Greg Spence is one of Australia’s leading commercial trumpet players. He plays lead trumpet on Dancing with the Stars Australia and has toured with international multi-instrumentalist James Morrison. But he’s also one of the most charming and humble musicians you’ll meet.
Greg started to play the cornet at age 13 in the local brass band after hearing the bagpipes as a child. ‘I said, gee that sounds cool and my dad said there is no way you are going to play the bagpipes!’ Greg took to the instrument easily and progressed quickly in the local brass band. In his teenage years, one sleepless night, Greg turned on the radio and by chance, heard Maynard Ferguson’s Fireshaker. From that moment he decided that the cornet was going out in favour of jazz trumpet.
Greg is well in demand as a session player in Melbourne. His recent work has seen him called to all sorts of gigs from backing Olivia Newton John to playing on the advert for a new Hyundai car and leading the trumpet section at the Logie awards, Australia’s television industry ceremony. It’s an interesting life as a commercial trumpet player, as you have to be ready for any gig that presents itself. Television work for something like the Logie awards for example can often involve playing material that hasn’t been rehearsed at all. The band preparation for this particular job involves a lot of sitting around waiting for camera and lighting people to do their work instead of rehearsing. Greg says this kind of playing life, where he has the opportunity to do many different types of work suits him the best. Aside from shows that only run for a couple of weeks at a time and the occasional work as a dep, he avoids musical theatre. ‘The idea of sitting down and doing eight weeks in the theatre just does not thrill me one bit.’
Greg says, however, that even more than the amazing playing opportunities he has been given in his career, teaching is the facet of his work that he finds the most rewarding. His website mysterytomastery.com has become an international success, gaining the approval of several big trumpet names, including Wayne Bergeron, Allen Vizzutti and Eric Miyashiro who have all lent it their endorsements. ‘If I never played another gig, it actually wouldn’t worry me. I’ve done some amazing things. Where my future lies is in imparting knowledge and helping players that are struggling.’ Greg’s approach to teaching the trumpet is based on problems that he encountered while learning that lasted well into his professional career. He is now able to recognise these problems in others, having run into them himself for so many years. Greg’s method advocates the use of ‘wind products’, tools which enable players to experience and develop new sensations away from the instrument and then incorporate those feelings over time into their normal playing habits. Greg says that bad habits on the trumpet stem from misunderstanding the physics behind how the instrument works and how sound is created. ‘There are innate traps that only the lucky few avoid when beginning their trumpet playing. Overblowing and lip pinching are the primary problems I see in 99% of my students.’ Greg teaches all kinds of different students from all over the world on skype, including beginners, professionals and even comeback players as old as 87. ‘There’s nothing more satisfying than imparting knowledge that I’ve learnt and sharing it with someone and seeing them get benefits from it.’
Greg’s advice to young musicians is to play at every opportunity, not to be afraid of sharing your music with others and to be proud of what you do. ‘Understand that there’s always someone better than you, so leave the ego at the door. Be honest and true to the music, dedicate yourself and be as good as you can be.’
Greg also advises not to place too much importance on nerves. He recalls a story of depping for a production of Jesus Christ Super Star where the ensemble didn’t get any rehearsal time. ‘You’re out there in front of 20, 000 people and it’s just sheer terror. You just have to back yourself and play to the best of your ability. Wherever you get to with your playing, you’re there for a reason.’ Greg recounts another occasion where he had to play the Penny Lane piccolo trumpet solo on stage at a much faster tempo than the original, off a hand written chart in the wrong key. Turning to the trombone player next to him, he said ‘it’s just a matter of how bad this is going to be!’. It was a disaster, but Greg recalls how the experience was empowering in helping him to come to terms with nerves during performances, because the situation was completely out of his control. ‘At the end of the day, we’re just playing trumpet, we’re not saving lives!’
Key to success as a freelance musician relies on personality as well as playing ability. Flexibility and willingness to attempt anything without an ego are qualities that Greg looks for when hiring a musician. Different gigs require different levels of reading, improvising and even sitting around so anyone who’s difficult to get along with doesn’t get booked. ‘I’d always book a player who is genuinely interested in the gig, who may be a lesser player than some gun who has amazing chops and thinks they’re too good for it.’
I had the pleasure of meeting Greg in May 2015 on his European tour. To find out more about his revolutionary teaching methods, head over to http://www.mysterytomastery.com.