Trumpet Artist Profile: Mario Guarneri

Mario Guarneri will be known to many readers as a performer and educator of the highest calibre.  A former member of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Mario is also in demand as educator and lecturer on the pedagogical concepts involved with his groundbreaking designs (www.berp.com) and the trumpet in general.  Here he shares with me some thoughts on approaching different stylistic challenges both as a player and a teacher.

Can you please give a little background to your playing styles? 

Interesting question that I don’t ever recall answering before. First of all, I believe from the beginning I was taught to play in the style of the music you were performing.  Using my ears and understanding the context was critical to what sound and style I heard in my head and should be reflected in the music I was playing.  The point of being a professional musician when reproducing music composed by someone else is to first understand the “style” of the written notes (context).  You then create the style in how you take notes on a page and end up making appropriate sounds to come out of the bell.

The style I select is totally dependent on the context of the music when I’m playing something composed.  If I’m recreating someone else’s style by ear then I also need to understand and listen to the context.  In either case the ear connected to your musical brain is your most important teacher. That by the way is also true for basic sound production on a trumpet.

In my opinion I was not paid to place my “style” into orchestral solos required to perform as an orchestral trumpet player. However, I must admit that I tried sometimes to the dismay of the conductor.  The skill of being able to perform in different styles served me well during the 12 years of my life when I was working in the LA studios.  It was not unusual to go from “Looney Toons” in the morning to a John Williams score that afternoon and maybe an LA Chamber Orchestra concert that night.  How fortunate I was to have those opportunities.

When I improvise and/or perform music I have written, then I create my own style which I hope to make interesting, compelling to the listener, lyrical, “musical” and above all honest.

What kind of groups did you play in as a kid? 

I played in the school band starting when I was eight… (yes we had a band in elementary school.)  When I was eleven, I played in what was called a “Dixieland” band with high school kids, and I joined the Berkeley Youth Symphony when I was 14.  I joined the union at 13 and played summer gigs with a dance band of adult professionals.

Who were your biggest trumpeting influences? 

I was listening to Louis Armstrong, Bunny Berigan, Harry James, Rafael Mendez, Muggsy Spaniard, Roy Eldridge, Chet Baker, a recording of the Haydn by Wobisch and my teacher Eddie Smith

What was the focus of your practice time as a young player and student? 

The Arban’s book and Mendez solos, plus transcribing some jazz solos and improvising on basic blues changes. I had a 78 record with blues in Bb on one side and in F on the other side.

We seem to live in an age where people need to be defined by one thing.  Pigeon-holed.  Does this ring true to you?

I have done my best to defy being thought of as being a particular type, (i.e. classical, commercial, jazz, avant-garde, studio.. etc.) of trumpet player.

What is your experience (both positive and negative) of being defined in this way? 

I personally see nothing positive about being defined as one kind of player.  However, there are people that hire musicians who want to make sure they are hiring the right person for the job “style-wise” who want to know “what kind of a player are you”?  I think a better question would be and one that I have asked players when I have contracted orchestras for film dates, “are you comfortable playing…?”  Professionals know what they are capable of doing and rarely put themselves in the wrong musical situation.  If they do it once it probably won’t happen again.

What steps have you taken to overcome any difficulties caused by this? 

One of the best pieces of advice I got on this subject was from Manny Klein, a legendary trumpet player in Los Angeles.

“Kid, it’s not what you play, it’s what you pass”.  It happened more than once that a contractor put me in the wrong seat…faced with a lead trumpet big band part with Chuck Findley in the section I would immediately pass the part along with the extra money I was to receive as the principle player.

What are the biggest technical changes that you make when completely switching styles?

First, I would decide if it will help to make a physical change by playing a different instrument and/or a different mouthpiece.  Those changes will often support the way I hear a different style. Hearing the style in your head is the most important aspect of switching styles in my opinion.  Any technical changes happen “automatically” if I hear the style/sound before I put it into the instrument.  For instance, articulations are very different between the orchestral world and bebop style.  I could break it down to “where the tongue goes and how the air is released” for a student, but eventually you need to get to the point of hearing it and playing what you hear.

Do you need to take a different approach to technical trumpet practice as you prepare for a patch of symphony work compared to say a jazz combo?

Yes, but not entirely.  I believe that the basic function and use of the breath is the same, and that the embouchure set up also stays consistent.  All of the things I do for sound production, strength, flexibility, endurance, range are the same.  Suspending the breath and playing on top of an engaged air capacity works for everything.  Free buzzing, playing on the berp, playing pedals, working the Stamp exercises and working out of the Flexus book with lots of bending is what I do for starters every day.  (See my videos, Berp & Bat Tools Part I and II at www.berp.com). The bigger difference in approach is between written music and improvised in my mind.  

For recreating notes on a page, the skill set is all about accuracy, evenness of sound, intonation and musical style.  That would also be true for playing lead in a big band, principle in an orchestra, brass quintet, etc.  

Improvising requires playing what you hear/compose instantaneously!  At the very least a different skill set which to my mind requires different practice routines.  The first part stays the same.  Working towards the most efficient sound production habits should be the foundation for all styles and musical challenges.  

The essential difference comes down to being able to instantaneously hear and play a sound that is not predetermined. Because you are composing in the moment when improvising your technique has to be such that you can produce whatever interval your creative mind comes up with.  When I played in the orchestra when I knew the schedule for the year, I could prepare to play every note I needed to play for the next year (except for the contemporary pieces we performed or obscure literature which I had not seen before). 

It is easy to get very static in your approach when playing in an orchestra because of the requirements I just mentioned.  The practice routine will also start to become too “routine” and your playing can suffer from staying too inside the box…doing only that which allows you to “do your job”.  Of course that in itself is a big challenge, but I believe the musical benefits of doing more than that are extremely rewarding and worthwhile. 

Your basic set up should allow you to do whatever you hear and your daily routine should include exercises you make up on the spot so that you can test to see that your set-up allows intervals and dynamic shifts that you may never have thought of before!  The critical part of the set-up is fully explained in the previous mentioned Berp and Bat Tools video, but how you set up and suspend your air and “creating a face” with your embouchure are the most important elements.

How do you keep your ears and brain fully prepared for switching and playing in different styles, from a musical perspective?

This may sound obvious, but I believe the most efficient practice tool is to listen very intently and imitate on your instrument and with your voice.  It is also very helpful to record and compare your version with the style you are trying to recreate.  Playbacks can be painful but “the proof is in the pudding”.  Finally, here is an exercise I created to help me with this process.  Take an orchestral excerpt like the opening to “Pictures at an exhibition” and play the pitches out of time and transpose up and down an octave from the original for each note.  Connect the line in an improvisational style.  Does your set up make it easy to do this?  Starting from the other side of the spectrum take a bebop line like “Freedom Jazz Dance” and perform it as though it was the opening to “Pictures….” 

How do you approach all of these practice elements with your current students?  Is there a technical ‘middle ground’ to be found to give students a good overall grounding, or do they need to be prepared to switch? 

If you prepare consistently with each breath engaged and “making your face” at the end of the breath you will have the potential to perform whatever you are hearing in your head. Challenge yourself every day and enjoy the process. Music is such a wonderful gift to share ….do it with gratitude and appreciate the opportunity.

Please visit www.berp.com to find out more about Mario.

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