Portrait

Catching up with Australasia’s only female principal trumpet player, Sarah Butler. By Cass Moriarty.

Trumpet player Sarah Butler

Growing up, the children who played brass instruments were muscular and solid. All of them – on trumpet, French horn, trombone, tuba – were boys. Every. Single. One. I can recall girls playing piano, flute and violin, but the brass section of our school band, our town’s marching band, the Scout band and the church band were all entirely male. There was something instinctively masculine about those instruments, and about how they were played. Or so I thought.

Sarah Butler is tall and slim, with the long legs and poise of a ballet dancer. Her grace and warmth immediately put me at ease. As Australasia’s first and only female principal trumpet player, with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, she sets about explaining to me how instrumental music has evolved and why female players are now being embraced in roles previously considered to be a male domain.

“In the past, those instruments were considered to be very physical, that you had to be physically strong to play them, but we’re realising now that’s not necessarily the case,” she says. “It’s about how we use our air, the efficiency of air. Rather than physical strength, it’s about learning to control and work that part of the body.” Butler says that good female brass players are “absolutely nailing it” as soloists and in orchestras. “Historically, yes, it was an exclusively male domain, but it’s changing. We’re in a crossover period. Percentage-wise, it’s still low, but as the years go on there are more role models and so girls are encouraged to pick up an instrument and try it.”

Butler believes success for women in areas previously dominated by men also comes down to attitude. “You need a quiet confidence, determination and self-belief; you have to imagine that you can do it and then back yourself.” As a teacher at the Queensland Conservatorium, she encourages a collaborative approach. “I don’t have all the answers; I want it to be a shared learning experience. The students become more empowered and independent.”

Butler lives on acreage near the tiny community of Samford in south-east Queensland with her partner and their four children. They have a dog and five chickens. “We’re not farmers but we have a big veggie patch. The chickens are on notice,” she says, “because they’re not producing any eggs.” We compare photos on our phones: her youngest child, my new grandchild.

Butler didn’t come from a strong musical background. “We had a strange collection of classical CDs that my parents had inherited, along with Jesus Christ Superstar and Cats. Simon and Garfunkel. Comedy tapes. No one was really enthusiastic or actively collected music.” Her mum liked to sing but had no formal training; her dad was “completely tone deaf”. But education was valued in her home. Her parents were both teachers in country schools and the “culture of learning was always instilled”.

Her brother played guitar in a series of bands, the only other one of her four siblings who showed any musical talent. Sarah tells me he died at the age of 40, and I get the sense that she wonders how his musical talent might have developed, had he lived.

Butler dabbled with flute and piano, “trying and failing at a bunch of things”, her mother becoming alternately excited by her interest and then frustrated with her eventual indifference. She first played trumpet at the age of 11 – “already quite late” – but her musical career was derailed by a passion for horseriding and it wasn’t until she was 18 that she returned to the instrument she now loves. For Butler, this period of her childhood highlights the most important lesson around music education: “I always enjoyed it and showed an aptitude but never found the instrument that felt right to me. You get a child who is obviously interested in music but get the sense that they can’t stick at anything … it might be because they haven’t yet found the instrument that resonates with them.”

We discuss the fact that when we think of a child as musical, we often assume it’s across all areas; we don’t imagine that while they might be terrible at one instrument, they might be very good at another. Butler believes musical talent is not a result of genetics, but rather is created through environment, and that “finding your soul-instrument” can forge a lifelong musical partnership. “It’s like building sandcastles,” she says. “Every day you have to practise and start again.”

We wonder at all the potentially great musicians who remain undiscovered because they lack the right environment, and ponder that in previous centuries all educated children were surrounded by music in many forms, that their creativity was given the opportunity to flourish.

Butler didn’t obtain her first professional position until her early 30s. “I’m a bit of a late bloomer but I say to others, it’s your own journey, it doesn’t matter how long it takes to get there.” It is nine years now since she was offered the job as principal trumpet with the QSO. At the time, it was “absolutely terrifying” but it has proved to be a stabilising move. “I’ve wriggled my toes in the ground now,” she says.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 8, 2018 as "Soul music". Subscribe here.

Cass Moriarty
is the author of Parting Words and The Promise Seed.