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.

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