Trumpeter Erin Yanacek: Blowing Out the “Brass Ceiling”
rin Yanacek doesn’t sit well with stereotypes.
Close your eyes and envision a trumpet player blasting out a thundering solo, and you’re liable to picture wide-stanced, full-bodied entertainers like Louie Armstrong, Wynton Marsallis, Dizzy Gillespie, Arturuo Sandoval or Cootie Williams. Guys who by the very space they take up on stage let you know you are in for a powerful experience.
And then there’s Yanacek.
The Taboo Subject
“There’s this gender factor,” says Yanacek, who says she is usually the “only girl in the whole brass section,” but it’s a reality that the trumpeter says isn’t talked about much “because it’s kind of taboo.”
Where the problem arises, says Yanacek, is when auditioning bodies underestimate a female player’s ability because they think she doesn’t look like she could produce the sound that’s required. What they don’t understand when they see her come for an audition, says Yanacek, is that her slim physique is due to lots of swimming and training for marathons, a regimen which has given her the lung capacity of “a guy who weighs twice as much more as me. I actually have better lung capacity than most of my colleagues.”
It was her interest in sports, in fact, that led to the twenty-four-year-old musician, who is currently pursuing her Master’s degree in Music Performance at Carnegie Mellon University, to gravitate toward the trumpet in the first place.
As a Young Girl, Yanacek Loved Sports
“I’ve always been really in to sports. I started playing piano when I was four, but I was getting progressively bored. I started playing trumpet because it was just so much more physical: you buzz your lips and blow a lot of air behind it, and use your tongue when you want to separate notes. So it’s like (she demonstrates). And to go tighter, you blow faster air. When you want to separate notes, you use you tongue, and when you want to go higher, you blow faster notes. And of course you have to coordinate your valves with all of that.”
“It’s the creative vision, separate from the physical act,” says, Yanacek, that ultimately makes a musician an artist. “It’s like learning a sport, like learning how to throw a baseball or the proper technique of rowing in a crew, or learning how to blow glass. It’s about the technique, and building strength and habits…but then knowing what to do with that knowledge.”
The Orchestra as a Living Organism
Yanacek says she first fell in love with the idea of being a musician after being dragged along to her older brother’s band concert.
“You know I didn’t really realize until this conversation that this idea of community and collaboration may be a big piece of the picture for me.”
It’s All About Connection
When she performs, Yanacek says she’ll typically choose one person out of the audience to play to. “Someone who happens to catch my eye. There are no similarities among those I choose, but I make it the goal of my concert to move that person and to help them see the beauty of life through this art, through our shared experience.”
Afterward, says Yanacek, “It surprises me how often then that person will come up to me after the concert and say that they just really enjoyed the music. And if not them, then somebody else always does, so I know I’m sending out something real.”
And the Focus
Yanacek likens her process to the “inner game of tennis,” or the mindset of “any kind of athlete where you give yourself over to something that’s much greater than yourself, and to communicate through it.”
But this takes great focus, she says, “to not get distracted by a camera flashing in the room, or even physically, if my chops aren’t feeling great that day, it takes that internal strength to maintain the understanding of the overall picture of the event and to remember my place in it, and to not become so egotistical or self-involved to be thinking about what’s going on with me and my trumpet.”
If she’s done her training right, says the trumpet player, that’s all happened beforehand, in the privacy of her own room during all those hours of practicing. “That alone time is the technique time to work out how quickly I can move the valves and how strong I can get my lips and to use my air efficiently, so that when I’m in the performance, I can think only about that one person and how I can communicate with them.”
Regarding The Great Trumpeters of the Past
“When it’s time to perform, it’s all about the individuality, about what I myself can bring to the piece, but when I’m preparing for a gig or competition, I’m imagining my mentors.” And each musician, she says, offers their own unique ‘voice’ to the conversation.
The young trumpeter says she can tell much about a performer just by hearing them play: everything from their nationality to even their gender. “Especially in tone quality and interpretation of a piece, different trumpeters of different nationalities play the same piece with different tones that mimic the way they speak and articulate, so for one, it may be a ‘tat-tat-tumming,’ and another, a ‘to-to-to’ with a somewhat darker sound, or a ‘tuh-tuh-tuh,’ and have very separated sounds.”
“There was a famous trumpet player, Maurice Andre’, who died last year, and he was French, and his playing reflected the French language. I think it’s because of the tongue shape and the shape of the oral cavity.”
Whereas the Russian trumpet player, Timofey Dokshizer, “played a lot of snappy vibrato with a very tight tone.”
The Future of Classical Music
One of the topics closest to the young trumpeter’s heart is exploring ways to make classical music relevant to her peers and the next generation coming up.
The key, she believes, lies in removing the stigma of elitism and replacing it with more intimate experiences.
“I have participated in something called ‘Classical Revolution.’ It’s an organization that started in San Francisco, and now different branches have sprouted up in different cities around the nation. What they do is take classical music out of the ornate halls and bring the music to bars, much like has been done with rock and jazz and blues.”
While Yanacek says there still are ‘purists’ who want a ‘quieter audience, where everybody is just listening to them,” to her what’s most important is “helping people make that personal connection.”
Nurture Future Young Female Trumpeters
“To the nine and thirteen-year-old girls and boys too, I think I want to encourage them to be themselves. I just think it’s much more fulfilling to be an individual, whether its mixing techno music or playing classical. I think the important thing is to do a thing because you feel connected to it and inspired by it, rather than having the goal of doing just what everybody else is doing. Because without integrity, you’re bound for failure. Integrity first. Always.”
Yanacek’s Goal for Her Own Future
“I’m investigating doctoral programs in music at places like The University of Oregon, where they require you to choose a minor in Arts Management. I’m really interested in eventually becoming Director if Development for a Youth Orchestra.”
Addendum: Conversation Between Erin and a Budding Young Trumpet Player, Josie Ala
After talking with Erin, I shared some of the highlights of the interview with Josie, the 13-year-old daughter of my friend, Salvatore Ala, who is herself an accomplished young trumpet player. I asked Josie what it was like for her playing an instrument that not a lot of girls played, and I invited her to send Erin any questions she might have of someone who had already moved into the world she would soon enter. Here is what each shared with me:
“What I love about the trumpet is the way I feel when I play it. It makes me feel free. When I first held the trumpet, it felt natural, like when a baby bird first begins to fly. It felt like I was meant to play trumpet. I also thought it would be cool to be able to say, ‘I play trumpet,’ as it is not played by many kids my age. I loved the sound as well. Now playing has developed into a humble and loyal relationship between me and the instrument.
I don’t feel strange being a girl who plays trumpet. Look at Valaida Snow. She was the “Queen of the Trumpet.” Playing trumpet does not overly affect my relation with schoolmates. I still hear the occasional gossip, but gossip can’t make me feel ashamed of something I love to do. Thankfully, my friends are sweet! They are always complimentary, but I’m never cocky. I reply by complimenting them back. We’re all one team on the school band.
My father has been a big influence on helping me learn about jazz. I’ve always been a jazz girl! A lot of my friends are true rockers, but I’m a true Jazzer! I’ve also been interested in the time of slavery, and racism is a subject that affects everyone. Billie Holiday, Valaida Snow, Sidney Bechet, Miles Davis and so many other talented musicians suffered terrible racism. They taught me about courage. Because of them, I’ll keep on letting the sweet sounds of Bix Beiderbecke, Chet Baker, and all the others influence me as a jazz lover.”
Josie’s questions for Erin:
1. How much do you practice in a day?
2. Did you always love classical, or were you influenced by a different genre at first?
3. What’s it like to play in an orchestra?
1. I practice about 3 hours a day. Sometimes as little as 1 hour if I’m traveling or if I’m saving my chops for a performance or audition and sometimes as much 5 hours if I have a lot of free time and want to improve on my basics. For this “basics” improvement, I love Clarke exercises and Schlossberg drills. Also, scales!
2. My initial interest in music came from many genres. I loved hearing the trumpet in jazz especially, and classical too, and salsa/Latin as well. In undergrad, when I was about 20, I had been spending about 2 hours a day on jazz and 2 hours a day on classical. I found that it wasn’t enough on either style to really master either, though, and decided to work on primarily classical for the time being. I love the way jazz and improvisation opens up the door to creative freedom. I still thirst for it often and will sometimes put on an Aebersold accompaniment in the background and just improvise to clear up any tension, physical or mental. I have realized that whether I’m focusing on jazz or classical style, I need to be able to play the trumpet really well, and the creativity can come only after the “chops” are in place. I always want to play with a good tone, in tune, and in time.
3. Playing in an orchestra can be an amazing experience! As I write this, it is 11pm in Pittsburgh, and I’ve just returned home from playing trumpet with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. They are absolutely an incredible group–certainly one of the top 10 professional orchestras in the United States. When I play with them, it feels like I’m a part of an amazing organism and like I’m part of something much larger than myself. It isn’t about me at all–but we’re all working together as a team to paint an amazing, beautiful auditory picture. Sometimes, though, I’m hired to play with lower-quality orchestras. I always take these gigs, because, for one thing, it’s good experience, and every time I perform I will learn something, even if every player is not technically remarkable on their instrument, and for another thing it helps to pay the bills.
Josie, you ask great questions! Do you know of Ingrid Jensen? She’s also Canadian and a remarkable trumpeter. She did a residency at the university where I did my undergraduate degree (Western Michigan), and she was incredibly influential on me. She spent an entire morning with me once, getting coffee and chatting first, then doing a little bit of yoga at the music building to get our breathing “loosened up” and ready to play, then going through her daily warm-up routine with me. She’s awesome!
Trumpeter Erin Yanacek is currently located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where she is pursuing her Master’s degree in Music Performance at Carnegie Mellon University.
Born and raised in Midland, Michigan, Yanacek graduated from Western Michigan University in 2011 with a Bachelor of Music and a minor in Philosophy. She has studied most recently with Neal Berntsen and Scott Thornburg.
Recently Yanacek was a featured soloist with both the Carnegie Mellon Baroque Ensemble and the Carnegie Mellon Wind Ensemble. She has also appeared as a featured soloist with ensembles throughout Michigan, including the Midland Chemical City Band, Saginaw Area Concert Band, Jackson Concert Band, and at a Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra concert. In 2008, she was recognized by both the Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra and the Jackson Concert Band as the group’s Young Artist of the Year.
Yanacek has spent summers studying at the National Symphony Orchestra’s Summer Music Institute, the Chosen Vale Center for Creative Studies, the Raphael Mendez Brass Institute, the Bay View Music Festival, the Interlochen Academy, and Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp.
To learn more about Erin, please visit her website.
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