Kenneth Thompkins, Trombonist’s Trombonist

When a young trombonist, (who looked a little bit like Harry Potter behind his thick glasses), asked me who the tenor trombone soloists of the “Chicago School” of trombone playing were, it gave me pause. Charlie Vernon springs to mind for bass trombone, but for tenor? Kenneth Thompkins is the answer. Clear and full, expressive and precise. The Maryland Native who became principal trombonist of the Detroit Symphony orchestra by way of Chicago, Philadelphia and Miami had turned in solid performance after solid performance, but had yet to achieve a solo record-until now. Join “1385” tm as we explore the artistic craft of trombonist supreme Kenneth Thompkins. Enjoy….

1. How did you pick up the trombone, and when did you fall in love with it?
I started playing trombone in in 8th grade at the suggestion of my middle school teacher. Prior to that time I played a bit of baritone horn, and tuba. When I entered high school I started taking private lessons. I really became attracted to the trombone after to listening to J.J. Johnson and Steve Turre on Woody Shaw recordings. J.J. Johnson had such a great sound full of character – he truly is a major voice on the trombone.

Please begin watching at 15:00 minutes

2. What are two things you remember learning from each of your major teachers?
Frank Crisafulli was and still is a great influence on my approach to the instrument. One major lesson from Mr. C was that no matter what the slide has to navigate the air flow must be beautiful like the bow of a stringed instrument.

The other important lesson he taught me how to acknowledge progression and accomplishments. As a student striving to become like your idols on the horn it is easy to constantly feel dismayed with your trombone playing. When I studied with Mr. Crisafulli he was over seventy years old and his wisdom was always present. He knew that my striving for perfection was a hindrance to my progression. I remember his telling me several times “Stop trying to be perfect” Such valuable advice that I really could not comprehend because I desperately wanted to be perfect and succeed.

Eric Carlson was another major influence on my playing. He is a fabulous trombonist and I really enjoyed hearing him play alone and in the Philadelphia Orchestra. Mr. Carlson really impressed upon me the importance of great fundamentals. Having fluidity and great even sound in every register of the instrument was a major goal. Working on orchestral excerpts was also a major focus of my studies with Eric Carlson. He stressed the basics of great orchestral performance and how to practice the excerpts.

Another trombonist that I loved hearing was Glen Dodson. Mr. Dodson had a beautiful, clear sound that was captivating.

3. What are your favorite orchestral trombone solos?
My favorite pieces to perform with the orchestra are the solos in Mahler 3, and Sibelius 7. In these solos a musician has the opportunity to show a great range of expression that is not typical in the orchestral repertoire. I always love performing any of works by Mahler, Shostakovich and Bruckner.

4. A life of orchestral playing can be completely musically satisfying . How do you motivate yourself to accomplish additional musical project and what are your favorites?
I get a lot of musical satisfaction from playing in the orchestra. There is always something I can enjoy from playing in the orchestra – I am often inspired by my colleagues to play better and to strive for a new level of expression. I really enjoy getting outside of the orchestra and exploring new solo repertoire and continuing to push for development. The ability to completely let your own voice be heard in a solo setting is extremely satisfying. Performing recitals and in chamber settings has really added another dimension to my musicianship.

5. As a lover of jazz, did you face any difficulties or repercussions devoting yourself to Classical Music.
The only repercussions that I am aware of are expectations of what is culturally correct in music. I am speaking of people being genuinely surprised that a Black musicians is performing Classical Music. This surprise goes across all skin tones and this expression of surprise did not deter me from pursuing a career in Classical Music.

As a young musician I never experienced anyone telling me that I can not be successful as a Classical musician because I am Black. I do know of other Black musicians who were discouraging from pursuing a career in Classical Music despite obvious talent and ambition. So I consider myself to be fortunate due to the encouragement and support I received as a young musician.

6. What is your secret to a great legato?
To have a great legato the air stream must not be compromised due to the slide movement. Working on slowly moving from adjacent position while keeping the air steady without a decrease in volume is extremely important. If you hear a decrease in volume between position it is a sign that the airstream is not consistent. A lot of basic work with slurring is also fundamental to having a great legato.

7. You set and accomplished a lofty goal. What was it like when you were furthest from the goal compared to now.
When I was a student at Northwestern University I was so inspired by hearing the Chicago Symphony Orchestra that I decided to pursue a career as an orchestral musician. As a student and for a period after graduating it seemed like magic to be able to perform as an orchestral musician. There were definitely times when I felt discouraged, but my love of the music and enjoyment of playing the trombone was sustaining during discouraging moments.

8. What are your favorite cities?
I have a great affection for Chicago because of my time at Northwestern University. It was a time of great learning and musical exposure. Chicago is a beautiful city with wonderful architecture, vibrancy and culture.

I have lived in Detroit for over twenty years and it is really developing after years of neglect and decay. It is an exciting time to be in Detroit and be able to see the development happening. The city is changing and becoming more beautiful every week.

9. What are your observations on the state of solo trombone.
I think that the state of solo trombone is gaining momentum.

More composers are starting to hear the voice of the trombone as a solo instrument and writing very interesting music. Stephen Andrew Taylor, Philip Wharton, James MacMillan, David Biedenbender and Philip Wharton have recently composed excellent pieces for trombone.

The state of solo trombone playing will continue to progress if trombone community continues to engages great composers. Commissioning great composers and frequently performing their pieces will propel the instrument forward.

c. 2017 David William Brubeck All Rights Reserved.

More Inspiration from Ken Thompkins

As he reviewed an article on slide motion I was preparing for the International Trombone Association, Kenneth Thompkins commented, “I could have written this article for you Dave; don’t move your slide any faster than you have to!” Bullseye, Mr. Thompkins! While Thompkins is always on the lookout for new modes of expression and audiences for the music he loves, his observations like this have a touch of his teacher, Frank Crisafulli-the Yoda of the trombone. Another Thompkins saying which cuts right to the heart of a typical brass student’s misperceptions is “all dynamics are round and warm.”

Interested in more great interviews of tenor trombonists?
Ralph Sauer
Peter Elefson
John Maecelllus
Alex Iles
Irv Wagner
Natalie Manix
Abbie Conant

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