The Charlier Challenge

book coverThe “36 Etudes Transcedentes” is a classic book of 36 difficult etudes by the Belgian trumpet teacher Theo Charlier. Most trumpet students work out of this book in music school, but usually they don’t get past the first dozen of them. The etudes get quite difficult as they go on and almost everyone gives up eventually and goes back to practicing Pictures at an Exhibition and the Haydn Trumpet Concerto instead.

In 2012-2013 we resolved to work through the book with the added incentive of a friendly competition. The Charlier Challenge was born. There were five of us: Justin Bartels (Principal Trumpet of the Colorado Symphony), Carrie Schafer (Second Trumpet in the Saint Louis Symphony), Mike Martin (Fourth Trumpet with the Boston Symphony), Liam Day (Sub-principal Trumpet with the Malaysian Philharmonic), and Joshua MacCluer (Principal Trumpet of the Hong Kong Philharmonic). The competition truly was a world class affair.

The format of the Charlier Challenge was as follows: every week we learned the next etude in the book and recorded our best single take effort with no editing allowed. We submitted every Wednesday. The clips were put up anonymously online and 36 first class guest judges each judged a week and picked their favorite, submitting comments if they so desired. Each week one point was awarded and the winner would be the one with the most points at the end of the 36 weeks.

The stakes for the competition were low considering the amount of work required: $250 per person for a 36 week competition. The purpose of the Challenge was not about the money, or even the competition, but more about what was to be learned from the experience. However the $1000 prize was not exactly a trifling sum, and more importantly, our playing would be judged by some of the world’s most respected artists.  We were highly motivated.

The celebrity guest judge list was a long list of great trumpeters and other well known artists. We would like to profusely thank all of the illustrious musicians that gave their time and wisdom to helping us all get better.

From start to finish, it was a great project.

1 “De L’articulation”: David Vonderheide– Atlanta and Virginia Symphonies

Here’s Carrie getting the Challenge off to a strong start:
1carrie

Carrie writes:

I learned a great deal from participating from this project. I knew it was going to be a long competition, and I recorded all over the US and in Europe. I constantly was experimenting with finding the combination for success- the balance between playing my job as best as I possibly could (which was always my first priority), finding the correct microphone setup, practicing the most efficient way, and continuing through the etude after I knew I played something which wasn’t how I wanted it. I noticed how often I lost the energy of the line thru the phrase. I have to give huge props to Justin, Mike, Josh, and Liam- I enjoyed and learned a ton listening to everyone every week and I would be honored to play with any of them at any time. Hearing those guys interpret these etudes was interesting on many levels, sound, articulation, musical choices- but I also learned what kind of “mistakes” were more musically appealing than others. I knew that my standards were getting higher, my ears were bigger, and I was working on what needed work in my own playing. It was a pleasure to work on my technique with the musical line as the top priority.

2 “Du Style”: Ethan Bensdorf– New York Philharmonic

Justin had a very nice version of this classic:
2justin

3 “3rds”: Andrew Balio– Baltimore Symphony

Another good effort from Carrie:
3carrie

4 “Du Style”: Adam Luftman– San Francisco Opera

Justin was on fire at the beginning of the competition:
4justin

5 “De L’articulation”: Tom Cupples– National Symphony (USA)

Here Carrie negotiates a tricky passage:5carrie

6 “Du Style”: Craig Morris– University of Miami

Liam rocked this one from the parking garage of the Paris International Airport.
6 Liam

Liam reflects:

The chance to come together with four other players with whom I hold in the highest regard, and use our friendly competitive spirt to help push each other to get through the entire Charlier book at the highest level possible was a special opportunity. It was certainly one of the most educational processes I have taken part in as a musician. Every week I felt myself getting stronger, and more importantly, smarter. Learning a Charlier a week in addition to my full time job with the Malaysian Philharmonic was easy compared to trying to record them every week when I was in tour in Borneo Island and Europe and trying to prepare for an audition with the San Francisco Symphony at the same time as a lot of the more unfamiliar etudes were coming up. Every week I had to streamline my process, minimize time spent and maximize results. As the competition went on I spent a lot more time away from the trumpet and found that learning the etudes with solfege and conducting got the music in my head much better with out using up too much of the limited chops time I had available to spare. I found myself getting practice in whenever and where ever I could; parking garages, hallways, hotel rooms, on stage in concert halls in 8 countries, in the park in Berlin and even getting a couple of runs through #2 in front if the Louvre in Paris because I had an hour to wait for my ride.

There were weeks that were very frustrating. I remember trying to get a good recording of #7 in the parking garage of the Airport in Amsterdam when I had just started my European tour and coming so close to the take I wanted but my flight was leaving and I wasn’t able to get it right. however, there was no time to get dragged down by frustrations as there was always another étude to learn and another opportunity for success. It wasn’t easy, but the best thing I learned from the experience was how to tackle the current challenge and keep going. I took each hurdle as it came but yet as the etudes got harder the learning curve for all five of us kept pace with the rising difficulty level. It was certainly hard to keep the big picture in mind at times, but in the end I can listen back through the weeks and it is a valuable representation of how much I learned from the whole process.

The web of musicians that was involved with the Charlier Challenge was probably my favorite part of the challenge. In addition to the five competitors, we reached out to so many of the world’s great musicians to help us adjudicate. I think the list of judges speaks for itself and I am so grateful to each and everyone of them for joining us.

7 “Du Mecanisme”: Michael Tiscione– Atlanta Symphony

8 “4ths” Michael Sachs– Cleveland Orchestra

This one was hotly contested. Here’s some of Justin’s winning version:
8Justin

9 “Scherzetto”: Tom Siders– Boston Symphony

Here’s Josh, recording in America for the last time before moving to Asia:
9 josh

10 “Du Rhythme”: Jake Nissly– Principal Percussion, San Francisco Symphony

Liam puts forth a strong rhythmic effort on this one:
10 Liam

11 “Fantasie”: Jim Wilt– Los Angeles Philharmonic

Liam won this one from a stairwell in Estonia:
11 liam

12 “Etude Moderne”: Mark Inouye– San Francisco Symphony

This one was also hotly contested and there were several sore losers this week. Here’s Justin’s winning version:
12Justin 2

13 “Prelude”(name withheld by request)

Justin was on a roll at this point:
13Justin

Justin writes:

Participating in the challenge was an easy decision for me, I had been procrastinating learning all 36 etudes for years. Playing all 36 etude was such a gargantuan task to do and I knew it would be great to learn them. during the competition I had many obligations competing for my time. I play Principal Trumpet in the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, I had just accepted a position at the University of Colorado, I was teaching the trumpet studio at the University of Denver for one quarter as a sabbatical replacement, and was the chair of the CSO’s negotiation committee, and of course the small detail of a wife and daughter. It was a real “Challenge” to learn a new Charlier etude each week while keeping on top of all my professional and personal obligations.

The biggest benefit is what I learned afterwards. Before the competition I could always play pieces like Alpine Symphony and Mahler 7, but I was using an extraordinary amount of pressure. Playing too much for several days resulted in possibly cutting my lip. After the competition I became much stronger in my corners and now when I go for certain notes on the trumpet, it really does seem a whole lot easier. It helped get me in better shape. I was ready to take some pretty big auditions, but along the way I actually started to enjoy my job more, and finally had a different motivating factor than just working up some monotonous audition rep list.

I used a vast array of recording equipment during the process. I started out with a Zoom H4N handheld recorder and just used the onboard microphones when I was traveling. I recorded once in the brass room at the New York Philharmonic, in a hotel room in Chicago, the basement of an apartment complex in New York, in an high-rise apartment, my living room, in the Brass room at Boettcher Concert hall, in a practice room at the university of Denver, in my studio at the University of Colorado, and in my basement. You name it I recorded there. When I was at home, I used my Zoom R24 with and without a preamp and used a spaced pair of Rode NT5 Microphones, I also used a set of modded Cascade Ribbon Microphones, I always used a ART Preamp and Mallard Tubes with the ribbons. I found that the ribbon sound gave me the most refined sound, and it made recording the etudes just as much fun as playing them. Recording the Charliers really spiked my interest in recording equipment.

I must give great credit to Mike Martin and Josh MacCluer. First and foremost, Josh was the winner by a great margin, he persevered and was the one who stayed the course completing each and every etude out there. I heard Mike Martin transform the way he played his etudes from the beginning to the end, it was rather inspirational, he took really good trumpet playing at the beginning and made it really great trumpet playing. Personally, I felt I regressed a bit throughout the competition, but it did translate to some great work on stage when I was doing my job. I also heard some really great music making from Liam and Carrie, and I have a lot of respect for those players and am proud call them my colleagues. The highlight for me was listening to Liam play a Charlier Etude in the parking garage at an airport in Paris, France.

14 “3rd Finger”: Mark Hughes– Houston Symphony

15 “5ths” (name withheld by request)

This week was when Mike started being a very fierce weekly competitor:
15 mike

Mike writes:

When Josh approached me about doing a challenge in June 2012, I was immediately and naively into it. I’m the kind of person that will commit to a project of ANY size or scope if it begins later than an hour from now. My how my perception of time versus workload changed in 36 weeks…

Coming off two weeks of teaching drum corps (yes that’s how I spend my vacation and I love it), I was out of shape and completely unprepared for A) how much work it was going to take to keep up with the other studs/studette I was competing against and 2: how much different and more difficult it is to prepare one REALLY dense étude EVERY week compared to that same task as a college student, which was the last time I’d undertaken something this epic/borderline asinine.

I did not win a week until week 15, which was disheartening. Trying to balance the BSO’s insane July/August Tanglewood schedule (three different programs every week for nine weeks plus chamber concerts, plus teaching, plus Pops, bla bla bla) AND record a Charlier a week was proving to be a balancing act for which I had no proven plan; and with Josh and Justin basically trading victories every other week, I knew I needed to step it up to, at the very least, save competitive face and hopefully, have a shot at winning by the following March. Then I went on my honeymoon. Once I got back to Boston, I devised a schedule that allowed for more dry runs earlier in the week closer to performance tempo; and I also set a goal to try to record at least one piecemeal run-thru on Sunday (between football games) to get a feel for exactly what I wanted to do musically with each étude. The reality of my routine soon took shape, which meant late night recording sessions on stage at Boston Symphony Hall (actually not a bad room, despite what you’ve heard), and particularly stressful, profanity-inducing sessions on my Wednesday night literally-the-11th-hour recording sessions because I had to play second on Shosty 4 that week and forgot about the week’s étude.

We quickly learned, as Liam quipped, “It’s the Charlier Challenge, not the Charlier Easy.” In a perfect world, we could spend three hours a day on every number (six hours a day on #27, which, little-known fact, was actually composed by Judas in the moments after he betrayed Jesus) and create note-perfect versions of every page. But outside that perfect world, we had to manage our time like never before to game our week toward #34 and still manage to excel at our day jobs, marriages, professional relationships, eating, sleeping, and Crossfit.

Sometime in March I posted to Facebook a picture of trill-drunk #36 after I’d submitted my final recording (from a hotel room in the Dominican while playing at an orchestra festival) with the caption “I’m certainly not the same MUSICIAN I was nine months ago.” The Charlier Challenge was like being back at Northwestern hearing great players step up every week in Solo Class and surprise you with their range or articulation or spin or vocalise or or or or. LISTENING to all the submissions every week is where the magic lay. I’m a trumpet player: my way is the way. But man Carrie’s vibrato this week is so serene. And Justin’s sound is so massive! And, per usual, I envy Josh and Liam’s consistency. Hmm, maybe mine ISN’T the only way. I think I’ll pick it up again and see what I can steal from those guys and girl, because every week they showed me something I could do better in my playing. It was a win-win-win-win-win experience.

16 “Double Tonguing”: Anthony Plog– worldwide soloist and composer

Mike dominated week 16:
16 mike

17 “6ths”: Robert Sullivan– Northwestern University

18 “Triple Tonguing”: Malcom McNab– LA’s top freelance player

19 “7ths”: Matt Muckey– New York Philharmonic

This was a tough one. Here’s Josh navigating a lengthy passage:
19 josh

20 “Par Mouvements Conjoints et aux Rhythmes Varies”: Steven Burns– well known soloist and conductor.

21 “Octaves”: Ronald Romm– Canadian Brass, University of Illinois

22 “Different Articulations”: Joe Burgstaller– international soloist extraordinaire

23 “L’arpege”: Christopher Martin– Chicago Symphony

24 “Richard Wagner”: Stephen Lord– Music Director, Saint Louis Opera

This Wagner etude is epic at over 7 minutes. Mike sounded like he was 10 feet tall on this one.
24 Mike

25 “Du Coule”: Bill Williams– solist, formerly San Francisco Symphony

Here’s Mike again on this tricky one:
25 Mike

26 “Chromatic”: Bill VerMeulen– principal horn, Houston Symphony

27 “Fantasie”: Tom Hooten– Los Angeles Philharmonic

This one took lots of practice. Here Josh is forced to take a conservative tempo for survival.
27 josh

Josh writes:

I learned so much from this project and I believe it was one of the most valuable learning experiences in my career. The experience of taping my best one-shot effort every week for the better part of a year taught me a lot about how to perform at my best despite the circumstances. I traveled around the world while producing a take every week. I recorded in Belgium, Bulgaria, Romania, Saint Louis, London, Paris, Berlin, Switzerland, Hong Kong, Vietnam, and Macau. I recorded in cramped hotel rooms, beach huts, and on three continents. At the same time, I managed to pass probation in my new job in Hong Kong with a very picky music director. Playing the Challenge gave me confidence, as what I had to play at work was always much easier than that week’s etude. Through the Challenge I learned that not all mistakes are created equal, the importance of nailing the first few bars (and the last few), the primacy of sound above all other metrics, and the value of using music to transcend technical problems. I also learned how to learn faster and practice much more efficiently. My sound, pitch, articulation and phrasing dramatically improved during the 36 weeks. Much thanks to Mike, Justin, Carrie, and Liam for their competitive spirit, and for their wealth of musical ideas from which I have stolen shamelessly. I hope to do this again one more time in my life.

28 “Triple Tonguing”: Dave Elton– Sydney Symphony

Here’s Mike with a very convincing opening of this one:
28 mike

29 “Le Mordant”: David Bilger– Philadelphia Orchestra

30 “Marche”: Barbara Butler– Rice University

31 “Double Tonguing”: Charles Lazarus– Minnesota Orchestra

Justin came out of the woodwork to win this week, and this clip demonstrates Justin’s musicianship:
31 justin

32 “Harmonics”: Ben Wright– Boston Symphony

33 “Triple Tonguing”: Michael Christie– Music Director, Minnesota Opera

34 “Fantasie Rhythmique”: Travis Peterson– Utah Symphony

This one has a beautiful introduction and a very difficult multiple tonguing section. Here’s Josh playing from the introduction.
34 josh

35 “Le Coule”: Paul Merkelo– Montreal Symphony

36 “Trills”: James Stephenson– composer and trumpeter

To finish the competition strong, here is Josh’s final effort of the competition:
36 Josh

The winner of the Charlier Challenge was Josh MacCluer. He was the only contestant to turn in all 36 etudes and in the end his tireless work ethic helped him come out on top. Tied for second were Justin and Mike, with Mike coming on very strong the second half of the competition.

However everyone who participated had great success with personal musical improvement and we all enjoyed the comraderie and positive peer pressure to be our best every week.

We highly recommend this kind of project for players at all levels. Already a group of cellists have taken the idea and worked through the Popper book with the same format, there is a horn Challenge going on as this article is published (Josh and Liam have been judges). Thanks to everyone involved and best of luck on your Challenges in life, whatever they are.

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