Interview with Barbara Butler

Professor at Rice University (United States).

«There is room for all great players, don't be afraid to go for it»


Trumpetland interviews one of the most influential trumpeters and educators in the United States and around the world, a disciple of the immeasurable Adolph Herseth. You cannot miss these wise audition tips!

Up close and personal
  • Age: None of your business, haha!
  • City of birth: Waterloo, Iowa (USA).
  • A hobby: Reading, horses.
  • A food: Chocolate, dark only.
  • A drink: Champagne.
  • A book: Anything. Voracious reader.
  • A film: Planes, Trains and Automobiles (John Hughes).
  • A place: Jackson, Wyoming (USA).

Professional career

What first drew you to the trumpet and when did you realize that trumpet playing was what you wanted to do professionally?

I began taking trumpet lessons and playing in the band at age 8. I chose the cornet, actually, because I was a really terrible pianist, and my mother couldn't stand seeing my frustration while practicing! For some reason the cornet was very easy for me right away. I did many solo competitions and won several concerto appearances and scholarships to music festivals and colleges. When I attended the Interlochen summer music camp during 2 summers of high school, I began to realize how much I loved performing. I also realized while I was there, that it's even more fun when you're good at it. At that time, Interlochen had weekly challenges for seating. I had performed the Jolivet Concertino as my solo piece at the initial seating audition, and I played it very well. But then we had to sight-read orchestral parts, and since I had not really done my homework with transpositions, I did not do well at that part. Originally seated low in the section, I practiced hard to move up and quickly moved up to 2nd chair. That first summer the best I could do was to tie the principal, and you didn't move up a chair unless you beat them. So I played 2nd that summer… to Al Vizzutti! The next summer I was principal in both the top orchestra and the top band and performed a concerto. But those summers at Interlochen were what made me realize how much I loved playing in an orchestra.

Where have you studied and who were your teachers?

Other than my original band directors who taught me, my first very serious teacher was a man named Dr. David Kennedy, who was the horn professor at the college in my hometown. He gave me whatever they were performing at the Paris Conservatoire (France) that year, and made me learn it. So at age 13 and 14, I was performing Honegger and Jolivet. He was a fierce and honest teacher who really believed in me, and I am so grateful to him. My first year in college, I majored in literature at a small liberal arts school, where I also played and soloed with the orchestra, while studying with Ron Hasselman from the Minnesota Symphony. But I transferred to Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois my 2nd year to major in trumpet performance, where I studied with Vincent Cichowicz (Chicago Symphony).  I was also a member of the Chicago Civic Orchestra, the training orchestra with the Chicago Symphony, where I had weekly lessons and sectionals with Adolph Herseth of the Chicago Symphony.

What was your first full time professional job as a trumpet player and how did you get it?

My first paying job was when I joined the musicians union at age 14 to play with the American Legion Band in the summer outside in the park. But my first titled position came later, during graduate work at Northwestern University, when I won Principal Trumpet with the Grant Park Symphony, a summer orchestra in downtown Chicago. My music directors there were Leonard Slatkin and David Zinman. Next I won the Co-Principal Trumpet position with the Vancouver Symphony in Canada, which I held until I began as Professor of Trumpet at the Eastman School of Music in 1980. I have also played as Acting Associate/Assistant Trumpet with the Houston and St. Louis Symphony orchestras.

Which musicians, teachers, conductors or trumpet players have influenced and taught you the most?

I have had many important mentors over the years. In addition to Vincent Cichowicz and Bud Herseth, my main inspirations, I have always loved Maurice Andre's playing. When I was little, I listened so much to Helmut Wobisch from Vienna, that my nickname was Helmut Barbisch, haha! Truthfully I learn from everyone I hear. I realized long ago, that whatever I admire, I not only love, but I want to add to my own playing. So when I hear trills from Joan Sutherland or singing tone from Wynton Marsalis or resonance from Håkan Hardenberger or clean technique from Heifetz or honest playing from Phil Smith or beauty of baroque from Niklas Eklund, I am inspired. I have spent more years than most people, studying great singers, and still that is the best sound to imitate. And I love great orchestral playing, and nothing can compare to the years I had hearing and playing with Bud Herseth, his sound is in my head.

Daily work

What is your daily practice routine?

This is so impossible to answer online! I am a dedicated practicer, and completely believe that you must build your house from the ground up everyday. No two players have exactly the same needs, so one size does not fit all when it comes to routines. But I believe everyone needs a routine, and that it must be based on air, vibration, tone, flexibility. All of the greatest players have a practice and warm-up routine, where some parts are the same everyday, and many parts have interchangeable elements. My teaching is based on health and musicianship. Sound is the most important aspect for us, and the part of our playing that others respond to. You probably know that our students are very successful, and have won or hold many top orchestral positions in these and other orchestras (Chicago Symphony, New York Philharmonic, Boston Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic, St. Louis Symphony, Montreal, Vancouver, Toronto, Atlanta, Rochester Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, National Symphony etc). All of these success stories have learned a healthy routine and way of practicing.

You spend a lot of time on the road performing and teaching. What do you do to stay in shape?

I practice every day. The first session is always building my playing to have all the elements I will need for the day. I use fundamentals, etudes and repertoire. I have daily goals and make every note count. I tape myself regularly and use a metronome and tuner regularly also. Our students are required to tape each lesson and each performance to use later to study.

How important do you consider a rest or break when you are practicing?

Very important, especially in the first session of the day where you are helping your lips become accustomed to the hard work (abuse) they will do for the entire day. I use almost as much rest as play in my first session of the day. I also use both category rests (rest after Stamp’s, rest after scales, rest after Clarke’s etc.) and timed rests. A timed rest is where I will play one line of a Clarke exercise then rest for exactly 4 counted measures as if I am in an orchestra and have 4 measures rest, then continue with the next line of the Clarke, etc.

How do you approach a new piece?

Leave my trumpet in the case! Study it first. What is the form, character, harmonic movement etc. Is it A-B-A, is there a development, what style or genre is it? Look at the full score, not just the trumpet part. I like to find all the phrases and make early decisions on arrival points. I also like to get the lay of the land before playing, find the tricky spots, key changes, time changes, unusual intervals, etc. Analyze it musically and harmonically first. Then you can finger through it while singing the rhythms. Nothing is too hard to sing, and then you are already making musical choices and decisions. When I do begin to play, I try to learn it so slowly that I am perfect from the beginning, and all I need to do is gradually go faster. Playing it on the mouthpiece is also a good idea. Most students are so eager to begin a new piece that they instantly begin playing it up to speed, which creates mistakes and "difficult places", which later have to be undone.


What is your approach to teaching your students?

I teach differently with each student according to their strengths and weaknesses. A typical lesson for a younger college student begins with a mini warm-up/fundamental session together, then moves on to the assigned etudes and repertoire. For the older student, who is more responsible for taking care of their own basic fundamentals, we often move to repertoire quickly. I want them to learn to teach themselves and to become independent, but I model for them as often as needed. Some professionals who come for lessons really only use me for my "ears", to help them know how they sound out front. But I am always going to teach health first if there is anything they are doing that is not correct, because I completely believe that once someone is 100% on the road of healthy playing, their playing and career can go to infinity.

Do you consider it important to combine more than one genre in your studies such as jazz and natural trumpet?

I don't teach jazz, though I played a little when I was younger. If I have a jazz student, I am always helping them be healthy so that they can do anything they can imagine on the trumpet, without technical limitations. I also listen with my heart or soul or some word like that meaning, I let myself notice when I am being put in a dreamstate by someone's playing versus when I am studying and thinking about their technique while I am listening. If they are not putting me in a dreamstate, in classical or jazz, then they are not doing their job right, and I will help them do it better. Several of our students love playing the natural trumpet, and we have always encouraged them to learn it, as it informs everything about the modern trumpet and sometimes becomes a full or partial career path for them. John Thiessen and Kiri Tollaksen are two that come to mind.

What criteria do you follow when you are choosing a mouthpiece and trumpet?

This is personal and too detailed to answer online. It is important though, and worthy of some experimentation to find what is right for you. Sound is most important, but you should not give up any part of your range or clarity of articulation.

What advice do you have for young students and for teachers?

Don't leave musicianship and intonation for later years, get to them right away. Listening is as important as playing, so get a great collection of performers to inspire and imitate.  Develop your own sound. There is room for all great players, don't be afraid to go for it. Commit.

Performance anxiety

Have you ever had a bad experience on stage?

Of course, we all have.

How should one take criticism?

Our business is a culture of criticism. Develop a thicker skin, and remember your real motivation. When you are playing your most awesome concert, you aren't trying to win, or beat someone, or prove something, you are in the music. Stay with that.

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?

I don't try to control it, I use it. I use the adrenalin as energy and I try to channel it into the music, into my phrasing. But truly the best way to deal with performance anxiety is to be ridiculously over-prepared. Every time.

Any advice on preparing for auditions?

Too long to answer! I have a very detailed weeks, months long practice and preparation routine for winning auditions. The people who win are not lucky, they usually sound different than the others, both their in-depth preparation and also in playing the excerpts in context, and being in the music. Players who win auditions aren't always more perfect, but they sound right, and they turn the audition committee into their audience. Players who are just trying to play perfectly, are thinking about trumpet techniques instead of music, and turn the audition committee into judges.

Musical preferences

What kind of music do you listen to?

Orchestral, baroque, vocal, rock.

With what musician or style of music do you identify with the most?

Bud Herseth and the Chicago Symphony years for listening. Favorite composers are Bach, Brahms, Beethoven, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Dvořák.

Who is your favorite trumpet player?

Bud Herseth.

What is your favorite piece for trumpet?

To perform? Anything by Bach.