Interview with trumpeter Neil Brown

Neil Brown playing with the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra

Neil Brown (left) playing with the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra. (right: Paul Johnson)

Trumpeter Neil Brown enjoys a multi-faceted career as a performer, educator, composer, arranger, and bandleader. Currently a member of the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra, he is also the founder, principal composer, and trumpeter of the classical, jazz, and rock influenced group Phonic Wrinkle. Neil can frequently be heard playing with many Washington D.C. and Baltimore area ensembles including the National Philharmonic, Apollo Chamber Orchestra, Maryland Symphony, Peacherine Ragtime Orchestra, Concert Artists of Baltimore, and Tryos Ensemble.

Originally from Guilford, Connecticut, Neil earned his Bachelor and Master of Music degrees from the University of Maryland and was a member of the United States Navy Band in Washington D.C. from 2009-2013. He attended the National Orchestral Institute, Colorado College Summer Music Festival, Las Vegas Music Festival, and Boston University Tanglewood Institute. As an educator, he has performed numerous educational concerts, presented masterclasses at both the university and high school levels, served on the faculty of the Suitland Performing Arts High School and the Sheridan School, and leads a private trumpet studio. Neil’s teachers include Chris Gekker, Steven Hendrickson, and Allan Dean.




Bb trumpet: Bach Stradivarius 180ML 43
C trumpet: Yamaha YTR-9445CHS Chicago
Eb/D: Schilke E3L
Piccolo: Kanstul Custom Class
Rotary: Ricco Kühn T053/C
Flugelhorn: Yamaha 631G

Bb/C/Eb: Bach 1 ½ C with 24 throat
Cornet: Laskey 75SB
Piccolo: Laskey P50
Rotary: Yamaha 16E4


Interview with trumpeter Neil Brown

The Interviewer is Stanley Curtis


Trumpeter Neil Brown playing with Phonic Wrinkle

Trumpeter Neil Brown playing with Phonic Wrinkle

SC: How did you get interested in music? Who were some of your initial influences and teachers? What other things were you interested in when you were young?


NB: I was extremely fortunate to grow up in a school system in Guilford, Connecticut that required all students to either sing in choir or play in the band or orchestra when they entered 5th grade. I have an older brother and had attended several of his middle school band concerts, so by the time I reached 5th grade, I was very excited at the prospect of playing in the band. Though my initial first choice for an instrument was the drums, I settled on the trumpet after the band director gently redirected my interests. My classmates had an overwhelming demand to play drums and in an act of balancing the band I was fortuitously assigned to the trumpet section. Looking back, this ended up being one of the most important choices of my life as it is hard for me to imagine playing a different instrument other than the trumpet.


SC: When did you get really interested in the trumpet? Who were your most important teachers? What sorts of experiences were critical to you becoming a professional trumpeter?

NB: I led a fairly normal childhood with a strong interest in sports, particularly basketball and baseball. I enjoyed playing the trumpet, though not as much as sports, and I practiced regularly, but sometimes only because it was a valid reason for putting off homework. Gradually in late middle school or early high school I began to take the trumpet much more seriously. I really enjoyed the process of improving on the instrument and started listening to many kinds of music in addition to the popular music on the radio, particularly classical and jazz. I had an especially influential middle school band director, Eric Gerhardt, who happened to be a trumpet player and former student of Chris Gekker. He had been a freelance trumpeter in New York before arriving in my town in Connecticut and really expanded my perspective of excellent music and fine trumpet playing. Together with inspiration from listening to great musicians, terrific guidance from my music teachers, and a great group of friends that I played music with, I began to strongly feel that a career in music was what I wanted.

In college, I studied with Chris Gekker and Steven Hendrickson at the University of Maryland. I cannot even begin to express the level of gratitude I feel towards them for all of the knowledge and inspiration they bestowed upon me during lessons, not to mention the fine examples of musicianship and professionalism each demonstrated through his active performance career.


MU1 Neil Brown playing "Taps" at Arlington National Cemetery

MU1 Neil Brown playing “Taps” at Arlington National Cemetery

SC: You served in the U.S. Navy Band for one enlistment. What did you like about the band? Why did you leave?

NB: The Navy Band was a great job and I was truly fortunate to play amongst so many fine musicians. One of the most important and meaningful aspects of the job was to play Taps for funerals at Arlington National Cemetery. Each performance meant so much to the families of the service member and it was a great honor to play for people who had often sacrificed so much in their service. Though there were many other aspects of the job—playing concerts for the public, performing at important Navy ceremonies, formally welcoming foreign dignitaries with our music, even playing for the President on occasion—rendering Taps for service members, for me, was the most important part of being a trumpet player in the Navy Band.

Playing "Taps" at Ft. McHenry (Maryland) at anniversary of the battle with the British Navy when Francis Scott Key penned the "Star Spangled Banner"

Playing “Taps” at Ft. McHenry (Maryland) at anniversary of the battle with the British Navy when Francis Scott Key penned the “Star Spangled Banner”

The decision to leave the Navy Band was very difficult and only made after considerable thought. Ultimately, though, I had aspirations for my musical career that I had to pursue. I wanted to spend more time performing in orchestras, playing chamber music, and teaching. Most of all, I wanted the opportunity to lead my own group. A group for which I could compose music, provide the musical direction, and feel a sense of ownership. I left my nice steady job with the Navy Band and jumped off the cliff into independence, an uncertain future, and full pursuit of my dreams.



SC: You have an interest in fitness and nutrition. What are your views on staying in shape and eating right. Does this regimen help your trumpet playing?

NB: I have an interest in living a healthy lifestyle both for the long-term benefits and the present day advantage of feeling better throughout day to day activities, but I am not a doctor and wouldn’t try to play one, even on a trumpet blog! I know of many fantastic trumpet players that don’t put a strong emphasis on nutrition, so I would not say that it is a particularly impactful aspect of trumpet playing. I will just mention briefly, and this is nothing revelatory, that I think it can be beneficial to minimize heavily processed foods, particularly heavily processed carbohydrates, and increase the intake of foods that are high in omega-3 fatty acids such as fish or avocado. These diet choices may have a small impact on trumpet playing as processed carbohydrates are often linked to elevated levels of inflammation throughout the body, which for trumpet players can mean slower healing from a heavy day of playing or more swollen chops. Of course the greater factors are taking care to not overdo your practicing and managing the demands of a tough rehearsal or concert intelligently, but when you do those to the best of your ability perhaps diet would be one more tool to add.



Phonic Wrikle: L to R, Kyle Augustine, Paul Keesling, Neil Brown, Nick Montopoli, Natalie Spehar

Phonic Wrikle: L to R, Kyle Augustine, Paul Keesling, Neil Brown, Nick Montopoli, Natalie Spehar

SC: Tell me about your most recent project(s).

NB: Phonic Wrinkle has been a really fun and interesting project. I started the group about a year ago and we made our debut on a recital at University of Maryland. I compose or arrange most of the music we play, and I play trumpet in the group. Phonic Wrinkle consists of five musicians: trumpet, violin, cello, electric bass, and drums. I think we have crafted a unique sound both from our unusual instrumentation and by combining elements of classical, jazz, and rock music, but we are not so progressive that our music is esoteric. We want to connect with listeners on an emotional level, and we hope people can really enjoy our music and be moved. I am fortunate to work with four other fantastic musicians and friends in the group, and I think collectively Phonic Wrinkle has tremendous potential. My vision is that we will continue to grow our audience, do more recording, and hopefully some touring in the future.

Tryos Ensemble: L to R, Kevin Businsky, Neil Brown, Kevin McKee, Hyojin Ahn

Tryos Ensemble: L to R, Kevin Businsky, Neil Brown, Kevin McKee, Hyojin Ahn

I also play in a chamber group with a great group of friends called the Tryos Ensemble. The group takes form in a few different instrumentations, one of which consists of three trumpets and piano and another as a trumpet and cello duo. We have been playing recitals, weddings and other events. There is not a large repertoire for these instrumentations so I have done quite a bit of arranging, which has been time consuming but rewarding. Some of the real classic wedding pieces, despite being overplayed, are really beautiful pieces of music and as a trumpet player it is a real joy to get to play them.

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Trio illumino: L to R, Neil Brown, Virginia Lum, Stephen Czarkowski. Photo credit: Bruce Vartan Boyajian

Trio illumino: L to R, Neil Brown, Virginia Lum, Stephen Czarkowski. Photo credit: Bruce Vartan Boyajian



Recently I have also begun performing with a group called Trio illumino, consisting of trumpet, cello, and piano. There are a few fantastic pieces written for this instrumentation including substantial works by Eric Ewazen and Carson Cooman, and I have also done some arrangements ranging from the Bartok violin duos to music from the Brazilian composer Pixinguinha.





SC: What do you see yourself doing in 5 years?

NB: The unpredictability of a career in music is both curse and a blessing. Though stability can be in short supply, every day brings a new exciting project or group to play with and life rarely gets boring. I don’t know what twists and turns my career will take, but I do have some definite goals to pursue. I would like Phonic Wrinkle to continue to grow. I would like to write more music for the group and I hope our music can really connect with our audience. I also really enjoy working with my good friends in the Tryos Ensemble and Trio illumino and hope these groups continue to be increasingly active. I will continue playing orchestral music and always cherish any opportunity to play with any of the fine orchestras in the Washington D.C. area. Lastly, I have really begun to enjoy teaching trumpet. I may pursue teaching at the college level some day, but for now I am getting great satisfaction and am learning a tremendous amount from my students.


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Re-thinking jazz and classical music

I recently read an op-ed in the Washington Post,All that jazz isn’t all that great by Justin Moyer, and it brought to my mind a lot of old conversations and thoughts that I have had about the place of jazz (and classical music) in our culture. Moyer’s piece is a critique against jazz in general. I both agreed and disagreed with Moyer’s views.

Louis Armstrong established his legacy by both playing the trumpet and singing

Louis Armstrong established his legacy by both playing the trumpet and singing

His first point that “Jazz takes great songs — and abandons the lyrics that help make them great,” is partially true. Most jazz today is based on instrumental versions of standards that used to have lyrics. Not wanting to get too bogged down in the fact that there are many great jazz recordings and performances of vocalists, it should be noted that classical music, too, is largely instrumental. Craig Wright, in Listening to Music, writes that “about 80 percent of the Western classical repertoire is instrumental.” Wright attributes the rise in instrumental music to the growing popularity of playing instruments in taverns and homes in the 17th and 18th century. I propose that the rise in jazz popularity in the mid-20th century was also due to the large number of very competent amateurs who could easily play the popular songs of the day and understand the sound of the basic harmonic changes underneath the vocals. Their familiarity with great songs helped create a fantastic backdrop for an appreciation of, and love for, jazz instrumental renditions of popular songs.

The problem today is that there are fewer homes with pianos or other instruments that are played on a regular basis with enough competence to entertain the family. There isn’t enough musical vocabulary understood by the common person of today. I would venture to say that there isn’t even a desire to have live music in homes today. This is, of course, due to the ease in which we can get any recording today for instant gratification. Nobody is compelled to make the effort to learn how to play for the entertainment of friends and family at home.

Moyer’s second point that “improvisation isn’t all it’s cracked up to be” is weak, while taking a needless swipe at Wes Montgomery, the great jazz guitarist. In my opinion, improvisation IS all it’s cracked up to be. Moreover, if there were more improvisation in ALL genres of music, then I think there would be a lot more joyful music making and appreciation. I believe improvisation is none other than the remedy to the decline of today’s music industry. It’s just too easy for everyone to have a favorite tune, to like it only the way it’s recorded, and to only like cover bands that play the tune exactly that way. This mindset has been formulated mainly by the recording industry, which made a huge profit selling people definitive recordings, and by music conservatories and competitions that have promoted correct execution of the musical score over individual freedom. Well, with streaming music today, that profit for the recording industry and the musicians themselves is woefully diminished, and classical orchestras and bands are in great decline. It’s time to start pulling away, at least a little bit, from definitive recordings and scores and to start embracing spontaneous, improvised performances. The difficulty, of course, is that this notion sets the standard higher than most musicians want to go. It depends on developing much better “ears” and knowledge of how the music is constructed. It also tends to by-pass conservatories, at least in the way that they are structured today.

Renaissance wind ensembles improvised their performances in large part

Renaissance wind ensembles improvised their performances in large part

It’s useful, by the way, to point out that classical composers such as Brahms, Mozart, Beethoven, Handel and Bach all were exceptional improvisers. Indeed, an accomplished wind band of the 16th century would have all of their repertoire memorized, and they would decorate their part to such an extent that we would call it improvisation. They called it making “divisions.”


To become a spontaneous, original, improvising musician, you have to listen to others, break down their musical ideas into small portions,  paraphrase these ideas, and then develop the ability to originate your own ideas within the musical language in which you have been working. This is a long process with high demands, but great rewards.

Schoenberg, a masterful composer, is best known now for "inventing" 12-tone serialism

Schoenberg, a masterful composer, is best known now for “inventing” 12-tone serialism

Moyer’s third point is that “Jazz stopped evolving.” This brings up a very important issue that runs contrary to the jazz and classical worlds’ notion that greatness comes in large part from doing something fundamentally new. There is nothing wrong with new ideas in music, but it is just too easy for the human brain to artificially construct an evolution of musical language. And the critics just love to say things like, “Miles Davis introduced the world to cool jazz.” Or, “serialism began primarily with Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique.”

Clifford Brown, one of my favorite jazz trumpeters of all time.

Clifford Brown, one of my favorite jazz trumpeters of all time.

To be able to pin a new trend to someone is just too tempting. Unfortunately, this fascination with music evolution tends to crowd out great artists that were not necessarily innovative in that way (such as hard-bob trumpeter Clifford Brown, British 20th-century classical composer Vaughan Williams, or even J.S. Bach). Innovation is important and needs to be recognized, but beautifully working out one’s personal approach to a musical language should be equally prized. I’m sure there are young composers and jazz artists out there that are afraid to embrace old genres for fear of not being taken seriously as an innovator.

Jazz great Winton Marsalis has let his musical language develop organically. His authenticity has captured the hearts of young and old alike

Jazz great Winton Marsalis has let his musical language develop organically. His authenticity has captured the hearts of young and old alike.


And here I think it is important to point out that Wynton Marsalis is a shining example of a jazz musician that has revived a general public interest in jazz by embracing older styles of jazz and creating a fresh approach to this music. Respighi, Hindemith and Stravinsky were all heavily inspired by Renaissance and Baroque examples, and their music continues to inspire listeners with their grasp of older genres. It comes across as authentic and masterful.

Moyer’s fourth point, that “Jazz is mushy,” rambles on about a number of points. He points out that there are non-musical things that are equated to jazz: President Obama once described his own style of speaking as being “like jazz.” And author Jack Kerouac “may be the closest thing we have to a ‘jazz writer.’” Moyer’s statement brings to my mind another interesting point about artificial vs. organic artistic “evolution.”

Screen Shot 2014-08-13 at 12.22.27 PMIf you were to go to a library and browse any number of literature genres, you would notice, by and large, a tendency to use the English language in a very recognizable way. Grammar would be mostly correct (and please go easy on my own use of grammar!), and vocabulary would not normally need to go beyond the top 20,000 words (although there are hundreds of thousands of words in the English language). This is true of popular fiction, biography and even scholarly articles. Even most poetry uses recognizable constructions. We do not ask that English literature evolve artificially to some unrecognizable form (even non-sensical poems such as Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” and stream-of-consciousness novels such as Joyce’s Ulysses are largely understandable). So why, I ask, do we put this terrible onus on jazz and classical music to be new and different? Why do we insist on jazz reaching it’s “logical” conclusion in the “free jazz” of musicians such as Ornette Coleman? Why do we snub modern tonal-like or modal classical music as being dilettante-ish? Let’s everybody relax and enjoy the communication of a living musical language that is SHARED between the artist and the audience. There are countless more pieces that could be masterful and innovative in musical languages that seem “dead,” like, for instance, the baroque language of Bach.

Moyer’s final point, “Jazz let itself be co-opted” brings up the danger of getting too conservative. He writes, “this music has retreated from the nightclub to the academy. It is shielded from commercial failure by the American cultural-institutional complex, which hands out grants and degrees to people like me. Want to have a heated discussion about “Bitches Brew” or the upper partials? White guys wielding brass in Manhattan and New England are ready to do battle.” While it is true that jazz has been fetishized by many white intellectuals and largely ignored by young blacks, it would be nice to gently lay aside these racial aspects that divide us. Can’t we all just get along and enjoy the musical language for what it is? It’s a living language available for all to communicate with. On the other hand, I have to ask myself why is it that you can find a jazz studies program in hundreds of American music schools, but you can hardly find any school that might nurture your interest in Rock, dance music, pop and Hip-hop (perhaps with the exception of Berklee College of Music)? The answer to this question is that we are not willing to be spontaneous and profound with our education. We are not willing to really educate our children and youth in how to communicate with music. From elementary and middle school music programs up to graduate schools in music, we take the easy way out. We encourage a quickly-learned ensemble performance without engaging students in how to improvise or compose or even understand the music that is performed. If a band director can demonstrate to his boss, the principal, that some students learned to play “Hot Cross Buns” at the convocation or the “back to school night” then everything is okay. We insist on students writing English essays, but we don’t care about their ability to compose and communicate in music and the arts in general.


Kids Compose! allows hundreds of schoolchildren between second and sixth grades from Monroe County to use their imagination to compose melodies

Kids Compose! allows hundreds of schoolchildren between second and sixth grades from Monroe County to use their imagination to compose melodies

How about this idea? Let’s have a group of students compose, under the guidance of a teacher, their own musical, opera or song. (An example of this is the “Kids Compose!” project in Bloomington, Indiana). Let’s have a young musician, who is learning how to play the flute, improvise over some simple chords. Let’s communicate with our artform!

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Back from a Long Vacation

First performance of "Night Passages," my concerto for trumpet and orchestra

Premier performance of “Night Passages,” my for trumpet and orchestra (February 9, 2014; photo by Angela Anderson)

Except for four gratifying interviews with some great trumpeters (Tine Thing Helseth, Chris Sala, C.J. Camerieri, and Brant Tilds), I haven’t posted on Trumpet Journey since September of 2013. I did remain busy, however. I composed and performed a concerto for trumpet (doubling on flugelhorn and piccolo trumpet) and orchestra.


Bach historian Christoff Wolff and me after a Washington Bach Consort concert at Kenyon College

Bach historian and me after a Washington Bach Consort concert at Kenyon College





The Natural Trumpet Making Workshop (with teachers Dr. Robert Barclay and Richard Seraphinoff, standing)

The (with teachers Dr. Robert Barclay and Richard Seraphinoff, standing)



I also played a lot of baroque trumpet and cornetto, and did things like visiting the Natural Trumpet Making Workshop and the organ making workshop of Taylor and Boody.

George Taylor demonstrating making an organ pipe at the Taylor and Boody workshop in Staunton, Virginia

George Taylor demonstrating making an organ pipe at the workshop in Staunton, Virginia




But my lack of new posts hasn’t stopped readers from visiting my blog. Since September, 2013, there have been more than 46,000 new visitors logging on the Trumpet Journey site. Previously, I had only 16,000 visitors for the first year of Trumpet Journey’s existence. That’s a huge increase! Thanks, thanks, thanks!


In the next year or so, I hope to keep my focus on getting and flourishing in trumpet jobs. I will continue to publish my popular but controversial Top 10 lists. Of course, there will be more interviews. And I will finish publishing my dissertation. In addition, I hope to publish some of my compositions on Trumpet Journey (for free of course!). More interviews, more practice tips, more history, more baroque trumpet, cornett, more pleas for authenticity, and some silliness are to come.

Blog Sabbatical for Trumpet Concerto Project

On my post, Ambitious New Resolution for Trumpet Journey, I wrote:

I promise to publish one new post per day for the next forty-six days–from today, August 2, 2013, until Friday, September 27, 2013, which is the One-Year Anniversary of Trumpet Journey


Now I realize that I need to modify that promise, because I have to finish a trumpet that I have been putting off. I am really excited about this piece, and I cannot wait to have it finished! So I am planning on taking at least a few week’s vacation.

The trumpet piece, a for trumpet and orchestra, is called Night Passages and will premiere in February, 2014 with the Washington Metropolitan Philharmonic under Ulysses James. I have finished sketching the first movement called “Night Fall,” which features the flugelhorn with a lot of pedal notes, and I am currently working on the sketch of the second movement, “Night Walk.” The third movement will be called “Night Club.”

Here’s a midi file “recording” of the first movement sketch, so you can get an idea of this composition. As the “sun” sets musically, listen for the “stars” (bell-like instruments) to start to appear. Shortly after this, you’ll hear a trombone-like instrument, which is the flugel playing in the pedal register. Part of this composition was inspired from a previous piece I wrote for my 13-year-old son, who is a fabulous violinist. Of course, a lot of the orchestration is still unfinished.

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As I look back over the last month, this blog has gone from an average of 8 unique visits a day to about 100 visits a day. My favorite posts have been the ones which triggered thoughtful and heartfelt comments. There are some other exciting projects that I am looking forward to on Trumpet Journey later on: more interviews, some posts written by some of my students, literature review, and other projects.




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Interview with Jonathan Barnes, Jazz Trumpeter

Lars Halle Jazz Orchestra: Matt Gallagher (L), Jonathan Barnes (R). Photo credit: Dave Jackson

Lars Halle Jazz Orchestra: Matt Gallagher (L), Jonathan Barnes (R). Photo credit: Dave Jackson

Jonathan Barnes is a native of the Baltimore area. After earning a Bachelor of Music in jazz studies from Rowan University, he went on to study with Jon Faddis and Scott Wendholt at Manhattan School of Music, where he earned a Master of Music in jazz performance.

Splitting his time between New York City and Philadelphia, he has performed with diverse artists such as Bernadette Peters, Simone, John Fedchock, and Dick Oatts. In addition, he has recorded with the Grammy-nominated Bobby Sanabria Big Band and, most recently, for the soundtrack of Ken Burns’ documentary on the Roosevelts. Always willing to share his passion for music, he has taught masterclasses, private lessons, and courses in music theory and music appreciation at Rowan University. He joined the U. S. Navy Band in 2012 as a member of the Commodores Jazz Ensemble.

In his free time, Barnes enjoys biking, kayaking, cooking, and spending time with family.


Bb trumpets:

    • Benge 3X (gold plated LA body, raw brass Burbank bell)
    • Bach 37 (stock)

Bb Mouthpieces:

    • Laskey 75C for most styles
    • Reeves 43.5M 692s for Latin/lead

Flugel: Yamaha “Bobby Shew”. Flugel Mouthpieces: Wick 2FL; Laskey 75F

C trumpet: Bach 229 25H

Piccolo trumpet: French Besson/Kanstul. Picc. Mouthpiece: Laskey 65P


    • Straight mutes: Leblanc Vacchiano, Denis Wick, TrumCor metal, lyric stealth, and lyric
    • Cup mutes: Humes & Berg stonelined, Ray Robinson, Shastock, Denis Wick
    • Harmon mutes: JoRal aluminum & copper, Walt Johnson “Miles mute”, TrumCor aluminum
    • Plunger: Kirkhill is the name of the manufacturer of these toilet plungers. These are so hard to find but the shape is perfect!
    • Bucket: Humes & Berg, EZ Bucket, Soulo mute
    • Humes & Berg solo tone




Interview with Jonathan Barnes, jazz trumpeter.

The interviewer is Stanley Curtis


SC: Jon, thanks so much agreeing to do this interview!

JB: My pleasure!


SC: You’re a fantastic jazz musician, but you’re also a trumpet player—would you mind sharing with us what you do to develop your trumpet playing from day to day?

Bobby Sanabria Big Band recording session (from left to right: Shareef Clayton, Kevin Bryan, Jonathan Barnes, Andrew Neesley). Photo credit: Jazzheads (record label)

Bobby Sanabria Big Band recording session (from left to right: Shareef Clayton, Kevin Bryan, Jonathan Barnes, Andrew Neesley). Photo credit: Jazzheads (record label)

JB: My fundamentals routine is very important to me on a daily basis. I feel that, if my fundamentals are working properly, then everything else (jazz, etc.) falls into place.

I like to break my practice up into several short sets per day (about 20-25 min each). I have found that this works well for two reasons. One, I can focus each session on a particular “problem” of playing, and two, it allows time for the chops to rest after each session.

I usually start my day with some lip flapping, massaging, and buzzing (gets the blood flowing), then go into Richard Shuebruk’s lip trainer exercises [Shuebruk’s Complete Lip Trainers]. These involve isolated attacks (removing the horn after each one and then replacing it one beat before the next attack) and interval studies. Then I’ll try to play through a simple lyrical etude, such as the ones by [Giuseppe] Concone. I used to do a lot more mouthpiece buzzing in my first set of the day, but changed over to the lip trainers. I feel like these help me to get my good habits going quickly, and with a minimal amount of face time, allowing for better endurance to get through whatever other playing I may have lined up for the day. I may switch back to more buzzing at some point, but this is working for me now. I think the important thing is to not get stuck in a rut, where I become complacent with any group of exercises and cease to maintain the proper focus required to play them correctly!

My second set of the day usually consists of one of the [Herbert L.] Clarke Technical Studies, or a short routine from Schlossberg’s method book [Daily Drills and Technical Studies]. Every once in a while, I’ll try to play through all of the etudes at the end of each Clarke study.

Usually one of the last things I work on in any day that I practice is lip flexibility. I alternate between Irons, Colin, Arban, and Shuebruk.

Other things I try to touch on each day are tonguing (usually worked into the Clarke studies), orchestral excerpts, and etudes such as those by Charlier, Bordogni, Bousquet, Arban (the “Characteristic Studies”), and others.


SC: What about your approach to studying jazz on a routine basis?

JB: My jazz practice routine is pretty hard to nail down. When I was first learning the language of jazz, I would practice scales every day. Major, three typical forms of minor, dorian, mixolydian, bebop, octatonic, whole tone, etc. I would take as many of these as I could through the cycle of fourths in order to get through all 12 keys on each scale. I would practice these with the articulation pattern as described by John McNeil in his book (can’t remember the title!) [The Art of Jazz Trumpet]. Essentially, doo-doo-yoo-doo-yoo-doo-yoo-doo-yoo…, keeping the eighth notes as even and connected as possible. It is important to try NOT to swing the eighth notes. Let the articulation itself set the style, and keep the eighth notes straight. In college, I also did a fair amount of transcribing of solos. I eventually learned that it worked best for me to learn them by ear and memorize them in my head first, then write them down second. I found that, when writing them out as I learned them, I was unable to ingrain them as well. Also, I learned lots and lots of jazz standards by listening to recordings and attempting to learn them by ear as much as possible. If I got stuck, I would consult a lead sheet. Again, I found that I was able to ingrain them better in this way. Trying to learn them by memorizing a piece of sheet music does very little for one’s ear training!

These days, my jazz practice is much more about listening. I listen to the music all the time (as I did in college), but have found that by training my ear well during my college days, I can pick up a lot more now just by listening. Often, I will take conceptual ideas that I hear during a solo and try to apply them in my own way. Some of the more technical things I will practice from time to time include triadic patterns (over upper extensions of chords), pentatonic patterns, and intervallic patterns (a la Woody Shaw). This is great ear training and helps me to get out of playing the more conventional scalar lines that we trumpet players love to play. I think personal taste needs to guide what you decide to practice. If you like bebop, transcribe bebop lines and tunes. If you like more modern sounds, practice pentatonics and larger interval lines (fourths, fifths, sixths, sevenths). I personally like a little of everything, so I try to incorporate as much as I can into my melodic ideas.

Click here for Jon Barnes’ transcription of Woody Shaw’s solo on “Isabel the Liberator”

Click here for Barnes’ technical analysis of Shaw’s solo

A huge aspect of practicing jazz is to get familiar with playing chords and bass lines on the piano. Once I began studying this IN EARNEST, my ear became much more open. There are so many different chord colors and variations that it is not enough to know how to play the “right” mode on the “right” chord. Off the top of my head, I can think of four or five different colors to play on a major seventh chord. This came from learning how to voice chords on the piano.

Presently, something that I do much more than transcribing solos is to transcribe tunes. I have been trying to learn modern (such a broad term!) tunes by ear. For example, some of the composers I really like are Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, and Tom Harrell. I’ll often write the tunes out and then try to analyze how they constructed the tune. Form, harmony, melody, rhythm, etc. Learning how to voice chords on the piano was a major help in learning to transcribe tunes. You will become familiar with how certain chords sound and then they become (sometimes instantly) recognizable when you hear them in a tune.

Click this link to hear Jonathan play a solo on “Zavo Brulo.” After listening, click the back arrow to come back to the interview (this is an original chart by Rob Holmes recorded for an upcoming U. S. Navy Band Commodores album; the changes are based on Alan Brandt’s 1952 tune “That’s All”)

JClick this link to hear Jonathan soloing on “La Cosa Latina.” After listening, click the back arrow to come back to the interview (this is an original chart by Phil Berlin recorded for the upcoming Commodores album)

SC: You are now making a name for yourself as an arranger for the Navy Band Commodores Jazz Ensemble.

Musician First Class Jonathan Barnes

Musician First Class Jonathan Barnes

JB: Big band writing was something that I had not done much of before joining the Commodores. I had one class in undergrad and one class in my master’s that focused on arranging, but the master’s class focused more on small group arranging. It is also very hard to hear the results of one’s writing in college when there are not very many opportunities to get with a big band during class! So, when I got the gig here, I knew that I’d like to work on big band writing once again. It’s amazing to have (readily available) a group of musicians who can sight-read and play at such a high level.



SC: What is your method for writing a big band chart?

JB: My process for writing a big band arrangement is to start with a written outline of how I’d like the chart to progress. I never think about this being set in stone, and I’ll often change lots of things along the way, but it does help me to get an overall idea of how I’d like to proceed. It might look something like this:

  • Intro-ensemble
  • A section- small group of mixed horns
  • bridge- saxes
  • last A- brass
  • sax soli
  • solo section (backgrounds last time)
  • interlude-bones
  • solo section (with send-off)
  • shout chorus
  • head out
  • outro


Essentially it’s just a rough written sketch. This works for me, but not for everyone! I would encourage any young writer to find the process that works for them.

Things I think about, as I’m actually writing the tune, are pacing (building up to a climax, resolving the climax, etc.), voicings (what kind of colors do I want to portray? open, tight, ethereal, etc.), color combinations (unique instrument groupings, mutes, rhythm section pairings with ensemble), and range. As far as melodic lines in the arrangement are concerned, I like to use motifs from the original tune in the soli and shout sections. I will often sing soli sections back to myself and make changes accordingly. I like to write solis as if I’m playing a solo myself over the chord changes.


SC: Who were your influences on your playing?

JB: One of the earliest jazz albums I can remember owning was Arturo Sandoval’s I Remember Clifford. Shortly thereafter, I got Clifford’s Study in Brown. This would have been around 9th or 10th grade. Clifford Brown was definitely one of the catalysts in getting me interested in jazz, but I remember being incredibly intimidated by the lines that he would play. I had many limitations on the trumpet itself, so I never even attempted trying to play what he played. I don’t even think I knew that transcribing a solo was something that jazz musicians would do!

My high school band director, Joe Fischer, was a huge influence in getting me interested in jazz. He was able to get Jazz Band established as a class during the day, so I loved going to that on a regular basis. He would play different recordings for us and have us read all sorts of charts. It was around this time (late high school) that I began attempting to improvise in any serious manner; however, I still had no direction in practicing improvisation. I began taking lessons with a jazz trumpet teacher (Gary Dailey) my senior year of high school. He helped set me on the right path regarding some chop issues I had, and began to open doors for me regarding improvisation. I believe he was the first one to introduce chord-scale theory to me, and I believe that he also taught me about transcribing. Regardless, I don’t think I transcribed my first solo until my freshman year of college.

Enter one of my biggest influences: George Rabbai. George is on the adjunct faculty at Rowan University, where I did my undergrad work. George has played with all sorts of big names in jazz, including Woody Herman, Rosemary Clooney, John Fedchock, and Michael Feinstein. He is probably the most tasteful jazz trumpet player I have ever heard, and definitely has the best ears of almost anyone I have met. George introduced me to practically all of my major influences in jazz trumpet: Blue Mitchell, Kenny Dorham, Donald Byrd, Freddie Hubbard, Chet Baker, Clark Terry, Art Farmer, Woody Shaw, and the list goes on! He would assign transcriptions to me, and then check them over fastidiously during our lessons. He never missed a wrong note that I may have overlooked! George also furthered my knowledge of chord-scale theory although he plays primarily by ear himself. My fondest memories are hanging out with him listening to those Sinatra recordings with Nelson Riddle’s arrangements. We would talk about swing, style, and the importance of melody. We still do to this day!

SC: If you had to pick just one trumpet player who influenced you the most, who would it be?

JB: If I had to pick one jazz trumpet player as my biggest influence, it would have to be Blue Mitchell. I have always loved his sound, phrasing, and melodic lines. Some of my favorite recordings include Blue’s Moods, Smooth as the Wind, and Boss Horn.

Click here for Jon Barnes’ transcription of Blue Mitchell’s solo on “I’ll Close my Eyes”

SC: Jon, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts on jazz and trumpet playing!

JB: It was a pleasure!

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