Third in a 10-part series
Phil Smith, trumpet: 'It's a blessing'
(CNN) -- This is the third part of an exclusive 10-part series on CNN.com/Career, on the working lives of musicians who play with the New York Philharmonic, one of the world's premiere symphony orchestras.
This week's Player: Phil Smith, principal trumpet.
He grew up in a Salvation Army family, playing cornet on street corners and in church bands. His father, a Salvation Army band soloist, was his only teacher. But Phil Smith was a player gifted enough to make it into Juilliard with no formal training -- then to the Chicago Symphony on his first audition; and then, while still in his 20s, to the New York Philharmonic as principal trumpet.
He's an unfailingly humble man, a gentle soul whose strongest curse word is "crumbs." But when he picks up the trumpet, he plays with extraordinary power and passion. Many of his colleagues in the New York Philharmonic -- and in other major orchestras -- consider him one of the best trumpet players in the world. And he does it all on faith.
When and why did you start playing the trumpet?
I was probably about 7. I belong to the Salvation Army church -- I'm a fourth-generation Salvationist. I grew up playing outside on street corners at Christmas time. Young kids in any of our churches -- as soon as they can, we get them singing. And as soon as they get their second teeth, we put some kind of brass instrument in their hands -- it's just part of the fellowship of the church. The founder of the Army, William Booth, believed in taking the gospel to the street, and he used a brass band for that purpose.
My dad was a cornet player -- he was the stand-up soloist with the premiere Salvation Army band here in New York City. He had a very sweet, mellow tone -- his heart came through his horn -- and I was attracted to that. From a young age, I watched him and had visions of growing up to be like him. I started on cornet -- when you're a little kid, it's easy to hold a cornet. My father was my teacher -- he was my only teacher.
'Cornet and brass banding'
At what point did you decide this might be your life's work professionally?
Like a lot of kids, you just go through life doing what you like to do and what you're good at. Then when you get to 11th grade, some guidance counselor says, "So what are you gonna do?" Well, I liked music, so that seemed a natural choice for me.
The safe bet was to do music education, because professional musicians -- well, you can't make a living being a professional musician, I thought. A young lady who was a Salvationist and a professional trumpet player at the time got the ear of my dad and said, "You know, he ought to audition for Juilliard." I was accepted, and I got a bachelor's degree and a master's degree at Juilliard.
Did your history of playing on street corners and in concerts with Salvation Army bands prepare you for Juilliard?
Oh, I was completely behind the eight ball. What I knew was cornet and brass banding -- I knew nothing about being a trumpet player.
For my audition at Juilliard, the orchestra person put up a piece of music and asked me to play. So I played what I saw -- which trumpet players very often don't do. They look at the music, but play it perhaps a major third higher or a perfect fourth higher -- they transpose. I knew nothing about the technique of transposition. I played what I saw, which is what happens in the brass band. The man stopped me and said, "What are you doing? You should play it this way." And I looked at him like he was crazy -- I didn't know what to do.
How difficult was the transition from band music to orchestra music?
Great music is great music -- whether I'm playing hymn arrangements in the Army or playing the Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony in the orchestra. What was hard about the transition was the language -- I didn't know the orchestral language. And I was a "feminine" cornet player, not a "masculine" trumpet player -- they're two different instruments in terms of style and approach.
Is the trumpet difficult to play? Difficult to master?
The most difficult thing is to get the best tone. You can have oodles of technique, but if you've got no tone, it's not going to be attractive to the person hearing it. Tone comes from the inner ear -- you can't teach it. It comes from deep inside your brain -- and also your heart.
I can sit there and tell you to do this with your mouth, and make sure you blow, and that doesn't translate into anything. First is hearing it in your head; the other part is your heart -- having this innate part of our soul that needs to express itself. Music is not just the black dots on the white paper -- it's what happens when those black dots on the white paper go into your heart, and come out again.
How forgiving an instrument is the trumpet?
A trumpet is a bold instrument; a signal instrument. From days of old, the trumpet was the instrument that called people to battle; it called people to gatherings. But whether you're on a ram's horn or a legitimate trumpet, if you don't hit the note right in the middle, that's going to be heard -- and it's going to be brutal. There's a verse in the Bible that says, "If a trumpet sounds an uncertain sound, who will prepare for battle?"
It's more unforgiving for the youngster than it is for the professional. That's why I like to start kids on cornet, because the cornet is a softer-sounding instrument. So a kid's first honk, his first blat on a cornet, is a mellow blat. If you start with the trumpet, the initial blat is more brash.
Do even professional trumpet-players "blat" now and then? Hit bad notes?
(Laughs.) We call them "clams," or "cacks," or "splee-ahs" -- they're common.
That's exactly what it sounds like: You go to hit a note, and the sound goes "SPLEE-aaaahhhhh." I wanted to get that as a license plate, but I haven't been able to. (Laughs.)
The trumpet is showcased, a lot -- there are many, many pieces that have prominent melodic parts for the trumpet. Most of the parts are bravura -- they call for strong playing. But you have to play some little delicate things sometimes. There may just be two bars of pianissimo (very soft) in a piece, but those are probably the toughest two bars to play out of the whole piece. Playing softly takes more control, and there's a higher risk of splee-ahs or air-balls -- nothing but air comes out.
It can be so obvious when a brass instrument hits a wrong note. Do you ever envy the violinist in the middle of the violin section, whose slip might not be so noticeable?
Yeah, I'll be honest -- there are times when I wish I was more anonymous. (Laughs.) But there's also the part of being in the forefront that's exhilarating. And that's kinda why you play trumpet, because you kinda like that.
'I know that baby'
How did you get your first orchestra job?
Near the end of my time at Juilliard, I started taking auditions and trying to find my way into the workplace. Three announcements for trumpet auditions came up. One was in Calgary, Canada -- I sent a letter of application and they didn't even respond. The other was in Honolulu -- I sent a letter and they wrote back and said I didn't have enough experience on my resumé. The third one was in Miami. They actually gave me an audition date, but it conflicted with a date I had playing with the New York Salvation Army Staff Band, so I couldn't make the audition date.
So my first audition, in November of '74, was for the Chicago Symphony. I knew there was no way I was going to win this -- I was this kid, this greenhorn, "Phil Who?" Well, I ended up winning the audition. I was shocked. I started with the Chicago Symphony in January of '75.
How many trumpets do you own?
Total, I might have as many as 20. You have to understand that if you start at middle C on the piano, and play up one octave, there's a trumpet that's built on that key: There's a C trumpet, a D trumpet, an E-flat, an E, an F, a G, an A, a high B-flat, and a low B-flat.
I have two primary trumpets: I have a primary C trumpet, pitched in (the key of ) C, which I use in the orchestra 98.9 percent of the time. And I have a primary B-flat trumpet, which I practice on, and which is the standard trumpet of trumpet-players. I do a lot of solo work on that -- a lot of solos are for B-flat and for C.
Depending on the music we play, we'll play on either a German trumpet or an American trumpet. Germans refer to our piston-valve trumpets as "jazz trumpets." I play the piston-valve C and the piston-valve B-flat. If your kid goes to school and plays trumpet, they're going to give him a piston-valve B-flat -- that's the standard trumpet. When your kid finally comes to Juilliard, and starts to play orchestral music, we say you need to think about a C trumpet.
When your kid gets halfway through Juilliard, we say you need to start thinking about a German trumpet, either B-flat or C. The playing mechanics are the same, in terms of what you do with your mouth and with the fingerings. (But) the valves are like French horn valves -- they're rotors, they're not pistons.
What's the history of the C trumpet you use for most of your orchestral playing?
I'm in a crisis right now. My C trumpet -- my baby -- I bought in 1975; it was one of the trumpets I got when I first went to the Chicago Symphony. And I know that baby, I know everything about that horn. It's worn in. It's comfortable, like an old coat or a favorite pair of shoes -- it bends in the right places.
In one sense, a horn gets better with age, because it loosens up and begins to vibrate. But like all things, it wears out. It can almost be blown out. Some people will have the same instrument for a lifetime -- and I was trying to do that. But my trumpet, the valves got loose; I had to have them tightened up. The acids in my hand were eating through the metal, so I had to have some patches put on the instrument, and have it re-plated.
When I got the horn back, the workmanship was fantastic - but the quality of playing ... . That horn took a nosedive. It just didn't resonate the way that I was used to it resonating. And now I have got a brand new trumpet that I'm breaking in -- which is the first C trumpet that I've broken in, in 25 years.
It's hard to change. If I pick up a new trumpet to play a concert, it's like, "Oh man, that didn't feel right," or "Crumbs! That was out of tune" -- I'm having conversations with myself that I don't want to have.
What does a new trumpet cost?
Mine is off-the-shelf, from Dillon's Music Shop in Woodbridge, New Jersey. They're upwards of 1,800 bucks -- somewhere in that range. I don't have to mortgage my house or anything.
All trumpets are initially made of brass. The brass can have different contents of copper and different materials, and that changes the sound. Some people like to play an instrument that's made of raw brass; that usually looks kinda ugly -- they get green. You can lacquer the trumpet, which is a clear coat that goes over the raw brass, which makes it look kind of golden. The trouble with that is that the lacquer wears off quickly.
You can cover the brass with silver plate, which is what I usually do. And you can gold-plate the instrument. Gold won't adhere to brass, so you have to put silver on it first, then gold; gold will only adhere to the silver. I like to gold-plate my smaller trumpets because I think it warms the sound: The smaller the trumpet, in general, the more piercing the sound becomes.
Those, basically, are your choices: brass, raw brass, lacquered brass, silver-plated brass, gold-plated brass.
What's required by way of daily or weekly maintenance on your trumpets?
Swabbing it out; keeping it clean. We have brushes, cloths that we pull through the horn sometimes. And we also have spitballs. You can make them yourself: You take a sponge slightly bigger than the bore of the horn, and you just poke it in, then blow it through. It swabs out the inside.
The other thing you do is keep the slides -- all the moving parts - greased so they don't freeze, so you can control your pitch. And you keep the pistons, or the rotors, lubricated with an oil, to keep them moving. You'll see me in dungarees in rehearsals, because I have ruined so many pairs of pants with oil and grease.
'I will be here'
How do you maintain yourself?
I'll work out, sometimes, with a breathing bag: We blow up a 5- or 6-liter bag, so we can get the feel of the air coming from our lungs, up through our throat, keeping relaxed muscles all the way up.
Lip care is important. I just did a recording out in New Mexico, where it's incredibly dry. And I had the worst time out there -- I couldn't keep my lips moist enough. And I don't respond well to creams, or waxy lip balms. I can feel almost a muscle in my lip when I'm in shape, and when I put cream on, I sometimes feel that that muscle gets kind of jellied.
How important is dental care to a trumpet player?
Oh, you gotta take care of your teeth. When I was a kid, my two front teeth protruded. My dentist said, "The best thing you could be doing is playing trumpet, because that will naturally put them in line." Poor gum health, chipping teeth -- all of that is a problem for brass players.
Any kind of change in your teeth can be a problem. If you don't like the way your teeth look, and some dentist says, "Oh, I'll just file this down" -- you can lose an octave, just like that. There are great stories of prominent high-note jazz players who have a space between their teeth. That space presents a turbulence with the air stream, which enables them to play up high. And some of these players, not liking the look of that space, had bonding done to make it look good -- and all of a sudden, they can't play.
What happens when you get a cold?
You work through it. The worst thing is to have a bad throat -- the aggravation of the air going through there is terrible. If you've got a thick cold, you can't hear properly - you can't tell about (sound) balance, about pitch; you can't breathe. But I don't like babying things: "Oh, this week I can't play -- I have a cold." Get real. Short of being on my death bed, I will be here for performance.
The average work week for you would be how many hours long, divided in what way?
Basically, we do four rehearsals a week -- two-and-a-half hours each -- and four concerts a week, most concerts being 2 hours and 15 minutes. That's the minimum schedule. We're only guaranteed a day off; we can be called for rehearsals or concerts on six other days.
Our annual season is mid-September through end of May. Then we go on tour for the month of June. Then there are two or three weeks of summer concerts in the parks of New York City, and special festival events in the hall. We're off for nine weeks a year -- nine weeks when the orchestra is technically shut down.
During that time, do you take a vacation from your instrument?
I will usually take two, three weeks off, and put the horn away. It's for mental relief, more than anything else. But there are times when I'll take my horn on vacation with me, just because I feel odd not having it there. I may not even practice it, but it's kind of like it had to be in the car, it had to come along.
My wife and I celebrated our 25th anniversary last year, and I surprised her with a cruise. I took a week off of work, but the week I was to get back, I had a fairly substantial piece (to play). So I took my horn on the cruise ship -- and that was weird, wandering the bowels of the cruise ship, trying to find a place to practice. Here it was our 25th anniversary, and I had to say to her, "I'll meet you later at the pool; I've got to get some time in on the horn." She's great about that -- that's just life; that's what I gotta do.
How much do you normally practice?
Usually every day, although I'm not pharasitical about it. I'll miss a day if I feel that physically I need a day off; I'll miss a day for mental health -- if I just gotta have one day to not do this.
When I practice, it could be anywhere from one to up to three hours. I prefer to do that piecemeal. If you're practicing for an hour-and-a-half, and you're playing 55 out of every 60 minutes, you can get to the point where it becomes counterproductive -- you're working against yourself. You start feeling tired, you start missing things. I may "practice" for an hour and a half, meaning I'm in the room for that time, but I'm not playing the whole time. I may play, then I may spend 10 minutes marking the score, or putting on a CD and listening -- "How's that guy do that?"
I didn't used to spend as much time on warm-up or fundamentals as I do now. I'd just toot a few notes, and then bam! I'd be practicing solos. I'll spend more time now doing a little bit of mouthpiece buzzing; some scales and finger studies; some of what I call "bugle slurs" -- wavering notes by using just embouchure (position of lips). I'll do some lip bends, where you "bend" the tone down a half a tone, by in essence flexing your mouth muscles. You're building strength in the corners of your mouth - that's where a (trumpet player's) strength is, right there in the corners and extending to the cheek, where a dimple would be. I probably spend more than 20, 30 minutes a day doing that kind of stuff.
I'm more prone to practice now than when I was younger. When I was younger, it came easier. Now, I just need to practice more. I don't consider myself old -- I'll be 49 in April. But there are physical effects. I don't think my recovery powers are as fast as they were when I was younger. Then, I seemed to have endurance that went forever; now, building up endurance is something I have to work on. And my fingers just don't work as fast as they used to. It's not that they're arthritic -- it's just wear, and the natural state of decay, unfortunately.
But -- we get wiser. In many ways, I don't think I'm as good a player as I was 10 years ago -- but I hope I'm a wiser player. We learn what we've got to do to play our best - and that's my job: to play the best I can.
Do you have a method for learning a new piece of music? Do you use Yo-Yo Ma's method, where you master each measure before going on to the next?
I don't do the Yo-Yo Ma Method. I will oftentimes try to just play through the thing and butcher it -- and then panic. (Laughs.) And then I will become more methodical and work at it slowly, then get it up to speed. When I get up to speed, I'll go back and play slowly again, for the sake of building endurance. Repetition, repetition -- not bar by bar, but phrase by phrase.
Are you a perfectionist?
I consider myself a perfectionist, yes. That helps you as a young player, because it helps you see your goal: You set a standard and say, "I'm going to achieve that; I'm going to work hard to do that."
Where it can be a detriment, at any age, is when you strive for perfection and don't achieve it -- and then become hard on yourself, and put yourself down. Or you allow fear to come in.
Last night I was practicing an offstage horn solo, from the Mahler Third Symphony -- a beautiful melody that comes from offstage. Last time we played that here -- '97, I think it was -- I struggled on that solo. I "cacked" notes. This was a featured moment -- and I shouldn't have missed those notes.
To me, it was a big deal. It was substandard. No one goes to a concert to hear it fall apart -- people want to hear it perfect. As I saw it, I let down myself, I let down my team, and I let down the conductor. And you can ask my wife: I was ready to hand in my resignation. That's what happens to someone who is a perfectionist.
That (solo) has become a mental point of fear for me, and I don't like that. The Mahler Third is now on the schedule for 2001 -- and I saw that, and the initial thing in my soul was, "Oh, crumbs, here it comes." So I just decided: I'm not going to wait till 2001 to practice it. I'm going to be much more methodical about playing this thing all the time.
You mentioned "letting down the team." How collegial is the orchestra -- and how competitive is it? Do "office politics" come into play?
All of that exists in an orchestra, as it exists in any office. You can feel the heat sometimes when a young player comes into the orchestra, wanting to do the best they can - and sometimes wishing you wouldn't do so good, so that they could get ahead. I think a "principal" can sometimes be arrogant, and that can create a political hornet's nest. Arrogance stinks. And it only gets in the way, whether it's coming from the principal or from the last guy in the last stand. It shouldn't come from the conductor, either.
You're the principal trumpet -- how do you see your role?
Your role as a principal player is to be an encourager to the other members of the section. You want to be an example. You want to be a good colleague, interested in your colleagues -- not just from a musical point of view, but from a personal point of view. I mean, we spend a lifetime with each other, so you want to be a friend.
Above all else, as a principal player you want to be truthful, when you pass on to your section what comes your way from the conductor. You want to be truthful -- but also temper what you say so it comes out in a positive way, in a way that uplifts somebody rather than bashes them.
One leads by unification, not by power -- those that lead by power eventually fall. I have been given the role of principal trumpet in the New York Philharmonic for a little slice of time. I need to be a good steward of the position.
Your church, like others, stresses the importance of good stewardship of one's gifts. Is your trumpet playing a gift?
My trumpet playing is absolutely God's gift. In the beginning, this was a life choice of mine -- but that was only because I was too dumb to know that it was a calling. I mean, it has to be, the way this has worked out -- how I got into Juilliard when I really had no training; how on my first audition, I became a member of the Chicago Symphony; how on my second audition, I became co-principal trumpet in the New York Philharmonic.
Each of us has specific gifts; each of us has specific roles to play -- to lift people up, and to point to God Almighty. One of the roles of being a Christian is to tell people about what Christ has done for you, what Christ means to you. Because of my role as principal trumpet for the New York Philharmonic, I get a big opportunity to go out and mix with young kids, to challenge them, to lift them up and say, "Keep going; work harder."
It's politically incorrect to talk about one's faith -- but you can't live a life without a faith in something. And our kids are being told by the world, it seems, "don't worry about your faith." And I'm out there saying, "No, you gotta think about what you believe, in whom you believe, why you're here - are you just here by some quirk of your mom and dad's unification? I don't think so."
Do you try to get your message out through words? Through example -- how you live your life? Through your trumpet playing?
All of the above. My faith is a relationship with Christ in my heart -- if you've got that song in your heart, it's got to come out. It's part of who I am -- I can't help it, I have to talk about it.
But it's going to come out in my living, too. The truth of what I say, hopefully, is expressed in how I live -- with gentleness, peace, joy, love, kindness, compassion. And as a musician, it is going to be expressed in your music, in how well you play. I don't believe God is into giving high C's, per se -- I think you have to practice. But I do think God can put down a sense of calm and a sense of peace, and allow you to play at the best of your ability.
There's no greater place for missionary service than in the arts. Art is expression of the heart, of God's gift -- and the missionary duty here is to say, "Do you realize where your gift came from?"
Are there as many opportunities as there used to be for young musicians to develop their musical gifts?
You do see the effect of music being knocked out of the public schools. There are so many elementary schools now that don't have bands. When I was in elementary school, we had an orchestra, we had a marching band, we had a concert band. And it was probably the most horrific-sounding thing in the world, but nonetheless, it existed. There are pockets where it still exists, and thank God for that. But it's been decimated.
That's a problem for orchestras. Kids are coming out and not having a musical experience in school -- why, when they become adults and work in the world, are they gonna want to go to a concert? What does Joe Average Citizen really care about orchestral music? Their whole musical experience has been some rapper or some yeller-and-screamer type. If you don't play an instrument, you don't have an appreciation for it.
I see that in the number of empty seats. That's a big question for us (at the Philharmonic) right now: What do we have to do to bring more people in? How can we make what we do more attractive? And are we compromising ourselves when we play pops, or do (concert performances of) "Sweeney Todd?" Those are all tough questions that are seriously discussed.
Many orchestras try to fill the seats by regularly playing the most familiar symphonies, by the best-known composers. After 25 years of playing some of these Classical Greatest Hits, are you ever bored by them?
Absolutely! It's like, "Crumbs, another Beethoven Ninth." We play such a small percentage of what's out there. There are symphonies by major composers that I've still not played. Sibelius symphonies, for example -- I mean, Sibelius used to be a household word, but we hardly play Sibelius anymore. I have yet to play Mahler Eight -- but I've played Mahler's Fifth ad nauseum. We repeat a lot.
What kind of music do you listen to?
I guess my tastes are pretty eclectic: I like contemporary music -- what's termed "easy listening" music. Obviously, I listen to contemporary Christian music. One of my favorite groups is the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir -- I just love that gospel thing.
What's the reaction when you tell people what you do for a living?
Sometimes, you'll get a knowledgeable reaction: "Oh, that's quite an achievement." Sometimes, you'll get the reaction of: "You can make a living, playing an instrument?" We're paid well enough. And to make a living, doing what you love to do -- you can't ask for anything better. It's a blessing.
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