For 40 years, Susan Slaughter has led the brass section of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. Now she's preparing to step down: The 2009-2010 season will be her last as the orchestra's iconic principal trumpet.
Next weekend, she'll open the season with the famous, difficult part in Mahler's Symphony No. 5.
It's a remarkable stretch in a difficult job. Only Bud Herseth, principal trumpet of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for 50 years, went longer.
"This is a very stressful job," Slaughter said. "Most people make it 10 to 20 years. After that, they get a good teaching job, or retire if they've been saving their pennies."
It's tough work playing "screaming high notes," she said. "It's a very physically demanding instrument," grueling for every part of the body from the back to the lips.
"As you get older, your body needs more maintenance. You have to work to keep in top shape."
Slaughter's been doing Pilates for the past five years, which she says has strengthened her core.
If you don't stay in shape, everyone will notice.
"Some instruments can miss a note and it's not very intrusive, but if a brass player misses a note, it comes across pretty ugly," Slaughter said.
On a piano, you hit a key, and the note comes out. On the trumpet, "sometimes you hit a note, and it's not quite centered, a little above, a little below," she said. "None of it's intentional. As one of my teachers said, 'Hit it hard, and wish it well.' Sometimes you make it, and sometimes you don't."
Slaughter has worked with five music directors: Walter Susskind, Jerzy Semkow, Leonard Slatkin, Hans Vonk and current dirrector David Robertson.
"I don't think there is a musician in the world that I respect more than Susan Slaughter," Robertson said, "not only as an inspiring performer, but also as a wise, humane and caring person. She has always been a model of what the best should be."
Slatkin, music director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, met Slaughter when they were students at Aspen in the mid-1960s.
"Susan's a marvelous personality," Slatkin said. "She was a star from the second she joined the orchestra. You can always tell it's Susan, from that rich deep sound with a little hint of vibrato in it."
Slatkin praised Slaughter for her commitment to her music - "There wasn't one time when Susan ever let anybody down" - and to the Cardinals, for whom she's often played the national anthem over the years.
Slaughter was a pioneer. She said that when she started out, "women didn't get hired to play brass instruments in symphony orchestras." As a senior at Indiana University, she sent out 30 letters of inquiry about openings and was invited to just three auditions.
Hearing about an opening with the Houston Symphony Orchestra, she called and asked to audition.
"They said, 'Oh, we thought you wouldn't want to come this far.' I told them, 'I do want to,' and I asked them to send the information. I'm still waiting."
But Slaughter was so good that once she got a hearing, her talent couldn't be ignored. She auditioned for the SLSO in the days before concerns about sexism and racism mandated that auditions be played behind a curtain. Years later, one now-retired string player on the audition committee told her that he got up to get coffee when he saw a woman walk onstage. He waited to hear a few notes, for form's sake and, he said, "Your playing made me sit back down."
Slaughter has been an advocate for other female brass players ever since. In 1990, she founded the International Women's Brass Conference, which exists to help women who want to play brass instruments professionally; revenues from her annual holiday brass concerts at St. Louis Cathedral Basilica help provide scholarships.
"I've seen progress," said Slaughter, citing women who have won principal horn, trombone and even a principal tuba spot, "but I'm still the only female principal trumpet."
Sexism is still there: Slaughter said that female principals are not paid as much as their male counterparts.
"You never see my name in the St. Louis Business Journal" in the annual articles that cite the top five earners in the orchestra, she said.
The principal plays solos; she's also the leader in the section's music-making. Slaughter's style is collaborative, but ultimately she's the one who makes the decisions about which mute to use in a given passage, or how to approach something.
What does she enjoy most about the job?
"The concerts," she replied. "You can't stop in the concerts. It's fun to make music at this level, with nuance, with color of sound, and working with such great players."
After she retires, she hopes to keep doing some playing. She wants to volunteer in Kirkwood, where she lives, through her church, First Baptist. She's thinking of starting an after-school music program in Meacham Park.
"I just feel like God put me here to do this job," Slaughter said. "I'm playing well; the sound is still there. I think it's better to go out on top. I want people to be able to remember me for what I was able to do. God put me here, and now it's time to do something else."
IF YOU GO:
What • David Robertson and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra
Where • Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand Boulevard
When • 8 p.m. Friday and Sept. 26
How much • $16 to $105;
More info • 314-533-2500 or www.slso.org
SLSO's new season Page D6