USC trumpet quintet wins nationals

Photo of USC Trumpet Quintet holding up the "Fight on" sign while holding trumpets.
The USC Trumpet Quintet, comprised of Imani Duhe, Amy Millesen, Jessica Farmer and Benjamin Gunnarson and Talitha Duckworth, clinched first place at the National Trumpet Competition. (USC Trumpet Quintet)

Watching the USC trumpet quintet perform, it’s easy to see how they won the National Trumpet Competition. Their magnetic camaraderie comes through in their performance. They move in sync and the song flows out of their trumpets like it’s as natural as breathing for them. They have an enthusiasm unmatched by any of the other performers, and their love shines through in each note.

The quintet, made up of four graduate students studying trumpet performance — Imani Duhe, Amy Millesen, Jessica Farmer and Benjamin Gunnarson — and Talitha Duckworth, a sophomore majoring in trumpet performance,  won the NTC small ensemble division March 27 — competing against University of Colorado, Boulder and the University of North Texas, both extremely strong programs with rigorous practice schedules. 

In their approach, the USC quintet focused on building up its fundamentals and were self-motivated to practice whenever possible. They picked a standard trumpet ensemble piece to perform, “Cityscapes” by Erik Morales, but they put their own spin on it by making sure it was fun and unique.

“We were thinking about ways that we could go and make a statement for how we are and how we interact with each other as not just colleagues in the field of music, but also as friends,” Duhe said.

The quintet did choreography as part of its performance, with the players moving smoothly around each other as they transitioned between solos — even getting the audience to clap along. Gunnarson said the competition is notoriously serious and stuffy, so the members of the quintet believed they brought a much-needed note of gaiety to the occasion. 

“While it may not have been a perfect performance, it was still so much fun,” Farmer said. “And I think that’s what really, really set us apart from the other two groups in the finals.”

Technical perfection is only one aspect of a great performance, and it’s evident that the judges saw the overarching greatness of the quintet’s show with enthusiasm and plain old fun showcased alongside technical skill. 

“While [the other groups] got really technically good at [their pieces], I think the fact that we hadn’t touched ours as much kept it really fresh,” Gunnarson said. “We were always able to go in and have a really unique perspective on how we want to play it, and the energy that we wanted to use to play it.”

The group’s entry into the show wasn’t very planned out, Gunnarson said. It was a bit spontaneous, and their joy at being picked for the competition shined through in their performances. It was win after win for them, and as they progressed they felt they had nothing to lose, as they hadn’t expected to make it as far as they did. Rather than getting more nervous with every performance, they instead grew more willing to simply be themselves and let their talent and love for trumpet music shine through, Duhe said.

The quintet advanced from 40 groups in the first live round to eight groups in the semi-final round to three groups in the finals. Knowing they were at least going to place once they reached the final round, they were able to just focus on playing good trumpet and having fun.

“It felt like we had nothing to lose,” Millesen said. “Even though we sort of approached the whole competition like that, it was prominent at a whole different level when we were playing in finals.”

They played with enthusiasm and vitality, and their performance of the standard trumpet piece impressed its composer Erik Morales, who posted on Facebook that it was “the best live performance to date of his work”. The national recognition of their achievement is not just for the players, who have all received more opportunities and auditions since the performance, but also for the University. 

Many aspiring trumpet players look to the NTC when deciding where to go to college, according to Gunnarson and Farmer, and with USC winning this year, they expect applications to rise next admissions season.

The NTC was also an opportunity for the quintet to make connections within the national trumpet community through master classes taught by professional players and meeting other students and professors.

“One of the things I learned was that trumpet players are really cool,” Gunnarson said. “In today’s generation of up and coming trumpet players and pros that were there, everybody was so nice. … Very friendly, very congratulatory and I was very glad to see that.”