Passion and discipline: how Rex Richardson masters the trumpet

Rex Richardson could not shake his cough all summer. No matter where he went—a residency in France, a jazz club in Austria, a festival in Spain—he wrestled with a respiratory ailment that was fighting for center stage. Not an ideal scenario for a trumpet player.

“After 25 years of touring, it’s the first time I’ve ever been sick overseas,” says Richardson.

Yet, he played on.

Richardson’s summer itinerary was packed—he couldn’t afford to bow out. In early May, he wrapped up final exams and boarded a flight to France the next day. By the end of the month he was in Vienna, Austria, for a weeklong engagement at the oldest jazz club in Europe: Jazzland.

“Then I was home for three weeks,” says Richardson. “I was very happy about that, because then I had to go to the Interlochen Trumpet Institute in Michigan.”

The rest of his summer saw him bouncing around Europe, from the Blekinge International Brass Academy in Karlskrona, Sweden, to a flurry of engagements as a featured soloist at Spanish, Italian and Finnish festivals. In August, he left Europe for one more festival in South Korea, only to return to Richmond just days before classes began.

Being back home doesn’t mean Richardson slows down. As a professor of trumpet and jazz studies at VCUarts Music, he juggles teaching and touring on a weekly basis. But it never affects his lessons with students or diminishes his own musical mastery. He loves working with trumpet players whether they’re still in school or have decades of experience on their backs. As a professor, he isn’t a lecturer—he focuses his teaching on private lessons and trumpet studios. Being able to tailor his advice to individual students helps him recognize budding talent in his pupils, and identify where they need to improve as performers and professionals.

“Almost every kid—out of pure necessity—gets the lesson: ‘Here’s how you organize your life and your work,’” he says.

Richardson draws from personal experience for these lessons. He keeps an aggressive practice regimen, even squeezing in rehearsals on the plane (using a practice mute.) He also relies on a planning notebook and a repertoire of songs he knows by heart. This lets him plan ahead to determine which songs take longer to learn, and how to budget his practice time accordingly. It’s the secret to how he manages such a prolific rate of work without collapsing.

“When I see a kid who seems to have passion and a certain degree of discipline,” he says, “it gets me excited because I see the same qualities that I’m exposed to with professional players.”

Students must be diligent as they learn the trumpet—mastering the instrument is a delicate art. Without proper instruction, a performer can seriously injure themselves. Neglect a warmup or play too hard too soon, says Richardson, and a trumpet player can end up with an aneurism, a hernia, nerve damage or even a broken rib.

“We have all these athletic factors to consider that other instruments may not have to worry about quite as much,” he says.

Stick with the trumpet, though, and it offers a lot of flexibility—and not just in day-to-day scheduling. Richardson can just as skillfully fire off blistering jazz solos as he can dutifully interpret classical concertos.

As much as he plays the trumpet day in and day out, it’s a wonder he’s never grown bored with the instrument.

“I was into music from the time I was a little kid,” says Richardson. “I’ve had a fair amount of success doing this, but it’s never been too easy. It’s never so easy that it gets boring. I still feel like a little kid when I play.”