What makes a good soloist? Admittedly, the formula – assuming it exists at all – is hardly unequivocal or guaranteed. It presumably lays its foundation on solid technique and imaginativeness; yet it also includes a great deal of stage confidence, a certain knack for being in the spotlight while staying in tune with the other musicians. Whether such confidence is acquired or not, its signs are evident and tangible. And indeed, in the case of British trombonist Kris Garfitt, those very signs become readily apparent as soon as one has the chance to see him and listen to him play – it is then that Garfitt is in his element, his instrument responding to his every motion and picking up cues like an old friend.

No wonder that such talent is promptly bearing fruit. Having recently turned 30, Garfitt competed in the trombone category of the 2022 edition of the ARD Music Competition, one of Germany’s largest classical music contests. Held yearly in Munich, the competition is organised by the Bayerischer Rundfunk and has a long-standing, prestigious history of bringing into the spotlight promising young artists who have then proceeded to have a brilliant career. With its divisions changing from year to year and including voice, winds, strings, percussion, piano and chamber ensembles, the ARD is easily one of the widest-ranging music competitions in Europe. Throughout the years, its winners have been artists of the likes of Mitsuko Uchida, Heinz Holliger, Francisco Araiza, Thomas Quasthoff, Christoph Eschenbach and Jessye Norman.

Kris Garfitt performing during the final rounds
© Daniel Delang

One can then only imagine Garfitt’s content when his intense, communicative playing made him earn both the first prize and the audience prize, the third trombonist to win since the 2000s. Following this latest success, Garfitt now looks back on his earliest experiences with music to trace how it all started. As is often the case, he recalls that his first encounter with an instrument happened at home.

“When I was five years old, my mother began teaching me piano. She only took it as a hobby, she is not a professional musician – your customary introduction to playing music, one might argue. The first actual revelation came when I was around eight or nine. A brass teacher came to give a workshop at my primary school, and he brought all sorts of brass instruments. I was immediately intrigued. I didn’t really mind which one I played, as long as I could play one. Having asked the teacher, he gave me a look and recommended I should play the euphonium, because – in his own words – I had big lips,” Garfitt recounts, laughing. “In hindsight, it was quite a funny thing to say. Now that I know a little more about the matter, I would argue there’s no right or better mouth size to play brass instruments. In any case,” he continues, “by the age of twelve I had already thought that I might like to have a career in music.”

So much determination found more than one outlet. More or less in those same years, Garfitt grew what he calls an “obsession” with golf, which he cultivated as a first career option for a while. “Thankfully, it didn’t work out,” he jokes. “Even while chasing my dream to become a professional golfer, I kept playing both the euphonium and the piano. Eventually, however, I realised that there is only so much you can do on a euphonium, so I decided to try something else. The trombone was almost an obvious choice, also because the mouthpiece is the same size. I guess that is when things really started for me.”

Portrait of Kris Garfitt

Having then chosen music as a profession, Garfitt graduated in 2015 with a first-class honours degree from London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama, soon after which he moved to Freiburg to continue studying under Fabrice Millischer, the first ever first-prize winner of the ARD Competition in the trombone category. In Freiburg Garfitt dived into the German music scene, working with orchestras and as a soloist but also making some important acquaintances.

“While studying in Germany I made friends with Seri Dan, a colleague at the Freiburg Musikhochschule who was studying as a solo pianist. Pretty soon we started making music together and realised that we worked really well as a duo. We were determined to play as much repertoire as possible, whatever the occasion. A lot of it was applying to competitions, but an experience we both treasure is the series of events we did for the Yehudi Menuhin Live Music Now organisation in Freiburg. The main goal was to take music out of concert halls into hospitals, retirement homes – and the outcome was incredible, people were so appreciative.” As is clear, building a connection with his audience is vital to Garfitt, who values concerts as moments of mutual exchange. “Thanks to my work with the organisation, I understood that so much about performing depends on the way you present it,” he continues. “And from a strictly musical point of view too, playing all sorts of repertoire from memory helped me immensely. It’s not just an intellectual exercise, and it’s not about showing off. By keeping the score between you and your audience, you raise a barrier which doesn’t allow the communication to flow properly.”

By Garfitt’s own admission, all this hard work was also aimed at a very specific target: the ARD competition, which he first got to know about when he was still living in London and would watch his predecessor, fellow countryman and trombonist Michael Buchanan, making it through the semi-finals and finals and eventually winning the first prize. It was not until moving to Freiburg, however, that Garfitt fully grasped the significance of the contest and took it into serious account as a viable option. In genuine awe at the quality of the performances, Garfitt resolved to apply to the first next edition that would feature his division.

“I was worried I wouldn’t even be allowed to participate because I was at the very end of the age limit, which is usually 28 years old. But because of the pandemic extensions were made, so I still managed to compete. Of course, I love playing in orchestras, but being in my late 20s I couldn’t help but wonder if there was anything else to discover.” And indeed, the ARD Competition proved to be an occasion to savour new things, as well as brushing up some pièces de résistance. As a contestant, Garfitt’s choice of works spanned from the 18th century to contemporary music, including Albrechtsberger’s Alto Trombone Concerto, Xenakis’s nearly unplayable Keren and some concert studies by Svoboda which were written specifically for the competition. But the piece that he selected for the finals was a much-beloved old acquaintance of his – Henri Tomasi’s Trombone Concerto, which proved a perfect choice to showcase the virtuosity and nuance of his playing. “I was so glad that Tomasi was an option – I love playing French repertoire, especially from the 20th century. Sometimes in a competition you’ll get to the last rounds and find out you have to play something you don’t really like, and while it’s still useful as a musician, it does feel anticlimactic,” he observes. “Even just getting to perform the concerto with the Bayerischer Rundfunk’s Symphony Orchestra and Joshua Weilerstein was an unforgettable experience.”

Portrait of the three finalists (trombone category)
© Daniel Delang

After the win, Garfitt is now taking a short break to fully digest his past few weeks. But of course, the ARD is an easy springboard to further opportunities. When asked about his upcoming engagements, Garfitt seems more than enthusiastic. “It’s incredible, I have been receiving emails from several music institutions asking me to perform with them. As I said, I enjoy playing in orchestras, but I must admit I never have as much fun on stage as when I’m playing solo. There’s no feeling quite like it, a particular kind of thrill.” But focusing on his career as a soloist wouldn’t just be about his personal preferences. “It’s also a great opportunity to get the public to consider the trombone as a solo instrument, not just sitting at the back of the orchestra but also in front of it. Of course, there are brass festivals, but those are still quite niche. My biggest goal as a soloist would be to do just that, to help introduce the trombone to a wider audience.”

This article was sponsored by the ARD International Music Competition.