This story is about how things are sometimes meant to be. Perhaps it was about destiny or, maybe, karma, the “spirit that infuses or vitaliz- es someone or something” that played a part. Certainly, we’ll never know. What we do know is whatever it was, and why it came to pass changed one boy’s life forever.
David Bilger, principal trumpet of the Philadelphia Orchestra a position he has held since 1995 – is a musician’s musician. Prior to joining the orchestra, he held the same position with the Dallas Symphony, and has been hailed by the New York Times for his “easy brilliance” and by the Washington Post for his “engaging legato touch.”
Bilger’s parents valued musical training and, at an early age, Bilger began taking piano lessons. When he was in the fourth grade his teacher asked if he’d like to play another instrument. “I said, sure,” recalls Bilger, with a smile. “The trumpet looked interesting to me.” And, that’s how it all began.
Bilger played both piano and trumpet at the University of Illinois, where he received his bachelor’s degree. But when he had to choose just one, as he headed off to The Julliard School for his master’s degree, he chose the trumpet. His first orchestral job, at 28, was with the Dallas Symphony.
As a soloist, Bilger has appeared with numerous symphony orchestras as well as chamber orchestras. He’s also on the faculty of the Curtis Institute of Music and teaches at Temple University.
Four years ago Bilger was contacted by a company called Artistworks, which teaches music and art online. “The company has a format that includes a lot of pre-recorded content,” Bilger explains. “They also have a component of video exchange so a student can send me a video. Then, I have a video studio in my basement, and I will record a response video coaching them.
“Everything is available to the whole online community, which makes it like a big, open master’s class and, yet, the student gets individual attention as well. It’s a different way of teaching than the one-on-one that I do at Curtis and Temple. It’s a way of teaching students from all over the world. I have students from Europe, South America, Australia and all around the United States. It’s a great way to make a new community. In fact, one of my students just won a job with the Baltimore Symphony. It’s incredibly rewarding.”
While sitting at his at his computer, one evening, Bilger received a Facebook message. “It read,” recalls Bilger, with a hearty laugh, “’I’m the best trumpet player in Afghanistan, because there are only two.’ And my first thought was, I gotta get to know this kid. I wrote him back and, basically, he was looking for guidance.”
The kid was 17-year-old AhmadBaset Azizi from Kabul. “I was watching YouTube videos and saw David Bilger and I thought this is the sound that I’ve been looking for. It was fantastic,” recalls Azizi (known as Baset).
At the time, Baset was a student at the Afghan National Institute of Music in Kabul, the only coeducational school under the college level in the entire country an extraordinary haven for aspiring musicians, amid all the chaos of the unrest and terrorist groups hostile to Western culture and music. However, the school no longer had a trumpet teacher and Baset had no musical guidance. In fact, the music school’s founder and director, Ahmad Naser Sarmast, had been targeted by the Taliban.
He was attending a school play in 2014 when a teenage suicide bomber set off a blast a few feet away. One man was killed. Sarmast survived, but his hearing was severely damaged.
“I could not play the trumpet in the house because playing some Western musical instruments is forbidden by the Taliban. Not only Western, but music in general,” shares Baset. “If a neighbor heard my playing and reported it to the Taliban, my family and myself were in danger.
“In early 2013, I got the principal trumpet position in the school orchestra, which is the only orchestra in Afghanistan and is called the National Orchestra. I had to work harder and it was not enough to only work by myself. And there is no trumpet teacher in Afghanistan, so the only option was to work online with trumpet players in America.” And, so began Baset’s internship with Bilger, who initiated Baset’s lessons on Skype.
“One day, Baset came up with this idea that he wanted to go to Interlochen (Center for the Arts in Michigan),” relates Bilger. “My philosophy is that, sometimes, the path is more important than the outcome. And I thought, ‘Well, let’s go for it,’ not quite believing that it was going to happen. But, why not at least prepare the repertoire and record a video to send for an audition? The only thing that he would be out would be a little time and he would improve, as a musician, just doing it. So we went down that road, and he got in. And at that point it was, ‘Well, okay!’ “Interlochen was very generous and with a scholarship. But, it is an expensive place to go, plus there were extra fees for an English-as-a-second-language class and foreign student fees, as well. Then there was travel, of course, we had to set him up with clothes for northern Michigan’s winter weather. We started looking at the budget and realized that we had to come up with $30,000.”
But, Bilger was not going to be deterred. He partnered with Robin Korevaar, a Dallas clarinetist, who had spent a week at the school in Kabul and knew Baset. The two of them were “in”. They set up a GoFundMe campaign and began getting support from fellow musicians, including Philadelphia Orchestra mu- sic director Yannick Nézet-Séguin and Rich Worle, Chairman of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Foundation.
“With those donations, we were a third there,” says Bilger. “The rest was grassroots. It was a compelling story and I believe people wanted to do something and this was a tangible way – even though it was helping only one person.”
“David Bilger’s thoughtful and committed way of explaining Baset’s story immediately resonated with me, and I did not hesitate for a second to make a contribution,” says Nézet-Séguin, who contributed $5,000. “The determination of this young man, his obvious love for his instrument and for the music, this is clearly stronger than all the incredible challenges he’s had to overcome in order to fulfill his dream. This is very inspiring for me, and for all of us who believe in the power of music.”
Baset graduated from Interlochen with Honors in May and was accepted by the University of Kansas Music School.
However, before he is able to attend the university, Baset has to prove to the United States government that he has complete funding in place in order to get his F1 visa. If he can’t show every dollar needed is in place, he will not be issued the visa. And without a visa, he’ll have to return to Afghanistan.
“My goal,” says Baset determinedly, “is to be well educated and to be the best trumpet player so that I can be useful in our community. It doesn’t matter where I was born or where I got my education, but my goal is to serve anywhere with any people, regardless of nationality, race or color.” In a recent interview, Bilger spoke about the history of the trumpet. “The trumpet,” he began “is an ancient instrument.
Way back, thousands of years ago, when people wanted to signal others across great distances, they experimented with blowing one’s lips into and a seashell and found that it would carry great distances.”
In Baset’s case, he blew his trumpet across a very great distance. And, luckily, David Bilger was listening.