How To Be a Versatile Trumpeter

D.H. Lawrence writes: “Never set a child afloat on the flat sea of life with only one sail to catch the wind.”  The same could easily be said about trumpet students and the importance of developing versatility in not only their playing but also their outlook on life.

To discuss how we achieve this, I have been fortunate to have the thoughts and experience of 2 fantastic trumpet players who have both made careers out of crossing musical boundaries, genres and pigeon holes.

Mike Lovatt is primarily a commercial player (John Wilson Orchestra, BBC Big Band and session and show extraordinaire) although classically trained, who is often asked to guest on principal trumpet with the major orchestras. www.mikelovatt.co.uk

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Shaun Hooke is a classically trained player, now Principal Trumpet with the RTE Concert Orchestra in Dublin and regularly also plays lead trumpet with the RTE Big Band. www.dublintrumpetacademy.com

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They both have some fascinating insights into approaching very similar problems and challenges, but from different perspectives.

Can you tell us a little about your background as a player, and what you got you into the trumpet in the first place?

Mike: I was born into a musical family. My Dad was head of music at a secondary school and my Mum was a fine amateur singer with the local choral society. Early in his career my Dad began to collect instruments and taught himself to play them. There were no peripatetic teachers in those days and he wanted to be able to teach well enough to form a youth orchestra within the school. By the time he retired he was conducting an orchestra of about 70 children! The trumpet was one of the many instruments lying around the house. I really wanted to play the trombone but at the age of eight my arms weren’t long enough.

Around that age on a shopping trip to the local supermarket, I was drawn to the record carousel and saw a record with a picture of a trumpet player on the front. It was Eddie Calvert ‘The Man with the Golden Trumpet’ I immediately asked if I could have it and after listening to the album I tried to play along with it using an old Selmer. I was hooked! Trumpet playing was all I wanted to do.

I began to play in my Dad’s youth orchestra and eventually the Staffordshire youth orchestra. I really wanted to be a professional and every day I would rush from school to try to play along to all sorts of records. I would pretend I was doing a concert with the Syd Lawrence Orchestra or that I was Maurice Murphy with the London Symphony Orchestra or a member of the PJBE, or the great Kenny Baker. This developed my ear not only for pitch but also for sound, style, articulation, placement of time and phrasing.

Disaster struck when aged 14; I was involved in a serious cycling accident. I lacerated my top lip and lost several front teeth. I thought my playing days were over. Thanks to the skills of the plastic surgeons of the North Staffs hospital I healed and began to try to play again. At first it was terrible, I could not produce a sound. Eventually I got it working again enough to do my grade 8 and I then auditioned for the music colleges. The range I previously had didn’t come back however and it wasn’t until I discovered the Maggio system some 10 years later that finally my chops came together.

I was fortunate to study at Trinity College of Music in the 80’s. My teacher was Norman Burgess, formally principal trumpet of the BBC concert orchestra, and later co-principal in the BBC Symphony.  He taught me to be as versatile as possible with a view to being employable in the future. He also encouraged me to attend the extra-curricular college big band rehearsals run by the great Bobby Lamb.  There were no Jazz courses available at music colleges back then, so I was lucky to be able to learn from these two great musicians who between them had a wealth of experience from all sides of the profession. I quickly realized that whatever style you play, a good solid technique on the instrument is essential. With a strong technical foundation and embouchure, it is possible to cope with the demands of all styles of playing.

Shaun: I grew up in Leicestershire in England.  I was enormously lucky to be able to avail of free trumpet lessons provided by our County Music Service. Particularly Don Blakeson, who was taught by David Mason who in turn apparently could trace back teacher to teacher all the way back to Handel’s time! I’m doing the Messiah next week so hopefully something has worn off on me. I was also heavily involved with Enderby Silver Band. I started with them as they reformed in ’77 when I was a nipper and enjoyed many happy years growing up with so many wonderful people to mentor me.

I decided to do Chemistry at Oxford University rather than going on to music college, but I had the trumpet bug and after completing a doctorate I knew I wanted to at least give pro trumpet playing a go. Jon Holland and Wes Warren at the CBSO taught me orchestral skills and still now I put myself back in their presence the moment before I play something.  What did Jon say to do here?  What was Wes’s trick for this?…

Quite quickly I was appointed to Principal Trumpet in the RTE Concert Orchestra but to this day I’m still thinking about how these guys coached me and I’m passing it on to my own students.

Your job involves you constantly switching styles – do you have a regular practise routine that encompasses everything, and what are the most important things to concentrate on?

Mike: I believe production is key across all types of trumpet playing. In commercial music, big bands and some Jazz playing the style requires a more defined articulation and sometimes brightness and sizzle in the sound. I always maintain that under that brightness there should be a full broad tone across the entire register. High notes are expected in lead trumpet playing and some areas of commercial music and so should be developed. However, they must never be the be all and end all at the expense of a good sound and considered playing. Super C is almost normal range these days but it’s important to have a full rich centered sound. You should always use your ears and listen to all types of music… try playing along with the music you listen to and copy it. You could also record yourself playing different styles and listen back and compare. For a particular style to come across to the listener, it needs to be exaggerated.

Shaun: I don’t really have a set practice routine. As a full time performer, I think it’s important to have some time away from the trumpet. I try to have one day a week where I’m neither playing or studying repertoire to help clear the head and relax the muscles. My emphasis on preparation is looking after the basics. Generally, I always have plenty of strength, stamina and range because I’m working pretty constantly. There are skills however that might not be required week in week out, and these are the ones that I’m careful to maintain at home. Flexibilities and double and triple tonguing can get rusty pretty quickly if you don’t end up being asked to produce them, particularly valve/tongue coordination so these are the things I always make sure stay sharp. The other golden rule is “practice what you’re NOT doing currently.”  If I’ve been doing lead big band charts at work I try to make sure I play something at home on my regular orchestral mouthpiece and something on the piccolo trumpet – choose something for my own pleasure rather than something coming up in the schedule. Vice versa, I always try to do 15-20 minutes on my lead mouthpiece, 2-3 days before I start a project that is going to need that. Other than that, I try to listen to recordings of stuff I have coming up. Not really to familiarise or learn repertoire but more to guard from getting “stuck in your ways”.

It’s nice to be inspired by others and try to do repertoire differently the next time it comes around. I listen to lots of players from the 20s,30s and 40s and try to emulate their styles. There are lots of transcriptions of their solos and I like to collect the original recordings.

Do you have a basic instrument and mouthpiece setup that covers most things, or is it very different depending on what the schedule brings?

Mike: My basic trumpet and mouthpiece set up is the same for most of the works I perform. I play my own signature model Mike Lovatt Smith-Watkins Bb Trumpet exclusively. It is a 460 bore. The bell is similar in size to a Bach 37 except that is a heavy weight.  I have two gold plated instruments and one that is silver-plated. I use my own range of signature mouthpieces of which there are three models: Studio, Lead and Classical.

The majority of my playing is done on the Studio mouthpiece. On this set up I play first Trumpet in the John Wilson Orchestra, perform lead on the West End show 42nd Street and the BBC big band, and when on first trumpet in Studio sessions.  Mouthpieces are very personal and what works for me may not work for someone else. Lip formation and lip thickness determine what might work and feel comfortable to the individual.  My mouthpieces are perfect for the various styles required of me. It seems other players like their ability to be used in different settings. When playing in the high register, I find the Lead with its large back bore, medium shallow cup and the comfy 5ish Bach diameter rim enables me to produce a bright sound I need, and stamina is helped by the resistance being transferred to the trumpet through the large back bore. I use my classical piece (more or less a Bach 3C) for studio sessions sitting down the line, my practice and occasionally on first trumpet if I require a broader darker sound.

My instruments have different qualities because of the plating. The silver ML Smith Watkins trumpet enables me to produce a cutting bright sound not only useful in Lead but also certain styles of orchestral music too. I don’t change lead pipes for different styles of playing. I could if I wanted, as the trumpet features an interchangeable leadpipe system. However, I like to keep the feel (resistance) of the instrument the same regardless of the genre of the music I am playing to help me with my production and familiarity in supporting the notes and sound. I use the ML designed pipe that comes with the trumpet as it balances perfectly with the 37-size bell and the bore size of the instrument. The most important thing here is sound quality whether it is classical, jazz, lead in a big band, pop horn section or solo.

Shaun: To be honest, kit is everything in my job. We try of course to perform in the correct style, but the range of sounds and timbres required is so varied that it really means you need some different equipment to achieve that. At the beginning of my career I did that mostly by playing on my beloved Bach (then later Yamaha) B-flat and using quite a variety of mouthpieces. It had a degree of success, but it is hard work on the embouchure, chopping and changing rims, cup depths, throats, backbores etc… and I certainly felt that my tuning and accuracy suffered.

For the past number of years I have had a different approach. My responsibilities at RTE were putting more emphasis on my role as lead trumpet in the RTE Big Band and I felt I needed a dedicated lead instrument. I tried great gear from Shires, Smith-Watkins and Schilke but I fell in love with B&S’s JBX trumpet. When I’d decided to buy this, the store asked if I’d like to try the B&S Challenger II trumpet (their standard classical model). Well I loved it. So now I have two B flat trumpets, one for classical work and one for light repertoire. The huge advantage for me is that the reverse leadpipe is almost the same on both, the bore is the same, the bell profile is the same, so the tuning slots and the way it “blows” feels entirely similar, making it so easy to switch back and forth.

But the JBX bell is lightweight and has a French bead giving it a really exciting live fizzing sound. Whilst the Challenger II bell (a 43) is much more solid and rounded sound much like the Bachs I’d been playing for the previous 30 years. Since then I have B&S C  and E-flat trumpets both light and heavyweight bells. As to mouthpieces I use a Bach 1 1/4c on both of my B-flats for orchestral (Challenger II) and “Show” work (JBX). For lead work I use a Marcinkiewitz 3/3C.  I turned up at work once without my old lead mouthpiece and was loaned this by my excellent co-principal Eoin Daly – I liked it so much I bought 2 so I could keep one at home and one at work and therefore wouldn’t be caught out again. I have a Schilke piccolo that I use for recording work but have recently just bought a Scherzer rotary valve piccolo for baroque and orchestral repertoire.  Again, it’s all about making the right sound. I use a Marcinkievitz 7s mouthpiece on the piccolo. I found one in 1989 in an “odds and sods” box at a band competition thinking it would be a good “screamer” mouthpiece but it didn’t work for that. It got me through a tour of Brandenburg 2 though so I’ve stuck with it.

How has the versatility that you require affected the way that you approach teaching? Do you recommend that advancing students work on a wide variety of playing styles or concentrate on fundamentals?

Mike: The versatility that I have developed over the years is something I try to pass on to my students.  I encourage listening to all types of music. This is essential for stylistic development.  Occasionally this is done in lessons but I encourage listening to be done on a regular basis to keep ones ear in tune with different styles. A couple of years ago I gave a trumpet class at a major conservatoire in London and when I asked if anyone had listened to any music recordings or attended concerts recently, not one of the 12 classical trumpet students had. One of them admitted to listening to Bruno Mars three days previously!

I teach fundamental trumpet techniques. First and foremost, I make sure the student has a solid embouchure formation and can make a good basic sound. I’m a stickler for note production and articulation so there are exercises based around those techniques using Arban and Schlossberg. I use Caruso, Stamp, Maggio and my own ideas to develop the embouchure. I try to instill playing with reverence for the music. Long notes are important to develop resonance and to find the ‘soul’ of the note and the core of ones playing. When you have control of the sound, this can be adapted and applied to whatever style you are playing. I teach different vibrato techniques and ways to help note projection whether at the back of an orchestra, in a west end pit or in a studio microphone technique to record well.

Shaun: The music business is hard and getting harder. I always encourage my students to be flexible even if you’re pretty sure that you will be going in one particular direction. Make sure you have the skills to be able to say ‘yes’ to the next call and go in and do a good job. It is a wonderful way to earn a living but at the outset, you need to be out there making contacts and proving your professional credentials. One of my colleagues in the RTE CO was a regular in a German Beer band to put money on the table while he was trying to break into the orchestral scene. Work hard but don’t be over focused is my advice.

What is easier, a classically trained player playing light music or a commercial player playing in a classical orchestra section?

Mike: As someone who has dipped my toe into both sides of the profession, I am inclined to say that both styles are as difficult as the other to play convincingly. You need to apply yourself honestly to the style and exaggerate it enough to come across to the listener. I have always had the view that trumpet playing is trumpet playing and that the most important quality to have is solid musicianship built from listening. Always listen carefully to your sound and the music going on around you. If you’re playing third trumpet in a classical section on a film soundtrack recording, you then respect that and whoever is on first trumpet. Try to blend with them and above all support the sound style they are playing. The same goes for an orchestral player playing big band repertoire on a symphonic pops date. I have played with orchestras from San Francisco Symphony, the Concertgebouw Amsterdam, CBSO, BBC Symphony, LSO, LPO, Philharmonia, BBC Scottish, BBC Philharmonic, RTE Concert, Gothenburg Symphony, BBC Concert and many more. On many of these occasions my role is to help shape and lead classical players into becoming commercial big band section players in a three-hour rehearsal followed by a concert. Some seem more capable of giving up to the music and using their ears more than others. If they have a solid technique and command of their instrument, then they are more able to adapt successfully.

To quote John Wilson “anyone who can play good lead trumpet in a dance band can play first trumpet in a symphony orchestra”.

I think it can be difficult for ‘classical’ players to get used to playing swing quavers, combined with the way in which articulation changes in commercial playing. I always try to help by singing the phrasing to them and making them feel confident they can do it. It’s also important to tell the players to articulate and play the shorts and longs accurately.

Shaun: I think that it is not always right to pigeon hole people like that, but there are people who specialise of course. I remember taking the chance to have Tony Fisher come over to cover a James Bond concert for me when my wife was about to pop with our first child. Of course, I waxed lyrical to our management – he was interviewed for RTE radio about the very first Bond sessions including of course the original theme track – it was a brilliant week. Then the baby was born, and I was gone for a few weeks and they asked him to come and do a week of Mendelsohn… he gracefully declined – although it would have been interesting I expect!

I come from a classical background, trained over the years and “on the job” to do light repertoire, and I have local guys here that slot in well in the RTECO and RTE Big Band, but similarly we have guys who mostly do commercial work who are fine sitting down the line on orchestral repertoire. We have lots of mixed programmes where this is required. All the “classical” guys have plenty of “light” experience and the commercial guys are for the most part classical trained so have orchestral skills and can TRANSPOSE.  That is the key!

What challenges and projects have you got coming up?

Mike: I’m so happy I’ve managed to carry on doing many varied projects, gigs and recordings with orchestras, bands, groups and big bands all over the world. My future projects include my first solo album with the amazing Fodens Brass Band, directing the Stockholm Radio Symphony Brass in a concert of Billy May’s Big Fat Brass music, big band lead trumpet sessions for Gary Barlow, UK jazz festivals this summer with the Skelton Skinner all-stars, concerts with the John Wilson Orchestra, concerts and broadcasts on lead trumpet with the BBC Big Band, continuing on lead trumpet for 42nd street and as guest first trumpet for the Symphony in Antwerp. I am fortunate to be looking forward to such a stylistically varied schedule.

Shaun: A few highlights of upcoming stuff are: The Classical Series at the National Concert Hall featuring Mozart, Mendelssohn and Beethoven; studio work with Irish singer/songwriters for rock station RTE2FM; Giselle with visiting English National Ballet, Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle with the Irish National Opera. Up to our summer holidays we are also doing 4 sell-out shows at the Donnybrook Dublin Rugby Stadium and The Marquee in Cork with RTE2FM of 90s dance anthems! Hopefully we will tour this show in Australia in the autumn.

For further information about Mike Lovatt, please visit www.mikelovatt.co.uk

Mike’s signature ML Smith-Watkins trumpet is reviewed here if you would like to read more.

For to find out more about Shaun Hooke, please visit www.dublintrumpetacademy.com

Shaun is a B&S Artist and you can view the trumpet range here.

You may also be interested to read a review here of good all-round B-flat trumpets.

For a great range of trumpets, mouthpieces and specialist advice, please visit Thompson Music

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