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Recommended methods and performance music for trumpet players of all levels.

WILLIAM FORMAN / Contemporary American Brass in Berlin

Interview by Paul Brody for


WILLIAM FORMAN is one of the most important trumpet players in contemporary classical music today.


He had been a member of Ensemble Modern for over ten years and has worked closely with such composers as Karlheinz Stockhausen and Luciano Berio, Frank Zappa, and György Ligeti.



Born in New York in 1959, he studied trumpet at the Hartt School of Music in West Hartford, Connecticut. In the 80ʼs, he forged a career as an orchestral player in both Germany and Belgium and has been featured as a soloist with the Berlin Philharmonic, the Czech Philharmonic, and the Austrian Radio Orchestra.
Forman is also a passionate educator and has a professorship in Berlin at the Hanns Eisler Music Conservatory. We met after a rehearsal at the German Opera in Berlin. He was happy to be playing Der Rosenkavalier that week. How many times in life does one get a chance to play that, he asked me as we searched the massive basement area of the opera house for a practice room to talk. I was struck by both the strength of his opinions and his gentle manner.

TM: Do you see yourself as a trumpeter who specializes in contemporary music?

Forman: My involvement in contemporary music stems from my passion for working with living composers. The fact that itʼs contemporary music is only a byproduct of that and not the thing thatʼs most exciting. When I play old music I imagine how it would be to play tennis, or to sit down to a glass of wine with Haydn or another composer and find what is in their music by experiencing them as people.
Also, living composers experience the same times as we do, so part of playing is thinking about what is on a composer's mind when he or she writes. When you play old music, it has to feel new as well. Thereʼs no difference between old music and new music for me. Itʼs just that when you play new music the feeling of discovery is more intensive. I play old music, natural trumpet, orchestra repertoire. I never thought of myself as a specialist. But the fact is, we are better at some things and only have so much time to develop ourselves. Jazz is a good example of that. Most trumpeters I know eventually had to make a choice between classical music and jazz.

TM: Do you mind if we focus on contemporary trumpet playing?

Forman: Fine. If Iʼm known for anything, itʼs contemporary music.

TM: Are their special qualities needed to be a contemporary classical trumpeter?

Forman: I always say that the two most important things for a musician to have are modesty and patience. Modesty is being open to new ideas and knowing that somebody else's ideas may be interesting, even if we don't yet grasp them. Thatʼs most important in contemporary music because we are often confronted with things we donʼt immediately understand. Weʼve learned about many traditions of old music, but we havenʼt learned about new ideas because they didnʼt exist.
My job is like that of a midwife—to bring this musical action into the world and give it a good start in life. At first we really donʼt know what it is. Patience is important because it takes a lot of time and slow practice to discover what is behind the music.
Another important quality of new music—now this may sound really banal—is rhythm. Rhythm is more than funny sound techniques but the biggest obstacle for wind players in playing contemporary music. Accurate rhythm is highly dependent on good breathing. The largest problem with playing the trumpet, like the oboe, is that we have a high amount of air pressure. Moving the air through the lips has several points of resistance.
There may be too much resistance at the lips, the tongue or the throat. We often compensate for these points of resistance by making a strong physical effort, and this is often connected with an accent or at least some feeling of a metric impulse. But in fact rhythmically and musically accurate playing demands that we shape our rhythm and phrasing independently of the meter.
In order to play rhythmically well we have to let go, reduce the effort. When you have a full lung, the body wants to exhale. When we start to exhale, this action has to feel like a release, and the various resistances along the way to the horn all go against this feeling of releasing. It is actually all a very subtle process, and our ability to exhale without forcing affects our feeling for rhythm.
Classical trumpeters often have more difficulty with offbeats than jazz trumpeters. They focus a lot on shaping the beginnings of notes and then end to start their first notes with an impulse. But in most of the music that we play, major rhythmic impulses are not where we begin phrases. (Forman gives an example by singing the first bars of Miles Davis’s Four). The accent, or impulse, is on the third beat not on each phrase segment, not the first. I think we need to have the meter and the subdivision in our inner ear and latch onto that subdivision without changing our posture or natural breathing patterns.
This issue raises the question of whether we should inhale rhythmically or not. I don’t inhale rhythmically. And as a teacher, I’m against inhaling rhythmically. The problem is that we experience rhythm and meter as impulses, not as time moving smoothly. But our breathing needs a sensation of constant motion. If we let our rhythmic sense of impulses affect our breathing, then we tend to either push the air against the lips too hard when we start playing or hold back the air with the throat during rests.
Many teachers support breathing rhythmically because it helps people who otherwise don't listen to their inner voice. This approach can be helpful, but in the long run it doesn't really support rhythmical accuracy or a good sound culture.

TM: So you are saying that breathing is autonomous is from the music?

Forman: I think that’s accurate.

TM: Can you tell me about your favorite contemporary pieces for trumpet or brass music?

Forman: I want to be careful with this question because there are a lot of pieces that I don’t know. And there are pieces that I’ve heard and maybe I didn’t understand how good they were. Let’s say these are pieces that I’ve enjoyed. I'll start with some oldies. Since we were just talking about rhythm in new music and sound culture, I'll mention that I think Elliott Carter's Brass Quintet is lyrically and rhythmically the most interesting piece for brass of the last sixty years. We brass players always want to see ourselves as equally universal musicians as string players or pianists.
This piece treats a brass quartet like a string quartet. It has all the subtleties of sound, color, ensemble playing. It’s a high point of brass music. Bernd Alois Zimmerman wrote a trumpet concerto in 1955, Nobody Knows the Trouble I See. If you look at the title page it says, Nobody Knows de Trouble I See. The original title was even Darky's Darkness (!) Of course this seems incredibly racist to us today. We think of Europeans of the 1950's as not really understanding the depths of the Black experience. But many Europeans did let themselves get inspired by jazz as much as American classical musicians did
If you look at European jazz-inspired music as a kind of jazz, it’s pretty terrible. But I believe that Zimmermann's Concerto is an absolutely brilliant masterwork of the 20th Century. It has a stunning use of the twelve-tone row. It contains certain musical gestures that were popular in jazz in that time, but instead of trying to copy their context, they only provide emotional inspiration. I can recommend a beautiful recording with Reinhold Friedrich. I enjoyed played the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen. It’s also music infused with an incredible passion the trumpet and for life. The first solo pieces he wrote for his son, Markus, are great. Michael’s Journey Around the Earth from the opera Thursday is basically a huge trumpet concerto. Also Oberlippentanz from Saturday. Before the operas he wrote Sirius, a piece for trumpet, electronics, bass clarinet and two singers. It’s an hour and half long, kind of huge psychedelic oratorio with characters taken from the Zodiac signs. Most people I know find the texts pretty embarrassing, but hell, some of Wagner’s texts are embarrassing too. Markus' work on the trumpet and the teachers, with whom he was working in the 70's like Tom Stevens were a great inspiration for Karlheiz Stockhausen and helped give us a completely new expressive kind of solo trumpet music. György Ligeti wrote a piece that doesn't have the greatest musical depth, but its wonderful to perform and people love to hear it: Mysteries of the Macabre. It’s from the opera The Grand Macabre, which Ligeti wrote in the late 60s. The story goes that the soprano was unavailable for one performance. Her character is the chief of the secret police. She tries to warn the world about an asteroid coming to destroy the earth, but nobody understands her because she’s talking in code. The conductor of the performance, Elgar Howarth, knew that Hakan Hardenberger was going to be in town on that evening. He had Hakan play the soprano part from the orchestra pit while an actress pantomimed on stage. Ligeti liked it and it was arranged for trumpet and piano. There are other musical high points in the 20th century. But this piece is simply exciting to play and to hear. Some newer pieces I can recommend looking at or listening to are Olga Neuwirth's trumpet concerto ...miramondo multiplo..., Helmut Oehring's Philip, Mark Andre's iv6, Jonathan Harvey's Ricercar una Melodia, Liza Lim's Wild Winged-One, Fabien Levy's A peu près de for two trumpets and a few pieces Rebecca Saunders who wrote some very inspirational works for me and for Marco Blaauw.

TM: Where do you recommend our readers go to hear your favorite recordings of you?

Forman: The Luciano Berio Complete Sequenzas. The trumpet feature is number 10. That’s on Mode Records. Composer, Mark-Anthony Turnage, wrote a piece for Ensemble Modern with John Scofield and Peter Erskine and saxophonist, Martin Robertson. The piece is called Blood on the Floor. It’s on Decca Records. The last movement is a concerto for two trumpets. It’s very moving music. I would just like to mention Helmut Lachenmann, who is an important, revolutionary composer in Germany. Unfortunately, he hasn’t written any solo pieces for trumpet. Maybe it’ll happen. He changed contemporary music for young German composers for at least three generations. He also wrote a book called, Music as an Existential Experience. Even if there’s no edition in English, I'm sure some of his essays are translated in English.

TM: In conclusion can you say anything about your experience as an American musician in Europe?

Forman: I’ve lived here for more than 30 years since I was in my twenties, and I worked very little professionally in the States. So I can’t really compare so well. But because of the funding for the arts in Europe, especially in Germany, people can more often afford to experimenting and take risks. If there’s security, then one can take risks. There's also something very adventurous about the American mentality
that I like. But what we had in Ensemble Modern is almost unimaginable in the States. Some Americans think that public funding of the arts is somehow elitist or undemocratic. That is nonsense! Take universal health insurance, for example. It’s not undemocratic to not want to have someone die on your doorstep. We want good roads and infrastructure, even if we don't personally use parts of that infrastructure That's not undemocratic. It’s not undemocratic to want an educated society. It’s extremely important that music be part of society. The social and political structures allow that more here than in the States.

TM: Thank you very much for the interview.

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