It is a common saying among trumpet players that it is our sound that defines us. Although I do consider sound to be a very high priority, I disagree with the saying. Sound does not define us nearly as much as the literature we know.
I came to this revelation after decades of believing the traditional saying. It is from my experiences as a professional player that have given me this rather contrary idea that it is our repertoire that defines us and not our sounds. I remember when I first came to Houston and an older, more established player criticized me saying, “Players like Eddie Lewis sound fine, but they don’t know any tunes.” He was wrong. I knew plenty of tunes. I just didn’t know the same tunes as he did. But his comment is what stimulated my thoughts in that direction.
Think about it….
If a trumpet player has a beautiful orchestral sound but only literature he knows is dixieland music, is he an orchestral player or a dixieland player?
If a player has a rich Harry James sound but only knows brass quintet literature, is he a dance band player or a brass quintet player?
In my line of work, I don’t have the luxury of making those decisions myself. The people who hire me are the ones who decide what kind of player I am, and I can tell you with 100% certainty that they hire me more because of my repertoire than they do because of my sound.
The same thing is just as true for brass quintet gigs as it is for jazz stuff. Most of the brass ensemble gigs I play are sight reading gigs. The fact that I know those charts and know the style they are written in makes me an asset to the ensemble. I could sound one way or another, it wouldn’t matter. What matters most is that I can do the gig without messing up, and I couldn’t possibly do that if I didn’t know the lit.
I don’t teach serious orchestral students. There are a lot of wonderful teachers in the area who teach that style of music and have many years of experience at it. But I spent ten years of my life training to be an orchestral player. And yes, a lot of effort goes into producing a good sound. I agree. But that is a given for the orchestras today. If you don’t have a great sound, you won’t get in, PERIOD! From what I’ve heard from my teachers and from the people who I know who are in that line of work today is that it is your familiarity with the literature that makes the biggest difference.
In that sense, this is not an original idea of mine. People in the orchestral world have been teaching the lit this way for years. I am just pointing out that, when it comes to defining who we are, it is the literature that makes the greatest impact.
As a teacher, I take that part of my role in the students’ developments very seriously. Yes we work on mechanics. Yes we work on sound. Yes we work on general musical concepts. But the most important thing we do in the lessons is to work on literature.
A large part of my teaching method focuses on using practice techniques to learn and perfect literature. In the lessons I stress the importance of beginning a constantly growing repertoire. The more rep the student has, the more valuable he or she becomes.