Sam Wolsk ’15 is an instrumentalist, composer, and combo leader who has played the trumpet for the Studio Band since his freshman year. Aside from being the trumpet section leader in Studio Band, he is a member of various regional and all-state ensembles—including one at the University of the Arts and the Philadelphia Jazz Orchestra—and was accepted into the national band for high schoolers—the GRAMMY Band—which is based out of Los Angeles. In addition, last year Wolsk won a composition contest sponsored by Downbeat, a jazz magazine, for an original composition. He plans to continue playing the trumpet through college at Northwestern University, where he will pursue a dual degree in music and engineering.
What inspired you to choose the trumpet?
In third grade, everyone started [playing] instruments, and my mom had played the trumpet, so when I got the sheet, she said “you should play the trumpet so I can help you with it” … I didn’t know anything about the instrument when I started.
Who has encouraged you to practice throughout your trumpet career?
My mom would usually make me practice in elementary school … she had her own trumpet, a professional trumpet from 1980, and she would play duets with me, and that was good for me. Before I started motivating myself, she was definitely the reason I did not quit.
What inspired you to start composing? How has this interest taken off since?
In sixth or seventh grade, I wanted to start making duets for my mom and me to play together. I found that Finale, the biggest online composing software, lets you make sheet music. And I realized Finale has a playback feature, which lets you listen to what you wrote, and I [became] very interested in that. After I wrote the duets, I realized I could write a rock band chart with a piano, bass, and drums, [and I experimented] with that. When I started doing jazz band in the high school, I began getting interested in big band composing—what I am still doing now. I never took a class, but I did do a lot of research. I [studied] jazz scores, watched videos, and looked at master classes online. It is not as … regular as trumpet, but composing has always been a hobby. If I am inspired to write a certain piece and want it completed by a certain date, I will work very hard on it.
How did you prepare a piece for the Downbeat composition contest?
I didn’t know about [Downbeat] until a month before I submitted my piece. I had composed a piece, but I was planning to submit it to the Berklee Jazz Festival composition contest, [whose deadline] was only a week [after Downbeat’s]. I found out [about Downbeat] from Joe Bell [’16] … a few weeks before and had the piece ready a week before the Downbeat deadline came around, so I just ended up submitting to both. I did not think I had much of a chance of winning [the contest] because everyone from across the county submitted. Five months later, May 1, I found out I won. I was very surprised and it made me really happy.
What interested you about the Grammy Band?
I was selected for the Grammy Band [in late November]. It is the national band; they play at the Grammys and record at Capitol Studios. I had known about the Grammy Band … since my sophomore year when I started coming across some videos [of them]. I heard some people auditioning and heard the actual band, and I was astounded by both the band and the individual musicians who made it themselves. I looked at all the trumpets too and they were just fantastic; I couldn’t imagine being as good as them, but I wanted to make that my goal. In my sophomore year, I practiced a lot, not just for Grammy band, but to get [better]. At the end of that year, I thought I had a shot of making it next year. That summer, I … practiced a lot. I auditioned my junior year, and I was pretty happy with my audition. Just two days after I submitted my audition, this other guy who was a senior posted his lead trumpet audition, and his was just amazing. I knew I didn’t have a chance. I was a little disappointed about that, but it motivated me to make a really good audition the next year. Last summer, I practiced a lot and prepared all my pieces really well for the audition. While I was happy to submit the audition, it was not my best audition. A month later, I got a call that said that I made it.
What do you like about combos? How do you practice in a combo?
[Last] May, [several members of Jazz Ensemble and Studio Band] started Minor Blue, a jazz combo. Starting in May, we played a few regular gigs. We played in the library a couple of times and at Café Improv twice, [and at] house parties. It was a really good experience for me. I was selected this year [for the combo that competes at Berklee], and I was excited about that because I thought the combo sounded very good last year. I was excited to be a part of it and do something different than lead playing because I also like playing in a combo. The preparation for that is definitely different because the main focus is improvisation, whereas in a big band, the main focus is playing your part as best as you can. The best way for me to practice for Studio Band is doing range exercises and [trying] to apply that to my part where it is difficult. Whereas for combo, soloing over chord changes is the best way for me to practice. It requires a lot of rehearsal too, but it is a different kind of rehearsal.