Many top players have already turned to Pickett Brass and Blackburn Trumpets for mouthpieces and trumpets. At the helm is Peter Pickett who has kindly given up his time to answer some questions…
Can you talk a little about the background to getting started on this trumpet craftsmanship journey?
This entire journey to date in hindsight appears elegant and neat when laid out on paper, but rather, has been quite challenging. I’ll look back one day on life and say that all the pieces were laid out and it was such a natural progression, but the truth is that opportunities came and went, but with some luck, I was able to latch onto key ones along the way. For example, when Cliff Blackburn approached me in 2009 on working with him to carry forward Blackburn Trumpets, I happened to have been in the right place at the right time. Having said that, most of the company’s significant forward steps have hinged on being in the right place at the right time, and paying attention to see and take advantage of fortuitous timing. You must always be aware of what’s going on around you and have the imagination to envision the possibilities at all times, even as impossible as it may sound at the moment.
My internal, irrational, and unconscious drive to bring this all to life has been a result of combining the joy of playing trumpet and of my engineering background and manufacturing. What could be a better combination of those interests? So much of the company’s progress and progression has been driven by brute force and pure work ethic, powering through significant inefficiencies and unawareness, to accelerate learning and progress to get ahead of the learning curve and not settling for what was easy or simply sufficient in the moment. We’ve worked through a number of these headwinds, but out of the gate, you just have to execute and work regardless of what it takes to get it done.
When Pickett Brass officially started in 2003, I did not have all the skills necessary to do what we do today. But this didn’t stop me from stepping forth to see if all of this could work. Stumbling through numerous issues having nothing to do with the actual parts in the beginning really woke me up to the sheer number of obstacles that would need to be overcome.
Who or what were your inspirations?
Most of my inspiration comes from wanting to actually make something meaningful, bringing something to life. Being able to create something from raw materials, from almost nothing, that act of creating is what fuels me the most. This coupled with music and creating something that contributes to the creation of music only reinforces the inspiration. The incredible variety of artists that I get to meet and work with is humbling. Ultimately it’s a privilege to be a part of this music making community – which is not something to be taken lightly. When we are actively part of something larger than ourselves, and can contribute to the greater good, it’s not an opportunity to boast or brag, but rather to quietly contribute to the growth of all in the community together, creating community strength.
Did you set out with ideas of how manufacturing could be improved?
Absolutely – when any process becomes elegant and efficient, it is more fun and enjoyable. This applies to any endeavor – for example, we don’t play trumpet because it’s hard, no fun, and produces unpleasant sounds. No – instead, when we become adept and efficient at playing the instrument, it is more fun and enjoyable – and the end product is all that much better. Wanting the business processes, the design processes, and production processes to be elegant and efficient has always been a significant driving force.
How and why did you branch out from valve trim-sets to the excellent custom mouthpieces that you now produce?
When all of this started in 2001, I was only aiming to make 1 set of trumpet buttons for myself. They were made by hand, nothing special, but just made by me, for me. This was followed by stems, top caps, and bottom caps and as far as I could tell at the time, this was all it was going to be. Mouthpieces eventually followed as a natural progression around 2007. I had the machines to do them and as every trumpet player knows, no one mouthpiece is going to be ‘it’ for any player. The unlimited possible variations for brass instrument mouthpieces allows for numerous designers and manufacturers all around the world to take part and participate in this industry. This was exciting to know despite “everything has been invented already”, I could still produce unique mouthpieces that work like no other for players and that had never been made before.
Are there any unexpected challenges that you have met along the way?
Absolutely – seemingly endless and absolutely overwhelming at times. Most people don’t realize what goes into creating and running a complete business. Making actual mouthpieces is only one small aspect and can be challenging into itself, but ultimately it takes so many other steps to get that freshly made mouthpiece out the door to a player. So overcoming the challenges of running a business from the financial processes, to ecommerce development and management, taxes, payment processing, facilities, and numerous others, have all been challenges.
Running a successful manufacturing business takes a lot of time and commitment. How do you balance this with having a life outside of the workshop?!
Running a small business is all life-encompassing and a lifestyle choice. Some say it’s a curse, others a privilege, but there is nearly no time in any day that the business isn’t being worked on or thought about. So life balance in the traditional sense is fleeting and fairly non-existent. The variety of activities that the business offers is one outlet though – from manufacturing to meeting with customers, there is a wide range of involvement and autonomy. For example, trade shows give me a fantastic opportunity to meet new people, hear new music, and see new areas outside of the shop.
Can you talk a little about your work with Cliff and taking on the Blackburn trumpets brand?
Cliff and I have been friends for a long time – starting by meeting him in 2004 at the ITG conference in Denver, Colorado. He probably doesn’t remember that initial introduction, but it was the first opportunity for me to talk to him and his wife, albeit briefly. Since that early introduction, through the years, we’ve seen each other often and talked at conferences, and eventually worked together on manufacturing the Blackburn trumpet mouthpieces. After years of collaborating with Cliff on the manufacturing of various trumpet components for Blackburn Trumpets, he approached me at the ITG Conference in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in 2009 asking if I’d be interested in working with him in carrying the Blackburn Trumpets company forward after his retirement. Of course the answer was yes, but little did I know that it would take an additional 7 years to work through the details.
We worked together through that period on training, learning, and exploring what made the Blackburn Trumpets what they are so well known for. And even after we acquired the company in 2016, we had an incredible amount of learning and work still left to do. It has been an incredibly overwhelming exercise, but has ultimately proven to be worth the work and challenges.
What are your plans and ambitions for the future?
As it turns out, making trumpets from scratch is hard – the entire process of making a trumpet from scratch is mind boggling when you consider all the details along the way. And details matter. So we are working hard towards complete documentation and process improvements so that the Blackburn brand continues well into the future with strength and a strong succession plan.
I would like the Blackburn team to expand as our space continues to expand. By having a solid group of craftsmen that are ingrained with the quality and technical expectations, we can produce like no other. With this solid knowledge base, the Blackburn brand can be expanded into numerous other areas.In regards to the mouthpiece side of the business, we continue to expand our capabilities and improve processes. It may not sound significant, but when you reduce the number of steps you take to accomplish the tasks it takes to produce a mouthpiece or any other product, the entire process becomes better, easier, and much more enjoyable. This type of work is difficult in itself and is hard to do while working through day to day business. However, we strive to take time to study how we do things and to try new approaches, so to maintain our relevance and avoid destructive complacency.
At the moment, the world is in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. How has this affected you?
The Covid-19 pandemic and uncertainty has all but fully consumed everyone. Our business, like many others, has been shut down for a while to stem the spread of the virus, bringing to a halt the production of mouthpieces and trumpets like never before. In addition, the economic fallout from the significant job disruptions and losses worldwide is incredibly disheartening. Despite the day to day challenges facing us, I am optimistic that we will get through this together. This period of time offers an unprecedented opportunity for self reflection and a pause – a universal “time-out” persay. The challenge has been that this has all progressed so quickly and it’s hard to appreciate the sudden change in routines and ‘normal’ and do the self-reflection and evaluation. Herein lies the present challenge – and the chance for the once in a lifetime opportunity.