How To Live Well On The Road (An Interview With Trumpeter Terell Stafford)

by Christopher Davis

In 2005, I graduated from college, not really understanding how I could have a music career outside of teaching in the classroom.  I knew that it was possible to earn a living as a performer but I really didn’t understand how to do that.

In July 2014, I launched a new podcast called BehindTheNote: Advice For A Successful Music Career. In the show, we get answers to the questions needed to have a successful music career by interviewing people who have a successful music career, are doing well, and doing things the right way. We have interviewed both legends and locals.  Each of them have valuable lessons to share.

Here is one of the interviews from Behind The Note Podcast Episode 28 where the featured guest was Terell Stafford.  He gave valuable advice for how to live well on the road and many other great lessons.

CD: Thank you Terell so much for joining us on the show we are glad to have you!
TS: Great to be here Chris.

CD: I want to ask you before we get into everything, tell us, what are some things that you are interested in outside of music? I want to get to know you a little bit.
TS: Well, I love to exercise, of course you can’t always see that but I love to do it. I love to cook which I’m doing right now. I love gadgets; I love computers. Hanging out with friends – love it.

CD: Yeah, so what kind of exercises are you into? Are you into the weights? Are you into running?
TS: I like to run.

CD: Right on, man!
TS: I like to knock my little three miles out and I’m a happy camper.

CD: Woo! Three miles? [laughs] That’s… that’s kinda big for some of us like me. 
TS: Yeah. I love it, I love to… I think that it all helps out with what we do you know?

CD: Yeah, that’s very true. Will you tell us the story about how you got to play the trumpet as your instrument?
TS: I’ve always wanted to play trumpet. My grandparents had a trumpet at their house that belonged to my cousin. So, ever since I saw the trumpet, I’ve wanted to play it but I had to play string instruments first, that’s just how the music program worked where I started to play, in Elk Grove Village. So, unfortunately I had to play strings which tortured a lot of people, because I was awful. And I did that for a few months until my teacher had hit me enough on the hand with his bow and I accidentally hit him with my bow and got suspended from the music program for a year, which, in the year that I was suspended I started to play guitar and finally I was able to get to the trumpet. And since I… once I got the trumpet in my hand, I haven’t let it go since. You know, even from being in middle school, you know, my parents had to take it out of my hand at the end of the day, to stop practicing after a couple of hours in middle school each day.

CD: And were you into trumpet like that, because you had someone that you were looking up to? Or was it just that much fun for you?

TS: It was just that much fun.

CD: Okay.
TS: It was, um, you know, I didn’t know that I was dyslexic when I was younger. My my mom was a reading specialist. She knew. But when it came to reading and stuff like that, it was always a challenge, so when I finally got to play the trumpet, it seemed like something that I could do and really enjoy and I, I did an okay job with it. So it really helped, you know, self-confidence and self-esteem.

CD: So, when did you decide to pursue a career in jazz music? And why did you make that decision?
TS: Um, well I didn’t. The career that I chose for myself was more classical music than jazz and I chose that when I was auditioning for colleges, because that’s when I got a scholarship into the University of Maryland for, classical trumpet. So that’s what I kind of thought my destiny was going to be; be a classical trumpeter. When I was in college, I played in the big band and stuff like that, but never really took any classes or anything like that. And then it wasn’t until grad school really that, a couple of things happened: one, I met a great trumpet player Bud Herseth, was principal of Chicago Symphony for years and, I asked him the same question you asked me earlier, you know, what did he do on his spare time. And he told me that what he liked to do, was he liked to, after he gets out of church, he liked to go play in a Dixie-land band, which he said was, was really humbling considering he was principal of Chicago Symphony. So, you know, he was just letting me know that at a young age, while I was getting my masters, how important it is for all musicians to learn how to improvise; it really gets your ears stronger, so that, that was one thing that got me into jazz and the second thing was, I was playing a recital, a classical recital with a vocalist; we were playing ‘Let The Bright Seraphim’ a Handel piece, and in that piece there’s improvisation that happens. The vocalist sings a part of a line and what happens is the Piccolo is supposed to mimic her when she sings but, but she was the first one that actually sang something that wasn’t on the page, and I really couldn’t get to it quick enough to mimic her, so you know her comments to me at that point were, ‘make sure, you do your homework so that you can mimic whatever I do, that you can repeat whatever I do.’ So, by doing that exercise, it started to get me into jazz and different people heard me practicing it and were giving me pointers and tips and I’d met Kenny Barron, ‘cause he was one of the professors at the school I was at, and so many people just guided me in that direction so I started to get like, three times as much work in the jazz arena than I was in classical, so I just figured this was like my destiny so I followed it and here I am now.

CD: Wow, that’s a great story. I’ve got two questions based off what you just told us.
TS: Sure.

CD:  How did you feel when the vocalist gave you that, that criticism?
TS: I was humbled. She was a voice professor at the college and it was, it was harsh the way she said it. She said, you’re supposed to be Professor Fielder’s prize student and you can’t even really come in here, your ears aren’t in tune, and, the other part is, I was playing on piccolo-trumpet which was in (the key of) A and, you know, I normally play on a B flat trumpet or in an orchestra I play on a C trumpet so sometimes a B flat or C trumpet it’s easier to hear things and get to it but I wasn’t finding it so easy in the key of A transposing it and trying to figure out what to play behind her. So it was humbling, but, I’m glad she shared and, it took me to a whole new level as a person, and as a musician, I think.

CD: What were some of your first steps towards improving in that area?
TS: Well, you know, Kenny Barron had asked me, when I, I went to him, he’d asked me how much jazz was I listening too and I said, not much and that was his first, that was his first suggestion you know, get some recordings and don’t try to do anything with the recordings, just listen – and that’s what I did. I got some recordings, I listened and, um, and from then on after that point, I started to just transcribe and I still do to this day just to try to get as much information, under my fingers as possible. And you know, hanging out, the jazz community is amazing. If they see you’re hungry and you’re eager, they are very willing to share, and to assist and to help, and to, be there. And I found that not only musically, but personally as well so… it’s a great community.

CD: Are you the type of transcriber that writes down what you hear or do you just play by ear and memorize?
TS: I just memorize it.

CD: Okay.
TS: I don’t write too much down. I started to write some stuff down just because someone had said it at one point – you know it’s good to look at and analyze it but I mean, a lot of it I can analyze from hearing it, especially if it’s a tune you know. Um, but some is good to write down and I would write some down just because some other folks said that if you write it down it makes you a better reader, just because you’re able to visualize what a lot of the rhythms are; that prompted me to write things down as well.

CD: Will you tell us some of the key lessons you learned from Dr. Fielder?
TS: Yeah, Fielder was amazing, he was, he was a tough teacher but seems like a lot of teachers I’ve had in my past were really really tough, and I respect that because out of him being super tough and super firm, there was always a lesson learned. And he would be a great person for not only students to be around, but I think he would be a great person for a lot of teachers to be around, often times teachers are hard on students and criticize, but they don’t have much to offer them in improving and no matter what Fielders said to you, he had a solution for you, which I found to be a great quality as a teacher. So when I met him, I quit trumpet actually for… I probably quit for a good six to seven months. I basically quit because my undergraduate teacher discouraged me when he told me that since I don’t play right in the center of my lips, my embouchure is off to the side some, that I wouldn’t really be able to play past the age of 25 and that was extremely discouraging so after hearing that from a teacher you know, I was like, well if I’m not going to be able to play, you know, that’s just like 4 or 5 years away, I might as well find something else I should do, and that’s when I became a computer programmer and a tutor in trigonometry. And then, when I met Fielder, he pretty much said you know, you have a lot to learn, your sound is thin because you’re doing this, you’re not using enough air, you’re using too many muscles and he kept saying, you know, Arnold Jacobs would always speak about ‘strength equals weakness, weakness equals strength’ and Fielder kept saying that to me over and over and over, and I found that to be brilliant because, it’s so true. I mean if you’re like playing from tightness and pressure and everything else it really, makes your playing weaker, whereas if you can play relaxed and play free and use air, use wind to get things vibrating, your playing has… there’s a freedom to it, there’s a ring to the sound that you want to get. So, that was a big thing from Fielder, and he talked about wind and air; there’s a difference between wind and air. Air is what we take in and wind is what we put out because wind has motion and so, thinking about air and how we use it was brilliant and he was also a huge advocate of the Doc Reinhardt pivot system, which was great for me as well, and fortunately I had an opportunity, when I was an undergrad actually, to get a lesson from Doc Reinhardt to learn about the pivot system and how to use it, so from those things, from just learning how to use air, from the pivot system from,  just you know, Fielders high-high expectations of his students, you put it all together and, you just have a lifetime of things to work on.

CD: Wow, those are some very valuable lessons, thanks for sharing with us right now.
TS: Absolutely

CD: So right now we’re going to go into some questions from the listeners, and we have a question here – What is your approach for expanding your voice as a composer?
TS: That’s a very challenging question, because one of my biggest challenges is just composing because I don’t do it so often. I should do it more but I do it when I’m under pressure – for example I just had to write a commission for a network for New Music and they gave me like, 8 months to write it, and I probably wrote it five days before the commission was due, which is not a great model to, to set, but the thing that I found in the months prior to that was that I knew the style that I wanted to write in, I knew I wanted to write something that had some rhythmic but had a groove, and so I just started to saturate myself in different composers – one of my favorite composers is Freddie Hubbard. One of my favorite players is Freddie Hubbard too and another great favorite composer is Benny Golson. So I listened, I saturated myself in those two composers and listened to themes and variations and how simple they kept things at times and how complex they kept things at times. So I think that my same inspiration as a player is probably my same inspiration as a composer, and hopefully, ten years from now, I can really answer that question better once I’ve gotten better at composing and more proficient and efficient at it.  But right now, I consider myself in a infancy stages as a composer.

CD: Thank you very much Terell. Alright the next question is from Brady Lewis, could you ask how he incorporates mouthpiece buzzing into his practice or warm-up?
TS: I buzz the mouthpiece every day. Some people say, I mean, the mouthpiece is a huge point of controversy because some people say, you know if you buzz the mouthpiece you’re not getting the same resistance as the trumpet and other people say mouthpiece buzzing will destroy you… I haven’t really found that to be the case, so, for me, if something works I’d do it until it doesn’t work, you know, so, but I do buzz my mouthpiece and I have my hand around the mouthpiece to give it some resistance, it’s very similar to the trumpet, not identical, but similar. Then there are times where I buzz the mouthpiece just to hear the sound of the buzz just to hear the core, the center of the buzz, to hear the air on the outside edges of the buzz because that’s kinda the sound I want from my trumpet, I want a thicker, darker core to the center and I want a little bit of air around the core to provide warmth. But, I try to get the same thing when I buzz, but I probably buzz nearly everyday for about 5-10 minutes, especially just to get air flowing. I like to double tongue when I buzz because Fielder would always say if you double tongue and it’s vertical or has no motion or no flow to it, then there’s an issue with air. So I spend, everyday, buzzing, double tonguing when I buzz just to make sure that the air is flowing. So I find it really, really, beneficial.

CD:  Okay, now I’m trying to visualize what you just explained because multiple tonguing is personally one of my weaknesses, so what do you mean when you say ‘vertical’ in this case? 
TS:  Well, you know, there’s different syllables. If you look in Arban’s book there’s tu-koo-tu-koo-tu-koo and even to say tu-koo-tu-koo-tu-koo is very vertical. There’s no forward motion to it. It’s very up and down. *Tu-Koo* Its almost two words so what I use instead of tu-koo is da-ga-da-ga-da-ga; there’s one sound and there’s a connectivity to it all. So, if there’s a flow and connectivity when I’m buzzing my mouthpiece, I get the same thing, I get a flow though the multiple tonguing instead of choppiness.

CD: I see, that makes perfect sense, okay I understand, thank you. Thanks Brady for that question. Okay, we have one more question, from Mark Eibert. Can you ask Terell about what kind of musical lessons he tries to share with his students, besides just mastering the instrument? I’d be interested to hear coming from someone with such a huge background in classical music and a great jazz career. 
TS: I mean, a lot of the lessons that I teach my students are lessons that people taught me. So coming from a classical background, the largest, I shouldn’t say largest, I should say the most challenging obstacle I had was learning how to swing coming from a classical background. I still find to this day even some of my jazz students don’t really think about how to make something feel good, they just try to emulate what feels good. And I think that’s really great, but I think to take what we do to another level it’s always good to have a true understanding of everything we do and that’s a lifetime of course of study.  Someone by the name of Clark Terry sat me down and helped me to really learn how to swing through his doodle tonguing lessons and not to say that I doodle tongue now, or I’m a master or expert, but the whole concept in doodle tonguing really helped me to grasp how to swing and helped me to grasp how to accent notes and play eighth notes etc. So I share lessons on that with my students, and then, you know, if you talk to someone like, one of my huge mentors now, is Jon Faddis, and when we speak, we speak a little bit about the trumpet, but, you know, just about life and how to handle conflict, and how to handle yourself as a person. Those are the kind of lessons that I teach as well because, I think, as a musician we are all trying to get better, and we are all trying to improve but I think to develop community we have to learn how to really communicate with one another, we have to trust one another, we have to be trustworthy ourselves and I think teaching those kind of lessons is really important because that keeps the music going. Making a great musician is what we need to do as teachers, but I think making great human beings is what we need to do just as humanitarians and I think that is as important, if not more important as to play music.

CD: Thanks a lot for that question Mark and Terell, what a great answer! Thanks for sharing that with us too. Alright, we’re about to enter the coda, which is something new that I’m trying here, and every musician knows what the coda is. So, the first question for you in this section is, will you give us some tips for living well on the road? For example, how do you maintain your chops and how do you manage rest and do you even get to study for your personal growth? Give us some tips on living well on the road.

TS: That’s a great question! Well the first thing is I think of clarity of mind is really important, however, a person chooses to achieve that so that’s pretty much why I try to run, or go for a run or get on an elliptical, I try to get out and do something physical to clear my mind because that’s really in a lot of ways we need to make room in our busy minds to grow, and the only way to do that is to clear it each day, however we choose to do so. So, that would be one thing.  The next thing as far as maintenance on the road, it’s kind of a dichotomy when people say you have to learn how to eat right when on the road because what you have to learn to do on the road is to eat well. Eating right and eating well I thought were always synonymous, but it’s not, because if you’re eating well, not fast food and stuff like that you can maintain a healthy living, whereas finding that perfect meal sometimes is just not that applicable when you’re on the road because you don’t have so much flexibility. So I have to say, just keep eating well, finding great places as opposed to ‘ah I’m only going to eat tofu for the next month. I don’t know how realistic that is, especially being in a place like Germany or even Italy having the discipline to do that, so eating well, I think, is really great. As far as chops are concerned, I’ve probably been doing the same routine for the past…I’m trying to think…um, maybe twenty-five, thirty years and so, some people said doing the same routine is great. I think it’s great because every day that I do it, I see what I really need to work on, other people said doing a routine, doing the same thing every day, is not great because your muscles are trained, and they’re gonna learn how to respond to doing the same thing. But I haven’t found that to be the case, so I do the same thing. I have a maintenance routine, I have a growth routine, and I do different routines depending on how much time I have and where I am on the horn. I mean, you can start to feel when you’re on the road when you need to do certain things, you know, you may need to do a really quiet routine one day or you may do a routine that’s based on bends or a routine that is based on flexibility or even a routine that is based on range building. So that’s what I find, when I do my basic, thirty-forty minute routine, it lets me know exactly the areas where I am starting to be deficient in. So I think that’s really important, finding some consistency, you know, because what you find is when you travel, whether you have a twenty hour flight to get to Australia or you have a fifteen hour flight to get to Japan, when you get to these places, everything feels different. Sometimes your lips are a little more swollen depending on how you sleep, and if you really start depending on your physical body, it can be nerve wracking, so what I do is really try to keep my air flowing. I use a device everyday called an Ultra-Breathe. It’s an incentive-spirometer; it really helps get breathing consistent. I use that in addition to the buzzing and then my routine that I do helps keep me in shape. And as far as growth is concerned, I think, the growth part is the easiest part, especially when you’re traveling with musicians who are like, incredible – even if you travel with musicians who aren’t so incredible there is always something to learn. Always. So traveling with someone, you hear them practicing, you hear what they are working on, you ask them what they’re working on. They show you, and you go check it out. And then, that just keeps you growing constantly, you know! Just this past week I was on the road with the Clayton Brothers, and Gerald Clayton’s working on some stuff before the concert and whether I ask him what he’s working on or whether I put a mute into my horn and figure it out and then go home and shed on it, you’re always around something that inspires you to keep growing or you should be at least. So, that’s kind of what I do to maintain on the road – good exercise, eating well, really really using my routine to measure my strengths, my weaknesses, what I need to do and what I don’t need to be doing, etc.

CD: What do you use for your growth routine? And what is your maintenance routine?
TS: My maintenance routine is, basically, I do the Chicowitz Flow Studies and I do an exercise from page 177 of the Arban’s book. I play through Charlier usually number 2, and I do the Goldman studies, number one from the Goldman studies. And then I usually do Clarke 3 or 4 the whole study with the etude, and just from that I can pretty much measure where I am, and then I go back and after I kind of measure where I am then I practice things that need the most help. As far as growth routine, I’ll bring certain etudes, which I haven’t played before. Maybe, it’s something out of the Charlier Book, or something out of a Russian etude book that Fielder had given me a while back or it could be one of the same studies or etudes that I’ve been playing for a while and I just decide this section I’ve never played great so it’s time for me just to take these five bars and practice them for the next hour, and usually doing something like that, you grow in more ways than you really realize. And then, you know, finding a tune, and just shedding through that tune, I mean, really shedding through it like, you can shed though it some people like to shed though it though the keys, and I think that’s really beneficial learning things through the keys. Certain tunes I just want to learn how to play melodies over them, so learning how to play a melody and that can lead to writing a tune, that’s where my writing comes from. If I learn a tune and I really want to learn to play it, I’ll write a melody over it, and that helps me to grow even more in that tune because I have to know the harmony to write a melody. So that would be my growth routine, my growth routine incorporating more jazz into my routine where my maintenance is just fundamentals.

CD: Nice, thanks for sharing that with us. So what is the best way you have discovered to meet someone that you admire without sounding like every other person and hopefully leave a good impression on them? 
TS: That’s a good question, I mean, you know, that, you know, I admire Wynton a lot. I admire his discipline, I admire how he achieves his goals so, you know, he made a statement to me a long time ago. We were talking about transcribing and he was saying that ‘a lot of people transcribe and they get the vocabulary verbatim and they end up sounding exactly like someone or their goal is to do that. But, just imagine where we had a world of people who transcribed and wanted to learn the intent of the soloist.’ I found that to be brilliant, you know, so I follow that now. If I transcribe something, I really want to learn the intent – what was Clifford Brown thinking in this particular measure? Or, what was Kenny Dorham thinking when he replaced tri-tone subs, you know, what was he trying to do? What was his goal, you know, and learning the characteristics of each player. A great thing to do to not sound like someone but to really understand someone is to take a simple tune like happy birthday and be able to play happy birthday like Roy Eldridge would or Bubber Miley would, like Cootie Williams or like Clifford to be able to play the melody, to be able to play a solo over those simple simple chord changes. And to me, if you’re doing that then you’re learning the characteristics that make each player who they are and really special and then in choosing those characteristics, it’s gonna make you who you are, and make what you do really special because you’re choosing characteristics as to vocabulary verbatim.

CD: Wow, that’s a great answer, I’m sorry to say that I think you kind of misheard me, or maybe I wasn’t clear, but that was a great answer and some great knowledge we’re still going to apply that. But, what I was trying to get to is like for example, if I saw you in concert, and I really enjoyed your concert and then I saw you after the show, I guess I’m asking how can someone stand out to you instead of just saying to you ‘great concert, bye bye, see you later’ if they really wanted to develop a real relationship with you?
TS: Um, I think that’s repetition. I mean, I remember years ago that when I started to play in Philadelphia more, someone that I truly admired was McCoy Tyner. So, every time and everywhere McCoy Tyner would play I’d show up. Every time, and I’d say ‘Hey Mr Tyner, my name is Terell Stafford’, and after a while I didn’t have to tell him my name anymore. He’d say, ‘hey hey how you doin’?’ So, with me being consistent, and going out and hearing him and being consistent in my communication with him lead to me probably being somewhat respected by him in time. I know for me, when people come up to me – like, last night I played at the Village Vanguard. There are certain guys who come pretty regularly and I establish a relationship with them and after time when a relationship is established you start to speak about certain things or they have certain questions and it’s not like a lesson. It’s just a matter of sharing, whereas, sometimes you meet someone, one time, and you say ‘hey, can I get a lesson with you?’ and sometimes I’ll say yeah let’s get together for a lesson and when I get together they’ll say, oh let’s just jam and, you know, that totally rubs me the wrong way because if I’m on the road that’s the last thing I want to do is get together and jam. And then sometimes, you get together with folks for a lesson and you step into a room and say ‘what do you want to learn?’ I dunno, well what do you want to teach me? And that’s always a difficult one too. So, I think when you meet someone if you want them to respect you, repetition is important it’s you going out and developing a relationship before anything else and I think if you develop a relationship, in time, people really want to share, you don’t have to worry about getting a lesson, you don’t have to worry about really gaining respect because it’s all about relationships is all about community and it’s all about, in time, friendships? I hope that answered your question.

CD: Yes it did thank you, and that was perfect. And I have more questions but we’re out of time, and I want to respect your time,  and I wanted to say thank you so much for sharing with us today.
TS: My pleasure. Thank you, Chris!



Chris Davis is host of Behind The Note Podcast: Advice for a Successful Music Career where he interviews both renowned and local musicians about what works well in their music career so that others may learn from them and prosper in their own career. Some past guests include Chris Botti, Dee Snider, and Rufus Reid. 
Davis resides in the Chicago Suburban Area with his wife and two young boys. He is also leader of the Chris Davis Jazztet. The band is currently promoting their new album Eventide this year. You may learn more about Chris Davis and Behind The Note Podcast at