The following interview with John was made by Harold Nash in 1975 for the magazine Sounding Brass & The Conductor.

Harold Nash interviews John Wilbraham

Sounding Brass

Sounding Brass

John Wilbraham may truly be described as a giant amongst trumpet players, not because of his gargantuan physical proportions but because of his uniquely prestigious position as an international virtuoso of the trumpet. Like most players who master their instrument he is devoted to it and never spares himself either in performance or in the preparation of a performance. When I spoke to him recently he had just returned from the Far East and had been welcomed home by a rather unpleasant variety of British cold-germ. His only concern was that its effect might prevent his performance that evening from being at the high level of perfection which he constantly demands from himself whether he is leading a brass section on a film music session, playing a concerto in some distant land or fulfilling his role of Principal Trumpet in the B.B.C. Symphony Orchestra. Surely, such a dedicated brassman must have come from a long line of brass blowers! On enquiry I learnt that his only musical heritage was from a mother who was fond of the arts, a father who once played the drums in a dance band in India and a grandfather who played the organ in church quite regularly until the incumbent of that particular parish was changed and the sermons became rather longer. He decide that as there was little enough time for drinking on a Sunday anyway he would give up the job as it was interfering with his Sunday evening drink. On reflection is seems quite a good reason for giving up the organ! At least we now know whence John inherited his enjoyment of a pint of ale after a long day’s blow.

As is so often the case our hero began his trumpeting days in a rather co-incidental way when his school decided that an orchestra was the means of stealing an artistic march in their rivals and so, a number of the most likely lads were assembled in the music room and encouraged to choose an instrument. The 15 year-old Wilbraham, no doubt aware that such a dominant sounding machine was bound to make an impression, selected the trumpet. It was like a duck taking to water —took the thing home and was amazed to find that I could get a noise out of it and that I could produce different notes by using various combinations of fingering. I must have had some sort of basic musical ability because I could sing a tune and keep trying until I found which fingers gave me the notes I wanted. About a fortnight later we had a garden fete at school and I went around forming a busking act with little bits of cardboard on which were written the fingerings. I knew how the tune went as regards the ups and downs and the rhythms and I was able to manage the melodies simply by pressing down the valves as indicated on the cardboard.

After this triumph of cunning a trumpet was purchased through the school authorities and John began to study seriously, realising that, although he had intended to follow in his father’s footsteps by joining the regular army, an ability to blow might stand him in good stead should he be called upon to handle a bugle whilst on active service. However, his outstanding talent for the trumpet soon became evident and with it a place in the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain leading eventually, in 1962, to entrance at the Royal Academy of Music. I was always terribly impressed by my professor at the Academy, William Overton, who used to just sit there and smack it all out on the B flat trumpet. Many hours of practise and study later John was ready to face the competitive challenge of making a living in his chosen profession.

About this time cupid played a part in John’s life which was to prove as co-incidental and as providential as the issue of school instruments some years before. As a former member of the National Youth Orchestra he was requested to go to Paddington Station and assist one of the orchestra’s members to carry her harp across London to Victoria. John is still carrying that harp for the gifted and charming harpist from Wales became Mrs. John Wilbraham.

On leaving the RAM. fortune again smiled. John stepped straight into a South American tour with the New Philharmonia Orchestra as extra trumpet, which in due time led to a permanent engagement with them. After two years gaining valuable experience John was invited to join the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, staying there until 1972 when he became Principal Trumpet of the B.B.C. Symphony Orchestra.

As well as being regarded as one of the world’s leading trumpet players John Wilbraham is looked upon as being something of a trendsetter in that he was one of the first and perhaps the most enthusiastic devotees of the ‘horses for courses’ or ‘Bessons for lessons’ school of trumpet philosophy. As a result he has 19 trumpets. Although I was brought up on the ordinary B flat trumpet I was always aware that certain things could be easier on other trumpets. Even whilst at the Academy I used to wonder why on earth I was messing around with these terrible E trumpet parts skating about on funny fingerings when I could take the D trumpet and make it easier. The trouble, in those days, was that it was difficult to find a D trumpet with a large enough bore to sound like an ordinary trumpet. They built D trumpets only for baroque music whereas now they make them as symphony trumpets. Also, I remember the first time I went along to play at Covent Garden and heard Harry Dilley play. I found it a very upsetting experience. I went home and bought an enormous mouthpiece because I couldn’t believe the huge sound this man was making. The result was I couldn’t play for about six months, but it was the beginning of my experiments and it set me on the path to wherever I’ve got now. And then, hearing Maurice Andre play the piccolo trumpet started my interest in that. I went along to a Master Class that he gave just after I left the Academy and I could not believe that he had taken the trumpet to such incredible lengths. It was so interesting to learn from that, without necessarily copying it exactly, and to take from it whatever could be applied to my work. However, I did find that to change from an ordinary B flat to the high piccolo was something of a problem and I took to using the C trumpet, although I still had to play a B flat on the job when doing 2nd or 3rd parts.

Fortunately, trombone parts are usually clearly denominated Soprano, Alto, Tenor or Bass but with ‘trumpet parts being designated ‘in Ut’, ‘in Moll flat’ or whatever, it must be quite a problem deciding, which instrument to reach for. I just look at the part and it seems to be asking to be played on a certain trumpet. There are some other factors, of course, such as the obvious one that baroque parts should be done on a smallish trumpet and again, transposition may help to decide. Of course, one takes into consideration the range of a part but it is not necessarily true that the higher the notes the higher the trumpet. It is not always a question of choosing a particular pitch of trumpet but of selecting a certain type in that pitch. For instance, I have 3 C trumpets and if I’m playing Wagner or Bruckner I’ll take the German rotary valve trumpet but if it’s French music I’ll take the Selmer or the Bach whereas if it’s modern music I would probably select the small-bore Bach.

One of my bones of contention with trumpet/cornet players is that they so rarely use an A cornet when so many orchestral parts are written for that instrument and in fact are sometimes impossible on a B flat cornet (e.g. the Prelude to Carmen). Berlioz, in his ‘Orchestration’ insists that the cornet should be in A and who are we to argue with him? Hoping to catch the versatile Wilbraham at a loss I was delighted to find that he was not at all at a loss but was, in fact, a firm supporter of the A cornet. As he explained -my Bach cornet has an extra slide on it with a rotary change to A which is most useful and I’m very keen to use it. There are several instances where the cornet has to match the sonority of the trombone section, such as in the Berlioz ‘Damnation of Faust’, where the slightly darker quality of the A cornet blends much more successfully with the trombones. Perhaps I go into things too much but it’s just interesting to see how much there is in brass playing that one can put into it or get out of it. In any case, there is quite a difference blowing a cornet as opposed to a trumpet. I don’t know much about the physics of it all but I think the fact that the actual bore at the mouthpiece end is smaller initially gives one more control over it.

Throughout a long association with John I have frequently felt that he has an almost shy, sneaking admiration for the brass band movement; almost as though he felt that a small part of his complete education was missing. Apparently though, he has played the Haydn Trumpet Concerto with Black Dyke Mills Band which he seems to have enjoyed. It felt very strange with all those chaps behind me playing those incredible violin parts all of which sounded more difficult than the solo part. I felt a bit of a fraud really. Anyway, they were all very kind to me and we had a couple of pints afterwards, I am always staggered at the flexibility of bands. We’ve come to expect it from the cornets but to hear those BB flat basses rocketing around is really astounding.

In spite of what some people may think a musician’s life is often very tiring and filled with tension, nervous exhaustion and frustration, one of which is learning to cope with conductors. As John points out-they seem to think that you don’t know anything about what you’re doing and have no opinions about it and that you are sitting there waiting to be told how to do it, whereas most brass players spend a tremendous amount of time preparing themselves for a certain work and then turn up to find someone on the box Who appears to feel that he has been sent from Heaven to teach you how it all goes. That is a bit depressing. Most orchestral musicians try to forget all these pressures and frustrations by immersing themselves in some hobby such as golf. hi·fi, carpentry or even ornithology when circumstances will permit but our hard·working subject is often so shattered that all I can do is to sit in the armchair and wait for the Television to start. Although sometimes I can relax by walking over Hampstead Heath early in the morning, doing a bit of cooking or going for a couple of decent pints with the boys. On the whole, though, I enjoy work; I like playing the trumpet especially on the odd occasion when something has gone really well.

John Wilbraham is still a young man. I wondered if he had any advice to offer the current crop of trumpet students, Unfortunately, I am always a bit worried that brass teaching is not given the same sort of importance as string teaching and the old maxim ‘if you can’t play then teach’ is still applicable in some cases and that is a shame. If you have been a player you have an incredible amount of knowledge to pass on to youngsters who may be in trouble because half of a professional’s life seems to be spent staying out of trouble, getting yourself out of trouble or not letting anybody know that you are in trouble, I do feel that one should be a bit more thoughtful about brass playing these days because it’s harder than it was; you have to play harder pieces and for a longer length of time and once you have got into the profession it is very difficult to make any changes. One has to be well equipped with an adequate technique to do the job. You have got to have the endurance not only of embouchure but sheer physical strength to keep going day after day after day.

One paradox of a musician’s career is that one does not climb a ladder of success throughout one’s working life as in most professions but more often one is catapulted to the top of the tree at an early stage and then sometimes thrown back to ground level just as rapidly. Apart from the insecurity that this system induces one can find even at a young age that one has played everything worth playing as well as can be expected and then disenchantment sometimes sets in with the realisation that one’s career has only one direction to follow once the pinnacle is reached. Typically, to such a modest, gregarious, exuberant and dedicated musician as John Wilbraham there is no hint of disenchantment. His ambition for the future is – to play everything again but better.