Mark Gould on Trumpets and Trumpeters

I had the extreme pleasure of studying with Mark Gould at Juilliard and Manhattan School of Music.  Those that studied with him came to expect lessons would always be inspiring, and if you were lucky, filled with stories. 

Mark has finally put these incredible stories to print in his newest book, Orchestra Confidential: A Survival Guide for Musicians and Those Who Love Them, an excerpt from which he has graciously allowed me to share with you below. 

Enjoy! 

-Chris Coletti

Enter Mark Gould…

Trumpets and Trumpeters

The trumpet is the instrument of angels and kings. It has been announcing the arrival and departure of the supposedly most important among us for millennia. From earliest recorded history, the trumpet has been associated with kings. Indeed, two trumpets were discovered in ancient Egypt in the tomb of King Tutankhamen—one of silver, one of copper—one to signal his departure from this world and the other to announce his arrival in the next. The Old Testament refers to the trumpet eighty-three times. It even describes in some detail the trumpet calls used in battle: a call to assembly, a call to retreat, and a call to “massacre.” In the New Testament, the trumpet gets “kicked upstairs,” so to speak, when the angel Gabriel blows his terrifying introduction for you know who….

In the first Olympic games in ancient Athens, there was a trumpet event! It was essentially weight lifting with a trumpet. As the all-male crowd sat and watched, the naked trumpet contestants (all contestants for all events were naked…oh those Greeks!) stood in the center of the arena and blew a trumpet as loudly as possible. The man who blew the loudest blast won the olive wreath. This Olympic trumpet toot off had a practical purpose in ancient Greece: trumpet signals had to be clearly audible on the battlefield.

Not much has changed in the 2500 years since the first Olympic games.

The music the trumpet plays in the orchestra, the vast majority of the time, is deeply rooted in its military history. When I joined the Metropolitan Opera orchestra, the first thing I was told by the legendary principal trumpeter, Mel Broiles, was, “Always keep this clearly in mind, Mark: Men die in battle to the sound of the trumpet.”

Bugle calls, fanfares, marches, battle whoops and signals, proclamations of the arrival and departure of an endless parade of luminaries comprise the trumpeter’s gig. These myriad trumpet duties could be listed under the more general job description: “Okay folks, listen up, time to pay serious attention, your life may depend on it.” Throughout the seventeen hours of Wagner’s Ring cycle, the trumpet “acts” the part of the sword, not just any sword but the sword, Siegmund and Siegfried’s sword, the blade stuck in a tree for centuries. The mythical sword is a perfect metaphor for the trumpet sound. The razor-sharp sword, like the pure penetrating sound of the trumpet, severs the head cleanly from the neck. No bullets or bludgeons. No explosions or thumping, just the whoosh of steel traversing the air on its way to tidy decapitation. Anyone who sits in front of the trumpets understands this conflation.

John Williams loves the trumpet. He uses the instrument to recall the bravery and sacrifice of soldiers on the beaches of Normandy in “Summon the Heroes,” to reflect Lincoln’s wartime struggles during the Civil War, and to accompany any serious ass kicking (there is always ass kicking in a movie with a John Williams score).

Trumpet players can become too fond of testosterone-saturated trumpet parts, like those in John Williams movies. Overexposure to heroic trumpet music can cause a chemical imbalance which can lead to a neurological disorder called Star Wars Syndrome. This is a uniquely male disorder. When women become more prominent in orchestra trumpet sections, the next iteration of Orchestra Confidential might have a section in it discussing how some female trumpeters have succumbed to “Kill Bill” Syndrome (alluding to a movie with a badass female lead with a kickass trumpet dominated soundtrack).

When a trumpeter plays heroic trumpet parts, the neural pathways connecting the pubic region in front of the scrotum and behind the umbilicus to the lizard brain (medulla oblongata) are “lit up,” opened to maximum “bandwidth.” The pubic region and the lizard brain join forces, becoming best friends so to speak, and begin an assault on the trumpeter’s cerebral cortex, causing disorientation and great confusion.

The trumpeter has great difficulty distinguishing between “music life” and “non-music life.” He convinces himself he is not the paunchy, out-of-shape suburbanite father of three chasing his kids around Chuck E. Cheese, but rather, he sees himself as a dashing trumpet-toting Hans Solo, roaming the galaxy while slicing the forces of evil to pieces with his magic trumpet sword. All orchestra trumpet players suffer from Star Wars Syndrome to some degree. Milder cases of are often accompanied by purchase of a fast car, wearing too tight clothes, and/or watching loops of Red Bull extreme sports/suicide mission videos at every orchestra break. In these milder cases, the afflicted trumpeter can be brought back into the real world by
someone in the brass section who can take him aside, look directly in his eyes and say some version of, “Hey, a****e, grow up!” It is usually more effective if a female brass player carries this message.

In extreme cases of Star Wars Syndrome, trumpeters see themselves not just as a “trumpet hero” but a wronged trumpet hero. This devolution occurs when a trumpeter who has suffered through a few egregious mishaps in some particularly exposed trumpet solos, doubles down. Such trumpeters begin playing much much louder, obsessively asking colleagues in the brass section, “Ya think it’s loud enough, ya think it’s projecting?” They begin using a bigger, heavier instrument, start lining up ten mouthpieces at a time on their stand, testing them to see if they can get the string players in the front of the orchestra, not just those in his close proximity, to use earplugs.

Wronged trumpet heroes suffer bouts of rage. They isolate themselves. They get pissed that jazz trumpet players are more famous than they are even though orchestra trumpeters play with a bigger sound. They mumble to themselves about how their fearlessness and leadership are not appreciated. Before concerts, they are overheard reciting the war cry of the great Indian warrior, Crazy Horse: “Today is a good day to die!” They decide that they have to take things into their own hands, that they alone can fix things. They think they overhear their colleagues talking about the small size of their hands and feet… they have gone “Full Rambo.” There is no cure for this.

Advice for New Trumpeters

Keep in mind that the trumpet’s military genealogy inevitably leads some principal trumpet players to want to play the part of a general. Thus, if led by a “general” you should do the following: 1) refrain from playing louder than the general, 2) come in no earlier than the general, 3) remember that the general is always in tune, 4) speak only when spoken to, should the general go Full Rambo, and then offer only words of encouragement, like “Wow! That was f***ng loud! What projection!” and 5) bring coffee to rehearsal once a week.

New Principal Trumpeters

Do not say much to your section but listen to what members have to say. Stand up when asking the conductor a question. And never sit in front of the trombones. Do not take in too much new information; it will only be confusing and cause a loss of nerve.
Oscar Levant has solid advice for lead trumpeters: “I’ve given up reading books. I find it takes my mind off myself.” Time for contemplation is over! You play lead trumpet! Stay focused! On yourself! Lead the band! You are the tip of the spear. “Today is a good day to die.”

by Mark Gould

Be sure to check out the full book on Amazon

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