I never had the privilege of meeting William Vacchiano, although he’s responsible for one of my fondest trumpet memories. He was a profound influence on several people who have similarly influenced me, and so I was as saddened by his passing this week as I have ever been for someone I didn’t know.
The name William Vacchiano probably doesn’t mean anything to most of you, certainly not to those of you without some close involvement to classical music. That was probably all right with him. Bill Vacchiano enjoyed what I would consider to be the perfect measure of fame: he could go wherever he wanted without being disturbed by the public at large, while his peers and aspirants parted like the Red Sea to make way for him.
Vacchiano became one of the small handful of truly great orchestral trumpeters by accident. His father sent him to the music store to get a clarinet. Young Bill had a little trouble deciphering the instructions (given in Italian), and came home with a cornet. It worked out well for everyone.
He made his first mark in 1935, fresh out of Juilliard, where he had studied with Max Schlossberg, the father of American trumpet teaching. Auditioning for the Metropolitan Opera and New York Philharmonic on the same day, Vacchiano won both auditions. True, audition procedures were much more relaxed then than they are today; he wasn’t subject to the modern cattle calls of two hundred players that often show up for a single position. Still, playing for Simone Mantia and Arturo Toscanini on the same day was a tough gig; being hired by both is the stuff of legend.
Vacchiano chose the Philharmonic, where he served as associate principal until being promoted to principal trumpet in 1942. He held that position until his retirement in 1973, becoming probably the most visible orchestral trumpeter ever. For those of you old enough to remember, it was Bill Vacchiano playing first trumpet when Leonard Bernstein was televising his Young People’s Concerts and other programs that established Bernstein as the pre-eminent American musician of his time.
It’s only appropriate that Vacchiano was succeeded as principal trumpet by two of his students, Gerard Schwarz and Phil Smith. Vacchiano will be remembered as a player for as long as his recordings exist; his influence as a teacher will never end. He taught at Juilliard and the Manhattan School of Music for sixty-seven years, from 1935–2002. He also found time to work in some teaching at the Mannes School from 1937–1983.
It would be fair to say that every major American orchestra has had at least one of his students in the trumpet section at some time. I’d be surprised if any major orchestra didn’t have at least one player today who either studied with him or one of his students. There was no template to his teaching, no “one size fits all” approach. His students cover the gamut of playing styles, and encompass more than orchestral careers: Wynton Marsalis studied with Vacchiano at Juilliard.
I never met William Vacchiano, and haven’t played in anything like a serious ensemble in over ten years, yet one of the most cherished memories of my trumpet career involves him. It was the 1990 International Trumpet Guild Conference. I had helped a manufacturer in his display booth, and took advantage of the end of the day to sneak in a little testing of my own. I played the trumpet solo from Stravinsky’s Song of the Nightingale to what I thought was an empty room. Played it pretty well, I thought.
I finished with the feeling someone else was still there. I looked up and saw Bill Vacchiano about twenty feet away at the Stork mouthpiece display, getting ready to leave. We made eye contact for just a few seconds, then he nodded once, smiling only with his eyes. I can still see him; I don’t think anyone ever said anything about my playing that made me feel better than that glance.
If that’s how Bill Vacchiano could make a stranger feel at a random meeting, it’s no wonder his students, friends, and intimates, many of whom fill all three roles, feel his loss so strongly today. The rest of us can only imagine what it must have been like to get some of that every week, and be grateful that he has achieved a measure of true immortality. Not only will he be remembered well beyond his time here, but he continues to influence his art, and the lives of those who practice it.
Thank you, Bill.