By Janis Fontaine
Boca Raton High School junior Casey Hill says her trumpet is like an extension of her arm. She feels more natural holding it and feels a little anxious when she doesn’t have it.
Musicians are like that.
Since Casey got started playing six years ago, her trumpet has been there for her. Now she plays about 20 other instruments, but the trumpet is her true love.
She plays trumpet in the marching band, where the intricate routines are designed to look beautiful as a whole. It can be tough to tell if you’re in the wrong place, so marching is demanding and strenuous.
But Casey says, “Marching band is a blast. It’s the most fun thing. You leave your blood, sweat and tears out on the field, literally.
But you learn discipline, and how to work well with all kinds of people, and you make connections that are strong and genuine.” Marching band is a huge time commitment. Rehearsals are twice a week to prepare for game day on Friday, and then competitions are held on Saturday. Casey says it’s worth every minute.
About two years ago, the 16-year-old experienced a happy accident that solved a problem for her and some other trumpet players. With help from the Young Entrepreneurs Academy sponsored by the Boca Raton Chamber of Commerce, Casey turned her idea into an invention — the Piston Trainer — and the invention into reality.
In music, technique is king and bad habits are hard to break. When Casey started playing trumpet, no one corrected her fingering technique, so that became ingrained in her muscle memory. It didn’t prevent her from playing well, from being a respected musician and an important member of the marching band, but Casey knew she could do better. One day at rehearsal, she forgot her “dot book,” a small spiral book on a lanyard that holds a dot chart, the schematic used in marching band to show you where to go.
Because she forgot her book, Casey had to fold the chart and hold it in between the valves of her trumpet. She noticed the papers made her keep her hands, especially her wrists, in prime technical position. When she started to slip back into her old ways, the dot chart reminded her not to do it.
When she got home, Casey kept thinking about how those sheets of paper had helped her. She did research in her spare time over the next 18 months, examining the 20 most common brands of trumpets, measuring them down to the millimeter and calculating the perfect dimensions for the Piston Trainer.
With support and guidance from the Boca Chamber’s academy, Casey created a business plan and learned to pitch her product to investors — to answer tough financial questions and explain the marketing plan needed to get her product in the hands of band leaders, teachers and trumpet players.
When she made her official pitch at the end of the Young Entrepreneurs class, the investors pledged $1,580 to fund her company.
In the old days — like the year Casey was born — making the Piston Trainer would require a prototype and a mold, pretty steep startup costs. But the costs of 3D printers that use plastic pellets are affordable now and Casey’s device was a perfect candidate for 3D replication.
In 2010, a 3D printing machine cost more than $20,000, but in 2013, the cost dropped to $1,000. So, she bought a 3D printer and had packaging made for the device, which she manufactures and packs at home.
Casey’s first goal was to get the PTs into the hands of young trumpet players, so she targeted Boca Middle and Western Pines Middle at the start of the school year, supplying kids who are just learning the instrument with the trainers. This, she said, is the time to correct and perfect technique, “before it gets ingrained.”
Casey plans to supply all of Palm Beach County middle schools with Piston Trainers over the next three years.
A search online for “help with trumpet fingering technique” returns finger weights for strength building and finger exercises to improve dexterity, but nothing like Casey Hill’s Piston Trainer, which is not patented.
Could it be that a high school student from Boca created the only significant piece of equipment for mastering trumpet valve fingering since the instrument was invented in 1500 BC?
Casey enjoys business, but she says she plans to study music therapy in college, a growing field with a lot of applications. “It’s using music to accomplish non-music goals,” Casey said.
For her, music is as important to her existence as breathing or eating, so to be able to share that gift and to help others is a great opportunity.
Casey sees playing music as a symbiotic energy exchange: “I give my instrument life and it gives my life meaning.”