Alumni Spotlight: Mary Elizabeth Bowden, ’00

Mary Elizabeth Bowden in desert with mountains in the background wearing a white dress and holding her trumpet

On Sunday, November 14, CYSO alum Mary Elizabeth Bowden will return to her old stomping grounds, joining Symphony Orchestra’s fall concert at Orchestra Hall. Mary will perform the Midwest premiere of Vivian Fung’s new Concerto for Trumpet, a piece written specifically for her and co-commissioned by CYSO. The piece is the first written by a North American female composer for a female trumpet soloist. Mary, a 2000 graduate, is a Gold Medal Global Music Award-winning classical trumpeter highly regarded for her artistry and virtuosity as a soloist and chamber musician.

CYSO Symphony Orchestra trumpet player Bennett King first met Mary when she led a virtual masterclass he performed for in 2020. As a member of CYSO’s Social Media Team, he had the opportunity to interview Mary as she prepared for her return to CYSO, exploring her memories of going on tour, favorite practice techniques, and how her CYSO experience helped her discover inner strength she didn’t know she had.

What was your first CYSO audition like?

I remember auditioning for conductor Rossen Milanov, and it was the first time I took the old-fashioned iconic elevator in the Fine Arts Building (one of the last manual elevators in Chicago!). I felt nervous and confident, and I remember being in a flow state while making music.

Rossen Milanov would also continue to stay in my musical life for the next 10 years. When I attended The Curtis Institute of Music, he was appointed Assistant Conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra and Music Director of the Haddonfield Symphony (now called Symphony in C). During my freshman year at Curtis, I won the second trumpet position with Haddonfield, which I kept for 8 seasons. Rossen is an extremely energetic and vibrant conductor. I learned so much from him starting in CYSO.

Contact print of film negatives of Mary Elizabeth Bowden on stage playing her trumpet from 1998
Film of CYSO promo photos taken of Mary Elizabeth Bowden at Orchestra Hall in 1998

What are some of your favorite CYSO memories?

We toured in the winter to eastern Europe, visiting Bulgaria, Slovakia, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. It was my first time overseas. I had a wonderful time bonding with friends, performing in beautiful halls, and exploring new cities. It opened my eyes to international travel and one of the reasons I love being a soloist now is being able to explore the world.

I remember sightseeing at the beautiful Rila Monastery in Bulgaria and evenings in Prague. In Sofia, I remember a bear in the street, which fortunately I believe is banned now. I took so many photos, but the memories live in my mind as my camera was broken and all of the photos turned out blurry. These were the days before cell phones.

I loved the concerts in Orchestra Hall downtown—it was an honor to play on the same stage where I heard the Chicago Symphony and Bud Herseth perform. My first teacher, Tim Jones, took my brothers and me to many concerts when we were growing up. Tim is one of the main reasons for my love of classical music.

Do you remember any favorite pieces you played in CYSO?

Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5, Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe, Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, Profofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, and with the Encore Chamber Orchestra, I played Ginastera’s Variaciones concertantes and Schoenberg Chamber Symphony No. 2, just to name a few! I was in CYSO for two years and we covered a vast amount of repertoire in that time.

Members of Seraph Brass pose with their instruments
Mary, far right, with members of her ensemble, Seraph Brass

What are your most effective practice techniques?

Practicing at half speed, metronome work, working with drones, listening back at half speed, practicing the music with different rhythmic patterns. Singing and conducting the music is the most important for me.

What are the most challenging and rewarding piece you’ve gotten to prepare?

Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2. This concerto is the pinnacle of baroque trumpet works, and it has a reputation of being one of the most difficult pieces to perform. I spent a year preparing and building my range and confidence. Now it’s one of my favorite works to perform onstage.

Mary Elizabeth Bowden and Vivian Fung pose at the Erie Philharmonic premiere of Fung's Trumpet Concerto
Mary Elizabeth Bowden and composer Vivian Fung at the Erie Philharmonic premiere of Concerto for Trumpet

What is the biggest lesson you learned during your time in CYSO?

I was lucky to have great teachers growing up, Tim Jones and Chicagoland trumpeter Kari Lee. They both instilled high standards and exposed me to countless live classical music concerts. When I joined CYSO, I was surrounded by amazing musicians who challenged and inspired me. I felt the orchestra had the same standards as a professional ensemble and we had to show up prepared and sounding our best.

During my first season at CYSO, I had food poisoning the day of our concert where I was playing principal trumpet on Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe at Orchestra Hall. I was so sick during the dress rehearsal that I was not sure I could make it onstage. I refused to give up my part, though, and went onstage for the concert—to the surprise of the adults, I think! It was a valuable lesson that your mind can overcome many things and the power of music can transcend pain, if only for a moment. I was able to focus for the concert and do my job. I was very happy making music and I am grateful that I did not give up in the moment. I was stronger than I knew.

What advice would you give to the next generation of CYSO musicians?

Set standards that are reasonable to achieve and do your best to enjoy the process of learning. Stay curious!

Don’t miss Mary Elizabeth Bowden with CYSO’s Symphony Orchestra on Sunday, November 14 at 7:00 pm. Tickets on sale now!


Bennett King is a trumpet player in CYSO’s Symphony Orchestra. He is currently in 8th grade and this is his fourth season as a member of CYSO. In his spare time, Bennett enjoys volunteering in youth services at his local library and bugling in his Boy Scout troop.

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