William Denton: “It’s Not the Best Player Who Wins a Job, It’s the Best Prepared Player”

Today, we are interviewing one of the most relevant trumpeters in the Chicago area, who also happens to be a great person: Bill Denton. He studied with James Thompson and with Dave Hickman, among others; he has performed in the US Army Field Band and with other entities before winning his fist orchestra position in the Alabama Symphony. Currently, he is the principal trumpet of the Lyric Opera of Chicago Orchestra. In addition to his interview with Trumpet Magazine, he shares none other than a PDF of exercises for our Members!
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What first drew you to the trumpet and when did you realize that trumpet playing was what you wanted to do professionally?

I had a cousin who played the baritone, so I started with that. I switched to cornet when I decided the baritone was no fun carrying it to school. I started thinking about a career in music when I was about 15. I enjoyed playing in the Wichita Youth Symphony and thought that playing in an orchestra was the best.

Where have you studied and who were your teachers?

Walt Myers was my teacher at Wichita State University where I received my bachelors degree. He introduced me to orchestral excerpts. I then went for my Masters degree at Arizona State with David Hickman (repertoire on steroids). After a number of years I studied for a time with James Thompson. Lessons with Jim were very productive for me. He is a great teacher and really understands the mechanics of playing the instrument correctly. Later on I went to the University of South Carolina where I studied with Dr. Keith Amstutz. Here, I mainly worked on solo repertoire.

What was your first full time professional job as a trumpet player and how did you get it?

My first job was as a trumpet instructor for the U.S. Army at the Armed Forces School of Music. My first playing job was in the Continental Army Band at Fort Monroe, Virginia. I auditioned for the teaching job which led to the job at Fort Monroe.

Which musicians, teachers, conductors or trumpet players have influenced and taught you the most?

I already mentioned James Thompson. My other teachers, Dave Hickman and Walt Myers were indispensable at expanding my boundaries. My favorite players include Wynton, Miles, Maurice, Håkan among others. I had two band directors at Wichita State that taught me ensemble and section playing. They were Miles Mazur and Dale Kennedy. They both had great ears and were exceptional conductors, at least from the perspective of a 20 year old wanna be trumpet player.

What is your daily practice routine?

My first hour changes from day to day. I use the standard stuff (long tones, scales, flexibility, etc.) but I try to be intuitive on how and what I practice. The main thing is, I try never to ‘check out’ while I practice. I try to pay close attention to tone, tempo, efficiency, relaxation, air, you name it. Later in the day I practice repertoire with perhaps some exercises worked in that are appropriate to the challenges that the repertoire possesses.

You spend a lot of time on the road performing and teaching. What do you do to stay in shape?

My job doesn’t take me out of town much, but when I do travel I work mostly on routines that keep up my strength and quality of sound. I also try to do some technical stuff for finger dexterity and articulation. It’s rare that I don’t have playing commitments on the horizon so I have to address those challenges.

How important do you consider a rest or break when you are practicing?

Rest is crucial. I limit my sessions to 30-45 minutes. On occasion I might go an hour straight if that is all the time I have. If you want to practice all day, thirty minutes of playing followed by thirty minutes of rest is a good way to log some hours. Resting within those sessions is also important.

How do you approach a new piece?

If it is an opera, I’ll usually just scan it with trumpet in hand, look for any awkward passages and probably start shedding them. I usually listen to a recording shortly after this first scan, mostly to check it against my idea of what the style and tempo will probably be. For solo pieces I would probably listen to a few recordings first to settle on what kind of sound and approach I want to bring to the piece. For solos and even brassy operas I often work from the end of the piece to the front as well as front to back. I frequently just hit tough licks in a session.

What is your approach to teaching your students?

I first evaluate their ability to play the trumpet correctly and begin to address any issues there. I then check on their ‘music IQ’ so to speak. Do they know their scales and arpeggios, how is there basic music theory, how is their rhythm and tempo, sight-reading, etc. Then follows a program to grow fundamentally with regards to tone, technique, articulation, flexibility, range, etc. We also work on etudes, solos, excerpts, transposition, the whole enchilada.

Do you consider it important to combine more than one genre in your studies such as jazz and natural trumpet?

A big style library is crucial to anyone who wants to work as a musician. Even the most revered symphony orchestras are playing movie music and pops concerts. At the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Porgy and Bess comes up rather regularly. A jazz approach is essential for this show. I do think that improvisation is a very valuable skill to have. Playing a improvised jazz solo, at least for me, liberates the more emotional side of music making. Tapping into that as a classical player is icing on the cake. When I taught at DePaul myself and the rest of the trumpet faculty ensured that everyone learned to play piccolo trumpet, Eb trumpet, and rotaries.

What criteria do you follow when you are choosing a mouthpiece and trumpet?

I am the last guy to answer that question. I know very little about equipment. Fortunately, I have great colleagues who are very knowledgeable. I’m happy with what I play. I play both Bach and Yamaha C trumpets, a Yamaha Eb/D, a Bach Bb, a Schilke P5-4 piccolo, and a Schagerl rotary. I play mostly Laskey mouthpieces with a couple of Breslmairs, and Warburtons.

What advice do you have for young students and for teachers?

For students: Pay attention to what you are doing all the time as you practice. Careful not to beat yourself up. We all have difficulties. Calling yourself names will not help. Praise yourself when things go right. When things go wrong, be cool and collected and work the problem with your brain. Don’t think you can beat the trumpet into submission.

For teachers: They (students) won’t necessary get what your saying until they are years out of school but they still need to hear it. We don’t necessarily want to be their therapist but sometimes what they need is someone to listen to. Chances are your opinion matters a great deal to them, so be careful with what you say.

Have you ever had a bad experience on stage?

Yes, a few. They always seem worse than they actually are. Take the experience, let it toughen you. These moments spur me on to better prepare.

How should one take criticism?

As lightly as possible. If it’s valuable be greedy about applying it. If it’s not valuable let it go and try to move on cheerfully. If I am doing something that is unhelpful to the music making in an ensemble I want to know. If I were to bristle at anyone with a suggestion, it wouldn’t take long for people to find me unapproachable. That is not helpful to the goal of making great music and that’s what it’s about I think.

They say that everybody has a little bit of performance anxiety and the important thing is controlling it. What do you do to control it?

Controlling it during a performance is very difficult. I try to be as prepared as possible so that a bad day in the practice room is still a decent performance on stage. Controlling the racing heart symptom is helped by having good cardiovascular health. In other words do some sort of aerobic exercise. Mindfulness meditation is extremely helpful with keeping your mind on track. There are tons of free resources on the Internet on mindfulness meditation.

Any advice on preparing for auditions?

I have a lot of thoughts on this but if I had to distill to just a couple of points I would say: Once you know how the music on the list goes, can play all the licks up to tempo accurately with no apparent weaknesses, with a strong sense of character for each passage, your done! Drill down on that. Build on the confidence that they’re going to have to rip that job out of your cold dead hands. Don’t take the audition for ‘experience’, that’s a self destroying cop out. Go 100% for the win. Yes, the odds are stacked against anyone winning but someone will. It might as well be you. Dave Hickman would say it’s not the best player who wins the job, it’s the best prepared player. I always made it my goal to be the best prepared.

What kind of music do you listen to?

I like classic rock and jazz. My taste in classical music is mostly from the 20th century; Ives, Lutosławski, Crumb, Cage, those weirdos.

With what musician or style of music do you identify with the most?

What I find most appealing in a performance, no matter the style or genre, is a sense of freedom of expression. The Beatles had this, Jaco Pastorius, Miles Davis, and of course endless others could transmit who they were and their emotions through their music.

Who is your favorite trumpet player?

How about I name a few: Miles, Wynton, Håkan, Doc, Bud, Maurice.

What is your favorite piece for trumpet?

I’m not sure I have one. I have favorite pieces, some with great trumpet parts. Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring comes to mind. Parsifal has fantastic trumpet and brass writing (Wagner in general is fun to play). Der Rosenkavalier by Strauss is fantastic.

Do you have any exercise you would like to share with the members of Trumpet Magazine?

Below is a variation on the first Clarke Technical Study. I use this early in my warm-up to loosen up and to focus on the balance between my embouchure activation and air support. I am also looking for an even tone quality that is resonant. This exercise is also about ease of playing, being appropriately relaxed, good posture, good hand position, relaxed breathing, basically bringing all of your best habits. I will begin the exercise very softly, then as my function improves bring up the volume. Only rarely will I play this exercise fortissimo, and then it should never be forced. Even at higher dynamics strive for a beautiful sound. I hope this study is helpful.

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