Interview with Mary Bowden

International soloist. Guest Artist at Marlboro Music Festival, Vermont. 3rd Trumpet at Richmond Symphony Orchestra. Trumpet at Chrysalis Chamber Players. Trumpet at Des Moines Metro Opera Orchestra. Principal Trumpet at Artosphere Festival Orchestra. Trumpet at Seraph Brass. Artist in Residence at University of North Carolina (United States).

«If you can sing a piece with the correct pitches, it will be so much easier on the trumpet»

2018-01-03

The trumpeter that we have the pleasure of interviewing today is a young woman of 35 years, who knows how to form her own career as a concert artist, even after the demanding work with several groups that she has also founded (Seraph Brass and Chrysalis Chamber Players), and teaching as an artist in residence at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts (USA). Even more, she is a professor in Trumpetland! Don’t miss out of the PDF exercises that she shares with our Premium members, for free.

Up close and personal
  • Age: 35.
  • City of birth: Oak Lawn, IL (USA).
  • A hobby: Hiking.
  • A food: Brussel sprouts.
  • A drink: Water.
  • A book: One Hundred Years of Solitude (Gabriel García Márquez).
  • A film: The Godfather Part II (Francis Ford Coppola).
  • A place: Guanajuato (Mexico).

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 started on the cornet when I was 10 years old in the band program at school. My two older brothers had picked horn and trombone, so I knew that I wanted to also be in the brass family. The three of us were very lucky to have a devoted teacher, Tim Jones, who would spend all day on Saturday teaching us. He would also take us to many concerts around the Chicagoland area, so as a youngster, I was able to hear the Chicago Symphony and many great musicians live. From the first day of getting my Yamaha cornet, I immediately practiced as much as I could and I was hooked. I would say around age 13 was when I began to decide that this would most likely be my profession. When I was 16, I won a concerto competition at the Birch Creek Music Festival, and I performed the Arutiunian Concerto twice with orchestra. It was so exhilarating and fun, and I felt at home. I also had the experience of being a member of the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra.

Where have you studied and who were your teachers?

Before Curtis, I studied with Chicago-based trumpeter, Kari Lee. She challenged me to learn challenging pieces beyond my comfort zone, so I was learning Tomasi Concerto at age 15 and also dived right into piccolo trumpet. I remember being terrified of the Tomasi Concerto, but then it became my favorite piece to play.

I studied at The Curtis Institute of Music with David Bilger and then at the Yale School of Music with Allan Dean. I attended Chosen Vale in 2010, and I also studied with Jens Lindemann at the Banff Centre. Jens is the reason why I am a soloist today. He encouraged me to pursue a solo career and to form my own group. Now my career consists mainly of solo performances and touring with my group, Seraph Brass, which I started from the ground up.

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

I won 2nd trumpet of Symphony in C when I was 18 in Philadelphia, and this was great to have professional performance experience on a regular basis throughout my years in school.

My first steady paying job as a musician (where I could pay rent and bills) was with the Richmond Symphony. I won the 3rd trumpet audition after I graduated from Yale, and I spent my first year in the orchestra as acting 2nd trumpet.

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

I’ve learned so much from so many people. Jens Lindemann, José Sibaja, and Håkan Hardenberger have helped my trumpet playing improve significantly over the past few years. My teachers in school, David Bilger and Allan Dean, really ingrained a great, golden sound concept. I learned so much in lab orchestra at Curtis from conducting teacher Otto Werner Mueller, who instilled performing music with integrity, and I will be forever grateful that in my formative years we worked in detail on the great symphonic works.

I love listening to my favorite trumpeters, and I also listen to a lot of singers. I also learn a lot from my colleagues in chamber music settings.

Daily work

What is your daily practice routine?

I start with the mouthpiece and drone. I buzz for 5-10 minutes, and then I warm-up on the B-flat trumpet. I start with mid-range lip bends with air attacks, and I bend as far as the note will go (for example mid G down to E-flat). I intersperse this with air attacks on the octave higher with a quick trill to make sure that I set correctly for the day (making sure my aperture is in the right place). This is the phase where I am getting the gravel out of the sound and finding a resonant, flexible center of my sound.

Then it really depends on what I have that day. If it’s a normal practice day, I do a various set of Clarkes slurred and double-tongued. I go as slow or fast as I need to — I use this as trumpet yoga. Everyday is different, but I am making sure that the notes are connected and resonant. I make sure the multiple tonguing is almost as even sounding as the slurs. Some days, I may need to go slower to find the balance. Then I usually play about 15-20 minutes of piccolo (my “Brandenburg routine”). I find that if I keep a small diet of extremely high piccolo playing early in the day, the rest of my trumpet playing stays healthier and stronger. With piccolo, I alternate with very low free buzzing.

The rest of the day consists of the music I have coming up to prepare, making sure to cover a lot of different types of playing. I keep a checklist of the repertoire for the season to make sure I am covering everything.

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

I am traveling a lot — sometimes constantly for months! I find that staying as healthy as I can really helps — drinking a lot of water, eating more green foods, etc. I make sure I do my routine as outlined above almost everyday. As long as I am getting my time in, I feel good. I also don’t play too much with a practice mute. I usually find a conference room in a hotel to practice in while traveling, and if it’s not free, I just play in my room mute-free until someone complains! Sometimes I play outside at the airport at baggage claim if I have a long connection.

Also, I practice a lot with drones, tuner, and metronome. I record myself and listen back — this is a very efficient way to improve quickly.

When I have shows every night on tour, I find that icing at night for a minutes really helps for coming back the next day. I like alternating ice and heat (usually hot tea). I have scar tissue from being hit in the face by a frisbee 5 years ago, so it’s important to keep the circulation moving! Ice and heat are incredible for this.

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

I think breaks are important. During breaks, you can score study, listen back to practice recordings, and sing through the music with a piano. If I am tired, I alternate playing with a lot of air patterns.

How do you approach a new piece?

I study a score first, and I like to find a few different recordings. It is so helpful to be able to hear not only the trumpet line, but also the instruments that will eventually perform with you on the piece. My biggest pet peeve in chamber music is when someone asks, “what do you have in bar 6?” I usually have scores with me so I know what’s happening where, and I mark in cues ahead of time for bars I know may be difficult to put together with other musicians. Sometimes if it’s possible, I’ll end up performing a piece from the score if it’s a piece like Varèse’s Octandre.

I start by playing the piece very slowly for as long as it needs. I try to buzz the piece on the mouthpiece (in small chunks alternated with playing), and singing as well. If you can sing a piece with the correct pitches, it will be so much easier on the trumpet. The mouthpiece really shows if you can hear the intervals or not. If I am memorizing the piece, this part is the most helpful (being able to sing the piece in solfege). I also focus and make strong musical decisions. These may change through the development of learning the piece, but music is so much easier to play if it’s the main focus from the start.

I mark down where I am at with the tempi and try to increase it at small intervals. I also change rhythms, and use note groupings to isolate problems.

And finally, visualization is very important. I envision myself onstage, and I envision how I want every phrase to go. This is very important with performance practice.

Education

What is your approach to teaching your students?

Everyone is different and needs a different prescription. Making a great sound is my first priority for healthy playing. If the fundamentals are in place, then making music is much easier. I make sure that students have inspiration and music to learn that they are really excited and passionate about, as well as challenging them beyond their comfort zone.

Getting students curious is paramount. I am certain I developed a great sound in the beginning because of our teacher taking us to hear concerts when I was 10. I was listening to Bud Herseth and the Chicago Symphony, chamber music concerts, masterclasses, and recitals on a regular basis because of this teacher. I often send students videos of inspiring performances, and it is important to encourage them to attend live music as well and get them hooked on this (we can get too distracted when listening to music online with other things like cell phones!)

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

I personally have not studied jazz extensively, but I do believe that if the fundamentals are solid on the trumpet, anything is possible. The more styles you can play, the more flexible you will be on the instrument. I just started play natural trumpet, and it is definitely helping my trumpet playing overall with using the air better. Once I started performing more recitals, I found that switching trumpets a lot (from C, B-flat, piccolo, flugelhorn, E-flat) made me more musically and physically flexible. I switch from performing solo recitals to quintet to orchestra all of the time, and having the different types of playing in my life enhances each one.

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

I think this depends on what stage the player is in — if the player is a beginner or if a more experienced player is looking for a new trumpet in general. This is different for every person, and just like teaching, each player needs a different prescription.

Personally, when I started, the band director encouraged my parents to get me a student model trumpet. However, my first teacher recommended a Yamaha professional model cornet. My dad believes that if you are going to do something, do it right. So, we went with the Yamaha cornet. I still have and perform on this instrument today when I play cornet solos.

I think we need to be careful to not get trapped in thinking that a bigger mouthpiece is better. Kari, my teacher as a teenager, warned me, but I was brainwashed by my young colleagues at the time that the 1C was the way to go. I played on this for years until Jens Lindemann made me throw it in the garbage. I tried a lot of different mouthpieces and ended up with a 5C. Now, my playing is much more flexible, I have more endurance, I can play fuller and louder in orchestra, my sound is more resonant, and even playing low soft octave entrances in orchestra playing second trumpet is easy. I think the mouthpiece size depends on a person’s dental structure and mouth shape. We need to find something that helps us resonate and be flexible.

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

My advice is to stay curious, and to stay inspired. I am certain I will still play for people for comments when I am 70! What is so great about music is that we get the chance to improve daily over our whole lives. We aren’t always the same.

Talent only goes so far. I live by a quote that is framed in my parents’ kitchen: “Everything cometh to he who waiteth, so long as he who waiteth, worketh like hell while he waiteth.”

Be careful if you tell a student what they can’t do. I admit, when teachers have told me that I can’t do something, I would get really angry and practice so much harder to prove them wrong. When I am mad, I tend to improve more and get more motivated. This may not be how most people respond. We need a mix of tough love and encouragement. When Jens Lindemann said he believed in me to become a soloist, that was the most important thing I needed to hear in that time to move forward.

Performance anxiety

Have you ever had a bad experience on stage?

Definitely! I think everyone has. One thing to remember: a bad performance doesn’t define who you are as a person or who you are as a player.

How should one take criticism?

I think it’s so important to develop a thick skin immediately. If you feel stung by someone’s criticism, to me, that means there is some truth to it. Make sure to self-reflect, and if someone makes a comment you don’t agree with, listen to your performance recording and make the decision if you hear what they may be talking about. If you hear the same comment from a few different people, but you still don’t hear the problem, make sure you dig and figure out what it might be. If more than one person perceives a bad habit, you should probably address it.

I am married to a trumpeter, David Dash. We always play for each other, and if he says, “sounds great,” I proceed to dig some criticism out of him. I want to constantly improve and be challenged. This attitude will go a long way.

In chamber music, we need to hear our colleagues’ comments, and keep an open mind. If your first instinct is to be defensive or blame someone after a comment is made, you probably need to do some deep self-reflection.

If a comment is coming from a troll on your YouTube channel, then it’s best to delete and ignore! Make sure you are only taking the criticism from reliable sources.

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 control it — I just make sure I am as prepared as I can be. Then no matter how nervous I feel, the performance usually goes well if I know what I want to say on the trumpet.

Also, don’t focus on performing perfectly. Focus on the musical phrasing and message. If something happens, like a cracked note, let it go and move on. My friend has a quote from Barbara Butler on his Facebook page that I absolutely love, “With every breath is a chance to start over.”

Any advice on preparing for auditions?

Be as prepared as you can be. Know the scores, focus on the musical message of each piece, know the styles, play mock auditions for as many people as possible, keep your chops healthy, make up different exercises for the excerpts that are hard for you, practice adversity training, use the Don Greene Performance Success book, and the list goes on and on…

Musical preferences

What kind of music do you listen to?

My playlist ranges from David Bowie — Mitsuko Uchida performing Mozart piano sonatas — Håkan Hardenberger — Boston BrassBlonde RedheadAidaTurangalîla Symphony — Pearl Jam.

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

David Bilger for sound. I love the works of Bach, Mahler, Debussy, Ravel, Messiaen. Debussy is probably my personal favorite composer.

Who is your favorite trumpet player?

I haven’t mentioned him yet, but my favorite since I was a kid is Sergei Nakariakov.

What is your favorite piece for trumpet?

Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2, and any other Bach pieces with high piccolo!

Sharing exercises with Trumpetland

Do you have any exercise you would like to share with the Premium members of Trumpetland?

My favorite exercises to work on are Clarke #3 and #4. I enjoy slurring every four notes, then I double tongue the next four. I make sure that the "ta-ka" syllables are extremely long in duration, even at a fast tempo.

Everyday is different, and I only go the tempo that allows me to play the notes as long as possible. I like to focus on the lower range, especially if my performances have more piccolo trumpet and high playing.

This keeps me flexible and nimble throughout all of the range of the trumpet. Since my performances tend to have a lot of high register playing, I feel balanced when I work on making the lower register solid.

Free download:

Exercise by Mary Bowden (PDF 76,35 KB) [Only Premium members]