Kristina Mascher-Turner: Can you tell us a bit about your career path? Where did you study, with whom, and how did you end up in Rome?
Mike Applebaum: I started playing in the fourth grade in elementary school, and by the time I was 14 I knew that I wanted to become a musician. The experiences in youth orchestras and various scholastic groups were all very formative and helpful. I was a bit of a classical snob until I was about 15/16, when I heard Blood, Sweat, and Tears’ recording of Spinning Wheel on the radio, and that got me interested in jazz and rock.
I studied at the Eastman School of Music (‘73 – ’77), which offers a wonderful opportunity to develop both classical and jazz competencies. My greatest teacher there was my jazz arranging teacher Rayburn Wright. He was just a fabulous musician and instructor!
During these years I met Armando Ghitalla during a trip to Boston and managed to have only a 30-minute lesson with him, as he was rushed to get to a rehearsal with the BSO. After Eastman and gigging around in Rochester I moved to Washington, D.C. where I studied with Adel Sanchez (a great teacher and musician) of the National Symphony. I played in the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra from ’77 to ’83. This was the most formative time of my early career, in which we performed operas, ballets, and musicals. During that time I was lucky enough to perform with Armando Ghitalla while he was touring with the Boston Opera. This time around I got to know him and asked him for lessons. He was very gracious to spend some time with me. We became friends, remained in contact, and met whenever he came to D.C. He had a powerful influence on me musically although at that time I didn’t fully understand the techniques he was trying to explain to me. He used abstractions and descriptive language that I would come to understand when I subsequently studied with the super scientific and analytical Dr. Donald S. Reinhardt in Philadelphia, just before moving to Italy in 1983. I think what I gained most from Armando was musicality, from observing him always playing with incredible passion and a beautiful singing style. What a musician and generous human being!
During a visit to Italy in 1982 I met some musicians in Rome and other cities, and since I didn’t have a full time contract at the Kennedy Center I decided to move to Rome. My life in Italy has been a vast mosaic of the true freelance musician: classical, jazz, salsa, periods of symphony orchestra playing, arranging for studio recordings and concerts, sessions for Italian movie soundtracks, tours with pop singers, television shows, club dates, private teaching, directing youth orchestras, master classes and seminars, part-time conservatory teaching, juries for music competitions, leading my own jazz projects, etc. etc. Only since 2012 have I held posts of regular Conservatory teaching, in Rome and Pescara, where I teach jazz/pop/rock courses. If I had to pick one most important musical experience, it would surely be my three-decades-long working relationship with Ennio Morricone.
KMT: Your career has straddled the worlds of classical and jazz/commercial music. What do you have to change in your heart, mind, and chops when you switch from one to the other? Is the transition easy and natural for you?
As soloist for the movie soundtrack, Atame, with composer/conductor Ennio Morricone, in Venice
MA: Well, let’s start with the heart. I change nothing because I get emotionally charged up with any kind of music that comes down the road, whether it is a Mahler symphony, a jazz quartet or even an Afro-Cuban (salsa) gig. It’s all music, and when it’s beautiful music my emotional and spiritual involvement is at the same level (high!), although the feelings provoked by a specific genre can be very different.
On the other hand, my mindset and my “chops” (in the sense of physical preparation for the job) change enormously between the classical and non-classical musical worlds. When performing classical music the tension and nervousness level is (usually) much higher, and I’m really disappointed by this aspect of the classical music environment. It is my strong belief that classical musicians should have as much fun performing as do jazz/rock/pop/Latin musicians. Of course many do have a really good time, but in my own personal experience that has not usually been the case. There are some understandable reasons for this, like the necessity for a constant level of perfection in intonation, sound, and technique that jazz and other styles don’t exact on the players in a way that can become psychologically devastating. There’s just simply more pressure on the classical performer to be perfect. In jazz I don’t have to be perfect to have a satisfying performance. In symphony playing I try to adopt Bud Herseth’s advice: “be proud of your mistakes!” Well, up to a certain point!
Physical preparation (what to do with my “chops”) for classical playing is closely tied to having a good lip response for being able to play both with great power and with great finesse. So brass players have to do quite a lot of flexibility exercises that develop strength but also elasticity of the tissue of the oval-shaped muscle (orbicularis oris) that surrounds the lips. Musical talent aside, it is the condition of this muscle that determines success or failure in a physical sense. In jazz combos or when playing the lower parts in jazz orchestras I would say the above information is absolutely the same. Where things change quite drastically is in playing lead trumpet in a big band or on a salsa gig. In these environments it is necessary to have great physical strength for performing in extreme high registers, with accuracy, for long periods of time; it is absolutely necessary to accustom oneself to playing on a shallow cupped mouthpiece. Such a mouthpiece not only greatly increases the compression of the airstream (making the extreme high register easier to produce), it also helps provides the correct sonority for those musical styles. This type of playing is very athletic and often very far from the finesse one needs in a symphony orchestra. That, of course, is not to say that we don’t need strength in classical music, as in the 2nd Brandenburg concerto or the 7th symphonies of Mahler or Shostakovich.
The transition between classical and a jazz combo is easy. Switching between classical and lead playing can be much more difficult and risky, but over the years it’s become easier for me. What’s important in the latter case is to alternate using a normal cupped mouthpiece with a shallow cupped one in practice sessions. This keeps us ready for anything.
KMT: One of the main reasons I am excited to interview you is to share your experiences of the great trombone player and brass teacher, Dr. Donald S. Reinhardt, and his Pivot System. How long did you study with him, what was he like as a human being, and how did his teachings impact you as a trumpet player?
MA: Actually, I only had two very long lessons with him (four hours each in January 1983 and July 1984), but they completely changed my life with the trumpet, in the sense that he helped me develop and maintain correct physical-mechanical techniques necessary for efficient brass playing. His teachings took the physical suffering out of my rapport with the instrument. I think that every brass player on Earth should be acquainted with the scientific information I received from Dr. Reinhardt.
Doc Reinhardt was 75 when I met him. He was one truly gritty no-bull crusty elderly man, but with a huge heart and a super keen mind. He was one of the most sincere and honest people I’ve ever met. If something was crap in his opinion, he would say it was crap. No mincing words, just simple, honest, and crude truth, especially about one’s physical playing defects. He was kind and very generous with me. He sent me a lot of printed material even after I moved to Rome in 1983. It took me about two years to perfect the techniques he had given me, but as I mentioned, they changed my life forever and for the (much) better. They gave me greater endurance, better sound (more compact and centered), solidity and reliability in the extreme upper register, reduced mouthpiece pressure, flexibility (which was nearly missing in my playing), and a general physical state of playing that I could almost describe as pleasurable.
KMT: How did Donald Reinhardt approach the physics of brass playing in his system?
MA: Wow! I could go on for hours, days, weeks on this question! And I have to say that only through personal contact with him did I understand what his teaching was all about. His Pivot System is the most misunderstood, and unfortunately maligned, didactic approach that exists. But if a brass player takes the time to understand it and put it into practice, it could easily be the most important thing that he/she studies in their entire life. I’m referring here only to the mechanics of brass playing, not musical interpretation. Reinhardt himself said that he doesn’t deal with musicality and interpretation in his lessons because “if the talent isn’t there, what I teach is useless!”
I’ll try to briefly outline what Reinhardt’s teachings entailed.
The term Pivot System by itself has created the most confusion about what Reinhardt taught. Most people associate that title with trumpet bells moving up and down like flags in the wind, but this is very far from the reality of the system. What Reinhardt discovered, organized, and perfected was a complete, correct physical approach to cupped mouthpiece brass instrument playing.
Reinhardt divided his teaching into three macro categories: 1) Embouchure, 2) Articulation, 3) Breathing. I will discuss these briefly but as clearly as possible, with a few of my own thoughts mixed in.
Embouchure (and tongue arch):
He categorized four basic embouchure types, two upstream blowers and two downstream blowers. One’s type is primarily dependent on the structure, shape, and size of the jaw and its position relative to the upper teeth.
The “Pivot” is a vertical movement of the lips and mouthpiece, unified as a single entity (no mouthpiece slipping, of course), on an imaginary track on the teeth. Every brass player has a pivot, or “track of the inner embouchure”, whether or not they are consciously aware of it. The pivot is necessary to keep the airstream aligned with the lip aperture as the orbicularis oris muscle contracts and relaxes. As this oval shaped muscle contracts for the higher register, it pulls in one of two directions, either toward the nose or toward the chin, and these are the two general classifications of the pivot. All brass players fall into one of these categories. It is a complex process. It works together with tongue arching for airstream alignment and to provide the proper compression which in turn creates the right air speed for a given register and/or volume of sound. Reinhardt advocated anchoring the tip of the tongue, naturally only for sostenuto and slurring, on or just below the lower teeth so as to provide maximum control of the tongue arch, which gradually increases as one moves from the lower to the middle and high registers, and vice versa. There are other systems for controlling the tongue arch, and I have tried them, but I have found the tongue tip anchoring technique to be the most efficient and controllable, by far.
Of course, as almost all other brass-teaching methods do, Reinhardt advocated strong mouth corners and developed many playing exercises to strengthen them, including intense but time efficient buzzing routines. These buzzing exercises made it possible for me to face some very tough resistance challenges with a minimum amount of dedicated buzzing time (max 10 minutes a day).
Reinhardt advocated the use of a relaxed tonguing technique by means of the application of revised syllable pronunciation with respect to almost every standard brass method. He taught deh-deh-deh-deh for single tonguing, deh-geh-deh-geh for double tonguing and deh-deh-geh, deh-deh-geh for triple tonging.
An aside of my own ideas: I like to also include deh-geh-deh, geh-deh-geh for triple tonguing as it is absolutely the fastest possible alternation between the two syllables, eliminating the necessity of having to pronounce two “deh”s in a row. It requires careful study to make sure that light accents are used to ensure the production of clear triplets. Absolute constant airflow is an obvious requirement of all types of fast tonguing. I very much like the use of the “eh” as the principal vowel for tonguing, and from an open to a more closed form of it represents the actual tongue arch for most of the trumpet’s register. “Ah” is ok for the lower register and “EE” is good for the extreme high register. The changes between these syllables are quite gradual as one ascends and descends from one register to another. Many students may be confused by Arban’s use of the syllable “tu” in his tonguing studies, but we must remember that Arban was French, and that to produce the French word “tu” one must pronounce EE with rounded lips. Ah, Eh, and EE seem to me to fairly closely reflect the real syllables used in brass articulation.
Back to Reinhardt! He advocated the use of “D” and not “T” in articulation because it is much easier to pronounce quickly and does not stiffen and slow down the tongue. I have adopted this for myself and find it to be infinitely smoother, faster, and more musical. One may ask “but doesn’t the “D” create too soft an attack?” I would say no because, when we delicately place the tongue on the teeth for an attack, a small amount of air pressure is created between the tongue and the roof of the mouth, creating an attack that sounds like a “T” even we are actually pronouncing “D”. Of course, we can change the intensity of the attack through the use of more or less aggressive air flow.
Reinhardt developed and wrote many exercises to work on tonguing. Some are conventional and some are very original.
Reinhardt’s biggest single point about breathing was “when you have time, inhale slowly”. This is done to prevent tension building up in the neck and shoulder area, which subsequently can cause partial throat closure and a shaky sound. I’d like to add a couple of my own points here, and they are 1) to breathe slowly and deeply and 2) to breathe in time with the piece that is to be played. This single technique greatly reduces physical and psychological tension in live performance situations, enhances concentration, and increases reliability and accuracy. I can attest to it as having literally saved my ass even when my psychological state was prone to a high degree of nervousness or when my chops were not in very good condition! Deep, slow, and timed breathing will improve the response of a stiff lip and will render performing possible under less than optimal conditions. Whether playing in the symphony or a big band, the benefits are the same.
One may ask how slowly should the breath be taken. An exaggeratedly long breath can cause more tension than it is designed to relieve! So, each one of us has to find the right timing for this, but I can offer a few points of reference that might be of help:
♩= 60, one or two beats is adequate;
♩= 100, two beats should do it;
♩= 136, two to four beats will probably be necessary.
These speeds may seem too slow or too fast to some, so I would suggest that each player experiment and see what is comfortable for slow and deep breathing.
An excellent point of Reinhardt’s was to avoid taking breaths that are too deep when one must play in the upper register. Since we need lots of compression but very little volume of air in this register, it is counterproductive to fill the lungs completely in this case, and doing so can cause dizziness and light-headedness because much of the air is not used, undo pressure is built up in the head, and the O/CO2 exchange is temporarily blocked.
Reinhardt also dealt with diaphragm preparation, insomuch as it should be brought to bear (in an upward arching movement) at the moment of the attack. I have developed my own thoughts on this subject and have identified the necessity to prepare three vital elements just before executing the attack but without bottling up the air: 1) closure of the mouth corners; 2) placement of the tongue on the teeth; 3) raising of the diaphragm. This process takes about the space of an eighth note at a moderato tempo. It’s rather complex but can be easily perfected with practice.
KMT: Is this approach universal in application to all brass players, or do trumpet and trombone players benefit more than horn players would?
MA: Absolutely yes! The basic approach is indeed universal, but there are differences in the degree of application of certain techniques as one observes such application when passing from trumpet to the horn to the trombone to the tuba.
The trumpet uses the smallest mouthpiece and the greatest amount of compression of the brass family, especially in the upper register. To maneuver in the high register trumpeters must rely principally on tongue arching and lowering, with minimal jaw movement. Excessive jaw movement could easily cause an unwanted change in the note being produced because upper harmonics are so close together. So, trumpet players proportionately use more tongue arching than the lower instruments of the brass family. Tuba players have the opposite situation. They rely much more on jaw movement to change harmonics, although tongue arching becomes more prevalent in their upper register. Trumpet = more tongue movement, less jaw movement. Tuba = less tongue movement, more jaw movement. So, the entire brass family could be thought of as one giant brass instrument, extending from the trumpet’s highest notes to the lowest ones of the tuba, with the horn and the trombone in between. Horn players are always amazed at how easily trumpet players can pick up a horn and produce notes far above its normal high range. This happens because of the high amount of compression and lip strength that the trumpeter must develop to produce the range of the instrument. The horn has a lower range and a much deeper mouthpiece which require a less tense embouchure. In fact, using a trumpet strength embouchure on the horn does not produce the beautiful relaxed sound that is so characteristic of it.
KMT: Horn players, and musicians in general, tend either to approach practicing and performance from a highly analytical standpoint or a more poetic, instinctual approach to playing. As a teacher, is there a way to bridge this gap?
MA: Absolutely YES! And the best way to do this is to remember that one approach cannot exist without the other, even though we could identify a very small handful of so-called “natural” players. Both Maurice André and Adolph Herseth were of this type. They were wonderful teachers for interpretation, but if a student had some embouchure, mechanical, or physical problem, they were not the best teachers to seek out. For such students, Vincent Cichowicz in Chicago and Pierre Thibaud in Paris were the gurus to whom they flocked.
Reinhardt chose to treat only the mechanical-scientific-physical side of brass playing as his philosophy was if talent isn’t present, the correcting of technical flaws is useless. But most teachers must develop an analytical mind within the musical-expressive context. It can take a long time, perhaps from ten to fifteen years of teaching experience are necessary because many young teachers are still struggling with their own instrumental difficulties. I know that it was certainly so in my case.
Bridging the gap between the musical-only approach and the technical-only one is a matter of fusing the two into a single pedagogical-didactic method, and each teacher must find his own personal path that leads to this happy state. It takes great open-mindedness and patience to achieve this. Also, a great teacher will not “throw the book” at a young student who doesn’t need, and will become confused by, everything the teacher knows. The great teacher gives the student the information he/she needs when it is needed. On the other hand, Reinhardt through the book at me because, living in Italy, it was impossible to take regular lessons with him. I basically had to receive, absorb, reflect upon, understand, elaborate, and put into practice on my own pretty much everything Reinhardt knew. It took about two years, but I’m so glad he did that for me.
KMT: What advice can you give to horn players, from your trumpet perspective, on developing a better high range?
MA: Well, I wouldn’t make a distinction between trumpet and horn from a technical point of view. I would advise the same things that we do on the trumpet. Flexibility that regularly goes up into the high register and buzzing exercises (without the mouthpiece!) are the two things that were most effective for me for developing the high and extreme high register. Also, melodic playing an octave above where the phrases are written is important for maintaining a musical approach during this strength building. It is also very important do some high register playing every day, but not for extended periods of time. It should be integrated into the daily practice routine, and good common sense is a fundamental ingredient.
KMT: You’ve lived in one of the world’s great cultural capitals, Rome, for over 30 years. What do you love most about Rome? What aspects of living as an expat musician in Italy would surprise someone who has never tried it?
MA: Rome is a place whose extraordinary beauty never ceases to astound Romans and foreigners alike. It is truly the eternal city. I’m quite interested in art, history and archeology, so you can imagine how much I love Rome. It offers an enormous cultural patrimony that has influenced life in practically the entire Western world. It’s also a very chaotic and disorganized city at times, but its beauty and laid-back mentality easily seduce the visitor, the tourist, and the permanent resident.
I think that the major culture shock, or just a simple surprise, for a newcomer would be the greater degree of “organized chaos” that characterizes life in Rome. It’s not for everyone, and some foreigners leave not being able to deal with it. For me it’s ok as long as it doesn’t negatively affect what I consider to be professional etiquette and behavior.
KMT: Tell us about your collaboration with Ennio Morricone. How did that start, and what are the most memorable projects you’ve done with him?
MA: I remember first working with him in a potpourri concert in Rome in which there were many different directors. Morricone directed excerpts from Sergio Leone’s film “Once Upon a Time in America”, and I immediately got a sample of his tough personality. While we were rehearsing some workers were banging with their hammers in some part of the theatre, and he yelled “either they stop right now or I’m leaving!” He was right, of course, but it was very first contact with him, and I was quite impressed. Later, as I began to do a lot of movie soundtrack recording (Rome is like LA for the film business), I started working with him regularly in many sessions. I have been lucky in that we immediately developed a friendly, mutually respectful relationship. I say lucky because he either liked you or he didn’t like you, and if he didn’t he could make your life difficult in the recording studio. He’s really mellowed a lot in recent years, and rarely has one of his famous outbursts. I’ve had a wonderful working relationship with him for more than three decades, including well over one hundred live concerts performed literally all over the world since 2002. We’re still “on tour” even though he’ll be ninety in November! He still has energy when he’s on the podium, and he’s still composing music.
There actually a short film currently in the making about my teaching and youth orchestra conducting that includes my relationship with Morricone.
Even with decades of experiences it’s actually very easy for me to pick out the high point in my work with Ennio, and that is the almost one-year-long production of the film “The Legend of the Pianist on the Ocean”, directed by Giuseppe Tornatore, who has never worked with any other composer. It was a fascinating and challenging job because my role was not only to perform on the soundtrack, I also had to tutor the actor Pruitt Taylor Vince so that it looked like he was really playing the trumpet in the ship’s jazz band. Pruitt has severe sight problems, and I had to create special sheets with large numbers and color codes on huge staves that he could prepare the fingerings of the easier passages as though they were lines of dialogue. It worked out really well, and one of Tornatore’s colleagues asked him “Where did you find a trumpet player that can act?” I was unashamedly proud of that! In reality it was a very difficult job that entailed about six weeks of daily trumpet lessons (not intended to actually get him to play), taking Pruitt to concerts so he could observe trumpeters, a transfer to Odessa for six weeks, more filming in Rome, and the recording sessions. Pruitt was brilliant, and it helped that he was from New Orleans and a jazz lover. From that time on, I guess you could say that I became Ennio’s principal jazz trumpet soloist, although most of the material we do is symphonic.
We have concerts with Ennio coming up in Rome and abroad, and even though the repertoire changes little from one concert to the next, I never ever get tired of playing his beautiful music. Yes, I’m very lucky indeed.
KMT: What advice can you offer to ambitious young players fresh out of school about the professional world they will encounter? How can you make a living in today’s global cultural reality?
MA: As I currently see things, the music world, globally, is offering fewer opportunities than when I studied and entered the music business. And we must not forget that yes, it is also a business, and we must learn well how to promote ourselves. I don’t give a false impression when young players ask me how they can get started. I tell them the truth, but I try to keep a positive, encouraging attitude. I advise them not to become too psychologically attached to one place, even if it’s their hometown. I tell them to always be super prepared musically and technically, and to follow opportunities as they present themselves; this includes being as eclectic as possible. So many young players aim almost exclusively for a symphony job, but there are so many other ways to make a living with music. I also often have to give serious and badly needed advice about professional conduct and behavior.
KMT: If you were going to do it all over again, would you choose the horn over the trumpet next time? You’ve got the undivided attention of a few thousand horn players!
MA: Absolutely YES!! No joke! The horn is by far my favorite brass instrument to listen to! How can any trumpet compare to eight horns playing FF in unison in a Bruckner symphony!!?? And being of part Austrian descent (Applebaum was once Apfelbaum in the 1800’s) I would try to learn the single F horn and get into the Wiener Philharmoniker, but only if they had stopped excluding women from the orchestra! They produce my favorite horn tone. Well, maybe this isn’t very realistic, but it would be fun. Of course, I’m very happy with trumpet. It’s given me a wonderful life, but I probably really would choose the horn in a scenario of Mike Applebaum reloaded!