New Lessons From an Old Horn

When I arrived at Ball State, someone asked if I had bought a new car. I suppose this is what college graduates do when they land full-time jobs: buy cars. While we could argue that this may be in my future, as evidenced by a number of untimely complications courtesy of my 2002 Ford Focus, I haven’t started that process yet.

Instead, about a month ago, I did the other thing I swore I would not do with my new salary: I bought a new trumpet.

The trumpet is not actually new, which is why I bought it. It is a 50-year-old Mt. Vernon C with B-flat slides, and it has been around the block a few times in terms of wear and tear, which means its value as a collectors’ item is probably limited. This does not particularly matter to me, since producing notes (on both sides of the instrument) feels like running a hot knife through butter.

You would think that I would have been like a kid in a candy store when I bought this thing, but my first thought, when I really got down to the brass tacks of learning its tendencies, was “what have I done?”. I’ve played Bach trumpets all my life. I have tested them for the local music store and given my recommendations as to which ones sound best. I recently switched to a Bach Artisan E-flat instead of my Schilke E3L. My student trumpet was a Bach Mercedes II. And I have always wanted to own a Mt. Vernon, so when one came my way in our local market, I tried it out, committed to buy it, and then discovered, one day later, the ironic truth: my Mt. Vernon does not play like any Bach trumpet I have ever encountered.

This realization sparked a kind of personal crisis. I come from an orchestral background and have spent the last ten years playing a 37 B-flat and a 229 (25H) C. I have always been curious about other trumpets, but have always been reluctant to switch brands or models–after all, haven’t I been playing for a decade on the industry standard?

But now I have purchased the horn that in many ways has been the standard–the standard after which the standard has been patterned–and it feels completely foreign. It is light and agile instead of dark and powerful. The first week, I was afraid to like it. I kept thinking I had somehow double-crossed the brand loyalty I had always maintained. Then I remembered what I was actually playing and wondered why I felt so skittish. I realized I was afraid of producing a non-orchestral sound. Then I wondered why this mattered to me, since the bulk of my playing is solo and chamber music and my days are spent teaching private lessons. Shouldn’t I play whatever sounded better in my studio, rather than in an empty hall with an imaginary orchestra? And wasn’t it possible that, as a full-time professional with full creative control over my programming, I could elect to choose the trumpet that I liked best, that made the sound that I most wanted to hear?

This was an important realization, because it touches upon the central value that I try to instill in my students: conviction. Except in very specific circumstances (orchestral audition lists, for example, or historically-informed performance), I do not want them to start by mimicking someone else’s interpretation. I want them to communicate, to have a voice on the trumpet. Modern-day audiences can see through inauthenticity in a heartbeat. They buy into an artist, or a performance, because the artist brings his or her own passion to the event, because the music comes from a deep place of personal meaning. And meaning is not something you can achieve through mimicry. Do I want my students to listen to other artists? Yes, absolutely. Do I want them to steal from those artists? Yes. But I especially want them to steal what speaks to them, rather than worrying about what I might think. They all know that if they can “sell it,” I will let them keep it, so long as it is not wildly inappropriate.

So where does this leave me, with my Mt. Vernon horn? It leaves me, in fact, in a position of freedom: being an unsponsored artist, I am free to make a choice about what I play. I’m free to change my mind if a particular context lends itself to a different instrument. And I’m free to craft my own sound in any of those contexts, as long as I teach my students how to make similar decisions for themselves without blindly following my lead.

At one point, I casually recorded a sound clip of my new B-flat and my 37 so I could compare them side-by-side. That recording is below, and I’m not going to tell you which is which. If you would like to hear the new C (shameless plug alert), I’ll be playing it on Friday night with the Ball State University Wind Ensemble (7:30 Eastern Time; live stream link is here). See what you think, and draw your own conclusions. :)