Image Credits: Rusty Smith © Rusty Smith.
October 30, 2018
Always keep the sound in your head
We had the pleasure of meeting the trumpet player and teacher Rusty Smith at the 2016 Jazzit Fest in Italy, and now it's time to interview him for Jazzespresso.
> Ivano Rossato
What projects are you currently working on?
I've been a freelance musician for decades, but now I'm trying not to spend so much time on the road and am doing a lot more teaching lately. My most involved position, teaching-wise, is at Elon University in Elon, NC, where I direct the jazz ensemble, teach applied trumpet and a class in music business. The band there is in the process of putting together several arrangements by Grammy nominated composer Chuck Owen. He will be joining us on our jazz festival in February 2019, along with trumpeter Liesl Whittaker of the US Army Jazz Ambassadors and drummer Bryan Carter of the NBC Studio Orchestra. We're hosting Nashville studio trumpeter Vinnie Ciesielski for our fall concert this semester. In addition to my duties at Elon, I also teach trumpet and play in the orchestra at High Point University and teach Music Appreciation and Introduction to Jazz at Guilford Technical Community College in Jamestown, NC. In the midst of all of that, I still maintain a pretty hectic performance schedule as a freelance trumpeter. I am most proud of a project I played on for a duo that calls themselves A Different Thread. It's really beautiful and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to solo on my newly acquired Van Laar flugelhorn. Coming up in November, I'm going to be doing a presentation on the development of lead trumpet players for the jazz section of the North Carolina Music Educators Conference.
As a teacher, if you had to choose only one lesson for your students, what would it be?
Always keep the sound in your head. As musicians, we should be focused as much as possible on only one sensory perception, our sense of sound. Sight, feel, taste and smell usually will only serve to distract us from our true mission... making a beautiful sound. Of course, when we begin concentrating on reading music or learning something challenging, it seems like the first thing we are likely to abandon is our concept of tone. I ask my students to work daily on a fundamental practice routine with the hope that they will be able, over time, to advance to a point that the best sound they can muster is automatic, regardless of their comfort level with the materials they are preparing.
How do you think the teaching of music has changed over the years?
I think back to my time as a college music student. I came from a family that didn't have a whole lot of money to spend on recordings, so I got a lot of my musical concepts from listening to live music on television programs. Back in the 1970s there was a lot of live trumpet playing on variety shows and on the radio, of course. Also, my friends and I would save up our money to buy records and to go to concerts to hear our favorite groups. Nowadays anyone can listen to just about anything any time they'd like! They have unlimited access to practically everything that has ever been recorded thanks to internet and streaming music services, so I spend a good bit of time turning on students to great players. Once they get an idea of what they're trying to do with their instrument, things begin to progress in a nice way!
Internet, YouTube, streaming ... How has this changed and influenced the teaching world?
I think back to when I was a kid and I'd get an album. I would wear it out, playing it over and over trying to digest every morsel of music I could get out of it. I'm not sure that, with no real financial investment in the acquisition of music, folks today value music as much as they did in the past. It's hard to say. I know that's not true of everyone but it sure seems like it's the case sometimes. Of course, listeners could just be overwhelmed with the sheer abundance of amazing music that is available! How do you decide on what to spend your time listening to?! Another factor, I think, is that so many folks listen in isolation. Headphones and earbuds are standard accessories! Growing up, my friends and I would spend hours listening together to tunes and we'd talk about what we were hearing and hone our listening skills. In my Intro to Jazz classes we have lots of listening parties and I encourage my students to try to put into their own words what they are hearing. Since these are non-musicians for the most part (it's really sad that some kids come into my class with almost no exposure to music!) I get some really interesting and unexpected responses once they understand that it's cool for them to have their own tastes, perceptions and impressions of the music.
"October 8 - 4 U: A Symphonic Celebration of Prince". Can you tell us about this project?
It is an interesting show. I was asked to play a few dates in my area fairly early on in the tour. A friend of mine was asked to put the entire orchestra together for a couple of shows. I think he hired about 23 musicians in all. Questlove is the musical curator for the show and there are about eight musicians that are traveling with the tour. They have a conductor, concert master and rhythm players (guitar, bass, drums and other players). There are just a few vocals in the production, from the stage anyway. For the shows I've been on, the audience has been on their feet and singing along during the entire show! There is a full-blown video and light production too. It's cool!
What quality do you look for most in a musician you play with?
There are a few qualities in bandmates that I think are essential. First and foremost, I like to work with good people. Music is a very special part of my life, obviously, and I prefer to play with colleagues that I love and respect. I think that leads to a much more successful and meaningful performance than one based on ego and competition. Next, do they listen and strive to come to a musical agreement in order to make the entire group sound good? Often on a production show or in a pit orchestra, it seems that, since we don't get a lot of time together to prepare the performance, musicians can get locked into the reading their individual parts and their focus drifts away from the collective sound of the band... the players they are in collaboration with. In addition, I greatly appreciate working with musicians that are consistent and conscientious. Basically, someone that is willing to always give their best effort and not settle for anything less. They truly want to do an excellent job no matter what kind of gig it is.
As a musician, what are you still "hungry" for today?
I still practice every day (trumpet players have to!), pretty much the same routine that I learned at music camp back in 1980. For a while I felt pretty bored with it, but then one of my former teachers scolded me for saying that. He said, "I love my routine! It makes me a better player!" For some reason that resonated with me and I have really thrown myself into being a BETTER trumpet player since then... not a perfect player, just improving. I'm trying to take the step that's in front of me instead of some giant leap or shortcut. I want to play more music, play with more musicians, and learn as much about it as I can. I have never really been interested in being a star or a front man but I simply adore collaborating with like minded players. I want to share my sense of excitement about being a musician with others, too. I'm having a great time these days and I love what I'm doing!
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