I have been privileged to not only be among the ranks of professional musicians as a working trumpet player, but over two decades as a lead trumpet player in the US Army premiere road band, The Jazz Ambassadors. I have earned a good living playing good music and, as you well know, is a rare event these days. You might ask, “Is that all you’ve done?” or my favorite, “You guys sound great! When are you going pro?” Needless to say, being a musician in the Army has it benefits but has many challenges when people see you as a soldier first, and the fact we play music is somehow disparate. For those of you who are reading my “pearls of wisdom” and are not engaged in the world of gigs, cats, the road, bread, sides, axes, chops (we may hit upon the different language musicians speak in a future blog), some have said “Gee. I wish that I could work for 3 hours a day.” What they don’t see is all the college we completed, the constant practice routines, the hundreds of thousands of pounds we had to load and unload, and the 7 solid years of road time we all spent away from our families. I will elaborate later with some more specific and juicy stories, but I will say that nothing breaks (like air conditioning, or the water heater) until after you leave on tour. The wife does not like to be without AC at the peak of summer, so you get on the phone, make calls, and promise to make it all better. Sometimes, I thought that the gig looks pretty glamorous on paper only. However, I have always been thankful to be playing the trumpet as a career.
Outside of the Army bands program, I have been on the road, a cruise ship musician, over 25 cd’s with an official Grammy membership and nomination (very restrictive entry program mind you J) as well as studio recordings for publishing companies, teaching music in schools, travelling the country performing clinics and concerts, brass ensembles, and wherever and whenever a trumpeter is needed. So unlike a trumpet player to “toot his own horn” (sorry for the pun), but you should know when you’re getting advice or an opinion from me, it is not only my personal story, but the practical application of playing one of the most physically and mentally demanding positions as a 1st chair (lead) trumpet player for thousands of concerts for well over a million people. If that sounds like I may have information you want, then please read on and subscribe to my Trumpet-Talk podcast on the Southgate Media Group website, or on iTunes.
THE ROAD: How I got here from there
I had left high school to go to college, and was all set for Illinois Wesleyan back in 1984. Teaching jazz there was Doc Streeter, a former bass trombonist from the renowned Airmen of Note. Fairly confident in my decision, I attended the Elmhurst College Jazz Fest with the Proviso West Jazz Band and our fearless leader Paul Tolosko. Ashley Alexander was one of the guest artists and being a big fan of his, I went back stage where he was with Frank Mantooth and Doug Beach. After introducing myself, probably quite awkwardly, Ashley asked what my plans were, and after telling his where I was going Doug said “No he’s not. He’s going to school here” Well, A. Alexander seemed to be on Doug’s side and I was not going to disappoint the best trombone player, ever! One of the best, as I know now and I won’t start the apples and oranges debate, this is my opinion as it stands. Somehow we made it happen, and from that one decision, many, many great experiences happened.
THE TOAD: Challenges and topics about trumpet playing
Today, The mouthpiece
Other than the fact it rhymes, I’ve named this section The Toad, after all the little bumps along the way. First and foremost, the source of much consternation and debate amongst any musician and especially trumpet players is the mouthpiece. Doc Severinsen is said to have drawers full of mouthpieces and sounds great on every one of them. One of my teachers, Don Jacoby, professed that they had “a hole in one end and a hole in the other” and would not spend much time talking about mp’s. ‘The exception was the time when a student came for his lesson with a Parduba Double Cup, made famous by Harry James. Jake grabbed the mouthpiece, threw it through the window and landed on the outside concrete by the pool, opened up a drawer with more than a few pieces, and let him have his pick.
Selecting a mouthpiece
For beginners: I think the consensus is to have them start on a 7C. It has been the standard issue for almost every manufacturer for a reason. It’s a good middle of the road piece, not too deep, not too shallow for new chops. (that is trumpet talk for the lips or lip set-up). Why is it important? Just like training wheels on a bike or a pee wee bat for youth baseball, you would not want to start on a mouthpiece that has wide variations. Not to say that it was isn’t a decent mouthpiece to keep playing. Until his accident, Adolph Herseth was said to have played on a 7C until his accident, and had to use a bigger one to get around the injury. It maybe rumor, but it was said that he created the trend in all the symphony trumpeters who now use bigger and deeper mouthpieces. I don’t use a universal approach to any students, so I have started some on a 5C or a 3C if the student sounded strained or has thicker lips.
For leadplayers: the best advice I got was from Bobby Shew. I had received a Jerry Callet 5 for a Christmas present from mom after having tied it at IAJE (now Jazz Educators Network). I played lead on that all through high school until Bobby Shew came to Elmhurst as a guest artist. He gave me a copy of his Marcinckewicz Bobby Shew mouthpiece which I took to like a duck to water. Generally, Bobby suggests that you start with a few mouthpices that go from deep to shallow and keep getting shallower until you “bottom out.” That is when you literally feel the bottom of the cup with your lips and/or cannot continue to produce a tone. Now, when you’ve found that point, you go one cup deeper back and that is your lead piece. A shallow cup will not make you play high or a lead player, however it is the right tool to make it easier to get a brighter commercial sound. Some that bright will probably not be the right tool for a classical gig, but selecting a classical mouthpiece is the next paragraph. Having said that, some great players have selected a mouthpiece in-between and play everything on that one piece. Jacoby could play bright or dark on any mouthpiece based on approach, but I am no Jake and I love tools.
For classical players: I have had the privilege to perform with 7 major symphonies as a lead player but like the actor who plays a doctor on TV, I am not a symphonic player. I have played with college and civic symphonies and many brass choir venues, but most of my experience with orchestral music is from asking the members of Boston, Baltimore, Cincinnati and others what they use and why. There is no solid consensus, suffice to say they generally play fairly deep mouthpieces from 1 1/4 C down to a 2B or custom pieces made by Monette, Pickett, Warburton, etc. Many of the principle pops players in the DC Military concert bands play on a 5C or equivalent, and others swear by the 3C. Many times, the mouthpiece and even the trumpet itself can be dictated by what blends with the section and that is usually dictated by the principle player and the general style of the group. I was greatly impressed with the new trumpet players for the Canadian Brass especially the piccolo trumpet playing. I asked, and they graciously told me that they use the Schilke 11ax. So, guess what I own now?
There is no universal answer, and I can only hope my experience can shed some light or even conversation. You mileage may vary.
THE BLOKE: The upcoming guest to the Trumpet-Talk Podcast
Paul Stephens is a former lead trumpet player for Maynard Fergusson, also the US Army Jazz Ambassadors and the Nicholas Payton Orchestrra and is featured on many recordings and movies. Paul is known for his endurance, range, and all around nice-guy-ness (and BBQ). Currently, he resides in his home state of Oklahoma and has just joined the University of North Texas as an adjunct professor. I the had the distinct pleasure of standing next to him for a few years on the JA’s and always admired his musicianship. Join us on the Trumpet-Talk podcast and hear some Dubba C’s.
Itunes: Trumpet-Talk Podcast
Jack Wengrosky, trumpet
MSG, US Army (ret)