Except for a few top-tier orchestras, every group plays pops. For some orchestras it’s quite a significant portion of the workload. While an average pops show can be a snoozer for much of the orchestra, the brass section (and often first trumpet in particular) can have their work cut out for them.
As a new professional, pops were an especially big challenge. School does not prepare you for this kind of playing, and it’s very possible that someone fresh out of a conservatory will not be fluent in the styles required. Knowing how to identify and play a shuffle, rock, funk, dixieland, swing, or a Charleston is critically important for properly executing a pops show, and usually there’s not enough rehearsal time to sort these things out along the way.
Several different types of pops concerts present themselves. They might break down as follows:
Classical pops concerts, which can be approached like a regular programme. John Williams type concerts could fall under this category. While challenging, they can be tackled much like a heavy concert of classical music.
Rock shows with an amplified band are generally not too stressful, but there are exceptions. Being comfortable playing with earplugs (invest in proper musician’s earplugs!) is an important skill here.
Broadway pops often have quite a range of styles, from very legit style playing to quite commercial. Usually there aren’t enough commercial parts to call for a lead player, but sometimes I’ll be out of my wheelhouse.
Jazz shows can be very challenging, and often justify calling in a specialist to play a lead trumpet book. Jim Murray is a great high note player and I’m so very glad he’s in town. When he’s in to play the lead book I usually play third. If there’s anything legit I’ll bump up to first so he can save his chops for his specialty.
Equipment choices might also be worth investigating. It's not quite "Change Your Mouthpiece, Change Your Life", but I’ve found that a lighter B-flat trumpet than I usually play, paired with a slightly shallower mouthpiece, gives me the best product for the least effort on rock, broadway, and jazz shows. I’ll always play John Williams etcetera on my usual orchestral gear, but there is nothing to be gained by trying to play a big band show on gear that is specialized towards a different discipline of trumpet playing.
Finally, it’s worth saying that just like any type of concert, pops can be good or bad. It’s easy for classical musicians to scoff at pops, but a well crafted and well executed pops concert with good arrangements, good soloists, and a good conductor can be fun and rewarding. Even if it falls short, a tough pops folder is a great opportunity to hone your craft, build strength, and work on styles that you might not play so frequently. I hope that no programme is a lemon, but you can always make lemonade.