I was asked to write this by Classical Music magazine a while ago for a ‘heated, but lighthearted’ debate page they call ‘Soapbox’. It was meant to be written in a contentious manner to provoke a reaction. This is the article as printed.
SOAPBOX for Classical Music Magazine
Ring ring, ring ring, “hello, this is Kimon, deputy editor of Classical Music magazine. Would you be interested in writing a few words for our soapbox section?” Well, curiosity got the better of me and a few minutes later I’d sort of committed myself to write the article. Sitting here now in front of my computer screen I realise that to do this without offending, oh at least three quarters of the readership, is not going to be easy. Think, think, the reason they asked me in the first place was exactly that. So I would offend! Hopefully not in a nasty way, but in a stop and think, maybe we are a bit like this kind of way.
The topic I was to write about was, ‘why do I think classical brass players are so conservative when it comes to the instruments they use, and how does that differ from a Jazz or Brass Band player?’ That’s it word for word, I’ve copied it down from the nice letter they sent me. Why ask me? As a manufacturer of top end custom made brass instruments I get to meet quite a few professional and keen enthusiastic but not professional players. These come from all walks of the musical spectrum, but they all share one thing in common. They all play a brass instrument. I will narrow that down, about 90% of them are small brass players. No, not under five feet tall, I mean trumpet, cornet, flugelhorn, plus the occasion French horn player and trombonist. I don’t make or deal in anything bigger, so ‘perhaps’ this doesn’t apply to tuba players. My guess would be that it applies to most instruments you blow into !!
Stereotype. Now there is a word the PC brigade gets all upset about. Sorry people (mustn’t differentiate), but its real. Lots and lots of musicians can very easily be put into, shall we say ‘categories’. I’m not going to list a whole bunch of sectors and sub groups as there is not enough room on this page! Lets narrow the field down to ‘classical’ and ‘non-classical’, as was the brief for this article. Ok, some of you do a bit of crossover and this is great, specially if it helps to pay the mortgage and feed the kids, but generally players will have leaning.
Better step up to the soapbox and give the speech now that I’ve set the theme and tone. From what I have observed, the two main camps see the music and the equipment they need to make it on from very different angles. While I can sympathise with the desires of both camps, there seems to me to be some very common ground. Here is the rub. If only the two could see eye to eye on a few fundamentals of the instrument they both use. Where is this line drawn that keep them on opposite sides of the fence? I wish I knew. To me it’s a mostly imaginary one. One that has been written in stone and passed on from teacher to pupil, or from inspirer to inspired over the generations, and seemingly unquestioned by a great many.
As this is a Classical Music publication I shall start with, the ‘classical’ musician. The Americans like the term ‘legit’ for some reason! Makes it sound like they have permission to play, or its somehow ‘legal’, a cut above, posh maybe. The other expression (and I hate this one) is ‘serious’. He, or she, is a serious musician. Please, please, how condescending is that? The implication that anyone who doesn’t play proper music is in someway not serious about what they do is… well, downright rude. Faced with this labelling Its easy to see why Jazz or commercial players get agitated. Many of whom have done years of study, put in the hours of practice, have trained their ears and can read the dots just as competently as the ‘serious’ player.
On the other side, I hear classical players complaining about the money some of the commercial players earn. Well, perhaps that should be put into perspective. It’s the chosen few who make that good money, not the regular player (much like the ‘serious’ chosen ones!). Even then the chosen ones don’t often get an easy ride. Touring is a young persons game. Ok, big audiences baying for more, but not because they are there but because Take That, Neil Diamond or Madonna are up there on that stage. Then its off to the airport and on to the next venue and a white box hotel room to share with the sax player. The guys who do this for a living will expect to be away from home for a minimum of 6 to 8 months of the year. The rest might be studio sessions for the next big things cd, then it time to hit the road again.
Sure classical musicians tour, but its not usually so hectic. Most I know back up their earnings by teaching. Surprising how many don’t like to admit it though. Its like teaching is admitting there is not enough work. Why be so coy about it? Needs must, and all that. The bottom line as far as I can see is both are ‘trumpet players’, or Trombone, or , or… you get my drift, I hope! Both have to practice to keep on top of their game. Both rely heavily on their ears to earn a living. Both are employed because a trumpet sounds like, mm, a trumpet.
To the original question I was asked to comment about. Why the conservatism from the classical players. I can’t see why there should be, but there most certainly is. The ‘rules’ of what they are allowed to play seems to come from two angles. One is the teacher. I hear it over and over again from college teachers / professors telling the students you must use a B***. Even down the model number! This is the trumpet that gives the classical sound, and this is the trumpet that allows you to do the right auditions. The second is the orchestra section leader. He /she plays a B*** therefore in order for the section to sound like a section you will all play a B***. What happens? Every classical player on the planet has a B***. No one must rock the boat. Another way of looking at it might be that most of the classical repertoire was written many years ago, so why use a ‘modern’ instrument to play what was composed long before that trumpet was designed?
Time to question the validity of this thinking. One, its not the trumpet that produces a classical sound. It’s the player. That’s a big shock to some I know, but it’s true. Give a classically trained player a variety of different trumpets and the sound will still have a classical quality. The embouchure, or chops as the jazzers refer to it, is the key here. Give a jazzer the same trumpets and they will make it sound like a jazz players trumpet. The tonal quality or timbre is ‘mostly’ derived from the player themselves and not the instrument to the extent often believed. Why carry on in the old beliefs? It takes a long time to change an old wives tale, even if the proprietors of the myth know deep down its wrong. Point two. The workplace demands it. Until there is any change in point one there will be no movement in point two!
So why even contemplate bucking the trend and looking outside the comfort zone? That’s simple. To make the players life easier. Commercial players have known all along that the more comfortable they feel playing instrument x,y or z then the more of their time and energy they can devote to actually making music, and not having to worry about compensating for the negative aspects of how they feel how brand A plays over brand B. Lets face it, when you buy clothes do you deliberately buy a suit that doesn’t fit? Of course not, so why buy a musical instrument that you don’t feel comfortable playing. In my job I’ve seen good players relax when given an instrument they truly feel at home with, come out of their shell and play wonderfully and still sound ‘classical’ on it. Only to see them two weeks later almost in tears when a ‘teacher’, who I think really should know better, plays god and has virtually refused to teach them because they are not using the same instrument that they play on. Shocked? You may think I’m making this up. I’m not. It happens, and all to often. Its part of any music teachers job to inspire and encourage, not lay down a law that makes no sense. To me that just smacks of insecurity. An not just with trumpets! Why so conservative? I wish I knew, especially when there is no reason to be.
Then there is a third dimension. The brass band. Oh dear, oh dear. I give up on this issue, I really do. The brass band is the only form of music making I can think of where the musicians will so often get given instruments to play. We are talking competition level bands, and even the stage below that! What incentive is there to even consider the merits of cornet x and cornet y when the choice is so often, play this one or don’t play at all! I meet quite a lot of banders and they all, without exception complain about the instrument they are given. I suggest perhaps they could buy their own, one they actually like! How dare I suggest such a ridiculous idea. Now I really do come from a different planet.
Andy Taylor is the owner of Taylor Trumpets. For further insights into the world of Taylor you could look on www.taylortrumpets.com If you do feel the need to shout me down, I do read all the emails that come from the contact page on my site. No guarantee I’ll reply mind you, but I will read it.