Send in the Clowns – Cavaliers Indoor

As the Percussion Product Manager for Yamaha, I get to attend some of the top percussion events in the US. This April, I was in Dayton, OH for the the 2015 WGI World Championships. Most people don’t get to see behind the scenes. Here’s a video of the Cavaliers Indoor Percussion WGI 2015 (Semifinals Performance) on a Yamaha YMRD-2900 Marimba. The video begins back stage and takes the viewer through the performance and out of the arena to the truck.

2015 Cadets “Learn the Music”

Happy 4th of July! Vic Firth does a great job on social media and this video series is a perfect example why they have 154,530 subscribers and 40,584,370 views since 2007 on their Youtube channel. Not only are these videos clear, they also scroll the music so you can learn exactly what the Cadets are playing. The videos on Vic Firth don’t only feature DCI groups, they also feature drum set artist, percussion ensembles, world music and much much more! Over the years, Vic Firth has become a destination for quality percussion education resources. Check out VicFirth.com for more videos and resources.

Better Preparing our Graduates

Over the past several years I’ve noticed a fair amount of discussion about the relevancy of a college education, especially one in the arts. And this post by Ivan Trevino echoes many of the concerns recent graduates are having about their college music degree experience.

I was asked recently to serve on a committee of faculty from the College of Fine Arts at UT to look more closely at the offerings, or lack thereof, of our current curriculum and to suggest changes and/or additions to better help students cope with life after school.

I’ve been writing and thinking about these things for quite some time and I’m excited about the opportunity to help our college adapt to the changing needs of our graduates. So, the purpose of tonight’s post, is to try and get a better pulse on what we, the protectors and directors of higher education, need to be aware of as we develop our offerings to become more relevant to today’s college music student.

To that end: whether you are a current college student, or college professor, what are your thoughts on how higher education needs to adapt to better prepare our graduates for success. Please leave your thoughts below and be sure to check out Ivan’s post (link above). Thanks for your ideas in advance!

Where Are We Going?

In his recent post, Tom Burritt asked us (percussionists) “Are we there yet?” I think that he brings up some very interesting points, and they perfectly set the stage for a post that I have been working through in my mind for the past few weeks. So, a big thanks to Tom for asking the right question at the right moment!

When we’re asked “Are we there yet?” my first response is “Where are we going?” If we don’t know what our destination is, then how can we possibly know if we’ve arrived? Using Tom’s post as our point of departure (no pun intended), it seems that our destination is “recognition” from the people and institutions who are the elite of “classical” music.

Of course, convincing ourselves that we need to be legitimized by those institutions or individuals is a slippery slope. That would imply that what we do, the art that we all love, is somehow lacking. Steve Schick recently said that for so long percussionists have felt as though they were “standing outside of the conservatory, banging on the door and hoping to be let in.” It seems like a valid assertion, given that we’re discussing whether or not percussion has “arrived” in the world of legitimate “classical” music. The next question in my mind is then: “Should we even care about being in the conservatory?”

In 2009, Allan Kozinn of The New York Times wrote that “drums are the new violins.” Perhaps this is exactly the kind of recognition that we are seeking? An article in one of the world’s most widely-read newspapers proclaiming the arrival of percussion as a viable art. But, drums can never be violins. Or, perhaps more importantly, violins can never be drums. And, frankly, I think that we should all be proud of that.

The violin is like the piano. It’s an instrument that is also an icon. It’s a symbol of the highest form of musical artistry. Seeing a violin, or walking into a concert hall and seeing a Steinway sitting on the stage, immediately recalls centuries of great artistry and compositions. The violin is played by “prodigies” (Mozart) and great “virtuosi” (Paganini). It’s repertoire is full of “masterworks,” which are written by “geniuses” (Bach, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky). The music caters to the thoughtful, insightful, intellectual listener. The violin has achieved a status as a cultural icon, and rightly so. Many great artists have written for and played the violin. It’s not that percussion music, artists, or instruments are any better or worse. It’s just different.

When we talk about great violins, an Amati or a Stradivarius, we, of course, talk in terms of tone quality, and eventually the conversation usually comes around to a dollar amount. We’ve all read about the million dollar violins that are left in the trunk of a taxi after an orchestra concert. But percussion instruments aren’t talked about in terms of cost. They are generally regarded as interchangeable and relatively inexpensive. How many times are percussion instruments referred to as “toys”? Ironically, for percussionists, those same instruments that get thrown in the back of trucks and hit with all kinds of beaters receive a sort of reverence that can only be described as almost religious. Rocky Moffitt writes of the gong: “Mystery, spirituality, beauty, and power – all this can be found in the sound of a Gong,” and he goes on to say that “They were believed to banish evil spirits and attract wind or rain. It is said that to be touched by the sound of a gong imparts strength and happiness, and that ‘bathing’ in the vibrations of a gong can restore health.” Put another way, we take our shoes off to play Gamelan, but not Beethoven or Bach. What does that say about the value we are already placing on percussion music?

And yet, percussionists are still the outsiders. If you don’t believe me, think about where your school’s percussion studio was located. In almost every music building that I’ve visited or studied in the percussion studio, faculty offices, practice rooms, and other facilities are about as far away from the front door as possible. Sure, it’s nice to have a dedicated percussion “suite,” with all of our instruments and rooms close to one another, but what message does it send when we’re tucked away in the basement, or in the back of a building? What are the implications of having all of the music faculty offices side by side in a hallway, and the percussion teacher all alone on another floor of the building?

Percussionists are also anonymous. I walk in a room and go straight to the back, because that’s where I’m used to being. We always hear that “good students” sit in the front of the classroom, so what does it mean to be perpetually in the back? Obviously, I acknowledge the practical issues with putting a concert bass drum, chimes, and a section full of standing percussionists between the conductor and the rest of the ensemble. But still, the soloist stands in the front of the orchestra to play their concerto. The maestro is always at the front, in full view of the audience. The brass stands to play the last strain of “Stars and Stripes Forever.” How often is there a spotlight on the percussionist?

And what about our music and the people who write it? Percussion music, in its most fundamental form, is also anonymous. Our performance tradition is measured in millennia, not centuries. Our ancestors are entire cultures of people, not individual dead white guys who we’ve labeled as “geniuses.” We can trace our roots to West Africa, China, India, Java and Bali, and the oldest cultures in the world in the Middle East. The Bible specifically mentions tambourines and cymbals (but no violins, just saying…). When we consider all of that music, can we name a single composer? No, but that doesn’t make it any less valuable. We know that the music of those people and cultures has become so intertwined with their identity, that it supersedes any one individual who might have initially created it. It’s more appropriate to think of the music as a living, breathing entity that is being constantly shaped and influenced by all who perform and experience it. Master drummer Mamady Keita writes about African drumming: “In a very short time, it creates an atmosphere of warmth, a closeness, and a completely different type of relationship between people.” It’s not about who wrote it, or who gets to stand in front of the ensemble when it’s performed. It’s about the people playing it and how they interact with one another. It’s about building relationships and bonds between people.

The world of western art music strives to establish the most outstanding and elite through competitions, prizes, publications, awarding grants, or performances in highly-regarded venues. Applying for a teaching job at a conservatory? What other prestigious conservatory did you study at? Who was your teacher, and what’s their lineage/pedigree? Where is your research published? How many times have you played Carnegie? What major symphony orchestras have you performed with? Who are your corporate sponsors? What competitions (performance or composition) have you won? How have you distinguished yourself from all the rest?

Percussion music is different. As Cage famously said “Percussion music is revolution.” It’s not a revolution (solely) because of its aesthetic properties. Just compare the last paragraph to the Keita quote before it. Our music is democratic, egalitarian, and inclusive. Percussion music truly is the music of the castoffs and outsiders. Percussion music is for everyone, and its goal is to bring people together and create a sense of community. I’ve heard other musicians label percussionists as the “salt of the earth.” Our reputation is one of collegiality, flexibility, experimentation, and open-mindedness. Is there a better label than the one that we already have? What is still missing for percussionists? You can find percussion permeating the fabric of daily life all across the world. Just like you can go to Disney Hall and see a full percussion section on stage with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, you can find teenagers playing drums in garage bands, people in subway stations and on street corners drumming on 5 gallon buckets, contemporary chamber music performances in bars and art galleries, and you can’t round a corner between August and October without running into a high school drumline. And that’s just here in the US! Every other culture has their own versions of the same story. Percussion may just be the most widely accepted and frequently encountered music on the planet, and it’s been that way for thousands of years.

And so I pose the question again: “Where are we going?” Should we be measuring our success in terms of Pulitzer Prizes? Do we know that we’ve “arrived” when the great arbiter of culture, the New York Philharmonic, programs more percussion concerti than violin concerti in a season? Does any of that even matter? Our art form is ancient and sacred. Cultures use percussion music to celebrate new life, the end of life, the joining of lives, and all of the events in between. It seems to me that no other form of music represents the people of the world, and the diverse lives that they lead, better than percussion has already been doing for thousands of years. And, of course, John Cage has something else to say about all of this:

“I don’t think, as some seem to be thinking, that the percussion should become like the other sections of the orchestra, more expressive in their terms. I believe that the rest of the orchestra should become as noisy, poverty-stricken, and unemployed as the percussion section.”

If the percussion world is headed in a different direction, I just might want to stay where we are now… It’s kind of nice to be outside of the conservatory.

Are We There Yet?

pulitzer_logo

Recently, as I was putting the finishing touches on the University of Texas Percussion Group Fall 2014 Concert I discovered a connection between the composers; all had recently won Pulitzers.

2014 – John Luther Adams
2013 – Caroline Shaw
2012 – Kevin Puts
2011 – Zhou Long
2010 – Jennifer Higdon
2009 – Steve Reich
2008 – David Lang

With the exception of Puts, I had works by JLA, Shaw, Long and Higdon all on the docket. That represents 4 out of 5 of the last Pulitzer Prize Winners in the music category. Most of us are more familiar with the works of Reich and Lang than the previous 5 names on the list, but it was, in the end ridiculously easy to make an entire program of works who’s genesis began with a prize winner. And, Puts for what it’s worth, has several very nice offerings for percussion as well. So, what does this mean?

I believe we are living in an important time for percussionists, especially for those who play chamber music. Is there anything to this observation that suggests percussion instruments have taken a huge stride forward (in the last 7 years) in relevance to contemporary music? While I obviously feel strongly that there is a pattern here perhaps we won’t really get there until a work written entirely for percussion wins the big one.

Are we there yet? Leave your thoughts below the post.

Understanding the Problem at Hand.

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.

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