An interview with Thomas Rolfs, Principal Trumpet of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) and Yamaha artist.
How did you get your start in making music?
I was fortunate to grow up in a family that considered music to be very important. My parents, for example, were great musicians who always surrounded me with music; it was an inspiration for me.
What made you select the trumpet as your primary instrument?
My dad actually played the trumpet and I would occasionally hear him practicing. He would just pick it up and play some popular songs. He also always played recordings of great trumpet players like Louis Armstrong, Doc Severinsen, and the Dukes of Dixieland.
What do you think separates the best instrumentalists from the rest?
There are many musicians who have the technical ability to play, but the great ones will have a compelling, distinguished voice; they turn the music into a statement with its own personality and they make you want to listen to them.
Can you explain the connection each player in an ensemble has in making a piece come to life?
Every orchestra has a style and a voice that works for that particular orchestra, especially orchestras like the Boston Symphony with a long tradition and self-perpetuating concept of sound and style. A player must first fit into that group’s sound spectrum, but every player also needs to bring his or her own voice to the ensemble – that’s what makes each player contribute to the group’s success.
Do you think music education is important for a child’s development?
My wife and I thought it was very important that our children play some music, participate in sports, draw a little, read a lot, and generally be exposed to all of the arts. I think it’s important to at least allow the opportunity to see where it could lead them. With my children, they all went in different directions and none of them into music, but they all have a love and understanding of music.
Can you tell us a little bit about your partnership with Yamaha and the collaborative efforts you’re involved in?
I have always thought that Yamaha makes great instruments, but what I value most in the partnership is their commitment to excellence in their musical instruments and in their music education programs. I am excited about working with Yamaha to create some inspiring opportunities for young musicians in the United States. It’s all for the music. Promoting music, presenting music, teaching music. We all believe music is important in enriching lives.
What other instruments do you play and how does playing more than one instrument contribute to your musicality?
I played the piano for a few years before switching to trumpet. Now that I think about it, I wonder if my parents had always planned for piano to be my preparation for a band instrument because it worked very well for me. Playing more than one instrument allowed me to understand music from a broader perspective.
There’s pretty stiff competition as a professional musician. How did you handle the pressures of staying at the top?
I think what wore on me, and still does, is the expectations of both myself and the expectations I imagine others have at each concert I perform. But, I combat this by trying to stay in the present…in that musical moment. I try to hear what I play in my head and my heart and enjoy the playing of everyone around me. Occasionally, I get caught up in comparing myself to others like, I can’t play Wagner’s Sword Motif as well as Schlueter or I can’t play Don Juan as well as Herseth, but I push that all away and just play within myself and try to be true to myself.
How do you overcome nerves when performing?
When I was younger, I would try to fight off the nerves or pretend like they weren’t there, but none of that worked for me. I started to embrace the nervous anticipation and I think now I would actually miss it if it weren’t there. It’s part of the excitement of performing in front of an audience and I can’t have the excitement without having some of the nervousness and anxiety. They are connected.
When did you first know you wanted to be a musician and who inspired you to do so?
Through private instruction, I realized I wanted to do music professionally. I took lessons with my high school music teacher, Don Hakala; he was a very inspirational teacher as well as a very good player. At the end of each lesson he would put on a recording, usually of Charlie Schlueter with the Minnesota Orchestra, and tell me I could sound like that someday. But I still didn’t actually realize I could be that kind of musician until I attended Tanglewood, home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO), after my freshman year in college. That’s what changed my life.
As a private instructor, how do you help your students?
It is different with every student. Once I get to know them, I will try different ways of getting through to them just as I would do with my own children. I expect all of my students to put in the work and I’m fortunate in that the students I have are always very motivated. Sometimes I have to ask them to do a little less because you can also hurt your playing if you overdo it.
If you could bring any composer back to life for a collaboration who would it be?
This question makes me smile because last year at Tanglewood we had the 75th year celebration and some of us had the opportunity to ask for commissions from Tanglewood composer alumni. The list of composers is very amazing, but I would choose Aaron Copland.
What musical event in your career are you most proud of?
This is similar to when someone says, “You must be very proud of your child,” and you immediately think you’re proud of all of your children. There isn’t one event I can think of because there are so many to mention. I guess I could say I am proud that I have this many instances to think of…I’m thankful for that.
What continues to inspire you to make music?
I still love the sound of a trumpet in an orchestra. After all of these years, I still get goose bumps from that sound, from the trumpeters sitting around me, and from my own playing. Music is an opportunity to transport myself into another place or mood and it allows me to be peaceful within myself – that’s what keeps me inspired.