Trumpeter  Rolf  Smedvig

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Rolf Smedvig (September 23, 1952 in Seattle, Washington - April 27, 2015 in West Stockbridge, Massachusetts) came from a musical family. His father Egil Steinar Smedvig (1922-2012) was a composer and music teacher who had immigrated from Stavanger, Norway. His mother Kristin (Jonsson) Smedvig (1921-2004) was member of the Seattle Symphony's violin section who had immigrated from Iceland.

In 1965, at age 13, Smedvig joined the Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestras as their principal trumpet. In 1971, he participated in the summer music program at the Tanglewood Music Center. While there, Smedvig, along with trumpeter Charles Lewis, hornist Paul Capehart, trombonist Ray Cutler, and tubist Samuel Pilafian were assembled into a chamber group to perform Gunther Schuller's Music for Brass Quintet. Following Tanglewood, Leonard Bernstein chose Smedvig, Lewis, and Pilafian to be solists for the 1971 world premiere of his composition Mass which was written for the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Smedvig studied music under the tutelage of Armando Ghitalla at Boston University, where Smedvig later served as an instructor. In 1971, aged 19, Smedvig joined the Boston Symphony as assistant principal trumpet. At the time, Smedvig was the youngest member of the orchestra. He was promoted to principal trumpet in 1979, and left in 1981 to focus on a solo career, conducting, and chamber music. Smedvig co-founded the Empire Brass quintet in 1972. The Empire Brass served as Faculty Quintet-in-Residence at Boston University for a number of years. The group was the first brass quintet to win a Walter W. Naumburg Foundation award.



Though my list of guests is laden with composers and singers, my own background as a bassoon player led me to also ask conductors and instrumentalists to be part of my radio series.  A few members of the Chicago Symphony graced my microphone, but it was the visiting soloist which often caught my attention.

One such top-drawer player was trumpeter Rolf Smedvig, and after missing each other a couple of times, at the very beginning of February of 1995 we finally managed to secure a date and time which was good for both of us.

As usual, the areas within the general topic ranged far and wide, and, also as usual, there was much joy and laughter mixed in with the serious discussion.

While we set up to record our conversation, Smedvig was lamenting about the non-joys of having to travel . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   Is travel one of the biggest difficulties of being a musician?

Rolf Smedvig:   It is.  Absolutely, there’s no question about it.  I remember the funniest travel day that we ever had...  We were on tour in, of all places, Montana.  At the time we were traveling in a motor home.  We went for a period of about five years where we’d buy this holiday Rambler, and we’d turn it in every time it hit two hundred thousand miles.  T
hat was when we would get a new one, and we went through three.  [Laughs]  Anyway, this time we were driving on sheets of ice, crawling along at fifteen miles an hour, and we get to this little town.  We didnt realize that the time zone went right through this town, and the high school we were playing at was on the other side of this line.  Weve also been in near-crashes.  One time I was flying from St. Louis to Syracuse, New York, and I remember the pilot getting on the intercom saying, “Ladies and Gentlemen, were having problems with the landing gear.  Were just going to take a quick little trip by the tower and ask them visually if they can see if our landing gear is down.”  Its raining outside, and its foggy, and you can’t see a thing.  So we come down by the tower, and you can actually see the tower through the clouds off on the left.  Then the pilot gets back on the intercom and says, “Ladies and gentlemen, the tower was not able to see if the landing gear is down.”  The next thing you know, the co-pilot comes out, walks right down the middle of the aisle, rips up the carpet, and is hand cranking the landing gear.  [Laughs, and then speaks sarcastically]  That was fun.  Just last year, I was flying from Ottawa to Syracuseboth times it was Syracuseand this was on another little kind of a commuter-type plane.

BD:   A turbo prop?

Smedvig:   A turbo prop, yes  I’m looking out the window, and the next thing I know, the engine’s on fire.  I’m thinking, “Oh great!  Is this the part that we die?”  [Both laugh]

BD:   [With a grin]  Did you survive?

Smedvig:   [Continues laughing]  We did.  Another time, I was in Reykjavik, Iceland, and no sooner had we taken off then we whipped around and landed again because both engines caught fire.

BD:   [Mildly concerned]  When you’re traveling with the quintet, do you all travel together, or do you make separate arrangements?

Smedvig:   No, we still like each other.  [More laughter]  Actually, this particular group is the fourteenth formation of Empire Brass.
BD:   You were in the first?

Smedvig:   Basically, although the real beginnings of Empire Brass predate me.  The group was really started by Charlie Lewis.  It was his vision to have this kind of freelance group in Boston, and he handpicked a bunch of terrific players.  I was not among them because I was in high school.  When they actually formed Empire Brass, I had finally gotten to Boston, rather than just seeing all these people at Tanglewood, which was the mecca.  I was really lucky, because I went to Tanglewood when I was thirteen, and I got to meet all of these people that I still know.  I was like the little kid who’d always say, “can I carry your case?”  [Laughs]  It was great.  I met Charlie Lewis, who was a great trumpet player.  He was a big black guy, a huge man, and he liked the way I played.  [Pauses a moment in thought]  Now, I almost can’t even remember life without Empire Brass.  Because of all the changes that we’ve gone through, its miraculously taken on a life of its own.  My goalnot for the immediate future, but sometime soonwhat I really want to do is set up an educational foundation for brass players.  I also want to get an endowment going, so that when I can’t play, or when I can’t be in the Empire Brass Quintet, I want it to continue.

BD:   There’ll always be an Empire Brass?

Smedvig:   Yes.  I don’t understand why chamber music groups, particularly one like the Empire Brass, which I feel has a vision, has such a little niche.  We’re not really all that well known in terms of media presentation and that sort of thing.  We’ve got followers all over the world, but we’re a cult group.

BD:   Your audience is from performances and also recordings?

Smedvig:    Exactly, but I don’t think there are any groups that are set up for perpetuity, and I think that’s wrong.

BD:   Are you taking any cues from string quartets, because those seem to be more established and have a longer history?

Smedvig:   Are they set up so that they’ll just run forever?

BD:   I’m not sure, but just looking at the history of string quartet playing, has that made an influence on brass quintet playing, in the way you organize your concerts and your life and your tours?

Smedvig:   It’s difficult to draw from a string quartet, because they’ve got four hundred years of literature.

BD:   What about just in terms of how you actually survive as a chamber group?

Smedvig:   That’s a tough question.  I really don’t even know how to answer that.  The Empire Brass has really established a life of its own.  Even if I left tomorrow, the group would be great.  It would be terrific.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  No feelings that it wouldn’t be quite as great because it wouldn’t have Smedvig on top?

Smedvig:   [Smiles]  Nah, who cares?  It’s only a trumpet.

BD:   [Genuinely surprised]  Are trumpet players really interchangeable?

Smedvig:   Absolutely, particularly if you have the same style.

BD:   Then what makes you unique?

Smedvig:   Sound.  Definitely sound.  The most important aspect for a brass player is tone, and for that matter, in my estimation, for any musician it’s sound.

BD:   Is that you and your lips, or is it the mouthpiece, or is it the bore of the instrument, or what?

smedvig Smedvig:   It’s a magical combination, and that has to do with what the individual player hears.  I’ve always consciously thought of myself as a singer.  I’ve never really thought of myself as anything other than that.  I don’t really speak words, but I can make attempts at putting vibrato on, or putting characteristic sounds in my sound and in my tone.  Where words cannot convey a certain emotion, I can get that emotion out with the sound of my trumpet through singing, or making attempts at singing.  The best performances that I’ve ever given are usually when I’m really not thinking about it.  The phrases and the little so-called tools that a musician uses to make little inflections make the music come alive from these little black notes on the page.  I could play something simple, like Row, Row, Row Your Boat, many different ways, using articulation, using vibrato, using these magical little tools.  We learn in a practice room how to do it, but then, after a while, it becomes second nature.  You’re really not even thinking about it.  It would be like a gymnast having to start thinking, “OK, now I’m going to jump up in the air and do three somersaults, and I’m going to land, and I’m going to stretch my hands out, and I’m going to make this beautiful formation at the end of it.”  You can’t do that.  It has to be natural, like catching a ball.

BD:   So, once the technique has become solid, then the musicianship can start?

Smedvig:   Absolutely.

BD:   When you take the musical blueprint that the composer has given you, how far do you stretch it to make it your own?

Smedvig:   I think only in sound, and the things that I stretch are the actual arrangements.  The main reason that I do arrangements is that we have no repertoire.  Brass players really have very little repertoire to choose from.

BD:   [With mock indignation]  And whose fault is that???   [Both laugh, then return to the topic]  Is it the composers not being fast enough to realize there should be brass repertoire, or the brass players not clobbering the composers into writing?

Smedvig:   I think a combination.  The virtuoso players oftentimes come in waves, and if that composer and that player, by chance never meet, how will you ever get a piece?

BD:   Then what advice do you have for a composer who wants to write something for brass quintet?

Smedvig:   Just write it and submit it.  There are so many brass quintets around the world now.  It has become a very popular ensemble, even though it’s new.  It’s a Jet Age ensemble.  When I was growing up, the Philadelphia Brass Ensemble was the group I listened to.  Gilbert Johnson was the first one that put this kind of group together.  I remember some of their early recordings, and I loved them because I loved their sound.  It was the only real brass group that I ever listened to.  Then the Gabrieli record that came out in the sixties, with Chicago and Cleveland and Philly.  I just loved that record.

BD:   They even put a chart on the back so you could see who plays where in the stereo arc.

Smedvig:   Yes, I remember that.

BD:   Are you proud now to be part of that brass playing tradition?

Smedvig:   Absolutely.  I am thrilled.  I’ve never really consciously thought about why I’m here, or why I’m on Earth, but I do remember when I first met Timofei Dokschizer.  He was this trumpet God to me.  I got the opportunity to meet him when we were on tour in Moscow.  He came to our concerts and loved the group.  He was so kind to me.  He put his arm around me and said, “Rolf, you were put on Earth to play the trumpet.”  I’d never consciously thought that, and then I started thinking that I had no memory of not playing a trumpet.  I don’t even know when I started, and that’s a strange feeling.

BD:   Obviously, someone put it in your hands, and you took to it.

Smedvig:   I took to it, and now because I suffer short-term memory loss, I really cannot remember not playing a trumpet.

BD:   Does that affect your ability to play phrases correctly?

Smedvig:   It affects them differently.  Very rarely would I play a phrase exactly the same.

BD:   So, it gives you a special kind of freedom?

Smedvig:   Oh absolutely, yes.  That’s one of the joys of playing music.  You can twist and turn a phrase any way you want.

BD:   Being in a chamber group, you can do that a lot more than if you were a soloist in a concerto with an orchestra behind you.

smedvig Smedvig:   Right.

BD:   Is it harder than when you do play concerti?

Smedvig:   No, because I was trained and grew up as an orchestral player, and I know how to follow the stick.  I also know how to follow the orchestra.

BD:   But as the soloist, you’re going to have to influence conductor somewhat.

Smedvig:   Yes, but you never want to have a battle onstage.  Depending on what kind of quality orchestra you’re playing with, or quality conductor, that can vary greatly.  No doubt about it.  Getting back to playing in a chamber music group, you’re absolutely right.  It’s so much fun, and the most fun in recent years is when we actually memorize pieces.  We’ve even practiced in the dark, where our only communication is through the sound or through a breath.  You really have no idea, particularly when you’ve got accelerandos, where you’ve got little diminuendos, etc.  You really get in tune when you’re sitting there practicing and rehearsing, which is what we do.

BD:   You’re feeling each other then?

Smedvig:   Yes.  You’re working on this new sense, and I found it to be great practice for the group.  We’ve consciously memorized pieces and practiced in the dark.

BD:   So, memorization is not just a gimmick, it’s actually helpful?

Smedvig:   Absolutely.

BD:   Do you ever play a whole concert without music?

Smedvig:   We have.

BD:   Should the public that’s watching you on any given night be conscious of how much work and effort you put into just becoming a crew?

Smedvig:   At times, yes, but the only people that really understand that are people who have experienced the tremendous sense of isolation and solitude that musicians go through.  That is something that we become accustomed to, and that’s on a daily basis.  If you really want to stay in shape at a certain level, it takes hours and hours and hours of practice, daily practice.  If I miss one day, I know it, and if I miss two days, I feel like everybody knows it.  There’s no getting around it.  The amazing thing about practicing is how much time is involved... I mean five to six hours of practicing in a day.  Then there is the conditioning.  Going back to Dokshizer again, I asked him what recommendations he had for a young upstart kid blowing on a horn, and he said to be careful of what you eat.  That was probably some of the best advice I’ve ever had.  I hadn’t noticed it before, but since that time, if I eat some hot soup and just slightly burn my tongue, or if I have this certain taste in my mouth, when you get on stage it doesn’t matter how much toothpaste you put on it.  That sounds kind of silly, but it’s really true.

BD:   Sure, because your lips are actually making the sound.

Smedvig:   They are making the sound.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   What size mouthpiece do you use
a great big one or a little bitty one?

Smedvig:   Various sizes.  It depends on the instrument, and on certain pieces it depends on the range, what tessitura you’re playing in.  You might have to use a shallower cup, or a deeper cup.  I’ve used a 1B mouthpiece, which doesn’t mean much to a lot of people, but that’s a pretty good-sized mouthpiece.  You wouldn’t be able to flip through everything in a concert like we play on that size mouthpiece.  For brass players, the most important thing is not to think about what you’re playing.  That’s really, really, important.  I studied with Rafael Méndez when I was a young kid, and I remember him telling me that it’s got to be natural.  Whatever makes it work, that’s fine, as long as it works with your ear.

mendez Rafael Méndez (March 26, 1906 – September 15, 1981) was a Mexican virtuoso solo trumpeter. He is known as the "Heifetz of the Trumpet."

Méndez was born in Jiquilpan, Michoacán, Mexico to a musical family. As a child, he performed as a cornetist for guerilla leader Pancho Villa, becoming a favorite musician of his, and required to remain with Villa's camp.

Méndez emigrated to the US, first settling in Gary, Indiana, at age 20 and worked in steel mills. He moved to Flint, Michigan and worked at a Buick automotive plant as he established his musical career.

From 1950 to 1975, Méndez was a full-time soloist. At his peak he performed about 125 concerts per year. He was also very active as a recording artist. By 1940, he was in Hollywood, leading the brass section of M-G-M's studio orchestra. He contributed to the films Flying Down to Rio and Hondo, among others.

Méndez was legendary for his tone, range, technique and unparalleled double tonguing. His playing was characterized by a brilliant tone, wide vibrato and clean, rapid articulation. His repertoire was a mixture of classical, popular, jazz, and Mexican folk music. He contributed many arrangements and original compositions to the trumpet repertoire. His Scherzo in D minor is often heard in recitals.

He is regarded as popularizing "La Virgen de la Macarena", commonly known to US audiences as "the bullfighter's song." Perhaps his most significant if not famous single recording, "Moto Perpetuo", was written in the eighteenth century by Niccolò Paganini for violin, and features Mendez double-tonguing continuously for over 4 minutes while circular breathing to give the illusion that he is not taking a natural breath while playing.

Méndez married Amor Rodriguez after meeting her in Detroit. They had twin sons, both surgeons, and five grandchildren.

Méndez suffered from serious asthma-related problems by the late 1950s which caused increasing difficulty performing at his level of performance. After an injury at a baseball game in Mexico in 1967 caused additional deterioration, he retired from performing in 1975, but continued to compose and arrange. He died at his home in Encino, California.

Arizona State University's music building houses the 1,400 sq ft Rafael Méndez Library which was dedicated and opened on June 11, 1993. The library holds 300 manuscripts and almost 700 compositions and arrangements by Méndez, as well as hundreds of images, articles and recordings. It also has an online counterpart.

In 2006, the Los Angeles Opera paid tribute to Rafael Mendez by performing a work based on his life. A reviewer in The Los Angeles Times believed that Mendez "has been called the greatest trumpet player of all time."

BD:   It doesn’t have to look great, as long as it sounds great?

Smedvig:   Looks great or even feels great.  If you’re making the right sound, then it’s right.

BD:   [Gently protesting]  But if you’re making the right sound with a lot of effort, it should be wrong.  If you’re making the right sound with less effort, then it should be better.

Smedvig:   Could be, but I haven’t found anything that doesn’t take a lot of effort yet.  [Both laugh]

BD:   Is there anything that takes too much effort?

Smedvig:   When I was in the Boston Symphony, we were doing a television show.  Seiji Ozawa was conducting, and Isaac Stern was playing the Beethoven Violin Concerto.  In the concert, he was playing great, and sweat was flying off his brow.  He’s so excited, you could just see it.  He had played that concerto probably hundreds of times.  Vic Firth, the timpani player, leaned over to me and said, “See Rolf, it never gets easier.”  [Both laugh]

vicfirth Vic Firth (June 2, 1930, in Winchester, Massachusetts - July 26, 2015 in Boston). He was raised in Sanford, Maine. Son of a successful trumpet player, he started learning the cornet at age four, turning later to percussion, trombone, clarinet, piano, and music arrangement. When he reached high school, he was a full-time percussionist, and created an 18-piece band at age 16. He played a variety of percussion instruments such as vibraphone, timpani and the drum set. He held a Bachelor's degree, as well as an Honorary Doctorate in Music from New England Conservatory in Boston.

Firth was the principal timpanist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1956 to 2002. He was the orchestra's youngest member when music director Charles Munch hired him as a percussionist in 1952, a distinction later held by Smedvig!

Firth wrote several books including The Solo Timpanist in 1963. He wrote for snare drum with his Snare Drum Method Book I - Elementary, and Snare Drum Method Book II - Intermediate, published in 1967 and 1968. These books combined the concepts of orchestral snare drum technique with the 26 NARD Drum rudiments of his time. He followed with the more advanced book The Solo Snare Drummer in 1968.

Founded in 1963 and headquartered in Boston, Massachusetts, the Vic Firth Company billed itself as the world's largest manufacturer of drumsticks and mallets, which were made in Newport, Maine. In 2010, the company merged with Avedis Zildjian Company, and officials said at the time that the companies would continue to run independently.

The company began when Firth, who had been performing with the Boston Symphony Orchestra for 12 years, was asked to perform pieces which he felt required a higher-quality drumstick than those that were currently being manufactured. Firth decided to design a set of his own sticks.

Firth hand-whittled the first sticks himself from bulkier sticks, and sent these prototypes to a wood turner in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. The two prototypes that he sent would become the SD1 and SD2, the first two models of sticks manufactured by Vic Firth, Inc. Firth said, "It came out of necessity, not of imagination or my ability to start a company." Although the sticks were initially intended for Firth's personal use, they gained popularity among his students and were eventually carried by retailers.

As of 2012, the company offered about 300 products, and made 12 million sticks a year. The company also produced a line of pepper mills, salt grinders, and rolling pins sold under the Vic Firth Gourmet brand for many years until those interests were sold to Maine Wood Concepts of New Vineyard, Maine in 2012 and re-branded under the name Fletchers' Mill.


BD:   Do you ever miss being an orchestral musician?

Smedvig:   Of course.  Absolutely.  Orchestral music is the greatest form of classical music, no doubt about it.  What I miss about it is not playing the trumpet.  I miss just being there, sitting in the orchestra.  It’s an incredible feeling to sit in a great orchestra and hear these sounds around you.  What I particularly liked about the Boston Symphony is that there were so many virtuosos.  I was just in Heaven sitting there listening to these fabulous players, and that I miss.

BD:   Then why’d you leave?

smedvig Smedvig:   After ten years, I felt that there were certain things that I wanted to do with my playing career that I really could not do in the orchestra.  The last three seasons I really was too busy.  I was trying to play solo concerts, I was trying to play with the quintet, and I was playing in the orchestra.  I remember one weekend... Friday afternoon we were playing Petrouchka, which has a big trumpet part.  Then I flew to Pittsburgh that night and played a recital.  I flew back the next morning, started working on a record, played another concert Saturday night, again Petrouchka.  Then, Sunday afternoon, I had a trumpet recital with an organ.  I remember getting in bed that night and thinking to myself that this is ridiculous.  At a certain point during the last couple of seasons, the quintet was playing at least thirty or forty concerts a year.  I was playing at least ten solo dates a year, and there was the Boston Symphony schedule.  It was too much.  So, I sat down with Seiji, and we had a wonderful conversation.  His advice was that when you’re dead and in your grave, looking back at what you’ve done with your life, what is going to make you the most happy?  In terms of music, the most important aspect for me is writing, composing and arranging.  That’s number one for me.  Second would be playing on the trumpet, and there are many different vehicles you can use besides solo trumpet.  It’s really a unique, odd instrument.  There aren’t really many solo trumpet players around.  There are a few, but it’s difficult in the real world to be a solo trumpet player.  Being a quintet player along with that obviously helps, as does being a trumpet player in an orchestra.  [With a frustrated look]  But let’s face it, a trumpet player in the orchestra is basically a percussion instrument.  You emphasize certain points, whether it be pianissimo or fortissimo, doesn’t really matter.  You do get an occasional lyrical solo, and I feel the music inside of me, whatever I have to offer is, is really sound in lyrical playing.  I was never really even trained as an orchestral player.

BD:   What were you trained as?

Smedvig:   As a soloist.  The first orchestra I ever played in was the Boston Symphony.

BD:   [Genuinely surprised]  I would think you would need some kind of background or training in the orchestral style.

Smedvig:   That I knew about, because I’d studied with great orchestral players.  The best brass players in the world are sitting in orchestras.  There’s no doubt in my mind about that.  That’s the real world, just trying to be a musician and actually make a living at it.

BD:   So, the ones in the various brass quintets are no better and no worse?

Smedvig:   That’s a difficult thing to say.  I really feel strongly about that, though, and it might be controversial, but no, the best brass players in the world are in orchestras.  There is no doubt in my mind.

BD:   Does it take a brass player to really understand the other brass players, and does a conductor who has not played brass, really understand what goes into it?

Smedvig:   Some conductors can understand, and some, shockingly, have no clue.  Anyone needs to understand the range and difficulty and endurance and technique problems.  The best conductors, the great conductors obviously have sat down with brass players and discussed certain things, or have gained knowledge through experience.  But I’ve worked with a lot of conductors that really are clueless about endurance, and about how much rehearsal you need, and how many times you’re going to play through a piece, because most of the time playing a brass instrument is like wind sprints.  You run as fast as you can for four hundred yards, and then stop and do it again.  Brass playing is very different than string playing.  String players can play all day, and a piano player can play all day.  This is just about the physical endurance of what it takes.  You’re going to rehearse certain sections of a big orchestral work over and over and over and over, and that’s just the rehearsal.  Then, all of a sudden, you have to play it Tuesday night, Thursday night, Friday afternoon, and Saturday night.  Those times, you only have to play it once.  No problem.  But in rehearsal, the second time, no problem.  The third time, it gets a little tougher.  It’s kind of a buildup process.  It’s a very athletic instrument.

BD:   Then you’re an athlete, in training all the time?

Smedvig:   Yes, absolutely.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   How much can the conductor, who is waving the stick, expect of the brass section?

Smedvig:   The conductor’s job at that point is really just balancing, getting some sort of camaraderie out of the brass section.  They need to get a sophisticated sound where they’re certainly going to start together and stop together.  Then it’s a matter of intonation, and a matter of tone.  This is why an orchestra like the Chicago Symphony has got such a great brass section, because they’ve got a great tone.  That’s what you’re listening for.

BD:   Does it bother you at all that the orchestra tunes to an A, and yet you’re a B-flat instrument?

Smedvig:   Most orchestral players, and including myself, play a C trumpet, so I am in concert pitch.  Once upon a time, orchestral players played often on B-flat trumpets, but now the invention of C trumpet has made the trumpet sound more compatible with orchestral instruments.  The C trumpet is a pretty standard instrument.  It’s smaller, but if, if you’ve got the right equipment, and you’re playing it right, and you’ve got a good ear-concept in your mind of exactly the way you want to sound, a C trumpet has got a beautiful sound.  B-flats are used more in jazz.  Most of your jazzers are tooting around on a B-flat trumpet, and most orchestral players are playing a C trumpet.

BD:   What about the smaller one with four valves?

Smedvig:   That
s a piccolo trumpet.  I use a piccolo A trumpet, and piccolo B-flat, and also G Piccolo.  Those are the other instruments that we use.  I also use an E-flat trumpet often.  They’re all trumpets.

smedvig BD:   Do you tour with a whole slew of instruments?

Smedvig:   Absolutely.

BD:   [Imagining the luggage problem]  Do you take a steamer trunk full of instruments?

Smedvig:   Yes, and that’s another problem.  The most difficult part of my job is getting laundry done and schlepping my trumpets.  [Both laugh]  I mean it.  They’re big and they’re heavy.  I have two large trunks, full of trumpets.  Everywhere I go I take my little family of trumpets with me.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  You haven’t named them, have you?

Smedvig:   No, but when I was a little kid I used to tuck it in at the foot of my bed.  When I was learning how to play, I loved my trumpet.

BD:   Does your wife take second place to your trumpets?

Smedvig:   [Smiles]  On occasion... thank God she’s a musician herself.  She plays violin, and she went to the University of Indiana.  She’s a Chicago girl, and she understands, yet for many musicians it would be very difficult not to have a certain sense of being eccentric in that kind of solitude.  When you
re looking at your stacks and stacks of CDs, and all the work that you do, it’s very impressive.  Somebody who can’t relate to that would have a hard time with me, because I get up at five o’clock in the morning and start warming up, because that’s what I have to do.  I might go lock myself in a practice room for four or five hours for weeks on end.  She’ll never knock on the door and say “Are you finished yet?”

BD:   [Jokingly trying to be helpful]  Put a light outside the door like on a dark-room or a movie set, so no one comes in, and when you’re ready, you turn the light off, and they can enter.  [Both laugh]

Smedvig:   That’s right.

BD:   [Being serious]  Does it ever get to be too much?

Smedvig:   Oh, no.

BD:   Do you keep enough time for yourself?

Smedvig:   No.  Occasionally we get a break in our schedule, and I look forward to that, but I haven’t had a real break in a few years.  It’s difficult because with the kind of concert that Empire Brass is trying to play, and the level with which we’re trying to play, you really can’t take any time off.

BD:   How much do you guys rehearse together?

Smedvig:   It depends.  If we’re making a record, that takes more time.  But a lot of the concerts we’ll play a hundred times a year, so once we learn a program, the rehearsal is done.  We really don’t need any more.  However, we’re always working.  We’re continually playing.

BD:   You just you come in and warm up, and hear the hall, and that’s it?

Smedvig:   Yes.  When I think of a rehearsal, I’m thinking of hours of rehearsal, daily rehearsal.  But after that, we just use half an hour, or we’ll touch up something, or we’ll refresh our memory, or we’ll talk about something.  Recently we were playing a concert, and there was this one spot in a contemporary piece which we kept fouling up.  It was three times in a concert that we were making mistakes.  No one knew, but we knew.  So, before the next concert, we sang it.  We sat there and we sang it.  We didn’t play it because this was before the concert, but we sang rhythmically.  You sing through it, and then it just brings you completely into focus.

*     *     *     *     *
BD:   Is the Empire Brass always two trumpets, horn, trombone, tuba, or might it be sometimes two trombones?

Smedvig:   It’s very interesting you mention that, because it’s going to be changing for the next couple of years.  The basic core group is two trumpets, French horn, trombone, and tuba.  That’s your basic stack of voices.  The two trumpets will be doing the treble lines in any original music, or in arrangements.  We would never flip voices in an arrangement of something which was written for other instruments.

BD:   Then it’s not really an arrangement, but more of a transcription?

Smedvig:   Exactly.  We would certainly not alter the notes that the composer intended.  We’re all trained to produce the sound which you hear, and I really believe that most of the composers would like the arrangements or transcriptions that we’ve done.  People come up to me and say, “Gee, I didn’t know that piece sounded like that, and I’ve heard it a million times in the orchestra.”  [Both laugh]  Then when they go back and hear it in the orchestra, it’s refreshingly different.  The other thing that I find interesting is that we’ll play in some areas where there’s not a lot of classical music.  If we get a twenty-five hundred seat auditorium, there may be fifteen hundred people in that auditorium that have never heard classical music.  They come up to us, and they say how much they liked it.  That, to me, is rewarding because I’m a classical musician.

BD:   [Being Devil
s Advocate for a moment]  But are people really so remote today, because they have records and cable television available to them?  [Remember, this interview was held at the very beginning of 1995, when the internet was just taking hold as a means of communication and dissemination.]

Smedvig:   Yes, but it depends.  For some people, all they hear all day long is rap or pop music.  Very rarely do they get the opportunity to listen to a great art form like classical music.  Then, if you never listen to classical music, why are you ever going to listen to it?  You’ve got to be introduced to it.  You’ve got to have it available, and unfortunately, classical music is not that available.

BD:   You’re trying to be more of a hook then?

Smedvig:   Absolutely, and we can bring people into our audience, into our court.  First of all, brass players are basically more pop-oriented.  People associate brass instruments with pop, with jazz, and with commercials.

BD:   When you say you play a trumpet, people will think of Doc Severinsen, or Miles Davis, or Louis Armstrong, who all play very different kinds of music.

Smedvig:   Absolutely.

BD:   Yet, you play a fourth kind of music.  Is the music that you play, for everyone?

Smedvig:   I think it is.  We try to pick pieces that are meaningful.  I believe music is sound, and tone, and beautiful melodies, even if they are contemporary.  [Sings something that sounds contemporary]  That’s a great melody, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  Most people who haven’t really studied music aren’t in tune with that sort of thing, but I can hear melody in contemporary pieces just as much as I can hear a melody in the Polovtsian Dances.  Somebody who doesn’t know about classical music will come up to me and say, “Gee, wasn’t that Stranger in Paradise?”  They have no clue that it was written by this Russian composer named Borodin.  But they like it, and are amazed that it is really a piece of classical music.  They have no clue.  So, we’ve gotten an audience that way, that maybe we would not have had.

[At this point we stopped for a few moments to take care of some technical details, and then I asked Smedvig for his birth date.]
BD:   Are you at the point in your career that you expect to be at this age?

Smedvig:   Boy, that’s a real difficult one.  It’s funny... my career has been taking twists and turns.

BD:   [Interjecting]  And I bet you wouldn’t have any other way!

Smedvig:   I really wouldn’t.  I feel very much alive.  I feel very much that I’m now at the point, at the age, where I realize that I have so much to learn.  I am also at the age where I realize there’s so many projects that I have stuck in my mind, that I’m not going to finish them all.  There’s no possible way.  If I work as hard as I can from now to whenever I’m taken, I really will not accomplish what I envision accomplishing.

BD:   Great talents usually wish they could clone themselves several times over, so that they could all work on a number of different things at once.

Smedvig:   Yes.  I wouldn’t mind a little bit of success so that I would be able to afford hiring certain people to do routine things.  I still have to practice four or five hours a day, and I have to get on an airplane and fly to a concert, and there’s a lot of time taken that way.  Yet, I’m trying to do a couple things at once.

BD:   You mentioned that you practiced four hours today.  Does that bother anybody else in the hotel?

Smedvig:   I turn the TV up really loud, and I try to blend into the sound.  [Both laugh]  It depends on the hotel.  This particular hotel, unfortunately, I think a lot of people heard me.  But oftentimes my neighbors get the notion that I’m a classical musician, so it’s okay.  They don’t mind a classical musician because all they hear for a couple hours are scales, arpeggios, and exercises.  It’s got to be very tedious to listen to, but my neighbors at home like me, and they understand.  “Oh, he’s a classical player,” in other words, he’s kind of a kook.  [Both laugh]

BD:   Have you ever wished that you could have some kind of a different instrument that would give you the full feel and sound, but not project the volume very much... like a silent keyboard, or a practice pad that drummers use?

Smedvig:   Yes, but it’s a lot of fun playing a trumpet.  It really is.  It
s something you get hooked on, and obviously I got hooked at a young age, and I’m still hooked.  I love playing the trumpet.

BD:   Is there any point at all to working with just the mouthpiece for practice?

Smedvig:   Just buzzing?  Oh sure... it depends.  If I
ve played seven or eight concerts in a row, or seven or eight days in a row, you wake up and your lips are swollen.  Then it’s just a matter of conditioning them, and getting them back into shape and into this little mouthpiece.  It’s just human flesh, and you’re just a human.

BD:   But it’s got muscle behind it.

Smedvig:   It’s got muscle behind it, but there’s a magical thing that happens which you cannot explain.  One day, your muscles and your lips and everything feels perfect.  Then the next day, you may have trained exactly the same way, and it feels entirely different.

BD:   But you still have to go out and play another concert.

Smedvig:   Oh, yes.  Absolutely, and after a while you become consistent with knowing that there’s no consistency.  Every day you play.  Maybe it’s different for a pianist or a violinist, I don’t know.  I wish I could explain it, and it’s almost the same.  I listen to tapes of concerts, and when I
m playing a musical phrase, one time you’ll play it and it just miraculously comes out exactly the way you wanted it.  You’re doing it naturally, but you’re doing it intentionally, and you’re trying to spin a note, or you’re trying to put vibrato on it.  You’re trying to do something with it to carve out this little phrase.  Then the next day, maybe for physical reasons, you put the mouthpiece on your lips and it shifts just a little teeny bit, maybe one eighth of an inch off.  All of a sudden, the one note that you wanted to spin and put a little vibrato on, physically, you can’t do it.  [Laughs]  Right in the middle of a phrase, you certainly can’t take a piece of metal off of your face and try to re-adjust it.  So, you make do.  You obviously do the best you can at that point.

*     *     *     *     *
BD:   Do you ever used mutes?

Smedvig:   Not often, but the most typical mute that I’ll use would be a Harmon mute, or a cup mute.

BD:   The one with the wah-wah sound?

Smedvig:   Yes.  You can get some interesting sounds.  There
s a wide range in the sounds that you can make on a brass instrument.  I’m not talking just dynamics, but also with mutes or with articulations.  There are so many different little ingredients that go into what you can do on a brass instrument and really make it sound very orchestral.

BD:   Do you carry a few mutes with you in those two trunks full of instruments?

Smedvig:   Oh, absolutely.  I take the standard ones, such as the cup mute and the straight mute, which also has a nice sound if you want that kind of sound in a certain texture.

BD:   Do the other guys in the quintet also carry the same kinds of mutes?

Smedvig:   Yes.

BD:   Then you can all change your sound together.

Smedvig:   Exactly, yes.  A lot of the contemporary composers now know and understand the technique of using mutes.  It really is an art, because a lot of times, students or players that don’t know what they’re doing, will stick a mute in and the intonation goes out the window, along with the articulation.  You have to learn how to play with a particular mute, and it can get a really interesting sound if the whole group is using cup mutes or straight mutes.  All of a sudden, immediately there is a different texture.

BD:   Have you thought about designing a new kind of mute, calling it the Empire Mute?

Smedvig:   Not yet, no.

BD:   Are there any sounds which you hear in your mind
s ear that you’re not able to produce yet?

Smedvig:   Oh, absolutely.  Right now, it’s more technique.  Again, referring back to Méndez, he was probably one of the greatest trumpet players I’ve ever heard, and he did all these amazing things.  He had studied with Herbert L. Clarke.  Back in the fifties Méndez was in Los Angeles, and he took violin pieces and played them on a trumpet.  He was of firm belief that we had set limitations on what we could do as brass players, because we’re basically taught that we can’t do that.  But he did it.  He blew it right out of the water.  He was a real task master for the few lessons that I had.  I was always in tears at the end of them because he would he would turn around to me and say,
“Well, gee, I could do that when I was four.  I was seven or eight at the time...  [Both laugh]

BD:   So, you were behind???

Smedvig:   Yes.  I think he figured,
This kid’s just going to go practice, and I did.  I’d go practice for a couple of weeks until I could do it, and then I would come back and say, “Okay, now I can do it too!”  It was that kind of experience.  I don’t think he was a mean person.

BD:   You say you don’t remember any time not playing trumpet.  At what point did you decide that it was going to be the means with which you would earn your living?

Smedvig:   It was kind of accidental.  I was really afraid all through high school.  I remember getting into college, and thinking that I wouldn’t be able to find work playing a trumpet.  I was a decent student, getting really good grades, and I really had no intention of going to music school or becoming a musician.  I’d considered becoming a lawyer, or going to medical school.  I’d considered a bunch of different careers, but obviously I loved music.

smedvig BD:   What finally made the decision for you?

Smedvig:   My father was a junior high school music teacher, and a great one for forty-five years, and I view that as a wonderful career to have.  My mother played violin in the Seattle Symphony, and she was great, but the Seattle Symphony is really a part-time job.  Even today, it’s very difficult to just play in an orchestra like that and be able to put bread and butter on the table.

BD:   Because they don’t play enough concerts?

Smedvig:   You really can’t make that much money.

BD:   Are they in the pit for the opera too?

Smedvig:   Some of them, and many teach.  So, you put it all together and you can make a living.

BD:   We’re spoiled here in Chicago.  The Chicago Symphony plays thirty weeks a year, and then they go up to Ravinia for another seventeen weeks.

Smedvig:   Yes, but there’s a big difference here.  The Chicago Symphony is one of the world’s great orchestras.  Hence, the players should be able to make at least a decent living.

BD:   Even so, many of them teach.

Smedvig:    Yes.  They’ve got to hand what they know on to the next generation.  Most teachers, particularly in the music field, love teaching.

BD:   You have done some teaching at Boston College?

Smedvig:   I did.  I haven’t for a number of years now.

BD:   Did you teach trumpet, or did you teach brass playing, or quintet playing?

Smedvig:   I like to consider myself more of a coach.  I’ve been sort of like the coach of the Empire Brass from day one.  I feel like a good horse trainer.  I’ve handpicked all the groups, and anybody I played with I’ve said, “Would you come and join the group?”  Then they would come in and play.  I’m fairly confident about my musical ideas, and in that regard, I feel like I teach the Empire Brass.  “Let’s do this, or why don’t we try it this way?

BD:   So it really is much more of you coaching, rather than a democracy?

Smedvig:   [Sighs]  For the most part... I hate to admit it, but yes, I think that holds true.  In any group situation, at a certain point there is democracy, but it obviously has to have a leader.
 It has to have somebody setting down the style, and tone, and sound to try to develop.  Then, if you do have different Empire Brasses, there’s going to be certain variances in the sound, but not much.  There’s going to be a basic sound that sounds like the Empire Brass.  There’s no getting around it, and somebody has to say something.  When I’m gone and not playing, obviously there’ll be someone else with a major influence that will say, “Let’s do this.”  But I’m assuming that it won’t change all that much.

BD:   Are you wanting it always to be five players, or would you want the Empire Brass to be, say, a collection of fifteen, and you take what is needed for each concert?

Smedvig:   That’s what I would love, and that’s purely economics.  On the docket now, the next couple of records that we’re doing, we’re going to do a large ensemble recording.

BD:   You already had the Empire Brass and Friends.  So you are just formalizing it?

Smedvig:   Yes, and we’re going to continue that.  I actually like the idea of incorporating other instruments with the brass, and not just keyboards.  Maybe we will have an English horn, and a cello, making a more esoteric ensemble.

BD:   [Noting my own double-reed background]  Add a contrabassoon just for me!

Smedvig:   [Laughs]  Okay.  I love the bassoon.  I did a record once with Sherman Walt of Telemann trumpet pieces that I transcribed.


BD:   Are you pleased with the sound you hear coming back at you on your records?

Smedvig:   Yes, very much.  Telarc is such a great company.  They’re the nicest people in the world to work for.  They come in with their equipment, put two mikes up, and three days later the work is finished and the record is done.  We have a great room to record in.  It’s large, like four basketball courts all put together, with about an eighty-five foot ceiling that’s all wood.  The acoustic ring is about four-and-a-half seconds.  So, what you hear on our recordings is what you hear in the hall.  It’s like a little church, and it’s a dream playing in there.  It’s in Lenox, Massachusetts, not far from Tanglewood.  It’s a unique space.  Unfortunately, Dick Clark and Association have purchased this property, and they’re starting a retired musicians center, which is a wonderful concept, but they’re also talking about putting an American Music Museum in this particular space that I want to record in.

BD:   They should figure out a way for it to be both the museum, and a working studio.

Smedvig:   I hope they’ll do that, but the problem is we only go in there three times a year.  I really wish I could buy it.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Why the
Empire Brass?  What’s the name refer to?

smedvig Smedvig:   This was selected by one of the original players, Charlie Lewis.  We had just all sort of gotten together.  Leonard Bernstein hired us to play the Mass, which opened the Kennedy Center, and we all fell in love with each other.  When the Mass was finished, we just started rehearsing, and rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed.  Charlie Lewis, one of the other trumpet players, was trying to figure out a name for it.  He was doing a Joe Papp production of Much Ado About Nothing at the Winter Garden Theater in New York.  We were all in New York because when you don’t have work, like every other good musician, you go to New York.  Charlie was standing there at intermission, and he looked out the back door of the theater, and he asked the doorman what we should we name our group.  The guy looked up, and there was the Empire State Building.  He said “Why don’t you call it the Empire Brass?”  So, that was it, for lack of a better name.  Originally, we actually did think that we were all going to be working in New York, and we’re still booked out of New York City.  Like every good musician, we have strong ties to New York City.

BD:   When the five of you get together, is it really like a marriage?

Smedvig:   It is, yes.  It can be difficult at times, because of all the stresses and strains that you have in your own personal life.  You have to maintain that on a very rigorous schedule, particularly with all the travel.  We log a lot of miles.

BD:   How did you happen to get a day off today, to come out and do this interview?

Smedvig:   We were playing an organ concert with Doug Major in Decatur [about a three-hour drive south of Chicago].  Besides, I love Chicago.  I’m heading for the Carl Fisher store tomorrow, and will go to Rose Records.  This is a great town, with a wonderful art museum.

BD:   Do you play a Schilke trumpet?  [Renold Schilke (1910-1982) studied with Edward Llewellyn, principal trumpet with the Chicago Symphony.  Schilke was principal trumpet himself in the years that followed.  He also started his own brass instrument and mouthpiece manufacturing company.]

Smedvig:   I don’t.  I play a Bach Stradivarius.  I’ve been a Bach person all my life.  I use a Selmer on the piccolo trumpets, but Bach trumpets on everything else.

BD:   How young should kids start playing trumpet?

Smedvig:   There’s no rule.  The most important thing is that very first time your lips meet the mouthpiece can make or break a player.  There’s no doubt in my mind about that.  That very first, initial feeling of putting the mouthpiece on your lips, blowing and making a sound is so important.

BD:   Should they wait until the permanent teeth are in place?

Smedvig:   I played without any top or bottom teeth for a couple of years.  I was getting my permanent teeth in and I was blowing on the trumpet.  That’s not really as critical.  You just need a place to rest the mouthpiece on a hard surface.  Your lips become muscular at a certain point, but I think somebody four years old can play... or you can start when you’re fifty.  It really doesn’t make any difference.  Then it becomes a conditioning process, and that’s the difficult part.  It doesn’t get easier.

BD:   Why?

Smedvig:   Because some things that you were first learning for the first five or ten years you take for granted.  You work on certain aspects, such as lip slurs, or just academic things.  Then, as you progress as a player and get better, sometimes one tends to forget a lot of the basic ingredients.  As a virtuoso player, you continually have to go back and make sure that you check yourself, and say, “Am I still doing that right?”  A lot of things that you couldn’t do as a younger player, you’d work on a lot, and as you progress, you start forgetting about that.  You just assume you can do that, when in fact, you can’t, and in fact you really do have to work on these certain little aspects.

BD:   [With a grin]  Does it bother you at all when a lot of people in a football stadium have these stadium horns, and they’re trying to play like a brass player?

Smedvig:   [Laughs]  I just consider that noise.  I don’t mind noise.  There’s a lot of trumpet players and brass players in pop music or jazz music that I consider noise.  It’s good noise, and I like that noise.

BD:   Do you always make a joyful noise?

Smedvig:   You make a joyful noise.  People in bands and in certain drum and bugle corps sometimes make a noise that I don’t particularly care for, but it’s fine.  If you like it, make the noise.

BD:   Have you ever played a herald trumpet?

Smedvig:   Nope.  Never have.  Never even tried.  [With a grin]  I have a difficult enough time playing the one with three valves.  [Both laugh]

BD:   Do you have any thoughts about baroque trumpets?

Smedvig:   I don’t really play museum-piece instruments.  It’s a completely different technique.  I have great admiration for the people that do, but I personally don’t care for the sound.  It bothers me, knowing that we have certain equipment that we can use now.  I enjoy driving in a model A, a little old antique car.  It’s fun.  It’s enjoyable, but I don’t enjoy playing a trumpet that doesn’t sound right to my ear.  The intonation is all off.  Even if they were used three or four hundred years ago, I’m stuck on the modern trumpet.  [Laughs]

BD:   You’re just glad they invented valves.

Smedvig:   Yes, and those little cornetto mouthpieces hurt.  I don’t like the way it feels on my mouth, so I don’t care to play it.  I can’t imagine sticking myself in a practice room for all those hours that it would take.  It would drive me absolutely nuts.

BD:   Is there a competition amongst brass players?

Smedvig:   I would hope so.  I’m thrilled that there is.  The more the merrier.  Take a list of string players or piano players, and it can run for pages.  I’m talking about fifty people that can play great.  In the brass world, competition is among one or two or three people.  I wish it were fifty people, because then you would really start getting an awareness that brass is just as enjoyable as any other concert form.  I don’t like being the odd man out in that regard.  I want to maintain the absolute highest level that I can possibly attain, and I work really hard at it to try to maintain that... as I’m sure string players do, and as piano players do.  Competition is just part of human nature.

BD:   Thank you for staying up late for this conversation.

Smedvig:   It’s my pleasure.  I can tell you’re one of us.  It’s rewarding to see somebody like that.  Very few people have this kind of dedication.


© 1995 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on February 2, 1995.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following September, and again in 2000.  This transcription was made in 2020, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to Adam Gallant for his help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.