When you talk about getting your trumpets adjusted so that they respond perfectly to you or matching and adjusting a mouthpiece so that it works perfectly with your horn, you are probably already thinking about Bob Reeves!
I was able to meet up with Bob at ITG 2018 for a coffee and a chat about his career. In 2018, Bob was celebrating a staggering 50 years in the industry. I am sure that he has some pretty special stories to tell, but in this interview, we mainly stuck to the technical stuff and the fascinating challenges that he faces in helping us all to be better players.
One of the topics that readers would like to hear about is matching the right equipment to players. What can you tell us?!
When I started in Hollywood it was the capital of music. There was so much recording going on there. There were great players already in Los Angeles but also lots of touring orchestras from the US and around the world would visit. I used to work with whatever they brought in for me to look at. My philosophy is to service. I am not a salesman; I don’t sell things. I listened to players to work out what will make their life easier.
Take one great Hollywood trumpet player, Tony Terran. I saw him 3 times a week looking at adjusting mouthpieces. I had pretty well perfected the process for valve alignment – I call that the foundation. If that is not right, you can forget the rest of it. So, one day I took his trumpet, took it in the back, cleaned it and did a valve alignment on it, and brought it back. He then came back 3 days later with all of his trumpets and his son’s, had them aligned, and never needed to have another mouthpiece adjusted in all his career.
I stayed in touch with his son who now still uses those same trumpets in Las Vegas and says that he doesn’t ever need anything else from a horn. I like to hear that. Like I said, I am not a salesman, I don’t care what people come in for. I hear them play, and that gives me most of the answers to where their problems lie. If I can fix that by looking at the player and their equipment, that is great. I don’t have to sell them something.
So, if you are listening to a player, can you confidently diagnose their technical deficiencies just from the sound?
Yes. I won’t mention any names, but there is a particular trumpet soloist who makes me crazy. I can hear on recordings that they are a very fine musician, but there are some technical problems that I would be able to fix given a chance. I can hear that the instrument is very badly out of alignment, so every note sounds different. And you can see looking at their face while playing that it is a battle and is having to overcompensate. Maybe one day I will reach out to them!
I built trumpets at Benge back in the 60s. I was the worst guy in the place because I always wanted to try to improve things. After 3 years, I didn’t have a friend in the place! I am not sorry about that at all. It started me on the process of making trumpets to be as good as they can be. And I still keep working on it today.
Trumpets built today by a number of manufacturers are very poorly made and adjustment is essential. Many instruments are designed alongside great players, but the problem is that at the mouthpiece end of the instrument, you can’t really hear yourself clearly while playing. I will always listen to the sound coming from the bell. That is what matters. You have to be able to tell where the note actually starts. I can tell you whether the note is starting inside the bell, at the edge or even outside of the bell. You cannot tell this when you are playing.
All the time that I am working with a player, I am listening carefully to their sound and how they describe what they are not satisfied with, but I am also slowly teaching them to listen too, as they have often never thought about it before. You are busy in your head when you are playing so you tend to ignore things. Maybe you are just glad to get the note!
So, doing the valve alignment is the foundation to figuring out any other problems. Higher register is where I see the biggest problems occurring, often with very fine and strong players. People reach a point where they change from what they can do instinctively with their good technique and change to try to ’muscle’ the next note out. This is an area that I often work on both in trumpet and mouthpiece adjustment but also in that player’s own technique.
I have a good friend and talented trumpet player. He could play solos with double C and triple C, just like songs. He had that upper register so figured out that he could just ‘play’ the thing without thought. He never looked like he was working hard. And he did that on a standard mouthpiece. There are very few people who have figured that out!
So how do you approach it with a customer when you know that there are things as much about their own trumpet technique that need to be fixed, as well as the trumpet and mouthpiece? That must be tricky!
Everybody who comes in has their own opinion. If it is correct, I say nothing. For most players, it takes more time to adjust their thinking than it does to adjust the horn. The mouthpiece is David and their own mind is Goliath! Through our conversation I need to slowly get them to give up a little – as my suggestions gradually become more successful, they become easier and easier to work with. The next time they come back it is much easier.
What are the most common adjustments to mouthpieces that you make?
The rim is the most important to most players. Most people come in with a rim that they like, so I just cut the rim off and work with that if it is already comfortable for the player. Then we work on finding something that matches the sound that he wants and also with the kind of resistance that he wants to match that horn. I don’t tell anybody what to do, I don’t make choices for people. I advise, but you’ve got to make the choice that is right for you. You’ve got to be happy. That’s the only way that I am going to be happy.
Is there ever a battle where perhaps people don’t like to hear what you have to say?
Absolutely. A few people have packed up their stuff on me. You know what, sometimes they don’t come back for years. And then all of a sudden, they come back because someone else has eventually convinced them.
Which of your customers over the years have given you the most pride in the changes that you have been able to help with?
There are so many and don’t want to leave anyone out! One example would be the 8 hours that I spent with Hakan Hardenberger and changed everything that he came in with! He did a concert the next night and sounded great. Doc Severinsen has been a great guy to work with. Sometimes it is difficult as he always has his own opinions and you have to work with that. He is a great trumpet player and a terrific person. There really are too many great players that it has been a pleasure to work with!
Are there common preconceptions that players come to you with?
We talk about the gap between the end of the mouthpiece and start of the leadpipe. People have opinions about that, professors have opinions about that. The player tells you that they must have a gap of precisely X. Nobody can tell you that, it is very personal. For you, that gap might be 2 hairs’ width too big or small, but some people will remain adamant until you have proved it to them. 6 thousands of an inch gap completely changes the way that the horn feels and sounds. Getting the gap right is matching the mouthpiece to the trumpet. That gap cannot be taken to the next trumpet. You have to discover it all over again. That is what got me started thinking about building sleeves, because the player wants to have one mouthpiece in a number of different horns. I think of mouthpieces as tools – I probably have 25,000 different ‘tools’ in my shop, all with different purposes.
If you are playing the horn in a small room, you may want a different gap than you may want in a larger room. The reflected sound coming off a wall in a smaller room is going to be very different to what a listener will hear when you are playing in a concert hall. This is one important thing that I have to teach players when they come in. If I convert a player’s mouthpiece to the sleeves system, I suggest 3 sleeves. At first, the player wants the one that works there and then. It may not be perfect in the next venue. So, small variations may sit easier for different performance settings.
The important thing for me is not to have a plan for a particular player until I have heard them properly. Then, I will have a number of options in mind for us to experiment with. I have been doing this a lot of years now, but I will never presume to know exactly what will be perfect for each player that I hear. It is really important to try the things that your instincts tell you may not be right too!
‘Service’ always needs to come first, certainly before ‘sales’. I hope that this is something that continues in our industry, but it is hard to predict what is to come for different companies in the future. The thing that I think about at the end of each day is the person that I have helped and whether or not their life is a little easier. Not, whether I have made money or not.
Are there any new developments or tools that you are looking at for the future?
We are always looking to see what we can improve both in the products and services we offer, and in our manufacturing processes. For trumpet, our latest thing is a project of mine that I had wanted to do for several years. I took good examples of popular rims and cups — 3C, 1-1/2C, and some others – and designed a backbore to go with them that keeps their classical sound but improves their intonation and efficiency.
Our biggest developments have been for trombone. I’ve done custom work for trombone players since the beginning, but for the first time we released a line of stock mouthpieces in collaboration with Noah Gladstone of the Brass Ark. We have models for small and large bore tenor and bass trombone. It’s been great to see players like Jay Friedman and Charlie Vernon of the Chicago Symphony and David Rejano Cantero of the L.A. Philharmonic using our pieces. Besides the stock and custom mouthpieces we make, we now also offer our Reeves Sleeve system for large bore tenor and bass trombone.
I have a hard time sleeping at night because I’m always thinking of new things. The next project will likely be a new trumpet backbore I’ve been working on. We’ll see!
Do you still have any ambitions to fulfil or are you there yet?!
One thing I would love to do is to spend more time travelling to different countries, listening to and working with lots more players. Although the fundamentals are the same for great trumpet players around the world, there are so many subtleties and small differences of tone and style that I want to explore more.