Robin Brinkerink-Johnson on Trumpet and the Joy of Community and Collaboration in Big Bands
Robin Brinkerink-Johnson has been playing trumpet for 15 years, with experience playing in both classical and jazz ensembles. She has spent the last 9 years focusing on lead trumpet and currently plays lead trumpet with Matt Grinke’s Happiest Big-Band on Earth, the Leading Ladies Little Big-Band, and the Brentwood Jazz All-Stars. Robin is studying trumpet in Capilano University’s Jazz Studies program, and has been teaching trumpet since 2009.
C. What would you like to tell the readers about your background in music? How did you get started in music? What drew you to the trumpet?
R. I joined band in elementary school in 6th grade. I actually joined because a good friend of mine was in it. They had one of those things where you go around in the school cafeteria and they’ve got all the tables set up with different instruments. I picked trumpet because it was the loudest, and I ended up really liking it so I stuck with it. Band was super out of my comfort zone but it ended up being really good for me. It sounds cliched to say, but it opened up this new world of possibilities. It was really cool as a kid because I grew up listening to music. My dad played music around the house all the time, a huge variety of stuff. It was really cool to instead of just listening, to more and more be able to actually be a part of the music and to make the music! You know when you’re young that’s the coolest thing ever because all of a sudden I could, you know, play these terrible renditions of whatever band pieces we were playing and it was fun. It just kind of grew on me and it kept growing on me. It was the only thing that I really managed to stick with all the way through in terms of hobbies. In high school I joined every ensemble I could, and then when I went to university it was kind of like “what can I do? Well, I like the trumpet!” So I decided to go to school for trumpet, and here I am being interviewed about making loud noise, so that’s kind of cool right?
C. It is kind of cool! Yeah that’s awesome.
R. So that’s my incredibly basic or very non-inspiring origin story.
C. I think you’re being too modest. There are so many ways that people can get into music. There are so many instruments and they all have different idiosyncrasies that can connect a wide variety of people to playing music. So you play lead trumpet in Matt Grinke’s: Happiest Big Band on Earth, Leading Ladies Little Big Band which I heard at the Big Band Festival. I think you guys opened for the Sister Jazz Orchestra.
R.Yeah that was our debut, opening for the Sister Jazz Orchestra at the Big Band Fest.
C. Right yeah, that was cool! Also you play lead with the Brentwood Jazz All-stars. So you play lead for a lot of Big Bands! I’m just wondering about your experience with Big Bands. What do you really enjoy about big bands, and what do you enjoy about playing lead in particular?
R. Playing in Big Bands is a really great experience. It’s a very personal kind of thing that you’re doing but at the same time it’s also a big collaboration. You’re playing your own instrument and that’s a very sort of personal thing, a very controlled sort of thing. You can’t control what everyone else is doing, but you all have to work together to get this great music. It’s the classic “the whole is more than the sum of its parts.” Have you ever heard lead trumpet just playing by itself? It’s not always the most pleasant thing to hear, because it’s not meant for that. Solo parts and stuff yes, but if you just take a section and just play the lead part it’s probably going to sound sort of funky (not the good kind of funky!), play the 3rd part and it’s going sound kind of funky (same) but stick ’em all together and all of a sudden you just have this great music. That’s one of the coolest things about it I think. There’s this feeling of being puzzle pieces in this big puzzle. You’re a part of something bigger and everyone has a unique contribution; a lot of the time there aren’t 2 people doubling the same part. You do get it sometimes, like with 4th and 5th trumpet or 4th and 5th trombone doubling but as in general almost everybody has a unique part. So it really is the whole being more than the sum of the parts. Then there’s this really cool sense of community in the bands which I think all comes back to being a part of something. There is no unimportant part in a big band. We sometimes joke about how there is but really there isn’t. It’s just a lot of fun. It’s the music I like to play and I love playing in a section. My playing style tends to fit a bit better in a large ensemble, rather than a trio or something.
C. I think everyone has different things that they are drawn towards and it’s great to work on playing in small ensembles but I think it’s totally fine and great to play in large ensembles or whatever you’re naturally drawn to. Can you talk a little about playing lead trumpet? Is it generally the highest trumpet part?
R. Lead trumpet is definitely the highest trumpet part. You generally have the melody so there’s a little extra pressure of knowing if you get this wrong everybody is going to hear it. Everybody knows your part. If the band is playing a tune that the audience knows, chances are they’re going to know your part (lead trumpet), the lead trombone, lead alto. As a general rule I’ve got the melody. Lead trumpet also leads the section and the band in terms of articulation and dynamics and phrasing. So I have to interpret the music, or the director will tell me how to interpret the music, and I have to play it the same way each time so that everybody in the band knows what I’m doing.
C. So that would be sort of like the concertmaster in orchestral music.
R. Yeah sort of like that. It is also a fairly exposed part a lot of the time just because of the range. The sound of the trumpet cuts through the band quite well. It’s easier for the listener to pick it out, ideally without it sounding obnoxious. If the tenor saxophone player had to play over a big-band they might be blowing their face off, and it could easily sound really forced. Whereas in a perfect scenario the trumpet isn’t going to sound as forced when they do that because the sound of the trumpet and the range naturally helps with that. It’s a lot of fun. I started playing lead and went “wow, I like this better than playing other stuff”. And that’s basically the story of my musical career: I kind of like this, this is fun, this is loud, this is fun and loud!
C. That’s perfect! That’s awesome. Next question: Are there any other projects that you’re working on or that you’re really into?
R. Well everything is pretty much on hold right now due to the whole COVID situation. I’m working on restoring a tuba which I think is from 1915, so there is that. I’ve also been doing a lot of research into the mechanics of extreme register trumpet. So more theoretical projects right now and practicing.
C. What kind of classes or opportunities do you offer to young musicians?
R. Right now I am offering private lessons online. You can book with me directly through my website, as well through Long & McQuade. I generally teach weekly lessons, but I do offer one-off lessons for people who need a refresher, or kids that are going back to school and want to figure out if they want to keep playing trumpet.
C. Great! You also teach trombone, right?
R. I do. Through Long & McQuade I do teach trombone, French horn, baritone, euphonium and tuba. For all of those instruments I teach beginner-intermediate level students.
C. What are some albums that you have on repeat right now and what are some of you all-time favourite albums?
R. I’ll stick to mostly trumpet related stuff. So, my three all-time albums are: ‘The Complete Atomic Basie’ by Count Basie and then Maynard Ferguson’s “Conquistador” and “Chameleon.” Can you tell I like lead trumpet? This was the hardest question to answer! Lately I’ve also been listening to the All-Star Live Jam Sessions with Clifford Brown, Maynard Ferguson and Clark Terry. I’ve been listening to ‘Sweat’ by Five Alarm Funk as well. I don’t know if that counts. Can I put that one in there?
C. Yeah absolutely! You can include whichever ones you want. It gives people an idea of different things to listen to. If there is someone who is into trumpet and they maybe don’t know about those artists or bands it gives them an idea of what to listen too.
R. I also recently started listening to “The Sidewinder” by Lee Morgan again. That’s been a sort of come and go or recurring listen for me to study.
C. Lastly, where can we find you online?
R. My website is https://www.comeausense.com/, and I’ve got an Instagram account as well, you can follow me at @comeausense.
For the ensembles I’m a part of, you can find them at:
C. Awesome! Thanks for agreeing to do this! It was great chatting with you.
R. My pleasure! Thank you.