TIME IN with Jeff Curnow: Philadelphia Orchestra Trumpeter, NPR Cartoonist, and Fun-Loving Humorist

Mar 10, 2021

Jeff Curnow does double duty with his "dream job" as principal associate trumpet in The Philadelphia Orchestra and as a popular cartoonist whose work has been appearing regularly on NPR Classical's Facebook and Twitter feeds since 2015.

In this TIME IN interview, he shares his thoughts about music and laughter during these difficult times.

It’s impossible not to smile when you’re talking to Jeff Curnow, who is also often grinning as funny stories seem to bubble out of him.

As prolific as he is creating cartoons, he also produces wacky videos including this one he made to let people know about The Philadelphia Orchestra's virtual gala back in June, 2020:

Music and humor are as basic to Jeff Curnow’s life as friends and family. His wife, Miyo, is a violinist with The Philadelphia Orchestra. Growing up, he had an aunt who played euphonium, an uncle who played trombone with, and who wrote for, the Stan Kenton Orchestra, and a grandfather and father who played trumpet.

Jeff and his dad.

After graduating from Temple and Witchita State, he won positions in symphonies, including principal trumpet in New Haven and Dallas—and smaller ensembles, including eight years with the Empire Brass Quintet, with whom he made 16 recordings.

In 2001, he landed what he calls his "dream job" with The Philadelphia Orchestra. And cartooning? “I’ve done it forever, says Jeff. "My friends and I used to get together and draw and make comic books and cartoons. I did it on the road with Empire Brass.” In 2015, he began contributing to NPR.

Here's one of his most popular cartoons, with over 20,000 shares on social media!

The Beginning of Uncharted Territory

In March of 2020, the Orchestra was rehearsing a program at the Kimmel Center, and getting set to travel to New York City for a week's worth of concerts in a Beethoven festival, when word came from management that the festival was being cancelled. Their last concert at the Kimmel, a program featuring Beethoven’s 5th and 6th symphonies and a new piece by Iranian-Canadian composer Iman Habibi, was performed without an audience.

“It was surreal,” Jeff says. “We stood up to no applause and an empty auditorium, and that's when I think it hit everyone that we were in uncharted territory here.”

The Orchestra has now resumed concerts live streamed from the Kimmel Center with smaller numbers of musicians on its Digital Stage. The full orchestra and its in-person audiences have yet to return.

Jeff met with me on Zoom to talk about his way of seeing the world that has served him so well—both as a musician and a humorist.

Below are excerpts from our conversation, more cartoons, and videos:

Trumpet was a tradition in your family, but classical music was a different direction?

[He laughs.] This concerned my family greatly. My father played big band music. He would do everything [including] classical, but mostly, we had a lot of jazz going on at my house. But he was very supportive.

You’ve called your position as associate principal trumpet of The Philadelphia Orchestra your dream job.

How often does a musician set his sights on a goal and be able to achieve it? It’s all a matter of timing and where the auditions are. And here's a kid who grew up in Easton, Pennsylvania studying with Seymour Rosenfeld of the Philadelphia Orchestra, loved the orchestra, went to see the orchestra, lived in Philly while I was going into school, left for 20 years, and came back to join the orchestra of my dreams. I'm pleased as punch to be a fabulous Philadelphian. 

What's your life been like since March?

Oh, interesting! I have two teenagers, 13 and 16. Normally they're at school hanging out with their friends; now they're sequestered in their rooms on their computers doing remote learning. It’s nice kind of having them around, but I don't think they like being around so much; they want to be out there doing things that teenagers do.

Today, my wife has been sawing away, learning things for this week's [Philadelphia Orchestra] recordings.

[As for me,] I finished two rooms in my house. I stay in shape. I practice. I have to keep going. It’s been kind of nice in a way that I can explore things that I haven't done in awhile on the trumpet.

Here’s Jeff demonstrating how to play Molter’s Symphony in C for four trumpets:

But that's worn off. Now I'm chomping at the bit. What we do is perform for people. And that is really the lifeblood of the symphony orchestra,—dazzling an audience, communicating Mahler and Beethoven and Stravinsky and all these great composers’ pieces to an audience that loves it.

It's hard to explain that experience when you get done playing a concert and you're on stage and the audience explodes; it's magical in a way. We haven't done that. When you're sitting on stage and you're performing pieces to a microphone and an empty hall, that's missing.     

You've compared being a classical musician in an orchestra to an Olympic gymnast.

Yeah, it’s hard [to stay in shape], especially with the trumpet. When I was on the road with the Empire Brass, we had what was called a 12-hour rule: you never take more than 12 hours off practicing, never miss a day, or things change, the condition of the embouchure changes.

Here's Jeff playing with the Empire Brass Quintet, circa 1988 in Venezuela with Rolf Smedvig, trumpet; Scott Hartman, trombone; Martin Hackleman, horn; and Sam Pilafian, tuba.

[The Orchestra] is a little different, but I think all brass players would agree that if you take a couple of days off a brass instrument, you really feel it. So I have to maintain that shape and keep practicing. It's like going to the gym.

So what's it like playing trumpet in the Orchestra?

Orchestral trumpet playing is demanding in a sense that there's only four of us against the rest of the band. And we're all the way in the back and the trombones are usually behind us. You have to play very loud. It can be very brutal; it can be very unforgiving.

And then on the other hand, a minute later you have to make a beautiful phrase and be a part of the wind section and be able to blend with Ricardo Morales or Richard Woodhams or Danny Matsukawa or any of the great players we have in the wind section and be able to maneuver the instrument like a woodwind instrument.

So I try to do things that keep me that flexible.

Do you have a favorite warm-up?

I've been doing the same warm-up for the last 20 years. It works and I confess, I have the TV on while I'm doing it. If you're on a treadmill at the gym, you're watching the TV, it's kind of like that for the warmup. I go through my calisthenics, the stretching, it’s very athletic at that point.

And once that's done and I'm feeling like I'm ready to go, I'll usually tackle something like an etude or a solo, or I'll delve into some excerpts, like Strauss or Mahler, something that keeps me in that kind of shape.

And then I'll do some other piccolo trumpet things to keep that in shape, which is a very small instrument. That's very different. The most recent thing I've done was for the orchestra [as part of a virtual concert]. I decided to do a Bach Partita. Drove my wife, who's a violinist, absolutely crazy. She would come in and say, “I don't mean to add my two cents, but you should wait after this note; the intonation on the upper register is a little ..." [he makes a face].

That was challenging. But things like that are interesting to me.

You've also been making a lot of cartoons during this time.

I do a weekly cartoon for NPR Classical's Facebook page. And there was no way I could avoid the pandemic. And it was kind of hard to be funny about, but I tried to find ways to look at the pandemic from a humorous standpoint.

I'm getting out of that now. I'd like to get back to silly classical music cartoons, like before the pandemic started.

Does any particular environment feed your creative process? 

Yeah, when I'm sitting onstage. I count a lot of measures. Anyone who comes to the Orchestra, watch the trumpet section. We don't play a heck of a lot normally, and we can sit out entire movements sometimes. While I'm sitting there, I usually come up with cartoons.

Backstage, while on tour in China, Jeff sketches an idea for a cartoon on his iPad.

Are there parallels between playing music in the orchestra and drawing cartoons?

I'm glad you asked that.  I thought, for awhile, it would get in the way and that cartooning would take my attention away from the focus I needed to play in an orchestra. And it only enhanced it, which was amazing to me.

I see a lot of parallels in the way I put a cartoon together and the attention to detail.  I look at it as a classical musician. But what has been the biggest learning experience for me is how, when I started cartooning and this creative process, it's like you open up a door in your head and your mind expands. And all of a sudden everything you do becomes enhanced by the cartooning.

It's kind of weird to say, but my trumpet playing has been helped by the process it takes for me to think of a cartoon and put it together from beginning to end. I now look at trumpet playing that way. And so the trumpet playing enhances the cartooning, and the cartooning has certainly enhanced the trumpet playing and the way I look at music in general.

You've also been doing videos, including The Hedge Trimmer of Seville (at top of post)

It all comes back to comedy. What I can make funny? With that one, the Orchestra approached me about doing a video, and I made this one of myself standing outside in tails with a pair of shorts, with hedge clippers, singing opera. I sent it to them thinking that there was no way they were going to use this, but I thought I could put it on my own page. And they loved it.

Then they asked me to do another one about the gala in which I animated a talking Bust of Beethoven. And then they wanted another one for trying to explain how to hook your TV up, so you can watch videos on TV, and you're not watching your Orchestra on your cell phone or your iPad. That was tough.

My kids came home and they were playing Hamilton. And I was just fascinated by this. [I thought] how hard could this be? So I decided to do a rap video. I don't know if you've ever tried to write rap, but it ain't easy.  I paced around and it took me days to come up with some of those verses; I put it all together and they loved it.

Any discoveries you've made about things you'd like to continue after the pandemic is over?

I really took advantage of this hiatus from playing to figure things out in my own trumpet playing; to experiment, which you don't get to do when you have a grueling schedule of an orchestra. And I'd like to keep that. I'd like to not forget about the freedom that I had here and what I was able to learn.

You're talking about a sense of balance?

A sense of balance and a sense of creativity. You've seen it online, the amazing creative feats; musicians who are all of a sudden activating parts of their brains that they haven't in a long time. And that's the most inspirational thing to see—someone coming up with a video, someone writing a piece, performing a piece, doing an arrangement, putting together videos like I've never seen before. So I want to keep that creativity. I want to keep that process going, and I hope it continues everywhere.

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More TIME IN interviews are here!