Monday, September 04, 2006

Charlie Schlueter

The conclusion of this Tanglewood season coincides with the retirement of Charlie Schlueter after twenty-five years as principal trumpet of the Boston Symphony. Information on Charlie’s career and his influence on other trumpeters can be found in any number of places, notably among his many recordings. An inventory of orchestra rosters shows his students well represented. His work with trumpet builder Dave Monette will leave a legacy far beyond both of them.

I first heard Charlie Schlueter play one otherwise unmemorable night in Atlanta. Coming home from a gig, I turned on the television on my way to the kitchen for a snack, thinking I might catch the end of the Braves’ game.

My first thought when I heard the final movement of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra was that I had forgotten to check the channel. I continued with whatever I was doing until the trumpet parts started winding up for the finale. I noted the second trumpet’s entrance, then stood flatfooted when the first trumpet came in.

It was as close to a religious epiphany as I had ever come. (Seeing my daughter born has since eclipsed it, but barely.) I’d had what I considered to be the perfect trumpet sound in my head for years. Until that second, that’s the only place I’d ever heard it. To paraphrase Marlon Brando’s in Apocalypse Now, it was like being struck between the eyes by a diamond bullet.

I ran to the living room and found only an unrecognizable orchestra. Younger readers should make note that it was not unusual to see symphony orchestras on public television in the early 1980s; the New York Philharmonic was actually on live several times a year. I cut my teeth on orchestral trumpet styles in large part by watching Armando Ghitalla on the BSO’s weekly Evening at Symphony broadcasts. Just seeing an orchestra on television didn’t automatically tell me who it was.

I finally recognized Seiji Ozawa, then Symphony Hall in Boston. “That must be the new guy, Schlueter,” I thought as the piece finished and I went back to salvage whatever was burning on the stove.

After that I started looking for Boston Symphony broadcasts on the radio. (Yes, in those days out-of-town orchestras had regular, tape-delayed, radio broadcasts of their concerts.) Those led me to apply to graduate school at New England Conservatory, so I could study with the one man I thought could make me sound like that.

He couldn’t. The man is a great player, possibly even a better teacher, but he’s not God. He did what he could with someone who scraped through the entrance audition and helped craft a better player out of my tools than anyone would have reason to expect. I was too intimidated to learn much for the first month or so, but I walked out of my first lesson feeling that I was about to learn things I never knew existed about the trumpet. I would have laughed at anyone who told me I was selling the experience short.

Charlie worked on my breathing, and my tonguing. Taught me (along with Ben Zander) how to find the music in any phrase. I realized after a year or so that his method of teaching was far more insidious than I suspected. Charlie taught me to give myself permission to miss a note, thus ensuring I wouldn’t miss it. To play broader instead of louder, enhancing the breadth of the tone so the volume would come without effort and not sound forced. To shape the ends of notes as much as the beginnings. To hear all the notes passed over in a slur to ensure the slur itself remained connected to its beginning and end.

Every technique listed reminds me of another, and we’re not halfway through. Somewhere in my second year I realized Charlie was teaching me about a lot more than trumpet playing. Through his personal interest in my life, he was helping me to place, and to keep, trumpet in its proper role, so that I could allow myself to become a better player, rather than trying to will it.

I haven’t played serious trumpet in fifteen years; not at all (worth mentioning) in over four. Still, there’s not a day goes by I don’t do something because of what Charlie Schlueter taught me. It took longer than two years; I’m privileged to say we became friends and have stayed in touch. Charlie and his wife, Martha, had dinner with the Crazy Like Me Correspondent and the person she’s crazy like in Baltimore the night before closing on the current Home Office; he had a gift for popping up during milestones in my life.

I’ve thought a lot about this as his retirement approached, and can safely say that my father is the only man to have greater influence on the person I have become than Charlie Schlueter. (I’ll leave to you to decide whether that is damning with faint praise.) I can’t use his recordings as background music when I write; I wind up listening to them. Even now, over twenty years away from my weekly exposures, I still pause at times and wonder why I did something the way I did it, then remember it came from Charlie; then I’m okay with it.

He’s not perfect; his battles with Ozawa are legendary. (It should be pointed out that the characteristics in Charlie’s playing and personality that Ozawa found fault with were exactly the things Ozawa bypassed the audition process for to hire Charlie in the first place. Why Seiji hasn’t done the honorable thing and throw himself on his baton to die for the Emperor is beyond me.) Imperfect is always better in a role model; I was lucky to be close enough to know that what he told me had been tested, and worked, if I maintained enough confidence in the final outcome.

Congratulations, Charlie. Your retirement is well-earned. I’ll miss the opportunities to come to Symphony Hall and Tanglewood to hear you play. (Not that I’d been to either in over ten years. Everyone has schedules.) I’ll never miss the friendship, good will, and lessons you taught me; I still have them every day. I hope your new free time will allow us to get together more. You’ve taught me enough to know that I still have more to learn.

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