Classical Musicians on Tour: Not a Guide

In memory of Kenneth Cottrell (1969-1993)

I’m a trumpet player. A classical trumpet player, that is. And even more specifically, one who plays in orchestras, wind ensembles, and chamber groups. Occasionally, I perform a recital or hack my way through a big band gig.

Money is not the main goal for most traveling classical musicians. In my case, anything that pays decent money generally involves a wedding or some other ceremony where pomp is called for. After finishing the bride’s recessional in a beautiful, acoustically strong, high-paying church in Connecticut in the 1990’s, a surprisingly boisterous round of applause broke out. The keyed-up clappers were ALL men. I glanced at the young female organist. She smirked at me and simply said, Men love loud brass music. It makes them feel powerful. …Duly noted!

Early Musical Training

I have had good musical training, but none at the highest echelon of conservatories with names that most people would recognize. American classical musicians with some knowledge have at least a moderate degree of respect for the places I have attended. Other folks simply nod politely when my schools are mentioned. The Crane School of Music, Southern Methodist University’s Meadows School for the Arts, The Hartt School at the University of Hartford—all respectable.

I was actually accepted to the New England Conservatory of Music for their Master of Music program in trumpet performance. However, grim finances, coupled with a particularly ill-timed phase of performance anxiety prevented me from making the leap—one of the few times I allowed those two circumstances to hold me back. It was the correct decision. My training was later supplemented by an occasional lesson with well-known soloists and notable orchestral trumpeters.

Classical Brass Players

I began this post by identifying myself as a musician and you may have caught my preemptive explanation of exactly what I do. My intention was to disavow any notion that I am “in a band” in the sense that many think of that term. The description was included due to decades of overly longwinded explanations to non-musicians.

You should, however, know that I did have a short stint as a member of a cover band during the late 80’s. We were called Narrow Escape and the Runaway Brass. A few gigs were played— most likely, we were paid with beer. Maybe gas money too?…Doubtful. Most importantly for our age—we felt cool! The Runaway Brass (Scott, Tony, Brian, and me) added a bit of flair to Blues Brothers tunes, a couple of Chicago hits, and other various 70’s and 80’s charts in an existing group we became acquainted with towards the end of high school. To this day, we all continue to perform in our own niches.

Putting aside my ludicrous notion that girls would take notice of a trumpet player in a rock band, I must share my favorite moment from my time in that group. While playing a sorority party gig at a college near Rochester, New York, our trombonist Scott decided to relieve himself along the tree line behind the house. In mid-stream, he was abruptly interrupted by a female partygoer who promptly shoved him aside, dropped her shorts without hesitation, and shouted, “Hey! Move over!—This is the Ladies Room!” I am sure I have laughed harder since, but at the time it was among the funniest encounters I had witnessed.

Musical Traveling Takes Effort

With a handful of exceptions, making a living as a traveling classical musician is nearly impossible. My friends in the jazz world have shared similar sentiments, even at the the highest ranks. In both genres, a combination of teaching, publishing, serving as artists-in-residence, and guest conducting are almost always required to live anything approaching a middle to upper middle class life. Because I am also a music educator and arts administrator, I have been spared the need for this rare combination of musical skill and economic wizardry. I have, however, traveled extensively for the love of making music with friends.

Around 1990, good timing and luck allowed me the opportunity to become a member of a quintet called Spectrum Brass. Not to be confused with a current group of the same name, we were founded by a dear friend named Ken who passed away in the most tragic manner imaginable in 1993. As noted above, this post is dedicated to Ken. Being a member of this young ensemble led me to a lifetime love of traveling with musicians.

A Special Man

For those of you who never knew him, Ken was the type of person who did not scare easily. He was also incredibly talented. This is a word I seldom use, as most ‘talent’ is based solely on hard work. But Ken was a superstar. Don’t get me wrong, he worked as hard as anyone I have known, but he was an astonishingly good trumpet player by all measures. If I “perfected” music after months in a practice room, there was still a chance it would go dreadfully askew on the battlefield of a performance. That was not the case with Ken. He flourished under the pressure of performance and always “nailed it,” to use the vernacular. Ken was so ‘in the zone’ that when a valve became suddenly stuck during his college audition, he famously continued and played the second half of the virtuosic Carnival of Venice with alternate fingerings.

I believe Ken and I may have toured together with Crane School of Music ensembles, but until Spectrum Brass was formed, I had never traveled either alone or as part of an ensemble where we planned the whole shebang. To be fair, Ken planned it all and the rest of us reaped the rewards. As mentioned, he did not scare easily.

Preparation Is Key

Detailed agendas were created that included performances at schools and a church or two. Specific memories are unclear due to the passing of time. However, what I do recall are the vivid emotions and the warm camaraderie. I can also picture Ken’s beautiful home in Bennington, Vermont, with a view worthy of a high end travel magazine.

We used this house as our home base and his entire family was wonderfully hospitable. Our gigs were in Vermont, as well as the Albany, NY region, from where our excellent horn player named Megan hailed. Musically, we planned repertoire that was both challenging and entertaining. This created a program that appealed to children and adults alike.

Unique Performances

I have come to learn that each performance has its own unique ‘vibe.’ It is hard to describe, but you can tell when an audience is “with you.” One event that I specifically remember from the Spectrum Brass tour featured our largest audience and took place in a high school near Albany. When we entered, I looked at the throngs of teens and thought they would eat us alive. Why would these high school kids want to hear classical brass music? Some combination of skill, repertoire, and Ken’s natural ability to interact with children worked! It was our best concert, or at least our most memorable, of the Spectrum Brass “tour.” Maybe it was all of the male students feeling powerful?

Types of Tours

In my mind, classical musicians’ tours come in four categories. I am sure there are others, but for purposes of simplification, here is a list:

  1. Tours with school ensembles are likely the most common.
  2. Self-planned chamber music or solo tours occur when stronger college-aged or older musicians are involved and persistent.
  3. Some musicians are fortunate enough to travel with an established professional orchestra, opera company, wind band, etc.
  4. Finally, there is travel planned by a classical musician’s agent. This type of musical experience is similar to a unicorn. I have heard rumors of its existence, but it is likely mythical.

The Brass Beacon

Memories of our inspiring and successful Spectrum Brass tour led me and similar-minded brass players to form The Brass Beacon (TBB) in 2002. TBB was a brass quartet comprised of great friends (Me, Mike, Jamie, and Nils) who simply wanted to make music together. We toured during the summers when our schedules were aligned. Typically commencing with rehearsals and a performance in Annapolis, Maryland, we weaved our way up the Atlantic coast to Nantucket, Massachusetts, with concerts scattered along the way.

There isn’t much quality music written for brass quartet—in our case there were two trumpets, a horn, and a trombone. In addition to the logistics learned from Ken’s planning skills years earlier, we also wrote and arranged much of our own music. The highlight of our TBB tours was somewhat of an afterthought—we bought street permits in Nantucket. Of all the musical performances I have been a part of, these times busking on Nantucket were, for me, the most satisfying.

Street Performing

Let’s be clear, street performing on Nantucket draws a decidedly different crowd than say, the New York City Subway. Cranberry-short and sear-sucker-wearing children, likely with sizable trust funds of which they were not yet aware, were the norm. The audience was very white. We played on Main Street, a beautiful brick road replete with boutique shops and eateries. Providing a picturesque ocean backdrop, we also performed along the main dock. In addition to the beautiful scenery and weather, what truly made these moments memorable for me was the fact that I wasn’t nervous!

This was music made with friends for the sole purpose of spreading joy to strangers. Sure, some tip money was garnered, but that was quickly spent on food and beverage along the gallery-lined pier. If families tried to pass us without pausing to listen, the children always forced their parents to stop. The little ones also loved to place tips in our instrument cases—this likely doubled our treasure.

The street performances served a dual purpose of entertaining the meandering vacationers, while adding several hours a day to our practice time. By the time we had our formal concert performances, our chops were strong! This was most noticeable during our last performance in 2004 at a church on nearby Cape Cod.

Special Moments

During a concert that we recorded live, our horn player Jamie pumped out a popular Shaker melody, commonly titled Simple Gifts, as loud as I had ever heard. We supported Jamie’s efforts by getting progressively louder, which encouraged her vigor and caused us to break into mutual laughter when we bowed at the conclusion of the piece. Men within several miles of the place felt powerful!

There is a reason this post states “Not a Guide” in its title. I can remember at least one truly special moment from every travel experience in my life, but those moments are almost always unplanned. This phenomenon is even more noticeable when traveling with like-minded musicians. At times, the moments are musical, at other times they are social, and in some instances they are cultural. With luck, you can experience all three!

The People Make The Journey

The most important lesson learned in this unexpected life of mine is that the people matter the most. Between ensemble members, audiences, venue hosts, and everyone along the way, positive relationships are the cornerstone of successful and often magical musical travel. There is no real way to describe the feeling in words, but everyone involved is aware when it happens. What I can say is that Ken Cottrell (“It’s pronounced COT-rel”) somehow knew this inherently at a very young age.

Thank you from the bottom of my heart, Ken. Everyone whose life intertwined with yours misses you dearly. You changed mine.

~Kevin

In My Unexpected Life: Travel, Food, and More, I will share stories, thoughts, and simple ideas to entertain and maybe even inspire others to engage with new food, travel, and more…no matter how big or small those experiences may be.

Even if my writings do not produce the desired result—please enjoy the blog!

7 comments

  1. Great to hear from you Kevin. I feel like you are talking to me over a beer as I read. I started a new brass quintet of fantastic players 2 years ago and it has brought me much joy that I had been missing out on for years while my girls were really little. Take care and hopefully our paths cross in person in not too long!

  2. It really does seem like yesterday, boss! I am so grateful for being invited to join The Brass Beacon. Thank you so much for planning those wonderful summers and arranging so many superb pieces to perform.

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