Principal Trumpet of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra Billy Hunter visited Northwest to work with students on their music and discuss diversity and inclusion in orchestras Oct. 20-22.
Hunter has been principal trumpet, the highest-ranked trumpet player, who’s responsible for assigning parts to his fellow trumpet players, since 2004. He realized he wanted to be a professional musician during his sophomore year of college. He received his masters degree from The Juilliard School.
Professor of Music Bill Richardson knew him from his time studying at the University of Texas at Austin. He had been trying to bring Hunter to campus for three or four years.
“He’s a very sought-after orchestral trumpet player,” Richardson said. “He’s at the top of his game. We’re really excited to have him here. … We have 16 trumpet students that study privately with me. It’s great when they can hear somebody from outside come in so they can see what a professional does.”
Hunter started with a trumpet master class where he introduced himself to around 30 students sitting in a semi-circle on the stage of the Charles Johnson Theater. He worked closely with four trumpet students — seniors Brandon Sconce, Delaney Lynam, Kaila Stigler and junior Michael Ford — to enhance their musicality on excerpts they performed for him.
Sconce said he had worked with professionals before, but he enjoyed the opportunity because it exposed him to what it’s like to play music for a living.
“(Professional musicians) are people like us. They just know more,” Sconce said. “When you start viewing them as other people, it becomes a lot easier to work with them.”
Sconce hadn’t heard of Hunter until one of his professors mentioned he would be coming to Northwest. Because Sconce hadn’t heard of Hunter, he learned it’s possible to be professional without being well-known.
“You can be good at what you do, and you don’t need to be the only one. There’s more than one professional out there,” Sconce said. “We can all do it. It’s very nice to know that.”
Hunter said he auditioned 25-30 times before getting his first part in an orchestra. To keep his morale up each time he auditioned, he treated himself well regardless of the outcome.
“I was very open to criticism, not beating myself into oblivion when I make a mistake because we all make mistakes,” Hunter said. “I would go out, have a nice dinner, relax and pat myself on the back saying, ‘You did a good job. You gave it your best.’”
Hunter traveled to Northwest amid the busiest weeks of his professional career. In the two weeks prior, he was asked to perform with the Philadelphia Orchestra in addition to performing four to five operas per week with the Metropolitan Opera. He rode the train between New York City and Philadelphia almost daily.
To add to his busy practice schedule, Hunter performed some of the most famous trumpet pieces, Richardson said, in a recital, accompanied by Jiwon Choi, Oct. 21. He had played the music before, but he was worried about how the accompaniment would go. After a single rehearsal with Choi, Hunter was confident about the show going well.
“Jiwon Choi was amazing,” Hunter said. “She knocked it out.”
Hunter had two presentations Oct. 22. In the morning, he talked about life as a professional musician. He explained his typical schedule for each week and how he adjusts his practice time when certain weeks are busier than others.
In his evening presentation, Hunter talked about the lack of diversity in orchestras across the country. In almost all of the orchestras he played in, he realized he was the only African American musician. He said the main reason orchestras aren’t diverse is the removal of the screen in most audition processes.
Musicians audition behind screens so the judging committee can choose them based on their musical ability. Usually the screen is eliminated for the final rounds, which Hunter said leads to inherent bias.
He said the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra is the most diverse orchestra because the screen is used until the end of the audition process. Hunter promotes inclusion by working with the National Association of Audition Support, a program that helps minority musicians prepare for professional auditions.
Hunter said he wants to be a role model for diversity.
“The talent is out there. We just have to find it and seek it,” Hunter said. “I try to perform at the top of my ability because I see other younger African American trumpet players. It’s my job to open the gateway for them.”
Hunter’s visit was made possible by funds from the Missouri Art Council, the Dennis C. Dau Endowed Professorship in Instrumental Music, the Northwest College of Arts and Sciences and the Department of Fine and Performing Arts.
Richardson said the support from the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Michael Steiner, the grant writer Tye Parsons and Choi were vital in bringing Hunter to Northwest.