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Winter 01
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Principal Trumpet
Jonathan Kravetz

An interview with a trumpet great: Charles Schleuter

I grew up in the suburbs of Massachusetts in the early 80s, when most teenagers adored rock idols like Bruce Springsteen, Madonna and The Rolling Stones. But I was a trumpet player as were many of my friends. Thus, we ate, drank and slept the trumpet. Our heroes were players like screech trumpeter Maynard Ferguson or members of the Canadian Brass Quintet. And, naturally, we listened to the Boston Symphony Orchestra and its new, exciting principal player, Charles Schlueter. We were all blown away by his rich, round sound and by the force of his playing. How could he get so much air through the trumpet?

As I became interested in other endeavors after high school, the trumpet became more of a hobby and I didn’t think much about Charlie and his playing. I certainly never imagined that I’d get to meet him. However, a close friend of mine from those days, Michael Butler, continued studying the trumpet and eventually, after many years, began taking lessons with Charlie.

A few months ago Mike invited me to sit in on one of his lessons. Charlie met us on the porch of his home in a suburb of Boston. He was quiet and friendly and, at 62, moved energetically. His practice room in the basement of his house is small and filled with trumpets and parts of horns. During the lesson , Charlie made small corrections in Mike’s approach to the music and Mike always responded — they were speaking the same language.

I enjoyed the lesson very much and had many questions, but, unfortunately, Charlie had another student scheduled immediately after Mike. So after returning to New York, I emailed Charlie a long list of questions. He generously responded to all of them and what follows is our version of an interview, email style. Charlie is still the Principal Trumpet of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, a post he’s held since 1981. Prior to that he held the same post with the Minnesota Orchestra, the Milwaukee Symphony and the Kansas City Philharmonic.

-- How did you get started playing the trumpet?

When I was ten years old I wanted to play accordion, probably because my next door neighbors' grandchildren each played. When my parents took me to the local music teacher, Charlie Archibald, he talked me out of the accordion and suggested I try his cornet, which I did, and I liked it, so I started taking 2 lessons a week from him for $0.75 each!! Charlie was a very interesting person. He had been director of bands in both elementary and high school in DuQuoin; he had worked in the coal mines for many years (that's probably how my father knew him); he was self taught--on all band instruments and he played a little piano also. I'm pretty sure he had absolute pitch (though I didn't know what that was at the time). He had had polio a few years before I studied with him. He was not expected to live; and then when he did, the prognosis was that he would never walk. When I began studying with Charlie, he was walking on crutches about five miles a day, on dirt roads, and before long was using only a cane. This was all when he was 70+ years old.

-- Why the trumpet and not something else?

I'm not sure why I didn't continue on the cornet; when my parents bought me my own instrument, it was a trumpet; I have no idea who made it. On the bell, it said "Elkhart Model", made in Elkhart, Indiana.

-- When did you first know that you might be good enough to make it in this highly competitive field? Did you feel confident or did you always feel you’d make it?

I'm not sure if that was ever a conscious thought. I think Charlie assumed that I would become a band director, so he began teaching me to read bass clef, but as if I were playing a trombone or baritone horn--in other words as a non-transposing instrument.

After studying with Charlie for about 3 years, my father had his first of many heart attacks, and was unable to work after that, so even lessons at $0.75 was more than I could afford, so there was a period of about 4 months that I had no private lessons. About the same time, a new trumpet teacher, Don Lemasters, moved to DuQuoin and started teaching at the local music store-The Egyptian Music Company. (Southern Illinois is known as "Little Egypt"--hence the name of Southern Illinois University's teams are known as the Salukis). Don was from St. Louis, and had studied with Joe Gustat, who played first trumpet in the St. Louis Symphony for over 25 years, and Ed Brauer, who was on staff at NBC Radio. I had heard about Joe Gustat from Charlie Archibald because they had played together when they were growing up. He had always spoken very highly of him, but by the time I started playing, Gustat had retired and moved to Florida. Joe was the trumpet "guru" in the midwest--like Max Schlossburg was on the East coast and Louis Maggio on the West coast. But Joe was the teacher who players went to study with if they had some problem--like Dizzy when he sort of blew everything out, Buddy Childers, when he got out of the army and had some problems, Raphael Mendez, when he injured his lip (though I understand he attributed his recovery to Maggio).

Don was getting $2.50 for lessons. For me that was an astronomical fee!! As fortune (or good luck) would have it, just before Christmas, The Egyptian Music Company had a coloring contest in the DuQuoin Evening Call, the town newspaper, which I won and it entitled me to 10 free lessons with Don. He sort of overhauled my playing: he changed my embouchure and taught me about breathing (which had been Gustat's specialty). I must have shown some promise, because after the 10 free lessons, he continued to teach me for free, for the next 5 years. He also arranged for me to study with Ed Brauer (when he felt it would be beneficial for me to work with Ed) also for free. I applied to (and was accepted at) the New England Conservatory, but Ed said that if I could get into Juilliard and study with Bill Vacchiano, and got his "blessing," that I could almost be assured of having a successful career in the orchestral world. I guess he certainly was prophetic, though when I left Juilliard, I didn't know whether or not I had Bill's "blessing."

So I applied to and was accepted at Juilliard, but even then a lot of people said to me: "Be sure you get your Music-ed degree, because it's not possible to make a living playing!" I didn't know how good it was necessary to be to "make it," because in DuQuoin, I think I just assumed that since I played better than my colleagues, that it would always be that way. So I don't know if I had confidence or if it was the confidence that my teachers had in me that caused me to forge ahead.

Symphony orchestras were not that "stable" as a means of employment--even the New York Philharmonic only had about a 32 week season in 1957; The St. Louis Symphony had about a 20 week season at about $75.00 a week. The major radio/TV studios in all large cities--NBC, CBS, and ABC had staff musicians--the most famous of course, was when NBC in New York created the NBC Symphony for Arturo Toscanini. It started out as being made up of the "staff musicians" and then others were hired from other orchestras. Before Harry Glantz left the New York Philharmonic to become 1st trumpet in NBC, Benny Baker, who was on staff, was the 1st trumpet. Even Bud Herseth finished his Masters Degree from the NEC, by correspondence, after he became first trumpet in the Chicago Symphony, probably because the season was only around 28 weeks.

-- You must have been driven. What motivated you to work so hard? What was your practice schedule like? How much do you practice now?

I don't know if driven would be the word, but since I wasn't any good at any sports, playing the trumpet was something that was fun and it was mine! I practiced a lot from the time I started; with 2 lessons a week, I always had to be ready for the next lesson; I can't remember any more what days--seems like Monday and Thursday. I didn't really think I had any special "ability" on the trumpet--to me at the time it seemed that I had to work hard to keep up. Practicing was also a kind of "escape mechanism." It could make the time go quickly; I could use it to get out of doing "chores." Later at Juilliard, I could rationalize not doing homework for other classes by "having to practice." I didn't have much money or many friends, so practicing took my mind off of being hungry or lonely, so I put in 6-8 hours a day. And also, my father had said, "If you learn how to play the trumpet, you won't have to work in the coal mines." So that was probably very high on the motivational scale!

I don't practice that much any more and since I have been using Monette instruments (18 years) and mouthpieces (16 years) so much practicing isn't necessary. I am a firm believer in taking time off from the instrument. If I have 3 or 4 weeks off, usually I don't even look at the trumpet for at least 2 weeks. I don't think in terms of "getting back in shape." I pretend I haven't taken any time off--and with Monette equipment that is very easy, since I don't have to distort and contort the muscles to make things work.

--Since you mention Monette, can you talk just a little bit about how you discovered them and what makes them special?

Dave first contacted me when I was still in Minneapolis. I think either Doc Severinsen or Sandy Sandberg (then VP of Conn) suggested that he get in touch. At that time, Dave was working in Salem Oregon, repairing instruments, and beginning to make some modifications on existing trumpets. He called to ask what I had done to Bach C trumpets that improved intonation, response, etc. So I gave him the specs on the leadpipe. A short time later he sent me some pipes that he had made for me to try. At that time my response was that I didn't notice anything special. About 2 years later, when I had moved to Boston and Dave had moved to Bloomington, Indiana, he came to see me in Cincinnati when the BSO was playing there on a US tour. I tried the leadpipes once again and one of them felt great. He made a temporary fit of the leadpipe to my Bach C and I used that combination for about 4 months, until Dave started making the whole trumpet. I got my first Monette C (#005) in July, 1983, and the rest is history. I never played the Bach again! Even still using a Bach mouthpiece (at that time a plain #1 (now a #1X) with a #16 hole,) the Monette was superior in almost every way--sound, response, intonation, evenness through all valve combinations and keys. When he started making mouthpieces in 1985/6. that made me a complete convert. Every trumpet player has always looked for the better mouthpiece that would enable the player to have a better sound, better intonation, articulation, range, endurance, more comfort. Once he figured out the mouthpiece issue, he was able to make the first Raja I trumpet (integrated mouthpiece). This was 1988; in 1991 he made the first Raja II, and in 1993 or 1994, the first Samadhi.

-- Why did you choose classical playing and not something else? Or do you even make that kind of fine distinction?

Although I had played in the Southern Illinois Symphony, (which was part of SIU, and consisted of professors, students and people from the area) when I was in high school, only because my high school band director, Mel Siener was principal bass and good friends with the conductor, I had never heard any really good orchestras until I got to New York. I didn't own a phonograph until I got married, so I hadn't even heard recordings. When I got to NYC, I tried to make up for lost time by going to every concert I possibly could: I tried to hear the New York Philharmonic almost every week--they also broadcast every Sunday, Boston (they used to play in NYC once a month), Philadelphia, National, Chicago, and many more. (Chicago played in Carnegie Hall for the first time in 40 years in 1959. I had never heard Chicago even though I grew up 300 miles from that city!)

When I was in DuQuoin, I played in dance bands in night clubs as well as with my own group for high school proms and homecomings, but I didn't play jazz, probably because without a phonograph, I never had the opportunity to hear the great jazz players, like Dizzy, Miles, Clifford, Charlie Parker, etc. Although I did get to hear Louis Armstrong once when I was in high school. I played lead in a Latin Band during my last year at Juilliard and also in the big band at Juilliard, (the Jazz Workshop, as it was called). I never thought it was possible to work in the studios, because I was under the misconception that you had to be able to improvise in order to break into that part of the profession.

-- Who were some of your musical idols when you were growing up? How were they important to you?

I don't know if I thought of them as idols, but I suppose my teachers were my trumpet role models; Don and Ed, and certainly Bill when I got to NYC. I actually had heard Armando Ghitalla on the radio, playing with the Cities Service Band of America even though I didn't realize it at the time. Certainly he became one after I heard his Town Hall recital in 1958. Harry Glantz wasn't playing much by the time I got to New York, but I listened to all the NBC recordings I could get my hands on. I heard recordings of the BSO with Georges Mager; Fritz Wesenigt in the Berlin Philharmonic (again on record); Bud Herseth. I didn't consciously try to imitate them, but I was certainly influenced by them.

-- What is the most important aspect of playing for young trumpeters to keep in mind when they’re practicing?

I don't know if it's possible to focus on one aspect. Music is the obvious answer; that is the reason for playing any instrument. And of course music is primarily sound, so it is important to be aware of the kind of tone one is creating. Young players should try to listen to fine players on all instruments, not just trumpet, in order to develop a concept of a beautiful tone, which can influence their own. Breathing is most fundamental, because air is the raw material without which it will not be possible to develop a really good sound; Insufficient air will almost surely cause inefficient playing habits to develop such as embouchure problems, articulation, endurance, range etc.

-- I’ve heard that you have some unique ideas about breathing technique. Is this so? Can you expand on this a little?

That could take a few days! Basically I believe it's important to always inhale to the maximum. I know there are a lot of players who suggest to only take in the amount needed, but I maintain that you have the same amount of tubing in which to make the air vibrate at the appropriate speed in order to produce whatever note but also to have the potential for having the maximum resonance, dynamic control, range of color (timbre), as well as phrasing and nuance. It is also necessary to provide the body (and brain) with the oxygen necessary to function efficiently. It's been my experience both personally and with students, that all playing deficiencies can be attributed to insufficient air. I could go on in more detail but I hope this gives an overview.

-- I noticed that hilarious New Yorker cartoon in your practice room (the one depicting the trumpet player sitting on the therapist’s couch). What tickles you about that cartoon? Why do you find it "appropriate," as you said.

I often feel like I'm doing some sort of therapy when teaching. I seem to spend most of my time trying to convince a student that he or she can play better than he or she thinks possible.

-- Many of us may feel pressure to perform at a high level, to succeed at whatever we are doing. The trumpet, for me, is a metaphor for this kind of struggle — putting the self on the line. So I’m curious to hear about this aspect of playing from a professional. Do you ever feel the pressure of playing in front of a large audience, particularly when you’re playing the most prominent instrument in the orchestra? How have you learned to deal with that pressure and stress? Do you practice any particular techniques to help you concentrate?

First of all, there is no "product" in what we do. Good or bad, it's gone, as soon as we play it. So for me, process is more important. It may sound selfish to some, but it's important to play for oneself. That is, your first responsibility is to yourself. It's too big a burden and creates greater anxiety to try to play for your teacher, your parents, the conductor, the audience, colleagues, audition committees, even for the composer. If I can come close to my own standards, then that includes an awareness of context which is also part of process, for which only I can be responsible.

-- Have there been any particularly embarrassing moments in the orchestra? How do you feel afterwards?

I remember one time in Carnegie Hall playing the Wedding March from Mendelssohn's Midsummers' Night Dream, and I couldn't remember whether it was the first or second time through a repeated section and guessing wrong!

Another time, also in Carnegie, my third slide fell out in the middle of the Bruckner 9th Symphony, and I was scrambling trying to pick it up in time, which I did, but it sure must have looked funny to the audience.

I would have appreciated a large trap-door into which I could have disappeared!

-- Do you still enjoy playing in the orchestra? Do you ever yearn to do more solo or quintet work? Talk a little about your latest album.

Orchestral playing is still my first love. I get my share of solo and quintet playing when I go off to various places to teach and perform.

My new CD is on the KLEOS label and I think has a nice variety of repertoire: 2 works with piano (Honegger and Enesco), 1 with cello (Chardon), 1 with horn and trombone (Poulenc), 1 chamber work (Saint-Saens) and 1 with organ (Svoboda).

Since my previous CD, BRAVURA TRUMPET, has not been available for a couple of years, I have another CD that will be out I hope early next year, on which I re-recorded the 2 works by Robert Suderburg and the Sonata of Hindemith, which were on BRAVURA, as well as the Sonata by Jean Hubeau, all of which are trumpet and piano. Deborah Dewolfe Emery is the wonderful pianist on both CDs.

-- Do you have any favorite pieces to play?

I suppose Mahler Symphonies are at the top of the list, but I try not to have favorites as such.

-- Would you like to talk a bit about your foundation? Why did you found it? What’s it’s purpose? What inspired it?

The easiest answer is to give the Mission Statement:

The mission of the Charles Schlueter Foundation is to foster the enjoyment of music, promote music education, assist in the training of talented young brass performers, encourage improved brass pedagogy, and support the creation of new literature for brass instruments.

The goals are:

  • to establish international collaboration in the field of musical performance
  • to celebrate and preserve the cultural and artistic heritage of the trumpet and its repertoire
  • to bring the artistry of trumpet virtuoso, Charles Schlueter, to young instrumental students in their schools
  • to support and encourage the creation of new solo and ensemble literature for the trumpet
  • to inspire and guide emerging talented trumpet performers toward professional achievement
  • to support Mr. Schlueter in his efforts to record important trumpet repertoire for posterity
  • to promote music as an essential part of school curriculums
  • to maintain an effective liaison with various schools, communities and national organizations that have allied interests in music and music education
  • to understand and demonstrate how music serves as a means of communication across a range of cultures throughout the world

-- Who are some players, classical or jazz, you admire now? What do you like about their work?

I'd hate to leave anyone out, but I've always admired Doc Severinsen, Maynard Ferguson--I mean they are still doing it after all these years--talk about total commitment! Wynton is doing wonderful things as a player, composer, teacher. Terrence Blanchard, Marvin Stamm, Lou Soloff, Brian Lynch. All great players and totally committed to their art. I have many students who are making their own glowing reputations, which makes me proud. My apologies to those I've omitted.

-- Are you still improving as a player? How is that even possible?

I hope so. Trying to find imaginative ways to play old familiar repertoire as well as new.

--What kind of music do you listen to besides orchestral? What inspires you about it? What do you look for in a piece of music of any medium?

String quartets, singers, any group or individual whose approach is musically satisfying.

-- I read an article in which you said that players should take risks, even if it means missing a few notes. Do you still feel this way? Is this, for you, a metaphor for anything larger? A way of living?

If accuracy is the primary goal, then there will often be a lot else that is missing.

-- You’ve been at this a long time. Any thoughts of retiring?

Not yet!

-- What do you plan to do on your sabbatical this year?

About the same as always, except playing with the BSO. I have a full studio at NEC. I'm went to Brazil for the month of October and played and taught in 7 cities. I will be going to Japan in April. I plan to work on the book I've been at for many years, with the hope of finishing it. Probably a few recital programs and solo appearances.

To find out more about Charles Schlueter, check out his website:

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