Mike Martin knows he’s been fortunate.
At 24 years old, the Atlanta native and Phantom Regiment alumnus was recently named to a full-time position as fourth/utility trumpet in the world-renowned Boston Symphony Orchestra and Boston Pops.
“I’m fortunate to be in a position where even if I never play another position or with another orchestra again, many people would say I’ve had a very successful career,” he said.
He starts his new job in June when the BSO begins its summer season at Tanglewood Music Center. It’ll provide the stability that he didn’t have while freelancing and teaching in Atlanta and Chicago. Mike has been living in Chicago since graduating from Northwestern University with a bachelor’s and then a master’s degree in 2008.
The younger of two sons to Freddy and Lynda Martin, Mike is certainly continuing the family’s musical tradition.
Older brother Chris is principal trumpet with the legendary Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Mom is a member of the Atlanta Symphony Chorus and Dad is band director at Westminster School near Atlanta. And all have drum corps in their blood.
Freddy was the founder and long-time director of Spirit of Atlanta. He’s a recent inductee to the Drum Corps International Hall of Fame and has been on the brass staff of Phantom Regiment since Mike marched with the corps in 2004. Chris marched with Spirit of Atlanta in the 1990s. Mike is now a member of the Phantom Regiment brass staff with his dad.
Mike’s drum corps memories go back as far as he can remember.
“My earliest memories are of conducting summer rehearsals in diapers from the stands, being passed up and down the bus by the Spirit hornline on the way to shows, and standing in complete awe the first time I ever saw a real, live Madison Scout,” he said. “I was in love with drum corps likely before I left the womb, and that hasn’t faded one bit in the past 24 years.”
And the lessons he learned as a drum corps member and long-time observer are still with him.
“The dedication, diligence and sacrifice required to learn, rehearse and perform a drum corps show, especially drum corps shows today, are things I learned very early, at the age of 14 in 2000, when I marched for the first time with the Spirit of Atlanta (the last year they were to be called that, in fact). That drive and perseverance is something that I’ve used ever since in my practice and preparation for auditions, recitals and concerts,” he said.
“To know that there is a reward that you can feel, see and hear I think is one of the greatest things about the activity. Its lessons, for those open and willing to accept them, are so transparent and meaningful, that you’d be hard pressed to find any drum corps veteran whose life, relationships and career haven’t been changed for the better because of their experiences on the road.”
Mike took the time while in Asia performing with the Malaysian Philharmonic to answer some questions about drum corps, trumpet players, getting a symphony job and sports. Here’s what he had to say:
Q – If a serious high school or college musician said, “I don’t have time for drum corps” or “drum corps will ruin my chops,” what would you tell him/her?
A – Ha ha, I understand and can totally empathize with both of those statements. I marched with the Regiment the summer after my freshman year at Northwestern, when my schoolmates at the time (Ethan Bensdorf and Matthew Muckey of the New York Philharmonic to name two) were spending their summers at orchestra festivals. I had those two fears a lot that school year. Here I was, a dedicated performance major at one of the best trumpet schools in the world, spending unholy amounts of Mom and Dad’s money on tuition, their only instruction to me being “make the choices you know will lead to ‘success’ ” (success for me being an orchestra job), and I want to march drum corps? Again? A third time?
But I knew it was something I would benefit from, especially at Phantom, given its long history of producing exceptional brass players and teachers. I knew it was something that would pay dividends, even well down the road, and not just for my playing, if I could bring myself to put that kind of time and work in. From a ‘chops’ standpoint, good playing is good playing, indoors or out, and good playing only comes from one thing: mastery of fundamentals. Anyone who has ever rehearsed with Freddy Martin or J.D. Shaw knows that the fundamentals are the most important part of the day. My playing improved from marching in the Phantom Regiment because that summer, every single day for three months started the exact same way with the exact same goal: mastery of fundamentals. That’s what I took from my experience in drum corps. I learned what commitment to a goal (and to myself) really means.
Q – What are your goals in the short term with your new job?
A – Actually, my goals continue to be the same: keep learning and get better every day. This job isn’t the end result; it’s another step in the very long process of becoming a great musician and a great trumpet player. I won’t be slowing down anytime soon. 🙂
Q – Where do you see yourself in, say, 8 or 10 years?
A – I honestly can’t say. I’m fortunate to be in a position where even if I never play another position or with another orchestra again, I’ll still be considered to have had a very successful career. But again, it’s not about the job. For me, as I have learned from my brother, it’s about the journey. Who knows where it will take me? I certainly don’t. If you’d told me 8 or 10 years ago I’d be playing in the Boston Symphony at the ripe old age of 24, I would’ve sat you down and explained all of the reasons why that kind of a joke isn’t funny.
Q – Do you teach? Do you want to?
I do teach, and I absolutely love it. One of the greatest joys in my life is standing in front of a hornline with my dad, whether it’s high school, drum corps or senior corps, and saying something that I know will make the group or an individual better, only to realize that it was Freddy’s voice and not mine. I learned almost everything I know from his rehearsals and lessons and am so thankful I inherited his love of teaching. It’s my duty as a now-professional musician to give back what I have gained. I look for an edge wherever I can get it, so I can use it and so a group I work with can use it. Singing is such an important part of how my dad and I teach, and we’ve both learned a lot from my mom (an incredible alto) and her experiences in the Atlanta Symphony Chorus, one of the greatest choruses in the world. I find daily that my playing and teaching profit from each other and I’m thankful I’ve had the opportunities to develop both. Secretly though, I’ve always had the intent of winning an orchestra job to finance my teaching addiction.
Q – What advice did your brother and parents give you as you were attending college thinking you wanted to be a professional musician? What advice did they offer during your post-graduation/audition time?
A – The best advice I’ve always received from Chris and my parents has been to prioritize. What’s my main goal? How do I get there? How many hours a day did, and do, the greatest players in history put in? The consistent personality trait I’ve noticed in the most successful people in the world, and not just musicians, is their ability and willingness to keep what’s most important most important. Not all of those people have the same IQ, or the same GPA, or came from successful and wealthy families, or practiced the same amount, or got lucky, or, or, or, or, or. But they all had goals, and set their lives up to reach those goals. An average day in the life of Tiger Woods (I’m talking about golf, now) is nearly identical to an average day in the life of Itzhak Perlman. They both are committed to an ideal, to improving themselves, to being better than they were yesterday. And that is what makes them who they are. I was brought up on the same principles and am extremely content with the results.
Q – What’s the best advice you’ve received musically?
A – Paraphrasing Daniel Barenboim after an exhausting day of listening to cello auditions for the Chicago Symphony without hiring anyone: I don’t have to agree with what you’re saying, or even like what you have to say, but you have to say something. Otherwise, they’re just notes on a page.’
Q – Who were your musical influences individually? What orchestras/ensembles did you listen to recordings of that influenced you?
A – Of course my brother, Chris. He has an effortless and understated quality in his playing that I’ve never heard duplicated by anyone. It sounds like he was born with a trumpet in his hand. I grew up on LPs, cassette tapes and CDs of the Chicago Symphony and the New York Philharmonic and would pout in my high chair and not eat my breakfast until my mom or dad would ask what I wanted to watch on TV and I would say ‘The Gahfields’ meaning the Garfield Cadets of 1982. Even when you’re 2 years old, the Z-pull is still the coolest thing ever. Memories of the Eagles, Glenn Miller (and Steve Miller for that matter), John Williams and the Jackson 5 are in there too. Nowadays I like to think I enjoy most everything. My current iPhone running mix boasts the Roots, Eminem, Shostakovich, John Williams, Simon and Garfunkel, Tool, 311, Mahler and a fantastic new group from Chicago called District 97.
Q – Favorite trumpet players? Favorite conductors? Anyone you’d really like to perform with (either sitting next to or to have on the podium)? Favorite piece to perform?
A – Favorite trumpet players would have to be Chris Martin, Hakan (pronounced ho-kahn) Hardenberger, Tom Rolfs, Ethan Bensdorf, Matt Muckey, Mike Tiscione, Tom Hooten, Fritz Damrow, Joe Grandsden, Jeff Strong, Jon Faddis. By far my favorite conductor to watch or play for is Bernard Haitink; an unbelievable musician and conductor even at 82 years young.
I’ve been incredibly fortunate to play under Riccardo Muti, James Levine, Pierre Boulez, Herbert Blomstedt, Andre Boreyko, and Esa-Pekka Salonen. One of my dreams is to play with the New York Philharmonic and sit in the same section with Phil Smith and two guys I used to be in school with. That would be amazing and totally bizarre at the same time.
It’s hard to choose just one piece, but favorites for me have been Mahler 9, Shostakovich 11, and Strauss’s ‘An Alpine Symphony’ which I will try to convince (Phantom Regiment brass arranger) J.D. Shaw and (Phantom Regiment corps director and program coordinator) Dan Farrell to program for the Regiment until they fire me for pestering them so much.
Q – Your Dad is a well-respected educator and musician, your brother has arguably the premier orchestra trumpet job in the world. Did you feel pressure to either become a musician or to be successful?
A – I felt pressure to become successful once I chose music, sure, but I wouldn’t say I was forced or even necessarily encouraged to choose one way or another. More accurate would be that I conveniently was very exposed to two directions I could take in music and would have the support and guidance of experts in both fields should I decide to pursue either or both. If I had chosen golf, I would’ve received the same support and encouragement that I did choosing music. My family told me if I decided to play trumpet, that was great and they’d give me every opportunity they could to allow me to be successful, but they also said that it had to be my decision. Not something I felt forced to do because of Chris’s successes. My teacher, Larry Black, told me many, many times not to choose trumpet because my brother did. So it took a lot of careful thinking and time to make sure I was making the decision for all the right reasons. I knew I loved the trumpet and making music for reasons different than my brother and my dad. In fact, the first time I realized I wanted to play for a living was seeing ‘Jurassic Park’ and hearing the huge trumpet solo. I knew at that moment and because of that sound, that that was what I wanted to do with my life. And for the record, I had been listening to my brother practice upstairs at home for years before that movie came out. 🙂
Q – What was your practice schedule like in college?
A – In college, once I really began to dedicate myself to the ideal of being better today than I was yesterday, I found that a normal day was one hour in the morning, two in the afternoon and one in the evening. Four hours a day as a minimum in addition to lessons, ensemble rehearsals, Civic rehearsals, solo class and excerpt class with Barbara and Charlie, etc. Nowadays it’s closer to five or six to really feel like I’m getting enough done.
Q – What do you do when you’re not practicing?
A – Well, I’m either playing a concert, thinking about practicing, or missing Cassie, my gifriend of two years that I don’t get to see very often because of how all over the place my freelancing takes me (I’m writing this on my return flight back to Atlanta after 2 weeks in Kuala Lumpur playing with the Malaysian Philharmonic) which she has been very patient with me about, but is also very glad I’ve gotten a steady gig and can start to settle down now. I’m also in the gym most days a week staying in shape through a workout program called CrossFit. (p.s. I’ve found CrossFit has been the only thing that comes close to drum corps in terms of keeping one in fantastic physical and mental shape. Check it out for yourself! www.crossfit.com)
Q – Any advice for an aspiring musician? Say a high school freshman says to you that they want to major in music and then be a professional brass player. What would you tell them they need to do to accomplish that?
A – Well, I think reading some of these earlier questions, especially the one about practice schedule would be a start. But most importantly I would encourage them. There are so many different avenues now to achieve success. You don’t HAVE to spend $50,000 a year to get a great brass education, you just have to find the teacher who preferably still plays very, very well and who pushes you in the right ways. You should be able to get along with your teacher, though some great teachers can be abrasive at times. Most importantly, though, it’s the people who have mastered the fundamentals of their art who have enjoyed the most abundant success. You have to love the process, especially in the morning when every brass player has to start over again from scratch. If breakfast is the most important meal of the day, so, too is your fundamentals session. The more you diligently work on them, the easier they will make everything else in your playing, performing and making music. FUNdamentals indeed, though of course there are days that aren’t as fun as others, and those are the days that separate the greats from almost greats. Because it’s on those days that the routine can’t change and when the most progress is made. And remember: ENJOY IT! If you’re not having fun and enjoying yourself, then what’s the point?
Q – Are you a sports fan? Which teams/sports?
A – I’m from Atlanta, so I love the Braves, Hawks and Falcons, and am trying to figure out which Boston team will be suitable to pull for. I despise the Yankees, so the Red Sox seem logical, though I can’t pull for the Celtics because I’m also a Lakers fan (not to mention the Hawks seem to be kryptonite for the Celtics). My brother and I are both avid English Premier League fans, partial to Arsenal. The title race is getting really close, so times are edgy.
Q – If you weren’t a musician, what would be your other career?
A – No question, no hesitation, without a doubt, I’d be a golfer. About the time I chose to march drum corps the first time was the same time I made the decision to choose trumpet over golf (I had been playing golf since I could walk, literally). It was a good decision. 🙂 I welcome some friendly competition on the course but you better bring your A game!
Q – Other thoughts?
A – I think the reasons for my success and any success that people enjoy, comes about because they love the hard work necessary to get ‘there.’ Whether it’s music, sports, medicine, law, business, whatever. They all take hours upon hours of dedicated thought, practice and devotion to be truly mastered. And also in all of those areas, it is exceedingly rare that any success is found by accident or earned without complete mastery of the basics and fundamentals essential to each field. Regardless of what you choose to do, fall in love with the process, because that’s what it is, a process. If you love it, you won’t ever feel like ‘I’ve made it! I can take it easy now.’ Because as far as I’m concerned, there will always be a tomorrow, and tomorrow I have to be better than I am today.