A Conversation with Jeff Stockham and Tom Varner: Can We Play Both French Horn and Trumpet? (Part I)
Today Horn Matters welcomes another guest contributor, Tom Varner.
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I have never been able to double on trumpet and horn, having played only horn since I was 9, and as an “old” 16-year-old, getting into jazz, I felt that the embouchure adjustment was too great. The only player that I know of that can double on both horn and trumpet on a high professional level, both classical and jazz, is Jeff Stockham, who teaches at Hamilton College, Lemoyne College, and Colgate University, in upstate New York.
I also know other teen-age students that can play both well, and I am sure there are others that I don’t know about. There are certainly horn players that play flugelhorn occasionally, usually with a more horn-type mouthpiece, and horn players that played trumpet earlier in their lives. Here is an edited summary of our 2009 and 2010 conversations, with a 2011 update, on the subject of doubling and our various brass instruments.
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Hi Jeff! Tom Varner here, jazz French hornist. I moved to Seattle in fall 2005 from NYC. I always heard great things about you from Howard Johnson and others, Don Sickler too, several years ago. It is great that you are doing what you are doing! I could never play both trumpet and horn—I started on horn in 4th grade, and as an “old man” of 16, it seemed so different for my embouchure to play trumpet, that it just seemed impossible to me.
- Did you start on horn after many years of just trumpet?
- Or always play both?
- Do you make a chops adjustment?
- Or only a mental one?
I have several emails from parents of 11-year-olds (and older students too) who want to play horn in jazz band, and their rather small-minded (or maybe just exhausted) teachers say “no French horn allowed” in jazz band, so the students want to play, maybe, both horn and trumpet. Or maybe only the trumpet.
I often say—if you love the French horn, try to play trombone parts on the horn if the teacher lets you, as that is what I did. But, if the teacher is really stubborn, and hey, if you really want to play trumpet, well, life is short and you are 11! Just have fun. Any advice you would give to those kids?
Anyway—keep up the good work. Best, Tom Varner
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Hi Tom, great to hear from you. I’ve long admired your work that I’ve heard. Gee, it wasn’t THAT many years ago I was playing with Don Sickler and Howard Johnson in the T.S. Monk big band…Hey, we’re not THAT old, are we?
Anyway, here’s the short version of the story: I started as a French hornist in 4th grade, in 1968, I think. I WANTED to be Herb Alpert and play trumpet, but my band director thought that my 2 years of prior piano lessons and my good ear would make me a good candidate for horn, so horn it was. I still was always a closet trumpet-wannabee, although I never actually touched that instrument until near the end of high school.
As a high school freshman, I learned to transpose trombone parts–taught by an outgoing senior hornist who wanted to see to it that there was still a French horn in the jazz ensemble. So I doubled 2nd bone most of the time. My freshman year, my band director brought in the Louis Bellson (R.I.P.) Big Band, with all the upstate NY “Thruway Beboppers”: Don Menza, Joe Romano, Chuck DiLaura, Nat Pierce; plus Vegas guys like Johnny Madrid on lead trumpet. When I heard THAT, it was an epiphany–I decided THAT was what I wanted to do. I taped that concert, and copped all those guys’ licks on the French horn, simply because no one had advised me that I “couldn’t do that on the horn.” (Although when I got my first professional trumpet, a Burbank Benge 3X, my HS band director, a trumpeter himself, said “You’re not going to play THAT thing, are you?”)
Little did he know…
In college I got a flugelhorn, which proved to be an excellent transition instrument between the horn and the trumpet, and I started playing trumpet in an R&B/soul/disco band, just for fun and beer money. Even as a horn major at Syracuse University and Eastman, I always doubled on trumpet. I played in the SU Jazz Ensemble and the Eastman Jazz Ensemble, and got quite a bit of solo space in both, surprisingly. At Eastman, it was kind of weird, because I was neither fish nor fowl—both the classical AND the jazz guys looked at me somewhat askance. (Ask Michael Davis about the term “Polar Bears”–the jazz tuba player, Hal London, and I were looked upon by some as a “dancing bear act”.)
My embouchure is about half-and-half, which works well enough on either instrument. I never was a “low-horn” player; it’s my weakest register, so I don’t try to cram mostly upper lip into the horn mouthpiece. I just find a mouthpiece and a setting that works for the particular instrument I’m playing. I currently play horn, trumpet, flugelhorn, valve trombone, Eb cornet, keyed bugle (Bb and Eb soprano), and occasionally tenor/baritone horn. I find that versatility makes up for a lot of my lack of depth (I could never even think about attempting to take an orchestra audition these days). I currently play a Giardinelli C-4 horn mp with a Giardinelli #1 trumpet screw-rim.
On trumpet, I use a NY Bach 10.5C, but for lead playing, I use a smaller, shallower piece like a 10-3/4EW. But I’m lately gravitating toward a Bach 3C for better low-register control in all-around and orchestral playing. On Eb cornet and Eb keyed bugle, I use a Kanstul copy of an 1850s Graves & Co. Eb cornet mouthpiece, copied from an original owned by a friend. Basically, I just experimented a lot until I settled on a group of “gigging” mouthpieces that had a similar feel and produce satisfactory performance results on the various horns.
Having a lot of horns to choose from helps–I have a large collection of vintage trumpets and cornets, and I’ve gravitated toward particular models over the years. I currently use a 1959 Conn 10B Victor with Coprion bell for most of my trumpet work. My horn is a 1979 Holton H-180X with an Atkinson mouthpipe, and 3 different bell flares–Lawson ambronze, Meinl brass w/nickel garland, and the original Holton thin nickel flare. One of these will suit almost any playing situation, and for jazz, I sometimes use my Sansone 5-valve Bb single horn. I guess my point is that I have a lot of fun attempting to optimize my equipment for the situation.
My teachers, both Bruce Hagreen at Syracuse and Milan Yancich at Eastman, had no problem with me doubling on trumpet–Milan actually doubled on trumpet in dance bands early in his career. They did make it clear, though that “if you want to play 2 instruments, you have to practice twice as much.” Which I did for many years. Now I pretty much rely on my depth of experience and prior long years of practice, and the larger part of my playing is actually on the bandstand.
For me it comes down to this: if I want to play another instrument, I just have to put it on my face and make it work. Especially things like Keyed Bugle–Ralph Dudgeon gave me a few lessons, but mostly I just sat in front of the music and figured out how to effectively play the thing. It seems to have worked, because I won the 19th-Century division at the NTC last year, playing Bb keyed bugle. Now I’m just starting to learn to play Baroque natural trumpet, having built one last summer at Rick Seraphinoff’s trumpet-building workshop.
For students, my advice is to let THEM decide what they want to do. Band directors are often very hidebound, and are so overworked that they tend to fall into certain comfortable patterns. It’s extra work to have a student on horn in a jazz ensemble, and to teach them 2 instruments. Trying to mold the youngster to a preconceived pattern will either discourage them, or they will do what they want anyway eventually, so–better to get them started on their OWN path as early as possible. If I’d been allowed to play trumpet as well as horn in public school, I’d probably be a lot further ahead at this point than I am. Let the kids take the lead, and let them run with it, and just give them good guidance along the way.
The upside to playing both is that I can take a lot more work in a wide variety of settings and styles. In the course of the last few months, I’ve played Civil War cornet at the Smithsonian 3 times; jazz cornet and valve trombone in a Dixieland band; played 1st horn on the Rutter Magnificat and a premiere of an orchestral piece called “The Origin” based on Darwin’s writings; played 2nd trumpet on the Mendelssohn St. Paul Oratorio; played trumpet on Aaron Jay Kernis’ Nocturne, played lead and 2nd trumpet on a couple of jazz big bands; played 1st trumpet on the Bach Christmas Oratorio; done a jazz clinic; played trumpet in an avant garde jazz quintet; played disco with a soul band; done a couple brass ensemble concerts; and shortly I have woodwind quintet (horn) and brass quintet (trumpet) gigs and a gig backing up the Temptations coming up; doubling efficiently means I’m able to take ALL that work and pay the bills.
So I really feel like you do–life’s too short to just do what people expect you to do–go out and tear it up! Do whatever is fulfilling. We spend our whole lives listening to other people telling us what NOT to do. We have to push against this and break out from the limits others put on us.
Keep in touch!
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This conversation will continue in Part II, a week from today – next Sunday.