I recently had the good fortune to attend (in the audience) a masterclass by David Bilger, principal trumpet of the Philadelphia Orchestra, hosted by the Western Michigan University School of Music in Kalamazoo, MI. As the event was winding down, he opened up for questions from the audience. When no one else raised their hand, I asked him about his approach to leadership within the trumpet section and the orchestra as a whole.
The first part of his answer was very utilitarian. He explained that as a member of one of the finest orchestras in America, he didn’t need to say much to his colleagues. When minor stylistic differences did arise, it provides a moment to learn how other musicians may be approaching the section. Overall, though, Mr. Bilger said he avoided saying too much frankly because he didn’t need to.
He paused then, and took a moment to formulate his next thought, which I will paraphrase: “I think the most important part of leading in this position is coming prepared with a proposition, an idea. Not that you are simply playing the notes perfectly, but that you truly have something to say about the music. This is how you lead. With a proposition.”
I loved this. This last nugget of wisdom before he finished up and closed the masterclass was the most important thing for me to hear that day. He had spent nearly two hours discussing technique, warm-up routines, fundamentals, and critiquing those playing in the masterclass with invaluable information, but these last three minutes are what I have dwelt on for three weeks.
I think this is critical for any musician to remember, perhaps especially classical musicians. We spend years of our lives learning to play music as those who have come before us have played it, mirroring exactly the notes recorded, the tone expressed, and the interpretation displayed. It is important to learn from the masters, but perhaps more important, then, to propose our own interpretation and imagine what musical “stamp” we should leave. What makes your performance unique? Or, in reverse, are you or your performance fungible?
When working with a large ensemble, uniqueness can cause issues and we all have our place - ultimately under the baton of a maestro or conductor. But I think a group of musicians who are all bringing ideas to the table is far more worthwhile than homogeneity. I encourage you to consider what proposition you can bring to your next practice session, rehearsal, or performance.
What stamp will you leave?