Fred Begun

Timpani Virtuoso

Fred Begun is that rare sort of percussionist whose musicianship parallels that of a fine concert violinist. He possesses the ability to translate into complete music the rough and primitive instincts of aggression which a less sensitive person may bring untempered to that most easily abused of instruments, the drum. In the world of classical music, rich with tradition, where a player’s cultivation of superb technique, tone. and historical understanding is by necessity regarded as a given factor. Fred stands out as uniquely total master of his instrument.

Born in Brooklyn on August 30, 1928. Fred moved with his family to Washington. D.C. when he was eight years old. At age eleven he began his percussion studies, to which he applied himself with effort sufficient to gain his entrance to the Juilliard School of Music in New York in 1946. For the next Jive years Fred studied the timpani under the firm and artful hand of Saul Goodman, whose uncompromising musical approach he absorbed completely. I he technical and aesthetic awareness which Fred gained during his studies under this Horowitz of timpanists prepared him well for the symphony orchestra and formed the basis for his own personal and intensely musical style.

One is impressed and enchanted immediately by Fred’s big, clear sound and by his courtly demeanor onstage, where he makes graceful and musically effective use of his body to enhance and personify every tonal and stylistic detail of his part. During the reading of a given composition one actually may imagine that Fred is the pious and decorated baron of eighteenth-century Germany, or the swashbuckling mounted general of Napoleon’s army. Fred once said, “I mime the music. When I play Don Juan, I identify with the lover.”

The true romantic. Fred will always offer to a conductor or to a student at least two ways in which to perform practically any passage: an unbiased, “correct” translation of the page, and a vital, expansive interpretation which at once pays deference to history and explores the realm of inspiration.

HH: What motivated you to study music, and what was your early training like?

FB: I started lessons when I was 11. The big attraction at that time was, of course, jazz, and the drumset was the only thing in the world. I hadn’t had much contact at all with symphonic music. In fact, I was totally unaware of it. It all started because one day a kid brought a pair of sticks and four or five tin cans mounted on a board to school. It was pretty neat, and I asked him to make me a set, which he did. I turned on the radio and played along, making quite a racket and driving my folks crazy. I finally persuaded them to get me started taking lessons.

In those days the big thing the teacher laid on the parents was, ‘He doesn’t have to make a lot of noise, so get him a little rubber practice pad.’ As you know, that way the student learns how to play the pad, not the drum. I finally got a real drum set with a snare drum, a little Chinese tom-tom, a woodblock, and a blue light in the bass drum. It was one of those very early Baby Dodds-type outfits. I didn’t have a hi-hat until later because that didn’t come with the set.

I started playing with little groups in school. It was getting near the end of high school, and even though I was doing well on the legitimate studies, I read well, and I did my rudiments, the thing I really wanted to do was play jazz. I had to decide where I would attend college. I got into a real subterfuge plan to convince my folks to let me try out for Juilliard. I wanted to go to Juilliard to be near 52nd Street. I made Juilliard, and started my studies with Saul Goodman on timpani, which I had not played much at all prior to that. I found it interesting, but the big thing was to try to get into sessions and sit in. Needless to say, I didn’t stop traffic on 52nd Street, much to my dismay.

I was in about the tenth orchestra in school, and it came time for us to play our first concert. The first thing I ever played on timpani in a concert was the Schubert Unfinished. There was something about the concert that I liked: the public’s response, a certain elegance to the setting, something that appealed to an aesthetic that I hadn’t really looked at. From that point on, I started getting into the studies more ardently. During my second year in school I decided that I was going to be the next great timpanist in the world. I’m still trying.

HH: Was it the absence of improvisation as a main feature that made classical music easier to pursue than jazz?

FB: Well, we do have to adhere to the written page when we play with an orchestra, but there are areas of interpretation on timpani where you have a chance to use a certain amount of artistic license. You’re not necessarily changing notes from what is written, but you have latitude for a personal interpretation provided it’s tasteful and doesn’t get in the way. I was able to find out about this fairly early on.

HH: Does that freedom result simply from the fact that, unlike the section string player, the timpanist has his part all to himself?

FB: Well, you are often part of a percussion section, even though your thing is usually individualized. In the classic literature, you are alone, and within the framework you can project the note a certain way. Tone, length, quality, the enhancement of other sections of the orchestra, those various details can make your interpretive role more interesting.

HH: What criteria helped you to determine when to alter slightly an older part which probably would have been written differently had the composer had access to more mechanically efficient timpani?

FB: It depends on who’s conducting and where you’re playing, If it’s a nerd of a conductor, all of the extra notes in the world aren’t going to help. If it’s a better conductor, then I consult with him prior to a rehearsal as to what I have in mind, and if he has that in mind, fine. I feel that there is validity in some of the notes that have filtered on through the ages, specifically through Toscanini. He added many interesting notes to the Beethoven symphonies.

HH: Going back: Tell me something about Goodman as a man, a player, a teacher, an inventor.

FB: Very interesting man. He is the senior citizen of the timpani world, not only in age, but also in terms of stature and of my own personal reverence. I feel that he’s one of the greatest natural performers in any area of music. Here’s a man who can just walk up to the instrument and play. It never seems to be any degree of trouble for him. He has fantastic time, taste, tone-quality, and a kind ofjoie de vivre that got to all of us who had room for it. If you don’t have room for joie de vivre, your playing is going to be dead.

HH: Did he have specific qualities, methods, or techniques as a teacher that you found particularly valuable?

FB: The organization of techniques that he used in his lessons was somewhat scattered, and I’m not saying that he was disorganized. A lot of the things that I wanted to get from him had to be obtained at the concert hall, however, not at the lesson. He would sometimes unintentionally do things differently in lessons from the way he did them in per formance. What I was interested in seeing was what he really did in the Brahms Fourth, why he made the ending of the Beethoven Ninth sound so great. This may not happen in a lesson setting, but it will in the fevered pitch of a performance.

When I started teaching I decided to try to show as faithfully as I could what I do onstage. That’s what it’s about. If a person is taking the trouble to come and study with me, I feel that he should get it all, choreography and everything.

HH: You joined the National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) right out of school. Tell me about that.

FB: I graduated Juilliard in June 1951, and the opening in this orchestra came about. The summer before I was one of the timpani players in a performance of the Berlioz Requiem. Somebody spotted and remembered me, so I got called to audition for Howard Mitchell, who was then music director. He signed me to my first contract. I’ve been here ever since.

HH: With the NSO you’ve given the world premiere performances of three timpani concerti. What can you say about these as compositions and about the timpani as a solo instrument?

FB: The timpani in a solo concerto setting can be very effective or very ineffective. In the three works that I’ve done, I’ve seen it go both ways and in between. The first and best of the three is the piece that Robert Parris wrote for me (1958). He found a successful setting, and I feel that as far as interest is concerned, it’s a far better piece than either the Jorge Sarmientos (1965) or the Blas Atehortua (1968).

HH: It seems that so much percussioncentered music is written more with an eye towards liberating percussionists from the back of the bus than towards creating lasting works of art.

FB: That’s one of my objections to the percussion ensemble literature in general. Not that it’s all junk, but enough of it is to make it all seem like a circus trick. Here they are, the clowns are jumping around again. I don’t find this very musical, and I would say that most percussion ensemble music turns me off.

HH: How did your book of etudes evolve? How do you view it as composition, and what are your aspirations as a writer?

FB: The book came about sporadically, an exercise here, an exercise there, and in each piece I would try to think in terms of a motive that I might develop. The pieces have some kind of form and logic. It was not just technical histrionics, although some of it is quite difficult. It was my attempt to write music. I feel that this is the approach that is missing from some of the material that we have to work with. The technical vehicles that we practice are written as exercises, not as music, and consequently they are played that way. This is something that we can all think about in our daily practice. Take, for example, those very first couple of exercises in the Goodman book. You can make them sound like a string of notes, or you can make those two pages sound highly musical. If you do, you have a good start as to what you’re going to do with the instrument.

HH: Do you have other books planned?

FB: I have a couple of books going around in my head. It’s going to be very hard to write a better beginning book than the Goodman. Therefore, I wouldn’t even think in those terms. I might think of another set of approaches to complement that book, but I feel that Goodman is the prime method, that it says it all. I can’t envision my ever using another beginning book for my students. As far as writing is concerned, I’m more involved now in the written word than in music.

I’ve started a group of anecdotes about the symphonic repertoire, my feelings about certain pieces. I’m going to do about fifty or seventy-five, and I’ve already done work on Le Sucre du Prinemps, Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, and the Tchaikovsky Fourth. These are thoughts about a specific performance or a specific work through the years. I did one called Farewell to the Goodman Drums when we sold his instruments. I also want to write a good biography of Saul Goodman. That is something I can’t think about too much currently because of the research time involved. But the idea appeals to me, both from the standpoint of his being a chronicle of playing in the twentieth century and how he evolved.

HH: Returning to your role and orientation as a teacher: You must have younger students who, as you once were, are more interested in jazz, rock, or other forms than in classical music. How do you relate to and direct their values?

FB: Well, I stay with the drumset. I can’t consider myself a Steve Gadd, but I don’t think my head’s back in 1940. As far as reconciling the pursuit of the student is concerned, we as players and teachers are more and more in a multiple capacity: you’re not going to train just a timpanist, a mallet player, a snare drummer, a drum set player. The demands are much greater all the time. The contemporary player, if he is to be successful, not just monetarily but also in his role as a percussionist, must do it all.

HH: Are you currently as interested in jazz as you were before Juilliard?

FB: I can’t say that I devote so many hours each week to listening to records or radio programs, but if there’s something that I’ve been reading about or that people have been talking about, I’ll make it a point to hear or see it or both.

HH: Who are a few of your favorite jazz or rock drummers?

FB: Well. I think that Steve Gadd is probably one of the biggest talents that I’ve heard, a fantastic player. I like Billy Cobham and Ginger Baker. Buddy always fascinates me. One of the most tasteful players of a l l time is Shelly Manne. There’s another guy I’ll never forget, Gene Krupa. When I was a young fledgling. Gene represented the epitome of what a big-time drummer should be. There was a great mystique about him, a certain class, a certain elegance—he had style, there’s no doubt about it.

HH: What long-range plan would you suggest to the aspiring orchestral player for learning the repertoire and confronting auditions?

FB: There are resources for learning audition techniques. Some people from the New York Philharmonic have advertised themselves as Audition Associates, and Artie Press in Boston as well, to counsel players on auditioning. Now a person can become an audition specialist the way an applicant to a corporation would go someplace to learn to write a good resume. This is all well and good, but it is liable to become a perverse element of our field if the player does not learn to conduct himself onstage once he gets a job. It’s conceivably computer foolproof to learn the techniques, strategic parts, and solos needed to give an ace audition, but the player must make sure that he’s equipped also to perform a Haydn symphony tastefully. It’s gratifying to know that this audition counseling exists, but I hope that the people who are rendering the service do it all the way so that the applicant has the wherewithal to do what his credentials announce.

Regarding the repertoire. I devote the first extended period of time to Beethoven, then Brahms and Tchaikovsky. In the meantime. I deal with certain other idiomatic styles such as a lighter Mozart, the relationship between Haydn and the Beethoven sound, and so on. In these different textures it’s not all the same forte. It seems that the average student today is exposed to contemporary music more quickly than to the classic standards, so I sometimes find it difficult to transmit the classical style.

When I was in school we didn’t have community youth orchestras or other great outlets of learning the repertoire. I used to have to go out and play in these Sunday morning orchestras on the East Side, like the Czechoslovakian Society Orchestra of America, with eleven and a half people in it, and we’d saw through a Brahms symphony. People would be singing parts. You learn how to play the music that way, because there’s an awful lot that doesn’t happen. I got to Juilliard and had no real orchestral experience. Today the kids are learning the repertoire in their youth orchestras, and it’s wonderful.

HH: Many American percussion students today take up the serious study of classical music about the same time you did, late high school and college. Do you think, given the competition out there now and in the future, that’s too late?

FB: It depends on how early the player really gets started. I’ve had students seven and eight years old, and unless there’s something tremendously compelling about them, nothing really happens for a couple of years. You’re babysitting most of the time. If I were to choose an aver age good starting age, I would say eleven.

You can’t be too patronizing with a young person, though. I feel that to get into the “Mary Had a Little Lamb” routine rather than to go for substance is a mistake. You have to start with good principles.

HH: You recently presented your first timpani clinic. How did it feel, and what are your thoughts in this area?

FB: I found it very enjoyable. I was able actually to feel the temperature of the group for which I performed. You have to do that immediately so that you know where to shift gears. Are they predominately players? Teachers? Non-percussion people? What I had planned worked. I want, however, to put together four or five individual programs so that within these I have a possible twenty or thirty combinations of shifting gears whenever it’s needed.

HH: At the clinic you demonstrated the “Danse Sacrale” from Le Sacre by playing along with a phonograph record. How do you think that worked out?

FB: It’s something that goes back to my early repertoire studies with Saul. We’d play along with records, and we’d learn to do this sort of dubbing pretty well. That piece, of course, is hard enough to do with a conductor. I knew the record well enough to time it beyond the beat, and it worked out fine. I feel that it was a very effective ending to the show.

HH: When you play you don’t use a strict French or German grip as espoused by various authors and teachers, but rather you hold the sticks differently from time to time. Does a good grip evolve subconsciously?

FB: It’s a variable thing. I feel that within certain boundaries there is no totally incorrect way. What I’m doing is letting the stick be an extension of me rather than adhering to a hoisting and manipulating action that is going to take away from what I want to come out. I want the stick to be a natural appendage. I would say that consequently, I have perhaps a half dozen positions that all can take place within thirty-two bars, depending upon where the music is going. What are the combinations between dynamic extremes, and what do I have to do to make my appendage transmit the music? I try to control the stick rather than let it control me.

I think that by not dwelling on stick grips the way a rudimental snare drum teacher might, I’m appealing to the intelligence of the player. We know the different categories of sound and we know that we must have a more legitimately neat and correct grip for a crisp, staccato articulation, the thumbs and fingers being just so, than for legato. My idea of legato, as you know, is as little tension or pressure as possible to agitate the tone. Less cartilage, more fat of the hand, more cushions of the fingers. Whatever you can do to transmit the softer parts of the grip enhances the sound of legato.

When you’re playing a very articulate passage, especially softly, getting a bit further towards the center of the head will help to dry out some of the extra resonance.

HH: You use plastic heads exclusively. How do you feel about plastic as compared with calfskin?

FB: Let’s put it this way: I’ve had happy and less than happy experiences with plastic heads.

I feel that the industry is not making as good a product as they could be making. It’s probably true that the timpani and the players in the top orchestras make up a very small percentage of their total sales, but they have not come out with any kind of improvement to help the setting of the timpani head, and they have not improved the materials. I feel that some of the plastic heads that I had years ago are better than some of the ones that I’m getting today. In recent times, I’ve had to reject more heads than I’ve accepted.

HH: Do you detect variances in thickness within a head or from one head to another?

FB: Generally the material within a head is pretty even, but they do vary. When it’s too thick it sounds too thuddy, and when it’s too thin it lacks body.

It’s Russian Roulette when you put on a plastic head. There seems to be more than a fifty percent chance that it’s not going to sound good. It shouldn’t be that troublesome.

HH: What made you switch to plastic in the first place?

FB: Availability, for one thing. It’s hard to get really good skin heads. Also we now are playing in much more modern concert halls with sophisticated lighting systems which tend to dry out the skin heads. In the wintertime, you really need to have a good irrigation system of sponges in the bottom of the drum. Conversely, in the summertime, especially if you’re playing outdoors, you may as well hang the skin heads up on the clothesline , they’ll be so soggy. The drawbacks of skin heads are the climatic extremes, which I find more inconvenient than a plastic head that doesn’t quite suit me.

HH: Would you say that under optimum environmental conditions the calf heads sound better?

FB: There is a specific warmth that the calf has that the plastic doesn’t.

HH: Do you think that the industry should make a head that would possess the warmth and feel of calf as well as the practicality of plastic?

FB: I think it can be done.

HH: Do you have specific suggestions for improving plastic heads?

FB: What’s needed is a head that would vibrate when you first put it on, that would go on much more evenly so that you wouldn’t have to iron out wrinkles and make distortions in the amount of torque that you use on each rod; a head that would go on the way a skin head goes on when i t ‘ s wet, adhering to the shape of the drum. On a Ringer drum you have eight rods to be concerned with, and a manufacturer should be able to make a head that you put on and torque the same amount at each rod. getting a beautiful sound instead of the sound of a garbage can. There’s no reason why our multi-million dollar industry can’t serve the player a little bit better.

HH: Did you see changes in the Ringer drum when Ludwig bought the company?

FB: Ludwig copied everything faithfully, absolutely, to the final degree, including the things that needed to be corrected. I say this in the most complementary terms.

On a subsequent trip to Europe I happened to see one of the last sets of drums that Ringer made, and it had the same problem with the suspension of the bowl that two of mine did. The bowl should be suspended in the frame to fit exactly over the spider; the top of the spider and the air hole in the bottom of the bowl should be in perfect alignment, provided everything else is in perfect alignment. If it’s not aligned, whatever you do, the head that you’re using is going to pull to one side. This was happening. Ringer told Ludwig about this problem that he himself had never solved, and Ludwig made the correction to my drums. Consequently, this has become a procedure in all subsequent Ludwig Ringer instruments.

I feel that they’ve done a fantastic job. In many ways my drums work better than some of the older German-made Ringers that I’ve played.

HH: So you feel that the Ringer represents the state of the art?

FB: It’s the Stradivarius. I’ve played on everything, and for me it’s the best.

HH: Who have been some of your favorite conductors over the years?

FB: That’s going to be sort of ticklish to answer. Every player has certain positive vibes about the permanent music director of the orchestra, so that figure should be a given quantity. Rostropovich is a living legend, and I can’t add anything to it. As far as others who conduct our orchestra are concerned, some with whom I specifically enjoy working are Rafael Frubeck de Burgos, Erich Leinsdorf, Max Rudolf, Leonard Bernstein, and Lorin Maazel.

HH: Do you find it more or less rewarding to perform a given work when the composer himself conducts it?

FB: It’s an interesting thing. Sometimes composers do things with their own music that are far different, both good and bad than what you would expect. It’s curious to see what comes from the horse’s mouth.

Stravinsky was noted for being a somewhat unusual conductor of his music. He would do things differently from what we would call “accepted” interpretations. He was very surprising in some of his deviations of tempo and rhythmic intensity. Sometimes, it wasn’t the total intensity that you would expect from the man who did it all.

HH: When did you last work with Stravinsky?

FB: I guess it was during the 60s. I recorded Le Rossignol and Oedipus Rex with him.

He could really hear the inner voices and was thoroughly involved. He was a joy, and it was one of the highlights of my life to perform with him.

HH: How about favorite pieces through the years?

FB: Well, I have to say, hands down, Le Sacre is the one. It’s not just my favorite work in the repertoire—it’s certainly a landmark timpani part—but there’s something significant about it to me. It seems to be an important force in my life, a source of nourishment. There’s a certain source in the music for which I feel an affinity.

HH: Are you recorded on albums other than those of the NSO which evoke especially fond memories for you?

FB: Years ago I was on a recording of Varese’s Ionisation with a group of guys who were at school at the time, like Buster Bailey, Artie Press, Morris Lang, it’s quite an illustrious group of youngsters! I’m not too fond of recording. In many ways, recording is a distortive process for the timpani. I have to do things on recordings that I don’t really like to do regarding mallet selection and tone projection. I’m not happy that the million dollar equipment these people have is supposed to make a good record but can’t capture my sound.

HH: That seems to be a problem with recording percussion instruments in gen eral, that all sorts of undesirable alterations must be made in order not to “overload” the electronics with resonance. The musical content often becomes secondary to the recording process itself.

FB: It drives you up a wall, the things you have to do on a record and how alien they are to the music you want to produce.

HH: Do you have any unfulfilled dreams in music?

FB: Well, if I had it all to do over again, I would have studied conducting and for gotten all about drums. From the beginning. I feel that I’ve been able to do the kind of playing I want to do and, many times, the way I want to do it. But, if I were to have changed anything in my musical life I would have done it all differently, knowing what I do about the closeness between conducting and playing the timpani, the creative control, the fact that as a timpanist so much of the time you’re carrying the conductor on your back.

How that would have worked out I don’t know: maybe in my next reincarnation I’ll find out.