It's Not About the Tone - Article for ITG

It’s Not About the Tone – Article for ITG

It’s Not About the Tone
a thought on developing voice by Brian McWhorter

Great trumpet players have always had their own voice. In some cases, their voices were spectacular – some were simple – some were tireless or terrifying, and some conveyed meaning and character that would become legendary. It almost seems ridiculous to encourage students to work on their voice as a musician, but we are trumpet players after all, and it probably couldn’t hurt.
To hear great playing is to hear a great voice. Whether it’s Nate Wooley creating a lavish, patient and surreal soundscape with Seven Storey Mountain, Alison Balsom becoming opulence itself with the English Concert, Wynton Marsalis ministering purposefully over a blues with LCJO, or Peter Evans disrupting expectations with MOPDTK – whether it’s hearing the electricity of Bud Herseth, the quick-wittedness of Dave Douglas – the thoughtfulness of Kevin Cobb and Louis Hanzlik, the audacity of Mark Gould, or the humor of Lester Bowie – all of these players have a voice that says something far greater than “I’m concerned about my tone.”
We are often too quick to reduce truly masterful playing as a vertical phenomenon – “wow, what a tone” or “wow, killer range” or “wow, s/he didn’t miss a note.” And this isn’t too much of a surprise when we consider that the trumpet players generally lauded in academic circles happen to be players who excel in these very lines of development. These musicians have a set of skills that plays right into our vertical fixation with trumpet playing.
But these great musicians are simply not reducible to vertical skills. And we shouldn’t be either.
When we are fixated on the vertical in our own practice, we tend to hear and latch onto those very aspects when listening to anyone play; they are the loudest phenomena to us. Even if we’re in the front row, we are often too distracted with our fixation to hear a great voice. We focus on their articulations, their intonation and their tone. We forget that what these artists are communicating is more resilient than their tone. Mark Gould may have said it best: “it’s not about the tone, it’s about the truth.”
We all go through periods (or moments) when we forget about the importance of our voice – or ‘truth’ – and we often forget that our voice is not just something that develops over time, but something that we have access to right now. Voice doesn’t come from a developed tone; voice comes from intent. And if your intent is fixated on your disappointing tone, your voice will join the chorus of musicians who convey the only message they can: “I wish I sounded better than I do.”
Fashionable tones come and go like the traffic on a Vogue runway. Today, we might reach for a bigger, more resonant sound – tomorrow, we could be discouraged with a little fuzz in our buzz – and we penitently focus our practice on fixing it before doing anything else. But we’ve already screwed up: we abstracted music in order to fit our fixation instead of saying something with the tone we have, with the music we’re playing and with the musicians we’re playing with. As it happens, this is the gig. This is the challenge of performance.
To work on voice, there is likely no better situation than playing with a small group. In fact, any small group setting, working on virtually any music, can be just the thing we need to shake us out of the vertical fixation that suspends our musical openness and development. Playing in a small group setting is part of any balanced approach to practice: it is the art of working with others toward a musical idea.
When we play in a small group, there is a fortuitous balance of autonomous and collective awareness. Our role is distinct and individual – but we are also clearly part of a whole. Surrounded by enough players to engage in a meaningful and musical conversation, we can explore how our voice fits in with the group. The interpersonal and inter-musical dynamics that occur as a result of this balanced conversation, create an immersive situation that clarifies the goal: to be a great musician, it doesn’t mean anything if you can play better than someone, but it means everything if you can play with them.
It doesn’t matter if the person sitting next to you is young or old, if they can play or if they can’t, if they’re out of time or out of tune, if they have weird ideas or if they disagree with you at every cadence; all that matters is that you continue to engage with them, with the music, and with your voice. Anne-Marie McDermott, pianist with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center said: “I think in life, all of us have a great need to converse with each other, to be understood by each other, and to provoke each other, and that’s exactly what chamber music does.”
Certain musical styles may be less valuable for these purposes of course. Minimalism, for example, is more note-oriented and less character-driven, and it’s easy to lapse into vertical fixation when playing it. This musical language can be important for other purposes — but it’s not as useful for developing voice. And while music that is too technically demanding or intimidating can be useful for some (to shock them into a certain kind of openness), it usually isn’t the best choice either.
Music that has character, flexibility, line and even clichés is entirely useful for developing voice. Music that can be played with, made fun of, music that begs for subtlety, and music that could use some chutzpah are examples of pieces that a band should explore. In a perfect school perhaps, student trumpet players would be locked up in a room with 3-5 others and told to come out once they developed an approach for something baroque, classical, romantic, modern, jazz, free, experimental, pop, hip hop, folk, and yes, something for a wedding and a funeral.
By working on a diverse set of music with character and emotion in mind, a small group’s voice will naturally and surprisingly arrive. And it’s not always a smooth process. I recall many times – just before going onto stage with a group – where tensions were so high that it seemed like someone was going to get punched…only to have some of the most exciting performances I’ve ever experienced.
Rarely, a group’s voice exudes peace and love; most of the time, it is far more colorful and rich. Fortunately for us, audiences just want a group’s voice to exude something – it’s when our voices exude nothing that they stop showing up.

About the author: Brian McWhorter is Associate Professor of Trumpet at the University of Oregon, co-artistic director of Beta Collide, music director and conductor for Orchestra Next, and plays the fool with the “award-winning” Pink Baby Monster. Described by the New York Times as a “mini-celebrity for the mayhem of the creative process” Brian blames any success he’s had on accidental associations with divergent musicians, artists, filmmakers, dancers and other demons of the night. Brian exclusively plays trumpets that are within reach.