Years ago, Barry Perkins brought his trumpet south of the border.
Unlike most Americans who just travel to Mexico for tequila-filled good times, he went for a job, and a prestigious one at that: a seat in the Mexico City Philharmonic.
The audition went well, and Perkins won the position: associate principal trumpet.
He was only 20 years old.
Perkins' remarkably early entry into the ultra-competitive classical music world — and in a major orchestra, no less — was quite the feat.
On top of that, he was in a foreign country with a foreign language. But for the 20-year-old, the Spanish-language rehearsals weren't the toughest thing. After all, many musical terms are universal worldwide.
"I could get through a rehearsal," Perkins said. "At first, it was taking a taxi that was the hardest part, getting to and from rehearsal. My first taxi ride was just a disaster."
Perkins had a piece of paper with him that contained what he was supposed to say. His rehearsal hall had a complicated name, and as he as tried to rattle it off, the cabbie soon figured he was one of "the Americans up the street" and knew just where to take him.
Today, Perkins is the principal trumpet player for the Pacific Symphony, a position he's held since 2004. The 41-year-old Irvine resident's musical journey, like many musicians, started early and bears a family connection.
Born in Rochester, N.Y., Perkins and his family moved around a few times before they finally settled in Irvine when Perkins was in eighth grade. His father, a research chemist, was also a trumpet player — so it's no surprise that he wanted to teach young Barry the ways of the heralding brass instrument.
"Before he got home from work, we had to practice trumpet and piano," Perkins said. "My dad gave me lessons since I was 5 years old."
Not fully content with chemistry, Perkins' father opened a music shop — Perkins Music Center — in Irvine's Northwood neighborhood in 1984.
"My dad was always musically inclined," Perkins said. "When we moved to Irvine, he still worked as a research chemist, but he started a music store business just to keep his connections. I was in high school, and everybody from my high school shopped at Perkins Music Center. He wanted to get back into music, and I think that was his avenue."
It was a family affair. Young Barry even had to clean the violins.
"My mom would run the store during the day, and after work my dad would come in and give lessons," he said.
Perkins attended Irvine High School, studying with Richard Birkemeier and Donald Green of the L.A. Philharmonic. After high school, Perkins attended the New England Conservatory in Boston to study with Charles Schlueter (formerly of the Boston Symphony) before winning his job in Mexico. But at the time, he wasn't entirely sure he should accept it.
"I had a choice to make," Perkins said. "I basically asked my teacher: 'What do I do? Do I stay here and study with you? Do I take the job?' My teacher said, 'See you later.'"
Perkins said his teacher knew full well the value of professional playing over the collegiate. In college, groups generally play maybe a dozen pieces a year. On a full-time orchestra job, musicians play new repertoire every week.
He stayed with the Mexico City Philharmonic from 1990 to 1995, during which time the orchestra toured the country.
"We didn't see Acapulco and the touristy places," Perkins said. "We went into the regions and different cities I wouldn't have visited otherwise."
He said musical culture there doesn't quite have the generational gap that it does in the U.S. Understanding such aspects of what Mexico is all about was one of his favorite memories.
"For some reason, in the culture down there, the grandmother, the mother and the daughter can all listen to the same music and get the same thing out of it," Perkins said.
Consequently, he would see plenty of young faces in the audience — and it was a crowd that knew its classical stuff.
"Backstage, audience members may have come up to me and said how much they enjoyed what I did in the third movement of a Mahler symphony," Perkins said.
There were those moments for the young trumpet player when he felt like pinching himself to make sure it was all real.
"It was a learning experience. It basically prepared me for what was to come," he said. "Five years of learning all the orchestral literature was something I would not have gotten just about anywhere else ... we played everything: most of the Mahler symphonies, works by Strauss — a lot of big works smaller regional orchestras never see."
After Mexico, Perkins began establishing himself as a freelancer for groups like the San Diego Symphony and San Diego Opera before he won the Pacific Symphony principal trumpet chair in 2004.
Perkins said he likes the relaxed, family environment of the Pacific Symphony. That kind of bond can help the group play better as well, he said.
"You can feel that energy on stage," Perkins said. "When you're playing next to people you like, that you get along with, it's like a battle. You're going into battle with your buddies. You don't want to go into battle with people you don't like."
One of his favorite moments of his tenure so far: the orchestra's first European tour in 2006.
"The orchestra really came together and really sounded amazing," he said. "The orchestra reached new levels there."
Perkins also said a big part of his enjoyment playing for the Pacific Symphony is due to its music director, Carl St.Clair.
"Carl is a trumpet player," Perkins said. "I can tell he knows where the trumpet solos are, the hard trumpet pieces. He's a great conductor to play for. We're really lucky here. I've played in other orchestras, and sometimes those other orchestras aren't so lucky."
Like many L.A-area musicians, Perkins has also done his fair share of studio recordings for Hollywood. Playing for composer legends like John Williams or James Horner is great, but playing alongside the unseen (but not unheard) musician legends was another thing entirely, he said.
"These were guys I remember reading about as a kid," Perkins said. "To be able to then sit next to them on a movie session, I was like a kid in a candy store. It was great."
When not performing, Perkins teaches at Cal State Fullerton and runs a summer trumpet academy there, where it's all trumpet, all the time for three or four days.
And when not doing that, he's busy weightlifting and spending time with his three children — ages 18, 10 and 5 — and his wife of 18 years.
And yes, Perkins is teaching trumpet to his children. Between them all, there are about a dozen trumpets in the household.
"I can't teach them any other instrument!" he said with a laugh, adding that when Grandpa visits, it's even more "trumpet lesson time" for the kids.
Perkins' remarkable career so far has taken him full circle, back to his hometown orchestra.
"I used to come to concerts and listen to the Pacific Symphony," he said, "and I used to think to myself, somehow it would be great just to sub in this orchestra. Basically, my life went to Boston, Mexico City, San Diego and coming back here. It was a nice homecoming."