Updated: Mar 10
It's 11:30PM. I've just gotten home from playing a two-and-a-half-hour concert down town at Constitution Hall, as Second Chair Trumpet with the National Symphony Orchestra. I'll have a bit to eat, change out of my white tie and tails and begin my nightly trumpet practice. I practice down stairs from midnight to 1:30AM or so. There is a 10AM rehearsal tomorrow, and I won't be practicing before the rehearsal. I'll need a fresh set of trumpet chops to get through the rehearsal.
It's my first year in the NSO and, being fresh out of Juilliard, almost all the repertoire is new to me. This year the National will perform about 250 concerts during its 32-week season. At 19, I'm the youngest player in the orchestra, and the average age is about 40. Socially I'm pretty far out of it. I'm here to perform and not for social connection.
In conservatory I studied the Principal Trumpet parts, not those of the Second Chair. So I'm seeing most of the music for the first time. Much of it is standard repertoire for the orchestra. We're doing Scheherazade tomorrow. It's one of the standards for the National. Not so for me. There are some lightning-fast fancy articulations in that piece. For now I'll grab a sandwich and a glass of milk and run through the hard spots. I'll be careful not to over-stress my chops tonight. An hour-and-a-half of very careful practice should do the job.
For the first part of tonight's performance, I played all the notes right, but there was something missing. I'm used to Technicolor performance and this was way too black and white. No Zing.
In order to know what was missing, one needs to have an understanding of the role of the Second Chair. The relationship of Second Chair to Principal is hand-in-glove. A good amount of the classical repertoire is scored for two trumpets only. The job of the Second Chair is to create a precisely in-tune hand-in-glove ensemble, tonally accurate to within a couple of cycles-per-second, with the ensemble (playing together) to within a couple thousands of a second. A well-trained human ear can hear to that degree of accuracy. Certainly, I can.
Tonight a valuable lesson was learned [one that I would carry into my trumpet performance for the rest of my career]. I learned that there is a constellation of attitudes which is critical to achieving this desired degree of accuracy. You see, for the first part of tonight's performance I played with the attitudes of a Principal Chair. The job of a Principal is to listen to the orchestra as a whole, and to create an excellent fit into the larger ensemble, especially with the sounds of the other Principal players. Because the trumpet has such a commanding timbre, it often leads the orchestra. If played well, its tonal presence can inspire the whole orchestra to play courageously.
That's what I was doing. I was listening carefully to my own playing, and fitting my sound into that of the orchestra as a whole. Whoops! Wrong! No cigar!
Confused and frustrated, my musical intuition directed my attention to the tones coming from the player sitting next to me, those of Lloyd Geisler, whom I always addressed as Mr. Geisler, and at age 52 was one the finest Principal Trumpets in the nation. For the remainder of the concert my whole white-hot musical focus was redirected onto Mr. Geisler's tone. As if by magic, Technicolor Zing appeared. The trumpet parts sparkled with tonal vibration. The orchestra ensemble jelled tightknit around the inspired trumpet section. The fortissimo finale of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony brought the Constitution Hall audience of two thousand to its feet applauding in wild appreciation.
And I learned what could only be learned in a professional setting. I learned that my role was to GIVE my performance focus over in support of the Principal, and through trumpet sectional excellence, inspire the whole orchestra to actualize the musical genius and love of the composer.