Interview with Steve Hendrickson, former Principal Trumpet of NSO

Steve Hendrickson with President Bill Clinton

Steve Hendrickson with President Bill Clinton, 2000

Steven Hendrickson is the former Principal Trumpet (and now Assistant Principal) of the National Symphony Orchestra. He graduated from Iowa’s Luther College in 1973 with a degree in music and philosophy. Further study followed with some of the world’s leading brass players, including Adolf Herseth, William Scarlett, and Arnold Jacobs. Before joining the NSO in 1982, he was a leading freelance musician in Chicago, performing with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Lyric Opera, and the Chicago Brass Ensemble, while working as a broker on the Chicago Stock Exchange. He has appeared as soloist with the National Symphony Orchestra performing Bach, Vivaldi, Arutunian, Persichetti, and, most recently, the Haydn Trumpet Concerto. His 2006 recording for MRS Classics features works from the Baroque to the contemporary. Accompanied by organist William Neil and pianist Myriam Avalos-Teie, the recording includes compositions by Haydn, Copland, Schnittke, and others. Mr. Hendrickson is active in the Washington area as a recitalist and chamber musician, and serves on the faculty of the music department at the University of Maryland.

[audio:|titles=Steve Hendrickson, Trumpet Myriam Avalos-Teie, Piano; “Suite in the Old Style: Pantomime” by Alfred Schnittke]


B-flat Trumpet: Bach 37 (large bore)
C Trumpet: Bach 229 L, 25 H leadpipe (most orchestral repertoire)
D Trumpet: Yamaha D/E-flat 6610 (useful for Stravinsky Pulcinella, Gershwin Piano Concerto in F, some high passages in Mahler 9th and opening of Mahler 5, Beethoven 7th and the end of 9th, lyric solo in Shostakovich 1st)
E-flat Trumpet: Schilke E3L
G Trumpet: Schilke G1L (Messiah and Mussorgsky/Ravel “Goldenberg and Schmuyle”)
Piccolo Trumpet: Schilke P-54
Rotary Trumpet in C: Monke
Laskey 80-C; Bach 7D (piccolo); Schilke 11 (for “emergencies”)


Interview with Steve Hendrickson

The interviewer is Stanley Curtis 

SC: Steve, thanks so much for agreeing to answer some questions about trumpet playing and your career! To begin with, I wonder what were your earliest musical experiences? 

SH: I came from a very musical family. My Father, Kermit, was a junior high school band director and a fine trombonist. My Mother taught piano students and sang. All my four siblings played and sang music.


SC: Who taught you to play trumpet? 

SH: I started on cornet in the fifth grade with an Olds Ambassador instrument.  My Father was my main teacher.  I attended Luther College in my hometown of Decorah (Iowa).  It is a fine music school.  There I studied trumpet with Robert Getchell.  He was an encouraging teacher who emphasized clean playing, rhythmic stability and a light tone that was good for band playing—which is what I performed mostly in.  Our band was very good and enjoyable.

Record jacket for the 1951 CSO recording of "Pictures at an Exhibition"

Record jacket for the 1951 CSO recording of “Pictures at an Exhibition”


SC: Who have been some of your most influential teachers? 

SH: When I started, my dad gave me pointers.  Also, in the back of my head was the Chicago Symphony’s recording of “Pictures at an Exhibition.”  My parents played the CSO 1951 “Pictures” recording when I was a toddler.

In early high school years I became more serious on the trumpet when I found I could not hit a curve ball in baseball games!  My early recordings of solo trumpeters included Al Hirt, Adolph Scherbaum, Rafael Mendez and Armando Ghitalla.

I will say I loved Mendez for his bright tone and amazing technique. Doc Severinsen for his soaring bravura and brilliant tone.  Doc came to our high school in 1967 and soloed with our band.  It was an earth-shattering experience. Then I heard the flawless artistry of Maurice André.  I filled my mind with his playing style and emulated the tone and vibrato.      

In my junior year I did a one-month’s term in January in Chicago with Adolph (“Bud”) Herseth. It was five lessons.  My dad knew Bud as a fellow student at Luther in the 40s. Dad arranged the lessons, which was hard to do, since Bud didn’t teach much. My musical concepts were forever changed.  Hearing Bud play and teach was phenomenal.   I realized that I needed a bigger sound, dynamic range, “chops,” and musical color.  I was a bit discouraged, to be honest. 


SC: Then you moved to Chicago. What was your life like in Chicago? 

Steve Hendrickson and "Bud" Herseth

Steve Hendrickson and “Bud” Herseth, 1990

SH: In 1973 I got married, graduated from Luther and settled in Chicago to study more and pursue my dream of being a professional musician.  I had to make a living, so I worked at the Chicago Board of Options Exchange (CBOE). I worked three years in the CBOE. I learned a lot about markets and the business world, and I was a broker in my last year there—I was on the floor buying and selling. I played in the Chicago Civic Orchestra for two seasons during this time from 1973 to 1975. The Civic is training orchestra of the CSO. I worked at the CBOE from 9:00 a.m. until 2:30 p.m., which was perfect, since that allowed me to get to the Civic rehearsals at 4:00 p.m.  This experience, plus the wonderful coaching and teaching from Mr. Herseth, were the foundation of my trumpet career.

Will Scarlett

Will Scarlett, CSO Trumpeter

I also received valuable instruction from Charles Geyer who was only two years older than I was and a whiz of a player.  William Scarlett, however, was my most important teacher.  He was very positive when I had down times. He taught with Arnold Jacob’s philosophy. In studying with Mr. Scarlett, two things stand out: the first was practicing in low range to develop rich sound–playing in the low range with a fat trombone tone makes your tone better; the second was balanced practicing in general–if you have been playing a lot of high music, then practice in the low register; if you have been playing a lot of loud music, then practice softly; if you have been playing a lot of fast music, then practice slowly.  Balance is key.  Do not become one-dimensional.  Cover all the bases in playing by playing enough and not “too much.” I was also inspired by Scarlett’s musical playing, phrasing and tone. I could not have had a kinder mentor than Mr. Scarlett. I also had three lessons with Mr. Jacobs.  They were totally inspirational experiences.

I played as an extra with the Chicago Symphony many times.  This was during the Solti years.  I am on four recordings: the Solti recordings of Mahler Second and Bruckner Sixth; and the Abbado recordings of Mahler Second and Sixth Symphonies.  The CSO is a winning team and has pride and a strong work ethic.  The brass section, led by Bud (Herseth), Dale Clevenger, Jay Friedman and Arnold Jacobs were giants.  They played with such presence, personality and color. They inspired each other. And my playing would always bump up after a week with them. 


SC: What was your experience like, auditioning for an orchestral job? 

SH: I auditioned many times from 1974 thru 1982—about 18 times.  I was in many finals, such as Seattle, Pittsburg (twice), Boston (twice), Denver, Kansas City (twice), Chicago (two times), National Symphony Orchestra (twice), Grant Park, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.  I was encouraged and frustrated.  Sometimes I blew it; other times, I played in a different way; or somebody just played better than I did.  I believe the NSO was the perfect position for me, because it allowed me to learn the repertoire and gain experience. As an assistant, I was not always under the gun. Maestro Rostropovich liked me, and the section taught me a lot. It was like an apprenticeship.

Mstislav Rostrovich was reason I captured the audition.  The section actually voted for George Recker, principal trumpet in the Opera House, next door (in the Kennedy Center), but Slava liked my musicianship.  After my first season I received tenure and was offered the co-principal position.

My performances on Handel’s Messiah and Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony were noted in my promotion.  Shortly after 1985, Mr. Sanchez had some health issues, and I performed as acting principal for two years.  To make a long story short, I became principal in 1988, while Adel (Sanchez) played as assistant principal. I continued as principal until last year when the NSO chose William Gerlach as principal.


SC: Do you have a philosophy on how an orchestral trumpet section can best function in terms of workload, roles, and interaction? 

SH: Leading a professional symphony trumpet section is a challenge.  One has to balance egos, workload, rotation, and many other things. While I have always worked with good fellows, there have been some tense moments and flaring tempers that needed to be dealt with.  I was not dictatorial, and I asked my colleagues for opinions or advice.  I tried to praise regularly and have everyone involved.  I gave out many good parts.  We had a section—not just a solo player with followers. 

The section was excellent before I came.  I replaced John DeWitt who went to Houston. Adel Sanchez played lead and was outstanding; then there was Dave Flowers on second, and Keith Jones as utility.  These players were very friendly, played great, and taught me a lot about playing in a major symphony orchestra.  I am indebted them all.


SC: Who have been your favorite conductors? Your favorite colleagues? 

SH: My favorite conductors include Leonard Bernstein, Claudio Abbado, Bernard Haitink, Lorin Maazel, Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos, Herbert Blomstedt, Georg Solti, Zubin Mehta, Neemi Jarvi, Erich Leinsdorf, Ivan Fischer, Charles  Dutoit,  Peter Maag, David Zinman as well as the NSO’s own music directors.  These were all outstanding and inspirational. 

NSO Trumpet Section with Maurice André,  1985: ( r.) Dave Flowers, Steve Hendrickson, Maurice André, Adel Sanchez, and Keith Jones.

NSO Trumpet Section with Maurice André, 1985: ( r.) Dave Flowers, Steve Hendrickson, Maurice André, Adel Sanchez, and Keith Jones.

My colleagues in the NSO have been a joy to be with.  Our section, Sanchez, Jones and Flowers were a riot with a hilarious sense of humor.  We had many social outings with conductors as well.  The NSO is a supportive orchestra.  Positive feedback is the norm.


SC: What has been your favorite repertoire? Your favorite project, recording, or tour (with or without the NSO)? 

SH: I have much favorite music to play in the orchestra.  I start with Mahler and his wonderful brass writing.  His music has so many haunting lyrical solos.  I include Strauss, Stravinsky, Wagner, Bruckner, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Hindemith, Copland, Bernstein, Gershwin, Barber, and Ravel.  I also enjoy the classical repertoire of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, and later Schubert, Schuman, Brahms, Dvorak, Sibelius.

During my tenure in the NSO, under Slava, I recorded many Shostakovich symphonies including 1, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11, and 13.  

When Leonard Slatkin became Music Director in 1996, we recorded a Grammy winner with John Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1.  

We also did Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 6. In 2008, Christoph Eschenbach became our Music Director.  Under him, we recorded Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story and Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F

My favorite tour was the 1990 tour to the Soviet Union.  Rostropovich was invited back after exile. There was tremendous press and international coverage. The Russian crowds went wild.  We were like rock stars! We did big repertoire including the Shostakovich Piano Concerto with trumpet with Ignat Solzhenitsyn as piano soloist. 

(l. to r.) Steve Hendrickson, Ignat Solzhenitsyn, Mstislav Rostropovich

(l. to r.) Steve Hendrickson, Ignat Solzhenitsyn, and Mstislav Rostropovich


SC: What are some of the important pillars of your trumpet philosophy? 

SH: As I mentioned before, the concepts of the CSO brass section were very influential to me. These concepts include playing with a full tone with a singing quality, a thick air column and a relaxed approach, physically.  Practice enough but not too much.  Do fundamentals every day.  Beautiful tone is most important.  Be a good steward of it. I teach those concepts to this day.

I tell students of mine they must be tough and bold to play the trumpet.  We have to come back from discouragement, off days, criticism, setbacks, tired chops, etc.  Your desire has to be to overcome these kinds of discouragements. If you lose that desire you are done as a serious trumpeter!

I have certain ideas about practice time.  As a working symphony player, I found early in my career that it is important to practice less.  For a while, I experimented with practicing as little as possible without losing quality.  Now I know the proper amount: unless the symphony schedule is very light I practice about an hour per day.  This includes fundamentals of routine for maintenance. 

When younger and auditioning more, longer practice is better.  Mr. Herseth would say practice long and hard.  I tried his plan and found it did not work for me. I would lose endurance and consistency.  I do not believe in fanatical practice habits.

I tell students of mine they must be tough and bold to play the trumpet.  We have to come back from discouragement, off days, criticism, setbacks, tired chops, etc.  Your desire has to be to overcome these kinds of discouragements. If you lose that desire you are done as a serious trumpeter!


SC: You have changed your position in the trumpet section recently. Can you speak to that change? 

SH: In 2011, I hit 60 years old and thought about moving assistant principal.  There are not many symphony lead players that keep playing principal after this time.  I was in good health, still playing well and reasoned that the time was ripe, before we hire a new assistant principal. 

In the summer of 2014 we hired a new principal trumpet in 25-year-old Bill Gerlach. This was after five auditions.  I actually played lead for three years after I made my decision to move over to assistant principal.  Mr. Gerlach is doing well and will have a long career in the NSO “hot seat.” It is an easy transition, as Bill is a nice fellow without a huge ego.  He often asks me for advice, which I am happy to give. 


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

SH:  In ten years, if I have good health, I will volunteer.  Be active in church activities, play my horn (I think), teach a little.  I will play a lot of golf, my main hobby.

Success in my career has been a result of excellent training, good fortune, dedication, natural talent and the support of my wonderful wife, Virginia.

Finally being a Christian, I have benefited from spiritual wisdom and guidance for my life and certainly for my career. I AM ONE LUCKY FELLOW!!!


SC: Well, thanks so much, Mr. Hendrickson for sharing your insights and experiences with us!


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