Reflecting on Percussion Lessons

Today, I read an article featuring one of my former percussion instructors, Andrew Reamer. Andrew is the principal percussionist of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and a professor at Duquesne University. During my years at Duquesne, I had the pleasure of studying with him and Chris Allen, PSO associate principal percussionist. I would not be the composer I am today without the lessons I learned from playing music under their tutelage.

Performing, both alone and in ensembles of various sizes, is an invaluable experience for composers. Many of my favorite composers have also been fantastic performers at one time or another. Through our lessons, it was with Andrew that I first starting thinking about how musicians-i.e. human beings-would play the music I write (something every composer ought to consider!). This means not only the practical, orchestrational concerns that you learn in your undergraduate comp. lessons and orchestration classes but the way it should be phrased, articulated, and felt. Andrew would often challenge me in lessons with questions like, “how would you communicate that idea to orchestral musicians?” He would invite his students to PSO rehearsals to watch master conductors work through the repertoire.

One of the most memorable learning experiences from percussion lessons was working on the chaconne from Bach’s Second Violin Partita in D minor-the chaconne-with Chris Allen. Playing it on marimba, I remember lessons when he wouldn’t let me play beyond the first two notes. “No, no, no…” or “stop,” he would say. Then, once we progressed beyond the opening, he would close his eyes and listen. When a passage was ill phrased he would frown, eyes furrowed but still closed, stop me, and then we’d do it again.

In lessons with Andrew and Chris, it was never enough to merely play the notes (which is something that ought to go without saying). It was how you played them, and there had to be a musical mind behind every action. You needed to understand the weight and the timing of everything you played. Timing is so important in composing; it is indispensable and impossible to avoid (even bad timing is timing nonetheless). You must know not only what is going to happen musically but when it will happen and for how long. I believe it is something you have to learn feel or intuit. In not settling for a mere execution of the notes on the page, Andrew and Chris forced me to stop, listen, and think about the music and made me a better composer. I am grateful to them, and wish them the very best.

Percussion Trifecta: PSO’s Reamer Plays, Teaches, Makes Drums:


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  1. […] piece was an opportunity to write the kind of music that would work best on an instrument I grew up playing. Any instrumentation can present itself as a unique opportunity to arrive at musical results you […]


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