, whatever. Burn it down. Give me the gig,’” he said. “But no, it’s pretty cool to teach your kid how to ride a bike.”

Passley said his family has gotten used to him being away from home when he’s gigging on holidays, but when he’s home, he’s home, and his family gets 100% of his attention.

“When I get home, I’m just Daddy,” he said. “Nobody cares that I played in different countries. Nobody cares that I went to school and I’m super qualified. … They’re just like ‘Dad, can you make us pancakes? With chocolate chips in it? Oh, and by the way, make one of them with chocolate chips and strawberries.’ And if I do that, I’m a rockstar.”

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