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Trumpet: Interview and demonstration with principal David Bilger

Created by All Star Orchestra.

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Video transcript

("Symphony No. 4 in F minor" by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky) - The trumpet is actually an ancient instrument and way, way back thousands of years ago trumpet players didn't exist of course we just had people. And they wanted to find a way to signal across great distances. So they experimented with blowing one's lips into a seashell and they found if they blew their lips in this way (blowing) Into a big seashell that they cut a hole into, that that would actually carry great distances. And then the Egyptians as they learned how to work metals thought, oh we can make this even louder and do some pretty cool things by making straight trumpets. And so they took metal and they devised a way for the lips to sort of rest on that metal, which is our modern mouthpiece. And then as we got more technology we decided, oh we need to be able to make the trumpet do more things. So these systems of valves here were developed, and the valves actually changed the notes. What they do is if you push down the first valve it makes the air go through extra length of tubing which makes the pitch lower. And this is the one valve slide for the first valve. The third valve slide, as you can see, is much longer, which changes the pitch even lower, and by using the valves in combination, we can play chromatics on the instrument we can play all the different notes of the scale. Using the valves on the instrument only does so much, we can only work through a small portion of the notes, actually by changing what we do with our lips and moving through different notes on the instrument, different what's called partials. We can get in and out of different ranges without using any valves at all and can play quite a number of notes. (light music) When I use my fingers with that, use the valves with that, then I can get a full chromatic scale. (light music) The reason that we need to have valves is the fact that these open notes, the partials on the instrument, are far apart and that's actually just physics. The instrument resonates in a way that you can only play fundamental. (light music) And as you may have noticed, the higher we go the closer those notes are together. But in the lower register, they can be as much as a fifth apart, which is why we need to have the combination of three valves to get all the notes in between these partials. ("Symphony No. 2" by Gustav Mahler) The lowest note on the trumpet, you would take the fundamental, the low C. (light music) And then add all of the valves. (light music) And that's our low note, which is a low F sharp which is our lowest partial with all of the valve combinations. So basically when we add some tubing the same harmonic series continues just down a little bit lower. So with no valves. (light music) One valve. (bright music) Slightly longer valve. (light music) ("Academic Festival Overture Op. 80" by Johannes Brahms) The trumpet is a actually a transposing instrument. We play in the orchestra mostly on C pitched instruments but our parts are notated, I think in the Tchaikovsky Symphony is in F, the Schuman Symphony is in E flat and in F, the Beethoven is in C, which makes it sort of easier. Some of the parts are in B flat, New World Symphony has E and C, so we're actually transposing at sight, pretty much every piece that we do, we're reading a note and having to say, okay that's written in E, and I'm on a C trumpet so I have to play up a major third. By doing that it sort of makes you have to, it's part of the technique of the instrument, you have to just learn how to do it and it becomes second nature. The reason for that is that before there were valves on the instrument, that trumpet players would actually have to change the instrument. Back in Beethoven's days, there were extra pieces of tubing that would go between the mouthpiece and the lead pipe of the instrument to make the pitch lower. Now we use the valves and the slides but back then they actually had to change these, they're called crooks, and by doing that they could play in different keys just the open partials in different keys. But the notations sort of stuck around and became just the tradition of the instrument, so we transpose a lot. But other times we'll be playing on a different keyed trumpet, trumpets that most people will start on, most students, in fact I think all students, will begin on an instrument that's pitched in B flat. And they'll just read the music that someone else has transposed for them and so that the pitches sound right. But perfect pitch on the trumpet can really be a difficult thing because not only are you visually seeing pitches differently, but some of our instruments are keyed in different keys. I actually own B flat trumpets, C trumpets, D trumpets, E flat, F, high G, high A, and B flat piccolos. So I have all of these different keyed instruments they all have slightly different sound, they're used for some different repertoire. 90% of the time, maybe 95% of the time, I play on this instrument. Which is pitched in C. Now some people have asked me, and actually given me a little bit of a hard time about this because it's not shiny. It's sort of dull, it's raw brass, it's a natural finish of the instrument. Many players have instruments that are plated with silver or gold, or are lacquered. They spray on a finish that keeps it from turning color like this. The reason I play on this instrument, that is a little bit ugly, is because it was actually a prototype instrument made for me personally by a trumpet maker. In fact, we worked on designs for about a year and now they sell this instrument in the shiny version, but I liked this one so much that I didn't want to part with it to send it out to get it plated. And also sometimes the plating can change the way the instrument sounds a little bit. I'm just stuck with it, it turns my hands green at the end of the day. But I think it has a lot of character. ("Symphony No. 5" by Dmitri Shostakovich) Like many musicians I came from a family where music was important. Neither of my parents were professional musicians, although both had studied when they were younger, and when I was in second grade my parents bought a piano. And they said, you wanna take some lessons? And I said, I don't know, maybe, sure I'll try it. I was fortunate enough to have a great teacher who taught me well how to read music and made it fun, and then in fourth grade, two years later, in public school we had the choice of taking up band instruments. And everyone was paraded into a room with all of the different band instruments, we didn't have orchestra where I grew up it was just band country in the Midwest. There were trumpets, and trombones, french horns, woodwind instruments, clarinets, saxophones, drums, you name it. And I'm not exactly sure what drew me to the trumpet, I think in some ways it might have been the fact that the case was really cool, it had this crushed purple velour and the trumpet looked really shiny against it and for whatever reason I said, I think I'll try that. My parents rented one from the local music store, just because they didn't want to buy one in case it didn't stick, and played a little bit, and it seemed like something that was actually a good fit for me. I did continue with two instruments, I played the piano, and then I played the trumpet. And the trumpet just seemed, I got better a lot faster than at the piano. And on the piano I had a good right hand and not a very good left hand, and I played a lot, in fact, I still took lessons when I was in college, on the piano. But I just wasn't very good, to be honest. And I could tell, I could hear players that were a lot better on the instrument, they could do what they heard. Oh, I want it to sound like this, and they could do it on the piano. And for me it felt more mechanical, and the trumpet I felt like I could sing, and say what I wanted to as a musician. My parents used to joke that it was sort of amazing that no one had to make me practice, I think from early on I had the sense that wow I could really accomplish something, I could get better, I could learn a new song, I could learn to play faster, higher, louder, by putting in some time on the instrument. But I was also a normal kid. I liked to go and play baseball with the kids in the neighborhood, ride my bike, do all the stuff, it wasn't that I was locked in a practice room all day. And I think that's one of the joys of playing the trumpet is the fact that, unlike a violin, where you can and sometimes are expected to practice a million hours a day. The trumpet, because of the impact on our lips, two, three hours a day even for a processional is plenty of practice. ("Daphnis and Chloe, Suite No. 2" by Maurice Ravel) There's a lot to love about playing the trumpet one of the things is in the orchestra you can, I say drive the bus. You can be a dominant voice. And at the same time, in the same piece, you may have a chance to play something very song-like and lyrical and be more of a collaborator with other instruments. The trumpet does play a leadership role and I like that. ("Symphony No. 9 in E minor" by Antonin Dvorak)