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Talking Classical Music and Auditioning with David Bilger

classical music david bilgerAW: What first drew you to classical music? 

David Bilger: I had always had an interest in classical music, since it was the music that was always playing in my home growing up. Throughout my formative early years on the trumpet, I studied "classical" trumpet for technique, but also played a lot of other types of music. In fact, I was given a college scholarship by Woody Herman, which came about as the result of a jazz solo competition.

During my undergraduate years in college, I always tried to balance classical playing with jazz and commercial playing, so that I would be more marketable in the "real" world. Most symphony orchestras do some sort of pops programming, so I wanted to be ready for that, as well. During my free lance years in New York (prior to getting full time orchestral employment) I played symphonic repertoire, ballet, opera, chamber music, solos, jazz, commercial and even subbed Broadway shows. It was only after joining the Philadelphia Orchestra that I ended up focusing all my energies in classical playing.

With all of that said, I always loved orchestral repertoire, and being a part of an orchestra. I find the music to often be sublime, and the role of the trumpet an interesting one. It is just plain fun to be able to do what I call "driving the bus" and soar over the top of the orchestra. But I find it equally exhilarating to subtly blend with another instrument in a soft any lyrical passage. So I would say that it is both the quality of the music and the visceral excitement of being a part of an orchestra that got me to eventually fully commit to that genre.

AW: When it comes to audition music, who decides on which orchestral excerpts to use in orchestra auditions?  Is the material based on the position available/typical repertoire or is it based on bringing out the musician's weak points?

David Bilger: I took my first orchestral audition when I was a sophomore in college. My teacher had prepared me to be an excerpt machine, and I had been practicing 4-6 hours a day since arriving at college to develop the consistency for auditioning. I prepared in a very similar way to what I teach today -- systematically developing technique and subsequently working through each excerpt to perfect both the execution and musical context. I made the finals for that first audition, and then when the screen came down and they saw a 19 year old standing there, it became very clear that they would not be hiring anyone that day. Truthfully, I was probably ready to win an audition, but I still had a lot to learn about becoming a complete musician. I view it as a Godsend that I didn't win that job. I spend the next couple of years really preparing myself to not only be able to play a great audition, but to also be able to do the job. Often they are very different tasks.

AW: Tell us about your first experience with orchestra auditions, how specifically did you prepare and how did it go?

David Bilger: We recently had a second trumpet audition for the Philadelphia Orchestra, and I was able to put together an audition list. I started by making a list of all of the qualities that I would want to have in a colleague, and with a special eye towards a second trumpet. Sound, range, articulation, power, sensitivity, and an understanding of diverse musical styles. I then looked at recent audition lists from the San Francisco and Baltimore Symphonies, with the hope that I could include some of their repertoire. Many players would have been working up all three  lists, and having some carryover would make their preparation easier. Then I jotted down titles of pieces that showed all of the characteristics that I wanted to hear in the audition, and whittled the list down to what I hoped would be a manageable number of excerpts. At this point, I asked for input from the other members of my section, and made some adjustments to the list. The next step was to meet with the Music Director, show him the list, explain my reasoning for each excerpt, and then ask for his input. A couple of more changes happened during that process. So the ultimate list was the result of a considerable and thoughtful process.

Once the audition began, I made the prelim list the day before the first audition. It was what I hoped would be a predictable and compact list -- 5 standard excerpts. I waited until the last moment to make the choices for the prelims so that word couldn't get out as to what we were asking. However I'm sure that after the first group of applicants played, that the list was up on the Internet...... I also made up the semi-final list in a similar fashion. The list was more extensive ( and more than twice as long) since we had budgeted a good deal of time for each semifinalist (12-15 minutes). The finals list was selected collaboratively with the Music Director.

Although an audition list is ultimately a test, I also view it as a collection of pieces that offer great opportunities for the best players to separate themselves from the masses. I hope that the intention is never to select tunes that highlight weaknesses, but to select music that offers ways to show off a player's best attributes.


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