What first drew you to the trumpet and when did you realize that trumpet playing was what you wanted to do professionally?
Nobody has a relation to the arts in my family (not just music, but art in general), and I really don’t know why I began with music. I started playing percussion: a small tumbadora (or conga) that my neighbor gifted to me. They later formed a band in my home town and it was there that I tried different instruments — until that one good day where I noticed the trumpet and said to myself: “This is the one I like. I think this is the one I want to learn.” And that’s how I started. Practically, it was just me, because I didn’t have any teachers — especially during those first years. I was stumbling and trying to find out of to decipher the thing.
I would say that almost as soon as I started playing the trumpet, I thought: “This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.” And so it has been.
Where have you studied and who were your teachers?
I later went to a school in Havana called the National School of the Arts. I spent three years there, studying classical music.
What was your first full time professional job as a trumpet player and how did you get it?
Mi first job was in my home town with a small son group (the son is the most traditional type of music in Cuba). That was the first thing I did for several years, up until the time I left for that school to study classical music. Later, once I left school, I joined a big band, the Cuban Orchestra of Modern Music (Orquesta Cubana de Música Moderna), and I was there from 1967 until 1971, the year that I was called upon for my obligatory military service, where I spent three years. That time was a complete disaster, because for three years I couldn’t play music, or do anything else for that matter. For me, it was terrible. They were three lost, miserable years. Apart from 1974, I was part of the group Irakere.
Which musicians, teachers, conductors or trumpet players have influenced and taught you the most?
I listen to everybody. I listen to everyone and I try to learn from everyone. I sincerely respect all good musicians and I always try to learn. I am always willing to learn.
At the end of the 60’s, a newsperson in Havana, Cuba made me listen to jazz for the first time. He played one of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker’s albums. That was the first time I heard jazz and it was super important to me because it opened a horizon, it made me think in an entirely different way. So I dove into jazz music one hundred percent, completely, in order to learn, and I began to listen to all different types of albums… the rest was just practice, practice, practice. This is what I have done my entire life.
What is your daily practice routine?
I have always used the Arban book my entire life. The Arban book is, as we often call it, the Bible. Many people are wrong by thinking it is an old and obsolete book. I think that is a grave error: Arban is an excellent book that will forever be good and useful.
Now, I am also studying the school of William Adam. Two of my friends, excellent trumpet players, have come over to my house recently and given me classes about the philosophy and manner in which Bill Adam taught: Jerry Hey, who was his student and Charley Davis, who by the way just released a book on all the ideas he learned from Adam. The book is really interesting! (He gave me a copy, I have it here and I’m practicing out of it. It’s really good! I highly recommend it!)
You spend a lot of time on the road performing and teaching. What do you do to stay in shape?
I use the Sandovalves a lot, which I myself invented. I use them all the time. I begin each morning warming up on them. And when I’m on tour, I use them on the plane, in the airport, hotels, no matter where I am, I use them because it helps me maintain my muscular consistency, fingers, tongue, attacks… Everything. It helps me a lot.
How important do you consider a rest or break when you are practicing?
Maurice André always said that you should always rest as much as you play. If you play for 5 to 7 minutes, then you rest for 5 minutes and then continue playing, etc. My recommendation is that you should not continue playing when you feel fatigued. You need to stop. You can’t abuse the muscles because, instead of building them, you are destroying them.
How do you approach a new piece?
If it’s jazz, the first thing I do is learn it on piano, because that helps me tremendously to truly comprehend the chords and be more conscious about where the music is going, how to resolve the chords in a more logical way and to do it more organically, etc. Do you understand?
In classical music… well, I need to practice it well. When you want to learn how to play a certain concerto, you first need to practice it slowly, etc. Like everyone does. There are no secrets here, absolutely none.
What is your approach to teaching your students?
The first thing is to notice the student’s embouchure and how to resolve the question of airflow. How does their body work when they blow: it should leave directly through the center of the mouth, without any obstructions in the throat or mouth. This is very important, because with trumpet players/students, there are too many times the airflow is blocked at some point in the body, and the air does not flow directly through the center of the mouth, through the mouthpiece. This is the first step.
The second thing, but the most important of all, is the quality of sound: its color, which should be round, thick, pretty. The air column should be capable of creating sufficient vibrations that it should resonate the entire tubing in general, as not to produce a hollow sound that goes through the middle, but touches all the walls of the tubing. The quality of sound is crucial, it’s the most important part of it all. When you have a good sound, you can play just two notes and the entire world appreciates it; with a bad sound, you can play two million notes and nobody will pay attention.
Do you consider it important to combine more than one genre in your studies such as jazz and natural trumpet?
Music is only thing… good. When you think about music you need to see it as a whole. All the great compositions of all the eras and all the great songs, are good. You cannot discriminate greatness, and you cannot remove anything from it. Everything is important and the more you familiarize yourself with these different styles, the better musician you will become.
What criteria do you follow when you are choosing a mouthpiece and trumpet?
I would say that this needs to be done by ear. Your ear is what really determines what sounds good, which produces a thick sound, a round sound and above all, a big sound (and I’m not speaking about volume, rather about when you play softly — the sound needs to be big and round).
I have always used Vincent Bach mouthpieces my entire life. I have tried others, of course, like everyone else, but none of them gave me as many results as a Bach. For me, Bach mouthpieces are the best that exist. (This is my own personal criteria).
For trumpet brands, I am now using two. One of them is what I call the “Frankenstein” (because it is made from pieces of three different trumpets: it has the bell of one, the pistones from another, and the tubing from yet another). I made it many years ago in Miami with three trumpets that I had and which I liked different things about them, so I had a friend take them apart and then reassemble it into one horn. Honestly, this is one of the best trumpets I have had in my lifetime, and is the one I normally use. Although I also have another horn which is a prototype made in Switzerland by a guy named Thomas Inderbinen, with a huge bell and a .470 bore (one of the largest, I would say). The “Frankenstein” is also .470 bore, or I should say they are both a large bore. I personally don’t like smaller bored trumpets, and I also don’t like it when they are too resistant. Just the opposite, they should feel free at the time I play.
What advice do you have for young students and for teachers?
The most important thing, is that you must be in love with the music (and the instrument too, of course). It needs to be an obsession, something that motivates you all the time. Practicing shouldn't be torture or an obligation, but just the opposite: it should give you a lot of pleasure. If you are not in love with music, it will be difficult because you will always have obstacles in the way. There will always be situations where you feel disanimated, so your passion for the music must be larger than all these obstacles.
Have you ever had a bad experience on stage?
Yes, of course I have, we all have! But I think the one thing that makes me feel most secure is preparing in a conscientious manner — walking out onto the stage relaxed, knowing that I feel prepared, that I have made the effort so that everything will work just fine.
How should one take criticism?
You always need to listen to them, both the constructive and anti-constructive criticism. You need to listen to all of it and, at the end, find your own conclusion to see if the person giving the criticism is right or wrong, or if they have good or bad intentions. It all depends on the person and from where the criticism comes from. Anyhow, you need to listen to it all because there is always room for improvement. You can’t ever think that you know it all, that you have reached a point where you dominate everything and that you’re the best: on that day, you’ve turned into the perfect idiot. We need to be open and think that there is always an opportunity to better ourselves, to grow as a musician and as an instrumentalist.
They say that everybody has a little bit of performance anxiety and the important thing is controlling it. What do you do to control it?
The answer is something I already answered above, it is exactly the same thing: the fact of feeling confident, that you have prepared well, that everything works, your fingers are well trained, your tongue works well, and that the muscles of the lips, face and body are prepared. This gives you a kind of security, a confidence, which is what one has to feel at the time of walking out onto the stage.
Also, another thing that I am going to add is that I have never used any type of drugs at all. Zero. And I do not drink alcohol either; much less before going on stage. I think there is an intellectual function, that our brain needs one hundred percent focus on what we are doing to do it well. Being under the influence of those class of agents is not convenient for this type of function. That's my recommendation: to be very far from drugs and alcohol, especially when it comes to taking the stage.
Concerning the feeling of fear you asked about, I would not call it "fear"; I would call it "respect for the public". And I think it's very important that you feel that respect. The public must receive one hundred percent from you, you have to offer your best. We must be aware of that, and we must prepare for it.
Any advice on preparing for auditions?
Well, the same: we have to be well prepared and practice well. Our entire organism, our entire mechanism, what we use to play and to produce a good sound and for performance, we must have it there on hand. That is the only advice I can give.
What kind of music do you listen to?
I use Pandora, iTunes and all those online radios a lot. I listen to lots of music, all kinds of music: the Frank Sinatra station, the Nat King Cole station… I also listen to many pianists, I'm a big fan of Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum… of all the great pianists. And classical music too! I listen to a lot of classical music. I like the Rachmaninov piano concertos, the impressionist music of Erik Satie, Debussy, and Ravel… I really like the piano. I think the piano is the best music teacher one can have.
With what musician or style of music do you identify with the most?
Dizzy Gillespie is always first on the list. Although God gave me the opportunity to have the honor and great pleasure of sharing the stage, recordings and presentations with countless artists that I have admired for many years.
Who is your favorite trumpet player?
It’s a long list. But, in classical music my favorite is Timofei Dokshizer, and in jazz, of course, it’s Dizzy Gillespie.
What is your favorite piece for trumpet?
I really like Alexandr Arutiunian’s Concerto. In classical music, I would say it's my favorite concerto. For the rest… I like everything: I like boleros, I like to play the great ballads, Brazilian music, and Cuban music, of course. I like all good music.
Sharing exercises with Trumpetland
Do you have any exercise you would like to share with the Premium members of Trumpetland?
Lesson #1 of Clarke’s second book (Technical Studies). I initially do it as written. I try to do it as the book says 16 times with a single breath, and then I change the articulations: first two-slurred and two-tongued, then tonguing the first note and slurring two-by-two from the second note, then the first two slurred with the next four tongued… This lesson can last a long time if you do all the different articulations — but always trying to understand all the notes, with clarity of sound and mind.
Exercise by Arturo Sandoval (PDF 245,63 KB) [Only Premium members]