ITG Day 4: An Afternoon with Liesl

June 21, 2011

Friday did not go according to plan. And it was fantastic. The morning started with Liesl Whitaker’s clinic. Liesl is the lead player for the U.S. Army Blues, and a friend. In her clinic, she did what I wish more people did: gave the attendees an honest look at what she does for a living, and how she goes about doing it. She started with her background, including where she grew up and went to school, then moved on to her first professional gigs, and how she made the decisions that led her to where she is now. Liesl has had some injuries, and was very open about how she dealt with both the frustration and recovery. She was very much herself, both low-key and no-nonsense, while giving a very real look into her life.

After some practice time and lunch, I went to see Ed Carroll’s Masterclass. Ed is someone I’ve always wanted to meet, not only because of his trumpet pedigree, but because he went to high school with one of my high school teachers. His presentation was very straight forward and refreshingly direct. He says there are 5 levels of preparation. The first 4 are objective, meaning they are right or wrong. He was very clear on this point. He said that close is wrong, and very close is dead wrong. They are:

1) Rhythm
2) Notes
3) Intonation
4) Musical markings (accents, dynamics, etc.)

Only after the first 4 are taken care of can you move to the 5th, which is subjective.

5) Interpretation

This is the kind of information that should be on the inside cover of every etude book in the world. The best musical intent will get you nowhere if you’re not playing what’s on the page.

So far this seems like a normal day at ITG. After leaving Mr. Carroll’s clinic, I ran into Liesl, who asked me to join her in trying out some horns. Being the trumpet geek that I am, how could I refuse? We went to the Shires booth, as Liesl had previously met Steve Shires and discussed horns, picked a couple of horns, and took them to the Shires room (so we wouldn’t have to hear a 100 other people trying stuff out at the same time). Liesl has been playing the same NY Bach for almost 20 years, and she sounds great on it. But owning an old horn is liking olding an old sports car: you’re always fixing something.

The next couple of hours were the most fun I had at ITG. Liesl tried out the horns first, doing a lot of back-and-forth among her horn and 2 (then 3) Shires trumpets. We talked very openly and honestly about sound concept and the feel of the horns. Although Liesl and I have known each other for quite a while, and even had the opportunity to play together, we’ve never had this kind of discussion.

Before I go further, I need to go on a little rant.

To oversimplify, there are 2 kinds of lead trumpet players wandering the Earth today. There are the lead players that are concerned with making sure all of the high notes come out, and that everyone hears all of the really high notes. These are the people that lay out for 16 bars before the end to make sure they get the last note. Generally speaking these people are more concerned with range than sound. These are the laser-beam lead players. The sound goes straight out of the horn and drills a hole in the back wall.

Then there are lead players that are primarily concerned with making sure the band sounds good. These are the people you don’t notice nearly as much, as at the end of the night you think how great the band sounded, not necessarily how impressive the lead player was. These people are more concerned with sound than range, as the lead trumpet sound sets the sound for the band.

Most people will say they are the band-first kind, but when I listen to bands, it seems I hear a lot of the laser beam people.

Okay, now back to the horn tryouts.

Liesl and I agree strongly that a lead player’s job is to first and formost make the band sound good. So we’re looking for horns that allow us an ease of production along with the ability to move around the horn easily. Some horns seem to have very rigid “slots” that can make the kind of stylistic choices we want to make more difficult.

After Liesl’s initial tryout, I tried the horns out, and we continued the discussion of how it felt behind the horn in conjunction with how it sounds in front of the horn. When trying out horns, it is vital to have someone you trust on the other side of the bell. There are times when a horn can feel great, but not sound great. Without someone you trust listening when you try it out, you might not find out until too late that although it feels great, the sound leaving the bell is not what you think it is.

We ended up narrowing down to one horn that Liesl liked the best and each did a couple of more rounds of back-and-forth. Having this kind of very open discussion about trumpet playing and lead playing with horns in our hands made the time fly by. By the time we decided to call it quits, we had missed the afternoon events.

Although I wasn’t able to see the afternoon at ITG, I can’t imagine anywhere else where I could have the opportunity to spend the afternoon in an open and ego-free conversation and demonstration of lead trumpet playing.



  1. I’ve been listening to the Jazz ambassadors and man she sounds great!

    I realize this was a few years ago, but you left out the most important part — which horn did she pick??!!

    • I’m sorry to say that I don’t remember.

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