Artist Profile: Swing time with trumpeter Frank Kuhl

Baltimore native Frank Kuhl, 69, has fond childhood memories of lots of singing, mostly in church, and of playing harmonica in a school concert (not very well, he says). He didn’t start playing trumpet seriously until his post-college years.

Kuhl performs with the Swing Connection Big Band in an April Fools’ Day concert at First Baptist Church. Here’s more about him.

Question: Who has encouraged you in your musical career?

Answer: My parents were very supportive toward my brothers and me. They saw to it that we each took piano lessons and we responded with varying degrees of enthusiasm. I’m afraid I was dead last in that department.

Nevertheless, our piano teacher, Bob Busick, was a true inspiration. Always dressed in a shirt and tie, his teaching style reflected the respect and pride he had for his craft. Today, I’m a better teacher myself because I learned early on from him that your most important credential is sincerity.

Q: Where did you go to school?

A: Mom and Dad realized the options an education would afford and loved me enough to allow me to make difficult choices, sometimes patently wrong ones. One such questionable choice I made was to attend a boys’ boarding school at age 13. It was also Catholic and located in northwest Pennsylvania. I subsequently lived there for more than 10 months each year for the duration of my high school and some of my college years.

Turns out the school not only had a band, but in those days if a school was Catholic, it meant there was music in the liturgies, lots of it.

Now, our school band director was first-rate, though his musical preferences were quite limited. Jazz and most popular music was off-limits. Talk about reverse psychology: He couldn’t have motivated me any more in that direction had he tried.

Q: And later on?

A: My college years in Philadelphia were kind of a musical blind spot.

Music wasn’t so much a career choice or a meal ticket but because I simply liked learning other stuff. When I finally had a couple of parchments from schools in the U.S. and Canada, and some income to go with it, I promised myself I’d pursue music on my own terms.

I did manage to take occasional lessons during my days in Philadelphia, and keep singing and doing some acting in school and church functions.

I finally started playing trumpet regularly again once I’d settled in Toronto, Ontario – a musical mecca at the time. There were amazing opportunities to study music and perform in that city, as well as outstanding teachers.

I’d earned a teaching degree in grad school that was helping to pay bills, but I was certain that being a full-time band director in the school system just wouldn’t be a good fit for me. It takes a special breed of person to work with large groups of instrumental music students day in and day out.

Q: When did you start thinking about teaching as a career?

A: Taking lessons with everyone whose playing I admired was a great experience (both for the positives and the negatives). Sometimes, great trumpet players came with marginal teaching skills. More often than not, you’d take away some information that was peripheral to playing your instrument, but it might be an aspect you’d never considered before, a business strategy, an example of repertoire, etc.

Sometimes it’s surprising what stays with you. I had started teaching privately myself and right away I knew it was something I would always do.

Q: What was one of your “big breaks?”

A: Almost every musical opportunity I’ve ever had came by way of audition, and though I didn’t know it at the time there was another difficult choice coming. This one took me to Las Vegas. In those days, the strip (as it was known) was like a university for musicians.

Playing shows daily was a grind, but I saw and supported some of the greatest entertainers in the world. The lessons and the teaching also continued.

Many of people I studied with had degrees, many others did not, but that mattered little. I’d left my comfortable little niche in Toronto for glitter city, but it turned out to be one of the most valuable experiences of my life.

My career in Vegas was short-lived but savory, only a couple years in the1970s. There were also some setbacks, but everyone has those and it’s how you handle them that defines you.

Q: What have you been doing in recent years?

A: When my wife, Bonnie, and I moved here after she retired, by some small coincidence there was the Bellingham Alumni Band auditioning directors. Long story short, it’s been a very productive association.

Another association I cherish is the high school, Explorations Academy, where I’ve been teaching math for almost as long as the 10 years I’ve lived here.

There’s a special place in my heart for the students of all ages whom I offer music lessons or tutor privately. Bellingham is a town with an open mind, not afraid to think, and I hope I’ve contributed to it in some small way that has made it better.