Artist Spotlight: Trumpeter James Vaughen
We sat down with James Vaughen, a Champaign-Urbana local taking the trumpet world by storm. A recent graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, he is making his debut as assistant principal trumpet with the Grant Park Orchestra in Chicago this summer before heading off to a one-year principal trumpet position with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra in the fall.
James grew up surrounded by music. His mother is a professional pianist, and he and his two siblings learned to play piano from a young age. When asked how he was introduced to the trumpet, he said when his family lived in Virginia, the commute to school was quite long. One of his favorite CDs to listen to in the car was the Star Wars soundtrack, which features the trumpet prominently. After his family moved to Champaign-Urbana when James was 10, he had the chance to enroll in band, but he only became serious about the trumpet in about seventh grade. In his freshman year at University Laboratory High School, he was admitted to the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra and would drive up to Chicago each weekend for rehearsals. There, he encountered other students who were just as serious about pursuing a music career as he was. He was a bit intimated at first by the talent of his fellow students, but he said, “I saw the potential for how I could sound if I worked really hard.”
A medical issue prevented him from going straight into conservatory after high school. So he took a gap year working for AmeriCorps in Mississippi, where he taught at an underserved public school and after-school program. He said the experience was highly instructive on multiple levels. “Doing non-musical work allowed me to no longer have the pressure of needing to play all the time, which helped me figure out how to play in a way where I wasn’t injuring myself and let my body heal,” he said. “I still think back on that year as probably one of the most musically important years, which is sort of ironic because it was probably the year I was around the least amount of music.” The experience broadened his perspective and made him realize how lucky he was to get to play music. He also saw how rewarding it could be to teach and see improvement in the kids he worked with. “It was emotionally taxing and also very emotionally fulfilling,” he added.
The next year, he went onto Curtis, one of the most prestigious and selective music conservatories in the world. Of course, part of that time was during the pandemic. James described coming home for spring break in March 2020 and staying home for nearly three semesters. Unfortunately, musical tuition does not translate well over Zoom since it is impossible to play with others in real time. “Luckily, I had a teacher who was really good at transitioning to online learning,” he said. “So I still felt like I was able to learn a lot from him. But it definitely wasn’t like the experience that a normal college undergrad would have going through school.”
But James made the most of his time at home and the musical resources available to him through his mother. “I feel really lucky that I have a mom who plays piano, because I got to make music with her,” he said. “She was such an important musical figure in my upbringing, and it was really nice to get to spend a lot more musical time with her over the pandemic, when most people were not getting to spend much musical time with anyone besides through bad internet connections.” (See a video of James performing with his mother, Ann Newton Vaughen, below.)
After the worst of the pandemic had passed, James headed back to Philadelphia. Upon returning, he participated in multiple international competitions and auditions. Luckily, Curtis allowed him to stay an extra year to get more out of the conservatory experience, though he spent much of that time away from school pursuing external professional opportunities. During his fourth year, he had the chance to go on tour with the world-renowned Canadian Brass for about four months. Then, in the summer of 2022, he did a three-week trial with the London Symphony Orchestra. There, had the chance to perform Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 (“Resurrection”) at the Royal Albert Hall under Simon Rattle as part of the BBC Proms.
The concert, rescheduled from 2020, was a massive undertaking, with nearly three hundred singers and a huge orchestra. James was playing one of the offstage brass parts, which were actually situated on the very top floor of the audience seating. The lack of monitors made this especially difficult, as he and his colleagues had to peer over the edge of the vertiginous balcony to watch Rattle. Plus, since the Royal Albert Hall is so big, they had to play about a half a beat ahead just so the sound synced up in the hall. But he wasn’t confined to the balcony for the whole concert; Rattle brought the offstage brass to the stage for the end of the final movement. “Standing on stage with all the singers behind you and an extra big orchestra in front of you…it was a very special moment,” James said of the experience.
One of the auditions he took at the end of his final year at Curtis was with the Grant Park Orchestra. The audition was in three rounds across multiple days. Because he was still finishing up his last semester, he had to fly back and forth between Chicago and Philadelphia between auditions. Fortunately, the logistical hassle paid off, as he secured the position of assistant principal trumpet. If he does well this season, the orchestra could invite him back next summer.
The Grant Park Music Festival is unique in that it is one of the only American classical music organizations to receive substantial public funding. Every summer, the Festival puts on ten weeks of concerts in the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. These concerts are free to the public, courtesy of the Chicago Park District, which funds over half of the Festival's operating costs. Attendees often bring a picnic and spread out on the lawn. This aspect really spoke to James and has made the experience extra special. “It’s probably the only orchestra I’ve seen that really feels like it is for the entire community,” he said. “Every concert is free to anyone who wants to just come and hang out and listen, and the rehearsals are open to the public.” He recounted how earlier that day in rehearsal he saw little kids dancing around and parents and babies conducting along to the music. “Honestly, I think the most important thing that should be happening in the classical music world is for organizations to be doing things like what I see Grant Park doing, which is to serve the community of all of Chicago, not just the people in Chicago that have enough money to buy tickets for the concerts.”
So what does an assistant principal do in an orchestra? James explained that the assistant principal trumpet supports the principal trumpet, playing parts that the principal wants him to play as well as third trumpet parts and auxiliary parts. But for the concerts the weekend after our interview (June 23–24), the principal was going to be out, so James was stepping in as principal. “It’s a much heavier load of music that I’ll be getting to play,” he said. “And the concert tomorrow has a bunch of pieces that I’d never heard of before. Most of the orchestra hadn’t heard of them either.”
That was another aspect of playing with the Grant Park Orchestra that appealed to James. Because they don’t have to worry about selling tickets, they have a little more artistic freedom in what they program, so the music director, Carlos Kalmar, often selects rarely heard gems and contemporary pieces. “It keeps the orchestra on their toes,” James said, “I think it’s really important to keep doing that and not playing the same pieces over and over again.”
Though he is only just finishing his first week on the job, James is loving the fast pace of the rehearsals, which he said was a relief after college. “In college, rehearsal for orchestra concerts would just drive me batty because most people didn’t prepare much because they knew there was going to be tons of rehearsal time…But when you have a really quick turnaround time on pieces, you need to show up prepped.” That preparation is key with the Grant Park Orchestra, which presents two different programs per week. The orchestra generally only gets two to three rehearsals per concert, so the rehearsals have to be run very efficiently.
After his summer with Grant Park, James is moving to Rochester, New York, to play with the Rochester Philharmonic for a year. During this time, he will continue to participate in competitions and auditions as his orchestra schedule allows. Securing an orchestra position is not James’ end goal, however. He hopes to have a career as a soloist, which is much less common for a brass player than for a pianist or violinist. “I just love the freedom of expression and artistic control you have [as a soloist],” he said. “But to be perfectly realistic, that career path just doesn’t exist. And I’ve been doing everything I can to try to make it exist.” Nevertheless, he said what’s most important for him is to be financially stable enough that he has the freedom to do projects that fulfill him artistically.
You can catch James play with the Grant Park Orchestra through Saturday, August 19. See here for the schedule of upcoming concerts: https://www.grantparkmusicfestival.com/2023-season.