NEW CASTLE —
Josh Kauffman isn’t one to toot his own horn.
Well, actually, he is. The 2012 Neshannock High graduate plays the trumpet, a talent that already has earned him a lengthy resume of accomplishments.
For example, he played principal trumpet for three years in the Youngstown Symphony Orchestra and, as a high school senior was the lead trumpter in for the Pennsylvania All-State Jazz Ensemble, ranking him as the No. 1 performer in the state and among the top 50 in the country.
However, if he were going to brag about anything these days, it likely would be that his rising star is about to become a Lone Star.
After a year studying with his mentor, Dr. Stephen Hawk, at Slippery Rock University, Kauffman is headed next month for the University of North Texas, home since 1946 to one of the nation’s premier jazz studies programs. The school was the first in the U.S. to offer a degree program in the field.
“Since I was a freshman in high school, I always dreamed of going there, but never thought I’d be good enough,” said Kauffman, who also has his own jazz band, the Aristocrats, and has played in various community groups. “But I thought, ‘what would it hurt to send down a tape,’ so I did and it was just a couple of days later that I heard back from them.
“Then I got a post on Facebook from Steve Wiest, who is the legenday leader of the One O’Clock Lab Band that said “Welcome to jazz paradise. Looking forward to seeing you here.”
Wiest, by the way, is a former lead tombone player and arranger with Maynard Ferguson. He has been director of the One O’Clock Lab Band since 2009, and in his first year, the group was nominated for two Grammy Awards.
Although Kauffman had looked forward to attending SRU and studying with Hawk, it didn’t take him long to discover that the school may not be a perfect fit for him.
In his first-semester musicianship skills class, his instructor pulled him aside one day and told him, “I can tell by the way you act in class, the product you produce with very little effort, that you’re ready to move on. Have you ever thought of a bigger school? What you’re looking for isn’t here, it’s someplace else.”
That conversation planted the seed, which then sprouted during a trip to New York City to perform with the university jazz ensemble.
“That was the real eye opener,” Kauffman said. “We played two or three concerts a day, and it was very wearing on me. I really felt like a road trumpeter.
“There are different approaches to playing trumpet, and the way I learned from Dr. Hawk was a very physical approach. And to play first trumpet in a jazz ensemble, with all those high notes and everything, that was very tasking. The mouthpiece I was using required a lot of muscle movement and effort, and I would get so tired I was beginning to hurt myself.”
However, in talking to other trumpeters in New York, Kauffman learned about “lead trumpet mouthpieces,” which are smaller and optimize efficiency, particularly in the commercial arena.
“And that’s what I want to do — record, play commercially, freelance,” Kauffman said. “I tried it and I loved it, so I bought it.”
Kauffman said his development took off after the change, “but I wasn’t going to fit in at Slippery Rock because I wasn’t playing like everyone else.”
That’s when he knocked on the door of North Texas — perhaps best known to Steelers fans as the alma mater of “Mean” Joe Greene — and was ushered in.
The university, located in Denton, Texas, is the farthest Kauffman ever will have been from home, but he’s no intention of leaving Lawrence County behind.
“There are so many teachers in New Castle who have made a significant impact in helping me get to Texas,” he said.
Among them are Tom Schaffner, who persisted in steering Kauffman toward the trumpet in elementary school when Kauffman felt he’d rather play the sax.
He also credits playing in the Red Coat Band under the direction of former New Castle High band director Dr. Thomas Zumpella with advancing his sight-reading skills.
“I was in eighth grade, playing second trumpet, and I couldn’t play any of those pieces,” he recalled. “Those Italian marches, they’re complicated, the rhythms — I didn’t think I could ever do it. But now I’m playing solo trumpet next to guys like Jesse Croach and Chris Masi (both former high school band directors and respected trumpet players).
“So if I had to give anyone any advice, it would be the Red Coat Band. If you can sight read that stuff, you can sight read anything.”
It is Kauffman’s hope to one day return to New Castle and help raise money for public school band programs.
“Any musician, no matter who you are, we all started at some small high schools with a band director or a music teacher who just did what they’d done for 20 or 30 years,” he said.
“Without those people, we wouldn’t have any of the musicians we have today.”
NEW CASTLE —
Josh Kauffman isn’t one to toot his own horn.
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