Everyday Icon: Classical Trumpeter Mary Bowden

This inspiring musician talks to us about building her creative career from the ground up and the importance of female leaders in any artistic field.
By Barbara Sueko McGuire ,

You’ve got to have a strong upper lip to play the trumpet. The instrument demands both literal and figurative chops, requiring a mastery of multitasking that’s invisible to the naked eye. Face muscle contraction, lip shape, tongue placement and air flow all come together in an actual buzz to influence the sound. Just ask award-winning classical trumpeter Mary Bowden, who has been playing the instrument for 25 years.

“Music is so much more than what is written on the page, and I am constantly making decisions about how to achieve a particular mood,” she explains. “I make clear choices on dynamic, articulation, vibrato, tempo and phrasing.”

The 35-year-old soloist’s multitasking prowess extends beyond her instrument to encompass her career as well. From touring with Seraph Brass, a quintet she helped form, and Chrysalis Chamber Players, a nonprofit music ensemble she founded, to performing with Adele (yes, that Adele) and releasing her debut album “Radiance,” it’s amazing she finds time to eat. Oh, and did we mention she also walks her cat?

We asked Mary to take five for us and share what it’s like to be one of the best at her creative craft.

What would you say is unique about the way you play the trumpet?

I love exploring the different colors of sound the trumpet can make. Not only can the trumpet lead from the back of an orchestra, it can also sing like a flute or emote like the voice. There is so much versatility to this instrument. I love performing vocal repertoire. My favorite trumpets to play are the smaller one — piccolo and e-flat. I love playing the highest pieces on piccolo like Bach’s “Brandenburg Concerto No. 2” and Mozart’s “Queen of the Night” aria.

Do you still get nervous before a performance? Do you have any pre-game rituals?

I still get nervous before performances, and I think this is normal. I would be worried if I wasn’t nervous! I know it will be okay because I’ve prepared thoroughly. If I know exactly what I want to say with the trumpet I know I can achieve it when I perform.

On the day of a performance, I like to have a long warm up so that I can play through parts of each piece. I also take a nap that afternoon if possible, so that I can be fully energized and prepared for the performance. I like to drink green tea before I perform, for the caffeine.

What would you say to encourage someone to go see classical music performed live?

Classical music portrays every possible emotion from the human experience. Hearing other people perform for you forms a connection that is impossible through the computer or headphones. It is thrilling.

You’ve won quite a few awards! Do you have one you’re most proud of?

I am most proud of the Gold Medal Global Music Award for my debut album, “Radiance” through Summit Records. The CD features all American music primarily composed by living composers including a piece I commissioned from Joseph Hallman. Making my first CD was a massive undertaking, and I am happy with how it came out.

If you could play with any musician alive or dead, who would you choose and why?

I would play with Jamie Deitz. Jamie was my best friend through four years at the Curtis Institute of Music and two years at Yale. He was a fantastic percussionist and we only got to perform chamber music together once at my graduation recital at Yale. We had recently talked about forming an official trumpet/percussion duo. He passed away unexpectedly this fall.

Who has been an instrumental mentor in your life along your career path?

I have had many mentors, and I am so thankful for all of them. My early teachers, Tim Jones and Kari Lee, exposed me to great live music and pushed me outside of my comfort zone to always improve and be challenged. I developed my sound and musicality with David Bilger and Allan Dean at Curtis and Yale.

When I was in my twenties, I thought that getting an orchestra job was the only path to making ends meet. When I reached my late twenties, I went to the Banff Centre on a whim and studied with Jens Lindemann. He pushed me to become a soloist, and that’s when I started changing my path in life. Since then, I’ve built my solo career from the ground up, started Seraph Brass and Chrysalis Chamber Players (my non-profit in Naples), and am now actively touring as a soloist and chamber musician.

What would you say is most challenging about being a trumpet player? Are there any particular hurdles you had to clear being a woman in the field?

With the trumpet, I do not take too much time off. I take my trumpets with me on vacation to stay in shape. This is probably why I married a trumpeter — we both can practice on vacation and it’s okay!

Also, with the trumpet, the sound is made with the air and buzzing of the lips to produce a note. I think trumpeters are similar to singers who have to take care of their vocal chords. I am always aware of my chops being swollen or puffy. I stay hydrated, travel with a humidifier to dryer climates, and try to stay as healthy as possible to keep inflammation out of my body.

As far as being a woman in the field — I never found it strange because I was always tying for first chair in band as a kid with two other girls. I also had a woman trumpet teacher, Kari Lee, who was a huge inspiration and role model for me. As an adult, I try [to] brush off any perceived sexism and never compromise who I am. I am a confident musician and a very demanding teacher, and I have strong ideas and visions for my career.

Part of the reason for forming Seraph Brass, an all female brass group, was to create an inspiration and act as role models to the next generation of music students. I also think it’s important for people to accept that women can be strong, confident and lead in a male-dominated field.

How do you keep yourself fit and healthy, both mentally and physically, so that you can perform to the best of your abilities?

I find that I need a lot of sleep to stay sane. Knowing this about myself and planning sufficient time is super important to me. I carry a fancy travel pillow so I can sleep on the ground at airports if needed! I also feel more at ease juggling my monumental administrative tasks if I make sure that the trumpet always comes first. If I have “my sound,” I am much happier and relaxed.

My diet is important. I’ve recently stopped eating foods that cause inflammation and have been eating a lot of greens. My tour schedule is busy this spring, and for my “chops” to stay strong, I’ve abstained from alcohol and bad foods (and I sleep as much as possible!). Running helps me as well. I also ice and heat my face in the evening after a tough playing day.

Tell me about the origin story of Seraph Brass and what the quintet is all about.

Seraph Brass is a group that I founded with hornist Katy Ambrose. Katy and I were at Yale University together and always had talked about forming an all-female brass group. We connected in 2014 and Seraph was formed. Since then, we have performed over 50 concerts around the country and have released our live album. This summer we will be the featured ensemble at the International Women’s Brass Conference and at the Lieksa Brass Week in Finland. We plan to keep traveling the world, recording CDs, commissioning new works and collaborating on different projects. This season we have commissioned two new works by female American composers. And, we just launched an Indiegogo campaign for a new CD through Summit Records!

Seraph Brass is very special to me. We are strong women performing great music, and my hope is that the group will outlive my career when I retire and pass the torch onto another trumpeter. 

Where’s home base and where are you originally from? Do you feel like either place has influenced your creativity?

I currently live in Naples, Florida with my husband, David Dash, but in the fall, we’re moving to North Carolina, where we will both be teaching at the North Carolina School of the Arts. David will be the Assistant Professor of Trumpet and I will be a Resident Artist.

I am originally from the suburbs of Chicago. Since I was little, I traveled to many places. My family would take us on road trips across the country, and as an adult I’ve lived in many places. Music has taken me around the globe, and I enjoy traveling to a new place whenever I can.

I definitely feel that I can draw on these experiences when I am performing music. Any experience that gives you perspective makes you a better musician. Last summer, I hiked in Glacier National Park for a few days. This was one of the trips my family took when I was 8, and I took the same hikes I did when I was little. It was very nostalgic and revitalizing. When I picked up my trumpet after that weekend, I had a new energy within my playing.

What’s a day off like for you?

I rarely take days off lately! I’ve been making an effort to read when I travel to give myself a break from thinking about projects and trumpet. I recently finished The Nix, written by my friend Nathan Hill.

My down time is sleeping and taking my cat, Duke, on walks on his leash. Coming home to Florida on my few days “off” feels like vacation since my husband and I live by the beach. I am thankful for my home and this place of comfort during hectic travel months.

What five items are essential to your everyday living?

Trumpet(s)!, tea, turmeric, Lush “honey trap” lip balm, and my calendar (yes, I still use pen and paper for my calendar!).

p.s. Have you met this singer-songwriter who draws inspiration from bygone eras?

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