Life Builders: Mike Middleton

posted in: Life Builders | 0

After having a pleasant lunch with Mike, Pearl and I are sitting, getting some work done while we wait for his show to begin tonight. Mike is in town with Ottmar Liebert and invited us to this, their last concert of their tour. Since I was planning to spend some of this time writing a blog, it’s only fitting that I spend it writing a Life Builders post about Mike Middleton.

Note: I began writing this blog while we were waiting for the show that night, but it has taken me this long to finish it. See my post about the slower blogging rate if you would like to know why.

Early Trumpet Role Model

Mike and I were students together at the University of Texas at El Paso. Mike is a few years my senior and I always looked up to him when we were in school and during the beginning of my career. When we were in college together, I always held him up as the standard that I used to judge myself as a player and as a student. Then, when he left to study with Vincent Cichowicz at North Western University, he was the only guy I knew personally who was actually making a living playing his horn. So that standard remained for many years after he left UTEP.

Great Lead Trumpet Player

One very specific, practical, musical aspect of Mike’s influence has always been his lead playing. For many years, well into my professional career, his was the sound I had in my head when I played lead trumpet. His sense of swing, his phrasing, his style, all made a lasting impression on me and it was only many years later that I started to be influenced by other lead players.

Although I do not really see myself as a lead player, at least 80% of my income from gigs comes from my work playing lead. I do a lot of horn section work and often play lead trumpet in the big bands. There is no question that my entire concept of lead trumpet playing is rooted in my work with Mike at UTEP.

Typically, when we learn from other trumpet players, we learn best from sitting with them in the section and hearing them play. We learn from watching and listening to them in a variety of musical settings and this influences us over the long term.

But what we shared, as a section, in the UTEP Jazz Ensemble was something far more intense and intimate than just that. Because of the ensemble structure that Sam Trimble taught us, our trumpet section met once a week for self managed sectionals. These sectionals were not supposed to be about learning the music. No. Mr. Trimble taught us that learning the music was the individual’s responsibility. The purpose of the sectionals was to learn how to play as a section. We were to strive in those sectionals to sound like one player.

With that objective in mind, we met weekly to discuss the fine details of phrasing, style, dynamics, articulation and overall musicianship. And even this is an understatement. More than just that, we learned how to listen, how to follow and really, how to play “tight!”

Given that context and environment, it makes sense then that Mike would be my biggest influence as a lead player. We spent so much time learning how to match him in those sectionals that it was most certainly a life building experience.

Acknowledging Sam Trimble

I must acknowledge at this point that none of this would have been possible without Sam Trimble’s influence in our lives. I believe that Mr. Trimble’s greatest strength as a teacher is that he creates an environment for us to grow in. For those who were at the top of the section (as I was in some of the ensembles after Mike left UTEP), we learned to fill a leadership role. For the rest of us, we learned how to stick to that leader like musical flypaper. This ability to follow the lead player is one of the most important things I ever learned in college. Mr. Trimble created the environment for us to grow in that made it possible for players like me to learn so much from players like Mike.

Early Career Coach

Mike and I stayed in touch after he left UTEP. He was my career coach. Ha! It was Mike chewing me out for not having an answering machine that motivated me to get one. He asked, “How are you ever going to get gigs if no one can reach you?” He was right, of course. There were dozens of things that he taught me over the years, helping me to prepare for what was to come.

Anibal Ambert, Mike Middleton and Eddie Lewis.
Pearl took this picture after the Ottmar Liebert concert.


It was Mike who invited me to Chicago. I only lived there for four months, but those four months were a crucial learning period for me. I only had a few gigs while I was there (my first salsa gigs – with Samuel del Rio) but the experience was a liberating one. It was the beginning of my professional career.

While I was in Chicago, Mike set me up for a lesson with Luther Didrickson. Once again, this was only one lesson and you would think it insignificant, but I learned things in that one two-hour lesson that I still teach my students today.

Chicago was my first outing away from school, away from family, my first flight as a fledgeling musician in the real world. I am grateful for the role Mike played in getting me started that way.

With that foundation established, I eventually ended up here in Houston where I have made my living in music ever since (almost 25 years now). It is very difficult to quantify a person’s influence, but there is no doubt that Mike is one of the biggest in my life. From ethics to technique, from the passion to the business principles, Mike played a major role in helping me get to where I am today.

Physical Trumpet Pyramid and Daily Routines

Mike is also one of the many successful trumpet players who champion my books. He has been using them since they were first written and has wonderful stories to tell about how well the method works for him and for his students.

Because Mike has been using the “pyramid books” longer than almost anyone else (besides myself), he was one of the first players I thought of when we decided to publish an Approved Teachers list for some of our books. If you live in El Paso and would like to learn from my methods, I strongly recommend you contact Mike to study with him. Mike understands the method better than most teachers.

A Dear Friend

For my musical Life Builders posts, I have a tendency to dwell more on the musical influences and less on the friendship side of our relationships. This has never been intentional. There are just so many things to write about and I think I sometimes assume that people know we are friends. But in Mike’s case, I want to emphasize that Mike is a dear friend. Before facebook, before email, before cheap long distance calls, we used to write to each other a lot. And having a friend like that is a valuable thing when you are trying to make a place in the real world.

Thank You

Thank you Mike for being there for me all of these years. I love you like a brother and if you didn’t know that before, you better know it now.

Leave a Reply