If you haven’t heard Brandon Ridenour, you simply must. He is a special voice on the trumpet, a player with innate talent and broad musical vision. His instruction began with his family and continued through Juilliard, and his professional associations include several years with The Canadian Brass, beginning as their youngest member ever at age 20.
Woodwind & Brasswind: A lot of our readers are students. They’d be very interested in your path getting to where you are. Where did you grow up, for instance?
Brandon Ridenour: I grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan and Kalamazoo as well. Kalamazoo isn’t that far from the Woodwind & Brasswind store, or where it used to be.
WB: South Bend, yes.
BR: That’s where I bought some of my early instruments.
WB: They are legendary. Your father is a fine piano player. I’ve seen video of you guys playing together. How did you come to gravitate toward trumpet? I assume he taught you piano first?
BR: I started taking piano from him in first grade, about five or six. Then we had to either join band or choir in sixth grade in middle school. I definitely didn’t want to sing so I went into band. My dad had a trumpet downstairs collecting dust, but it happened to be a decent one. It was a Bach Strad and he had it because he used to play trumpet when he was in middle school and high school and just never really touched the thing since then. So that became my instrument. I secretly-not-so-secretly wanted to play drums, though, if I had my way. That’s what I would have gone for.
WB: Did you have a good brass instructor at that elementary school?
BR: When I stared in fifth grade I didn’t have a teacher but then the following year I started taking private lessons in Grand Rapids and then I moved to Kalamazoo and took from a professor there at Western Michigan University.
WB: Had you already had a moment of clarity where you knew you were going to orient yourself toward the trumpet in particular, music in general, or was it one of a number of things that you were pursuing and considering as a student?
BR: Music was just always around for me. It was always around in the house and a lot of the extracurricular activities I did were music related. So it just kind of became more and more clear gradually that this was something that I could possibly pursue a life career in. Of course when you’re young you’re not really thinking seriously about that, but later in high school I started to realize all of the things I was interested in and it just sort of seemed obvious that music was the thing that I was excelling at more than other things and I enjoyed it, too. I decided to have a go at it, even though I was aware of how difficult it could be to make a living as a musician. Since both of my parents are in the industry they definitely warned me of the struggles of being a musician.
WB: What is your mom’s musical involvement?
BR: She’s been on the business side of music for her whole career, but was initially trained as a pianist as well. So she’s worked for the Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo symphonies and the Jacksonville symphony in Florida and now is with the Sarasota Opera, always on the administrative side.
WB: You describe more of a gradual trajectory rather than an “ah-ha” moment. Over the course of that, you must have encountered some particular struggles. I think our readers want to know a specific technical struggle that you had along the way: tonguing speed or cleaning up large interval lip slurs. Something specific and just what your strategy was for overcoming it.
BR: There were lots of things I couldn’t do on the instrument and still can’t do. I think there are, of course, basic things that you need to be able to do on the trumpet to get by and to have other people enjoy listening to you. And really the sound is number one. Having a good concept of sound in your mind and being able to communicate what you’re hearing in your head out through the valves and bell for other listeners to hear, that’s I think the number one thing that is important for any instrumentalist, not just trumpet. But as we know, the trumpet sound – you know, the trumpet is a finicky instrument.
WB: It can go south real quick, can’t it, Brandon? [laughs]
BR: Real quick, especially if you’re not staying on it most every day. It’s not a forgiving instrument.
WB: I had one fellow I talk to said it’s a wonderful wife but a terrible mistress, so it’s like you’re in it or…
BR: [laughter] Right. Oh, boy, that can say a lot about other things, too. So for instance when I came to New York for school at Juilliard, I was cheating on the instrument with my slurs. I would always fake my slurs with a light tongue. I wouldn't do an honest slur and my teacher at that time picked on that right away.
WB: Sneak it right in there.
BR: I learned how to slur gracefully and learned how to tongue differently and worked, of course, on a lot of technique things. Playing high was difficult for me as well so, I mean, just the upper register is something that over time and many years changed as my body changed. The way I approach the instrument now is definitely different than when I was in school.
There are so many things that are constantly changing, physically and also in your mind, in your attitude towards music and the kind of music that you want to play and bring to your audience. I think you can use all of these changes to your advantage and help overcome certain technical struggles as well while you also achieve the artistic ones, which are also important.
WB: You answered that beautifully, thank you. Some trumpet players I talk to warm up very quickly, just long tones, G chromatically to C, back down then they start working on repertoire. Some are really arduous. What is your process?
BR: I try to change my warmups every day now based on different patterns I come up with. I'll try to think of a new pattern, a scale or pattern or arpeggio pattern and then use those warm up in my mind as well as my lips. I noticed when I was warming up in school and doing something that was more routine, my mind would shut off and I would just be warming up the face. I didn't feel musically stimulated.
WB: Why waste that time? As long as you've got the trumpet in your hand you might as well apply your mind to some kind of real attention to something, even at the warmup stage.
BR: Right. So I just try to kill three or four birds with one stone in the warmup by doing scalar things in every key, major and minor, every other pattern, or augmented or diminished, tonguing, slurring, mixtures of everything. Of course I don't start with the upper register super loud right away. I still literally warm up. That's always a part of my philosophy, warming up, starting a little easier and slower and then gradually you add another partial or another thing to it to make it a little more complex.
WB: As long as we’re wandering into philosophical territory, what are you reaching for still, artistically? And are there areas within just pure technique that you’re still seeking to refine or expand that you could put your finger on?
BR: A lot of the technique things I try to clear up on my own time with no one else listening. The other part of my life, musically, would be finding new pieces to tweak and conform for me and whoever I might be playing with. I also write music, so I feel like this combo of whatever my style of writing has come to be now, if I’m writing a new piece or if I’m writing an arrangement I want to apply all the things I’ve thought were cool in music that I’ve gathered, and hopefully other people will find it interesting and stimulating and push them as a listener, as well.
Also, keeping it more or less acoustic has been a strong philosophy as well because I found with a lot of electronic music I get sort of tired of hearing that sound. So I still stay traditional in the sense of acoustic sounds, but I think progressive in the sense that I love the idea of a classical musician not being so traditional. So that’s kind of been a mission of mine, is to hopefully to show people that classical music can still be cool and interesting if it’s presented in the right way and perhaps infused with other maybe even current styles or just other styles in general.
WB: Was Canadian Brass your first what you call big break? How did you come – I’ve interviewed Chuck before. How did you come to his attention?
BR: I’d say so. That was my first good job. I met them when I was a student at a summer festival called Music Academy of the West, probably not too far from you, in Santa Barbara, California. I was there eight weeks as a student and they were going through sort of a changing of the guard with their trumpet players. At the end of that summer they called me and asked if I wanted to come play with them, which was kind of a lot. I thought they were joking. I was 19 and I talked to a few other people about it just to get some advice from others wiser than me. What ended up happening is over the course of the next year they had another trumpet player to come play and then about a year later I started playing with the group, kind of gradually because I was still in school. Then I finished school and just started playing with them more and more until I became full time and then played with them for about seven years.
WB: You’ve also performed and released albums with your dad. That must be fun.
BR: Yes. So that was happening prior to Canadian Brass and throughout it and after.
WB: That shows no signs of letting up.
BR: Boy, yeah, we still play together. But I’ve got my hands in a lot of jars right now.
WB: Now, what I saw poking around on the web for your releases there are two with your dad and then one with Naomi Kudo. All three of them, I notice, striking, it’s piano and trumpet instrumentation. What is it about that instrumentation that attracts you?
BR: Those are the two instruments I feel like I know because I play both of them. So say just traveling around, touring around with just me and someone else I feel like the piano is really the only other instrument that I feel I kind of works and can help carry me through a full program. When I do programs I still try to think creatively about how it cannot just be like a trumpet recital where I’m on stage playing the trumpet the whole time. Though there might be a tune that’s just piano solo or I’ll jump over the piano and do something four hands or try to come up with something else that makes it, again, not just like a trumpet and piano recital.
The nice thing about arranging for these instruments is that when I try an arrangement I can sort of decide how hard I want to be on myself, chop-wise, how much rest I want to build into it just so that I can make it through a full program and not be fatigued.
WB: That’s so funny. I don’t play at anywhere near your level, but I sort of stumbled into a thing that’s out of my league a little bit. It’s an L.A. redo of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” Bob Geldoff song. Bunch of L.A. stars on it. They wanted this Salvation Army Band sounding brass thing. I’m friendly with one of the good bass players in town so he just asked me to come in. I wrote this one little kind of fake pseudo-classical lick that was a little out of my playing ability and it was – I nailed it on the third or fourth time through, but yeah, I gave myself more trouble than I needed to.
BR: I can tell you I’ve done that to myself quite a lot and learned after doing that that, you know, baby steps.
WB: Better to stick the landing.
BR: Right. Don’t show them what you can’t do. Good words to live by.
WB: You also make available transcriptions, your interpretations of the music on your recording as well as other pieces.
BR: Yes. It’s been an interesting stumble into small business that I never would have planned for myself, but it sort of came about because I would get people writing me almost daily about is this arrangement available? I heard this arrangement on YouTube or whatever, can I have it? In the old days, or at least what you’re told to do when you hear a jazz solo you like, you just listen to it and write it down and transcribe it and that’s yours. I guess people are lazy now. They just – they know it’s available. They want somebody else to do it.
WB: Yes. I really like that, but not like “four hours of sitting writing the thing down” like it [laughter].
BR: I know, right. It might actually be good for them, too. Anyway, so I did it. I made it available. I mean some of the arrangements, like one of the things I did is my dad, we didn’t have anything written down. We were just, they had kind of evolved, especially the Gershwin things we’ve done. So we actually had to write those down for other players to play.
WB: Wow. That’s a great way to [cut] your teeth. So you were writing all that “Mambo Number Five” down by ear?
BR: Yes. And then little by little, one arrangement after the other, there’s sort of a library of things up on my website and people actually buy them. I mean I probably – somebody buys like one arrangement a day, I’d say. Yeah, it’s been interesting. It’s been nice to see, because my complaint when I was probably the age of a lot of people buying these are usually high school and college students, was that, I don’t know, the repertoire that was out there I felt like, well, that’s it? There weren’t a whole lot of arrangements. Like I always wished that I could have played music of Mozart or Beethoven, great composers that pianists had. I felt like it was a little bit of a downgrade when I went from piano to trumpet, just repertoire-wise. So that’s kind of what got me interested in creating these adaptations.
WB: Yes and there’s sure a market. There are so many trumpet players in educational environments that have recitals and performances and they might want to zero in one a piece that you’ve identified as really colorful and interesting to present.
WB: So we’re definitely going to link to your website. We’ll link to your site and maybe we’ll get you up to 1-2 sales per day.
BR: [laughs] That’d be great.
WB: So you’re chiefly known as a classical trumpet player. You do put your toe in the jazz water sometimes.
BR: Yes, a couple –
WB: Heard that Debussy adaptation like right on the front page of your home page with the Harmon mute. Man, that’s beautiful.
BR: Sorry, what – oh, the French stuff on the --
WB: Yes. But it’s got a jazz instrumentation.
BR: That’s sort of the direction that I’m headed in right now. I sort of feel like I’ve done the classical thing quite a bit and that’s definitely a part of my roots, but I’ve just become more and more intrigued in jazzland.
WB: But this idea of breathing a jazz sensibility into a classical composition.
WB: So where do you see the two art forms meeting? What are their commonalities? What elements of each, as you work on this thing, have you found pushing away from each other when you’re undertaking one of these arranged marriages that you’re orchestrating?
BR: It’s certainly nothing new. I look back to some of my favorite jazz artists like Miles Davis and Gil Evans.
WB: Sketches of Spain.
BR: Yes, and I just, when I hear that stuff I feel like, boy, what they did was great but they really only scratched the surface. So much more could be done and not too many people seem to do it, at least in trumpet land. So I don’t know, I figured every now and then I’d try to just take a look at myself and from a bird’s eye view and realize what is there that I know or what have I gone through that other people might find interesting? And for me it’s I know that I have a knowledge of the great classical repertoire but still a love of the way jazz artists approach music from an improvisatory standpoint and just from a style standpoint as well. There’s something I feel is very connecting about the way they interpret songs and play them. I feel like you can really hear the artist and the person in the way a lot of jazz players play. Whereas classical has this other kind of refinement and perfection to climb that’s just kind of a different philosophy about music.
WB: I look forward to you exploring that idea. I’m going to keep track of your music. You’re terrific. So what about equipment? Do you have endorsements?
BR: You know, I don’t. I just play on what feels right and sounds right.
WB: That’s fantastic. What’s the instrument you play on?
BR: It’s a Bach Strad, large bore six bell. I found this on the rack at Dillon’s Music in New Jersey when I was a freshman and bought it as a backup horn to my dad’s horn which was old and the valves were kind of giving up. Then I joined Canadian Brass and played on their horns for a while. When I left Canadian Brass this horn was lying around and I picked it back up again. That’s been my horn.
Then I’ve got an old – well, sort of old Yamaha Bobby Shew first generation that I actually bought at Woodwind & Brasswind when I was I think a senior in high school. Then I’ve got a Blackburn piccolo. That’s usually, those are the three horns I carry around with me.
Oh, and I play on a Wedge mouthpiece. I guess that’s the only endorsement that I do have.
WB: Oh, I know it. What does The Wedge do for you?
BR: Just the contour of the rim is the main difference. Instead of it being perfectly symmetrical there’s a lateral, just a slight lateral tip in it and less surface area on the sides and more on the top and bottom so it has a little more of an oval up and down look and feel to it.
WB: I’ve seen it at the shows but I’ve never taken one for a spin.
BR: It’s not for everyone.
WB: I’m afraid of it.
BR: And I certainly don’t press it on anyone at all. Lots of people have been interested and curious. I feel like if it’s a good fit and you feel good and think you sound good playing it, then great. For me I’ve just gotten used it. I feel like it fits on my face.
WB: The personal mechanics differ so dramatically person to person. Like I finally got ahold of the legendary Parduba double cup Harry James mouthpiece. Found one for 20 bucks online and boy, it makes my nicest horn sound terrible. Just got this honky, nasty tone. I just can’t figure it out. Different strokes.
WB: What about cases when you’re on the road? You described you drag three horns around. You must have a cartage concept to make that easier, right?
BR: Oh, man, that’s been – the struggle has been real with the perfect case to carry these three horns, but right now I’m using this Josh Landress triple case. Whenever I’ve gotten some kind of case for these three instruments I always have to kind of configure it to just work with the padding so that I stack the piccolo on the flugel and the trumpet on the side next. It works.
WB: Is that a hard case type or is it one of the gig bags?
BR: It’s a soft case. I always just, I’ve been able to get by with getting the cases on airplanes. You know, it’s all about not making eye contact with anyone, and that’s, you know…
WB: You just hustle that thing right through the door and just hump it right up? It goes in the overhead okay?
BR: Yeah, it does.
WB: How about like lotions and potions? Not to the level of mouthpiece freakery, but I know brass players are very specific about their valve oil. Do you have an allegiance?
BR: No, I don’t really. I try to stay away from allegiances. I’m really not all too picky.
WB: Okay, cool. So what’s next for Brandon 2018?
BR: I’m trying to do more of these kind of crossover jazz-classical things with Peter Dugan, the pianist that you would have heard on those couple of tracks on my homepage. Also I have a group called Founders. It’s a group I started a few years ago that merges singer-songwriting with classical instruments. So I started it with a violinist and singer Ben Russell. We try to meet at least every month or every few weeks to at the very least play whatever new song or arrangement somebody’s brought in, but then at the very best rehearse for an upcoming show.
So that group’s doing more and more. That’s been a really great creative outlet for me the last few years.
WB: Anything I might have missed that you want to make sure our readers know?
WB: Just incredibly professional and thorough, is what you’re telling me?
BR: Spot-on questions. I think you covered it all.
WB: All right, thanks. You know I did get to Grand Rapids a few years ago. I believe was it ITG there or was it Jazz Educators Network? One of the shows?
BR: ITG. Several years ago now.
WB: Were you there then?
BR: Yes. I can’t remember the year, but I was there.
WB: I was there, too. I was running the Woodwind & Brasswind booth. All right, well, Brandon, you’re awesome and thank you for the interview. I’ll keep you posted on how it’s going and when it’s out I’ll send you a dozen of the hard copies. Just thank you and I hope I get to hear you play live sometime.