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April 1977 “Man Alive, What a Kick This Is!–” An Interview with Adolph Herseth

Adolph “Bud” Herseth has played principal trumpet in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra ever since he became a member in 1948. He is now generally recognized as the world’s greatest symphonic trumpeter. But his unpretentious nature (balanced with self-assurance) allows him to enjoy his son’s idea that he is really a failure because he has been on the job for nearly 30 years and has never received a promotion. And when asked the question, “Who are you and what do you do?” he replies simply, “I’m a trumpet player in a symphony orchestra.”

So many of our readers start beginners every year. . .
   Yes, I’m quite familiar with The Instrumentalist. My son-in-law is a band director in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin and I see the magazine regularly.

I wonder if you could transpose yourself back to when you started. I believe it was at age 7.
   That’s right. My father was the band director at this little school in Letcher, South Dakota when I got my first trumpet and I remember very distinctly my very first time playing in the band. It was a summer band concert on the main street of that little town. I was sitting on the bandstand, way down on the 3rd or 4th part, and playing some little march. I was only 8 at the time, but I can remember it to this day. I thought, “Man alive! What a kick this is!” And I’ll never forget my Dad looking over at me and smiling a couple of times. He could see that I really dug it.

Did you have formal lessons?

   The first were with James Greco during the summer of 1937 when I went to the first high school state band camp that Gerald Prescott held at the University of Minnesota. He had heard me play at a regional contest and invited me to play solo cornet in the summer band. We had a terrific time down there. The teachers were from the symphony orchestra (Minneapolis – now the Minnesota). Jimmy Greco was the assistant first trumpeter and had come from the Roxy Theatre in New York. I had three or four lessons from him during the two or three weeks we were down there. He played some solos on concerts during the time – Carnival of Venice and some others, but the one that sticks out in my mind was an encore, The Emperor Waltz by Strauss — with the glorious unison trumpets and trombones. I never have played that piece without thinking of that particular scene in the Minneapolis Auditorium. It still gives me chills.
   So that was my first exposure to formal, professional quality teaching. Even though it was only a short time, it was very inspiring — no doubt about it. It really lit a fire in me somewhere.

What other teachers had a similar effect?

   Marcel Lafosse and Georges Mager, at the New England Conservatory in Boston when I went there for two and a half years on the GI Bill after World War II. The first year and a half I studied with Lafosse (the second trumpet player in the Boston Symphony; first trumpeter Mager’s schedule was full), and with Mager for my final year. Mager was a very famous orchestral trumpet player in those days — he played in Boston under Koussevitsky, even Monteux, and must have played there 30 years or more. He was a very exciting player and a very inspiring teacher. I owe a great deal to that man.

What specific things did you get from him?

   Primarily musical style, which was what I really wanted anyway. I could already play the trumpet, had played a lot of dance work, concert band, solos, and a limited amount of orchestra at Luther College in Iowa. The thing I got from him was an understanding of the different styles you need to approach the wide variety of repertoire a symphony trumpet player is faced with . . . and that was the main thing he wanted to show me. I still think that’s the one thing that separates the “really good” players from the “adequate” players. I know lots of people who can play a million notes — there’s always somebody who will play higher than you do, faster than you do, louder or softer than you do, and longer than you do, but it’s a matter of “What can you do with the various kinds of music?” That’s where it’s really at. . .in this kind of work at least.

In an informative book by Louis Davidson (Trumpet Profiles) you listed a number of players you “most admired and whose playing most influenced your own playing.” Can you tell us something about them? Let’s start with Louis Davidson.
   One of the first records we had at home — one I played a lot — was the recording of the Shostakovitch First Symphony by the Cleveland Orchestra with Artur Rodzinski conducting. I didn’t know at that time who the first trumpet player was, but I was very impressed with that recording. Later I heard Louis several times in person and I always thought him a really very elegant and marvelous player. I heard many things that I liked in his playing.
   When you hear something you like in someone else’s playing, it eventually becomes (almost instinctively) a little part of your own equipment. That’s the positive side of listening. The negative side is that sometimes you hear a player whose style or phrasing you do not like, and almost unconsciously you omit that from your style — it does not become a part of your concept.

Another name you listed is Harry Glantz-
   Well, Glantz was, I suppose, the biggest name in orchestral trumpet playing for many many years. He played in the New York Philharmonic (Mengelberg, Toscanini, others) then moved over to the NBC Orchestra a year or two after it was formed. He was a big influence on all symphonic trumpet players.

In every case was it the style you were admiring and being influenced by?
   With Glantz I think I was more impressed with the solidity of his playing. To my way of thinking he was not as inspiring a player — in terms of really getting turned on when he played — as Mager was. But he was very reliable, with an excellent sound and style of playing — one that I think probably influenced more players than any other during that period. There were three big names then — Mager, Glantz, and Saul Caston in Philadelphia. We didn’t have so many Philly records around the house as we had of the Boston Orchestra — maybe that’s why I always wanted to go study with that exciting guy I heard on those Boston records. . .and I was lucky enough to have the chance. Caston was a very brilliant and soloistic type of player — very exciting. Again, he influenced a lot of people.

And Maurice André.
   Well, let’s face it, Andre is . . .he’s it in terms of solo playing. The guy sounds fabulous, that’s all. . .that’s all I can say. I heard him play live a couple of times, once in Amsterdam, and also in this area. I have nothing but the greatest admiration for the man’s playing — fabulous.

Are there others ?

   Well, I’ve always admired Adolf Scherbaum’s playing because he was the first to really go into the Baroque high trumpet playing in a big way — a very exciting player.

You’ve called so many of these players  “exciting.” What makes excitement?
   It’s when a guy tells a story with a piece. That’s all. He gets away from the notes. It’s one thing to turn a crank and get them all, but if you say something besides, that’s what it’s all about.

In that same book, you also listed jazz players.
   Yes, I think Maynard Ferguson is the greatest brass player in this part of the century.

Brass player?
   Brass player.

Not jazz player?
   Just brass player — the guy is phenomenal. There are some other marvelous players, of course. I was a big Harry James fan back in the ’30s and ’40s, bought his records and liked his playing very much. I’ve enjoyed hearing Rafael Mendez on records, but have not had a chance to hear him live. There’s a man in New York right now, Jon Faddis, who is a very exciting new talent in the jazz scene. There are many others, like Lew Soloff, formerly of Blood, Sweat & Tears.

You ‘re a real jazz fan, aren’t you?

   Yes, I like both small combo and big band — like Kenton, Ferguson, Basie.

What kind of jazz did you play?
   Both. I played in a big swing band in the Navy overseas, where I split lead with a fellow named Gunnar Sorenson. I’ve never heard of him since, but he was very talented and knew a great deal about playing and how to lead a section. Some of that rubbed off, and it has actually been a big help to me here in the symphony.

I know you also admire a number of opera singers.

   Yes, like a really marvelous Swedish tenor who died a few years ago, Jussi Bjoerling. Ahh. . .his singing was out of sight, out of sight.

Some people may wonder why an instrumentalist listens to vocalists.
   You know, every instrument is in a sense an attempt by man to imitate the human voice in some way — and basically that’s the ultimate goal that everybody should have in mind when they play an instrument. When you play some of the very disjointed things, especially in some of the avant-garde pieces, it’s rather hard to think in terms of vocal lyricism. But nevertheless it still helps your playing… more phrase-wise, with a better sound, a better projection of the idea — grotesque as it might be. I think that every instrumentalist can benefit greatly from listening to fine singers, especially opera or lieder where they are telling a story. And you can learn a lot listening to a great pop singer like Frank Sinatra. The guy really puts across the lyrics of a tune.

Well, let’s talk about you. You’ve been in that chair nearly 30 years!
   Holy mackerel! That’s right. This is my 29th season.

You’ve found a home.
   You know, when I came in here Gerald Hoffman (a very nice guy in the section who had been with the Navy Band in Washington and Sousa’s Band) said, “Hey, you know kid, you got to be here 25 years before you’re out of the ‘rookie’ class.” So I’m now four years out of the rookie class.

Can you remember the audition?
   When I was in school in Boston I got a telegram asking if I would come to New York and play for Rodzinski, at his apartment. My understanding was that they were looking for just a section chair, somewhere down the line. I had gone to the Conservatory library and gathered up some first trumpet parts, everything that looked important, so I just put them up on the music stand, one after the other, and said, “Now I’m going to play this… and now I’m going to play that….” At the end I played a couple of solo things. After about an hour I finished, and he said, “Well, you’re the next first trumpeter of the Chicago Symphony.” I about went through the floor! Then he said, “Let’s have some cookies and coffee and well talk a little bit.” He asked, “What’s your experience?” And I said, “None.” (Then it was his turn to go through the floor!) After that he asked, “Would you mind coming to Chicago and playing for me once more in Orchestra Hall — the hall where the orchestra plays.” I said, “That’s all right with me.” (A very detached thought ran through my mind: obviously with a guy so green, he wants to hear him again, right? Figuring maybe once he is lucky, but if he could get through it twice, maybe he’s got something going for him.) So I came out here and played for him again for about an hour or an hour and a half. . .whatever it was. When I had finished he said, “Well, you have passed, summa cum laude,” and that was it! By the time I came here to start (the summer of 1948) he was gone, and I’ve always been sorry. He was really a great conductor — I had gotten my “in” with him, but I never had a chance to play under him.

How do you perceive your job? Are you the leader of the section, or are you simply responsible for playing your own part as musically as possible?
   Well, that first of all, of course, but there’s always in your mind an awareness that yes, you are leader of the section, in the sense that unless the conductor tells you some specific way to do it, the other players in the section will naturally listen to the first player, who (by the nature of the job) sets the style. But that’s not ironclad. All of us in the brass section — horn, trombone, tuba — try to listen to each other as much as possible and try to get things together. If I play a passage just after the horn, for example, and he’s played it staccato, it wouldn’t do for me to play it legato. But that’s just the kind of sensitivity that a musician at this level should have. Basically, that’s what rules all of our playing here as far as I’m concerned. Everybody tries to do his best and everybody tries to make things come together in a homogenous way.

I know you have a very strong commitment to the job. Like the other day when you said you just needed a couple days off and postponed the interview. How can you tell when you’re getting to the edge?
   When you lose your concentration. . .when it’s a real effort to concentrate. The mind goes before the chops. The chops never quit, but once in a while the mind starts to fade a bit — it’s fatigue, that’s all. The schedule here is very heavy.

I’m sure that a lot of people less dedicated to their main job make a mistake in getting into so many outside activities that they eventually blow it?
   Yes, I’ve known good players who have done that — too much outside gigging and as a result have neglected their own preparation. All I can say is that I feel sorry for them when I see it happen. That’s why I have cut my teaching down and accept only a bare minimum of outside jobs. I take a few solo engagements, but that’s good for my playing because it’s an approach to performance that you don’t get sitting in the orchestra. As a soloist you’re projecting everything of your own, whereas in the orchestra you’re not.

Are you completely under the will of the conductor?
   Well, yes, to a certain degree. I think I can explain this best by telling you how Fritz Reiner approached the orchestra. Everybody knows that he was a tough old character, one of the last of the authoritarian era. In the first couple of seasons here he went through the orchestra with a fine-toothed comb, primarily the wind section, where everybody is responsible for a part all by himself. He knew where all the tough spots were for fourth horn, second trumpet, third bassoon, whatever, and you very soon realized that when you had something coming up you’d better be ready, because if you weren’t you were going to have your month in the barrel. The interesting thing was that once you got through the test period — and we all knew we had to face it sooner or later — he didn’t say much to you anymore. Because then he understood that he could get from you what he wanted and he trusted you, to the extent that unless you were noticeably away from whatever concept he was trying to project in his conducting, he didn’t say anything. He just gave you a cue, you played, and that was it. Terrific. It’s a good example of how that relationship can work.
   Solti is very much the same way — except he never took us through the testing period. So, to me, it’s not only a matter of listening and trying to get together within the orchestra, but it’s also a matter of working with the conductor. The good combination of orchestra and conductor we have now is partly a result of the conductor taking the best the orchestra has to offer, and of course the orchestra doing everything they can for the conductor. If Solti were to conduct one of the Strauss pieces, a Beethoven symphony, or Brahms with another orchestra he would not get the same way of playing, because all orchestras have their own distinctive style. It just happens that our way of playing and his way of conducting seem to really hit it off.

It’s a perfect marriage.

   Yes, 29 years, and I’m still getting a kick out of it!

That’s obvious. It really is. When you talk about those “exciting” players and about your own playing you are still excited. That’s terrific.
   The more you live the more you find out you don’t know, the more you’ve still got to learn. . . and it is exciting.

What about preparation for performances?
   With the schedule being what it is the last couple of years, there are times when we’re not as well prepared as we would like to be. Sometimes we don’t begin rehearsing for a Thursday night concert until Wednesday morning. To my mind that’s shaving it a little close. For standard repertoire that’s fine, but if you’re going to work out some big blockbuster that hasn’t been played before, you’re going to have problems.
   As far as the individual players are concerned, preparing for the job is just mainly keeping up with fundamentals, I guess. I practice scales, long tones, and nice broad vocalise-type studies every day.

Can you mention some specific materials?
   I try to vary it quite a bit, actually, but there are several books I use, like the Charlier 36 Etudes, the Walter Smith Top Tones, the Herbert L. Clarke second and third books. And of course I practice the difficult things that are coming up. But I try not to over-practice and go stale on them. I practice to the point where I’ve got them, but I don’t try to grind them into myself because then they become automatic, and you can lose concentration just because of that. I always like to go on the stage with the feeling that I’m doing this for the first time. . .and let’s really go!

So the trick is to figure out when you’re prepared to play it, won’t miss it, but you’re still not stale on it?

   Right. This is an individual matter, though. Some people like to practice things over and over — maybe 20, 30, 40 times — but I like to have the excitement of just slightly improvising it. Keeps you a little freer. The other way could lock you into one exact precise way of playing — it really could.

Do you have a standard warm-up routine?
   No, not particularly. Here again, it’s an individual matter. I do believe in warming up, and as I grow older I find that it takes a little longer to get all the brain cells and all the red corpuscles going. It’s a fact of life.
   You know, a warm-up is just a practice session gradually approached — that’s really all it is. You try to cover some of the fundamentals, first of all to get a nice freely-produced musical quality sound. And then you go through a few articulations, and gradually extend the range until your top, bottom, and middle registers, articulations, and lungs, are all there.

How long is it taking you now?
   Oh, I can get ready in 15 minutes, but I don’t like to. I prefer a half-hour.

Do you use any special practice techniques? I remember when someone at a clinic session asked you about a famous Reiner incident (probably when it was your month in the barrel) when he asked you to play Also Sprach Zarathustra over and over – 17 times was it?
   There are also many of those legends. I’m not sure where the truth is myself, I’ve heard them garbled up so many times.

At that particular session you described a kind of “three-baseball bat” technique where you had played the solo in every key up well beyond the one it was written in, so coming back down was easy.
   Yes, because that is an interval-type thing — octaves. I practice some things in several different keys. Just transposing them around you get a better feel. You get your mind fixed a little better on the exact path this thing is taking and you also get away from that sort of stultifying effect of being locked into only one way. I sometimes transpose various etudes and find it adds another dimension to them. Or I play the etude on a different pitch trumpet and transpose that way. It works well. Otherwise I just practice what I need to cope with the job, and my needs change from week to week. I do invent a lot of exercises. It’s a matter of improvising.

I know that in 1952 you were in an automobile accident that smashed up your embouchure. How were you able to come back and play again?
   I was off for six weeks, then came back and played the last two weeks of the season. At home I couldn’t even play out of the staff but when I got down here in the hall, with the orchestra, it all happened — Tchaikovsky 5th, everything.

That’s really incredible. And when you went back home you still couldn’t play out of the staff?
   No. But I didn’t want to waste a lot of time practicing at home anyway because I knew I had limited endurance and I wanted to save enough for just those concerts the last weeks of the season. I didn’t want to sit around until Ravinia (in the summer) to know if I was going to work. And it was one of the smartest things I did, really. In fact we recorded the Tchaikovsky 5th and I played alone without an assistant.

Amazing. Did you go through any kind of a re-training process that would be helpful to people who are just starting?
   Well, I had to change the angle and the position on my lower lip because of the scar tissue and a different mouth — there were caps and crowns on rebuilt teeth and it felt very different. I had to shift around until I found a place where it worked, and I just left it there. Gradually the teeth got closer to the original contour. Two lower teeth in the middle are dead, two on one side were broken off down to the gum and rebuilt with pegs in them. Two others were just pushed back. All the tops were chipped off and all the bone was crushed away along the roots. I played with a splint anchored over my lower back teeth (to hold the teeth from rocking) for about six months.

So band directors who are telling students “you must play the trumpet in exactly the same position because that’s the prescribed way” don’t make any sense.

   No, not at all. There are some rules, of course — you wouldn’t want 90 percent of the upper lip in there, or 90 percent of the lower lip. There should be some equitable distribution. But it’s basically a matter of getting it where it sounds the best and works the most comfortably. From that point on you just forget it Maurice Andre once said that he never saw a country where people worry so much about their chops as they do in America. He asks, “Why don’t you just pick it up and play?” I couldn’t agree more.

Yet I’m sure some of the first questions you get at clinics are about what kind of mouthpieces you use and how much lower lip . . .

   I tell them the minute I start thinking about that I can’t play, so I don’t think about it. [Herseth uses a Bach 1B mouthpiece with a 22 size throat, and sometimes a 1, both on the C trumpet that he uses 99 percent of the time. On the higher pitched trumpets (piccolo for the Bach Brandenburg) he uses a shallower cup.]

How about records? Can we assume that it is you who is playing first trumpet on any Chicago Symphony recording since the summer of 1948?

   With only a couple of exceptions. There is one section of the Schoenberg Variations that my assistant William Scarlett played because it was performed in concerts when I was playing the Brandenburg Concerto and Tchaikovsky Fifth on the same program. I had told the conductor that if I could take off whatever number comes after the Brandenburg I would have time to wipe the blood off my chops and be ready for the Tchaikovsky. He said “fine” and that happened to be the Schoenberg, so Mr. Scarlett played it and did a beautiful job. He also played the “Antar” Symphony (No. 2) of Rimsky-Korsakov with Morton Gould conducting. It had been performed on a pops concert.

None of us are ready to write any epitaphs just yet, but are there any of those recordings that stand out as possible monuments?

   I’m still excited when I hear the old Mercury records we did with Kubelik.

Yes, I have Pictures at an Exhibition.
   You know, that was the first time I ever sat in front of a microphone.

No kidding? I’ve played and loved that recording for years!

   It was a very exciting time for me, 111 tell you. It stands out in my mind. It’s pretty hard to be specific about any others I’m especially fond of.
   Unfortunately we now record for several different companies. Because no single company works with us that much, and they don’t hear the orchestra that much, I don’t think they are quite aware of what the characteristic sound of the orchestra is. So in many cases the record comes out sounding the way the producer thinks it should sound, not the way the orchestra actually does sound. That was not true quite so much in earlier years when we worked exclusively with Mercury, and then with RCA. Today it’s a little more of a mixed bag. Records are frauds, you know…yes…to the extent that somebody other than the players and the conductor has a lot of control over how it’s going to sound. Musicians are really meant to play for a live audience. I know when you play for a mic, indirectly you’re playing for an enormous audience. But it’s not the same to sit in a hall where you have nothing but mics around and some guy yapping at you from the control room. It’s a totally different feeling, like you’re much more just a tool in somebody else’s hand. To me live concerts are still what it’s all about.

Have you done any solo recording?

   No, I have not.

Any plans or interest?
   It’s been suggested by a number of people who’ve offered to set it up for me. During the season when we’re working it’s pretty hard to find the time and the additional energy that’s necessary. And when it’s vacation time. . .  Yes, I know about the golf. . . and the fishing.

Do you practice every day?
   Yes, about an hour on workdays and maybe two hours on days the orchestra is not playing. It depends on the schedule. Last week I was really beat down physically with a lot of hard recording sessions and concerts. It was very hard to concentrate so I knew I was bushed. I’m 100 percent better, just from a couple days off last weekend, which we don’t get too often with our schedule.

Do you play at all on those days off?

   As a matter of fact last Saturday I didn’t play a note. Only about once or twice during the year you get to the point that you don’t want to see it. I don’t like to feel that way, so I put it away. When I’m on vacation I put it away for a couple of weeks.

That long?


You don’t even touch a mouthpiece?
   No. I kick it under the bed and say, “Now stay there!”

Do you have any serious problems getting back in shape?
   No, as a matter of fact you come back to it better, because over the period of a long hard season there are always little things that creep into your playing that you don’t want — physical or musical, sometimes a combination of the two — and you don’t have the time to back away from the job to work them out, so you go along and play. When I’m on vacation, even when I’m out playing golf or fishing, once in a while something suddenly becomes very clear and I think “I must try this.” And when I come back after a couple of weeks, I am renewed in mental and physical vigor. I tell you it’s amazing how many little things in my playing have been improved in just that way.
   After I’ve been off a couple of weeks I take my mouthpiece along and buzz in the car while I’m driving to the golf course. I’ll stand on the tee and serenade somebody for a few seconds while they’re getting ready (it’s always worth a couple strokes, you know). I do that for 10 to 15 minutes two or three times a day, for about two or three days. That’s before I even touch the horn. When I do, I’m already about 80 percent back in shape.

If somebody appointed you head of all music education in the United States, what would you do?
   That’s a pretty good order. First of all, I’d have a lot more money available for instruments, equipment, practice facilities, and I’d make many opportunities for listening to good groups. Listening is where you form your concepts. If you don’t hear some good individuals or groups, you really don’t know what you’re shooting for.
   I also think there’s a need for teaching solfeggio in this country. The Europeans have long made this a basis of their musical education. We have not here. I think there should be more emphasis on as wide a variety of music as possible and less on the physical aspects of playing. Because I’m an orchestra player, I would like to see more emphasis on symphony orchestras in schools. The bulk of the great music of this world is written for symphony orchestra. I know it takes a lot of money, facilities, and trained personnel, but I would like to see it. I don’t know how you go about achieving all of these things.

How would you train band directors?

   With almost the same things, especially as much listening as possible to good groups. I would like to give directors a half or full year sabbatical to go study again. Many of them would like to but can’t afford either the time or the money. I see the pressure of marching band as being a little excessive. I know it’s a good way of getting the community involved with the band and a good way of getting the kids themselves involved. It can be an exciting thing. I think it’s overdone.

Do you see any dangers in jazz programs?

   No, not at all.

No problems with range?

   Occasionally, yes. If you put up a chart from one of the big bands with notes way above high C and a freshman in high school is trying to play it. Whoever’s running the stage band program should have the sense not to use that kind of arrangement. It’s true, kids want to sound like Maynard when they can’t even get to the top of the staff, but somewhere along the way we should be realistic. As far as having students play most stage band music — I have no fears at all. Every bit of that kind of music I have played has been a benefit to me in terms of even the physical ability to cope with the job and having a much wider concept of things. I remember one time a famous jazz arranger came to one of our symphony concerts. Afterwards he said, “I can tell that some of the players in the brass section have played dance work, in fact, I can tell you who they are.” He named them, and he was right in every case. I thought that was very perceptive. He was saying — not in a derogatory sense at all — that he could hear certain positive things in a person’s playing that had come directly from playing in that kind of group. So I think it’s fine for students in school to play that kind of music. You can get turned on by a tune that you really like, and there are not so many of the really stiff disciplines imposed on you that you have playing symphony orchestra or concert band music. I think it’s good for a kid to get away from having every sixteenth note crammed down his throat.

Bravo! And thanks so much. We’ll all be listening to your playing with new ears. Any final word?