Morris Lang

N.Y. Philharmonic Veteran

We often think of orchestral musicians us stuffy and snobbish individuals who look down upon the rest of the musical world. If there is anyone to disprove this stereotype, it’s Morris “Arnie” Lang, percussionist with the New York Philharmonic.

Having been fortunate enough to study with him at Brooklyn College, I was often impressed by this man who was always actively involved in different projects such as mallet and instrument making, writing and publishing. At the same time he was able to maintain his playing and teaching at a high level of professionalism combined with warmth and honesty which is immediately perceived upon speaking with him.

Here are some insights into Morris Lang’s background us well as some of his viewpoints on today’s percussion scene.

NG: Could you tell us about your musical training? When did you begin to study and play percussion?

ML: Well, I started playing when I was about ten; you know, a kid in the Bronx, and took lessons with the local butcher who was a friend of my parents for 50 cents a lesson. I later worked up to a better teacher, a guy who taught violin, flute, cello, everything, and he taught drums on the side. I don’t think he even played the drums because he never played for me in the year that I studied with him. But he taught me how to read music, because that’s all he knew how to do. Then some other guy in the Bronx taught me how to do club dates. I worked for years doing club dates in the Bronx and also went away to the Catskills. So I was playing in the mountains when I was about 14.

NG: When and why did you decide to concentrate on symphonic percussion?

ML: While I was going to Music and Art High School, a flute player, a good friend of mine said, “Why don’t you go to Juilliard to study?” And I said, “What’s Juilliard?” I didn’t even know what it was. I played a little timpani on the tom toms since I didn’t have any and I prepared an audition for Saul Goodman who was in charge of percussion. I then went with my mother to Goodman’s room. He had forgotten that I had an appointment and asked: “Who are you?” I said I had called about an audition to which he replied, “Oh, I don’t have time to take you now. Why don’t you go study with my associate Moe Goldenberg.” So I studied with Goldenberg for about six months while I was still in high school. Then one day I was waiting to take a lesson in the hall up in Juilliard and this guy walks by and I said, “Hey you wanna’ play some duets?” He said yes and we started playing duets. I didn’t know it was Buster Bailey who had just gotten into the Philharmonic. After we had been playing a while, I noticed somebody standing over my shoulder. It was Goodman watching us play, and he asked, “Who are you?” He didn’t recognize me, and I said, “Oh, I’m that kid who wanted to study with you a few months ago.” He asked, “What are you doing now?” and I answered that I was studying with Goldenberg. So I walked into my lesson and about a minute afterward Goodman walks in and calls Goldenberg out. Goldenberg came back in and said, “Well, next week you’ll be studying with Goodman.” So I started one week with Goodman and one with Goldenberg, and then I started studying timpani and mallets. That summer I went to the mountains, it was my last year of high school. I had bought a timpani, an old hand screw, and I took it up to the mountains. It caused a big sensation because no one had seen timpani before. People used to come from different hotels to see what the timpani looked like. So I was practicing timpani and mallets. I had a vibe up there also, Then, I auditioned for Juilliard and was accepted.

NG: What happened after you graduated from Juilliard?

ML: Well, while I was still in Juilliard I started playing with the City Center Ballet. I was extra percussion. I was also playing with little orchestras, you know, any jobs, and still doing club dates, anything I could get. I wound up unemployed after I got out of Juilliard and doing whatever work I could get. I played the American Opera Society, I used to sub a day and a half at Radio City. By that time I had gotten married and had a kid and I didn’t have a regular job, just sort of scuffling around. Oh, I also had played a number of times as extra man with the N.Y. Philharmonic. Then there was an opening, and I was invited to join. I didn’t even have to audition. Times have changed now. I went in as Goodman’s assistant when I was twenty five.

NG: And you’ve been there ever since.

ML: Twenty two years. At first, it was funny because I actually was making more money on the outside than at the Philharmonic. The Philharmonic wasn’t a very good job at the time, it was only a thirty week season and after that we still freelanced and did whatever there was around to do. The year before I got into the Philharmonic, I was playing a Gian-Carlo Menotti show on Broadway and was actually making more money the year before I got into the orchestra. I took a cut in salary to join the Philharmonic.

NG: Out of all the instruments which ones do you prefer and why?

ML: Timpani and snare drum, because I ‘m better at them. Also with timpani the repertoire is the most interesting. Basically the symphonic repertoire for timpani is the most developed, it’s only in the 20th century that they started using the other percussion.

NG: What about mallets? Do you find them challenging and enjoyable

ML: Oh yes, very enjoyable. There is a transition period, you know, for young people that start on percussion and then graduate into playing mallets. They usually hate it for a long time and then they get to like it. By the time you get interested in percussion you play pretty good drums and then all of a sudden you’re a baby again. You’re starting a whole new instrument. Most everybody I’ve taught or experienced has had a period where they’re really frustrated and hate the mallet instruments, they’re forcing themselves to play it. And then, after you get some kind of technique you get to the point where I could say, I love to play Bach on the xylophone or marimba, not in public though.

NG: Why not?

ML: Well first, it wasn’t written for the instrument although Baroque music does sound good on the xylophone. Also, there’s so much material now that’s specifically written for the mallet instruments that I don’t see the reason for playing transcriptions. But you can always argue that if the composer were alive today he would be writing for those instruments.

NG: How do you compare the percussion products of today as opposed to years ago?

ML: Well, I think there’s been a definite deterioration in most of the products. It’s almost like when people ask me about calf heads, six of one or half a dozen of the other. Because on a good day, when the weather conditions are right, there’s nothing like the sound of a calf head. It’s just exquisite. But then again, if the weather is bad, either very damp or during a transition period, it just sounds horrible. So in those instances plastic heads will be more consistent and sound better. But on a good day there’s nothing as beautiful as a calf head on timpani. There was a company, The Leedy Drum Company, who made the highest quality percussion equipment, and any of their old xylophones are still beautiful. We use one in the Philharmonic and I own one myself and they are the best instruments I’ve ever heard.

The old snare drums were fabulous, all their equipment. If you could get Leedy equipment it was great. I think that there are a lot of sounds now that are excellent, you know, the Roto-toms, a lot of the marching percussion, but for me the Kelon xylophone is not a true xylophone sound. It sounds too glassy and hard. Considering the quantity of instruments that are made now, the general level is quite high, although the really good instruments of the old days were consistently better.

NG: What about today’s players as opposed to yesterday’s?

ML: Amazing, today’s players. The level is going up. For instance, I had brought back a piece from Japan for marimba and saxophone and I gave it to a very good student. He took about four months to learn the piece because the techniques were all so new. He had to figure out how to hold six mallets and how to play a lot of the things. This past year, I gave it to another student, a young freshman, who learned it in three weeks. It’s just that as composers write more challenging material your technique gets better too. The overall level has gone up.

NG: How do you envision the future of percussion in the orchestra and out?

ML: I think there’s going to be a general overall heightening of the development. It seems that in music they’re getting away from the semi-improvised pieces that they did in the sixties where the player had a lot of choices as to the material, and more of the composer writing down what he wants. I see the players getting better and better and I would hope that as music gets better, there will be wider audience acceptance of percussion music. Right now, I think the audience still is very hesitant. When they see percussion they think it’s loud. That’s their first reaction. In most of the concerts that I do with the Brooklyn College Percussion Ensemble, I try to do at least one piece that’s very atmospheric and just the opposite of the usual bombastic percussion material. Basically, I hope that there will be more audience acceptance because I feel now that percussion groups are becoming insular; we kind of play for each other. I don’t think there are any professional percussion ensembles to my knowledge, that really make a living out of playing percussion in the United States. In percussion concerts I’ve seen, it’s mostly the same people that like percussion, or students of percussion that come. The symphony going public is more concerned with music of the 19th century.

NG: How can you reach that audience?

ML: Unfortunately, symphonic music has always been a plaything of the rich. Even now, symphonic music is basically for the rich or somehow “highbrow”. Popular music like jazz or rock has always been for the bulk of the people. I don’t know exactly how to do it, but I wish someone could harness the intensity of the young, their love of music be it rock or jazz, toward listening to symphonic music. Not that I think one is better, that they should listen to symphonic instead, but only that it might have something additional to say to people. I think actually that a lot of rock and jazz is better than a lot of symphonic music being produced, which is crap.

NG: Some musicians feel that symphonic music doesn’t offer a creative outlet since the musician is mostly an interpreter limited to his part. How do you feel about that?

ML: Well just for myself, I get bored playing jazz drums. I think that the structure and form of popular music is very limited. It’s basically tunes.

NG: What about the current fusion music like Chick Corea’s?

ML: Basically, although I love listening to it, I think that as structures, they last for five minutes at most and after that they get boring.

NG: What about counting a hundred bars until your cymbal crash comes in?

ML: Very little do you play like that any more. Most anything written in the 20th century is going to involve a lot of playing. It’s true you’re not constantly playing, like with the drum set, but there’s a lot of playing and the counting is intricate, and it usually is interesting to me.

NG: Nevertheless, in learning repertoire one has to learn a certain passage just right, the way it has to be done. How much room for individuality is there in that?

ML: For instance, if I’m doing Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony on the cymbals, I try consciously to play differently every time I play that piece. I mean letting note values ring, using different pairs of cymbals. What’s forte? What’s loud or soft? They’re such general terms that there is room for individuality.

NG: But do you do that for your own enjoyment or just for curiosity?

ML: I do it because it’s part of the creative process. When you’re playing a concert you’re trying to create something for the audience. Why does an audience go to hear Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony? They could buy the record. As an interpreter, I try to make it interesting and exciting every time I play it. It doesn’t always work, but I try.

NG: You’ve just completed a snare drum technique book. What suggestions do you have on teaching beginning drums, rudiments, rolls, etc.?

ML: The most important thing is to teach music. I think the percussion family is the only group that uses so many method books. When you study piano you get a book of easy Mozart, or Bach or even simple popular tunes. You’re right away dealing with a phrase, dynamics, or a harmonic progression. You could play the drums for a hundred years and never encounter a dynamic in a drum book. The most important thing is trying to instill the feeling of playing music. I hope the new drum book will stress more of those elements rather than right hand or left hand.

NG: Do you go into the rudiments?

ML: Yes, but only as far as their use in symphonic playing. For example: flam, drags, ruffs, stroke rolls, but not in the open and closed old rudimental way. That really has no relevance to either symphonic or jazz playing.

NG: You’re also teaching at Brooklyn College. What do you feel should be the goals of percussion education at the university level?

ML: Well, rather than producing other teachers that are going to teach percussion to produce other teachers in colleges or high schools, I try to teach my students practical things that they will have to do as a performing professional. So we have a big emphasis on the symphonic repertoire. Basically too, I feel the symphonic repertoire is the fundamental of percussion training. From that, you can do almost anything if you have a well grounded technique and understanding of the symphonic repertoire. That’s kind of the roots of our playing. Whereas a lot of other teachers will teach mostly contemporary pieces, I’ll teach a representative kind of piece. For instance, this is the kind of thing they’re doing in marimba writing. I don’t even care if the student perfects it, as long as he gets a taste for that kind of material. For one thing, nobody makes a living playing that material. You should know how, if you have to play it, or if you want to play it you should know how to interpret that material. But basically, I’m interested in producing professional people.

NG: Isn’t the concept of the total percussion player outdated since most symphonic players specialize in specific instruments like timpani, mallets, or accessories. Why not make it easier for students to concentrate on one of these areas thereby, lessening the burden of learning all the percussion instruments?

ML: I think your time as a student should be spent opening yourself up, not only in music. By the same token you could say, “Why does a university make you take English if you’re going to be a drummer?” You should be opening up to a lot of possibilities. The idea of specializing closes your opportunities. I think a person should know as much about everything as they can.

NG: Agreed, but after the basic knowledge, you’re faced with people who specialize in marimba or timpani and are virtuosi on that instrument. How can you expect somebody who must concentrate on all the instruments to match that kind of ability?

ML: Your student days are not the end of your education but the beginning of your education. You know most students or young people think when they reach 25 that they’re “hasbeens”. You have to make decisions at 25 and know what you want to do. I mean I don’t even know what I want to do at 46. I change. What I think is important and what I want to do changes. I think it’s a limiting concept. It’s very hard to try to do a lot of things, but I’d hate to limit myself and say “Well, I’m going to be a four mallet jazz vibraphone player.” Especially when one’s so young.

NG: What about the person who begins to play the marimba at eight and that’s all he does?

ML: I think it’s too narrow. How do you make a living as a marimba player anyway? It’s a competitive field. You should know as much as you can. If you play dynamite set drums, good, or adequate mallets, you can become a studio player. You have a lot more to sell. Learn tabla, conga and timpani. You may never become a symphonic timpani player, but if you go into a studio or do a show and can get a beautiful roll and play in tune, you’re much more valuable as a player.

NG: You’ve travelled all around the world with the N.Y. Philharmonic. How do you compare foreign percussionists with American ones?

ML: Strangely enough I haven’t heard many. Usually when we go, the other orchestras are on vacation too. I know a lot of them socially and I would imagine they’re fine players.

NG: What kind of music do you listen to for enjoyment?

ML: Rock-jazz, very rarely symphonic music.

NG: If you had a choice what else would you be doing?

ML: I just wish I had more hours of the day to do the things I like to do: teaching, publishing, and playing. I don’t think I would change anything I’m doing. I’d like to do more of it.