A Discussion with Roy Poper: Getting Started as a Freelance Musician, the Keys to Teaching, and Conservatory Audition Advice.
Roy Poper is one of the most successful freelance trumpet players in the world. Roy has recorded over 2000 soundtracks for movies and TV shows, ranging from Jurassic Park to The Simpsons. In addition to his career in film, Roy has performed with the LA Chamber Orchestra, Berlin Philharmonic, and Cleveland Orchestra, to name a few. Roy is currently the Professor of Trumpet at Oberlin Conservatory and is known as one of the world’s leaders in brass education.
We had the incredible opportunity to have a discussion with Roy about his career and advice. Roy has a wealth of knowledge and advice about how to break into a new music scene. We also discuss what makes a good educator and the keys to auditioning for top music conservatories. I hope you learn as much as I have from this fascinating discussion with Roy Poper.
For readers that don’t know you, you’ve played on the soundtracks of thousands of movies and tv shows. You and Malcolm McNab were two of the top freelance trumpet players in the world. How did you first get started freelancing and breaking into the LA music scene?
A career as a freelance musician is a big commitment of time. Thriving freelance scenes are becoming harder and harder to find. You can still break into the LA scene, but I’d say it’s a ten-year commitment.
First, you’ll want to get to know the players, find out who’s doing what, and really observe the successful players. You need to hear the quality of their work, so you can be mentally convinced that you’re at a level where you could compete. It’s such an extremely competitive business that if you get a gig and can’t produce, it’s over. Everybody will know in no time at all, and you won’t get any more chances.
Most players start out by moving to an area, working in a Starbucks, or some other way to get a roof over their heads, then playing in community orchestras to get to know other players. Next, you need to learn to be a good sub. Try subbing for somebody that is successful, and don’t try to steal their job! Just be a good colleague and a good sub. People will learn to trust you as a colleague and trust that you’ll do a great job. They need to know you’re an easy person to deal with and get along with.
A young person trying to get started should also be studying the entire time. Study with somebody whose opinion and skills you respect. For instance, people don’t know that Malcolm McNab could teach all the time, happily so. He’s had one of the most successful freelance careers of all time, but he’s in his 70’s. Eventually, popular composers start to want to see musicians their own age, no matter how good they are. He’s an extremely precise teacher, and he gives people a lot of time for their money. Somebody like him is really amazing to get to study with and will help you sharpen your skills when you’re starting out in a new scene.
Your teacher, Jimmy Stamp, was one of the most famous trumpet teachers of all time, and his book is still used by most trumpet students today. What was the most valuable lesson you learned from him?
This is going to sound infantile, but Stamp was a master at convincing people to match pitch with the piano, and play center to center. He did that with the scale patterns in his book. He taught us to breathe in tempo, close your lips before you touch your mouthpiece, and set up a good embouchure before producing a sound. You’re not going to get a good response if you don’t do that. It sounds simple, but that’s years worth of work in what I just told you.
Some would say you’ve taken Stamp’s place now as one of the top trumpet teachers in the world. You’ve trained some truly incredible musicians. Do you have any advice for teachers to help their students as much as you do?
I don’t think I’m special in that regard. I think the people that can do what I do are people who can teach fundamentals. I really don’t think you can teach someone to be a musician. If they have the musical genes, most of their problems have nothing to do with music. It has to do with learning to play the instrument correctly.
Teachers like Malcolm, hopefully, myself, and Jimmy Stamp (Schlossberg was the previous generation) figure out how to correct fundamental problems with students’ playing. We don’t fix symptoms but fix the root causes of why something isn’t working well. You have to look into the person. You have to understand how the instrument works and how the human works with the instrument.
You also have to have tremendous patience. When someone has a bad habit that is holding them back, they can’t just flip the switch and change it just because they understand what to do intellectually. Like I always say, when the brain understands, the body is 1000 repetitions behind… at least! The funniest thing I hear is when I get someone that says, “Oh! I Get it now,” and I’m thinking, “you don’t have a clue.” Your brain gets it, but your body doesn’t know anything. That’s the natural response though; I do it too. Then, you start to put it into practice, every time you take a breath, every time you’re in the situation that requires you to make that move. That’s what the Schubruck, Schlossberg, and Stamp books are for.
I was taught those fundamentals by somebody who knew how to teach them, and so was Malcolm. People that came out of the Schlossberg tradition in the east know that too. That’s what I mean when I say that we are not unique: there are other people out there that can do it too.
As the trumpet professor at Oberlin Conservatory, do you have any advice for students who want to audition for top music conservatories?
Suppose you have a lot of talent and a really good sound, and you think you want to audition for Oberlin or Eastman or one of the other top conservatories. You will get an excerpt list that you have to prepare. Many of the talented young players that we hear don’t get coaching on the excerpted materials that we send them to learn. When you hear them play the material in their auditions, many times it is very naive. They don’t know how the pieces go or how they’re supposed to sound.
Young players that have to learn an excerpt list should get with a qualified teacher who has played orchestral literature to show you how they go. The concept should be in your head, you take a breath, and you deliver on how you know it’s supposed to go. If you don’t do that, you just hear people wandering around on the notes. Find somebody in a local symphony that has played that music to help with rhythmic integrity, time, and stylistically how the excerpts are supposed to go. If they can learn those things reasonably well, their talent will come through, and they will be at a far greater advantage than somebody who just takes a stab at it and doesn’t know what they’re looking at. We probably pass on people that are really good, but we don’t know how good they are because their excerpted material sounds so far off that I think, “I don’t know if we can take a chance on them.”
That being said, I have taken students that are all talent and don’t understand the excerpts. I have had students audition with naturally beautiful trumpet sounds and music running out of their fingernails, but their excerpts were all naive - they had no idea what they were doing. But there was a tremendous amount of natural musicianship, and I thought we’ll take a chance on them. If they have the discipline, they could be really great.
So it’s not that I won’t take someone like that, they are just at a severe disadvantage. What we’re listening for is if there is enough raw talent here to accept this student. You can’t teach somebody how to be a musician. If the music genes are there, you can teach the rest.
Of the thousands of movies and film composers you have played with, do you have any favorites?
I loved working with Jerry Goldsmith. He was one of the most creative composers in the industry. He always had the newest sound, yet he could reach back and do something completely neoclassical if he wanted to. He was just a brilliant composer.
Of course, I did a lot of movies with John Williams. He’s one of the most prolific of all time. I also liked working with Basil Poledouris, Michael Kamen, and Elmer Bernstein (I did Ghostbusters with him). Those are just a few, but Goldsmith was one of my favorites.
Thank you for reading our interview with Roy Poper! Next week, we are interviewing jazz legend, medical doctor, and professional ice skater, Eddie Henderson. After taking lessons with Louis Armstrong as a kid, Eddie started performing with jazz legends like Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock. Keep an eye out for next week's post at Virtu.Academy/blog!