At the ITG Conference 2018 I managed to meet with a number of great people to conduct interviews, none greater than Philip Smith! Former Principal Trumpet with the New York Philharmonic, Phil shares his approach to both trumpet and cornet, and also speaks candidly about his recent experiences with Focal Dystonia.
How did you come to move from England to the US?
My father was a well-respected and successful Salvation Army cornet player. In addition, after the war, he was Principal Cornet in the Royal Horse Guards, The Blues. He had done a solo tour of Canada in the early 50s, and in post-war England, I guess the grass looked pretty green over there for a young family. So, he moved us over there, and 3 years later we moved down to New York City. My father worked for the [Salvation] Army and played principal cornet in the New York Staff Band, so I grew up on Long Island.
Was the cornet an obvious choice of instrument for you?
It wasn’t really a choice! It was like, “This is what you do!”. As I am sure that you are familiar in England, in the Salvation Army, when you get your second teeth, someone slaps an instrument in your hand and off you go. It is usually a cornet until they figure out that you don’t have the aptitude, or the instrument doesn’t fit you, and then they start moving you down the band!
The Army is a great movement for maintaining music education isn’t it? I am lucky where I live in the UK that there is a great youth band setup nearby for my son, but there is next to nothing going on in schools. You have to know where to seek these opportunities out. Is it a similar situation in the USA?
It has just shifted. In our schools here, music is “dying” in the public education arena, but that is where you have to take up the slack. Quite honestly that is what the Salvation Army has done in a lot of areas. They have started teaching music, you are getting kids coming in through that, and hopefully families coming into the church. Families into the church is the whole point.
At what point did you move from cornet onto the trumpet?
Growing up, all of my music was pretty much playing cornet in the Army and at school. It wasn’t until 11th grade, when I was encouraged to start to think about my future career, and that music education would be a good fit for me, that I started to play some trumpet as well. The trumpet that I got in 11th grade, in fact, is the very same B-flat trumpet that I still play today!
So, you are a music store’s worst nightmare then!?
Yes! I have had it done up many times, including just recently. It is an “old shoe” and that is what I love.
I then started the audition process, really geared up to look towards music education. I believe it was Carole Dawn Reinhart – herself a soloist, great educator, and also grew up in the Salvation Army – that spoke to my father and suggested that I should audition for music schools. So I ended up going to Juilliard and that’s how I got started!
And was that totally trumpet from then on?
No, I still played cornet as I had a scholarship through the New York Staff Band. To encourage students to continue to play in the band they would give small scholarships to help you complete your studies. Playing with the band while I was at Juilliard was an integral part of my development – I was playing with them every week, and once a month I would be up playing solos with them in concert. This was a great opportunity that a lot of other kids did not have.
I played trumpet at school, and my teacher’s role as I saw it, was to try to take me from being this sweet, ‘bel canto’, pretty-sounding cornet player, and teach me to be a more masculine-sounding trumpet player, and yet not take away other aspects. So I was able to learn to playboth ways!
How compatible are cornet and trumpet at the highest level? Would you say that there are big technical differences to creating a great sound on both, or is it more a change in approach?
There is a difference in approach. There was even a difference in approach between the Salvation Army bands, and the contesting brass bands. A lot of that had to do with my dad – he had a slower vibrato “golden” tone, and that greatly influenced the tone of cornet playing in the USA. That was therefore the kind of tone that I aimed for. I am not saying that it was better than more traditional cornet players, just different. For other players today, such as Philip Cobb, playing cornet and also playing in the London Symphony Orchestra, it is perhaps harder because they have to swing a little wider. The difference between what we consider to be traditional cornet and traditional trumpet sound has certainly got wider in terms of concept and approach.
Can it be done? Yeah, it can. Should it be done? Yeah, it should.
I was never more shocked than when I travelled over to London as a young professional, giving masterclasses at some of the colleges, and to see the anti-cornet feeling that I was getting from the trumpet players.
I have always found it strange in the UK that the colleges make students decide at age 18 between a ‘Brass Band’ course on cornet, or a trumpet course, and that the two are completely exclusive. Surely these are related disciplines that can be studied and performed side-by-side?
Yes. Everything is the same, the overall approach, the technique. In fact, the beauty of the growth of the British Brass Band movement in the USA at the moment is that we now have orchestral players saying, “Wow, look at this repertoire and the level of technique demanded of it!”. It can only enhance your trumpet playing. That was probably a signature of my career in that my sound could be strong and strident and still be “cornetty”. And so much orchestral repertoire demands those two different styles, just look at those beautiful cornet-style melodies in Mahler, and then “wham” you’re back into the big strong trumpet sounds and “zing”again.
And especially in England where there is a great history of fantastic cornet players becoming great principal trumpets, there should never be that separation.
Through your career, how important has the idea of a strict ‘practice routine’ been to you?
When I was younger, I never had one. I just played. As I havegrown older, fundamentals have become more important out of necessity. I think the structure of routine can be really beneficial. You also need to remain flexible for whatever can be thrown at you. When I was in the Philharmonic, I always had some outside solo event to plan for and spur me on. Then there was always new orchestral music. My practice time was generally spent getting that stuff ready, and I did not think too much about the shift in styles, I just played. That said, orchestral trumpet and solo trumpet shape are two very different things – it is a little bit like being a jazz player and classical player. Someone like Wynton could play terrific classical trumpet too, but eventuallyeven he had to make a choice. It can be very hard to maintain two distinctly different ways of playing and practicing over the long-term.
As to fundamentals, I started to discover various different methods and study books. It is all wonderful stuff, and it is all definitely helpful at different times. If you are not careful though, you can get sidetracked from the key aspect which is just to PLAY.
Can you talk a little about your recent experience with Focal Dystonia?
Four years ago, I got hit with it, and I basically couldn’t play a note. I have had to re-teach myself how to play over the last four years, and quite honestly it has been hell. I wish I could say what triggered it, but I don’t know. I have had people say to me “I can’t believe that you lost your lip” or “I can’t believe you lost your nerve”, and it was neither of those things. Something happened that took what I knew and wiped it off the map. I have had to re-teach myself what to do, and in some ways, I have needed to be more ‘fundamentally’ focused, and in other ways I have had to erase everything that I thought I knew as an experienced trumpet person and approach the instrument like I am 7 years old. That has been difficult!
You just go through the basics – blow air through lips that vibrate and keep everything else out of the way. And then not obsessing on finding that embouchure “sweet spot,”but to just place the mouthpieceover the natural aperture. It didn’t feel anything like my proper embouchure, but I had to erase that thought. The first note that I got was a huge fat middle C, and I felt that I could stick my pinky through the aperture! But then the next thought was, “How do I get to a D?”. I have had to approach it like a beginner again and build one step at a time.
Having trumpet-playing taken away from me four years ago was like going through a death. God and I (well me to God) had some strong words! Seeing the specialist who told me that I was going to have to find myself a new career, and then going and sitting in my car in shock – it was unimaginable to me.
The process has been a case of learning one very small step at a time. I have had an internal faith to press on, and I have a certain, quiet stubbornness that says “OK, I am going to keep trying”. Believe me there has been frustration and depression and all of that, but with Practice, Perseverance, Patience and Prayer, those four elements have moved me forwards day-by-day. I have swung between wanting to throw the whole thing away, and wanting to keep going even stronger. My goal is to be better today than I was yesterday, without looking back at the player that I was.
How have the past four years influenced your approach to teaching now?
You know, as a man of faith, I believe God provided at just the right time. Just as my time ended at the Philharmonic, the opportunity arose to teach at the University of Georgia, and I do not think that was a coincidence. I have been given the opportunity to share all of the experience and knowledge that I have, with kids that I have grown to love. At the same time I have been able to spend time on my own, out of the limelight, trying to put Humpty together again.
I have loved it with the kids. Going through Focal Dystonia has definitely impacted the way that I teach. One of the main things is that it has given me a little more patience. You will have to ask them what they think though!
What are the priorities for your students to concentrate on?
The first thing is ‘quality of sound’ and ‘beauty of tone’. Try to get a tone that is rich and full and free. Obviously, each student comes in with individual issues, but I start with good fundamental technique. And this very much mirrors what I have had to do myself recently too. Technique is important but gets you nowhere without a great sound. Sitting on audition panels behind a screen, there is nothing like that moment when a player’s first note grabs the whole committee, and you see twelve people suddenly wide-eyed, shaken out of their slumber, and wanting to hear more!
I am imagining this to be a tricky question for you, but are there any particular highlights that really stand out from your illustrious performing career?
I have been blessed, I feel like I have lived a fairy tale. For a Salvation Army kid to go to Juilliard, knowing very little about the world, not being able to transpose, never getting into any orchestras… I wanted to leave Juilliard after my first year because I didn’t feel like I really fit in and didn’t like all of the competitive ‘peacocking’ that was going on. And from there, to join the Chicago Symphony and then join the New York Philharmonic, see the world, play with great musicians, great conductors… I can’t tell you how blessed I am.
What advice would you give to young aspiring players?
Think a little less of yourself, listen to as much great music as you can and try to copy all of your heroes. In the process of copying, your own personality will blossom out of you. Sing… sing… sing, with a beautiful sound. You have found the gift that you enjoy. Be willing to share it with other people.