Versatility In the Modern Trumpeter

Monday April 18, 2016
“If you want to be constantly employed, you must be constantly increasing your value.” – Byron Stripling

I am writing this post because it is near and dear to my heart. One of the things I hear trumpeters say is “I don’t/can’t do that. I only play jazz/legit music!”

What a way to to sell yourself short. In 2015, Byron Stripling gave a masterclass at my Alma Mater. Of the questions asked of him, one of the best ones was “how do you keep getting gigs?” His response was brilliant! “If you want to be constantly employed, you must constantly be increasing your value. Write that down.” These are words I live by, and to some extent have always lived by.  Being a musician is tough enough as it is.  It is true that there are specialists who can survive solely on one type of work, that is not the case for the overwhelming majority of musicians.

Through hard work, experimentation, and a heaping helping of luck I have been fortunate enough to play many styles of music. In a recent span, my gigs included lead in a big band, trumpet in a party band, soloist on the baroque trumpet, a Bach cantata, small combo jazz, and some salsa. Opportunities that would not have been afforded had I said “I’m sorry, I only play classical music.”

Start the Journey!
The biggest obstacle in becoming versatile musicians is fear of failure. The fact is, the most successful musicians in our field have failed more times than we have ever tried. Do yourself a favor and start failing! The pursuit of musical mastery is a life-long endeavor which we must face head on with “sword in hand.” Have you ever listened to a piece of music and thought “Wow! I really wish I could do that!” Well, why not? The only thing stopping you at this very moment is YOU. In 2002, I was browsing one of the many bustling Trumpet Forums when I came across a post with an mp3 linked in it. I sat in my room absolutely dazed by the fluidity and ease of sound produced by Trent Austin (you can visit his website and Austin Custom Brass for more information.) Although I had always loved listening to jazz, in my mind I had dismissed the notion of even trying because I was a “legit trumpet player.” I had caught the bug…I wanted to be able to do it all!

This can be the moment where you knock down the wall holding you back, but you absolutely must be prepared to not only work hard, but to fail more times than you will succeed. Letting go of your ego is absolutely paramount when branching “into the unfamiliar.” Take your first steps today, and start opening new doors for yourself.

Get Your Feet Wet
So, now you’ve decided to start something new. We all have to start somewhere, and luckily with the internet we can find anything you want. Put your thinking cap on, and start listening closely to the music you want to start learning. If you want to play any style of music, you must be come intimately acquainted with the sound of it. Much like learning a new language, you listen for nuance. Get your hands on some sheet music and follow along! You will learn quickly that music, commercial in particular, has a set of unwritten rules regarding articulation, releases, phrase shaping, none of which are written on the page. “Slurred” phrases on the page may reveal a certain style of tonguing, none of which you will play correctly until you have practiced it to the point of it becoming second nature. Play along with your style, practice it with as much dedication as you have with your “main bag.” Eventually all of these skills will become your tool kit, it’s time to get working.

Getting Work?
So, now you’ve got your fancy degree, and probably some sizeable debt to go with it. There are far more performance majors in the world than there are “full time gigs.” Getting work as a musician should be your top priority. If you’re not one someone’s radar, how are you going to get work? The more you are able to do, the more chances you’re going to get called for something.  Don’t lose sight of your goals, if you want a job in a major orchestra, work your fingers to the bone to get it, but in the mean time if you want to avoid the stereotype of “do you want fries with that?” you should make yourself available to play absolutely anything.

Establish yourself as the musician who can “get it done,” no matter the style. The more public successes you have, the more folks are going to keep calling you. Diversity is always going to be your friend. You may also be amazed at how many times you’ll get a curve-ball thrown in your direction. Being intimately familiar with styles will only solidify your name on the call list, and it will push you closer to the top. The added benefit of all of this, besides the fun, is you’re going to be put around musicians who are better than you in that field, and you’re going to grow as a result.  Put the starving artist to rest, fill your plate with work, and chow down.

Versatility in the modern trumpeter is not only sought after, but it greatly increases your chances of staying fed.  When you get frustrated with your progress, step back, take stock in what you have learned, and repeat what Mr. Stripling said. “If you want to be constantly employed, you must be constantly increasing your value.” No one said being a musician was easy, nor did they say it couldn’t be whole lot of fun. Start surrounding yourself with those you wish to emulate, and you will see how quickly your skills expand.

What’s In The Bag?
Knowing what to have in your bag of tricks is important, so I’ll let you in on it.

Sighting reading  — being able to do this in any genre is going to make your colleagues very happy, work on it daily.

Improvisation — This skill is not limited to the world of jazz, grow your ears and be able to improvise on the spot.

Swingin’ Hard — There are few things worse than hearing a jazz passage played with corny articulation and a stilted groove, get in the pocket and swing hard.

Interpreting Phrases — What is appropriate in the music? The more well informed you are the better off you will be.

Leading A Section — Whether you’re playing Mahler, Rogers and Hammerstein, Basie, or Bartók knowing how to lead your section with confidence goes a long way.

Follow The Leader — You’re not always going to be in the hot chair, so you must be able to adapt and follow at the drop of a dime. Making the first trumpeter sound great is your job, and they WILL notice, especially if you’re not fitting in to the section.

Fundamentals — This one should go without saying, but keep up on the fundamentals of each style. Articulations, releases, flexibility, intonation (octaves anyone?). These are all so important to your success as a working musician.

Sight Transposition — Although you could argue this goes under sight reading, it’s important to be able to transpose in any discipline. Whether you have an orchestral part that goes from Bb to F to A to E, or a vocalist calls a tune in F while the chart is in Ab. There isn’t a magic switch to put your horn in any key, so being prepared for this can really save your behind.

Keep moving forward, and as always Happy Trumpeting! Visit my Facebook page and click like to stay informed of when I post something new to my blog!