A New Horn

What was that odd-looking brass instrument you saw in a jazz club or at the symphony? It was David Monette's reinvention of the trumpet
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When I met Dave Monette, in 1986, it had never occurred to me that one might re-create an instrument whose design and manufacture had undergone little change since the introduction of the piston valve, more than a century and a half ago. But anyone who has heard a concert performance marred by a trumpet's missed note -- a "train wreck," players call it -- might imagine the reasons for improving on the Wright brothers' model with a custom-made Gulfstream.


Today, as the price of a top-of-the-line Monette approaches $50,000, some musicians are willing to wait a year for their orders to be filled, while others still scoff at the premise on which Monette has established his reputation. "I don't think Monette's horns represent a traditional sound of the trumpet," proclaims one of the latter group, Phil Smith, the principal trumpet player of the New York Philharmonic. Monette's fans tend to agree with Marsalis, who says, "Eventually you will get your sound out of whatever horn you play. But it's easier on a Monette. They're well balanced and centered. They're harmonized."

That two great musicians should even be talking about Monette may be the most improbable thing about this forty-three-year-old man's career. Less than two decades ago Monette was an occasional player with no formal higher education who dared to reinvent one of the most venerable instruments in Western music, an instrument capable of widely expressive gradations of tone and timbre.

One day in the early 1980s Monette made a cold call to Charles Schlueter, now the principal trumpet of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. An orchestral player of uncommon individual character, Schlueter had long been dissatisfied with the limitations of the production-model Bach trumpet, then still the standard for symphonic professionals. Schlueter, who often tinkered with his horns in his workshop, kept an open mind when someone reported an innovation or a breakthrough in the field. Monette called out of the blue, and soon offered Schlueter a new kind of leadpipe for his Bach trumpet (the leadpipe is the tube that connects a trumpet and its mouthpiece).

"He sent me about a half dozen, and I didn't really care for any of them," recalls Schlueter, who had never met Monette. "Dave later came to Cincinnati when the BSO played there on tour, and I tried one of his leadpipes on my Bach C trumpet. This time it felt terrific." (Middle C on a C trumpet -- the horn used by most symphonic players -- sounds like C on a piano. The more frequently used B-flat trumpet, on the other hand, is pitched a whole note lower than the piano.) "Dave soldered a plug to fit in the receiver on the leadpipe so it would stay put, and I used that combination when the BSO recorded the complete Stravinsky Firebird in April of 1983." Soon afterward Monette persuaded Schlueter to try a prototype trumpet he had just built, and Schlueter liked it so much that he never played his Bach again.

When I was introduced to Monette, he was tweaking one of Schlueter's horns just before a BSO performance of Mahler's Fifth Symphony, a work whose first movement is a virtual concerto for trumpet. Bearded, wearing blue jeans and a white shirt, Monette focused intently on his work while around him orchestral players in the formal trappings of professional classical-music performance -- long black dresses for the women, black pants and tails for the men -- nervously anticipated the speaker's calling them to the stage. Monette said nothing as he examined Schlueter's horn. Then, patiently and purposefully, he scraped the inside of the mouthpiece and the leadpipe with a metal tool. The shavings from this process were too small to see, yet when Schlueter tried the trumpet afterward, he pronounced it a decided improvement. And, indeed, the sound was fuller and more present -- live without being edgy. There was no doubt that whatever secret procedure Monette had used to make the trumpet play better had also increased Schlueter's confidence in it. He performed magnificently that night.

LIKE the great entrepreneur-inventors of an earlier era in American business, David Monette is so closely wedded to what he does that it is impossible to imagine one of his horns without him. Who he is and what he makes are inextricably linked.

Born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, Monette began playing the trumpet in fifth grade, but he never had a trumpet teacher. By the time he graduated from high school he was the single trumpet in an eight-piece band, a job he got, he says, because "I was the only person who tried out who knew how to read the arrangements." Monette was also practicing a lot, and "conventional equipment wouldn't let me do what I wanted to" on the horn. Playing pop tunes on tour with the band for a year, Monette strained to make his instrument sound the way he thought it should. The sound that came out was too bright, reminding him of the brass section of a football marching band or the blare at a high school hop. Moreover, the sound was limited in its expression. Nothing Monette played or heard others play matched the sound in his head -- a textured, layered sound that could evoke a wide range of human emotions. To describe it in painterly terms, the standard trumpet sound was like the landscapes in an L. L. Bean catalogue -- all surface and no depth. Monette was looking for a sound that was exposed and vulnerable. Rembrandt, or Van Gogh. He was certain that something was wrong with the way trumpets played, and he was determined to change it. But how?

While he pondered this question, the band traveled the Midwest, playing clubs in East Lansing and Grand Rapids, Michigan; in Palatine, Illinois; in Madison, Wisconsin. The touring was entertaining but unfulfilling, and when Monette, at the age of nineteen, fell in love, he quit music. For a year and a half he did "nothing musical," supporting himself by working as a custodian at a JCPenney department store in Milwaukee, where he lived in the same apartment building that had housed Charlie Schlueter more than ten years before, when Schlueter was just beginning his symphonic career, with that city's orchestra. Then one day Monette was asked to deliver a package for Penney to a local music shop, where he soon found himself in a long conversation with the owner about instruments. That conversation, he says, inspired him to enroll as an apprentice at the Allied Music School, an instrument-repair school in Elkhorn, Wisconsin.

By the time he moved to Elkhorn, Monette was so frustrated by instrumental limitations of tone and timbre that he was nurturing a "crazy dream." He would learn how to make instruments and then build them himself. Most trumpets on the market were -- and still are -- mass-produced, but that was a symptom rather than the source of what Monette perceived as the basic problem. He wanted a response from a trumpet, a "completeness of sound," that he couldn't find.

Almost a year later John Dulaney, who had a shop in Salem, Oregon, hired Monette to repair instruments. After moving to Salem, Monette started hanging out at the local symphony orchestra. He went to concerts not only to listen to the music but also to learn to hear the difference between, say, a cello in the high register and a viola in the low. His sense of pitch and timbre is extraordinary. When testing finished instruments in his shop, for example, he never resorts to sophisticated electronic equipment or computer analysis. All his judgments about sound are based on his ear.

Monette worked at Dulaney's Wills Music Store for two years, and during that time he became friends with the Oregon Symphony's principal trumpet player, Fred Sautter, who shared Monette's fascination with trumpet design. Sautter saw Monette as a "revolutionary," and began to tell his trumpet-playing friends about him. Soon players from all over the country were sending their instruments to Monette to be repaired. The backlog of work at the Wills shop was many months' worth.

Monette's next break came in 1981, when he was invited to visit the Los Angeles home of the Tonight Show bandleader and trumpeter Doc Severinsen. Monette listened to Severinsen play every one of the many instruments he owned, and suggested improvements in them. Severinsen was impressed by Monette's honesty and certainty -- some might call it brazenness. He introduced Monette to an executive at the company whose trumpets Severinsen endorsed, C. G. Conn, of Elkhart, Indiana (then the largest manufacturer of brass instruments in the country).

Conn hired Monette as a consultant, but Monette didn't take to what he regarded as a rigid corporate atmosphere. However, Conn liked his leadpipe design so much that the company bought it for $15,000, a huge sum of money for Monette at that time. By then he had already opened his own custom brass shop, in the basement of a rented house in Bloomington, Indiana. Soon he made a call to another of the country's most famous symphonic players, Adolph Herseth, the principal trumpet of the Chicago Symphony. Herseth and Schlueter each ordered one of his trumpets, and Monette never again worked for someone else.

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