By Brendan Lai-Tong
We recently had the opportunity to interview Mario Guarneri, an active performer and teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area. Mario has had an impressive variety of musical experiences throughout his career as a trumpet player and as a result he is familiar with many different circles of the music community.
Mario’s career has encompassed everything from playing with Louis Armstrong at the age of 13 to fifteen seasons with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He has recorded solo albums on the Crystal and Nonesuch labels, played principal trumpet with the L.A. Chamber Orchestra for ten seasons, and appeared on over 300 T.V. and motion picture soundtracks, most notably as soloist on Godfather III. In addition, he has performed with a diverse list of creative musicians including Earl “Fatha” Hines, Frank Zappa, Sarah Vaughn, Cleo Lane, and Roger Kellaway.
Since his return to the Bay Area, where he was born and raised, he has concentrated his energies on his group the Guarneri Jazz Quartet. He teaches trumpet and improvisation at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and is the inventor of the B.E.R.P., a learning tool for brass players that is sold all over the world.
We thought it would be great to learn more about Mario and hear his thoughts on the state of the music today. In addition to this we were able to get some valuable advice for students and teachers. We hope you enjoy the interview!
What inspired you to start a career in music?
I started playing the trumpet, actually an old cornet I found in the basement of a relative’s house, when I was 8. I had some great support as a kid from my parents, sister, and a wonderful teacher, Eddie Smith. I joined the musicians union when I was 13, and freelanced around the Bay Area until I went off to college. I really wasn’t interested in anything else but playing music
How did you get involved with the movie music/studio scene?
After I retired early from the L.A. Philharmonic I was available to do studio work, and had established a solid reputation because of my work with the orchestra, the L.A. brass quintet, new music commissions, and solo recordings. Many composers in Los Angeles attended Philharmonic concerts and were familiar with my playing. I also started a contemporary music ensemble and taught at Cal Arts during that time so I was performing a lot of new music. Many of those composers ended up writing T.V. and movie scores, and would ask the contractors to call me because they like the way I sounded. I felt comfortable doing the job because of my experience with all kinds of music, and that I take a musical approach to what was put in front of me to perform. I also developed a consistent physical approach to playing the instrument, which gave me confidence and reliability.
Who are some of your role models?
There are many, from different times and involving different parts of my life. My parents were tremendous role models simply because of the way they lived their lives. Honest, generous, selfless to a fault, and kind to everyone. Then I had many musical role models like my first teacher, Eddie Smith. Every note he played meant something, and had to sound great to someone out there in the audience. In the big picture, people like Martin Luther King, Ralph Nader, Louie Armstrong and Miles Davis. Committed and uncompromising. I look for the good in everyone, so I have a huge list of role models!
What is your favorite classical and jazz trumpet piece?
I try to make it whatever music I am playing at that moment. I also avoid playing music that I don’t feel connects in any way with people.
You recently returned from Italy where you held a trumpet master class. How would you compare the state of the arts abroad to how it is in the U.S.?
Financially, everyone is struggling with getting jobs and keeping music a priority in society the way it should be. Even though it is tough all over, I still feel that the arts have a higher priority and a more respected place outside of the U.S. I have always felt more appreciated as a teacher and performer in Europe and Asia.
What is done differently abroad and how can we learn from those experiences?
In my mind, the arts need to be independently financially supported by the government to insure their growth and vitality. One should not have to dampen their creativity to please the paying public, in order to survive. I like the idea of letting my audience find me rather than the other way around. Because of the long tradition of music as an important part of everyone’s life, music and art are part of the “commons” for all people. This is not true in the U.S., and until enough people are convinced of its value, it won’t happen.
What advice can you provide to music teachers in regards to helping music and the arts grow?
Be honest with your students. Stress the musical side of performance based on a consistent, efficient physical foundation. Make sure that students perform with a sense of commitment to the sounds they are making, and make them aware of the power of honest committed music-making. We need to create music lovers and appreciators more than only teaching people how to take an audition for jobs that are scarce, and for the most part underpaid.
What advice do you have for aspiring young artists who are looking to start a career in music?
Honest music making. Exciting, interesting collaborations that you believe in. Bring different kinds of audiences together with creative music and venues. Subsidize your passion with other work that puts food on the table if necessary. That’s a smart choice, not a sell-out.
You founded your own jazz group, the “Guarneri Jazz Quartet”. What are some of the things you have done to promote your group and nurture it into a success? What advice can you provide for others trying to follow suit?
I don’t do a good job of promoting my music, so my advice is to recommend a book that I like, “The Savvy Musician” which I use in my course called “The Practical Aspects of Music” at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. I do my best to make a connection with my audience, and I believe the people who come to our performances become loyal fans.
You’re also a successful inventor. The B.E.R.P (Buzz Extension and Resistance Piece) and B.A.T (Breath Awareness Tool) are used by musicians worldwide. What are some of the things you’ve done to successfully market these wonderful teaching tools.
Once again, I am not good at marketing. In fact, the BERP has pretty much sold itself, because it works so well. I suppose my marketing plan is to only sell things that help me, and that I know will work for other people if they have the courage and curiosity to try a new approach to solving problems. I am confidant that the BERP and BAT are useful tools, and that the oil and grease we make from mostly sustainable resources are valuable for performers and good for the earth. I hope other people feel the same way. I am also excited about taking a portion of the profits from my products and putting the money back into the local music scene…but that is another topic for another blog.
Brendan Lai-Tong is the Assistant Marketing Manager at Sheet Music Plus and holds degrees in trombone performance from University of Miami and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.