While doing final prep for the reprinting of my book ‘The Trumpet – A Guide for Students,’ at the last minute I decided to add a couple of pages of an informal auto-biog at the end of the book, — in fact beyond the end of the book, on the last endpaper — just to help readers make some connection between the person writing (me) and what I have been writing … where I am coming from, so to speak … and giving some background as to why I may be of help to younger people just starting out. Otherwise you could well say to yourself “Who is this person trying to grab my attention, and who obviously just wants to sell me his book?” And by the time I had finished the few hundred words or so of this introduction I felt as if I didn’t know me, myself, never mind effectively telling others about me. The mirror on the wall was showing me a person the most of whose life was so far distant now that I didn’t know him. As well, all those years crushed into few those words makes it look so simple, whereas while it was happening it felt like a chaotic struggle that didn’t make much sense.
However here goes. I am offering this tiny auto-biog to anyone who cares to read it. It is as short and factual as I can make it, while at the same time trying to make a connection. There’s no ‘philosophy’ in it: as I have grown older I have felt I know less and less, until now when I know virtually nothing. That’s as opposed to when I was 20, when I knew everything about everything. It is definitely a “Thank You” to my fellow musicians for putting up with me over the years and teaching me so much. Most definitely of all it is a “Thank-You” letter to Music herself, for letting me be a musician.
I studied trumpet, piano, harmony and counterpoint at the Royal Academy of Music in London. This was after a childhood playing in brass bands but with no tuition apart from the rudiments, and finally, just before the end of my schooldays, studying the piano for a couple of years with a very good teacher. My schooling, starting during the Second World War, was a very broken-up affair due to a variety of family circumstances: I attended 11 different schools between the ages of 5 and 16.
I entered the Royal Academy of Music around my 17th birthday, studied for three years, gained no qualifications except an LRAM (Performers) Diploma … degrees were not on offer in those days, still not long after WW II had ended … and left to pursue a career as a professional trumpet player. In June 1956 I was still 19 and had no idea what lay ahead. I started my career as an unknown freelance trumpet player, which culminated in the post of Principal Trumpet in the London Symphony Orchestra. While in the LSO I recorded as a soloist and appeared in concertos twice on BBC1 TV. I was also Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Orchestra for 5 years. As was common at the time, I also enjoyed a busy freelance career alongside my LSO duties, playing in the London studios for many films and other varied sessions where I had the pleasure to get to know players from all over the musical spectrum, not just on my own instrument or in my own discipline. I revelled in the astonishing range of expertise that still exists to this day at the highest levels of London performers, and have never tired of learning through working with these colleagues.
Leaving playing in order to conduct was a relatively easy decision particularly with the support of my wife: I wanted new challenges. I founded the Wren Orchestra, initially as a chamber group, but subsequently regularly expanding it to symphonic status, giving hundreds of concerts and broadcasts with Capital Radio over two decades in the London area. Orchestral recordings of a wide range of repertoire date from this period, from Mozart and Haydn, to Tschaikovsky, to Gershwin and Copland. I have conducted, amongst others, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the Philharmonia, the City of London Sinfonia, the London Mozart Players, the Ulster Orchestra, the LSO Brass at the Barbican and the former Philip Jones Brass Ensemble at festivals and in recordings. Particularly satisfying was a period as Musical Director of the English Haydn Festival, a composer I particularly value.
All the while wishing to maintain my roots in the brass world, I included conducting brass bands alongside my orchestral conducting, but also arranging and composing, mostly but not exclusively for brass instruments. As a brass band conductor, I initially brought Desford Band to prominence: again an extraordinary learning experience in how to train and develop an ensemble. This was followed by the rebuilding of Foden’s Band, a very different experience … every group has its own culture … but even more valuable. Later the development of the Eikanger Bjorsvik Band in Norway constituted yet another new experience, dealing with not only a new group but a different national culture.
Two ‘firsts’ of mine, that give me cause to smile even today, were unconventional then but are completely accepted now. Firstly, while I was the Musical Director at Desford I introduced female players into top-rank brass banding. For me this was not a matter of positive discrimination, simply that the best player, regardless of sex, should be appointed to a vacant position. Today women are everywhere in music, on merit, and nobody gives it a second thought. Secondly, while working with Desford and Foden’s, to my surprise I came to be regarded as one of the brass world’s more ‘interesting’ arrangers, so much so that I founded a publishing company, Rakeway Music, in order to satisfy a steadily increasing demand for my works, both in the brass band and the orchestral communities. As with ‘women-in-bands,’ traditionalists regarded my approach to arranging and scoring as ‘dangerous,’ even ‘toxic,’ as if I were hacking away at the very foundations of banding, especially in my advanced use of bizarre percussion and mutes for all band instruments! (The good old days indeed.) In effect, I backed into publishing by accident and certainly not by design. Today this form of publishing is common, not only in brass bands but in wind bands also.
I began teaching while still Principal Trumpet with the London Symphony Orchestra, but when I stopped playing I continued my teaching activities (eventually trumpet, conducting, and the writing of music) alongside my conducting activities. An 18-year period at the Royal Northern College of Music, a large portion of which was as part-time Head of Brass, saw the Department’s reputation rise to rival any in the UK. The 1980s and 90s at the RNCM were non-stop times of innovation and fresh ideas for me, a magic roundabout of projects whose aim was to stimulate the Brass School. I started the Brass Band Course which continues to flourish to this day. I instituted Celebrity Brass recitals and lectures. I ran two large-scale Brass Conferences. For 3 years, with Foden’s Band, I promoted the first ever regular series of original brass band music concerts in the UK. It was all great fun. One result of my teaching experiences was my book ‘The Trumpet – Its Practice and Performance, A Guide for Students,’ which was very warmly received on its publication in 1997. ‘The Art of Practice’ followed a few years later, written for student performers of all instruments. In 1998 I moved on to fresh pastures and an appointment as Professor of Trumpet at the Royal Academy of Music in London, which continued until my retirement from teaching in 2011. I still particularly prize my election as a Fellow of the Royal Academy in 2001, in addition to being an Associate.
I and my wife Angela live in retirement in South Western France, but I still work, although it is now centred around composition and home, with just the occasional foray into conducting. You will have gathered correctly that I am not an academic person at all: I am as far from that as possible. I am a ‘doing’ person. Everything I have learned has come in one way only: from doing, then thinking about it, then doing again. If this brief informal sketch gives some idea of one musician’s journey traveled, beware: you will need a temperament that enjoys risk. The world in which I began my career has now totally gone, but new, as yet unimagined opportunities lie in wait for those who seek a varied and fascinating musical life. Just aim high. Higher!
The very best of luck!
Howard Snell – February 2015
So that’s it. A letter of thanks to St. Cecilia, the Roman Church’s patron saint of musicians, but as she is a saint, I am sure she will have nothing to do with me. In addition, I have just remembered that St; Cecilia had no connection with music at all: I presume someone had the bright idea that a saint for music was needed, and as she was conveniently standing around at the time, she was shoehorned into the job. So perhaps I have the wrong ‘person’ and I should be addressing the much less well-known but much more suitable Aoide, the Greek muse of song and voice? A better connection perhaps. Hail, Aoide!