LA Phil Blog

Confessions of a Touring Trumpeter

Confessions of a Touring Trumpeter

James WiltIt was a dark and stormy night. OK, so maybe it wasn't stormy or night, but it was dark. When my alarm clock shrieked to life at 6 a.m., playing some hip British cross between hard rock and ritual sacrifice, I glanced through heavy slits and knew there had been some kind of terrible mistake. Yes, I had intended to set the alarm for 6:00. No, I had not planned on staying up "bonding" with my colleagues the previous night until 1 a.m. Sleep had been fitful and intermittent, woefully inadequate for the day that lay in front of me.

The plan had looked reasonable on paper when concocted in the comfort of my own home weeks earlier. The mission was simple: get thyself to Greenwich to teach a master class at Trinity College. I had met the head of the brass department, Roger Argente, back in 2002 when both of us were invited to fly to Tokyo to participate in the Super World Orchestra. Why it wasn't called the Super Duper World Orchestra is beyond me, but I digress. It would be a great opportunity to meet up with Roger, who seems plucked from the same lineage as Benny Hill, and to hear for myself what all the fuss was about regarding British brass playing.

I resisted the urge to hit the "snooze alarm," a well-practiced maneuver, and pulled my sorry self off the sheets and into the shower. Forty-five minutes later, I was heading toward the Holborn tube station with horns and dirty laundry in hand. (You see, one must think ahead on tour, and I was trying to drop off a load of laundry to make sure I had clean tighty-whities through the end of the tour. They could not guarantee they'd have it ready before our departure for Paris, though, so I made a mad dash back to the hotel to drop off said laundry and try to make up some lost time.) Soon I was on a train to the "Bank" station, where I would then connect to the DLR, an acronym for desperately lost, really. Not having lived in a city with a subway system, negotiating a trip that any three-year-old Londoner would have done easily was not, well, child's play. It all worked, though, and 40 minutes later I was standing in Greenwich, a beautiful town on the outskirts of London.

I made my way to Trinity College, which in a former life housed the Old Royal Naval College. It is a beautiful campus, and it stirred something deep within me. Perhaps it was something primordial, a yearning for the homeland you get when you hear Celtic music, whether you were born in Inverness or Indianapolis. Or it could just have been last night's debauchery revisiting itself, which is far more likely. I met my escort, and was led to the room in which the class would be held. All around me, I heard the sound of some truly gifted and inspired players sharpening their weapons, ah, I mean, warming up. I was beginning to wonder what I had gotten myself into. As the zero hour approached, I thought I heard someone mutter, "dead man standing," in my direction. Never let them see you sweat. Unfortunately, I had anticipated a much cooler environment, and had encased myself in cotton undershirt, button down dress shirt, cashmere sweater, and leather jacket. Oops. Neither the hot train ride nor the sweltering room did anything to promote the illusion of calm, cool, and collected.

After Roger delivered an introduction that would have made Donald Trump blush, I laid out how the class would go, expecting great participation from the trumpeters, and letting them know that, while I could work with them on solo repertoire, my expertise was primarily orchestral. The first horse out of the chute put up a very difficult solo piece and started pasting it to the wall. You have to understand that part of being a trumpet player often means proving you're the baddest a** in the room. A thin bead of sweat formed over my brow as ten testosterone-charged trumpeters watched my reaction, which was a little thing I like to call "stoic panic." Finally, I heard a crack or two in the foundation of this player, and a little grin spread over my face - I could see the path to "high ground." I worked him over for about 15 minutes and slowly sensed the room warming to this Yank. The next participant pulled up an even harder piece, one I had last seriously worked through over 20 years ago. Did they not hear that I was an orchestra guy? They were definitely "laying for me." However, luck was on my side that day, and again I was able to find something brilliant and revelatory to tell the kid, and showed them there was still a little life left in the old dog. The class went on for two hours, and I got through it without offending the players, the school, or the Queen. In my book, that qualifies as a rousing success, though one that left me spent and in search of a long nap.

Always the glutton for punishment, I have another class lined up at the Royal Academy of Music when we return to London in a few days. I wonder if they know I'm an orchestra guy?