2017 School of Music Distinguished Alumnus Alex Jokipii has held the position of Principal Trumpet with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra for nearly two decades. In addition, he has appeared as a soloist on countless occasions, and he has performed as a guest Principal Trumpet with numerous world-class symphonies and orchestras. But according to Alex, his success was far from instant.
In our interview with Alex, he touches on the struggles of totally reinventing the way he played trumpet when he arrived at WMU in 1988. He also talks about learning harsh lessons of time management and hard work, and he discusses how persistence played a part in breaking through as a professional (Mary Brodbeck, 2017 Frostic School of Art Distinguished Alumna, also asserts that persistence is the key to success as an artist. We're noticing a theme here...).
Learn what - and who - contributed to Alex's great success as a musician in his responses below.
How did you get start as a trumpeter?
I got my start as a trumpeter like most students in the Escanaba, Michigan school system. I signed up for band in the summer before 6th grade. My parents wanted me to try band and they didn’t care what instrument I chose as long as it wasn’t the drums. I ended up choosing the trumpet because we had an instrument at the house from my mother’s high school band days.
Let's look back at your college experience. How did you decide to attend Western Michigan University's School of Music?
My decision to come to WMU was based on a couple of factors. First of all, I was lucky enough to get into the School of Music as a music education major. Secondly, I was fortunate enough to have received a substantial academic scholarship separate from the School of Music. The School of Music’s excellent reputation meant that is was always on my short-list for potential schools, and when I found out that I was getting that academic scholarship, my decision was an easy one.
Who was your favorite instructor at WMU? How did they shape your career and contribute to your success?
Without a doubt, Dr. Stephen Jones and Scott Thornburg were my favorite instructors at WMU. I’m sure that just about every music student will tell you that their private teachers were the most important mentors that they had while in college. The instruction I received from Dr. Jones and Scott Thornburg continues to shape my career today.
I can honestly say that Dr. Jones truly taught me how to play the trumpet. I needed to do a major embouchure change when I got to WMU as freshman, and he guided me through the long and arduous process of reinventing the way I played the trumpet. His guidance and this trying experience continue to impact my teaching on an almost daily basis.
Scott Thornburg is responsible for giving my some of my first professional experiences. He was kind enough to have me sub in the Kalamazoo Symphony when I was nearing the end of my undergraduate career, and he also allowed me to join him at the Bayview Music Festival in Petoskey. Playing alongside Scott in the festival brass quintet and orchestra were profound experiences that taught me what is expected of a professional, working musician. These are lessons that I take to work with me every single day.
What is your favorite memory from your time in WMU's School of Music?
I have so many very fond memories from my time at Western, it’s difficult to pick a “favorite.” I do look back on a trip that the University Jazz Orchestra took to Carnegie Hall as one of the highlights of my time in the School of Music. Since then, I’ve performed in Carnegie numerous times with various groups, but the trip with the Jazz Orchestra was my first performance there. I’m sure that just about any musician that has been lucky enough to perform there will tell you that the first time onstage in Carnegie is a very special experience.
Like most of the graduate trumpet students at Juilliard, I was taking every single audition that I could. I finally broke through in the Charleston (South Carolina) Symphony’s Principal Trumpet audition in 1996. I continued to take many auditions while I was playing in Charleston, and I was lucky enough to be offered the Principal Trumpet position with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra (BPO) in 1998.
What tips would you give to current students and graduating seniors as they prepare to enter the "real world?"
I tell my students at SUNY Fredonia all the time that I feel there is always room in the music business for more great players. If you are committed to making sure that you are in the top 5% of your field or instrument, you will find work. If you are persistent, committed, and strive to perform at a consistently high level, a career in the performing arts is within reach.
What do you wish you had known when you were a freshman at WMU?
I wish that I had realized what a huge role time management plays in being a successful music student. It took me quite some time to figure out that you can’t “cram” for a trumpet lesson. Once I figured out that learning to play an instrument at a high level requires thoughtful, consistent practice, I got so much more out of my lessons. Dr. Jones probably wished he didn’t have to sit through some of those early lessons...
You've accomplished so much in your musical career. What are you most proud of?
I think that I’m most proud of the fact that I’m still striving to improve 20 years into my orchestral career. I feel more comfortable in my position each and every day, which allows me to take more musical risks during performances. This affords me the opportunity to lead my colleagues in the brass section of the BPO by example.
I’m also very proud of my part in adding to the solo trumpet repertoire. I will be performing the world premiere of Jaakko Kuusisto’s “Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra” in November, and I will also be playing this Concerto with the University Orchestra in February. I’m really excited and proud to be able to share the second performance of the piece with the WMU School of Music.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one other thing that makes me extremely proud. Nothing makes me happier than when one of my former students gets into a prestigious music school or wins an audition. I also take particular pride when a former student reaches the level to where they can sub in the trumpet section of the BPO. There is no greater thrill than to have a former student become a colleague.
What does a typical day in your life look like?
A typical work day for me consists of about 1-1 ½ hours of practice prior to going to a morning BPO rehearsal. Depending on the concert schedule, the BPO may have an afternoon rehearsal or an evening performance. On non-concert days, I typically teach in the afternoon. I teach one day per week at SUNY Fredonia, and I maintain an active studio at my home as well. Throughout the day I tend to sprinkle in additional practice time depending on what I’m getting ready for.
On off days, I enjoy golf, travelling with my wife Shari, and going to Buffalo Sabres hockey games.
What is your favorite genre of music to listen to?
When I’m listening to music for pure relaxation, I usually listen to Classic Rock or Jazz. I get my fill of orchestral music at work and preparing for work.
What is your favorite part of your job?
My favorite part of my job is when I get to play a masterwork of the late romantic or early 20th century with the outstanding brass section of the BPO. Collectively, we always strive to perform on a very high level, and working with my colleagues to achieve this is a great part of my job.
The WMU College of Fine Arts has deemed this year "a time for the arts." Why do you think now is a time for music? What is the role and importance of music in society, politics or public discourse?
In my opinion, music is something that makes people whole. At his time of division and unrest in society, music can play a significant role in bringing people together. Music is truly a universal language and a thread that can tie all people together.
Alex Jokipii has held the position of Principal Trumpet with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra since 1998. A native of Escanaba, Michigan, Jokipii’s earliest training in music began at the age of 11 when he took his first lessons on the B-flat trumpet his mother had kept from her days in the high school band. Alex began his advanced musical studies at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Michigan, majoring in trumpet and music education. As part of his undergraduate curriculum Alex enrolled at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, Finland, where he studied for a year with Timofei Dokschitzer, the celebrated Principal Trumpet of the Bolshoi Theater Orchestra.
After returning from his European study and travel, Mr. Jokipii completed his studies at WMU with a bachelor’s degree in music education. Jokipii was awarded a master of music degree in trumpet performance from the Juilliard School of Music and began to pursue his doctor of musical arts degree. Prior to being awarded his DMA, he won the position of Principal Trumpet with the Charleston (South Carolina) Symphony Orchestra. During that time he also performed with the Spoleto Festival Brass Quintet and the Charleston Brass Quintet and served on the performance faculty of Charleston Southern University as adjunct professor of trumpet.
Mr. Jokipii has appeared as a soloist and the 1992 and 1994 International Trumpet Guild Conferences. He also has appeared on numerous occasions as a soloist with the Buffalo Philharmonic performing Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2, Arutunian’s Concerto, Haydn’s Concerto, the Concerto for Trumpet, Piano, and Strings by Shostakovich, and Copland’s Quiet City. Away from the BPO, Alex has appeared as a soloist with the Ars Nova Chamber Musicians, the Amherst Symphony, and the SUNY Fredonia Wind Ensemble. Mr. Jokipii recorded the Jerzy Sapieyevski Mercury Concerto for Trumpet and Wind Orchestra with the SUNY Fredonia Wind Ensemble and this recording is available on Albany records. In November 2017 Mr. Jokipii will be performing the world premier of a trumpet concerto by Finnish composer Jaakko Kuusisto. The new addition to the solo trumpet repertoire is being commissioned by John and Pauline Kiltinen and written for Mr. Jokipii. The concerto will also be performed and recorded by the Buffalo Philharmonic in May of 2018.
Internationally, Mr. Jokipii has appeared in master classes and recitals in Krakow, Bydgoszcz, and Walbrzych, Poland with fellow BPO brass principals Jacek Muzyk and Jonathan Lombardo. Alex was also the featured soloist with the West Bend (Wisconsin) Orchestra on their tour of Scotland in the spring of 2009.
Additionally, Jokipii has performed as a guest Principal Trumpet with the Dallas Symphony, the Florida Orchestra, and the Aspen Festival Orchestra. He has also performed with the New York Philharmonic, the Helsinki Philharmonic, the Savannah Symphony, and the Rochester Philharmonic. After a nation wide search in 1998, Jokipii was awarded the position of Principal Trumpet with the Buffalo Philharmonic. In addition to playing with the BPO and teaching privately, Jokipii is also on the performance faculty at the State University of New York at Fredonia. In his spare time Alex enjoys playing golf and traveling with his wife Shari.
In honor of Western Michigan University's annual homecoming festivities, the We Will Reign series celebrates and highlights the successes of College of Fine Arts distinguished alumni.