By Debbie Laferty Asbill

As the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s principal trumpet player, Chris Martin is the most consistently audible player in the orchestra.

“There’s really nowhere to hide,” he told the Atlanta Constitution-Journal in a September 2003 article. “You’re just out there. It’s like walking the high wire all the time.”

Born and raised in Marietta, Georgia, Chris’s musical upbringing has truly been a family affair. His first teacher was his dad, Freddy, current band director and brass specialist for the Westminster Schools in Georgia, a long-time adjudicator and clinician for Bands of America and founder of Spirit of Atlanta Drum and Bugle Corps. Chris attended Sprayberry High School, a Bands of America participating band, where his uncle, Dan Martin, was the band director for 28 years. His aunt was teaching at Sprayberry, and brother Michael, also a trumpet player 10 years younger, attended Sprayberry and is now at Northwestern University studying with Chris’s former teachers, Charlie Geyer and Barbara Butler.

Chris, 28, started his third season as the ASO principal trumpet in September 2002. He came to the ASO after three years as associate principal trumpet of the Philadelphia Orchestra. When he auditioned in Philadelphia, Martin was just 22, fresh out of the Eastman School of Music, from which he holds a bachelor of music degree. Chris also plays with the Atlanta Symphony Brass Quintet, which performs almost two weeks of concerts in schools, teaches at Emory University, and gives private lessons and master classes for students in schools. He is also a Yamaha artist.

We talked to Chris about growing up immersed in a family environment of music education and how his years and influences in school shaped his success as a professional.

What was it like having your uncle as your band director?

My family moved so that I could go to Sprayberry High School. Until then I hadn’t been that excited about music. At my father’s suggestion I went to Sprayberry for the experience of a better school. From the first day I got there, I transformed overnight from a kid who really wasn’t that interested in music to having it be the biggest thing in my life, simply by being around good people and because the music-making was at such a high level. My uncle and I got along very well, and my father taught the brass (at Sprayberry) for all four years I was there, my aunt was teaching there, so it really was a family affair.

There seems to be a perception that orchestra players are inaccessible.

At the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra we recently had a swing band come in, with a great brass section. They agreed that they sometimes feel they cannot approach professional players and, likewise, others don’t see them as approachable. I’m certainly not that way and none of my colleagues (in the ASO) are that way. Brass players and wind players seem to be open.

My colleague, Colin Williams, principal trombone with the ASO who played with me at the Midwest Clinic (in December 2003), commented to me before Midwest how great it is to be at a band conference. The band community is very warm and friendly and collegial.

What’s your impression of Bands of America?

My impression of Bands of America has always been incredibly positive. A good friend of mine works with (BOA participant) Kennesaw Mountain High School, and through involvement of my father and others like Alfred Watkins (director at Lassiter High School), BOA has always been around (in my life).

BOA does such great things for kids. It’s one of the only near-professional performance experiences that a high school student could ever have. When I see the video recordings of these bands playing at the national competitions and other BOA events it’s incredible to think that these are high school kids that in their every day lives might never think they could perform at such a high level. I think that’s one of the best things your organization does for kids, it gives them the opportunity to really see, with some effort, just how much they can accomplish.

I think these are the kinds of things that inspire students, more than words, more than anything you can say to them or get them to read in a book. Show them an experience like that, that’s what really inspires them. Not even necessarily to be musicians or performers, but to realize just how much they are capable of.

Colin (Williams) said to me before Midwest, “You won’t believe it — you go to these concerts and you won’t believe your ears and eyes, that young people can perform at such a level,” and it’s true. And it’s the same for the experience that BOA provides.

When you were in high school, what kinds of things were you listening to?

I was mostly listening to fairly standard orchestral music. My teacher ingrained in me that I had to know these pieces if I wanted to make it as an orchestral player, which is what I had decided to do. But at the same time, I was playing in the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra and in the Cobb Youth Orchestra and I ended up performing some newer music there. But I wasn’t incredibly exposed to new 20th Century music until I went to Eastman.

At one point my teacher gave me a recording of a John Adams piece — maybe “Harmonium” or “Harmonielehre” and said “we just played this, I want to see what you think of it” but it wasn’t what I was listening to on a regular basis. I think it would have been really beneficial, much better for me in the long run. When I went to school I had never seen a trumpet part like Richard Danielpour might have written or John Adams might have written. I didn’t know that there was stuff like that, so the first time I had to perform it was a bit of a shock.

What would you suggest that a high school student with aspirations to play professionally listen to?

When I look at what it takes to be a professional player these days, I think it has become even important to have a diverse background. That’s really the key for students and is one thing a lot of students don’t get. They think, like I thought, “I can learn these audition pieces and that will be great.” I even met guys in graduate school who thought that. “All I need to do is be able to play ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ really well and I’ll get a gig one day.” They need to be listening to new music — there are new composer competition programs going on all the time. Students should be aware of what’s going on and where music is going.

Something I didn’t realize until I got to college is the need to be aware of jazz. Many students who are from strong concert programs think they don’t need to bother with jazz. But even at orchestra auditions for major orchestras they throw up music that shows that you have an understanding of jazz style. Major orchestras are having to program things like that these days.

More pieces are featuring brass and wind players. Most of the brass players I knew at Eastman who ended up getting a job either in the Air Force Band (for example) or an orchestra had a solid understanding of jazz. Even if they weren’t fantastic improvisers, at the very least they knew the style and could read. Students need to be fluent in a style. These days everything’s getting closer, all the styles are sort of melding together and no matter what type of ensemble you end up playing in you need to understand those basic styles. No one really told me that when I was a kid and I wish they had.

What other advice for students?

Now that I’m 28, I think of myself at 16 and my friends that were really into music, and all we did was listen to music. Whatever you put into your brain is what you get out of it. As I look back I think that a gigantic part of why I’ve been successful as a performer is because I programmed my brain with great sounds. I listened to the best musicians I could find and the best musicians that my teachers told me about. I looked on my own to find the best trumpet players — the best musicians, period… the best singers. I was really fortunate that I was surrounded by a lot of knowledgeable people who were able to guide me. So I think for kids that want to be performers the biggest thing they can do is to listen to great music and musicians and at the same time listen to themselves and try and match those sounds.

I was very fortunate in that I’ve been able to do that, to hear something, pick out what I like and sort of add it to my own style. The earlier a student can do that, the better. Not just listen and think “man, that’s great, I wish I could play that way,” but to listen and think “ok, that’s a great player and I’m going to figure out how to sound like that.” Sort of a proactive attitude instead of just sitting back and wishing. Really listen to somebody and say “this is a great player and I respect that,” and break it down — “I like the articulation of this guy, I like how this player phrases so beautifully in the soft passages.” Identify those things and think how you can use it. Be analytical while you’re listening about how you can do it yourself.

You and many of your colleagues are products of school music programs…

Both of my colleagues who have recently joined the ASO, Mark Hughes (trumpet) and Colin Williams (principal trombone), I think they both did concert band in school and marching band and a little bit of orchestra, but mainly came out of the concert band programs. Even at Eastman, I only played in 2-3 orchestra concerts a year at most and everything else was in the Wind Ensemble or the New Music Ensemble.

Most of my friends who were fantastic players at Eastman and other schools, most who are working now, are working in military bands. One of my friends, Matthew Harding, is the solo cornet player with “The President’s Own” U.S. Marine Band. He always wanted to be an orchestral player, and figured that’s what he’d do. Then he got into “The President’s Own” and he has just signed on again after his first 4 years, because he’s having a great time. I heard them recently and they’re a great ensemble. He’s soloing all the time and they’re playing great music.

I think the military bands are stronger than they’ve ever been, and more and more classically trained musicians are going that route. It’s great for the band tradition and it’s great for music because music is being written for those bands that probably never would have been written before.

I read in the Atlanta Constitution-Journal that you recently turned down the principal chair with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. You must be happy at Atlanta.

I am. It’s a really strong ensemble and every year we’ve added some really key players that help to bring the level up. Robert Spano, our Music Director, is really excited about the music. We have a couple of commissions coming out in the next two years. We’re always performing things that are really exciting and not in the norm. Things here are fresh and vibrant.