Don’t be a Trumpet Player!

One of the surest ways to doom your trumpet career is to aspire to be a . Only a . If you try to be a musician, then you just might make it. And when I say, “make it,” I don’t necessarily mean “attain a career.” I mean something more like, “really enjoy yourself in a state of mastery.” Fortunately, the real money chases after those who obviously enjoy themselves in a state of mastery. The music is in your mind, and getting it out to the audience is . Some musicians use the trumpet as a tool to communicate, but we know them as musicians by the way that they communicate with us.

Thought is more important than physicality. All communication is done by language and diction–which are the very symbols of thought. Certainly, language and diction are more important than the way our mouth flaps open and closed while we talk. We intuitively know how to move our jaws, manipulate our lips and raise and lower our tongue to get the right sounds, so we don’t have to consciously command our mouth to move while we talk. Most of us are focused, instead, on the message. Hopefully, we are actually trying to communicate thought and emotion, which is the purpose of communication.

In the trumpet world, however, I see too many trumpeters overly concerned with equipment, which is like a speaker being overly concerned about whether their nasal cavity is too large to get a nice sound while speaking. If I were thinking about my nasal cavity, I would not remember what I was saying!

I also have observed trumpeters trying to hold an embouchure in a certain way while playing a solo. There are trumpeters focused on breathing instead of the piece they are playing. The embouchure is  critical. Breathing, also, is so important to our overall ability. But these types of fundamental elements should be habituated to the point that they are as natural as speaking our native language. They are habituated in our fundamental practice.  Even if we get the best equipment or technique we can for the job we have to do, our focus, during performance, should be on communication. On the music.

The good thing about focusing on the music, for me, is that it creates a bond between the audience and me. I feel that I am sharing a great thing with them. It is no longer about me and my chops. It is about the composers’ ideas. It is about my concept of the music. It is communication. And communication, done well, flows in both directions. Yes, the audience comes to hear me and my music. They will be ready to judge my performance. Fine. I need that, so they will pay attention. But I have done my preparation. I understand the music. I offer ideas. Rhetoric. Emotion. They will get that. They will respond and let me know that they get it. It is an awesome experience. I hope every trumpeter feels that experience.

Freddy Hubbard, American jazz trumpeter, played with unsurpassed technique and physicality, but this always seemed to take a back seat to his ability to communicate effectively with his audience.

An Interview with Trumpeter, Teacher, Conductor, and Writer, Elisa Koehler

Interview for Trumpet Journey on Nov. 16, 2012. Stanley Curtis is interviewer. 

Dr. Koehler shows off her vintage Seefeldt cornet.

Elisa Koehler is an Associate Professor of Music at Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland as well as the Music Director and Conductor of the Frederick Symphony Orchestra. She has performed and recorded professionally on trumpets both old and new with the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra, the Handel Choir of Baltimore, the Orchestra of the 17th Century, and Newberry’s Victorian Cornet Band. She studied at the Peabody Conservatory (DMA, Conducting; BM, Performance; BM, Music Education), and the University of Tennessee–Knoxville (MM, Performance). A member of the editorial staff of the International Trumpet Guild Journal since 2002, she has published widely about historic brass and is currently at work on two books: The Trumpet Family: Instruments, History, and Repertoire [working title] (Indiana University Press, forthcoming) and Dictionary for the Modern Trumpeter (Scarecrow Press, forthcoming). For more information:



Stan Curtis: I understand that you are active in many different areas of music making and education. Could you tell us a little about what you do?

Elisa Koehler: Sure. I’d be happy to. My primary job is teaching at Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland where I conduct the student orchestra and teach introductory courses in music theory, history and conducting as well as private trumpet lessons. I also spend a lot of time serving on faculty governance committees at the college and working on various writing projects. In addition to my work at Goucher, I serve as the Music Director and Conductor of the Frederick Symphony Orchestra (FSO), a semi–professional community orchestra in central Maryland. I still play the trumpet professionally on occasion, but have had to drastically cut back on freelancing as my faculty service workload, administrative work with FSO, and writing projects have increased over the past few years. The groups I still perform with these days include Baltimore’s Bach Concert Series, the Handel Choir Period Instrument Orchestra, and Newberry’s Victorian Cornet Band.


SC: How did you get interested in historic brass instruments?

EK: History was always my favorite subject in school as a kid and that probably had a lot to do with it. Growing up in the 1970s, I was captivated by all of the events surrounding the American Bicentennial in 1976 and I read everything I could get my hands on concerning history. Abraham Lincoln was my childhood hero (and still is), and I was deeply inspired by his life story. So, I guess from a philosophical perspective, you could say that I developed a love for reading and a fascination with the past at an early age. This naturally transferred to music when I began playing the trumpet.

When I began teaching at Goucher College, I met a faculty colleague, David Baum, who was also interested in early brass. He was extremely generous in letting me play some of his natural trumpets and putting me in touch with early brass resources. With the help of Goucher faculty development funds, I started attending summer workshops to learn more at the Oberlin Baroque Performance Institute, Amherst Early Music Festival, and HBS conferences. Through these connections, I obtained my own period instruments (natural trumpet, cornetto, and vented Baroque trumpets) and eventually started performing with period instrument groups in the Baltimore–Washington area.


SC: What kinds of modern and historic instruments do you play?

EK: My modern trumpets are the usual suspects: Bach B–flat (New York #7 Limited Edition), Bach C trumpet with R–leadpipe and rounded tuning slide, Schilke E–flat/D, Yamaha F/G trumpet, Kanstul piccolo (Signature Series in B–flat, A, G with removable bells and slides). I had an old Getzen Eterna piccolo (with Blackburn leadpipes) that I played up until recently and absolutely loved, but it’s really worn out now. I also play a Bundy shepherd’s crook cornet and a Getzen four–valve flugelhorn. Because I switch around a lot, my mouthpieces are smaller than when I played orchestral music full–time. For larger trumpets I play a Laskey 60B and on piccolo I use a Warburton 5SV with an 8* backbore. On cornet it’s a Denis Wick 5 and on flugel a Wick 4FL.

As for historic instruments, I currently play an Egger Baroque trumpet (three–hole model), a Tomes trumpet that doubles as a natural trumpet as well as a four–hole vented trumpet, and a Seraphinoff natural trumpet (double wrap, patterned after an early nineteenth–century orchestral trumpet). I use an Egger SI6 mouthpiece on the Egger and Seraphinoff trumpets, but find that an old Naumann “Clarino” mouthpiece (with stepped backbore) works well with the Tomes trumpet. I have two cornetti made by John McCann: one made of boxwood pitched at A=440 Hz and another made of plumwood pitched at A=466. Both are covered with black leather. My cornetto mouthpiece is an acorn model by John McCann that I really like a lot. My pride and joy is a genuine antique silver cornet I purchased on eBay that was made by William Seefeldt in Philadelphia (c. 1890) and came with a Seefeldt mouthpiece (a “Levy” model) in its original wooden case (complete with velvet lining stuffed with horse hair).


SC: Are your historic instruments modeled on actual museum instruments?

EK: The Egger and Tomes trumpets are both modeled after instruments made by Johann Leonard Ehe III (c. 1746) and the Seraphinoff trumpet is modeled after a trumpet by C. Missenharter from Ulm, Germany (c. 1820). The cornetti are based on Venetian models (c. 1600). The Seefeldt cornet is a genuine antique.


SC: What made you decide to write your first article for the ITG Journal?

EK: When I was learning how to play the natural trumpet and the modern Baroque trumpet with vent holes, it struck me that basic introductory information about approaching the instrument for beginners was not readily available. The first volume of Edward Tarr’s Art of the Baroque Trumpet had just been published, but it didn’t include coverage of vent holes. Michael Laird’s book (which had excellent coverage of vent holes) was only available on special order from the UK. So, as a result of my long personal quest for early brass information, I wanted to do what I could to “give back” and make sure other curious trumpeters could gain access to period instruments and learn to play them. I was pleasantly surprised to receive very kind letters and emails from Ed Tarr, Bob Barclay, Keith Johnson, and several others after that article so that encouraged me to write subsequent articles on the Hummel concerto, the cornetto, and related historic brass subjects.


SC: How do you fit time for writing into your work schedule?

EK: It’s just like practicing an instrument. Carve out a regular time (early morning in my case) and stick to it. Having a warm–up ritual that doesn’t require a lot of brainpower, like entering info into a database or citation software, helps to get the juices flowing. I’ve found that working with your own biorhythmic cycle helps, too. Some days are more productive than others and perfectionism can be paralyzing. There are enormous differences between researching, drafting, writing, and editing. The ability to recognize peak performance days for various tasks and slog through the inevitable down days without sacrificing productivity is essential. Time also needs to be set aside for formatting illustrations and managing permissions. Writing in prolonged binges is unhealthy and is almost always followed by an extended period of debilitating burnout (been there, done that). Just like the turtle in Aesop’s fable, slow and steady wins the race (or meets the deadline). I learned a lot of these techniques from Paul Silvia’s excellent book, How to Write a Lot.  Above all, regulate email usuage to prescribed periods only a few times a day. Multi–tasking is a myth; focused concentration is best.


SC: What writing project are you involved with now?

EK: I’m currently working on two book projects: The Trumpet Family: Instruments, History, and Repertoire [working title] for Indiana University Press and Dictionary for the Modern Trumpeter for Scarecrow Press. The first book manuscript is finished and is currently in the editing phase at IU Press. I’m not sure when it will be published, but probably sometime in 2013. The dictionary project is due on February 1, 2013, so I’m currently immersed in that work right now, thanks to a sabbatical leave from Goucher College this semester.


SC: What’s the process involved with getting a book published? How long does it take?

EK: It’s a lot like starting a small business, really. You have an idea and you market it to potential publishers (usually by submitting a book proposal with sample chapters), then you go through a review process, and if you’re successful, you earn a contract. Some authors submit a complete manuscript up front, while others sell an idea and promise to finish the manuscript by a stipulated deadline. Both of my books are operating on the latter schedule. Once the manuscript is submitted, it goes through a rigorous editing process that involves copy editing, corrections, and page proofs (formatted like the final published book). When the page proofs are finished (with reliable page numbers), the index is finally made. After that, the book goes into final production in order to make its way to bookstores. I’m really excited that my book for IU Press will be available in ebook format, too. This entire process can take anywhere from one to three years, depending on the circumstances.


SC: Do you think knowledge of early brass instruments enhances musicianship for trumpeters?

EK: Absolutely! Learning the natural trumpet is especially good for strengthening ear training skills and fundamental playing techniques, especially embouchure strength and airflow. On the other hand, learning the cornetto opens up a whole new world of interpretive possibilities for repertoire that trumpeters normally don’t play. Access to period instruments gives trumpeters a valuable perspective that helps them better understand the bulk of standard orchestral literature, especially music that was composed for instruments vastly different from the trumpets in use today.

SC: Thank you so much for your time, Elisa!

EK: You’re very welcome!


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