Percussive Musings
Thoughts From A Department Recital

Dear Music Majors, 

I am back with another letter to you on a different topic. Let’s discuss recital performance etiquette briefly. Going on stage to perform is an important part of your training as a musician and teacher but is also the culmination of all of your hard work in the practice room working at perfecting your craft on your instrument. You should not look at going on stage to perform as a punishment or as something you HAVE to do. You should look at it as an opportunity to show off what you have learned and most importantly to try and communicate something to those who are there to listen to you. The audience is there to support you and to enjoy your work and are looking forward to hearing what you have to say. I know you get nervous. We all get nervous. If someone tells you they are not nervous when they perform they are lying, don’t care anymore how they sound or are on beta blockers! But one of the things that you are learning to do at this point with these performances is to control the symptoms of your nervousness. That is another reason we encourage you to perform as much as possible. Keep in mind though that the level of your nervousness is often directly tied in to your preparation. If you have done EVERYTHING in your power to prepare for your performance (diligent practice, listening to your teachers guidance, playing for others etc.) you will be able to gain more control over your adrenaline and start to enjoy your performances more, which will lead to greater enjoyment for your audience as well. You also have to experience and learn to work with this because someday you will be teaching others how to perform as well and if you have not gone through this process yourself you will not be able to teach someone else how to do it.

There are things you can do such as walking up and down the stairs and then going in and immediately playing. This simulates the physical symptoms that many experience when they go to perform (increased heart rate, shallower breathing). Pull friends (or enemies if you really want to live on the edge…..) into the practice room to hear you play. Anything to get used to how you react when performing in front of an audience.

We all got into music at some point because we enjoyed doing it. It is OK to LOOK like you are enjoying it on stage! You can even smile (don’t worry, the building won’t fall over). Be patient as you come on stage and actually stop moving BEFORE you bow (watch how many people are basically still walking as they bow coming on). When you bow look at your shoes and not the audience (that is not the time to smile at them as your head being up while you bow looks really weird). Then go to where you are going to play and TAKE A DEEP BREATH BEFORE STARTING. You don’t have to rush into playing. For that period of time the stage is yours and everyone is there only to focus on you. Take your time. A good exercise: think mentally through the first few bars of your piece before you start. It helps you set a tempo, get in your head (and ear) your first few pitches and just gives you a chance to get settled on the stage. When your performance is done WAIT a second before starting to move. Enjoy that moment right after you finish before the applause starts. Then, patiently again, stop and give a good bow to the audience. Now is when you should really look appreciative to the audience for having shared that experience with you. Then, if you played with someone else, take a second to truly acknowledge them (and no, a cursory arm wave while basically walking off the stage does NOT count).

And a note about that other person on stage with you. You might know them as your “accompanist” (a term I despise!). Many know them as a collaborative pianist (better term). I think of them as your duo partner. Now wait a minute you are probably thinking. How are they my duo partner? Take a second, pull out your music and look at the amount of time you play in your piece compared to the amount of time they do. I promise you they play a lot more notes and a lot more of the time than you probably do in most of your pieces (and while you play one piece on the program they might be playing for 5 other people that same day). If you are doing a concerto or aria they are probably playing an entire bloody orchestral score reduced down to ten fingers!! At the same time they are trying to follow your tempo shifts, adding measures to the piece after you get lost to get back with you, dropping measures to find you when you skip or rush rests etc. That is a role that is MUCH more than merely accompanying your performance. So, the least you could do is really acknowledge them at the end of your performance. Give them a chance to be acknowledged by the audience. THANK THEM there on the stage for finding you again after you left out 20 beats of your piece……..

Really take the time to think about HOW you are on the stage as a performer. And this is a skill that must be practiced! Practice bowing. Practice acknowledging others who played with you. Make it a regular part of your routine and it won’t seem so foreign when it comes time to do it on stage for real.

An Open Letter To Music Students

Dear Music Major,

One of the most important things that any musician can do to increase their growth as an artist, performer, learner and teacher of music is to experience as much live music as they possibly can. Only in a live performance can you really hear many of the nuances involved in a piece, as well as seeing the subtleties of how gesture, movement, focus and more can have an effect on the perception of a piece by an audience. Experiencing how different performers interact with other musicians and their audience is something that has to truly be experienced live to truly start to learn how to be better at it. It is also a fabulous (and easy) way to learn about new repertoire and new approaches to music making. These are skills and traits that whether you a performance major, an education major or a business major are all applicable to what you will eventually do for a career.

The reason I am writing this message is because I am seeing an increasingly worrisome trend when it comes to attendance by music students at concerts, masterclasses etc.  This year at our campus we have been keeping careful track of the attendance numbers at every single performance and we are seeing a definite downward trend as time moves on. I am hearing similar worries from other campuses around the country as well. As someone who was interested enough in music to pursue it as an academic major I would think that would mean you would also be interested in it enough to go and experience it in as many different formats as possible.

When was the last time you attended a concert by one of the professional orchestras within 2 hours of the campus. When was the last time you saw a theater production at several of the major venues that are also within this driving distance? Until you are consistently seeing the best that is out there in regards to performance you cannot truly believe that you are fully preparing yourself to join in that field! While we make a concerted effort to bring as many performances to our schools as we can, it is still limited in scope to what is out there in the rest of the world.

I encourage you to attend masterclasses on instruments that are NOT the one you play! Many of the greatest things I have learned, for example, have come from vocal and string masterclasses. It is vital to see how other musicians look at and approach musical style, phrasing, breathing, rhythm, intonation and more. I promise you that you will find at least one thing in every masterclass you attend, regardless of what instrument it is, that you can use in your own music making. And even if it is only 1 thing, isn’t the time invested to get that 1 piece of information enough? And education majors: these masterclasses are a GREAT way for you to supplement the exceedingly limited amount of time we are allotted to instruct you on how to teach all of the other instruments you will eventually be working with!!!

In addition, one of the realities of life as an artist (and as an arts educator!) is that our field is constantly under attack about its relevancy to today’s world. We are daily cast into a role of having to be advocates for our chosen career path. We have to strive to build audiences and to try and attract new listeners to be interested in not just what we do but why we do it. So this begs the question: if you are not advocates for music within your own department and region, how prepared will you be to advocate for it once you are outside of these walls?

I understand that everyone is busy. That is the life of a musician. But I can promise you that you will NEVER have as much time and opportunity to experience live music making and teaching than you have right now as a student. Please take advantage of, and be appreciative of, the opportunity you have been afforded!

Sports and Music

Happy New Year everyone! I just got an email telling me that this blog is 2 years old today! I have not posted to it as much as I would like to but I am hoping to do more with it this year (don’t we ALWAYS say things like that??).

Anyone who knows me knows I am pretty much a sports junkie. I love sitting down to watch baseball, football, soccer, basketball etc. It gives me a chance to get away from my time focusing on music. In fact on my way to work it is almost always ESPN radio if I am not listening to some kind of podcast or music I have to learn soon. But I also believe that there is much to be learned as musicians and teachers from sports coaches. These coaches are exceedingly focused and prepared at all times but there are a few important points we can take away from them for music.

1)      “To me, the big thing in being a successful team is repetition of what you’re doing, either by word of mouth, blackboard, or specifically by work on the field. You repeat, repeat, repeat as a unit.” — Vince Lombardi

Practice matters A LOT! All coaches will tell you that their games are won and lost in how they prepare leading up to the game. Studying the game plan (the score in our case) to figure out how best to attack (work through our music) the other teams weaknesses (our most difficult spots) is how they increase their chances to win. And in every practice it is about repeating their plan until everyone on the field fully understands what has to happen.

2)      "When you watch the game, be a student of the game." — Don Meyer

It is vital for us as students and musicians to be students of the game. Reading about our field, listening to new recordings, talking to others about the field and more has to be a regular part of our lives. Music is an ever changing field and we have to remain students of it to keep learning and progressing through our careers.

3)      ”Look, coaching is about human interaction and trying to know your players. Any coach would tell you that. I’m no different.” — Bill Parcells 

As teachers it is important to remember that every one of our students is different and will have to be approached slightly differently. One of the hardest things to work on is figuring out the slight differences in how each student has to be approached.

4)      “All coaching is, is taking a player where he can’t take himself.” — Bill McCartney 

One of the things that we have to do as teachers is push our students do things that they don’t believe or know they can do.

5)      “Failure is good. It’s fertilizer. Everything I’ve learned about coaching, I’ve learned from making mistakes.” — Rick Pitino 

Variations on this quote come up all the time but it is true in every instance. If one is really trying to do great things as a musician there are times they are going to fail. What has to happen in those instances is to take the focus from the failure itself and the emotions involved in failing. Instead the performer has to turn it around to study “why” the failure occurred and what has to be done to prevent it from happening again.

6)      “If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?” — John Wooden 

John Wooden was one of the best ever and I think this is one of his best quotes that is so applicable to us as musicians in the practice room!

7)      “Never mistake activity for achievement.” — John Wooden 

Another practice room gem from coach Wooden. How often do musicians focus on how long they practiced rather than what was actually accomplished during the practice?

8)      “Setting a goal is not the main thing. It is deciding how you will go about achieving it and staying with that plan.” — Tom Landry

We often talk about how important it is to have goals when we go into practice/rehearsal sessions, but too often the discussion might not revolve around HOW to achieve the practice goals. Think about not just writing down the practice goal itself but also sketch out ideas of what approaches will be used to accomplish that goal.

9)      “Confidence comes from being prepared.” — John Wooden

As is often discussed in lectures on performance anxiety, the number one way to help curb that anxiety is to be prepared.

10)   “Coaching is nothing more than eliminating mistakes before you get fired.” --Lou Holtz 

A humorous one to end but it still applies to our practicing and preparation for every gig we do!

And finally, if the BCS matchups this bowl season have taught us anything it is that the underdog always has a chance! So far in 3 BCS games the underdog has won all 3 (two of them being 17 point underdogs!).  These teams did not listen to the pundits who said they did not have a chance to win. They focused on their preparation for the game and went into the game with an attitude of having nothing to lose because they were not supposed to win anyway. This gave them a freedom to play more relaxed than their “favored” and “better” opponent.

This is actually something that comes up when talking with students about job and graduate school auditions. To many times they focus on not being good enough so they don’t even take the audition. That is the only way to guarantee that you don’t get the position! If you want to get the job or go to the particular school, no matter how small you may believe your chances are, you have to go for it. There are too many variables based around the numbers auditioning, who has a good and bad day etc. to assume you are not going to get what you want so take the shot. These 3 teams did and they all won!

A few of my favorite coaching/sports books that relate well to teaching:

Positive Coaching: Building Character and Self-esteem Through Sports by Jim Thompson

Coach Wooden’s Leadership Game Plan for Success: 12 Lessons for Extraordinary Performance and Personal Excellence… by John Wooden

The One-Day Contract: How to Add Value to Every Minute of Your Life by Rick Pitino and Eric Crawford

Coming Back Stronger: Unleashing the Hidden Power of Adversity by Drew Brees

Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else by Geoff Colvin


It’s Judging Time Again

This weekend starts marching band judging season for me. As I have done this for awhile I have noticed that a lot of the same things continually recur. To that end several years ago I put together this handout I use at clinics.

Top 15 Judges Comments on the Percussion Tape

1) Bass drums are overbalancing the winds. This is very commonly a result of too much unison writing in the parts. This can also be technique related. Could also be caused by the drums being tuned too low, all to nearly the same pitch, or not muffled enough.

2) Lack of clarity within accent and tap passages. This is most commonly the result of the accent and tap notes being performed at the same stick height. Go for either 6” and 3” or 8” and 3” for better clarity.

3) Pit is playing ahead of the band. Most commonly this is a result of the pit watching the drum major (A BIG NO NO!) rather than listening to the winds and drums behind them.

4) Inconsistent approach to the double stroke. Most drumming boils down to single and double strokes and combinations in between (with occasional triple strokes). A regular part of every lines warm-up must be a double stroke exercise, including a roll exercise. Listen for EVERY stroke lining up exactly between players.

5) Problems with attacks. The drum line needs to have some sort of verbal timing element (e.g. the syllable dut) to make sure they attack together).

6) Small percussion section not really being effectively used. This one can be controversial, but if you only have a few students I would rather see them in the front ensemble playing keyboards, timpani, drumset, adding impacts etc. than as a battery (I would NOT score you down for this!). I feel it is sounder educationally this way, and they can make a better contribution to the overall product. Don’t just ground them in the pit area while still playing battery parts either.

7) Book having problems fitting with the music. This can be a result of the percussion playing an incorrect style (i.e. not swinging swing, too rock-like in Latin etc.), the percussion parts being too busy (rests are a GOOD thing, but also be sure there are not too many notes for the tempo being performed), lack of dynamic contrast, and occasionally too easy (percussion should NOT play the exact same thing the entire show).

8) Too much emphasis on visuals. Visuals can be used to enhance the overall show, as well as for timing purposes but they should not be there just for their own sake. The music MUST come first.

9) Problems with balance within the percussion section. Most often the instruments that are lost are the tenors (too much bass and snare) and the front ensemble (especially mallets and timpani). This needs to be corrected from a distance. Most rehearsal or drum major podiums are too close to get a clear sense of balance. Another cause is often a player over (or under)playing their sound in relation to the rest of their segment.

10) Lack of impact from the percussion in the musical book. No, we don’t want the percussion to overpower the winds at impact points. But, good and effective use of cymbals and concert bass drum can add more punch and actually make the winds sound louder. 

11) Drill causing hearing/timing issues. Avoid forms with no back to them (i.e. V is bad, ^ is good). Often this is also a result of the players’ feet being out of tempo with their hands. Have them mark time when performing their book and exercises to get used to feet and hands moving together.

12) Inconsistent sticking in battery. The battery players MUST use the same sticking within each segment. These should be written into their music and the accurate learning of these must be a prime issue.

13) Lack of definition between flams and double stops. Flams must have two defined heights between the grace note and accent note. Double stops will be even heights. 

14) Pit needs to make more contribution to the musical ensemble. Often the front ensemble is just doubling the wind parts. This can help
strengthen the ensemble sound at times, but more often they need to play more of a counter role to add interest and to avoid tuning issues.

15) Battery not listening back when up front. If it is not a drum solo and the battery is in the front of the field they should be listening back to the winds for tempo.

Some Excellent Thoughts

This post is not written by me but includes thoughts I have often. Enjoy.

I have been thinking. 

Yesterday, as I was in symphony orchestra rehearsal, I was observing all the instruments and thought about how each instrument has a purpose and reason; each section of instruments unique, purposeful, and necessary to complete a job, the sweeping violin melodies and gorgeous brass harmonies. What if a section, the whole orchestra, or even just one person failed to execute their duty?

Amidst the rehearsal there were many wrong notes and sour pitches. There were wrong rhythms and shifty musicianship. There seemed to always be inaccuracies no matter what. As anger grew within our director, for whom I have only the highest respect for, finally lashed out. He quoted Beethoven: “To play a wrong note is insignificant; to play without passion is inexcusable!” With such ferocity and indignant emotion, I was taken away without even the slightest notion of what was to come next. Our leader had just halted the rehearsal and justifiably accused the orchestra of being without any sort of passion. After the wise words of Beethoven, he continued: “If you all aren’t going to play with passion what is the point of this? Why are we here? Why are we wasting our time? Musicians care about what they are doing! You guys are cracking jokes, not caring, laughing, and not taking this seriously! Are you a musician or are you just simply a player of your instrument?” 

Are you a musician or are you just simply a player of your instrument? 

Again, I was taken aback.

I kept thinking and I pondered this scene for awhile…

I began to parallel. 

Are you a musician or just a player of your instrument? Are you living your life the way it should be, or just getting by with the minimum requirement, going through the motions?

We should be musicians in the scheme of life and not just players of the instrument. Sure, we will inevitably hit “wrong notes” and make plenty of mistakes. Life is something that is a constant struggle. Just when you think things are going the right way, something comes up, no money, car repairs, loss, etc. 

As a musician, I can attest that an instrument is nearly the same way. I can be sat down at my piano and be playing fine on a piece of music right up to the point of a difficult technical passage, comparable to a broken car or something of the sort in the walk of the big “L”. You cannot just skip the three lines of music; you must work at it, overcome, and conquer the difficulty. Life is something that builds on previous occurrences, just as music does. The instrument of life can never be conceived as an easy progression. One can never and will never be done learning. There is always ways to improve upon you just as there are ways to improve in a musical standpoint. 

A musician can always work on their own technique, play through Hanon, improve their musicianship, and expand their musicality. I feel like in the grand scheme of life, people choose their paths. Whether the way a person chooses is good, bad, right, wrong, or whatever, it can always be improved upon. If something goes awry, we can and hopefully will recognize that and choose to make a logical positive change in our life for the better. 

Be a better “musician”. Take steps to improve your “technique”. Serve a purpose. Do what it takes. Strive for the best. Do not stay down; if you falter always get back up. We do not know what is in store but we cannot be passionless and remain defeated. Be like how the orchestra was after we were scolded. Make a change and be amazed at the transformations that take place.
Thoughts on Recruiting

One of the most exciting things about my career is all the different things I get to do. I play timpani with 3 orchestras, gig around a lot, teach drum corps etc. But one of the best parts comes in my teaching career. Every year we go through a ritual of trying to attract the best new students we can to our program. Students come to our school to visit, or visit our website to get more information. Either way requires a lot of commitment on the part to spark the interest in attending the school in a student.

When students contact me for information I try to be sure they get a very quick response. I want to be sure they have as much information as possible about myself, the program and the audition and admissions process. I try to be sure that our website is up to date and includes all of our requirements but also as much information about the program as is possible as well. I also use Facebook and Twitter to keep people update on the development of the program. I also try to make it a goal to not go over a couple of weeks without contacting my potential students.

When a student comes to visit it is VERY important to give them my time. I want them to tour the facilities, meet my students, watch our groups, and get a lesson etc. so they can really experience what we have to offer. Strangely though I hear all the time about schools doing the opposite. The student comes in, warms up, plays and then leaves without really getting to spend any time with the teacher or studio members. I have always found that to be strange. I know this may be because of the number of students that audition at a lot of these programs but in that case maybe there is a flaw in the audition system. I never feel like I really know as much as I would like to about a student based off of a 15-30 minute audition. I want to know WHO they are, not just WHAT they can do. I have made an effort to put more emphasis on students auditioning on non-audition days when they can come and really experience the program. So far, the results have been one of my largest and most talented incoming classes yet. Coincidence?

I often look to the model of college athletics recruiting. There potential athletes have multiple contacts with coaches and administrators. They tour the facilities. They attend games etc. The school goes out of their way to make the student feel wanted. It takes time and it takes effort. I feel like that should be my goal as well. I want to get to know the student but I also want them to get to know me! This is a HUGE life changing decision for them and I think they need to have as much information as possible before making this decision. And I want to know what kind of student they might be before I make a decision on them as well.

I want the same for my students looking at graduate schools. I can say that some of my students have been VERY fortunate to have gotten the time and ear of some wonderful potential teachers. Some have even taken time at PASIC to sit down and really talk to the students. As a teacher I am very appreciative of this. It always leaves a good impression when the student feels like the teacher is interested in them.

All students want to feel wanted by the programs they are looking at attending. And as teachers we want our programs to be places students want to attend. These goals can go together hand in hand if we will put in the effort. 

It can also be VERY beneficial to spend time talking to the parents as well since they will be paying the bills….

A note: these are just thoughts that work for me. I KNOW there are many great programs that audition insane numbers of students every year and do not have time to spend this much time with each student. But I also see that the best of those have a tremendous presence between Youtube, facebook, Twitter etc. to accomplish some of the same goals as I stated. So this was not in any way to discount the work of those teachers and programs.

@billsallak: Reacting to Daniel Asia. - As you might have heard, Daniel Asia had a few things to say about John Cage. And … from @billsallak on Twitter (via Scope)


Reacting to Daniel Asia. - As you might have heard, Daniel Asia had a few things to say about John Cage. And …

Post from @billsallak on Twitter (via Scope)

Stanford marching band in rose parade….yeah that should end well.

A Great Article to End The Year

From New York Times. I did not write this but love a lot it has to say!

Percussionists Go From Background to Podium

Published: December 27, 2009

I have been thinking a lot lately about percussion and percussionists. It is not so much because I’m fascinated with the kaleidoscopic array of noises and textures they create — though I am. I’ve been pondering the way percussion has gradually grabbed the spotlight over the last century, and how percussionists have been asserting themselves in the broader musical scene as composers and conductors.

Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times

The members of the group So Percussion — from left, Jason Treuting, Eric Beach, Adam Silwinski and Josh Quillen — often perform their own music.



The latest on the arts, coverage of live events, critical reviews, multimedia extravaganzas and much more. Join the discussion.

Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times

Evelyn Glennie, here with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, is a vigorous commissioner of new works by established composers and also writes her own music.

Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times

Josh Quillen, left, and Adam Silwinski, of So Percussion.

Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times

Jeffrey Milarsky, a percussionist who now performs mostly as a conductor.

Where a 19th-century orchestral percussionist mostly provided emphasis at cadential points and occasional painterly sound effects — the thunderstorm in the Beethoven “Pastoral” Symphony, for example — his modern descendant oversees a huge array of pitched and unpitched instruments, and from Stravinsky, Varèse and Bartok forward, his work could make or break a performance.

And that’s to say nothing of the expansion of the percussionist’s presence in chamber music. Contemporary chamber ensembles almost always have at least one percussionist on hand, often more, each with more paraphernalia than the rest of the group combined. Soloists like Evelyn Glennie, Steven Schick, Jonathan Haas and Michael Pugliese and groups like So Percussion, the Kroumata Percussion Ensemble and Nexus can fill a stage with a truckload of vibraphones, marimbas, tubular bells, gongs, rattles, drums and assorted items to be hit, struck or whaled on.

Flipping through a stack of program books from recent new-music concerts devoted to chamber works by John AdamsPierre Boulez, Mario Davidovsky, Kaija Saariaho, Julia Wolfe and Iannis Xenakis, I see that the only ones that don’t involve percussionists are an Arditti Quartet performance and an evening of recent works for violin and cello (by composers who write plentifully for percussion in other contexts). And that’s not counting “Imaginary City,” an inventive production written and performed by the four members of So Percussion.

If you think about it, drums are the new violins.

This is a realization I have come to relatively slowly, given the prominence of percussion in contemporary music, not to mention the number of performances by solo percussionists and percussion ensembles I’ve reviewed over the last two decades. As someone who misspent part of his youth putting together rock bands, I always had the hardest times with the drummers. They were the egotists who wanted their names, rather than the group’s, on their bass drums, and they were the ones who thought that the intricate acoustic number would be a great place for a 20-minute drum solo.

My attitude probably began to change in college, when I sat next to a percussionist in my music-theory class and asked him for advice about a chamber piece (with a percussion part) that I was writing. My problem was that I wanted an effect that used a fairly unwieldy gong, and I planned to use it only once in the entire three-movement piece. “So what’s the problem?” he asked. I told him that as much as I wanted the sound of the gong in that one bar of music, I thought it seemed silly to have the instrument dragged to a concert hall for just one stroke. He laughed and said, “But that’s what we do.”

Of course it is. If you keep a close eye on soloists like Ms. Glennie or groups like So Percussion, when they do their thing, you will not only be satisfied that all the hundreds of items in their stage setups were used at some point in the performance but also that a great many of them were touched only sparingly. If efficiency were the ideal, percussionists would record samples of these items (they are often not actually instruments, but rather tin cans, teapots, brake drums and other found objects) and load them onto a laptop or an electronic keyboard. A composer might do just that. But no self-respecting percussionist would.

Having established their centrality to the sound of contemporary music, percussionists are beginning to make themselves heard in other ways; for example, by composing and conducting. Again the contrast with the 19th century and even the first part of the 20th century is enormous.

Time was when the great composers of the classical canon were overwhelmingly pianists and violinists. So were the most important conductors. It made sense: pianists are trained to deal with varied, often dense polyphonic textures and have cultivated a discipline that lets them control the strands within these textures with a startling independence. That is a skill conductors need. And for composers, there is nothing like a keyboard for trying out passages with complicated rhythmic or harmonic combinations.

Violinists have thrived as conductors for different reasons. One is historical: Before the rise of the nonplaying conductor, orchestras were led by their concertmasters. And given that strings make up the largest part of an orchestra, and their sound is often a crucial part of its sonic personality, it is useful for a conductor to know about string tone and technique from the inside.

But as the music has changed, from string-, wind- and brass-driven Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler and even Schoenberg to modern works of all stripes, in which the percussion lines are frequently in the spotlight, percussionists have moved out of the background. This change was well under way by the mid-1960s. John Cage, though principally a pianist, was drawn toward percussion in the 1930s and ’40s, and organized ensembles for which he wrote his “Constructions” and other works.

Steve Reich began his musical life as a percussionist, and a seminal part of his training was his study of traditional drum techniques in Ghana. When he assembled his own ensemble, Steve Reich and Musicians, vibraphones and marimbas were central, and the magnum opus of his early years was “Drumming.”

Skip a generation, and you’ve got composing percussionists everywhere: Lukas Ligeti composes works in styles that skirt classical, jazz and world music; Glenn Kotche, the drummer for Wilco, writes percussion music that sounds at home at a new-music concert. (He performed some with the Bang on a Can All-Stars at Alice Tully Hall in March. Ms. Glennie, though a vigorous commissioner of new works by established composers, has written plenty of music herself, and the So Percussion ensemble is as likely to perform its own music (particularly that of Jason Treuting, its principal composer) as that of Mr. Reich or anyone else.

Conducting is the final frontier, and percussionists have been quietly trading one form of stick technique for another. The incursion began at least 41 years ago when Jean-Claude Casadesus, a percussionist in new-music circles in the 1960s, was appointed resident conductor at the Opéra de Paris and the Opéra Comique; he later founded the National Orchestra of Lille.

But though Mr. Casadesus conducts a reasonable amount of contemporary music, his repertory is generally mainstream. Perhaps a better example of a percussionist bringing the skills he forged on his instrument to the podium is Jeffrey Milarsky. Once a regular percussionist on New York’s new-music circuit, Mr. Milarsky performs mostly as a conductor now, and he specializes in contemporary works for which an ability to sort out rhythmic complexities is vital. He has filled in for James Levine with the Met Chamber Ensemble in a Milton Babbitt program, and as the director of the Juilliard School’s new Axiom ensemble, he has conducted programs of Elliott Carter and, a few weeks ago, Mr. Adams.

When conductors with Mr. Milarsky’s skills and interests begin to be taken seriously by the major orchestras, things might get interesting. It may take a musician with a percussionist’s ear for polyrhythms to make complex works sound eloquent and expressive to listeners who currently resist them. And maybe a generation of percussionists turned conductors will accomplish the renovation of the orchestral canon that is now nearly a century overdue.

@JGpercussion: NYTimes: Percussionists have moved to the forefront of music from @JGpercussion on Twitter (via Scope)


NYTimes: Percussionists have moved to the forefront of music

Post from @JGpercussion on Twitter (via Scope)