A virtuosic instrumentalist and acclaimed educator, Denis Wick is perhaps best known for the thousands of mutes and mouthpieces that bear his name. A true legend and visionary in the field of brass, he has approached all aspects of his vast career with integrity and passion. I had the pleasure of meeting Denis for the first time at the International Trombone Festival in Utrecht, Holland in 2000. A true gentleman in every sense of the word. It was an honor to sit down with him again for this interview.
MD: It’s an honor to feature you as our bone2pick artist of the month, Denis. Thank you for taking time out of your incredibly busy schedule to be with us. Your career is beyond impressive. As a performer, educator and entrepreneur, you’ve achieved a level of success that is unparalleled. I’d like to touch on as many aspects of your career as we can and would like to begin with your tenure in the London Symphony Orchestra. You were with the LSO for over 30 years, starting in 1957. What are some of your memories of those first few years in the orchestra?
DW: The LSO had been a very busy orchestra, but never aspiring to the qualities of the Philharmonia or the Royal Philharmonic. It had seen a major revolution in 1955, when all the principal players had resigned and taken the best (film recording) work with them, forming a new orchestra, the Sinfonia of London. Sadly, their only legacy amounts to a few recordings and a mention on the credits of long-forgotten films. However, this became a rare opportunity for young, less known players to get into the LSO; Hugh Maguire, Stuart Knussen, Gervase de Peyer, Neville Marriner, and Barry Tuckwell had all taken principal positions. The LSO was a workers’ cooperative, just like the original Berlin Philharmonic; we employed ourselves and we had a fantastic ethos of working together to improve standards and success.
The mood of the LSO in those early days exactly matched mine. The idea was to get as much work into the diary as possible. We were never salaried, but paid on a fee-per-engagement basis. In addition to the basic diet of concerts, most of which had been arranged probably a year or two in advance, there were the relatively last minute BBC studio broadcasts and in July an extra twenty or so recording sessions at Watford Town Hall—reasonably near to where we lived—with the American Mercury recording company. The conductor for these was Antal Dorati, a Hungarian with brilliant if wayward ideas and an extremely short fuse. The recording equipment was all in a large American truck which was parked behind the town hall, with dozens of umbilical cord cables connecting to the small control room. Here the producer, Harold Lawrence, a moustached kindly and smiling American, added his gentle comments to the orchestra via a loudspeaker, in marked contrast to Dorati’s screaming at us.
The total effect was that within not much more than one hour the orchestra’s playing was absolutely transformed. Nobody wanted any criticism, whether gentle, reasoned comments or high-pitched ranting. We played all kinds of repertoire and Dorati achieved some excellent performances. We had no idea what we would be playing until we opened the music on the music stand. For me it was exhilarating. I knew all this stuff or could immediately read it. Some of these recordings are still in the catalogue, I believe, more than fifty years later, and they were as groundbreaking for the new stereo sound quality at the time as for the playing. These visits to Watford were to continue for many years. The tremendous enthusiasm and vigor of the orchestra attracted better conductors and more enterprising management.
MD: You are credited with introducing large bore tenor trombones to the LSO and to the UK in general. Given the equipment standards of today’s orchestral players, it’s hard to imagine any orchestral section playing on small bore tenor trombones. What was that transition like and what motivated you to steer things in that direction?
DW: Since the end of the second world war, we were all well accustomed to what was known as austerity. Food rationing had ended only in 1953. The way in which we musicians were affected was that the non-availability of high quality instruments was a problem for all brass players. There was an embargo on all kinds of imported goods, including foreign-made instruments. We had heard that there were wonderful American trombones in America, but they were not to be seen in London. Effectively, we could play only Boosey and Hawkes instruments. The fact that Geoffrey Hawkes, director of B&H was on the British Board of Trade, that decided all this, was unknown to us at the time.
In May 1958, the LSO played at the Brussels International Exhibition. It was the usual valiant British effort to promote our culture. The main concert, with Sir Arthur Bliss—one of my favourite composers—conducting his Colour Symphony, had a very small audience. Between the rehearsal and the concert, when most of my colleagues were sampling the delights of the exhibits, I visited Persy the local music store, with Barry Tuckwell, our 1st horn and Stuart Knussen, the principal double bass. The idea was to try out and buy a new Conn 8H trombone. There was no embargo in Belgium, but the instrument was a completely unknown quantity to me, despite having heard so much about its qualities. I had asked my friends to help me make a decision. “It sounds like you, but more so,” Barry said.
For the first time in my career so far, I had a real professional instrument. It was actually one of the first to be seen in London and it marked the beginning of a revolution in British orchestral trombone playing. Later in 1958 the embargo was lifted after many musicians signed a “round robin” addressed to the British Board of Trade and it became easier for everyone to own such an instrument. I felt I had more freedom to play the way I wanted; there were no bad or doubtful notes on the 8H; the sound was magnificent—I could play both louder and softer with much greater facility and enjoyment. After initial problems of balance, when I had to be careful not to misuse so much power, the entire section acquired similar equipment—even back-desk second violinists and music critics noticed the difference. The years of struggling with trombones that almost worked had been frustrating but might actually have made me a better player.
I have to say this was not an easy transition. We all knew perfectly well and had in our minds the unmistakable directness and clarity of the old small-bore trombones. The new instruments needed bigger mouthpieces and so many different approaches. The problem was made worse because of the appalling acoustics of our then main concert venue, the Royal Festival Hall; even worse than today—completely dead, with no resonance whatever. Within just a few months all my colleagues in the other orchestras managed to find similar instruments and the UK orchestral trombone world had changed forever. Eventually I designed mouthpieces that would help fulfill their potential.
MD: Your recording of Mahler’s Third Symphony with the LSO in 1970 is seminal. Can you talk about how you approached those sessions?
DW: The LSO had given the first performance in London of Mahler 3. This had taken place in 1962, 60 years after the actual first performance in Krefeld, Germany, in 1902. It was something of a sensation, as you might imagine. We recorded it with Solti in about 1964. In 1965, I was on the jury at the International Trombone Competition in Munich. There I met Ernst Heydrich, who had been bass trombone with the Berlin Philharmonic since 1947, and 1st for 23 years before that. He had studied in Hamburg with Franz Dreyer, who had done the first performance with Mahler. It had not been played during the Nazi era, of course. We sang the solo to each other—it was uncanny that I had played very much the way that Ernst remembered it. I had always realized how important Mahler’s detailed indications were and followed them carefully.
MD: With the LSO, you recorded dozens of exceptional motion picture soundtracks, perhaps most notably the Star Wars films. What are your memories of those recordings? Was your approach any different from when you were performing and recording more traditional orchestral fare?
DW: Film sessions were always great fun to play. The music was often copied overnight—this was before music computer programs— and the ink was barely dry when we saw it for the first time. The reason that so much film music was recorded in London was because of the British sight-reading skills. It was so enjoyable to open the folder to see what was in store and to have it perfectly recorded within minutes. Some of the composers were so inventive and brilliant—John Williams, for instance—that it was always a thrill to discover what they had done and a great feeling of satisfaction to have helped create something absolutely new.
MD: Your work as a soloist is as remarkable as your orchestral career. When looking back on the many contributions you made as a soloist, what are your favorite recollections?
DW: The Jacob Concerto was written in 1955, when I was 1st in the CBSO. Rudolf Schwarz, the conductor, was something of a mentor to me and commissioned it. It was a minor sensation at the time. I made several performances of it over the ensuing years. The other pieces written for me were in 1973, Concerto for trombone and Brass Band by Buxton Orr, a GSM colleague and in 1974,by Alun Hoddinott, Ritornelli (with the London Sinfonietta) I always found solo playing useful because it kept me in shape! I also worked with Philip Jones (1981–82)
MD: You have been on the faculty at both the Guildhall School of Music and Royal Academy of Music. Did writing Trombone Technique help shape your approach to teaching or vice versa?
DW: I was completely self-taught and always very analytical about playing methods. Trombone Technique was the result of my own teaching experience over many years.
MD: What changes stand out for you over the past 50 years in terms of orchestral trombone playing and education?
DW: Playing levels are now at a higher level than ever before, but the same problems are always there to be overcome. There is now less difference between the various national styles and generally a more intelligent and musical approach everywhere.
MD: I am astounded and inspired by what you have created with Denis Wick Products Ltd. and Denis Wick Publishing. I assume it all began with mutes and mouthpieces? Can you take us through a brief history of your companies, some of your motivations for what you’ve created and share your visions for the future?
DW: It began in a very small way, to make a mouthpiece for my own use in the mid ’60s. It grew when I became involved with instrument design at Boosey and Hawkes, from being a tiny cottage industry, with my children helping to pack mouthpieces on the kitchen table, with mute design coming in 1970, gradual expansion with Boosey and Hawkes until our independence in 2006, when we expanded dramatically. We now have 24 people involved in the company.
MD: Do you have any tips for building a successful business and can you share your business philosophy with us?
DW: Take care of every detail! Ideas are cheap, putting them into effect costs time and money. If the product is good enough, it will sell.
MD: What qualities do you believe have made you such a successful businessman and those that made you a great performing artist?
DW: Imagination and sheer hard work.
MD: What advice would you have for a young business owner or young musician starting out today?
DW: Make as perfect as possible what it is you are selling, be it a product or your own playing.
MD: I can’t imagine you missed anything, but looking back on your illustrious career, is there anything you wished you had done that you didn’t quite get to?
DW: I should like to have progressed my conducting career. It was confined mainly to youth orchestra work, but I enjoyed it more than anything else I did.
MD: Professionally speaking, what are you most proud of?
DW: My former students.
MD: For those of us who are fortunate enough to visit your incredible city from time to time, can you give us DW’s favorite London pubs?
DW: I was never much of a pub person—work took up so much time that I always wanted to get home ASAP after concerts and sessions. I always like the Lamb and Flag near Covent Garden.
MD: Thank you again Denis for taking time out of your busy schedule. Most of all, thank you for the extraordinary inspiration you have given all of us through your remarkable career. Cheers!
Denis Wick is Britain's most influential orchestral trombonist of the 20th century. He is an internationally renowned soloist, brass teacher and designer of brass mutes and mouthpieces. He was principal trombone of the London Symphony Orchestra from 1957 to 1988. He has recorded numerous motion picture soundtracks, including the Star Wars films. He is the founder and CEO of Denis Wick Products, Ltd. and Denis Wick Publishing.