We all love a good story. From software engineering to soloist at Carnegie Hall, trumpeter Bob Wagner also plays the ultimate Renaissance man.
By Rachel Watkins
It’s rather apropos that trumpeter, bandleader, and speaker Bob Wagner has both a music and technology background—given it was YouTube that led to one of his most pivotal career moments to date. When he uploaded a video of himself performing the piccolo solo for the Beatles’ “Penny Lane,” little did he know that he would wind up playing with Beatlemania Now and then take his solo all the way to Carnegie Hall with the Liverpool Legends.
Not only was it a momentous performance at Carnegie, it merely cemented Bob’s decision to take his passion for music to a full-time endeavor. With an electrical engineering and music degree from Lehigh University, Bob spent 20 years serving both masters—that is, until 2011, when he said sayonara to the software world.
We recently spoke with the Philadelphia-based multitalented freelance musician, as he is in the final throes of wrapping his latest venture—a solo recording, which debuts in January 2018. But, what we discovered is that no matter what he’s working on, it’s truly about pursuing artistry at the highest level for Bob—and that’s what guides his every move.
Here’s what else he had to say.
You really are quite the modern Renaissance man—music and band-leading, writing, inspirational speaking and lectures, electrical engineering. What don’t you do?!
Haha, well, that was a big part of what I had to figure out over the years! Anything I do, I try to do to the best of my ability—and that takes time. But, it’s also so fulfilling. It does make it difficult, though, to find enough equal time for it all. I really liked engineering for a while, but the thing is that it didn’t really sustain me at the end of the day. When I decided to choose music full-time, I was really able to focus on what I love. I’m no longer bogged down by competing priorities that I’m less passionate about.
What do you credit for your eclectic talents and interests?
My parents played a huge role, for sure. My dad graduated with a liberal arts degree and was a teacher in the Catholic school system and also a football coach. My ability to speak and to motivate came from him—his stories; seeing how his students and players responded to him; and his great ability to inspire. My mom always had a real passion to solve problems and to be a fierce advocate for others. She certainly fostered that sense of living life passionately in me.
" I’ve found that the truly great musicians who are at the top of their game are very welcoming and open to supporting fellow musicians and players. "
How did you originally get into music?
I started in 4th grade with the trumpet—way back in elementary school! I enjoyed it and I had a good time with it—mainly because it was “cool” to be a trumpet player. So, that cool factor got me through the beginning stages of practicing… ha! But, as I grew up and improved, I started to listen to more musical influences and appreciate the music itself more.
When did you know that music was your thing?
Well, with four years of braces in high school, my abilities on the trumpet stalled and it was just natural to continue pursuing engineering while keeping music fun. I didn’t see it as a career possibility at all. But, when I got to Lehigh to study engineering, I still became involved with the music department, and it was then that I knew music would have deeper meaning.
Most memorable performance thus far?
Well, every performance is special in its own ways. But, my solo piccolo performance of “Penny Lane” at Carnegie Hall was just surreal. I still get chills thinking about how it developed; it was a life-changing experience. It just goes to show that we never understand what moments in life may have bigger meaning—just like that random video I uploaded to YouTube. And, for such a moment to happen so soon after I chose to pursue music in a full-time capacity, well, it very much validated that decision.
"The Gershwin never constricts; everything expands and contracts with breathing while playing the trumpet. "
How do you get ready for a big show?
I don’t really have a set pre-gig ritual. For that Carnegie Hall performance—to help manage butterflies—I made up a photo collage of people that are near and dear to me and I put it in my pocket jacket along with small physical mementos. My wife, Gail, plays euphonium and I had a euphonium pin inside my jacket, too. It was really about staying mindful of the people in my life who are important to me and who would love me whether I missed a note or not. After all, Louis Armstrong could light up a room because he was playing for someone he loves.
Who has been most influential in your career?
Really, it has been an assortment of people! My wife has a music performance degree, but she works full time and has always played the euphonium on the side. She knows how hard it is to build and maintain a full-time career in music—and her support has been unwavering. Musically, I was so inspired by my teachers at Lehigh. They instilled a great passion and love for creating great music—they didn’t dumb down the music education for us, despite the engineering prominence among the student body.
What inspires you?
I try to listen to and interact with as many great musicians as possible. I’ve found that the truly great musicians who are at the top of their game are very welcoming and open to supporting fellow musicians and players.
Tell us more about the solo recording that you are working on and what inspired it?
I’m really excited about this! I’ve done other projects with my band, but this is my debut solo recording. It features the music of Claude Bolling and some terrific musicians. The piece was written for a jazz trio and a classical soloist—so there’s that crossover appeal. It’s a very challenging project, but it encapsulates the things I’ve done over my career and it represents the best of what I’ve got in this moment. We’re planning a release date of January 2018, and I’ll have details up on my website at bwtrumpet.com.
What else is up next for you?
This fall, I have a pretty full calendar. Polkadelphia is a band I play with; it’s a three- to five-piece group, and we play classic polka and traditional tunes, but we may also throw in covers from Radiohead, Metallica and the Beatles. It’s fun! So, we just wrapped up an Oktoberfest event in Pennsylvania, and we have a few more gigs on the calendar later this fall. For the holiday season, I’m putting together at 14-piece brass group for Christmas music.
How did you find out about Coregami?
Well, I saw a post on Facebook about Coregami; it was a Violinist.com magazine feature I think. Regardless, I immediately recognized the value of what he had designed. I’m 6’4” and 260 pounds; I’m a big guy and clothing simply doesn’t fit me. Plus, I have a long torso. You need a shirt that moves with you and that expands as you breathe. You need clothing that helps you perform. So, I was hooked as soon as I saw the Coregami premise. But, I wasn’t sure if Coregami would be offering something for someone of my size. So, I reached out to they through the website. And, they expanded their sizes as a result! I have so much respect for that. He understands the mission and how to provide great customer service.
What’s your favorite quality about the Gershwin shirt?
I really love the fabric and the way it fits. Whenever I lifted my arms to play the trumpet in a non-Coregami shirt, I was either constrained or the shirt would untuck in the back. But, the Gershwin never constricts; everything expands and contracts with breathing while playing the trumpet. It’s so comfortable; it actually removes the impediments to performance.
About Bob Wagner
As a full-time musician, Bob maintains an active schedule as a freelance trumpet performer, arranger, bandleader, and musical contractor based in the Philadelphia, PA area. He serves as leader and musical director of the Jump City Jazz Orchestra and the Hickory Brass.
As a touring artist, Bob has appeared as a trumpet soloist with various classical, jazz, R&B & theatrical organizations throughout the country. His talents have carried him to solo performances at some of the nation's most prestigious concert halls including Strathmore (MD), Disney Hall (LA), and Carnegie Hall (NYC).
Most recently, Bob has performed as trumpet soloist, arranger, musical director, and contractor with touring productions of "The Gene Krupa Story" and "Beatlemania Now" where he has faithfully recreated iconic solos by the legendary trumpeters Roy Eldridge and David Mason.
With his unique professional background, Bob also serves as an inspirational speaker and clinician in secondary, collegiate and professional settings covering a broad range topics including business (music and other industries), social media, motivational and career guidance, and of course trumpet performance and ensemble coaching.
Bob maintains a strong commitment to service by volunteering with Bugles Across America an organization dedicated to providing live performances of Taps for the families of deceased veterans.