I’ve always been intrigued by people who do a variety of things in their careers. My first drum teacher was such a person. He started out playing percussion in theaters during the final years of vaudeville. He then became a staff musician at a radio station, and finally became the timpanist with a symphony orchestra. In addition to those jobs, he taught, and played various free-lance gigs. To me, that seemed like a more interesting way of life than working the same job from graduation until retirement. Also, it seemed to me that people who were involved in a variety of things had a certain depth that often was lacking in others.
And yet, there’s also something to be said for making a commitment to a specific thing, and staying with it year after year. With the right attitude, a person does not have to get bored with that type of life, as one can constantly be stimulated by the opportunity to refine and develop the situation, and explore all of its subtleties. There’s also the element of security offered by a consistent position, which is especially important in these economic times. For someone with family responsibilities, changing jobs from time to time can cause definite hardships.
As I went through college, I was considering my options, and wondering if it would be possible to combine the best of both—take a steady position (or two) so that I would have the opportunity to really develop something fully, and also have things on the side to give me the variety I wanted. Could I find a way to play, teach and write at the same time, and do justice to all of them? I sought out people who had such life-styles, and was advised that yes, it’s possible, but it is definitely a “balancing act.”
Cirone is a percussionist with the San Francisco Symphony, a teacher at San Jose State College, an author and publisher of method books and ensemble music, and an editor/advisor for Belwin/Mills. He’s also a devoted family man and, in his spare time (!), a gardener. Despite all of this, I hesitate to refer to his life as a “balancing act, “as that term implies a certain element of danger—one little shake and it can all come tumbling down. In contrast, Anthony Cirone’s balance is the type which is synonymous with ”stability.” His inner peace is not only evident, it’s actually contagious. A friend of mine grew up with Cirone, and was always telling me what an influence Tony had been on him. Now I understand why. Of all the things Anthony Cirone is involved in, I’m not sure which one he considers his forte, because he does them all so well.
RM: How did you get involved with percussion?
AC: My mother tells me that when I was seven years old, she took me to a music store, asked me what I would like to play, and I ran over to the drums. So from the time I was seven years old, I took private lessons. I first studied at home with Jimmy Jerome, who was a local drummer in the Lyndhurst, New Jersey, area. Later, I went to the Gilio School of Music in Rutherford, and after that I went to Dorn & Kirschner in Newark, where I studied with a circus drummer. They all taught me reading and, of course, the drumset.
In those days I did it as any kid would—I enjoyed it, never thinking “This is my career” at all. I always practiced, and I guess I was serious enough. None of my friends were in music; I just did it on my own. But when I got to high school, it changed a little bit because then I met other kids who were also serious about music. Being in the band, we kind of formed an association, which is one of the wonderful things about being in music. Forget the career part of it—you form associations; you become part of something. I became part of the high school band. We also had a stage band within the Gilio School of Music and we’d play for the church dances, school functions, Kiwanis, and those kinds of things.
Then I had my first teacher who talked to me about studying seriously—Bill Laverack, who had graduated from Juilliard, and who had just come out of the Marine Band. Bill, seeing that I was serious, geared me towards auditioning for Juilliard.
The other important thing that happened to me was that I tried out for the New Jersey All-State Band in high school, and I made first snare drum. I think that told me, “Hey, I can do something! I must be at least pretty good.” So those were my motivations, and the rest of it was sort of one thing following another, and being in the right place at the right time.
RM: When did you start studying mallets?
AC: I didn’t start mallets until I was in high school and Bill Laverack started teaching me. My first instrument was the vibraphone. I was playing in a trio—piano, bass and drums—and we’d play weekends at local clubs. That’s how I put myself through college. When I got my vibes, I began to learn to play tunes from a fake book. When I got to Juilliard I studied with Saul Goodman, and it was all classical training—he didn’t teach the jazz end at all. On my own I went down to Henry Adler’s studio and studied with Jack Jennings, who showed me four-mallet playing and taught me chord progressions so I was able to comp simple tunes. When we played on weekends, I began to bring my vibes. On one of the sets, instead of playing drumset, I’d just play vibes. I did that for years. I never really became that good at playing jazz. When I got into Juilliard, my emphasis went to classical music and I played the vibraphone and drumset just to make money. When I got to the West Coast after I graduated, I only did one job on drumset, and that was on New Year’s Eve when the symphony was on strike and I happened to get a call.
RM: How did you get into the San Francisco symphony?
AC: Juilliard had a great tradition, and the tradition was Saul Goodman, of course. In those days, orchestras did not have the audition procedures that they have now. When a conductor wanted a percussionist, many of them went to Saul Goodman, because they had conducted the [New York] Philharmonic and knew Goodman personally. Goodman had sent Roland Kohloff out to San Francisco eight years before me. Roland, of course, was a fine player and Joseph Krips, the conductor, liked him. They were now looking for a new player because Joe Sinai was about to retire, so Krips again went to Goodman and said, “I need a percussionist.” Goodman said, “I’ve got the man for you.” I happened to be ready to graduate, I had taken a few auditions, and I had a little success in New York, so Goodman felt I was ready. I met Krips in New York. I didn’t play a note for him; on Goodman’s word he took me. So the next thing I knew I got a contract in the mail to start the following September. Now, I was graduating with my Bachelor’s in June, and they offered me a contract for September. But I really wanted to get my Master’s degree. I was looking at teaching as an alternative. So I wrote back to the manager and said, “I’d love to accept the job, but I’m not going to finish my schooling until a year from that time,” and they said, “Okay, we’ll wait.” I couldn’t even turn the job down! It was really fate. So they waited; they hired Joe Sinai an extra year, and then I went out with my wife and my six-month-old son. We put almost everything we owned in a station wagon and went out to San Francisco.
RM: Although you haven’t kept up with drumset playing, you did have some background in it. Do you feel it affected your symphony playing?
AC: I’d have to say it did affect my playing. I think I gained a lot of experience that I wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t played drumset. All of my early playing was drumset, although I never became very good at it. I never studied with a serious drumset player. But obviously it was important because it built my technique up. By playing with other musicians I was learning to listen, and that is an important skill.
As far as other people are concerned, I think percussionists should have some control of drumset. Freelance players are going to be called on to do that at some point. It’s such a specialized instrument that, usually, people who go into drumset do it in such a way that drumset is their whole thing. Their whole focus is on drumset, and they don’t want to study the other instruments, which is equally wrong if you’re going to be a freelance player, because you’re limited in the work you can accept. I’ve seen this happen on jobs that I’ve been on—the drumset player has to play a little bell part, but he doesn’t play bells. So they get one of the trumpet players to come over and play it. It doesn’t look too good, you know? A drummer should be able to do that. I’m not talking about “Porgy and Bess”; I’m talking about a very simple part. So if you can be a complete musician, you’ll get more work.
The other thing—percussionists playing drumset—could happen just as easily, but it’s more difficult to do. A percussionist who hasn’t studied drumset is not going to go into a studio and play drumset for anybody. It’s just not that easy to do. There’s not that much technique involved in playing a little bell part. However, even a simple drumset part could be tough. In the symphony, we have had guest artists come in and use members of the orchestra as their backup group. These artists are used to working with highly skilled jazz players, and they are not always satisfied when symphony musicians fill in. So you’re more valuable if you can perform in both areas.
RM: Even if a person didn’t want to actually play gigs on set, what about the knowledge of time? I have encountered a certain number of percussionists who have never had the responsibility of keeping time. All they’ve ever done is follow a conductor.
AC: Drumset players are more in the forefront of leading. They are almost the conductor in many ways, whereas in an orchestra we’re not in that position. We are following, like everybody else. But there are parts where percussion should be leading, and you do have to take that initiative. If you have drumset experience, you will probably be better able to do that.
RM: What could drumset players learn from the classical approach?
AC: First of all, they could learn to read music. A lot of them don’t read. A lot of them learn by rote and play by ear. Second, they could learn technique. Many of them don’t have a highly developed technique. Some young kids are very musical, very talented, have good ears, listen to records, have good licks, but they have no idea how to hold the sticks. Everything is forced. So one thing they could learn from a classical musician is a more solid snare drum technique. I have a lot of jazz ma jors; they take my class too. Sometimes they play snare drum with a thumb-up grip. I say, “That’s not how to play snare drum. You play ride cymbal like that. You should turn over and play snare drum like this, because you’re using the muscles better; you’re using the wrists better.” If you’re going to go on and not just be a drumset player, then you should want to have more of a classical technique.
I’ll never forget the experience I had in Juilliard. Louie Bellson gave a clinic at Juilliard, and he played this closed roll SO LOUD, with his sticks going SO HIGH—I couldn’t even imagine how he could do that. Usually, when we play a closed roll, we open it up a little as we get louder. He didn’t have to open it! He played the whole thing closed! I never saw anybody do that. He has an amazing talent. But we open the roll up to play loud, so as not to force it by keeping it closed and trying to play loud by pushing into the drum. Drumset players could certainly learn that.
I’ve never had any problem teaching technique to drumset players. As a matter of fact, the feedback I get is that it makes them play better, because we’re not changing what they’re doing; we’re just adding to it. If they are doing something really wrong, they’re limiting their facility and I can correct that. Most of what I work on with my students is technique, especially in the beginning. We’re always discussing technique. Once they get that down, and they’re playing properly, then we can go on and talk about music.
RM: A lot of orchestras and schools own various percussion instruments, but what should a percussionist personally own?
AC: A percussionist is, in a sense, a collector of instruments. You can’t get away from it. Any aspiring percussionist has to begin a collection of instruments, because you can’t wait until you get a symphony job and then use their instruments. What happens during all these years before you get there? You’re going to get freelance jobs, and you’re going to need instruments. I tell my students that it’s important for them to begin collecting their instruments early, because when they buy their tambourine, they’re going to have it for life. This is something you’re collecting, and it’s a good investment. Good instruments are going to appreciate in value. Think of old cymbals! Sometimes, it’s a better investment to buy instruments than to put your money in the bank, depending on what you buy. You might spend a lot of money on it now, but in a few years it will be worth a lot more money.
The practical side of it is that you need instruments to be a professional. You can’t be called on to play a church job on timpani if you don’t have timpani. The church won’t have any timpani, so they have to find someone who does, and that’s who will get hired. And that goes right down the line. Get your own triangle, tambourine, claves, maraccas… all the little stuff is easy to pick up; there’s no real investment there. And your first big investment—if you already have a drumset—is a mallet instrument. Everybody likes to find that nice, used mallet instrument in an old music store for $200, but that’s very rare, and you can’t wait forever, so you begin to buy new instruments as you have the money. Eventually you buy things like a set of bells—very important for freelance work. Of course, a number of snare drums. A small, concert bass drum is invaluable for freelance work. Vibraphone is used a lot. A set of chimes is a very valuable thing to have because not many people own them, so you can rent them out. It all has to be bought at some point. You can’t buy it all at once, but sometimes you can buy things as you need them, and you can always rent them out to other people who need them.
University students take it for granted when the instruments are provided. They balk when they have to buy a pair of timpani sticks. That’s a terrible attitude. We’re not asking you to buy the timpani; we’re asking you to buy the sticks to hit “em with. If you’re a trumpet major, you don’t come in and borrow a trumpet. Percussion students should have the attitude that it’s a positive thing to buy instruments. They’re not wasting their money. It’s their career. Don’t buy a cheap snare drum stand; buy the best. You’ll have it for life. The cheap one is going to give you so much trouble that it’s not worth it. Buy the best set of drums; buy the best mallet instrument—I believe in that, because you’ll have it a lifetime.
RM: You mentioned a number of snare drums. Be specific.
AC: Okay. I think, if we’re talking about orchestral playing, it’s invaluable to have a gut snare drum with calf heads, I may be one of the last to think that way, but there are a few of us around who still use calf heads with gut snares. A gut snare drum sounds more like a drum than a wire snare drum in a big concert hall. You very rarely can overplay a gut snare drum, but you can overplay a wire drum—when you play loud, you lose the sound of the snares. With gut snares you have much more of a dynamic level where you still hear snare sound and not just the drum sound.
RM: Wood or metal shell?
AC: I use all metal-shell drums because they are brighter. Personally, I like a bright snare drum. I have my heads cranked up really tight. It’s easier to play on a tight head than a loose head; the sticks bounce faster and the rolls are easier to play.
AC: I wouldn’t go beyond a 6″ shell for a concert drum. And then it’s important to have a four- or five-inch wire snare drum, with plastic heads. In many pieces I have both of my drums there, and in any given piece, I will use whichever drum I feel is appropriate for any given part. If I had a lot of loud playing and one little soft roll, I’d go to the wire drum for that roll. I usually have both drums set up, unless it’s a particular piece that I know doesn’t need two drums. If I don’t know the piece, I have both drums there. A conductor would rarely tell a percussionist to use a wire drum or a gut drum. Most of them don’t understand what that means, so it’s really your decision at that point. They may say that the drum is too loud, or too soft, but they don’t usually talk about quality. I think with those two drums, you can get most of your work done. Then you need a good concert field drum that you can use as a tenor drum or a parade drum, with gut snares. With those three drums you can perform most of the literature.
RM: What about a 3 x 13 piccolo snare drum?
AC: I think a 4″ drum is about as small as you need. We have some small drums— they might qualify as piccolo drums—but they’re 14″ drums and they’re about 4″ shells. I don’t know if you’d call that a piccolo drum, but I don’t really t h i nk you’d need smaller than that, unless the piece called for three snare drums—high, medium and low. Then a smaller drum would be valuable. But other than that, I don’t think there’s a need for it in the standard literature.
RM: I’ve known a lot of percussionists who own their own cymbals, even if their orchestra owns cymbals.
AC: That’s right. Cymbals are such a personal thing. When you get a good pair of crash cymbals, then boy, you’ve got some thing. A good pair of crash cymbals is a major find, and it’s something that every percussionist should be looking for. Of course, a pair of crash cymbals is necessary for most of the literature we play, so if you are going to be in a situation such as a community orchestra, or a pick-up orchestra, they do not supply the equipment. And most all of the classical literature uses crash cymbals, so that is a very standard piece of equipment.
RM: Would you say a pair of 18’s would be the basic?
AC: Yes, if you’re buying one pair of cymbals, buy yourself a pair of 18’s. If you’re going to buy a second pair, you have a choice: you could either buy a pair of I6’s, or go down to a pair of 15’s. Ultimately, you really need 18’s, 16’s and maybe 15’s or 14’s. Probably I’d go to 14’s, if I were going to buy three pairs.
There’s so much to cymbal playing. The major literature requires imagination and the use of different colors for different entrances…I mean, you can really get into that. The use of cymbals in an orchestra could be a whole interview in itself, because the orchestral parts don’t give you enough information at all. Sometimes you don’t even know if it’s a suspended cymbal or crash cymbals. Knowing the literature will help you make those decisions; studying the part, listening, and using your imagination to see what sounds best. Trying to think, “What does the composer want here?” Many times you’ll be playing crash cymbals, and all of a sudden there is a roll. Now what does the composer mean? Suspended cymbal? An effect with the crash cymbals? The part doesn’t tell you; you’ve got to make that decision. And so you think about it. You experiment. If it’s a real brassy section, the crash cymbal roll works great. If it’s obviously supposed to be a suspended cymbal, then somebody else has to play it, like in Scheherazade. There are many instances where that comes up.
RM: One problem with cymbals is that once you buy them, you’re stuck with that sound. With a drum, you can tune it various ways, use different combinations of heads, different types of snares, different types of mufflers, but with cymbals, there really is nothing you can do to change the sound.
AC: That is a problem. If you can attend something like a PAS convention, where the major cymbal companies have booths, you can get a chance to try out a few cymbals. Other than that, unless you have a supplier in your area who stocks a lot of cymbals, there’s not much of a choice.
RM: Someone looking for a suspended cymbal might find a store that has a good choice, but suppose the person is looking for a pair of 18″ crash cymbals. Where are you going to find several pairs of 18″ crash cymbals to try out? That’s not the kind of thing that your average store is going to have in stock.
AC: I’ll tell you what I suggest to my students, because there is no place to do that. I tell them to write to Lennie DiMuzio at Zildjian and say, “I need a pair of 18″ crash cymbals for orchestral work. I’ll buy them through such-and-such dealer. Please send them the best ones you have.” Lennie has always picked out a good pair and sent them. I did that when I came to San Francisco. I wrote to Zildjian and told them that I was a new member of the orchestra, I needed a pair of cymbals, and would they please send some to Drumland, and they did. It was a good pair of crash cymbals. So there are ways. I think if you didn’t like them, they would probably take them back and exchange them. It’s such a personal thing. You’re absolutely right. And if you get a good pair, hang onto them!
RM: Let’s talk about percussion ensembles. I was always taught that music was made up of three things: melody, harmony and rhythm. Some percussion music doesn’t seem to have even one of those. A lot of pieces are just sound effects.
AC: Well, first of all, you’ve got to separate percussion into two areas: the educational area and the professional area. Now, most of the percussion music is in the educational area. You can count the groups on one hand who have done anything professionally with that kind of music. Take Nexus, who is probably the most successful of these groups. You have very individualistic people here, with very specialized backgrounds, and they don’t play a lot of the educational-type music. They play what they do best, and they do it fantastically. They do so many different types of music. They are really specialists in what they do.
Educationally, I look at it quite differently. The percussion ensemble, to me, is a training ground. Do you know the philosophy of training an orchestra? I picked this up from working with conductors through the years. When a new conductor comes into a young orchestra, they don’t use Stravinsky or modern music to do that. They use Mozart, because you have so much unison of rhythm. There’s very little room for error in Mozart. It’s such a strain to play it properly; it takes tremendous technique. So an orchestra that can play Mozart well is a well-trained orchestra, and that’s how I look at percussion music. I can’t train percussionists as well with avant-garde music as I can with Mozart. Unfortunately, Mozart didn’t write for percussion ensemble, but there are a lot of people who have written music that will work just as well. It is music that has those three elements: melody, harmony and rhythm. That is the crucial area of music that you have to begin to work with.
Rhythm, really, is so primarily number one. You have to be able to control the sticks to play the rhythm. It’s one thing to play your snare drum rhythm well in your lesson; it’s another thing to play a snare drum part in an ensemble and put it together with all the other people. There’s another skill involved, and I have to use music that has rhythm to do that.
Melody brings in the whole scope of phrasing. Again, you can play your solo marimba piece and phrase beautifully, but when you’re in a group you’ve got to phrase together. You can’t do your own thing; you can’t be a soloist. You’ve got to phrase the way the music says to phrase as a group. So we do that in the ensemble.
Harmony has to do with balance. When you’re playing a solo, there’s no balance with anything. Maybe if you have a piano accompaniment there is, but in an ensemble there are a lot of balances. You have to know what that dynamic means at a given time. Forte isn’t always the same. There is accompaniment forte and there’s solo forte. So we do this in an ensemble.
RM: The way you just described melody and harmony, you could have that in an all-drum piece.
AC: Of course, and the music I’ve written was done with that in mind. I agree with you that music should have these three elements. I think without them, it’s questionable if we can call it music in the same form. I don’t say it’s not valid; I say it has merit if you explain what’s happening with it. It’s really a judgmental thing. It’s an opinion, and I don’t think we should say it’s right or wrong. But ensemble, for me, is great training in music for percussionists. String players love to play string quartets because they become soloists. Well, that’s what happens in an ensemble. The kids learn how to be soloists within a group, not just on their own. People can be great soloists, but put them in a section and they don’t play together. What good are those beautiful notes? Counting the rests is so important. You’ve got to have that concentration in order to come in right. So we all work on this, and my ensemble is a real learning class.
RM: What are some of the considerations for writing good percussion ensemble music?
AC: My whole complaint about percussion music is that it’s written too much by percussionists, and not enough by composers. Unfortunately, a lot of percussion music is not so much music, but arrangements of rhythms. It doesn’t have enough form. Music should have form, to me, to be successful as music. And I put myself in the category too of a percussionist/composer. I’m a percussionist writing percussion music. You get pieces like the Chavez Toccatta—now that’s written by a composer, and it’s wonderful music. He doesn’t write for melody instruments, but there’s wonderful phrasing. He doesn’t just write the rhythm, he writes phrases and dots that we can interpret. Chavez had music within him. So when we do that piece, we can play it musically. Composers have this ability. If you’re just writing a rudimental part for this drum coming in here and that drum coming in there, and putting rudiments together, you’re leaving out the element of music making. So I think the ultimate goal is to have more composers write for our medium, and it is happening. That’s where we get our best music.
RM: What are some of the considerations for drums playing with other drums, so that they don’t get in each other’s way?
AC: Well, in percussion ensemble playing there are, of course, a lot of multiple drum setups. One thing I don’t like is the mixing of double-headed and single-headed tom-toms. A lot of times someone will use two double-headed concert toms and a set of timbales when they need a four-drum setup. Well, the one-headed drum resonates from the edge of the drum; the two-headed drum resonates from the center. So if you play them all, say, from the center, the two-headed drums are going to resonate and the one-headed drums are going to have a dead sound. I think it works much better to use all one-headed drums when you have multiple drum setups, or all two-headed drums. Then you can play in the same area of the drum throughout the setup. That’s getting down to some fine points. Other than that, I think it’s the basic points of music and ensemble and balance—knowing when your line is solo, when it’s accompaniment, who you’re playing together with, and if you are accompanying other people, to listen. Make sure you can hear the other person.
RM: One problem I’ve seen are pieces which have intermingling rhythms that look good on paper, but when played, the instruments are all in the same general pitch area—timpani, bass drum, large tom-toms, congas—and when they all play at the same time, they tend to cover each other up.
AC: That’s an orchestration problem. A composer who isn’t knowledgeable may write for too many of the same types of drums, and that will occur. I think it’s legitimate as a conductor to change the drums to get the line if it’s not clear. Even if the composer was specific about the sizes of the concert toms, I think it’s legitimate to change the sizes if you need the clarity.
RM: I often feel that it’s the performer’s fault more than the composer’s. If a composer simply says “large tom-tom,” the performer has a certain amount of choice about the actual size of the drum and how it is tuned, so it’s the performer who has to make sure that the instrument will work in the overall context of the piece. A “large tom-tom” could be a 9×13 or a l6x18, depending on what other instruments are being used.
AC: This is a good point that relates not only to percussion ensembles, but to percussion in general. Talking about orchestral music, you’re given a part to play, right? And no other information is given. You look at the part and decide how to interpret it. Let’s say the part is for snare drum. It doesn’t say “piccolo snare drum” or “5 1/2″ snare drum”; it doesn’t say “wire snares” or “gut snares.” It just says “snare drum.” So you look at the part and you figure out what kind of drum would work best in this piece. Now you’re becoming the interpreter of this part, and you want to do a good job, so you make all these decisions and try to choose the best drum. With a snare drum, you don’t have to worry too much about what you’re going to hit it with, but if it were a mallet instrument or a cymbal, you would have to make those choices. Okay, so you make these determinations and go to the rehearsal. The conductor stops and says, “The snare drum is too dry.” At that point, you are not the interpreter anymore. The conductor is the interpreter of this music. Now your job—as a performer—is to get that part to sound like the conductor wants it to sound. A lot of people do very well in deciding how they want to play it, but they’re not so good in being able to do it the way the conductor wants. That’s a very important part of our job.
Now in the ensemble too, the conductor is going to look at the music and try to get the students to do certain things that are not in the part. That comes up all the time in percussion, especially in the classical literature where the composers give very little information about mallets and instruments. Many times, they say to use a certain mallet but it doesn’t work, so we change the mallet and use a different one.
RM: Like all of those parts that instruct you to hit a cymbal with a timpani stick.
AC: That’s right; a classic example. Or it will tell you to use a soft mallet on the cymbal, but it’s supposed to be a real loud crash, and it would sound much better with the butt end of a wood stick. We do that all the time. As long as the conductor doesn’t say anything, he liked it. If it’s too hard, he’ll tell you. Then you can go back and use the other mallet. Joe Sinai and I covered many of these problems in our book, The Logic of it All.
RM: I remember a part where I was instructed to play a jazz rhythm on a cymbal with a brush, but it was marked double forte, and I had to cut through an 80-piece orchestra that was also playing double forte. I knew it would never be heard, so I used a stick. The conductor stopped everybody and said, “You’re supposed to be using a brush on the cymbal.” “Yeah, ‘but…” “I’M SURE THE COMPOSER KNEW WHAT HE WANTED!”
AC: Well, that was a good judgment on your part, but if he doesn’t like it, that judgment doesn’t count any more. [laughs] We’ve got to realize that about our job. Sometimes we forget, and that’s when problems happen. The conductor is in charge—right or wrong, it doesn’t matter.
RM: Getting into an orchestra now is much different than the way you did it. To day, a lot of people contend that despite the open auditions, you have to know someone, and the way to get into a major orchestra is to study with the timpanist or the principal percussionist. What would you tell someone who wants to someday play in a major symphony?
AC: Today, there’s no real one thing a person can do besides being the best player at the given time at any audition, because the committees today don’t just consist of the timpanist and the percussionists. There are ten people from within the orchestra, and the conductor has the last say. Now, if there is a local person who plays extra in the orchestra, and that person does play very well at the audition and is one of the top three, the conductor, knowing this person, may go in this person’s favor. But if that player doesn’t get in the top two or three, it really wouldn’t matter if that person knew everybody or not. With the behind- the-screen auditions that most orchestras have, at least in the preliminaries, it doesn’t matter at all. You have to at least get to the finals on your own. Then, at that point, it is possible that a personal connection could have some effect.
I’ve been involved in a number of auditions in San Francisco—we’ve been through both percussion and timpani—and in my own mind, I have been firmly convinced that the people who got the jobs were the best players of the ones who came at the time. Now, maybe of the top two or three, I thought one was better qualified than the one the conductor picked, but the person certainly played up to par and was qualified for the job. I think in our orchestra, our audition system is a fair one, and the people who are on the committees act in a fair manner. The conductors sometimes like to bring in their own people—that’s always true—but their own people have to play well enough, or else they’re not going to be picked.
I think everyone has a chance at these auditions, especially today. Now, the younger player has more of a chance, because in the past, people like me had to be recommended by someone—people who didn’t go to Juilliard didn’t have a chance at that job. Today that’s not true. It doesn’t matter where you come from or where you studied. You don’t have to be a Juilliard graduate today; you have to be the best player at that given time, and you have to do something that gives the conductor confidence and allows you to be hired. Of course, even then, you’re only hired for a probationary period. The real test comes in the next two years, after you’re in the orchestra.
RM: You say that it doesn’t matter anymore where someone goes to school, but in the back of the International Musician, where they list the audition notices, orchestras usually ask for a resume so that they can screen the auditionees. The only resume a college student will have is the school and the private teacher. Wouldn’t a student who went to Juilliard or the New England Conservatory look better than someone who went to a lesser-known school?
AC: Well, at one point we started screening the auditions. Up to that point, we took everybody who applied, but it got to be ridiculous—too many people were coming and we couldn’t handle all of them. So the last time we had percussion auditions, we screened the applicants. Now, it didn’t matter what school they came from necessarily, because we were looking for what they did after school. We didn’t want the kid in school; we wanted the kid who was out of school and already had some experience. That became more important, and that’s how our decision was made. That’s why I say the school doesn’t matter. The drawback to screening is that you might screen young, very talented people. Give them a year of training and they’re going to be first class. It’s sort of like the football draft—you aren’t necessarily looking for the position; you’re looking for the best athlete. In a sense, that’s what happens at an audition—you look for the best musicians. Maybe they don’t know all the literature, but learning the notes is one of the easiest parts of playing in the orchestra. It’s the other things: having solid rhythm; playing together; being able to watch the conductor; being able to anticipate; being flexible; using imagination when the conductor asks you to do different things; being able to work under pressure. The notes? Usually you can play the notes. That’s not always the hardest thing to do.
RM: What is your advice to people who have just graduated and who want to be in a symphony? Should they take any type of symphonic job?
AC: A person who’s in a small school should probably go to a major city and begin to get established as a freelance percussionist. Some students take jobs in foreign countries; they may be a little easier to get because not everybody will audition for them. When you play in a foreign orchestra, you do get a certain amount of experience; you are playing the same literature that everybody else plays; it’s just a different environment. That’s one way, if it’s to your liking. Playing in community orchestras is the next step, because they’re also playing the same literature. Having a position in even a community orchestra shows something. The freelance things—if you can pick up traveling ballet companies, dance troups, those kinds of jobs—are good to have because they show professional experience. The person who wants to go on to orchestral playing has to play as much as possible with as many groups as possible to get experience. I tell my students every semester before we start, “Don’t be afraid to take a job, even if it doesn’t pay.” They’re in school now, so it’s a slightly different level. “Get the experience; you cannot pay for that experience. There may be a little symphony out in some community who is doing a piece that needs extra percussionists, and they don’t pay any money, but if you can play that repertoire part with them, you will be playing the same part they play in the New York Philharmonic. Don’t even talk to me about getting paid, because I’m not going to take too highly to it. I want to see you jump and get that part and go play it.” I talk to them like that. So that is an absolute necessity.
When you graduate you’ve got to take as much work as possible in the field. If you get too far away from it, you begin to lose the training and the skill. We are all slaves to this business. If we don’t keep up the technique, it will suffer. In our head we may know how it goes, but our muscles have to be continually trained.
RM: I know people who can play the excerpts blindfolded, but they can’t follow a conductor. Have you ever seen a situation where the person who won the audition was subsequently unable to handle the job?
AC: We have had situations like that. This whole audition thing is still evolving. I don’t know the answer.
I think the auditions are fair in that sense, but I don’t always think they get the best player. They get the best player for the day. So many secure, professional people trying to get better jobs take auditions and don’t even pass the preliminaries, because on that particular day, they got a little nervous and missed a couple of notes. Give them the job and they’d play any of that literature, but they just don’t play auditions well. The students, who have been playing their recitals, and who are used to working eight hours a day on this material—where the professionals can’t always do that—have a great advantage. As a matter of fact, one of my new proposals for our graduate program has to do specifically with this area. Instead of a student working so hard to prepare the Creston, I’m going to try to get them to prepare symphonic literature—audition material—as part of this curriculum so they could be doing something very practical. This is only for the students who have symphonic playing as a goal.
This is really a very serious subject for me, being in education, because I train a lot of percussionists. I look at the job field, and at the amount of talent that is around today, and I have to really ask myself the question, “What are these kids going to do? I know they’re all not going to make it.” So over the years, especially recently, I’ve developed what I call a “Lecture on Careers.” I give this to my students as a group about once a year. Very simply, I say, “Look, you’re here in music because you feel that this is the only thing you want to do. You don’t want to be an accountant, you don’t want a nine-to-five job, you don’t have any other skill that you feel you’ve developed, so you study music. Now, you have to be realistic and see that once you graduate, you have to earn a living. You want to get married and have a family; more responsibility comes up. And yet, in the back of your mind, you still want a career in music.” At that point, I define what, in my mind, is a career in music. Now, this is personal, but I do not consider traveling around the country in a band a career in music, because I feel it’s too difficult a life-style, and I don’t encourage my students to pursue this area. I feel it’s limited—one or two years, you’re in a band being successful, fantastic. But don’t do it for your whole life, because there’s no life in it. That’s my guidance to them. I talk of a career in music as something that has security, like a college position, a high school position, even a grammar school position teaching music, if that’s their interest. And performance-wise, freelancing is a career. It’s not one of my highest choices as a career, but it does have some security to it if you’re a good freelance player in certain areas. Of course, orchestral playing is probably the most secure of the playing jobs, because you’re under a full contract. So I look at a career as a position, either in a university or in an orchestra job, but after all, the jobs are very limited. I have about three students who could handle it, and every school has three or four, and so there is this great competition.
Here’s my advice to my students: I say, “Look, go after your goals. Form that goal in your mind and do everything possible to attain it. When you graduate—and this is the key—you still have to earn a living in some way to support your career. Maybe take a part-time job. That’s okay. But if you get too far away from music, as the years go on, you become less and less qualified for these jobs. It’s very important in these years after school to stay in music and get all the experience possible, to add to that resume for a teaching job, or a performance situation. Now, if you did this for two or three years, and you’ve auditioned for five or six orchestras, and came up with zero, at some point—and it’s not the same point for everybody—you’ve got to re-evaluate what you’re doing. You have to look at this and say, ‘Wait a minute. I cannot spend the rest of my life trying to get an orchestra job. I have not been successful; I’ve got to start thinking about the rest of my life.’ ” I would rather that some of these people would develop a career outside of music, than starve their whole life, trying to get something that’s very difficult to attain. Music will always be a part of their life, no matter how they earn their living.
I use one of my former students as an example. He was in school getting his Bachelor’s and Master’s over a period of ten years. He would leave a semester, then come back. He got his Bachelor’s, left, got a part-time teaching job, came back to get his credentials, then got a leave of absence from his teaching job, came back to get his Master’s—he wound up getting his degrees, but he never got a full-time job in music. Then I didn’t hear from him for a while, but all of a sudden, I saw him on television, doing a commercial for a computer program at a local college. I found out that he had gone to that school, trained in computers, got a successful job, and was now helping the school bring in more students. That, to me, is a success story. If he hadn’t spent those ten years in music, what would he have done? He wasn’t interested in computers ten years ago. He was interested in music. I could tell that he was never going to be a symphony musician, but should I have told him to change his major? He might have dropped out of school and never got an education.
So I believe that some students should be in music—they’re getting an education— but I don’t necessarily believe that they should make their living in music. If they don’t have any other direction, we’ll give them an education—that’s become my philosophy as I see all these students pass through San Jose State University. I take it seriously, and I don’t just want to teach them something that I know they can’t use if they don’t have the ability. I redirect them.
RM: Some people criticize music schools by saying that the schools are only preparing people to play in symphony orchestras, but that’s not where most of the jobs are. In other words, schools are not keeping up with the times and preparing people for the real world, including club gigs, wedding receptions, or whatever.
AC: Well, I think it comes down to the training of a musician. For instance, when I was in Juilliard, I never learned how to play a wedding reception from Saul Goodman. I never learned how to play much mallets from Saul Goodman. But he taught me about music, and all the things he taught me, I applied to everything I did in music—even my compositions. He taught me from the masters. He was taught by Toscanani—that was his teacher—and he passed those things on to us. They were not how to hold your sticks, or how to play a Jewish wedding—what rhythms you need. No. He taught me concepts about music, about phrasing, about listening, and I applied them to all areas of music. I think that’s the most important thing. There is only so much you’re going to teach a student to the point where his talent and ability take off. Goodman didn’t teach you what the rhythms were. You either knew that or you learned it on your own. He didn’t spend time with that. He taught concepts, and I think that’s really what a musician is all about.
RM: That reminds me of something Joe Morello said: He never studied jazz drumming with anyone, but he did study with people who taught him how to get a good sound out of the instrument, and then he applied that to jazz.
AC: He had the ability within himself to do that, and that’s why he was so great. It wasn’t because of his teachers. You know, I’ve had a lot of good students, but it wasn’t so much because of what I did. I teach them all the same thing. Over the years, I’ve had maybe half-a-dozen people that I had to tell, “You have to play timpani.” When they played timpani they got a sound—I could hear it. I taught them the same way as the other people, but the other people could not get that sound. These people had something special. When they played a Beethoven symphony for me, it sounded like they had played it their whole life. They knew things that I didn’t even have to tell them. When I see that, I know they’ve got something special, and in the 19 years I’ve been there, I’ve only had five or six who have been able to do that. These people have gone on and been successful. So there’s something inside of us that we get from God that enables us to do this. I can’t explain it.
I look at myself as being a motivator more than anything else. I have to motivate these students because they’re under so much pressure from their academic work, from society as a whole, from their parents, from their peers, from their girlfriends and boyfriends—they have all these distractions. And what’s the first thing that goes? Their practice time. Everything else has to be done too. They’ve got to work, they’ve got to earn some money, they’re moving this week, the car broke down—every excuse in the book—and that’s why they couldn’t practice. Well, I have to get them to put number one first. If you’re in the music department, and you’re a percussion major, that is number one. I don’t want to hear about your English test. I can’t tell them when to practice, but I can tell them to organize their time so everything gets done. Four years of college is a very serious time and you’ve got to really apply yourself. It’s hard, even if you do apply yourself. If you don’t apply yourself, it’s impossible. So I look at myself as a motivator, first of all, to get their goals focused clearly, and then to keep them on track.
You know, sometimes students will come in for a lesson, and look like the world has collapsed. They don’t say anything, but I say, “What’s the matter?” “Oh…I feel terrible.” “Okay, let’s sit down and talk.” We don’t even play a note that lesson. Maybe the family has a problem. They wind up crying, but you know, they’ve got to handle these problems in their life; they can’t let it get to the point where they can’t work. That happens once in a while—we all know that—but I try to get them on the track and understand the situation so they can bounce back and keep going. That’s important. Sometimes they don’t get that kind of counseling outside. As teachers, if we’re just there to listen to the notes that they play, I don’t think that we’re doing our complete job. We have to look at the student as a total person, and they do have problems, especially in earning money. They work in pizza places or whatever to make this money, but if they have to do that too many hours and they can’t practice, why be in school? I’ll say, “Look, take a semester off. Go to work full time and earn enough money so that next semester you can come back to school and you won’t have to work as much, because you can’t do both.” There’s no cheating in music. You’ve got to do it yourself.
RM: Mel Lewis talks to students about such things as how to have a girlfriend and be a musician, because he saw a lot of students having problems because of their relationships.
AC: That’s the awareness that teachers need to have. You know, when I give my talk on careers, I finish all this other stuff that we’ve talked about, and then very simply at the end, I say, “It’s very important to get yourself together in three areas.” I share my philosophy with them. I say, “First of all, you have to get yourself together physically, because if you’re sick all the time, you can’t produce very well. If you’re not eating properly, or taking care of your health, you’re going to have a lot of problems that take your energy away from this creative effort of music. Emotionally, it’s very important to take care of yourself too. If you’re always emotional and depressed, you’re not going to produce well. Emotional stability is a little bit trickier than eating the right foods. There are a lot of reasons why people have emotional problems, but there are ways we can be helped. Don’t be afraid to talk to someone about it. Maybe your thinking is a little bit confused, and somebody can just straighten it out and you’ll feel a lot better.”
The other area is spiritual. In today’s society, some students are not raised with a spiritual foundation. I don’t push them too much, but I do say, “I feel it’s important to have God in your life for life to be meaningful. My experience has been that after you’ve graduated, and found a job, and you’re making money, and you’ve got a family, life will still be incomplete if you don’t have your life together spiritually.” I try to give them broader concepts than just the right sticking for “Porgy and Bess.” These concepts are important. We’re not machines.
I talk to them very strongly about drugs and alcohol, because it’s so easy in a university atmosphere to get caught up in that. I tell them about it; that’s all I can do. Some of them hear it, some of them don’t, but at least I say it. At least if they have never heard it before, they hear it from me. A lot of them use their own rules and justifications—”This is alright; that’s alright.” I just tell them, “It’s not alright.” At least they heard it, and maybe it’ll balance them out in some way.
See, one of my great interests outside of music is organic gardening. When you start working with nature like that—we use no pesticides, no artificial fertilizer or anything like that—you begin to see how nature really works, and that you don’t need any of these outside, artificial things to grow vegetables. I believe that is true with our lives, too. The more dependent we are on artificial things, the less I think we’re experiencing our real selves in the world. I had a student who was a chain smoker, and there’s no smoking allowed in my classroom. Well, we had a rehearsal that had gone on for about an hour, and this guy had to have a cigarette, right? But he had to play. So what did he do? He opened the window and stuck his head out so he could smoke a cigarette. [laughs] His mind wasn’t on his music. Now that may be an extreme example, but I imagine other people have those feelings, and as soon as there’s a break, they have to go out and have a cigarette, or a cup of coffee, or a drink, or some kind of drug. Now obviously, people can work with these things. There are many people who smoke and play, and many people probably take drugs and play. Maybe it doesn’t affect your talent. I don’t know, but I do know that it affects your life. And what good is having a great talent and a great ability if your life is a disaster? What good is that career?
Even in your own magazine, I remember one drummer you interviewed—I don’t remember his name but his picture was like death walking. I show things like that to my students and say, “Don’t let this happen to you.” I read a little bit about him and his life was kind of tragic. The guy was a great drummer; I don’t take anything away from him, but what good is it? And I share this with my students because I hate to see any of them get into this; I would rather not get them into music if that’s what’s going to happen.
Personally, I’m a born-again Christian, and that has been a big influence in my life. I see things a lot differently because of that. I believe that a lot of people—especially students—don’t have this other little dimension to balance their lives out. They’re so idealistic; they’re so into technique and development, and their idols, that they don’t really look at their whole life. I mention those three areas, because it’s important to be balanced physically, emotionally and spiritually. We know that money doesn’t make you happy; we see that all the time in the glamour world. And the people who have the biggest jobs are not the happiest people either. Those things don’t make us happy. See, I can teach kids how to play drums, but I can’t teach them how to be happy if that’s all I teach them. So I try to tell them which areas would be important to their life, because they can be the greatest drummers in the world, have the greatest jobs, and be the most miserable people. So if you can get students to look at their lives, and think about other things besides music, maybe you can develop people who are going to be happy, while doing something they enjoy.