It's easy to be blown away by Joe Burgstaller's technique, but for Burgstaller, it's only a means to an end. Above all else, this educator, soloist and ensemble player extraordinaire seeks to connect.
Woodwind & Brasswind: I understand you were something of a musical prodigy. Could you describe the nature of your early to middle instruction program?
Joe Burgstaller: Let me start with my family if you don’t mind. My mother and father emigrated from Austria. They’re my heroes and my role models and I want to talk about them because they are so important to who I am. They came from Austria and were both professionals. They arrived with two suitcases and a thousand dollars and started working in Chicago in 1969, leaving everything they had in Austria. He was an electrical engineer but he started in the US as a carpenter and an electrician. During his time in Austria, he was a higher-up for the electric company. He was a draftsman, expert in designing power systems, but the work he was able to find right away in Chicago was carpentry, a thing he was also familiar with, so he built houses and apartment buildings. My mom was an office manager. They both had side jobs. Then I came along in ’71. I say this because it illustrates where I got my work ethic from. I’ve never known anything except always give it your all and always do your best and then do more than that. So my father was working 80 hours a week and my mom 40 and still raising myself and my brother.
They came from very small towns in upper Austria, but they were very well-versed in classical music, as most Europeans were and generally still are. It’s kind of in my genes for me to love this music. My father was more into light opera and he could sing all those things, but it’s amazing when I think about the differences in cultures across the world that I’ve seen, how it gets into people’s DNA.
So that’s where music started for me; with a way of living, a cultural history, and a work ethic. And I owe all of it, all of it, to my parents. For the playing part, my father bought a harmonica when I was three. I stole it and slobbered all over it so badly that he didn’t want it again. Here’s a funny story; years later, after I joined Canadian Brass, I invited my parents to Chicago to see us perform with the Chicago Symphony. I presented my dad with a harmonica bought from the very same store he bought the original one that I stole.
WWBW: That’s lovely.
JB: So anyway, I started like that. We listened to a lot of radio, all styles of music. Big on the radio was what was classified at that point as Dixieland, so I was playing my harmonica along with the radio. At four years old, I was in preschool and we had a brass quintet visit. They did an instrument testing session. We all got to play and I played the trumpet. They showed me how to buzz the mouthpiece and I could do that. They showed me how to play and I could do that. Then they showed me how to finger a scale and I could do a scale quite nicely. I still have the newsletter from preschool. It says, “Joey Burgstaller has lip potential.”
WWBW: Lip potential.
JB: I bugged my parents for a year, a full year that I wanted a cornet, please. This harkens back to – you know, they were still starting out in the US and supporting two children and working all these hours and a cornet was an expensive luxury. They figured, he’s four years old. He’s going to decide he wants something different tomorrow. Well, no, actually, according to them and I remember doing it as well, every day I would bug them for a year straight. And when a year had passed and they saw I had not given up (my previous record was three months when I wanted to be a fireman). I showed persistence this time and they bought me a cornet.
WWBW: What were you asking for when you were looking for fireman gear? Like the hat and the hose?
JB: They had the fireman costume at the school so I would wear that. But the school didn’t have the cornet. That was just for that one try. So my parents figured, okay, we’ll get him a cornet, but there was really no avenue for me to play or even to learn lessons. So this was in Chicago. I was going to school at St. Benedict’s. They approached the high school band director there at the time, Mike Teolis.
Mike was a trombone player and came from a really amazing legacy of music educators in Chicago. My mom showed persistence in approaching him and he told me, he says, “I didn’t really take it seriously. Here’s this mom.” Can you imagine? It was like my five-year-old kid wants to play in your high school band and wants to learn cornet. He’s like okay, I’ll take a look at the kid.
What he told me was so here comes this kid barely up to here – he points to his knees – and he pulls out this harmonica. He says, okay, kid, what do you want to play? He says this little kid starts playing the harmonica, but he’s playing Dixieland and it’s fast and it’s accurate in the style. It’s amazing. He said, “I looked around and I was looking for the cameras because I was sure it was a little person and they were filming me for playing a joke on me. But you weren’t. You were a five-year-old kid.” He says, okay, well, you’re in my band. I’m going to perform with him in May for his retirement.
WWBW: I talked to one fellow just over the course of an article that I was writing a long time ago who was a college professor of Thomas Pynchon. He said it’s what they live for as instructors, to have a really special student come along.
JB: What’s really interesting is that I didn’t know the gold mine I had stumbled into because the more I know Mike as an adult – this relationship has really grown within the last year actually – the more I understand how great a musician this guy is and what his lineage was. I have the utmost respect for music educators because I’m one myself and I’ve been influenced by them my entire life, but he’s a unicorn and he happened to be at that school where I was and that was a great – if one believes in coincidences, which I don’t – that was an amazing coincidence.
WWBW: A thing I hear a lot in interviewing brass and woodwind musicians is the dramatic influence that one single person has had on their development as a musician and as a person, most often a band director.
JB: And I have the luxury of having at least a handful of those people in my life, actually more. So it’s an embarrassment of riches.
WWBW: Did Mr. Teolis keep track of you all the way up into your secondary studies, your high school pursuits?
JB: He did. We kept in touch. We really reconnected once I joined Canadian Brass and actually before that, we reconnected at the Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic in Chicago. I had a booth for my solo concerts and we reconnected that way. Then I joined Canadian Brass the next year and then he came out and saw us a few times.
He has a professional choir he conducts in Chicago. I’m going to go out and play with them in May.
I’m probably getting too detailed here, but I’ll just keep going. You can guide me, but that’s how I started. He gave me some private lessons here and there, but more or less I really played by ear.
WWBW: Seriously? Because your technique is so spectacular, all the double tonguing, triple tonguing and the slurring is so clear and precise, I assumed you must have had a rigid early instructional background.
JB: It came a little later, but basically he was allowing me, now looking back, just to be natural about it. As a mature performer now, I do what a lot of other mature performers do, which is to try to recapture the naiveté of our youth where we approached everything as if, sure, that’s the way it goes. We never gave a second thought that it should be difficult. We just did it. We figured it out and the most successful ones of us had the fortune of figuring it out in the easiest way possible.
Now it’s really about returning to a child-like state and just asking “why” all the time.
WWBW: I think we’re starting to talk about the teaching component that you’ve always maintained as part of your trumpet career. You could easily sustain yourself by traveling the world and playing with fine orchestras. Why are you so passionate about teaching?
JB: I feel that teaching and performing are basically the same thing. They’re sharing. One could look at performing as a disconnected experience but I don’t think successful performers, really the most successful performers would represent it as anything except connection. The same is true about teaching.
WWBW: You want to hear a fellow who in an unlikely way agrees with you, is Bruce Springsteen. I saw an interview of his and he said one thing that he does in order to connect is to inhabit the songs completely.
JB: Yes. You have to. That’s exactly my philosophy. So you have to inhabit the songs. You have to be the music. That sounds very cliché or very Zen – you know, be the arrow, but if we surrender – to me music and performance is a relationship.
WWBW: Your instruction series, “Change Your Mind, Change Your Playing,” fits into that mind/body philosophy, of music being a continuum.
JB: Music is a relationship between the audience, the performer and the composer, who’s usually not present. There are no great or successful relationships even when the relationship only focuses on one or two parties in that relationship. I grew as a musician and realized why some performances are better than others.
WWBW: So did that little boy slobbering on the harmonica continue to listen to the radio as he got older?
JB: Very much so. It goes back to playing by ear. I was playing what I heard on the radio. And that was the heyday of trumpet in radio and TV. We had Doc Severinsen every night on The Tonight Show and on the radio you had anywhere from Herb Alpert to Chuck Mangione, Al Hirt, and Wynton Marsalis came in at the end of that. Maynard Ferguson was big on the radio at that point. And nowadays, bless YouTube or curse YouTube depending on your point of view, but there’s so many lessons that go along with that because you can listen to Wynton Marsalis 200 times a day if you want. This was the first time you could really listen to all these people on pop radio. I was into it and I was playing all that by ear and I started learning how to improvise this way.
We moved to Virginia Beach when I was nine, eight actually, and that was also an embarrassment of riches because that was a hotbed on the East Coast for music in schools. In fact, I’m not the most famous musician by far from the schools I went to in Virginia Beach. The most famous is Pharrell and Chad Hugo from The Neptunes.
WWBW: When you joined the Canadian Brass, would you say that at that point your musicianship was more or less fully baked, or does your tenure with Canadian Brass continue to inform your artistry?
JB: It continues to inform my playing, and so does so every other stop along my career. For me it’s a lifelong pursuit. One of my best friends played in Canadian Brass with me, Jeff Nelson. He’s professor at Indiana University and also loves performing and loves teaching. He has a saying that I subscribe to: “The life of an artist is every day—you keep getting better and then you die.”
But the jazz component is really important here for me in my development. I learned by ear and then later when I started reading notes, they didn’t make sense to me. I could do it, but the really trippy thing was trying to put the letters with the notes. It didn’t make sense for years. I couldn’t do it. It did not compute in my brain and maybe just my individual learning style and/or the experience of how I came to music. I was playing a lot of jazz when I got to Virginia Beach, and my next teacher was Gary Gompers. He was predominately a jazz player and he ran a group called the All-American Jazz Ensemble. That group played a lot for an organization called Young Audiences. I don’t know if you know what that is?
WWBW: I don’t.
JB: Young Audiences is a nationwide network of state organizations that provide music, a roster of groups to schools and community events. I was out playing all the time as the guest with these adult jazz musicians when I was nine. These would be school shows, outdoor shows, festivals. Sometimes my parents allowed me to go into Norfolk with them and I would play at the clubs. This was when I was nine and ten. So again, this was natural to me. I mean, they were older but this is just what I did. I didn’t give it a second thought that it was unusual. So the way I learned music, capital M, was that it was always reactive. You were always living it and it was always in the moment, whether it was the head of the tune or improvising over changes. It was always alive.
WWBW: You mentioned the disassociation you had with letters. I’m going to guess that with an early introduction in jazz by this way and others that number, which lend themselves much more naturally to interval relationships, maybe that spoke to you a little more clearly?
JB: I still can’t read chord symbols. I go blank. If you put a scale in front of me I can flash on the scale and I won't need to read the scale. Then that works to my mind like a chord symbol, if that makes sense. Some people talk about hearing colors or other relationships, but the thing I was learning from jazz is to be in the moment and to play. That was a completely different state of mind, and this is what really informs my classical playing.
If one were to label me I’m a multi-genre international trumpet soloist.
WWBW: That’s what License to Thrill seems to be about. That’s a cross-genre collection. I guess you can call them classics but they’re definitely off what you’d call the classical hit parade. Did you have a strategy in selecting pieces for License to Thrill?
JB: My strategy is always to play what I believe in, what I like, and what I’m drawn to, so I can most authentically present to an audience a truth as I see it. What I strive toward is authenticity, growth, vulnerability and sharing. That really came through jazz training. I did start classical lessons when I was eleven with Stephen Carlson. He was the principle trumpet of the Virginia Symphony. Gary started me on some technique and Stephen got me doing all the orchestral excerpts and all the classical solos. Things went really well. I won my first audition when I was fourteen and that was an audition for second trumpet in the Virginia Opera. So that was my part-time job all the way through high school.
WWBW: It beats washing dishes, which was my summer job at fourteen.
JB: It was amazing. Again, what was amazing about it – I realize all these great things that happen in your life through a different lens as you get older, but what was really amazing for me is when I got into that orchestra pit. Until then I had always been the best among my peer group and I didn’t really have to try. I practiced a lot, but I didn’t really know how to practice, but it didn’t really matter because I was always playing, always being natural and I was better than anyone around me and that includes any high school players. My very first opera was Carmen and still is my favorite. I got in there and now I’m surrounded by people from Julliard, from Eastman, from Peabody, from Northwestern and they are prepared and I was not. I could always just wing it and still be better than anyone else. I just went in and read and it was horrid. I was unprepared and they were not amused. Here’s this fourteen year old kid…
WWBW: Coming in without humility.
JB: Awareness, I would say. I was a nice kid, well-behaved. Remember, I was Austrian. But no awareness of what professionalism was. That was the last time I was unprepared. That was the last time. I learned much more about how to be a professional over the years with them, but I also got a very naked look at what the business of music really was. Up until that point I just had stars in my eyes. Again, that was just who I was and I knew I was going to do that for the rest of my life. I had an assumption about a deep feeling. I also didn’t have an idea what it was to be a professional musician until I met these musicians in the Virginia Opera, many of whom are still my friends and my mentors.
So they all took me under their wing and they were incredibly gracious about it. Anything from tips to pulling me aside for advice to showing me different styles and I soaked it up.
I went to University and studied with David Hickman, who is still a mentor and a friend. It was between Arizona State and Northwestern. Those were the two top trumpet studios in the country at that time. I went with David at Arizona State because of my experience in Virginia Opera, and because I knew about the music business, how tough it was now. I watched all these supremely talented people around me work really, really hard and they didn’t have limos or have million dollar houses. They weren’t what I imagined the music business was. They were what it was. I still wanted it, but now I was panicked to get a job. I was like, okay, well, I’ll be lucky to get a job in music.
Hickman had a reputation for helping all of his students get jobs. David is the only person in the history of the International Trumpet Guild to get both the lifetime achievement award and ITG Honorary Award. He’s a legend at this point. I went to Arizona State and after about the first year I realized, yes, I want to be like David. I played in so many community orchestras and the Virginia Opera, but I realized I was looking at someone who embodied what I wanted to do. David was a soloist and he was playing 40 to 60 engagements per year at that point with orchestra. He was a chamber musician. He was trumpet player with the St. Louis Brass Quintet and he was also teaching at Arizona State. He had already won the university-wide Outstanding Teacher award. They called it a Regents Professor. And he started his own big brass ensemble called Summit Brass and his own record company, Summit Records.
This guy had a work ethic that I identified with because he reminded me of my parents. He just went at it. I decided I wanted to be just like him The variety of musical situations that I pursue is a direct result of the influences of teachers that include Mike Teolis, Gary Gompers, Steve Carlson, David Hickman, Anthony Plog, Wendell Banyay, Emmet Forbes, Mark Reimer, Jonathan Greenberg, and David Fedderly. And then of course, I am continually influenced by the many amazing colleagues I am so fortunate to have worked with!
WWBW: You recently completed a bit of a world tour, maybe ten countries or so?
JB: It’s ongoing. I graduated Arizona State in ’95 and I’ve been touring the world ever since.
WWBW: Are there any countries or cities that charm you particularly that are worth a mention?
JB: Oh, boy.
WWBW: It’s a big beautiful world.
JB: Yes, it is and…
WWBW: I won’t put you through it.
JB: One of the things that doesn’t compute with my brain is the concept of favorite so when people ask, like, my favorite thing…
WWBW: Good, better, best…
JB: I go dumb a little bit, sorry.
WWBW: No, I love it. Thank you.
JB: But, you know, the thing I’ve come to enjoy about the travel is sometimes it’s not the place so much, or often it’s not the place because the nature of touring and the nature of the engagements often you’re talking about overnighters –
WWBW: Hotel to venue, that’s it.
JB: You get in in the morning and you play, and then you leave so the connection I really have with those places is not so much the places, but the people themselves. I might not even get to see the city. At this point I’ve seen most of the cities. I toured heavy for 21 years, and now just a little lighter since I have a full time teaching gig. I’ve gone toward a different sort of balance in my life.
WWBW: This might be a naïve question. How ready do the orchestras get in these distant countries and cities before you arrive? I mean are they prepped in the material? You hit a one-nighter, maybe you get one rehearsal in? How does that go?
JB: A typical orchestral engagement is three nights in a row. Depending on my schedule, usually with two rehearsals before, but any professional orchestra is working on a weekly schedule and juggling at least one program, maybe two. So they maybe perform one program that week, but they’re already rehearsing for the one the next week, depending on the rigor of the music they’re approaching and their familiarity with it.
So professionals in an orchestra have their music weeks ahead of time, if not months. They know how to balance the schedule. It is a juggling act for them and it’s quite amazing what they do in those orchestras.
So they prepare the parts ahead of time and they show up to rehearsal and work on the music together. They’re not really learning the piece. They’ve already done that and they’ve listened to recordings of it so by the time I show up, we’re working on music and interpretation. And for me I prefer, again, just reacting. Music is a conversation that goes back and forth, so that one of the successful things I find about performing as a soloist is realizing that yes, my role is being a soloist, but it’s more of a collaborator, really. And I may be the lead collaborator, but the most fun I have with an orchestra when I perform is really connecting with the musicians.
If there are two rehearsals or three, let’s say the first two, I’m facing inwards and as if it’s a chamber music situation because to me the best orchestras function as large chamber groups. They may not be staring each other in the eyes, but certainly they have big ears and they’re in the moment and they’re reacting, and the music is alive. They are co-creating the music, not just recreating the music.
I try to give them my heart when I’m playing; I try to be vulnerable and set the tone of that relationship. It’s interesting with an audience or a collaborator, whether an orchestra or wind ensemble or a pianist or a vibraphonist, whatever it is, the thing that’s really important for me is to set the tone. Okay, we have a short amount of time to establish what our relationship is going to be and how we’re going to perform and you never know as an orchestra with visiting artists or visiting conductors what those relationships are going to be like. It’s really our job to come in front of an audience and be vulnerable right away.
WWBW: You and your associates do seem to have a good handle on the “X” factor, the chemistry, the soft sciences of music, right down to sense of humor. Poking around in some of your printed material, it says here, “Bach’s Secret Files charted just under Paul Simon but just above the Beastie Boys.” I find a video of you horsing around in a Mozart wig with a sackbut and you know, it’s obvious that you don’t take too seriously the upside-down ratio of musical sophistication to mass appeal and I think that’s a healthy disposition.
JB: Well, thank you. It’s interesting that my humor is only something I understood later in life. I can tell you the moment I understood my own humor; it was in a bar in Limoges, France.
WWBW: That’s very specific.
JB: We were there with the Canadian Brass. It was the year I met my wife, so 13 years ago. Sitting across from me was much of the brass section from the Vienna Philharmonic. I speak fluent German because of my Austrian upbringing. So we started off talking English but it quickly digressed to German. It was just me and the Vienna Phil guys and they started telling Mozart jokes.
JB: And Mozart, this prompted me to delve into Mozart’s history, but Mozart was an amazingly colorful person.
WWBW: Yes, so I understand.
JB: All of a sudden, these Vienna Phil guys were laughing at me. When I would tell jokes in the United States and I thought I was being funny, people didn’t get it. My friends, they were like, “ That’s funny?” But all of the sudden now instantaneously, I was Johnny Carson in there. It was like oh, I have Austrian humor. And so much great classical music comes from Austria. You’re talking Haydn. You’re talking Mozart. You’re talking Strauss. You’re talking Mahler. I mean these are all either Austrian or they’re from the Austro-Hungarian region.
It’s interesting because the language influences the interpretation. Not only the language, but the disposition influences your interpretation. You could say the same thing about American Jazz. When musicians from other countries start to pick up the concept of jazz and play it, there is a heavy accent on it. But now things have evolved and the world’s a smaller place, but that’s when I realized that my humor is part of just me being myself. Austrian humor is closer to Monty Python humor than anything else.
WWBW: It seems to work as at least in the presentation of your materials. What you find looking into Joe Burgstaller online is that he seems like a pretty well-rounded fellow.
JB: My presentation style is that I perform the music from the heart and I do my best to really feel into the music and present it from there. Again, what I used to do as a child just from a childlike state and present it to the audience. I don’t goof around when I play. My presentation style when I start speaking is in my natural cadence and my natural way of speaking, and that happens to have humor in it.
Can I tell you a little more about David? Just to circle back.
WWBW: Please do.
JB: I’ve taught at over 103 conservatories and universities across the world in my career and I see basically the same thing everywhere I go. Because I figure okay, what’s special about having me here? What can you get from me coming here that you might not be able to get from someone else? So it’s not mouthpiece buzzing and it’s not playing in tune and it’s not playing with a metronome.
But it’s this: Everything that you do outside the lines is what makes you successful. And that’s what I learned from David. You have to go to all your classes. You have to learn your theory. Learn your history and then you need all those things. If you don’t, you’re not going to be a success. But what I got from David is experiential learning. I watched David and I want to be like him. So I created my own brass unit. I created my own large brass ensemble. I started doing arrangements. I started doing competitions.
The more I did that, the more support I got from my professors. I started producing concerts and going into the community and playing for real people just like when I was a child. I really did not like performing for my peers. That’s not performing for me. Performing music for me is performing for people who are not musicians.
My theory as an educator is that one of the sacrifices we make in the pursuit of being musicians is that we forever ruin our experience. Now our experience is altered by noticing what’s in tune or what’s dragging or rushing or what missed notes there are. But an audience is an amazing gift to us because they’re there to participate in this relationship. They give us two hours of their lives they’ll never ever get back and that’s the most precious commodity they have. Money doesn’t mean a thing when you compare it to time in your life, as we all know, and so they show up and they trust us. That’s amazing. They trust us to give them an experience that’s worth two hours of their lives.
WWBW: They also probably took half hour to 40 minutes getting there, spent 12 bucks parking and then going home. And the whole thing is wrapped up into a commitment of an entire evening. I do weekend warrior gigs. Just people coming out to the gin joint and spending that time there with us, it’s very flattering.
JB: There’s no low level. There is no low level.
WWBW: I appreciate that.
JB: In fact, I believe that the true essence of music is amateur music and to a degree professional music. It’s wonderful to be a professional musician, but it’s not pure for the reasons I’m talking about. An audience is pure, though.
So when an audience shows up and they give us their life energy sitting there, they’re not counting notes. They’re not worried if it’s out of tune. They’re not like, oh, you missed that note or the tone of that was…or you started the phrase…the metrics, the criteria with which they’re experiencing that relationship are not those criteria at all.
WWBW: It’s as simple as how you made them feel.
JB: It is as simple as the relationship and how you make me feel when I’m in front of you and we’re just talking about something that we both are passionate about. So that’s again not only a state of naiveté and getting into the heart of the music, but really sharing and connecting with that audience and opening ourselves up. When we do that, then it really is a magic experience. This is why live music is irreplaceable. There is nothing like live music. Recordings are great. I love recordings. I love making them. I love listening to them. but it’s only a pale shadow of what music is and recordings even videos or live concerts over video will never ever recapture, cannot recapture what happens live energetically between two or more human beings in between each other.
WWBW: The vibrations, the sound vibrations and the way even just two really in-tune horns sit in a room with big, held notes.
JB: Right. And it goes beyond intellect. It’s unquantifiable. There’s no science that can tell us what love is and no science that can tell us what music is. And to me, they’re both the same and so… I got off on a rant. Sorry.
WWBW: I’ll tell you last night at 11:30 p.m. found me in New Hampshire, 25 degrees out, in a 350-year-old building with a killer band, about five people in it and about ten people in the audience, and it was just fantastic.
JB: So that’s the difference between when you’re in a situation like that as a musician with the audience, it’s not about the money anymore. Now we’ve got pure music.
WWBW: So one of the things you seem to…
JB: Can I tell you more about David?
WWBW: Please. Go ahead.
JB: If we’re going to talk about education, you should know this. I learned, musicians need to learn, young musicians need to learn by doing. Experiential learning. We need to know the theory but then we have to get out and actually do it. And the opportunities are amazing. They’re all there. The opportunities are there to be made as musicians.
That’s what I watched David do. Sure, he had an agent and he had his own record company, but these are all opportunities he made. Did his own arrangements. He got his own commissions. He pursued his own career and built it, these different pillars of his career.
I wasn’t figuring out okay, this is what he’s doing, but I just started copying him. So having a mentor or teacher than you can copy in front of you and who allows you to do that and supports you doing that, that was amazing. I started growing my career in college. I’m telling you all this because it leads into my best story.
I knew at that point I wanted to be a soloist and a chamber musician. The chamber music part I was growing with my own quintet and arrangements. We were starting to tour a little bit and do competitions, but the solo part, that’s where I really felt I could excel. How do you solo? I went to school when I was 17. Who wants to hear a 17-year-old soloist? Especially on trumpet. There is a need and a desire in the world for violin and piano soloists and most of it is because there are great master works, abundant volume of great master works for those instruments. For trumpet, it’s kind of a freeing sort of fact that there is no great demand for a trumpet soloist. So not only are you allowed to be creative, the only way you can be a trumpet soloist is if you are creative. That just lent itself to my skill set. But one of the world’s greatest…here’s the story. I promise it’s worth it, Chris.
WWBW: Okay. I can hardly wait.
JB: The story is the sons of the world’s greatest trumpet player from the 1950’s, Rafael Méndez, endowed…this was my teacher’s hero, Méndez, so his sons endowed a museum at Arizona State. One of my side jobs turned out to be giving tours and essentially being a de facto curator of that museum.
I found that his music, which he was kind of the Heifetz of the trumpet, lent itself to my skill set. I was known at that point to most of my peers as having great technique. So, I started really pursuing his music. I would play that and other solo pieces that weren’t his that would come into my lessons, and David would say that’s really great. He’d show me some things and a lot of things, but he said it’s going to be different when you play it in front of an orchestra or wind ensemble. I’m like, “Well, how?” He says, “I can tell you a couple of things, but mainly you just have to do it.” Okay.
So through his former students, some of whom were band directors in the area, but mostly through the music education department at Arizona State, I started cold-calling high school band directors across Phoenix. My pitch was essentially, “My name is Joe Burgstaller. So and so gave me your name and your number. Is now a good time to speak?” And if they said yes, I’d say, “I’d like to pursue a career as a trumpet soloist and I need some experience and would it be okay with you if I came out and gave free master classes and free lessons to your students and in return could I play a couple of solo pieces on your band concert?” They all said yes.
WWBW: Each and every one.
JB: They all said yes. No one ever said no. Here was a guy who could come out and work with their trumpet players and their brass section for free. I learned how to teach and I taught like all teachers. We start teaching what we know. I knew how to play trumpet so I was showing them how to do that, but I was also talking about how to improvise as a classical musician and phrasing. How to focus, how to visualize when you practice. Everything I pursued in my personal life, I started categorizing and codifying so I was doing this all over and over again.
I was also getting in front of real people for these band concerts. I would get up and play two tunes. There are 500 to 700 band parents and relatives and friends of these musicians going to the band concerts because that’s who goes to band concerts. I learned how to be a soloist and I wasn’t very good at first because it’s a skill that is on top of playing trumpet, on top of playing music. So I did it over and over again.
I spent my life savings at that point making a recording. I figured in my 19-year-old logic, okay, my uncle plays jazz saxophone in Austria. It’ll be easier in Austria if I make a recording. He’ll get me solo concerts. So I put together a digital recording on cassette and a press kit just like I saw David do. I got pictures made and I got quotes and of course it didn’t go anywhere because who’s going to hire a no name?
But every day, I put together an outline of what my career was going to look like and I would pull that apart and put it back together. I knew how much money I wanted to make. I just wanted enough to eat and have a roof over my head and play the trumpet. What kind of repertoire I wanted, how many concerts, how much solo stuff, how much chamber stuff.
This was my dream and every day I wrote it down. Nothing was happening until I won an audition with a modern music group in New York. That’s why I went to New York in ’95. I joined this group, Meridian Arts Ensemble, and they were amazing and had already established a reputation. Then all of the sudden, I’m in one of the world’s foremost modern music groups and they happen to be a brass quintet with drums.
We started touring the world, but about three years in, a couple of the other guys decided they wanted to do something else. They had been doing it for 15 years and I thought, well maybe now is the time and I had made some contacts. So now’s the useable part of the story. Sorry, I’m meandering today.
WWBW: That’s fine.
JB: On a Thursday at 5:00 o’clock, I called John Kittredge, who was VP at Columbia Artists at that point. I said John, I have this idea and I gave him the pitch. Basically, the same pitch I used to give to the high school band directors, but what I wanted to do in the real world. The pitch was that I wanted to play and I wanted to teach and I wanted to play the music of Méndez and I had all these themed things I could teach at a local high school, college or university. He said that sounds really interesting. Do you have a recording? I said well, yes, I do.
WWBW: I just happen to have one right here.
JB: He says how quickly can you get here? I said, well, if I take the A train and I run, I can be there in 27 minutes. He says run, now. I said John, I haven’t shaved. He says, Joe get off the phone and run. Okay, so fine.
Twenty-seven minutes later, I’m panting in his office. He says “Where’s the cassette?” I gave it to him. Pops it into his cassette player. Listens and he looks at me. “This is fantastic,” he says, and it was because I had been doing that rep over and over and over again in front of people at these different concerts and working out actually what worked and exploring it by trial and error and then recorded it. I said thank you. I’m quite proud of it.
He says, well, “How soon can you give me a proposal?” I said, “When do you need it?” He says tomorrow morning at 9:00 o’clock is our final artist selection committee reading.
I knew how to do a proposal because I had watched David do it and then I started doing it for him. He had hired me for his companies and so through David I had pursued music business without even knowing it. I sat there. I learned how to do it. I sat in those offices. I started by boxing CDs and I did economic graphs, pie charts for this, and licenses for this, and so I did a proposal. But I didn’t start from scratch because I had been building this, my outline and my plans for years. So I just polished it up a little bit with a more modern picture.
I showed up, printed it out at the Kinko’s across from the Letterman Theater at 4:00 o’clock in the morning, went and got my suitcase, showed up at his office at 9:00 on my way to JFK because I had to go to Prague for a modern music festival. I gave it to him.
I arrived in Prague and spent my per diem money for that tour calling back and on my answering machine was congrats, you are now a soloist on the community concerts Columbia Artists roster. I had no concerts yet. Then I had to invest a great deal of start-up money in myself to attract the concerts with all the next level of anything from CDs to press kits, basically.
So months later, I’m at Carnegie Hall doing their showcase, which is where you get 20 minutes to perform in front of all their presenters and they decide if they want you for their series or not. And your competition is not just musicians, it’s anything from Broadway reviews to comedians to full bands. You name it. You’re really in the throes of competition. It went really well. I killed it. Why? Because I had been doing it so many times over and over again in front of live people, so I didn’t have to nail it. I just knew that my 93% to 96% was for me a very polished level over years of dedication.
WWBW: You’re making the point really, really well, Joe. It really has to be in your back pocket in order for you to count on nailing it when you need to nail it.
JB: Growth is incremental that way. So I did that showcase. I went to Prague the very next day and again for a different modern music festival. I called back and I had three messages on my answering machine. The first was under half an hour afterward. He said our booking period is typically three months. You’re a half an hour in and you have 27 concerts. I called back a little while later. He says we’re an hour in. You’re at 50. He made a third call. He says we’re an hour and a half in. We’ve cut you off at 64 concerts.
JB: And so I landed 64 solo concerts for that season. When I tell this story, the kids usually at this point, the goose bump part of the story, and then I point out to them, I said there is no such thing as an overnight success. Once we surrender to that fact, then we can empower ourselves that everything is right on, everything is step by step and your work will pay off and there really are no destinations in this particular business or in life. Music is a journey. Life is a journey and it has interesting and magical moments, but don’t expect anything to happen overnight. Chris Botti has a similar story. He says it a little more eloquently. His was a 13-year overnight success story.
That’s not the most compact version of that story I’ve ever told, but you take what you want from it.
WWBW: All right. I think that’s a good place to move over to something a little less spiritual, but soulful none the less, and that’s equipment. You’re a Yamaha artist?
WWBW: And straight across your selection of trumpets?
JB: Correct. All Yamaha. My relationship goes back to when my brass quintet in college won the Yamaha international brass ensemble competition. I already played some Yamaha instruments at that point and I started making relationships with some of the people in the company. A few years later when I moved to New York, I was playing even more on Yamaha and I became a Yamaha artist. What Yamaha means to me is family. Surely it’s a huge company, but it has a family feel to it, and that’s what I really appreciate about it. There are huge companies in any industry that it’s a “work-a-day” job. You go home. I don’t get that feeling from my Yamaha family at all.
WWBW: You know, that report is consistent across all the Yamaha artists, I find.
JB: I guess it’s part of their company culture. Right? And it’s reflected in their craftsmanship. One of the amazing things about the Yamaha instruments is how flexible they are, how responsive they are, how consistent they are, not only in the way they feel but as someone who toured so heavily for 20 plus years, things are going to happen to your instruments. Sometimes they don’t show up. Sometimes they get damaged. I can always walk into a local shop, grab a Yamaha off the shelf, because I play off the shelf equipment, and it plays exactly like my personal horn save for perhaps a little dirt and grime. I think that’s an incredible achievement and sure you could point to a lot of math, but the design of the horns to me is across-the-board superior.
It’s important to me that first of all, the horns never get in the way so that’s a nice characteristic. I never feel I have to think about my instrument, which is amazing, and then on top of it, they are easy to play. They’re responsive, open in the high register. They have a sound. It allows me to have my own sound, basically. It’s just a perfect partner.
WWBW: You use Yamaha mouthpieces as well?
JB: The whole thing.
WWBW: Do you have a size you prefer? Just out of curiosity.
JB: 16C4 gold-plated.
JB: Sometimes, the 14B4. If I’m playing E flat, I’ll use 14B4 on that. I just feel that I’m able to express myself through the horns. You know, I probably sound like someone pitching, but that’s the way I actually feel about it.
WWBW: No, you can kind of tell when it’s a canned pitch and when it’s sincere.
JB: I meandered so long on teachers and stuff and not telling you what I’m doing nowadays. Maybe I should just tell you a bit about what’s going on?
WWBW: Of course. We didn’t really talk about the BM4 project.
JB: I split my time. Basically, I went from Meridian Arts Ensemble as a full-time modern music specialist into being a full-time soloist and then I went to full-time Canadian Brass and then I started branching out and now I have several different irons in the fire, and that’s the way I like it because all styles of music and all musicians influence each other for me. I am a multi-genre musician. I’m most happy when I can do the things that I do. So I’m completely unfocused. Now mostly what I do is solo work and no matter what I do, no matter where I go, I always make sure there’s a teaching opportunity for me, whether it’s in the form of a clinic or actually maybe a couple days a little more in depth.
But most of what I do is solo work. It’s the most portable and I have a large repertoire so I can play several programs wherever I go. So sometimes I’ll do an orchestra program and a couple recitals in the same place and some clinics and masterclasses. I like the impact I can make on an audience, but also in the community itself. I really like meeting people and making a difference in any way I can rather than going for a disconnected experience.
I also have a crossover ensemble called BM4. We do a program called Bach’s Secret Files. The premise is, “What if the great composers of yesteryear time travel to the future and were exposed to YouTube?” Now they’re going to be exposed to the plethora of styles out there. How would that influence their compositions?
My partner in that group is Hector Martignon. He’s one of the world’s foremost Latin jazz pianists and he’s also trained in classical. He’s kind of like my brother in that respect. We organically recompose some masterworks and see where they go. We’re doing anything from Bach to Mendelsohn to Mozart. For example, we explore relationships between composers. Jobim was influenced by Chopin so we mash up some of those. That’s one of the projects I have.
I have another project that’s called The New York Brass Arts Trio. It’s two other brass soloists, David Jolley on horn and Haim Avitsur on trombone. We take orchestral works like Till Eulenspiegel and we play them for brass trio. Also Bach’s Chaconne, which is one for solo violin, but it does take three brass players to play. So that’s another project I have. My wife is a conductor and often in the last couple years, many of the orchestra concerts I solo on, she’s the guest conductor now. So we’re traveling together.
I also rejoined Meridian Arts Ensemble after all these years. That group is famous in the brass world for playing the music of Frank Zappa. The modern music we play is strongly influenced by jazz and rock.
Also, I'm now a full-time professor at Peabody! I teach trumpet and brass chamber music.
WWBW: Is that music component of Johns Hopkins?
JB: Yes. The Peabody Institute of The Johns Hopkins University.
JB: So it’s a really fortunate situation to be in Baltimore. I have a fantastic studio and a great chamber music studio. At Peabody we’ve repositioned ourselves in the music higher education world to represent the things, frankly, that I believe in and know to be true in my experiences across every genre in the business. So it’s a great fit. There are a lot of new initiatives in our curriculum, basically, a rebooting of the curriculum that addresses a lot of those gray areas I had to explore on my own when I was a student. Now it's formalized, thought-out, accessible and experiential. That is truly so exciting and I’m part of that movement and part of the new curriculum and part of designing it here.
JB: It’s creativity in a completely different sense, but it’s also bringing forward your experiences, knowing what that’s like before and now trying to fill those gaps for the next generation and see where they can take it. If that makes sense.
WWBW: It does. You know, I think your philosophy comes through loud and clear. It’s been a pleasure talking to you. In listening to you and reading about you, I read "the superstar of the trumpet, "superhuman in musicality, virtuosity" and all this, but a three-word review from Syracuse Standard nails it better than any of them and that’s you are "full of heart". I want to thank you for talking to me today.
JB: Thanks so much! Wishing you and everyone out there a fantastic musical journey!