I recently had the chance to speak to Joel Walmsley, a young trumpet player currently completing his Masters of Music (Orchestral Performance) at Melbourne Conservatorium of Music. We talked about his experience playing with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra during his second year of uni, his strategies for tackling self-doubt, and why he really loves Bach.
At what point did you realise that you wanted to pursue playing trumpet more seriously?
That’s a good question, and I feel like everyone’s answer to that is pretty different!
One day when I was in year 8, my trumpet teacher said something like, ‘So next year you’re going to do this AMEB grade, and then you’re going to do your AMusA in year 11, and then you’re apply for this University…’and so on, and I had not even considered studying trumpet seriously at that point. It was a lot to hear and it kind of scared me. But the funny thing was, it turned out exactly how she predicted.
I never really had one magic moment where something ‘clicked’. For me it was a gradual thing. I think eventually playing trumpet felt like a big part of what made me feel like ‘me’. It was somehow tied in with my identity, and that made pursuing it a natural step.
It’s funny you mention that it was a gradual process. I’ve talked to many musicians who went through a similar mental process. And it’s not simply embracing the love you have for your instrument and performing, but accepting the fact that a creative portfolio career is always going to be unstable, unpredictable… the complete opposite of a reliable routine.
I’m trying to teach myself that I’m lucky to be in that position. The element of the unknown, things are dynamic and not locked in… the world can be your oyster! So I try to remind myself that it’s a privilege and a beautiful thing, not as some hindrance or big scary obstacle.
How did you find the experience of playing with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra very early on in your undergraduate performance degree?
I auditioned for a casual position with the MSO during the break between first and second year of my undergrad… So early 2015. It was really exciting and really, really terrifying!
My first gig was playing Edgard Verese’s Deserts, as part of MSO’s Metropolis series. To this day, it remains one of the strangest and hardest works I’ve ever had to play!
I freaked out about it, I listened to every recording, I got the score, I looked at all these different books which broke down the piece… it was a surreal experience, and such a weird piece. I remember the trumpeter Bill Evans jokingly saying ‘We’re going to ruin music for this poor kid forever!’
But it was a wonderful first experience with the MSO. What surprised me was how natural it felt. Playing with the MSO was something that had been a far-away dream for so long, and when you’re actually sitting in the first rehearsal, you’re chatting to people like you’re in a Melbourne Youth Orchestra rehearsal… if anything it’s more relaxed! To these people, this is their everyday, it’s like rocking up to the office for them.
I think back to those times and I think, ‘Wow, I was practically a child!’… not that I did anything embarrassing, but I think I was so overwhelmed by the experience that I didn’t quite take it all in. But I was extremely lucky to have that experience early on.
How do you conquer/ minimise nerves and self-doubt?
For me, self-doubt and nerves are two very different things, although of course they are intertwined. They affect me in very different ways. Self-doubt is a thing that affects me in the practise room rather than the stage.
I didn’t have too many issues with nerves until early on in my undergrad. I ran into a few speed bumps in terms of trumpet playing and they became the source of some anxiety. Over time though, I’ve learnt what I need to do to deal with nerves.
If I prepare properly, and I know exactly what would be the best-case or worst-case scenario, and I’m ready to accept either outcome, then I find myself in this mental space where nothing is going to surprise me. There’s no element of mystery. There are things that I know will be really good, there’s things that might be good, there’s things that probably won’t be good unless I’m having a really good day… if I am mentally prepared for all of those things to happen, then when I miss that big note, it doesn’t give me anxiety, it’s just like, ‘Ah well, that didn’t happen.’ And if I perform regularly, my nerves almost completely disappear.
Now self-doubt is a much bigger thing. Self-doubt in a much broader sense. I definitely find myself using less than constructive self-talk during periods where I feel more down. Wondering whether I’m going to ‘figure it out’ or ‘make it’ whatever the hell that means, and what that means for my relationships and future.
As part of my Masters of Music (Orchestral Performance), I’ve been taking a subject run by Dr. Margaret Osborne, Optimal Performance Under Pressure. During that subject we’ve talked a lot about changing the tone of our self-talk. It sounds very cheesy, but practicing positive self-talk makes an enormous difference and can fundamentally change how you view yourself in the world.
I think people can feel as though performance nerves and self-doubt are an inevitability and they are at the mercy of these emotions. But it’s completely possible to harness those crippling nerves into energy that actually enhances a performance.
The whole mental health issue is something I wish institutions focused on much more heavily, and from earlier on. In music, everyone’s egos are on the line all the time and we’re constantly practicing to improve ourselves. It’s this inward dialogue of me, me, me.
Part of the issue is many performer’s sense of self-worth comes from how good they are compared to others on their instrument. Or how good they are on their instrument, full stop. And I’ve struggled with that. It’s a matter of separating who I am, from my ability on the trumpet.
How do you target breath control as a brass player?
Breath control as a trumpet player is different to tuba playing or trombone playing- lung capacity doesn’t matter as much. I’m a taller person with above-average lung capacity, but there are tiny trumpet players who would have half my lung capacity, who are absolutely incredible, far better than I am…it’s more to do with the use and coordination, using your air in a free and efficient way. And having a good understanding of the anatomy of breathing.
I was lucky enough to do some study with Kristian Steenstrup when I was at a trumpet festival in Sicily a few years ago. Kristian is one of the leading authorities on brass pedagogy, with an air-heavy approach… some people don’t talk about air at all.
He taught me a handful of great breathing exercises which I do before I start playing each day. Basically, I strive to play in the most efficient way I can, relying on my air as much as possible and my lips as little as possible.
I’ve had to really work on my stamina and power in my practice over the years. For me, improvement comes from efficient playing with proper use of the air, and also just forcing myself to get used to playing high and loud by allocating part of my daily practice to that area specifically.
Favourite composer for trumpet/brass instruments in general?
Mahler is a composer who lets us have fun. For orchestral writing, Mahler, Strauss, Wagner, Bruckner, Shostakovich come to mind. They do tend to stick to fairly ‘traditional’ use of the brass section – fanfares, loud stuff, punctuation, and chorales. We do love playing that stuff, however I really enjoy the challenge of composers that blur the lines between the brass, wind and string sections in terms of their function – as though the music was written with a certain colour or texture in mind, rather than a certain instrument. Some of the great French composers do this really well.
Composers like Bach were writing incredibly decorative and brilliant trumpet parts during the Baroque era. These pieces are some of the most difficult pieces in the repertoire, played really high up in the register on natural trumpets. And for a period of about 200 years, the ability to do that was completely lost.
But after the invention of the valve, orchestral composers such as Berlioz embraced writing for trumpet for more than just arpeggios. I think any composer who uses the brass section for more than just the typical function is special. The use of trumpet as a wind instrument.
What is your favourite aspect of playing in a full-scale orchestra with around one hundred other musicians?
A teacher of mine once compared it to being on a sports team, or in a rock band. The feeling of playing amazing music in a huge orchestra is indescribable. You’re a part of something greater than yourself, something that makes people smile or cry or laugh or think. Those moments remind me why I’m pursuing orchestral playing as a career.
I go back to the example of the end of the Rite of Spring. It’s this really cool moment. If one person in the orchestra comes in at the wrong spot, the whole thing can fall apart. So about a hundred people are depending on each other for absolute perfection.
What do you think makes the trumpet unique?
I love instruments which produce a very pure sound, or a tonal quality similar to the human voice. The trumpet can produce a really expressive sound, almost like a singer without words. We can also produce an enormous range of dynamics. If we want to flatten an orchestra we can, but if we want to sound like an oboe, we can. A very popular piece for trumpet is the Alessandro Marcello oboe concerto, played on piccolo trumpet.
I love how versatile it is as an instrument. It sounds equally at home in a jazz group, rock band, big band, orchestra, chamber ensemble, a solo instrument…
Someone once said to me that brass instruments are the closest instruments to the human voice. Vocalists have the voice-box, brass players have their lips. Other instruments use strings or a reed to produce a vibration… with singing, the vocal chords produce the vibration and the head is the resonating cavity. Similarly, with trumpet, our lips produce the vibration, and the entire body of the trumpet is the resonator, amplifying the sound. That’s why trumpet players love listening to singers, chatting to singers about breathing… I sing in my practise all the time! I don’t feel like I’m a great singer, but it’s connecting to that feeling of resonance, of your body feeling free to resonate as much as it wants.
So what does an ideal musical career look like for you?
At the moment I am doing an orchestral master’s degree. I would love to play in an orchestra, getting there is the hard part but I’m going to do everything I can to get there. But I’m excited by how any different things you can do with music.
What is an aspirational piece of music you’d like to play one day?
Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F major. If you know, you know.