Ian Bousfield is one of the most influential and successful trombonists of our time. 

From a very early age, he played in English style brass bands to the highest level, something that instilled an incredibly highly developed sense of ensemble playing which was to serve him well in his later career as an orchestral player. Having won the London Symphony Music Scholarship aged fifteen and serving a spell with the newly formed European Communities Youth Orchestra under Claudio Abbado, an orchestral career was inevitable. 

After five years in the Hallé Orchestra, Ian became Principal trombone of the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) in 1988 aged 23.

In 2000, Ian took and won the audition to become Solo Trombone with the Vienna Philharmonic and the Vienna State Opera, a job which he held until 2012. As a soloist Ian has played with many orchestras and brass bands, highlights of which were with the LSO and the Vienna Philharmonic under Riccardo Muti, Michael Tilson Thomas, Kent Nagano, Sir Neville Marriner, Ion Marin, and Tadaaki Otaka. He has appeared as soloist with all of the most famous brass bands as well as the US Marine Band and Kosei Winds in Japan. He has many solo recordings to his name from EMI, Chandos, Camerata and Doyen.

Having been Professor at the Royal Academy of Music in London since 1992, Ian moved to the Hochschule der Künste in Bern, Switzerland in 2011 to concentrate more on building his own class. His students are now amongst the most successful in the world, sitting in the greatest orchestras, and 2014 saw Michael Buchanan win the first prize in the renowned ARD competition in Munich.

Ian plays on the Getzen “4147 Ian Bousfield” trombone. He also has his own highly successful range of mouthpieces on the market, as well as a substantial book on trombone playing, “Unlocking the Trombone Code”. He was recipient of the International Trombone Association lifetime award in 2012.

The Band Post speaks to Ian Bousfield on his extensive career and his experiences in becoming one of the greatest trombone soloists in the world today.

Who are your inspirations and role models that have shaped you into the musician you are today? 

So many people have influenced me.

As a kid, growing up in England, it was Denis Wick, and Don Lusher, who was a very nice ballad player. I have always been a schizophrenic sort of polarized player as a kid; I’m always trying to copy a great orchestra 1st trombone player. On one hand, I was trying to play like Denis Wick in the first Star Wars movie, and on the other hand I was trying to play like Urbie Green, a jazz player. My playing style has been very extreme, like really strong and powerful, or really delicate and light. 

When I was 14, I had my first lesson with a guy called Dudley Bright who became my successor as first trombone in the LSO. I still remember the image of the sound he made on the trombone where he played an arpeggio which blew my mind as I never knew the trombone could sound like that! For me it was the most amazing thing I have ever heard and I still feel that every time I pick up the trombone I am trying to do that. 

When I was 16 or 17, I was very lucky. In the European youth orchestra, George Shorty was conducting and he brought his Chicago Principals – Adolph Herseth and Dale Clevenger, to coach the trumpets and horns respectively. George didn’t bring anyone to coach the trombones, but he thought it would be the best education for us to play the first two concerts with the Chicago players playing first in the orchestra. I was sitting behind Adolph and Dale and they were absolutely at their peak and I never forgot that. With Dale, that was where I based how I was going to play in an orchestra – the prestige and the clarity of articulation, and the risk taking and the amazing sound. After that, the influence became pure musical rather than just brass playing. 

The biggest influence on my musical life was Michael Tilson Thomas who was the music director of the LSO when I was there. He then became the music director of the San Francisco Symphony and he has been my mentor for 36 years. Even now, every time I see him, I still learn something. I try to get inspired by the common musicians as well, such as listening to Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli play Debussy preludes on the piano, Jascha Heifetz play Brahms Violin Concerto, and Mstislav Rostropovich, which I have seen him done some things that were almost not humanly possible. I am also inspired by the other conductors whom I have been very very lucky to play under and work with.

When I was back in the Vienna Philharmonic, I felt that I was the worst musician in the room. So I was always looking up, always trying to learn, and every day at work was like a lesson. And when I leave, it becomes difficult because in most places that I go now, I’m the one that everyone is looking up to. I’m still learning, and every lesson that I give is still an opportunity for me to learn, and every time I play with fantastic players I learn from them. I take influences from everywhere; I do have original ideas but I like to learn something from everybody. 

How do you handle the pressure playing in renowned orchestras such as the London Symphony Orchestra and Vienna Philharmonic?

I’m not sure I did! 

When I was a kid, I never cared. I just sat and played. I remember playing difficult things when I was in The Hallé orchestra and nobody cares. It never bothered me. But when I went to the LSO, I became aware that people were coming to see the LSO because it was a big trombone concert and they were coming to hear me. I found that really quite difficult because up to that point in my life, I have just been having fun. And all of a sudden, I kind of became “somebody”. I found that tough, first of all, it kind of panders to your ego, as now I have to live up to the expectation of “somebody” in people’s minds. 

In the LSO, we also had a legendary brass section at that time with all the film recordings we did in the 90s, and we really did have an element and atmosphere of fun. It was a fantastic team; we would argue at times but it would never let it persist for long, as we have so much respect for each other. When playing in a team like that, it has overrode a lot of the pressure. 

In the orchestra, I remember a lot of the pressure for me was, I was aware that if I made a mistake I was going to be the only one who did. But everyone in the orchestra was not playing safe; they were taking risks, and the standard was so high with the amazing trumpet section and trombone section. 

I have never understood trombone sections that think it’s important to play on the same equipment. When I was in the LSO, there were 4 different brands of trombone with 4 different mouthpiece makers and we all sounded the same. If you find an instrument that fits you and works for you, then you’ll make the sound that you want to make. 

What I realize in the LSO is that when you give me hundreds of notes to play, I’m cool. But when you give me 5 notes to play, I get very scared. That’s because if I only have 5 important notes in the concert and you miss 3 of them, that’s a bad average. If I stood at the front of the orchestra playing a concerto, that’s cool as well.

Probably the worst orchestra that I could have gone to after the LSO was the Vienna Philharmonic, because they play all the classical repertoire, and I was really confronted there. I remember being amazed at how good the strings were. In one concert I did with them, the strings section came in quietly, and it sounded like a mist that just creeped onto the stage, and the room started to vibrate. The orchestra only felt the pressure when they were on stage at the Carnegie hall or the Suntory Hall in Tokyo. Up to that point, the Vienna Philharmonic was so busy that the people didn’t even know where they were. It’s like you wake up in the morning, put on your clothes, and go to work. Sometimes people do 21 or more calls in a week, and in a day, you can have 3 to 4 concerts or more playing different repertoire. So there’s no time to get worried – the more work you do the more you get used to doing it. The stress only comes when you get 3 weeks off, and then in the first couple of days, you get a bit of a shock. 

There’s a recording of me doing Bolero with Dudamel, and I must say that I was absolutely terrified. I was seeing stars, because I knew there were no pre-takes and there were no retakes. And whatever I did, I know about that recording because it’s good, and if it had been bad I would have also known about it, so that scares me. 

For me the important thing is to set up your basic technique solidly, so that no matter what the circumstances, you know how to breathe and release, and how to create what you need to do. You’re essentially training the auto-pilot, so that if anything were to happen during the concert like nervousness or can’t think straight, your body would know what to do. 

If anyone tells you that they can cope with the pressure easily, I’m not sure if they are telling the truth. We all have to learn how to deal with it in our own way. Joe Alessi and I realized that we both have the same procedure when we are scared. We look in the mirror and look ourselves in the eye and say out loud, “do your job”. The more solid your basic technique is, the less scared you get. 

What is your typical warm up routine? What is your philosophy in the practice room? 

Warm up, if I need one, I like to keep the warm up as brief as I possibly can.

I’ll do 2 or 3 minutes on mouthpiece buzzing and then 5 to 10 minutes of doing glissandos around the registers as much as I can and to try to connect the registers and get things working really smoothly. I then go on to the trombone to play every major scale in broken form, and that would take 20 minutes. If I only have 20 minutes to practice in a day, that’s exactly what I will do – to practice all my major scales in broken form. 

For example, if you are on a trip, and on the first day you come back, you won’t need much of a warm up because your lips are all nice and relaxed and it’s going to work. Perhaps you will do an hour worth of practice. The next day, you’re going to need more warm up because your lips are going to be stiff and that’s the same for anybody. I just did a week of quintet recordings last week, 10 hours recording a day with this amazing brass quintet of superstars that I’m in. I’m preparing now for some recitals and the warm up today is going to be a big one because I need to try and convince my mouth and my lips that everything is fine because they got a real workout last week.

So, warm up is mostly dependent on what you’ve been doing before. For amateurs and young players, please separate out your warm up from normal practice as they are two very different things. 

Under the philosophy of practice, there are two types of practice and there are two stages of practice. The two philosophies are, do we practice to get the notes or do we practice to get better? And they’re two very different things. 

If you put pressure on yourself to make it work from the first minute of your practice, you’re never going to get better. Your goals have to be realistic. It’s like if I imagine I want to run the hundred metres and run past Usain Bolt and wave at him as I go back, for obvious reasons, it’s not going to happen, no matter how much I try and imagine it. So we have to say, I have this sound in my head and I want the connection to be like this, and I want the articulation to be like this. And that’s a totally different philosophy. Then don’t screw up, don’t make mistakes. 

I met a guy called John Swallow who was a really big time trombone player in New York 50 to 60 years ago, and I asked him what he thought of modern trombone playing and he said, never forget musicality. The lack of musicality is also a technical weakness, and that I should be aspiring; I want to try and create this; I want to do this; I want to make this sound. 

And that runs, I would say in my case, but I’m very experienced at this up until about three days before a concert. About three days before a concert, it’s like, don’t screw up now you know what you want to do – let’s make this solid. If you click on the Bolero recording that I made, you can hear the freedom with which I prepared that; and then you tighten up the screws and make sure it’s going to work. 

So that’s the two philosophies of the practice which amateur musicians and students should never forget why you’re doing this. If you’re doing this to get good, or if you’re doing this because you want to work; I do this because I love it and so should you. I think my first philosophy with students is that they have to be happy. They have to create an environment with them where they love, play, and then when you’ve created the environment where they’re really happy and they’re loving what they’re doing, you can put bits of information in. But if you start from the beginning, no, and it’s the same. 

I’m just starting a course now on advanced pedagogy because we’re all teachers, and at some point we either are or will be teachers, either with a group of people, with one to one, or with ourselves. So how we speak to ourselves in the practice room is incredibly important. I mean, if you haven’t practiced, you’ll know that if the performance goes really badly, you can laugh at yourself. Sometimes we screw up and it’s just funny, but on other occasions, not so much. And those are kind of like a few of the philosophical things.

With many amazing players these days, how do you stay relevant and fresh on your trombone playing to always be at the top of your game? 

I don’t know, maybe it’s just me, but I practice and don’t follow trends; I just play. There are some social media trombone players, but I guess I’m not one of them. What can I say? I’m in one of the best brass quintets in the world right now, and we just recorded a concert that was sold out and the audience was going crazy. I’m now about to prepare two students for their final recital in Bern, and one of them is a member of the Vienna Philharmonic. After that I will play for concerts in Prague and Spain, I guess that’s what I do; I just do my thing and I’ll keep doing it. 

There are trombone players who play at trombone festivals and then there are those who are working at a high level and being paid a lot of money as soloists. You don’t hear about that, but there are a few, and I am kind of one of them. I mean, I think I’m doing a great thing at the moment. 

One good example of these people would be Peter Moore from LSO who is doing lots of really great stuff. He’s not one of your Internet sensations, but he’s working and playing concertos with orchestras. I’m also living my life and I love what I do and that’s how I stay relevant. Would I like to be more relevant in not just the brass world, but more in the musical world? I don’t mean that brass players only play a certain kind of music, but it would be really nice to do recitals in major chamber music festivals as it is difficult for many brass players to do so. I mean if I wanted to be more relevant in today’s world, I’d just start putting TikTok videos up and do more Facebook posts.

There are people who are more present on Facebook than in reality. I’m sorry that I might sound like a grumpy old man. I am aware of all of the modern technology and I do some Facebook stuff with some coaching videos, which usually go on social media. I don’t feel I’m having any issue with relevance at the moment in the areas that I wish to be relevant. I’ve always worked on the theory that if the quality of what you do is good enough, then things are going to work, and so far that’s worked. I am very appreciative of my trombone playing because next year I’ll be 60 and I still feel as though I’m getting better. I still feel as though I can do things now that I couldn’t do when I was 25, but I’m aware that that might not go on forever. 

So for me the important thing is to enjoy my playing and then look after everything else. I do some master classes in summer schools, but I tend not to do too many. You know what the wonderful thing about what we do is? You can have an ala carte life. You say, I want to do this, I want to do that, and I want to do something else. And so I’m following what I want to do, not looking at what other people are doing. 

Back to your point about the number of amazing young players around in the world today – yes, there are some good players, but if you look at the ones that everybody aspires to and looks up to, they’re the same ones that have been there for almost 35 years. Sure, there’s a couple of ones that do a lot of smaller festivals and that sort of stuff. And by the way, just to be clear, if someone comes along who makes me look stupid, I will celebrate. 

I love the trombone and I love music and I am just so hopeful and waiting for the generation that comes along that makes us old guys look stupid because that’s what we’re working for. I’ve been teaching all of my life. I remember when I replaced Denis Wick in the LSO, there was an interview and they said, “you were both the same age when you joined. Is he better than you were?” And Denis said, “I hope so, otherwise I’ve wasted a life of teaching.” So the next generation came along and finally it was Michael Buchanan, who produced the CD “The Many Faces of God”. I think, and many audiences could see it, it was possibly the greatest trombone CD ever made.

Michael is the only person who I’ve been in a room with on a good day where it’s like, no, I can’t do that. He doesn’t play the trombone now; he sings. He’s a professional singer, which I taught him from the age of twelve to 22. I always knew he was more obsessed with singing than the trombone. So when I heard that CD, I sent him a message and just said, I can’t do that. I really thought we had the next generation starting there but Mike got so bored with the trombone that he started singing. 

Christian Lindberg doesn’t sound anything like his teachers. Joe Alessi does not sound like Glenn Dodson. I do not sound like Dudley Bright. But somehow the next generation has come so under the influence of their teachers that they’re not being themselves. All three of us had the character to say, this is what I’m going to do, this is how I’m going to play. I hear a lot of people now who are basically sounding like their teachers, but I think someone needs to break that. 

So be yourselves. Stop looking at other trombone players. Work out what you want to do and listen to other musicians. That would be the advice that I’d give to the really good young players. Sure you need to have good basics and you should go to a teacher, but I will really suggest you trust your own musical ideas. So much of my own teaching is based on my respect for these young people not telling them they’re not good enough. I trust young players to have musical opinions and to give them to be free. Have your own musical opinion and show that. You’re going to get it wrong. It’s like the first time you stand up and improvised, it’s going to be embarrassing, but everybody understands it. But the first time you try to speak a foreign language, it’s going to be embarrassing and everyone will say, well done, and it’s the same. Have your own ideas, create things, only that way we can grow. And I think that’s to stop trying to copy what went before and going, forget me, forget anybody, just go in your direction.

I trust young people. The whole of my teaching is, be yourself, trust yourself.

In one of your podcasts, you mentioned that you wished you had followed your artistic direction instead of the financial direction. How do you think the artistic direction would help shape your career?  

That’s a nasty one. You’re right, I did say that. It’s true. I have a very comfortable life. I think because I grew up in sort of poor circumstances, I always went to whoever was going to pay me the most. It’s very difficult to go back over my life, which has been amazing, and say, well, that was wrong, and that was the business move that I didn’t make and perhaps the career move that I should have, was when I went to the Vienna Philharmonic. It’s hard to say that going to Vienna was the wrong artistic move because the Vienna Philharmonic is just the most incredible musical environment and I learned so much.

I guess when I left the Vienna Philharmonic, I realized how much I’d let everybody else tell me what they wanted me to do, rather than me sitting in a quiet room and saying, who are you as a musician? Who are you as an artist? And what do you want to do? And I don’t think I’ve actually yet found the answer to that, but I am aware that finances kind of dictated my moves quite a lot. The one financial move which I didn’t make and had the opportunity to do was the big American orchestra move, because I realized that I would become extremely destructively bored in rehearsals as the schedules don’t move fast enough. I like to keep playing lots of stuff, so I guess I would have created more repertoire and worked with other musicians, interacted with other musicians, and actually built relationships with composers on a mutual friendship level to get together and create things. I’m now in a brass quintet that is like the love that I never thought I would have completely.

For those of you who don’t know, the brass quintet used to be called the United Euro Brass Quintet, and recently, it’s renamed the Reinhold Friedrich Brass Quintet because he’s the senior trumpet player. The trumpet players are Reinhold Friedrich and Jeroen Berwaerts, who are two of the greatest trumpet players in the world, and there’s Lasse Mauritzen on Horn and Thomas Roisland on Tuba from the Danish Radio. I feel now that’s something I wish I’d done earlier, so I’m doing that and I’m absolutely loving it. I never realized how obsessed I’d become with Pedagogy, which I am. I’m so fascinated with how the brain and the mind work. What else would I have done? I think it would have involved leaving the Vienna Philharmonic earlier, maybe a few years earlier, and maybe spending more time in new music, which I love, which I haven’t done enough of, and just trying to shut out the finances. What’s the bottom line in this project? Just shut that out and try to create work myself.

I’ve always worked when people have asked me to do things, instead of me creating a festival, putting a concert on and somewhere that I really want to do it with certain musicians, I’ve never really done that and I regret it a bit, but maybe that’s for the next lifetime.

What are your plans and projects for the near future?

Maybe I’ll go to Singapore again sometime. 

One of the biggest problems is that I get asked to go all over the place, and I have two little kids who are ten and eight. So if an orchestra asks me to go and do a concerto, I tend to go and do it but for master classes and that sort of thing for the next five or six years, I should probably be here as much. Before Covid, I was away from home six months of the year, and now it’s down to about five, four or five, but they’re now reaching the age where I can take them with me. They don’t know, but they’re going to go on some big trips. We’ve got this triple concert in store for Joe Alessi and Christian Lindbergh and I, and we’re doing that in Scandinavia at the end of August and recording it. And my son, who is a trombonist, doesn’t know he’s got time off school, so he’s coming with us for the ten day trip, and this is going to be a surprise for him. 

So I’m starting to do that kind of thing more, but I need to kind of spend a bit of time with them because in five years time, they ain’t going to want to see me. After that, I guess I’ll start being the old guy in master classes.


Written By Shiqi