Interview with Håkan Hardenberger

Recently I was fortunate enough to spend a week at Snape Maltings, Suffolk, participating in masterclasses with Håkan Hardenberger.  Described by The Times as 'the best trumpet player in the galaxy', Håkan was kind enough to let me pick his brains on his approach to trumpet playing, music and life in general...  

What are your top tips for daily practice? 

Practise softly. Really learn how to use your ears, because those are our most important tools. We have lips and fingers and lungs that we use but, without the ears, it all just becomes sport and athletics. If we let that side of things decide, then playing becomes pointless and too difficult.

Do you still get nervous for performances? And, if so, are there any particular things that you think or do to help deal with those nerves?

I do get nervous and I'm quite thankful when I do because it means that it still matters to me. You have to learn how to use the adrenaline as fuel. There's something particular about Classical music that's so much about doing it 'right'. We feel a great responsibility both towards composers, towards our teachers and even towards ourselves somehow. We spend all of these hours working to make it perfect, but there's an element of perfectionism that sometimes goes against music-making. Even jazz and folk musicians will be nervous under certain circumstances, but I think that in Classical music-making, the reach for perfection is too much. The important thing to realise is that, once you've achieved what you think is perfection, the standard has already changed - the goal has moved even further away - so it's mission impossible!

If you could talk to your younger self now, when your career was just starting, what would you say? Is there anything you wish you'd known? 

I saw a wonderful interview once with Woody Allen where they asked him a similar question. He said "I see all of these colleagues who are asked that question and they say 'Oh I don't regret anything, I would do everything the same again'. But for me... I regret almost everything!" 

I'll tell you what I believe: there's a Swedish physicist, Bodil Jonsson, and she's written some very nice things about time and how we deal with it. She gives a beautiful picture of a tree and how it has its rings inside to show its age. Of course, I am now on the outer rings! But you carry the inner rings with you. You are a slice of that tree - time doesn't go along the tree, it goes through the tree. So, at the same time that you are the outer ring now, you are also the inner ones. Whatever you did then is a part of you now.

I had really good advice - I had wonderful, helpful parents and wonderful teachers. I also think I had a talent - call it intuition or whatever - to find people with whom to 'take the elevator'. People like Elgar Howarth, who suddenly appeared when I was about 20 and about to start my career, and there he was. He was much older than me - as old as my father - but he became a great friend and mentor and he would just say these perfect things to help me. So I was extremely lucky in that respect.

One thing that you don't understand when you're young is that you do get older. When you're young, keeping fit is not so difficult but, if you want to stay as fit when you get older, you really have to work at it. I remember saying in an interview once that I was guessing I'd sort of peak at around 35 and from then on it would just be downhill... but thankfully that hasn't happened! 

You've mentioned a couple of times this week about trumpet players 'diseases'... what are the most common symptoms that you see in trumpeters around the world?

  1. Playing too loudly.
  2. Not listening to themselves. 
  3. As soon as we see something that looks like it's out of a March (triplets or dotted rhythms), we suddenly start to disrespect all normal musical rules! That is very common. Why do we always divide sextuplets into three, for example?

How do you balance the huge amounts of practice and travel with family life and finding time for things other than music? 

I've found that this is something that also really takes practice. What you have to realise is that the amount of practice never gets less. If you want to keep improving or maintain a high level, you have to stay disciplined and the hours don't decrease, it just continues. Your loved ones will know that and know when to leave you on your own. When I was younger, I found it really difficult to find the 'off' button. I couldn't even switch off for short periods at all, I was just 'on' all the time. I still have an element of that, but I've become better at finding the 'off' button. And, once you really find it and you have a long holiday, then it's very hard to find the 'on' button again!

 Which other musicians, past or present, would you recommend listening to for inspiration?

I would give a more general answer: if the readers here are trumpet players, listen to non-trumpet players. I mean, of course, listen to trumpet players too, but also listen to other instrumentalists. Most importantly, listen to things live. Go to concerts, go to rehearsals. Meet the performers and hear their sounds live. However good the recording equipment is, no one can ever completely capture that sound and they certainly can't capture the electricity that happens in a performance. That's the most important thing. 

Also listen to non-classical musicians and not only hear things and like things, but try to think about why you like things. What is it that grabs you? What is it that they do? Read books, look at paintings, see nature. I get depressed when I go out running and I see other people running with earphones and looking down and just punishing themselves... not seeing the blue sky or hearing the birds. Life is there to be lived, even more so if we are doing something that is tough and disciplined and takes a lot of you. Then it's even more important to enjoy life. 


The week of masterclasses at Snape Maltings was organised and funded by the Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme.