On September 4, 2016, principal percussionist Raynor Carroll retired from the Los Angeles Philharmonic. After serving the orchestra for 33-years and playing countless concerts, he has decided to step down and continue directing the percussion program at UCLA. I was fortunate to take private lessons with Raynor from 1995 – 1998 while I was in the American Youth Symphony. I still remember my first phone call and lesson. Raynor changed the way that I approached timpani and percussion. Years later, I had the opportunity to teach with him at the Bob Cole Conservatory of Music at CSULB and I will always be indebted to him for everything he taught me over the past 20 years. (more…)
Don’t underestimate the importance of understanding the problem at hand. In our “neurotic” (obsessive) percussion culture we often concern ourselves too much with playing the geekiest, nerdiest, and most expensive gear. While this obsession isn’t necessarily a bad thing (and often is the most important thing) there are some instances, especially for younger players, where it can throw us off course.
As usual, I like to take things I learn in life and apply them to my teaching and playing. I recently got back to water skiing. And, as is often the case, I was reminded of something I learned way back in my skiing hay-day (too long ago) that applies to my profession today. You see, I learned to slalom ski (one ski) on mediocre to good equipment. After several years of experience I was invited to try a top of the line, very expensive ski. I got up, hit a cut as hard as normal and the next thing I knew I was eating serious water. I learned the hard way that I had greatly underestimated the ski! It was TOTALLY different, almost to the point where I was a beginner again. That ski took time to adjust to, a long learning curve to be sure! I wasn’t able to continue skiing with it, but if I had, I know my skiing would have eventually taken a big next step. Why? Was it just because the ski? Well, only partly, if I didn’t have the strong foundation of skiing well on good equipment, I would be less likely to adapt to the high test qualities of the new ski. If I had started on that high end ski I would have failed immediately.
That story leads me to my question today; how important is the equipment (both instruments and stick/mallets) we use? Could it be that we look to our instruments and mallets to solve problems that only we can solve as players? If this is true, are we really reaping the benefits from that super geeky expensive gear?
Learn how to make more than one sound out of one set of sticks than only one sound out of each stick you own.
I’ve seen it often; younger players allowing their tools to distract them from the more important goal. This summer I witnessed a student insisting they needed a deeper snare drum when what they really needed to do was solve a more important problem first; playing any drum in time with the orchestra and conductor. Often students, after learning a new trick of the trade, are too eager to unveil it in an important audition or concert, and after doing so don’t realize that it made that excerpt flop even harder. Or, what about that show player, who is more concerned about having 8 sets of timpani mallets at their disposal in the middle of a large Broadway show set-up, than taking into consideration how that seemingly constructive idea actually causes logistical issues because it causes more problems that it solves (extraneous timpani mallets flying about the set-up as mallet changes are attempted but failed).
Actually, maybe this is a phenomenon seen all around us. Think about the infamous launch of the iPhone 4. It was made with 2 sides glass! Cool and shiny right? So I bought in.. (you did too..) and in a matter of weeks or months one or both sides of my “super elegant and high-end” smart phone were shattered. Think about it. How many iPhones have you seen around you with shattered screens? So much so that it gave birth to an entire business of screen replacement establishments eager to make money off of a design that had noble intentions but was a terrible idea. I fell in love with the bling, the status symbol, drank the Apple cool-aid; “this is what YOU want”. When all along what I really needed was a more durable smartphone, a hardware design that was more practical for the constant and stressful use of a device that went with me everywhere. Imagine a phone with a rubber back, one that didn’t feel like a slippery “fish” in the hands. Admittedly, a bit less “high end” but way more functional and durable. So I turned to Android, a platform that was at the time a bit less design oriented but infinitely more customizable. After experiencing the stable but restrictive capabilities of iOS Android turned out to be the high end ski! A software experience more adaptable with more practical hardware.
But what is the problem at hand? The point is to encourage younger players to find your own solution. Don’t let the bling of a new set of sticks, or a new super geeky marimba design distract you from making a mediocre to good instrument sound great. Ask questions like: why do I only use my teachers mallets? Keep it simple. As a starting point use minimal amounts of mallets. Learn how to make more than one sound out of one set of sticks than only one sound out of each stick you own. When you fully explore this minimal approach and learn to make your best sounds the bells and whistles of a new set of mallets, or a new instrument design will then become as important as they were meant to be by the brilliant designers who created them. Because you understand the foundation you will know how to apply the icing on the cake.
Real artistry doesn’t exist on high end equipment alone. Make the marimba sound great when you play it without resonators. Learn how to play an entire show with one set of timpani mallets while still creating articulate and legato notes. Learn how to make a lower end drum kit sound like DW’s top of the line model. If you can do all of these things and you finally get that “high end ski”, you’ll begin to really understand the difference between low and high end gear.
As always, I like to hear your perspective. While I’m obviously passionate about what I write here I’m also convinced there are many other ways to this end. Please share them and any other reactions below the post.
Attention all auditioning orchestral percussionists: audition for Japan’s “New World” Symphony; the Hyogo PAC Orchestra. I recently returned from a healthy week long visit to HPAC for the PAC Percussion! series of concerts on August 2nd and 3rd. Every year in August the orchestra organizes two concerts (the same) featuring the PAC percussion section with a guest artist. For more information about this years concerts click here.
As it turns out there is an inspirational story around the orchestras inception. According to HPAC’s site: “During the decade following the great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake of 1995, the courage, persistence, and compassion of Hyogo’s local residents brought about a miraculous renewal of the devastated region.” In 2005 the orchestra opened as a symbol of cultural rebirth of the region. Since then it has seen it’s 4 millionth audience.
HPAC orchestra is a resident orchestra exclusively affiliated with Hyogo Performing Arts Center under artistic direction of Yutaka Sado. During a three-year term, 48 international core members under the age of 35 engage in a variety of performance opportunities
including full orchestra and chamber orchestra concerts, a fully-staged opera, and chamber ensemble performances of standard and modern repertoire. They are joined in these performances by leading conductors, guest players and coaches from around the world. The HPAC program offers professional development for Core Members through master-classes and private lessons with visiting artists.
The facilities are immensely impressive and the center, being fully government funded, spares no expense when it comes to putting on productions and concerts. I had a first class experience. So, I share this post as an advocate for the center as it seems a bit unknown. Be sure to explore the source link above for more information.
Where you aware of this opportunity? Have any others that fit into this category? Please share your thoughts below the post.
We live in a culture where things are either working or they’re not. And if they’re not working, we throw them away.
Apparently, there used to be these things called repair stores. These were stores that fixed your broken TV’s, washer and dryers and even blenders and toasters. The way products are made and purchased today, the vast majority of these stores have gone out of business. Our approach and feeling about the things we own has also driven these stores out of our lives.
We see this in the professional world all the time as well. A good example is the shelf life for professional coaches. An under-performing season for your team (maybe 2 if you’re lucky) typically means you’re looking for a new job. This is seen not only in sports but many professions including music. Fair or unfair, it’s just the way things work.
All this leads to some misunderstandings in the music world. Many students and teachers have the mindset of “this either works it doesn’t.” Students either get it or they don’t. This has also led to the belief that people are either naturally talented at something or they’re simply not. One of my favorite quotes about talent is this – I find it amusing when people tell me that they don’t have a talent for music. I tell them to go practice for two hours a day for the next year. Then, come back and tell me how untalented you are.*
This is also one of the reasons that I’m not a fan of talent shows on television like American Idol and America’s Got Talent. They seem to perpetuate this idea that a person is inherently talented and then is somehow picked and their life is changed forever. While that’s great for the very small percentage that it works for, this isn’t reality. Reality is more along the lines of practicing everyday for ten years and creating a career through learning and experience. There are plenty of other posts on this site about creating a career, so I won’t go into that here.
Thankfully, there are places in the music world teaching the concept of persistence. The first that comes to my mind are the lessons learned in the marching arenas of percussion. Showing up everyday in the summer and every weekend through the winter teaches students that nothing is handed out, it takes a large amount of time and dedication to get good at anything in life and that things can in fact be fixed. These are invaluable lessons that go against the grain of many things in our culture. If this lesson is learned early, it can have a tremendous impact in anyone’s life.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that things can’t be fixed. Teachers – be patient and take time with your students. Students – be patient and take time with yourself. Nothing will ever be able to replace hard work over a long period of time.
*I couldn’t find the origin of this quote. If you know where it comes from, please let me know!
Gordon with “Big Bertha”
After spending several days hosting Gordon Stout at the 2014 Longhorn Marimba Intensive I couldn’t help but be impressed with his vigor and overall enthusiasm for playing and teaching. Gordon gave a marimba recital, clinic and master-class during his time at LHMI.
So how does he do it? He attributes losing weight (almost 20lbs!), a recent sabbatical, and more practice time; claiming he is currently playing his best. After his recital I can attest to that! I can only hope that in my 60’s I can be playing that well, and have as much zeal for playing and sharing my knowledge of the marimba.
Of course, In Gordon’s case, that knowledge is immense. The students (and yes, yours truly) constantly enjoyed many of Gordon’s stories and philosophies. After a serious update on the rosewood shortage Gordon made a statement saying “Breaking a marimba bar is a sin”. The students all laughed but, of course Gordon didn’t.
As someone who remembers earlier days for the modern marimba and it’s repertoire I find younger students don’t know enough about figures like Gordon Stout and what they’ve contributed to our art. To that end I know that Gordon is currently working on an iBook to help rectify this problem. We’ll keep you posted on that effort and be sure to let you know of it’s progress.
Gordon discussing his 2nd Mexican Dance
It’s refreshing to me to see how he has embraced technology. Gordon shared with me that along with his new ibook project he is also experimenting with video. Expect him to make the best use of the ibooks platform. You’ll also find Gordon on Twitter: @StoutGordon (I love his twitter profile pic). Gordon recently released a new CD entitled Welcome to Stoutland which will be released digitally soon. Hit the link above for more news and information about his new music and projects.
Want more Gordon? Be sure to check out our podcast interview from a few years back: Part I Part II.
Do you have any Gordon Stout impressions? If so, please share them below the post.
It’s really easy to get caught up in the success and failures of your career.
It’s human nature to identify our worth with the ups and downs of what is immediately happening. Maybe you just performed a piece that didn’t go so well. The result of this has always been for me to feel like I don’t even belong in the percussion world. Or – on the opposite side of the universe – maybe you just composed a piece for your ensemble and they learned it quickly, efficiently and it sounds great. All of a sudden, you feel like you should be on top of the percussion writing world.
What’s important is for us to realize is that if you’re having these ups and downs, it just means that you’re passionate about what you do. Every career runs in to some hard times, and that’s only magnified in the arts fields. But, at the end of the day, we’re all fortunate to know precisely what we’re passionate about. Many people wake up and go to work on a job they don’t really care for because they don’t know what else to do. As percussionists, we couldn’t imagine doing anything else besides percussion. We’re lucky because of that.
Elizabeth sums this up much more elegantly than I do…