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April 2024
Vol. 23, No. 7

Featured Stories

Local Trumpeter Is Charting her Own Path

January 2024

Elizabeth Meeker Howard

Young musicians who are deciding which instrument they want to try to learn have a variety of reasons for the choices they make. Later in life, many can no longer recall why it was they chose guitar over the saxophone or drums over piano.

Elizabeth Meeker Howard, however, remembers exactly why she chose the trumpet in the fall of her fourth grade year at Oak Hill Elementary in Escondido.

“First of all, I was scared of the girls who were playing flute and clarinet; I wasn’t in their clique! My grandmother had taken me to see the Crystal Cathedral Christmas Show and they had real herald trumpets! It was watching this spectacle, and then the trumpets would play this fanfare.”

Still, she acknowledges that there was a randomness to it as well as her teacher, Jon Riksford, didn’t allow students to try an instrument before making their selection.

But she also points out that if it weren’t for the music program in the Escondido public schools, she likely never would have followed her chosen career path. She also credits Riksford, who also taught music at Hidden Meadows Middle School, where she attended after Oak Hill.

“A lot of us went on and followed careers in music because of him!”

Several decades later, Howard is well-established in San Diego’s classical music community, playing in the Westwind Brass at SDSU. She’s also a rising figure in the local Latin scene, playing with the all-women Sabrosas Latin Orchestra as well as the Sexteto Sonero del Caribe.

She points back to Mr. Riksford’s lessons in fourth grade as her starting point. “A lot of parents got upset with him for challenging us. Some parents want their kids to be treated gently. But some of us wanted a challenge—you have to want that boot camp feeling, like we’re going to do this and be proud of it. It was really hard,”

Even in elementary school, Howard said Riksford organized them similarly to how high school band programs operate: marching band in the fall, concert band in the spring. Of the young marching band experience, Howard laughingly remembered, “We marched in the Escondido Christmas Parade in little hats that trapped all the heat!”

While brass instruments can be difficult for younger children, particularly those who end up getting braces, Howard said she was fortunate. “I think I did have a natural embouchure,” she said.

Beyond the herald trumpets at Crystal Cathedral’s Christmas pageant, Howard said her next-biggest influence was trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, specifically his classical music recordings. (It is easy to forget that early on, Marsalis maintained a two-track career, recording both jazz and classical, and winning Grammy Awards for both.)

“When I started playing trumpet at nine, and why I did good and was section leader from a young edge, was that I had a CD player and we had two CDs; one was Wynton Marsalis’ ‘Carnaval.’ Every time I would play, I would think, ‘I don’t sound like that,’ but I was developing a sound concept.” It was a few years later that Howard got to see Marsalis in concert when her father took her to see Marsalis with his jazz combo at a local winery.

Howard said in high school she continued in her marching and concert band studies.

She was improving to the point that she scored her first paying gig in high school, playing Christmas music at a local church. “In high school, I spent two full summers playing at Sea World in the Sea Stars, a brass and percussion band of young players. I was stoked to be earning a regular paycheck playing music, and the band had so much fun on stage and during breaks.”

It was about that time that Howard began to realize that music could be her career, a notion she said occurred to her during another summer opportunity in high school. “I think when I studied at Tanglewood one summer in high school. That was really magical, being surrounded and involved with music morning to evening and being surrounded by other musicians. That was utopian.”

She attended Boston University, earning her bachelor’s in classical trumpet performance. Up until that point, Howard hadn’t really thought about the fact that there weren’t a lot of female trumpeters. But while in college she subsequently earned her master’s degree at Yale and she met jazz trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, “and that was revelatory.” But if she didn’t have any specific women mentors, Howard also said she didn’t notice any resentment from male musicians over her choice of instrument.

“I didn’t really feel I was discriminated against. Mostly I think the male teachers I had were very supportive, nurturing, kind.” She said the few awkward moments she experienced had nothing to do with her major and everything to do with professors trying to take advantage of a younger woman, experiences that happen to too many students across all departments. And as she recalled, she simply made clear her lack of interest and was left alone after that.

Meeting Jensen, and having heard Marsalis’ jazz work led Howard to begin exploring jazz and improvisational music in general while in college, an experience she said was very uncomfortable at first. “I didn’t come up through a middle school jazz program or anything. So, in college, I was improvising like a beginning music student. I was terrified the first time I tried it, the first several times! I was a good enough classical player that I knew what good music sounded like, and I knew how terrible I sounded.

“They generally don’t teach improv for classical degrees. But that’s like learning how to recite great novels in another language but not being able to have a basic conversation in that language. So, I had to seek out and study all the improv and the commercial playing on the side. I’ve been doing that in different ways off and on since college. Kind of more as a side interest to my classical playing, but something that I really wanted to get better at. I felt like, ‘I’m going to do this. I ‘m just going to throw myself off this cliff over and over again.’”

Elizabeth with the Southwestern College Mariachi Ensemble.

While Howard said she still doesn’t consider herself a jazz player, yet she continues to work at it.

“I don’t think I’m that good for what I really want to do. I can feel it, but it takes a lot of time to feel comfortable in it. I know what classical feels like—what it feels like to have a lot of knowledge. I know I don’t have that depth of knowledge about jazz yet. In my pursuit of getting better at jazz, I’ve been playing in another little combo, Salty Papa. We do Hugh Masekela, Rolling Stones, bar jazz, and New Orleans rock-jazz classics. So that’s fun; it’s a chance to work on improvising and playing funk.”

In addition to her exploration of jazz, she’s also been involved in several Latin combos as well. “I decided to get into something other than classical, and that’s when I got into salsa. I really love it; the better you get ,the more fun it is.

“When I was in college I heard the Buena Vista Social Club album that came out. I listened to it three times in a row! I just felt it, it wasn’t confusing to me. When you dance salsa, there’s still a place where you step your foot—there’s the bass, the clave. It’s different than a one-two, or just a jazz swing. It makes me want to move!

“The all-female salsa band, Sabrosas Latin Orchestra, has been a lot of fun. I’m the musical director of that band, but it’s a very collaborative effort. We were just recorded for one of those KPBS ‘Live from the Belly Up’ shows. It’s still in editing and it’ll be on KPBS early in 2024. Also, we just got a significant grant from the California Arts Council.

“Sabrosas began as a jam session. Some girls had met each other at gigs and wondered if they might be able to do an all-female band. So, they started as a jam session for a year or so, meeting more players. The group finally settled into formation and become more of a regular group, and I joined the band—and then the pandemic closed everything down for a couple years.

“But when things started back up, we were ready to hit the ground running. We became a nonprofit. We’re starting to write originals, and we have plans to record those once we have enough. The thing about many salsa standards is that they were mostly written by men, and some of the lyrics are kind of awkward for women to sing. We want to write music that is fun to dance to, but that also has meaningful lyrics, and which better reflect a female perspective. I think it’s an overdue addition to the repertoire.”

She’s also in the seasonal house band at the San Diego Zoo. “We play during the summer and then during December Nights in Balboa Park; it’s a brass quintet with a drum set.

“The zoo band is a really fun band. The guy who runs the band, Karl Soukup, is acting head of the jazz department at SDSU. He does many original arrangements for the band. The December gigs are all jazzy versions of holiday music. He used to be in the adult brass band at Sea World when I was in the high school version of the band many years ago, so we’ve known each other for many years. The arrangements are great, the musicians are all excellent, but they also have a sense of humor.

“I love doing those gigs because they are to me what entertainment is all about; I love looking out into the audience and seeing people’s faces all lit up, and playing for kids and all ages.”

With the all-female Sabrosa Latin Orchestra.

In addition to all that, Howard also teaches music at Southwestern College, which makes her very busy. While she said her husband is very supportive of her music career, she said their two young children aren’t always as excited when she has an evening gig. “Oh, you have to go.”

But she said both children are studying piano, and she realized that they pay attention to what she does professionally because when Sabrosas Latin Orchestra was rehearsing at the Howard house a few years ago, her daughter was on YouTube and came across a salsa band, turned to Howard and said, “Boys can play salsa too!”

As for her future goals in terms of leading her own band or recording her own songs, Howard said those aspirations remain a bit over the horizon.

“Sometimes I hear music in my head, and I think it would be fun to write it down, but to be honest I just want to be part of the music; it doesn’t have to be mine.

“I haven’t composed a lot; I’m too busy practicing trumpet; it’s a lot of work just to keep in shape and get better—it’s hours and hours.

“With the variety of gigs and bands I do, I feel like I’m wearing a lot of hats. I have goals so I’m trying to get better. I’m not yet where I want to be, but I don’t know if anyone ever is completely; that’s the journey.

“I haven’t had a super strong drive to be an original artist. I’m going to keep getting better on improvising. I want to get to that place where you can close your eyes and just be there with other really good players.”

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