Friday, February 22, 2019
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Words of Wisdom For Young Trumpeters From the Piano Bench: A Conversation with Rebecca Wilt

By Lisa Blackmore

Rebecca Wilt

Rebecca Wilt is one of the most experienced collaborative pianists in the world and has a unique perspective in working with trumpet players. I had a conversation with her at the 2014 conference of the International Trumpet Guild and she answered the following questions.

LB: Do you prefer the label “collaborator” versus “accompanist”?
RW: Yes, I think in the United States somehow we got the label "accompanist" many, many years ago. But it’s changing. You used to get a master’s degree in accompanying, but it’s changed to a master’s or doctorate in collaborative piano. The word “accompanist” has a stigma that people who accompany can't play very well, and they accompany because they couldn't make it as a soloist. So we call ourselves “collaborative pianists” and in Europe it's just “pianist”.

LB: It’s a whole other skill wouldn't you say?
RW: Yes, in many ways the music that we play is just as hard as a Beethoven piano sonata or Mozart concerto. But you have to deal with somebody else playing, so you have to be proficient enough on your own instrument that you are basically playing the equivalent of a sonata or concerto, but have the skill to adjust to a soloist too. You need that instinct as well as being able to read both parts at the same time and know where the soloist is at all times.

LB: What do you think is your most important role as a collaborator?
RW: The last thing you want a soloist to think about is, “Wow, I hope my pianist doesn’t screw me up.” They have enough to think about. The last things I say in rehearsal are, “Are you comfortable? Is there anything as an ensemble that is awkward?” My job is make them as comfortable as I can.

LB: What’s your biggest “pet peeve” about working with young trumpet players?
(RW) Most young players don't take any time before they get to the first rehearsal to actually really learn the score. They might have learned their own part, but they’re not really aware of what the piano is playing, and they’re not really prepared to rehearse since they haven’t done their homework with the score. In interludes where they are not playing, they need to be able to know what the piano part sounds like and to sing that melody in their heads. So, if suddenly they get off counting a little bit, it doesn’t freak them out because they are really listening to the piano and they know where to come in.

LB: And today with YouTube, there’s really no reason for this.
RW: Yes, whether it’s a good or bad performance, at least you’re checking it out. And you’re knowing the piano part a little bit ahead of time. Teachers should encourage their students to spend time away from their trumpet, with the score, listening, and watching the part. They don’t have to play piano or be great at reading it, because everybody can follow along if you read music a little bit. When I have high school students in my office, if we are having problems, the first thing I do is say, “Sing my part.” Nine times out of ten, the student can’t do it. If you are not aware of what you are supposed to be listening for, it makes your part much more difficult. I recently played piano in an orchestra for the Jolivet Concertino, and I was aware that I’m so used to watching a score. Just seeing my own part made me aware that I had to really know what I was listening for in everybody else’s part. If I were just counting, it made it way harder.

LB: That’s true, and students can take that concept into ensembles. Know not only your own part, but what’s going on elsewhere. So sure, count, but also be listening.
RW: Yes, if you’re playing in band, and all the sudden you come in right after the clarinets are done playing the melody, write a cue in your part that says, “After clarinets” so you know to listen for that. It’s the same thing with piano. If you really know the part and it’s in your ear, counting is not such a big issue because you’re listening louder than you play. Counting is part of it, but it’s not the only part of it.

I’m a big advocate of SmartMusic®, as a teaching tool for a student, to help prepare for rehearsals. It unfortunately replaces people too often in performance. And you never get a real idea of what it is like to rehearse with somebody if all you are doing is playing with a computer. But I think it’s a great tool. [Interviewer’s note: ITG members receive a discount on SmartMusic®. See the ITG homepage for info.]

LB: How do you like soloists to physically set up for performance? At an angle, so you have a little bit of eye contact but not blowing right at you?
RW: If you are pointing at the back of the room, just find that corner where the side wall and the back wall meet and point the bell at that corner. Then the audience is going to get the best part of your sound, without the bell pointing straight at their heads, but you’re still not visually sideways. So I always say just choose the back corner and put the bell there.

LB: How about placement of the music stand?

RW: I just need to be able to see the soloist. Many times students come in and turn away from me. I say, “Hellooo, I’m over here!” And then they go, “Oh yes, I can’t see you.” For me, this means the stand has to come off to the right a little bit and the soloist plays off to the left side of the stand. Young players like to play right into their stand. That’s always a big issue and I have to say, “Get your bell up, get your bell out of the stand.”

When they are at home practicing, the stand is right in front of them and they put the bell straight on. So that’s the way they get used to seeing the music. So suddenly, you are working with a pianist and you can’t play with the bell like that, because your sound is not going to get into the room. You have to move it a little bit. Young students need to practice at home sitting in a chair, putting the stand off to the right a little bit so that the bell is going straight. You get used to reading that way. It’s more that the music is off-axis. Most students don’t think about it until it’s time to practice with the piano, and the pianist tries to move them a little bit. It’s frustrating for the student because they haven't practiced looking in a different direction.

LB: You play for a lot of brass players. What’s the best thing about working with trumpet players?
RW: They are fun! It’s really how I got into it. In graduate school I was assigned to wind studios and those people became my friends because they had outgoing personalities. My best friends were trumpet players, horn players, and trombone players. Your friends ask you to play for them regardless if you were assigned to their studio or not. Some were going to competitions and I ended up learning their repertoire. I loved it!

I was grateful to Mike Ewald because he was active in ITG and he said, “You should go play in an ITG conference”. I said, “How would I do that?” He got ahold of Scott Johnston who was hosting in 1993 and Scott said, “I don't have any money to pay her,” so they put me up in a room, and I drove to Akron and played for free for the entire week. The following year, in 1994, Mike actually hosted at Illinois, and he paid me in addition to putting me up and it kind of started me on that trail. I haven’t really looked back. I’ve met a lot of amazing people doing ITG conferences. People start to know who you are, and let’s face it, we work where we can work. If that takes you towards singers or towards playing in an orchestra or whatever, you gravitate to where the work is. I get to hang out with great people. I perform with a lot of brass players. Their personalities just tend to be more relaxed and outgoing, and I’m comfortable with that.

LB: What do you think about the literature for the trumpet? How does it compare with that of other instruments?
RW: Unfortunately, the repertoire for trumpet is not great. There are some pieces that I love--don’t get me wrong. The Baroque repertoire is pretty good. But younger players generally don’t play piccolo trumpet, so they don't get a chance to play that early repertoire.

Some high school students play the Haydn Concerto and Hummel Concerto and get to know some of the greats from the Classical Period. In the late Classical Era and Romantic Era, great composers like Brahms, Chopin, Beethoven, and Mozart did not write for the solo trumpet. It’s really too bad that the trumpet doesn't have repertoire from that time. I certainly miss it because Romantic music is my favorite to play. The Bozza pieces, the Bitsch, and others are really good short pieces. But again, they’re harder. For younger players, I like the Handel Aria con Variazioni, and the compositions by Barat, Balay, and Ropartz are nice, but we don’t think of them as “great” composers. It’s unfortunate.

College students playing recitals have to be clever in order to learn the standard repertoire, but they must be careful not to program in such a way that’s it’s all the same thing; for example, only playing one horn or three concertos on a program.

A work that I love for trumpet and piano is the Enesco Légende. It’s one of the best pieces ever written for a soloist and piano. It just has everything in it: great lyrical melodies, a lot of exciting technical things, and the way that he weaves the two instruments together is great. I absolutely love the Enesco. [There are many recordings of the Enesco. Here’s one by Maurice André on trumpet and Jean Hubeau on piano:]

There are some contemporary concertos that I think are really good. I love the Desenclos Incantation, Thrène et Danse which is really hard, so young players are not playing that. It’s a good reduction (from the original orchestral accompaniment) and a lot of fun to play. A lot of times pianists don’t like to play reductions because they are not well done. [Here is a link with Rebecca performing the Desenclos with Katie Miller, the 2009 2nd Place winner in the Graduate Division of the National Trumpet Competition:]

I am a fan of borrowing music from other instruments and making it your own. Great music is great music; it doesn’t matter if it was written for the trumpet or not. If you listen to a Brahms clarinet sonata and you think, “Wow, I really like the second movement,” see if it works on the trumpet. It might, or it might not. But you don’t know until you try.

I do a lot of arranging. For example, I arranged the second movement of the Rachmaninoff Cello Sonata for trombone. Trumpet players can look at violin repertoire and clarinet repertoire. Those instruments have great works in the time period that there’s not a lot of literature for the trumpet.

LB: What’s the most difficult piece you’ve performed with trumpet?
RW: I think for trumpet it remains the Peter Maxwell Davies Sonata. It’s only eight minutes, (all three movements) and it’s extremely difficult for both people—but even more so for piano. Once you think you’ve conquered learning the part, trying to put it together is a nightmare. It takes more than one or two rehearsals.

It took nearly three months the very first time I learned it. I think I’d listened to it probably a hundred to a hundred and fifty times before I ever played the first note of the piece. Because it’s that complicated. If you don’t have in your mind what you are trying to accomplish in practice, even at a really slow tempo, you get a lot of bad habits. With some pieces I know, I can put them back together in five minutes—that’s not this piece! Every time I play it, it takes several hours of practice. [Check out this video of Rebecca performing the Davies Sonata with Jonathan Stites, 3rd Place winner in the 2009 National Trumpet Competition.]

There’s another piece that’s been played in Europe for a while but is just becoming known here. That’s Ligeti’s Mysteries of the Macabre. It requires the pianist to play the maracas, blow a whistle, scream, stomp, and knock on the piano. So the coordination of it, in addition to it being a hard part, takes time. Those two compositions have been my biggest challenges. They require the most time, even as I revisit them. [Rebecca performs Ligeti's Mysteries of the Macabre with Phillip Chase Hawkins, winner in the Graduate Solo Division, 2012 National Trumpet Competition.]

LB: What do you think are the hardest pieces for the trumpet to play?
RW: It depends on what “difficult” is—somebody with “lots of fingers” finds lyrical playing difficult and vice versa. The works that I’ve already mentioned including the Davies, Ligeti, and Desenclos, plus the Tomasi Concerto and the Jolivet Concertino, those kinds of pieces pose the most difficulty for trumpeters. The late-Baroque literature, like the Leopold Mozart, requires great high chops because if you don’t, you’re going to be in a “world of hurt.”

LB: I know you use the iPad for reading music quite often. Do you prefer it over someone turning pages?
RW: It depends on the situation. Most of the time for solo and ensemble festival or for juries, you don’t have the luxury of a page turner. People hate to turn pages, and they get nervous! And when they’re nervous, it’s hard for me to relax. If I’m using regular music in a performance, a good page turner helps me keep my mind on the music. I take a few minutes ahead of a performance and give them detailed instructions. I tell them to sit to my left, far enough away that they’re not in the way of the lower keys on the piano, and when they turn, they must stand up. Some people don’t want to be seen, try to reach across, and then they bury a line of my music. I ask them to turn from the top corner and use their left hand. For a pianist there are two options: either the pianist has the last measures at the bottom of the page memorized, and they want the page turned early because they haven’t memorized what’s at the top of the next page, or they’ve memorized what’s at the top of the next page, and they need every second at the bottom because what’s coming up later is memorized. I always memorize the bottom of the page and want them to turn early. And I always give a nod.

The iPad for me has been life-changing. I did have to spend some time adjusting to it before I used it in performances.

LB: How much do you practice?
RW: These days very little. I don’t have time to practice now. When I was in high school (about ninth grade), I started to get serious, and I practiced a couple hours a day. Then I started to get harder solo repertoire and my teacher entered me in some competitions, so that became three and four hours, and by my senior year it was more like five hours a day. Four to five hours a day was my standard in college unless there was something big coming up where I needed to have a few more hours. In graduate school, besides all the playing in studios, I probably had about 3 hours a day to myself to practice. I was in rehearsals or somebody’s lesson for another three or four hours a day. The same amount of time, but it started to shift away from personal practice to rehearsals. Earlier in my career, I was practicing a lot. The average was four or five hours a day, and on weekends when I had more time, it was more like six or seven. It took that if I was going to get where I wanted to get. It really wasn’t an option.

Now my average practice time is between thirty minutes to an hour each day. As I get older, my fingers get stiffer quicker, and I have to get them moving in the morning. If I have a few measures to look at for somebody, I do practice that. But at this stage, I’ve learned a lot of repertoire. If you’ve learned it diligently the first time, it stays with you— so you go back each time and you have to do a little bit of work. For example, the Hindemith Sonata got thrown at me this week at the last minute. I spent about fifteen minutes in a practice room going through the hard measures, checking the fingerings, and making sure everything was working. Pieces like that I can do relatively quickly if I’ve got fifteen to thirty minutes. If I’m learning a new piece, for instance I’ve got four or five new pieces to learn for an upcoming conference, I’ll go home next week and spend a good three or four hours a day learning the new repertoire since I don’t have to be in rehearsals then. I’ve never liked to practice. I love to be onstage and to perform, so for me practicing is a means to an end.

The difference between trumpet and piano is, of course, that we have way bigger muscles to be working with, and the corners of your mouth wear out way quicker so you can’t do that kind of practice. Trumpet players have to practice every day or the muscles go away. Pianists can miss a day or two, and while we might notice it a little bit, it comes back relatively quickly, where you guys miss a few days and it takes some time to get it back.

LB: How many rehearsals should a college student have with you before a jury? For example, if they were preparing the first movement of the Hindemith Sonata, and if they know their part pretty well and have done some listening.
RW: That one’s harder than a lot of other pieces. If they’re really ready to go, I’d do three thirty-minute rehearsals. The first rehearsal is, “Let’s get a feel for each other,” the second one is to solidify it, and the third one is, “Let’s run it, take a break, and let’s run it again.” So you’ve got a couple run-throughs before the performance. A little bit more rehearsal time is better than less.

LB: For a high schooler, if they were working on a French Conservatory piece probably the same amount of time?
RW: Yes, if they have done their homework. If they haven’t done their homework, it’s going to take more. Because usually the first and second rehearsals are for them to figure out what’s going on. To me it’s a waste of time for both of us if they’re not prepared.

LB: Do you spend much time discussing pieces in rehearsals?
RW: With professionals, not so much. Because both people are innately good musicians and it’s just getting used to each other’s style. With younger players, I take on more of a coaching role, because they don’t really know what to do in their first rehearsal, and for the most part are looking for guidance and instruction. It’s not so much a collaboration.

LB: Do young trumpet players obsess about anything that you don't think is important?
RW: High notes. Younger players should focus on making a good sound and playing a beautiful phrase. Higher, louder, and faster does not make it better. A younger player’s range will grow and expand if they have learned to play with a good fundamental technique and make a beautiful sound.

LB: Is there anything that young trumpet players neglect that you could offer some advice for?
RW: Study the score and learn the musical terms. These are very important facets to playing the trumpet. You have to play music and the trumpet is the vehicle in which you have chosen to do this. Playing a piece requires knowing everything about the piece musically, especially the terms. I like to say to my students, "Practice is what you do to learn your own part, and rehearsal is what you do to learn everyone else's". I also think that young players need to remember that a good foundation is necessary to playing pieces. No foundation, no endurance.

I wonder if young players don’t have the patience that it takes with fundamentals every morning. If you don’t really build the muscles, you can’t expect to play your piece several times in a rehearsal. It’s fundamentals, fundamentals, fundamentals! Nobody wants to hear that. Everybody wants to play music, right? Me too! I don’t want to practice scales—I think they’re horrible. The piece that I’m playing for Mark tomorrow has a lot of scales in tenths. I didn’t have to learn it, because I realized, “That’s a G-major scale in tenths.” If you’ve done the technical homework, now you’ve saved yourself practice time. For everybody (not just trumpet players) practice means major scales, minor scales, scales in thirds, scales in tenths, diminished scales, arpeggios, etc. When you actually start to learn music, you see those patterns rather than, “Wow, this is a really hard piece of music”.

LB: Rebecca, it has been great talking with you today. Thanks so much!
RW: Cool. It was good!

About the author

Rebecca Wilt is continuing to receive national and international recognition as a virtuoso collaborative pianist. Rebecca has performed in collaboration with some of the world’s greatest soloists; members of the New York Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony, the National Symphony, the Atlanta Symphony, the Chicago Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. In addition she has worked with vocalists performing with the Metropolitan Opera, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and Covent Garden.

Rebecca can be heard on several compact discs: Origins with Mark Clodfelter, Trumpet Call with Tom Hooten, Song and Dance with Alan Baer, An American Portrait with James Thompson, Twas in the Moon of Wintertime; a collection of traditional holiday favorites; Lyrico Latino with James Ackley, and Pastorale, with the Trelumina Trio. In demand as a clinician, Rebecca frequently gives workshops and master classes at universities and colleges all over the country on topics involving vocal coaching, instrumental chamber music, rehearsing with a pianist, and the competition road. Currently on the faculty at the University of North Carolina Greensboro, she is also on the summer faculty for the Center for Advanced Musical Studies in Enfield, New Hampshire, as well as appearing as guest artist at various festivals all over the world. Rebecca and her husband, trumpeter Mark Clodfelter form the chamber duo, Covalence.

About the Editor: Lisa Blackmore is Adjunct Professor of Trumpet at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and Adjunct Professor of Trumpet and Horn at East Central College in Union, Missouri where she also teaches Music History and World Music. She is a member of “Cadre” at Missouri Baptist University, teaching trumpet and assisting with the concert band. Lisa earned a Doctorate of Musical Arts (D.M.A.) in Trumpet with a minor in Music History at the University of Illinois-Urbana/Champaign, where she received the Graduate College Dissertation Award in Musicology. Dr. Blackmore also holds degrees from the University of Missouri-Columbia and SUNY-Stony Brook. She previously served on the faculty at Lindenwood University and under her direction, the Lindenwood Trumpet Ensemble performed at the 2007 ITG conference at the University of Massachusetts―Amherst. Her private studio teaching has resulted in students performing in the St. Louis Youth Symphony and various Missouri All-State ensembles.

Lisa is a member of the Stonehenge Brass Trio and Confluence Brass. She was a bugler with the Missouri Military Funeral Honors Program from 2008-2013 and performed Taps at over 350 military services for Missouri Veterans. She performs with the Compton Heights Concert Band, and she is principal trumpet in the St. Louis Wind Symphony. She serves as a trumpet adjudicator for the Missouri All-State groups.

Lisa lives in Wright City, MO with her husband, Mark (also a trumpeter!) and their two cats, Chet and Ella. In her spare time she makes practice mutes and also enjoys reading and traveling.

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