Thomas Stevens


  • For Trumpeters Only

Q. What's a Tourte have to do with it?

Point (1964)

Quotable: “The music is the only thing that matters; things like instruments and technique are merely by-products”-Trumpeter/Conductor and Founding Director of the Los Angeles Brass Society, Dr. Lester Remsen

Counterpoint (1964-1996)

In 1964, a brass player refused to play molto secco as requested by Igor Stravinsky, in a Stravinsky piece conducted by Stravinsky, because his teacher-insert here name of famous brass professor-had always instructed him never to make such an ugly and distorted sound on his instrument!


In 1975, A student of James Stamp, while serving as a substitute player with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, repeatedly played an extremely sharp low “D” in a very exposed trumpet chord, stubbornly ignoring colleague’s requests to adjust the pitch downwards by extending his valve slides. (Mr. Stamp taught his students there was never any need to make physical adjustments with the valve slides on the instrument because, if the notes were properly “centered” they would automatically sound in-tune (whatever ”in-tune” means-see Quotables, General Quotes on intonation). Finally, conductor Zubin Mehta, growing impatient with this stalemate, while simulating the act of moving valve slides with his left hand, instructed the player to “please do that thing you people do to fix the intonation.”


In Montreux, Switzerland, at the First International Brass Congress (1976), the Russian trumpet virtuoso, Timofei Dokshizter, played one of the finest brass recitals this writer has ever heard. Following the program, several American colleagues, in a real-life version of the narrative of Kurt Vonnegut’s, The Handicappers, were openly critical and dismissive of the artist’s performance, citing the fact Timofei had used a [Vincent Bach] 7E mouthpiece-the implication being this was somehow “cheating,” thereby tainting the performance*.


While serving as the sole American jurist at the First Maurice André International Competition (Paris, 1979), I could not believe what I was hearing when a French member of the panel lobbied against the consideration of two young German trumpeters for advancement to the next round because they had ostensibly “denigrated” the Tomasi Concerto by playing it on “German” rotary-valve “Bb” trumpets. My position with regard to this matter, one that was not appreciated by my fellow jurists, was to suggest that the two young players be commended for having shown the courage to attempt such a daunting task.


At a rehearsal of a summer festival orchestra (1983), a tuba player repeatedly ignored a request from the conductor to take a quicker breath to avoid coming in late in an articulated passage that followed a long sustained note. Instead, the musician resorted to the traditional technique of releasing the long note a fraction early to have more time to breathe and consequently not lose time before the passage in question. The conductor, clearly not amused by this attempt at illusion, told the player to hold the sustained note for its full value and follow it with a quicker breath. The musician, a disciple of the late Arnold Jacobs, the longtime distinguished tuba player with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and a person considered during his lifetime to have been the world’s preeminent expert on pulmonary function in brass playing, responded with a standard “Jake” student line regarding proper breathing technique. The conductor, once again not amused, offered the following cursory response, included here as a non-attributable Quotable: “If you come in late after taking breaths, then it is improper breathing!” [The conductor does not recall this little encounter and therefore cannot be quoted here by name .]


The Haydn Trumpet Concerto was written for a solo instrument pitched in “Eb,” and yet, in many musical environments, including auditions and contests, particularly in Europe, it is required that the work be performed on the “Bb” trumpet. While in Paris in 1996, in the interest of understanding the rationale behind this requirement, naïvely assuming it were related to some historical or musicological consideration, I asked the redoubtable Pierre Thibaud to explain this situation. His explanation, offered here as a Quotable: “….[I]t is too easy to play the Haydn on the ‘Eb’ trumpet-anyone can do it.” [Another Vonnegut moment, perhaps?]

Perhaps there is a need for a sixth species............

*Dr. Lester Remsen, (1918-2007) R.I.P. (Les Remsen was present at both the Montreux concert and the subsequent discussion about the 7E mouthpiece. We made eye contact during the latter but never discussed what we had heard, which is regrettable because it would have been interesting to have heard his impression of that scene, even though I have a fairly good idea of what he would have said.)