Lessons from a Lead Trumpet Player

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while, but am just now getting around to it.  The week before Thanksgiving, our brass players were treated to a guest master class and performance by Mike Williams, lead trumpet player of the famed Count Basie Orchestra for the last 25 years. Mr. Williams is originally from Shreveport, LA, and was in the area for a series of performances and master classes. If you haven’t heard of Mike Williams, check out the embedded YouTube video below [unfortunately, the band he is soloing with was not credited in the video].

Why, you might ask,  would a classically-trained (except for an introductory level improv class in grad school) horn player be interested in a master class like this?  Well, aside from being in awe at the power and style in his playing, I really wanted to find out if there was anything from the master class that could be applied to horn playing.  From the start, Mr. Williams was incredibly friendly,  and very down to earth. He spent several minutes explaining how he got into this particular line of work, and how he’s been able to stay at the top of his game for so many years.  Besides being a fantastic player, he has obviously put a lot of thought into pedagogical issues.  I’ve heard lead trumpet players before, but this was the first time I’d heard one speak about how they do what they do.  Surprisingly – at least to me – he mentioned a number of things which fell right in line with my own training on the horn.  There is sometimes a perception that jazz players haven’t thought out their technique and approach to playing as well as classical players, but in this case it simply wasn’t true. Here are some of the important concepts he pointed to in his playing and teaching.

  • The air moves, and the lips vibrate. I can’t remember if this is an Arnold Jacobs quote, but it certainly could be.  Though these kinds of aphorisms can sometimes leave out the complexities of brass playing, they are wonderful for getting us to see the big picture.
  • Even when playing in the highest register, stay relaxed.  This was very interesting to hear from a lead player, but it actually makes a lot of sense.  He also pointed out that even when playing a double C (and higher), he still feels relaxed and open in his throat.
  • Let the cheeks [corners] do the work, and keep the aperture relaxed. Although Mr. Williams didn’t use the word corners, I took his statement to mean that the surrounding muscles of the embouchure should bear the bulk of the burden, rather than overtensing the lips  themselves. This is a concept I am continually working on, and one that my former teacher Doug Hill taught.

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