Interview with Ashley Killam, entrepreneur and diversity-minded trumpeter

Ashley Killam (she/her) is an international speaker, trumpet player, educator, and researcher. Ashley is the co-founder of Diversify the Stand, a resource centered around learning from underrepresented voices in music and commissioning works to build a musical repertoire. She has presented her lecture series, Fanfare for the Unheard, to high schools and colleges across the United States and Canada. Fanfare for the Unheard focuses on promoting diverse works for all instruments and creating sustainable inclusion in all music programs. She is also the General Manager of Rising Tide Music Press, a music publishing company working to promote BBIA composers’ works.

(Note: Ashley will be the CSU Trumpet Studio Guest Clinician next Wednesday, February 3, on Zoom and streamed on the CSU Trumpet Studio Facebook page)

Equipment:
Bb: Standard Bach Strad
C: Bach 229 H
Eb/E: Yamaha YTR-9635
Piccolo: Yamaha YTR-9825
Cornet: Refurbished Besson
Mouthpieces: Pickett
Mic: Blue Yeti


Interview with Ashley Killam. The Interviewer is Stanley Curtis

SC: Ashley, I’m so glad I got to meet you (virtually—but still!). You are doing some really interesting things about diversity related to the trumpet, and so I’m thrilled to sit down and chat with you about your playing career and your ideas.
AK: Thank you so much for inviting me to speak with your students! I am incredibly honored and so excited to talk about some critical topics!

SC: What about your early life? How did you get interested in music, and who were your big influences?
AK: I grew up in a musical family, with my parents a part of the Michigan State marching band. Neither were music majors, but music has always been such a big part of my life. A former babysitter and family friend was a trumpet player, and I wanted to be just like her, so trumpet it was! I am incredibly thankful for the support I had from my family and where I grew up. I was about 15 minutes away from Michigan State University, which has a fantastic music program. Because of that, I was involved in youth ensembles, took lessons from their grad students, and got opportunities to work with well-known composers. Significant influences of mine? Definitely Blast!, the brass and percussion touring group, and pretty much all musicals and film scores. I also grew up listening to music with great horn lines – Earth, Wind, and Fire, Chicago, Chase, and Michael Buble, to name a few.

SC: I read that you went to the University of Illinois for an education degree. Why did you go there? What was it like when you were a student there? Would you recommend trumpet students to consider an ed degree?
AK: I always joke that I went to Illinois because it wasn’t Michigan State, which is only partly a joke. As great of a music program as Michigan State was (and is), I needed to move and figure out my path. Five hours away was enough that I could be independent but easily travel home to visit. I loved my time in Champaign-Urbana – they have a fantastic music education program and many outstanding faculty that I am friends with today. I would recommend all trumpet players to consider U of I’s program for undergrad and graduate work. Ron Romm and Charles Daval are the perfect pair of trumpet professors and human beings, and I received so much support while there. The only downsides are the practice rooms aren’t the greatest – I haven’t seen many good practice rooms, so this is nothing new, and the fact you’re in the middle of a cornfield town. You learn to make opportunities for yourself!

SC: And after graduating, you went to the University of New Mexico for your master’s degree in trumpet performance. You must have gotten the “performance bug.” Tell me about that part of your life.
AK: At U of I, I did go for just the music ed degree. I considered a double major, but the workload for a music ed degree was already so much. I realized I didn’t need another sheet of paper telling me I was a solid player. I held myself to the same standard as performance majors because I knew I wanted to get better and learn more about trumpet after graduating. I attended the Raphael Mendez Brass Institute in Denver. I wanted to step out of my comfort zone and play for a masterclass. Someone near me recommended John Marchiando’s masterclass, so I signed up. Afterward, John invited me to audition for his studio at UNM. I honestly didn’t realize New Mexico had any music programs, but out west sounded good to me!
I am so thankful I made the move. It’s definitely the land of enchantment for a reason – I miss the weather, New Mexican food, and green chiles so much. I loved my time at UNM because I could combine all of my favorite things – I got to perform in all of the ensembles AND teach at five local middle and high schools. I taught trumpet, brass, marching band and learned how to balance life really well. My time at UNM also started the research that I have been doing for the past four years, which I know we’ll talk more about later.
All in all, I enrolled in UNM thinking I HAD to be someone specific – that I HAD to have a goal of becoming an orchestral or military band trumpet player. I left a different person, in the best way. In two years, I started to find the path I wanted to take, even if it was less traditional.  I strive to show younger musicians that there is not just one correct path to take, and no one can tell you what you SHOULD do.

SC: Such great advice, Ashley! You still do drill design. Is that an in-demand specialty? Is it hard to do? (I’m guessing “yes”!)
AK: I do! I have been drill writing for six years now. I marched all through high school and undergrad, and drill writing just seemed fun. It’s pretty much just drawing but in a really large space! The most challenging part is the software – Pyware is pretty frustrating, which is why directors look to drill writers to do all of that frustrating work.
Most of the schools I write for are in rural Illinois, North Carolina, Virginia, and Pennsylvania, so I’m not a prominent hot-shot DCI drill writer or anything. Still, it’s a great summer project each year, and the groups I work with are beyond incredible. Thanks to Covid, that was all cut last year, but I’m trying to be hopeful that things will pick back up in the next year or two!

SC: You are passionate about bringing underrepresented composers to light. This is so compelling to me. Tell me about how you got interested in this and how you made it part of your business. 
AK: This is something I never expected I would be doing, actually! While at UNM, I took a course called Female Voices in Composition. Our final project was to build a recital for our instrument. This project made me realize two things: First, the only work for trumpet I knew that wasn’t by a male composer was the Pakhmutova Trumpet Concerto. Second, it was crazy how many outstanding works there are for EVERY instrument that we don’t know about. It made me slightly frustrated, and I started to question everything. Why do we have a “standard canon?” Why are the only concertos I hear for trumpet are the Hummel, Haydn, and Arutunian? After finding some really cool works, I decided to make this final project my actual master’s recital! My recital was called More Than Just Dead White Guys: A Graduate Trumpet Recital, and it featured six works for trumpet by living, women composers. My Soundcloud has recordings of a few of the pieces. 

One of the works on my Soundcloud is my first commission – Incantations by Whitney George. I was given little information on how to commission works, but knew I wanted to commission a new piece for my recital. Commissioning is such an important part, as it’s a great way to expand repertoire and support living composers! As a performer, you create relationships with composers and not only build repertoire, but keep music moving forward. While at UNM, I commissioned two works – Incantations and a duet for two trumpets and electronics, called Bored Games by Megan DeJarnett.
So I started to do research. Initially, my focus was on works by specific women for just trumpet. After talking to multiple professors, I turned this research into a presentation, which has morphed numerous times into Fanfare for the Unheard, the presentations you and your students will see next week. Over the following year, I started giving presentations, and my research started expanding. I also started questioning myself – why am I only presenting on women? What about composers of all backgrounds, cultures, races, and gender identities? I spent a lot of time reflecting on my purpose and who I was trying to advocate for. I started expanding my research to promote ALL underrepresented identities and all instruments, ensembles, and voice types. I do not have all of the answers, and I cannot and will not speak for all marginalized identities – I simply try and have conversations about why inclusion is important, and I provide resources to make building our repertoire easier.
This research became the backbone to Diversify the Stand (www.diversifythestand.com). Diversify the Stand was founded in December 2020 by myself and my colleague, Dr. Carrie Blosser. Diversify the Stand is about sharing and learning from the stories of underrepresented voices in music and leading commissioning projects to expand our repertoire. February is a big month for us, as it is the start of our book club and podcast series. We also have started our first commissioning project (https://www.diversifythestand.com/2021-consortium) to create the first-ever progressive solo book for trumpet by diverse composers. We have commissioned 12 composers to write works for the student-level player. These will also be perfect recital pieces for any level player! The composers are all gems of human beings, and I am so excited to see each of their voices show through their works. We hope this can be the first of many projects to build the repertoire for all instruments.
Along with this, I am currently working on two other commissions – both for solo trumpet and electronics. One work is by Megan DeJarnett and the other by Alonso Malik Pirio. All of this to say, I am on a journey. I am not perfect, and I do not have all of the answers. But I will do my absolute best to continue to work to create a positive change in the music community.

SC: What are some hidden compositional gems that you would like to bring to light?
AK: Oh my gosh, there are SO MANY. First, let me recommend everyone check out a Catalog of Works I made: 

https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/e/2PACX-1vSwt_3uB3LzuKhaP1BL7fBUlJe2nGZeLyVsiOK1FiqjZRfPTuAKskOkTf_AnOtUC6REfnuFRQzs8Ylf/pubhtml

I contacted over 200 composers to get consent and confirmation before publishing this on my website. It has so many great trumpet and brass works, and I would recommend starting here.

A few of my favorite gems, though…

Lauren Bernofsky’s Trumpet Concerto is, in my opinion, is the best trumpet concerto ever written. Her Suite for Brass Quintet is a perfect recital work for quintet. Marcus Grant is a composer, educator, and performer I just met recently. He’s doing such cool work with multi-tracking and is also such a gifted composer (note: here’s his YouTube playlist). Alice Gomez has an exciting five-movement work for trumpet and congas called Latin Jazz Suite. For some trumpet and electronics, Meg Bowles has four pieces that sound incredible! 

Stacy Garrop, Whitney George, Chia-Yu Hsu, Cait Nishimura, Zoe Cutler, Adolphus Hailstork, Alonso Malik Pirio, Gala Flagello are just a few other composers I have met that also have some great brass works. I could talk for hours about this and give a whole presentation only on pieces to check out and be happy to if anyone wants some recital advice!

SC: I’ve heard a few of those names–especially Adolphus Hailstork, whose Variations for Trumpet I’m playing on an upcoming recital (and I posted a video of me practicing it last week). I’m excited to explore your Catalog!
What do you like to do when your not playing trumpet, teaching, or being an entrepreneur?
AK: I live in rural southwest Virginia, which, although far from most cities, is really close to the mountains, which is a big perk in pandemic times! I am an avid hiker with my husband and corgi puppy, Biscuit! We’re actually training for a Grand Canyon hike in December – almost 45 miles in 4 days. I also became a decent baker thanks to the pandemic and have a sourdough started named Danny Dough-vito.

SC: Haha! Well, I’m so excited to be hosting you next week on my series of virtual guest clinicians for the CSU Trumpet Studio (Wednesday, February 3, 11:00am Mountain Time). We’re going to stream and archive that on Facebook. Give us the elevator pitch for why we should be setting aside time to watch!
AK: Fanfare for the Unheard is an interactive lecture featuring underrepresented composers, their music, and a conversation centered around diversity and inclusion. As educators, performers, and musicians, we can all reflect on the music we teach and program. It’s essential to question the “whys” of what we play. We can all begin expanding our musical libraries and welcoming more incredible works to our stands!

SC: Thanks so much for our interview time, Ashley! Looking forward to next week!
AK: Thank you so much for talking, and I can’t wait to “visit” next week and share some great music with you and your students!

 

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