Interview With Mary Elizabeth Bowden - Part 1 - First Notes in Music to Overcoming a Lip Injury

Interview with Mary Elizabeth Bowden - Part 1

Mary Elizabeth Bowden

We met with classical trumpeter and Gold Medal Global Music Award Winner, Mary Elizabeth Bowden back in November of 2017 to get some insights into her career and advice for trumpeters entering where Mary is a member of the finals jury for 2018.  In addition to her solo career, Mary has played as principal trumpet with numerous symphony orchestras and has founded both a non-profit chamber music organization, Chrysalis Chamber Players, and a brass quintet, Seraph Brass, that consists of some of America's top female brass performers. 

The interview lasted about 45 minutes in length but Mary gave us so much valuable information that we didn't want to cut it. In order to make it more accessible, we are creating three blog posts with transcripts of the video interview below. In this first section, Mary discusses her first notes on the trumpet, to creating her path as a trumpet soloist, through overcoming a lip injury during a major international trumpet competition, the Ellsworth Smith.  Enjoy part one of the interview of Mary Elizabeth Bowden with Alexander Serio, Founder and President of Ictus International Music Competition. 

This interview discusses everything from Mary's first notes on the trumpet to forging her path as a soloist and overcoming a major lip injury. She also discusses time management, producing good quality videos, using social media, networking, producing a CD, and much more useful information.

Transcript of Conversation with Mary Bowden - Part 1

Alexander Serio: Could you tell us about your very first notes in music as a young child?

Mary Bowden: I picked up the trumpet because my two older brothers played horn and trombone and I have this very clear memory of opening up my Yamaha Cornet when I got it in the mail the first day, and I just focused on making the best sound I could that day. That approach has helped me for the past 25 years – that’s always my main focus – the first notes of the morning are making the best sound

AS: Wow, so some serious focus from an early age. How old were you when you decided you wanted to go to college for music?

MB: I think I was about 12 or 13 – so I decided pretty early on and so my school path was a little bit different. I skipped high school and I went to community college because I was able to choose my own schedule, which was much lighter than high school, so I had a lot of time to practice, and to also work other jobs so I could buy other trumpets like the piccolo trumpet.

AS:  Were you studying music at the community college, or were you just doing a degree there and playing trumpet on the side?

MB: I got my associates degree at Joliet Junior College, and then I practiced trumpet on the side and played in the Chicago Youth Symphony.  From there, I was able to practice enough that I got into Curtis where I studied with David Bilger, and then I continued onto Yale where I studied with Allan Dean.

AS: Curtis is pretty competitive to get into as a student. Do you remember what that audition experience was like for you?

MB: Yes I do, I was the very first one of the day, and I was very nervous that I did not warm up, and the first piece I played was the Tomasi Concerto.

AS: Oh wow

MB: I don’t know if I could to that now, but that’s what happened then.

AS:  What was your preparation like when you were going for that?

MB: I studied with a trumpet player in the Chicago area named Kari Lee and she demanded the highest standards from me and she helped me prepare. I remember that I wanted to play an easier concerto, and she told me a year out, “you are going to learn the Tomasi Concerto,” and I was a bit scared, but she always pushed me beyond my comfort zone and always made me play challenging works. The Tomasi then became one of my favorite pieces that I always go back to – so I am really grateful that I had a teacher at a young age who always challenged me to play music that I didn’t think I was ready for, but it always made me better.

AS: When you were at Curtis and Yale did you have any take away lessons or experiences that you learned there?

MB: Well, both David Bilger and Allan Dean focus on ease of playing and making a beautiful tone. That is something that was very special to me, and that I will carry for the rest of my life.  That is very, valuable to me.

AS: When you first left Yale, what was your path?  Did you take auditions?

MB: I thought at the time that the only way to make a living was to win an orchestral position. I had always wanted to be a soloist when I was a teenager, but I was told that was unrealistic and not possible – so, having had to pay for my own school, I decided to try to when an orchestral job and I ended up in the Richmond Symphony.  And, I continued to try to do that with many auditions, and it just didn’t feel right to play in an orchestra every day, and it wasn’t until I met Jens Lindemann at the Banff Centre. He really challenged me to pursue what my main goal was, which was to be a soloist. And so that summer of 2010 was when I really started to play for as many soloists as possible – I went to Chosen Vale and I took lessons from Håkan Hardenberger and many players from around the world. I just really tore my trumpet playing apart and tried to improve as quickly as possible. That’s where everything started.

AS: I remember we met at Chosen Vale that summer, and it is amazing to see where your career has gone in just seven years – it’s absolutely incredible.  I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit more about your path to becoming a soloist and forming your own chamber group and brass quintet?

MB: I think the most important thing is to have the highest quality of playing and knowing that your playing is at a level that you are confident to present recitals and have endurance to play through a quintet show. So, that was my main focus and it still is. I play for many people and try to improve every day. I think that is the number one thing – before you make fancy videos or put yourself out there – making sure that your level of playing is always improving and that you are always challenging yourself every day. So, that is what I continue to do. After that, it is just finding the tools to have a solo career. At the Banff Centre with Jens Lindemann, I made a demo CD of Telemann Concerto, Syrinx, and Haydn. That is where I met my favorite engineer, Florian, who has made my professional CDs, and so I learned through that collaboration.

The first step was to make a really high-quality demo CD, and I sent that to various conductors and colleagues. The importance of networking is so important. Even if you are not trying to be a soloist, it goes for any field of music that networking is probably the most important thing outside of the quality of your playing. A lot of my concerts have come from conductors or colleagues who knew me as a teenager, and so making connections and just being a nice person is so, so important. Also, now that we have social media and the internet, it is even easier to stay in touch with so many different people, and on top of that, you have this platform where you can share what you have. You can share your solo works.

When I decided to become a soloist, I was too old for most competitions, so I didn’t have a way of becoming known, and the way I became known was by putting up my playing on YouTube. That has gotten me many different positions, and even in different orchestras. I don’t pursue orchestra work that much, but since putting my solo recitals, and videos on YouTube, I have been offered different orchestral positions around the country. It is so great that we can now share what we can do with the world on YouTube and Facebook – that opened a lot of doors for me to be able to show what I can do.

AS: I think you did the YouTube Symphony, correct?

MB: Yes, that was one of my very first videos that I did. It’s a little bit of a low quality video if you go back and look now because that was 2010 or 2011. If you go on my channel you can really see the evolution of the videos that I have put up throughout the years. I put up a mixture of live performances and also higher-end videos – just to show a mixture of professional versus the live, honest footage.

AS: We were talking a little bit before we started the interview, and it is great that you talked about the importance of networking and making connections, but I remember one of our other judges, Brandon Ridenour, was telling us that in the 21st century that being a soloist is no longer the same as just having a manager and you just have a full career.  I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit more about just putting yourself out there and going for it?

MB: Sure, I have two managers working for me and the group, but they are just helping me book work – I do book most of the work on my own.  So, I do work as an administrator for myself and for Seraph Brass, and for Chrysalis Chamber Players.  I am constantly networking, and sending e-mails and making phone calls, as well as fitting in the practicing – so it is definitely more than a full time job.

AS:  I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about how you are maintaining this level of playing, which is amazing, and you have all of these different groups, and you have all of this administrative work – how do you balance all of that?  Do you have a daily plan?

MB: I personally try to do as much as I can every day, but it really is important to schedule time to be human and just having some downtime to relax.  For me, having enough sleep is important to do anything – I like to have the number of hours of sleep that I need to have. Then I can pretty much work all day with little breaks.

AS: In addition to putting yourself out there, I know you have done a number of competitions as well, and I was wondering if you could tell us either how they have helped your career, or what you have learned from them.

MB: Sure, I actually didn’t do many competitions at all because I didn’t pursue a solo path until my late twenties, and then I was too old for most competitions. I really wish I had done more because they make you learn a ton of repertoire, and you get to hear so many great players from around the world, and really get inspired.  Having said that, I did do a couple – I did the International Women’s Brass Conference Trumpet Competition, and I won first place in 2012. Also, that summer I was 30 years old, so I was at the age limit of Ellsworth Smith (ITG), which is one of the biggest trumpet competitions out there, and I made it to the live round. So that summer, I turned down all paid work and I just decided to practice. I worked really, really hard, but, unfortunately, I was hit in the face – not once, but twice. I was studying at the Banff Centre with Jens and I lifted a music stand up and it cut my lip open here (points to upper lip). Luckily, I healed pretty quickly from that, and at that point, I thought I was done, but  I came back pretty quickly.  I remember I went back to Santa Fe where my husband was, and I played some of the list for him that morning, and he said “this is the absolute best you have ever sounded.” Then, that night, I was walking to my car, and, out of nowhere, someone threw a frisbee and it hit me right here (points to left part of upper lip).

AS: Oh my goodness!

MB: I still have nightmares where I wake up being hit. I know a lot of players have had worse accidents, but I had worked so hard the entire summer, and I had just overcome another traumatic injury. So, the way this one (the frisbee) hit the lip here, I knew it was not good at all.  But I was very stubborn – I waited a couple of weeks and then it was two weeks before the competition. Looking back, I should have dropped out.  If you have an injury, the most important thing is to let yourself heal. But, I was stubborn – I thought it was my last chance, and I went in and played with a bruised face. I played as well as I could but looking back on it, I was injured and there is only so much you can do when you have such a bad injury. So, I ended up taking about a month off or so and coming back very slowly – my face was completely different.

This was also when I had just signed with a manager and I had my first concerto with a real orchestra on the books. So I was a little bit panicky but I was like, I am going to figure this out, there is no other option but to figure this out, and I did. Having the injury actually made me use these corners (points to corners of embouchure) for the first time. I had always gotten away with not warming up and being a natural player, but I struggled with endurance, and so having the injury made me use these muscles, and now, I feel like I don’t really have endurance problems. I learned how to play Brandenburg a year after the injury and I can do things that I just couldn’t do before. I think it was because I was really forced to take a close look at my fundamentals. So, I never let go of my fundamentals now, I do a lot of work in all the different ranges, I don’t just pick up the trumpet and play something – I make sure that my fundamentals are really set for the day and I practice everything very slowly. I feel like I have become a lot stronger because of the injury. So, I think you can always take something that is very negative and work it towards your advantage and make it positive. Looking back on that traumatic experience, it really changed the way I play the trumpet completely and I am not sure if I could play as well as I play now without having had that experience.

AS: Those experiences are amazing to hear about. I went through an injury myself where I had split the lip on stage, and I kept playing on the split lip without letting it heal and I had to take almost six months off and come back from nothing. You learn so much about yourself. So, you came back within a month from the Injury?

MB: Pretty slowly, yes. I didn’t try anything too difficult at first and I still feel the injury every day. My lip gets a little bit swollen, but I am really careful; I always ice every night. Ice and heat are good and I am aware of it and as long as I am using these muscle (points to corners of embouchure) correctly, it is not a problem. I feel like the injury keeps me in check to make sure I am never just pressing here (points to the center of top lip), and to be sure I am always using my air and playing in a healthy way. The minute that I don’t do that, this (points to upper lip) starts to get very swollen and doesn’t vibrate – so I can never allow myself to get to that place.

To be continued…..