Ask Arthur Press to sit down and discuss his life as a percussionist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and you’ll see an interesting transformation take place. As the conversation begins, he is quiet and reflective—the very picture of a “classical artist” as he puffs on his pipe and speaks in a calm, refined voice that doesn’t hint at his Brooklyn birthplace. As he continues to talk, however, the pipe is forgotten and the words come faster and faster, almost tripping over each other. The man is obviously excited about what he does, and for good reason.
Being a member of the Boston Symphony is the type of job that most percussionists dream of. The BSO is known as the “Aristocrat Of Orchestras,” and in its one-hundred-plus years of existence, has boasted the finest conductors and musicians. There’s a spirit of excellence in the orchestra that manifests itself in various ways. For example, when confronted with a guest conductor who is not up to par, most orchestras tend to avoid putting out any effort whatsoever, leaving the conductor to bear the burden of bad reviews. The BSO, however, has a reputation for not allowing anyone to compromise their sound. If a conductor is not “cutting it,” the orchestra members will quietly agree among themselves to take matters into their own hands. They will ignore the podium, if necessary, to play the music the way it deserves to be played. The audience will probably never know that the conductor they are applauding was actually following the orchestra instead of leading them, but that’s not what matters. The important thing is that the Boston Symphony sounds good at all times.
That type of dedication can only come from musicians who realize the benefit of putting the good of the orchestra ahead of their own personal identities. It may seem like a thankless job at times; the musicians make the orchestra sound good, yet the conductor gets all of the credit. But there is another type of gratification that comes from being in a situation such as this. When two people combine their talents and energies to work towards a common goal, the result is often greater than the sum of the parts. So imagine a hundred musicians united in a performance! A player who is able to set aside personal ego in order to merge with the group energy is rewarded with a feeling of oneness that has to be experienced to be understood. The musicians are also rewarded with the satisfaction of being part of something truly great, but it’s a two-way street. Certainly, anyone who joins the Boston Symphony Orchestra automatically inherits a certain amount of the BSO’s glory. But there’s a responsibility that goes along with that, because in order for the orchestra to maintain its reputation, alI of the musicians must be “aristocrats” in their own right.
Arthur Press meets that responsibility very well.
RM: How did you become a musician?
AP: I bought my first pair of drumsticks while I was in my freshman year of high school. I used to listen to radio shows called Robin’s Nest and The Make Believe Ballroom, and would play along with hairbrushes on an old fruitcake tin. Finally I got a small set of drums.
At that time in New York City, there were several rehearsal studios—Ringle’s, Nola’s—and many first-run movie theaters with stage shows featuring big bands like Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa, and Woody Herman. On Saturdays, I would first go to the rehearsal studios to see who was rehearsing. Duke Ellington or Count Basie might be at Nola’s, and there would always be some kind of “rehearsal” band at Ringle’s. Then I’d go to the theaters. I’d of try to time it so I could catch two stage shows and a movie. Afterwards, I’d go backstage and talk to the drummers about what they did and how they did it.
At one point I met Roy Harte, who was playing with Bobby Sherwood’s band, and I studied with him for a little while. After wards, I took lessons from a show drummer named Sammy Gershack, and finally I went to the Juilliard School, where I studied with Moe Goldenberg and Saul Good man. While I was in Juilliard, I was able to do some free-lance work with the Little Orchestra Society of New York City. After that came Radio City Music Hall, and then the Boston Symphony.
RM: The many teachers you studied with certainly must have prepared you well.
AP: I learned a tremendous amount of things from Moe Goldenberg and Saul Goodman. I also listened to other players a great deal. You need a lot of knowledge to play with a concert orchestra. However, you really have to be in the situation yourself. Depending on your own intuitive sense of style, you really become your own person after you’ve played the repertoire many times. You can go to Buster Bailey, Al Payson, Mickey Bookspan, or any of the fine snare drummers and ask, “How do you do this?” They could coach you, but you only really develop that sense of what it is you want to do and how you want to play when you play every day. How does one learn to play pianissimo? I remember Claudio Abbado being a real stickler about “Fetes” from the Debussy Nocturnes. He kept saying, “No, it’s not soft enough.” I went home to figure out a different sticking and find a place to play softly on the snare drum. So you’re constantly re-changing, re-auditing, and re-editing in your own mind the way you have to play.
RM: You indicated that your first influence was big bands. Could you quickly go through your transition from someone who was inspired by big bands to someone who ended up in the Boston Symphony? How did one lead to the other?
AP: Well, I choose a high school in Brooklyn that had a good, expanded music department. They had an orchestra, con cert band and a swing band too. I remember riding on a school bus one day, and one of the school violinists told me about a rehearsal he had done the previous night. I asked what it had been for and he said it was Dean Dixon’s Ail-American Youth Orchestra. I thought, “Well, why shouldn’t I be there? ” So I went to the next rehearsal. Dean Dixon said, “Go over and meet our timpanist.” I had no real background and thought that playing in a semiprofessional orchestra was just like playing in a school orchestra: You just get a drum and you pound along with everybody else. It was a very naive kind of concept. After the preliminary audition, I knew I had to get better training. The following season, I came back and got to play with Dean Dixon’s orchestra. I also started playing with the YMHA Symphony in Brooklyn. After my last year in high school, I found out that I could study with Moe Goldenberg. Moe was very kind to me. He took me on as a student, and helped me get a scholarship to go to Juilliard on a full-time basis. Being in that environment, I tended to move away from the big band/jazz scene, and into a different kind of musical bag.
RM: I sometimes hear drummers say, “I could never play in a symphony orchestra, because every time you play a piece it’s exactly the same. I like the freedom of being able to do different things.”
AP: Sometimes you can do a great deal. I remember doing some Mahler songs with Colin Davis. I started adding a grace note in one section. Then I added two grace notes. Then I thought I’d add three. I thought it was a beautiful sound. Suddenly, he stopped conducting, walked back to me and very quietly said, “Don’t play so many grace notes.” He let me do what I wanted, but all of a sudden I got too far out. He wanted to bring me back into the circle. Then there was something I tried in the Scaffold scene of Till Eulenspigel. I like the sound of a very, very fast single-stroke roll. I think it should sound like a loud, rumbly, ominous death announcement. I did that once and Kurt Mazur said, “No, keep the roll tight.” You try a bunch of things; some work, some don’t. I’ve played Scheherazade many, many times. The last performance I did was with Andre Previn. Right before the coda of the fourth movement, there’s one place where the strings play a 3/8 time figure while we’re basically playing a 2/8 figure. I usually double stroke that, and it comes out phrased exactly with the trumpets. But he slowed down, and the trumpets and snare drum were way ahead of the beat. We told him, “Well, it’s a little bit on the slow side.” He said, “That’s the way I want it. However, I’ll slow it up even more to allow the trumpet players to single tongue it.” I tried playing the first three bars using double strokes, but then realized that it was not going to work. So I had to single stroke it. If you had come to me one hour prior to that rehearsal and said, “Would you coach me on that piece?” I would have told you to double stroke that portion.
In the Nielsen 5th Symphony, the snare drum has a cadenza. The composer gives you a free hand to do what you want. In my case, I wrote out my own cadenza, because I don’t want to extemporize; I want to know where I’m going. So I used my own creativity to compose a cadenza that I felt was suitable. But then I did that piece once with Michael Tilson Thomas, and he said, “Arthur, don’t play anything too thick. The reason is that you are sup posed to be the antagonist. It’s like a battle between you and the clarinetist: You represent war; the clarinet represents peace. You want to try to interrupt the clarinet. If you keep going nonstop, it won’t work. So play a lot of quick, staccato interjections.” Hearing him say that gave me a clue as to how I should compose that kind of cadenza.
Of course, classical players don’t have the marvelous leeway to expand and stretch out like drummers in jazz, fusion, or rock. There are a lot of things that those drummers can do, but our bag is clarity, dynamic control, ensemble and contributing to the musical fabric of the work. When you play a great work—and there are literally hundreds of these in the classic repertoire—you don’t have the license to decide, “Well, I’m not going to play what Beethoven, Schumann, or Mendelssohn wrote,” because you’re just a part of the ensemble.
One does take liberties, of course. Good timpani players are cognizant of the tradition of adding or doubling some notes. A lot of classical composers wrote for only two timpani, so they used notes that also fit into another particular harmony. If you’re tuned to A and there is an F-major chord, for example, you’re playing the third of the chord and that would work. Many times the key would change, but they knew that the timpanists couldn’t change the pitch of the timpani so quickly, so they just left it out. In the finale of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, there are places to add a G, a B-flat and a D to coincide with the trumpets. There are some conductors who say, “No. Beethoven wrote it that way, and that’s the way it will stand.” I’ve heard Lorin Maazel conduct a Robert Schumann symphony, and he virtually had the timpani playing all the harmonic changes. A lot of conductors feel that if the composers had the instruments available, they would have used them accordingly. Therefore, they take that license. Other conductors, like Colin Davis, want exactly what the particular composer wrote.
RM: What are your personal feelings on that? Do you think that, as a player, you have the right to interpret the composer? Or do you prefer the traditional approach of playing it exactly as written?
AP: Well, I take a moderate approach. Sometimes it’s effective to change something, but I think it should not become excessive. I don’t think that a timpani player should play every change and play chromatic passages in a Robert Schumann symphony or a Beethoven symphony. But I think that there are many places where adding or changing notes really does fit and does aid the composition. In Mendelssohn’s “Scottish” symphony, the timpani are tuned to A and E, but for the first entrance, the basses are playing F. Why not play an F? It sounds very goo.
If there are some places where changing a note would sound much better, then by all means, I’ll do it. There are some notes you can add that sound as if the composer would have done that. Sometimes you can change the octave of a note. Instead of tuning, say, an A with an E a fifth higher, you can tune a 30″ drum to get a low E, and then you will be able to use that kind of orchestration. For example, at the beginning of the third movement of the Bartok Concerto For Orchestra, Eric Leinsdorf had the timpani player tune a low C below the staff in order to play the descending line exactly with the basses, instead of coming up an octave and playing the C on the second space. I thought that made sense,
RM: Can you ever really say that you know a piece? In other words, there are certain aspects of it that you can know, but there are other aspects that change, depending on the person up front and the hall you’re in. Can you talk about that?
AP: Yeah. Let’s take a piece like the Bartok Concerto For Orchestra. The second movement is called, “Presentation of the couples,” and it starts off with a snare drum without snares. I remember the first time that I played it, Harold Thompson, who was a cymbal player in the Boston Symphony, said in his inimitable way, “Yeah—wedding drum,” to which I replied, “Wedding drum, what’s that?” As it turns out, in Eastern Europe it was the custom that the couple would march with the wedding party from the house to the church accompanied by a drum. This is what Bartok used to introduce this “Joke Of The Couples.” I played it the first time, I think, with Erich Leinsdorf, who said he didn’t want any accents. I really couldn’t reconcile myself to playing the piece without left hand and a lighter stick in my right. That gave it a slightly different tone quality so that it was almost a natural-feel accent, and I got around it that way. That subsequently led to my phrasing; I would play all the accents with my left hand. I also started to think about the phrase of the eight-bar solo. I saw small phrases within that, and played it that way. I use the same weight sticks in both hands now, but I still play all the accents with the left hand.
I’ve had conductors say, “Would you play it with only one hand?” I don’t like that, because it puts too much tension in the 16th rhythms. You tend to force the 16th notes when you play with one hand, and it kind of distorts, I think, the nice, natural flow. Repeated rights or lefts start to get a little bit too stiff and are slightly rushed to prepare for the accent. I will go to a conductor and say, “I would prefer not playing it with one hand,” and we might talk a little bit about style and conception. There are many times when a con doctor will feel, “Well, he’s done this piece many times. I’m not going to interfere with his style.”
I originally put a calf head on the drum so I could get a nice pitch and sonority. Now, I use, almost exclusively, a Rogers Dynasonic snare drum with a Remo Black Dot head. The sound is really great. It takes out a lot of the extraneous overtones and I get a purer high pitch.
Sometimes guest conductors appear with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and say, “Don’t do that. Please do it differently.” Conductors are like chefs. They know how much salt and pepper they want in a particular stew. It’s not my job to question them. My job is to work around and bring the best of my experience to making the music work. If I’m not told anything, my judgment will tell me, “Gee, that’s the color or style I think I want to use.”
RM: As for things changing, a friend of mine had practiced the xylophone part to Porgy And Bess for years. He finally got to play it at a pop concert with Sarah Vaughan. When they handed out the music, it had been transposed to a different key!
AP: There are people who give auditions to percussionists, and inevitably Porgy comes up. Someone who really doesn’t know, thinks, “This is a test for velocity.” Well, that’s crazy! The orchestration is such that it’s doubled with the violins. Any good conductor knows that there’s no point in taking the tempo up to M.M.160 to the quarter, because then the string players can’t play it. But people will audition percussionists and want them to play it so fast, when the most important thing is, of course, being accurate, playing the accents, and not rushing. It’s the same with the polka from The Golden Age ballet by Shostakovich. A player should not be chosen on the basis of playing Colas Breugnon with the half note at M.M.140. One of the things that you should really be concerned about when you go for an audition is having the correct concept and Knowing exactly what is going on, so that you can play the thing accurately in the proper musical style.
I guess this all ties into concepts, what you want to do, and how you want to do it. I remember when I got the job in Boston. I frantically made a call to Morris Lang, who plays in the New York Philharmonic. “Morris, I got the job. But what should I do… ” He said, “Listen man, relax. It’s going to take you five years just to season out in the repertoire.” He was absolutely right. There’s nothing you can do. You’ve just got to play the repertoire a few times with a bunch of different conductors. You sometimes think, “Well, I’ll try something new.” Sometimes the tempo is edged a trifle and you just can’t make that lick the way you played it four or five times before, so you’ve got to change.
RM: Staying with the theme of flexibility, let’s talk about drums. Do you find that you might have to play on different areas of a drum, depending on the hall or the conductor’s preference?
AP: Well, I have a concept about the snare drum which says specifically that the drum should be responsive in such a way that, when you play close to the edge, it still sounds like a snare drum. You’d be surprised at how many people I’ve come in contact with who have said, “Oh no, my teacher said you’ve got to play in the center of the drum to get the most snare sound.” Well, let’s consider the snare drum just as a drum, without the snares on it. If you play dead center, that’s a nodal point: You won’t get any vibration. If the name of the game is sonority and you are trying to get tone, then you want to play where there are vibrations. So the center certainly is not the place to play.
I have a custom-built Fibes snare drum that Bob Grauso made for me when he first started building snare drums, with, of all things, steel guitar strings. The tension on each of those strings is individually adjusted. That feature is most important. I don’t want to worry about playing softly. I also don’t want to fight any snare drum that I use. It’s a basic rule: No instrumentalist should contend with an inferior instrument. You never find a string player who says, “Well gee, I can’t play on this string because there’s no sound and it’s all choked up.” They either get a sound post adjusted, they get new strings, or they go out and buy a different instrument. If wind players play on an instrument that’s out of tune, they don’t say, “Well, I’ll have to adjust to that.” It either goes back to the factory, or they buy another instrument. If reeds don’t work, they refashion another reed. But it’s only percussionists who will pay $250 or $300 for a drum, and then feel that they have to adjust themselves to the drum. A basic rule of thumb is, put the drum on a stand in a good hall, and if it doesn’t sound good for both loud and soft playing, something is wrong. There are so many variables that it would be too lengthy to go into now, but that’s the concept.
RM: The other side of this is people who blame all of their problems on the equipment.
AP: At some point, a person must have the maturity to be able to admit, “I made a mistake.” We all have bad days, but anyone who is always putting the blame on something else has a real problem. I wouldn’t know where to begin to address that.
You need an objective point of view. I’ve had students come in and ask, “What’s wrong with my roll?” The problem was the way the drum was tuned: The snares were choking the bottom head. Sometimes, a tuning that will work fine with a rock group will not work at all for a symphonic player, so one has to be aware of what the requirements are for a particular situation. Sometimes the problem is with the drum, sometimes it’s the stick, and sometimes it’s the player.
RM: Do you have any special drums that you are particularly fond of?
AP: When I first became a snare drummer in the Boston Symphony, a wonderful drum maker from California named Forrest Clark built a beautiful snare drum for me. He is very careful and understands what goes into a good drum. There are very few people making really good concert snare drums, compared to a dozen great string repairmen. A string player can take a violin in and say, “My instrument doesn’t work. What’s wrong with it?” The repairman will say, “Play it … Ah yes, here’s what’s wrong.” Drummers don’t have that. If I ran into trouble with my Fibes snare drum and Bobby Grauso were not around to either refashion another set of snares for me or reset my throw-off or whatever, I’d be in trouble.
RM: Do you use different snare drums at different times?
AP: The drum that Forrest Clark made for me is quite beautiful. For some particular reason, I’ve been using the Fibes drum more often. I also own a Gladstone drum, but I don’t use it too often because it doesn’t produce the soft response that the Fibes and the Forrest Clark drums do. I do use the Gladstone drum when I need a deeper sounding snare drum. The Fibes drum sounds a little thin when we play Mahler. I know that I need something that’s in between a field drum and a snare drum. The 7″ Gladstone works very, very well. That gets back to concept—having a certain sound in your ear.
RM: I’ve heard people contend that a percussionist should be able to make one snare drum work for everything, just as a violinist will only have one violin. Is there any validity to that at all, or is that comparing apples to oranges?
AP: Well, clarinetists have a B-flat clarinet and a clarinet in A. These instruments specifically deal, of course, with the way they’re tuned. Composers use these instruments for their various qualities. But there are also trumpet players who have six or seven instruments, such as piccolo trumpets which play easier. There are some players who decide, “I only use a B-flat trumpet.” Great—wonderful—no sweat. It depends on what your needs are. If someone says, “I can make the correct sound for this particular piece on a field drum, and that’s all I’ll use,” fine. If you play it on a fruitcake tin and it sounds great, that’s fine too. I’m not going to argue with anybody who has success. There’s a piece by Alban Berg where there’s a long 25-bar ppp snare drum roll that should sound like you’re just taking a piece of sandpaper and running another piece of sandpaper over it. If you play that on a 7″-deep gut drum and you get the right color, wonderful. I’m not going to do it. It’s hard enough to play. So I’m going to go with a drum that I think is going to give me the right and easiest response. As far as the people who say, “No, I only use one drum,” I venture to say that they wouldn’t go to an automobile mechanic who only had one wrench. They would expect a drawer full of the right tools. Maybe that’s apples and oranges, but every instrumentalist that I know has a variety of tools—in reeds, in strings, in bows. So the more you have, the better it is for you to make a choice. It doesn’t mean that you are less of a player. It only means that you have a better, more specific tool to use to get the job done and to contribute to that musical fabric that we were talking about before.
RM: As far as having a variety of tools, I know percussionists who have a great many triangle beaters. But some of them are so small that they don’t really produce a good sound from the instrument. All they do is make it easier for the person to play softly.
AP: Every instrument, whether it is a triangle or a gong, has a basic, fundamental sound, or sonority. That sound can be altered minutely or drastically by changing the stick, or beater. If you have a small, 4″ triangle, for example, and you use a big, heavy beater, you will overplay that triangle. With a 7″ triangle, however, you might be able to use that same beater and get a really good sound. If the beater is too thin, you won’t generate the fundamental overtones. It’s the same with a cymbal: There’s a point where you can be using a will simply be no sound coming from the cymbal. You need the right kind of core, and the proper amount of covering to prevent it from sounding hard, but also to bring out the fundamental quality of that cymbal.
People sometimes try to use pencil-thin snare drum sticks with nylon tips on concert snare drums, and they wonder why the drum doesn’t respond. It can’t, because there just isn’t enough stick weight and substance in the bead to make the drum sound good. Vic Firth’s Bolero stick is a great stick, but it’s meant for soft playing. If you try to use it for something in the forte range, the sound just isn’t going to be there. Similarly, you don’t want to play pp rolls with a big, heavy stick. And if the sound has to be very soft, you might even want to go to a smaller snare drum. One time, playing the Three Pieces For Orchestra by Alban Berg, I used a thin drum with wire snares, and light, nylon-tip sticks. That produced the right color for that particular piece. You’ll be able to use every stick in your possession at some point for concert performance. A certain pair of sticks might not work at all for one piece, but they will be perfect for something else, so you use them. I must have two-dozen pairs of drumsticks. I do most things with the same pair of sticks, but for instance, recently we played the Shostakovich Symphony No. 10, which has a lot of snare drum solos in the f and ff range, so I used a pair of Gauger 12s. They look like marching band sticks, but they sure did a great job for me when I had to play loud.
The bottom line is always: What does it sound like? A conductor will sometimes tell a snare drummer to play softer, so the player immediately takes out a wallet and throws it on the drum. It takes all of the sonority out of the batter head, and it’s an awful sound. You have to find the right instrument and the right sticks to do what you have to do. Using the wrong beater or covering up half of the instrument is not the way to do it. In an attempt to play the right dynamic, don’t lose sight of the quality of the sound you’re making.
RM: A few weeks ago on public TV, I caught a rerun of a show that was done in ’75 about the Boston Symphony. They showed the symphony jazz group. Is that still going on?
AP: Yeah. We’re still alive. A bunch of us in the orchestra—percussionist Tom Gauger, who plays vibes, Leslie Martin, a bass player, and a clarinet player—decided to get together and play some tunes. I had played drumset when I was going to school. As a matter of fact, I worked my way through my first couple of years at Juilliard by playing club dates. I also had a lot of experience playing Latin drums. Everything you do in music you’re going to be able to utilize, whether it’s playing a Jewish wedding, or a Greek wedding, or playing Latin music. So at any rate, getting back to the jazz group, every year there is a marathon to raise money for the orchestra. One of the premiums offered are concerts, so we offered a concert by the Renaissance Jazz Ensemble. It was very successful. We subsequently went out and did a couple of commercial dates under the name Wuz, which is supposed to be the pluperfect of “has been.” Now we work with a pianist in Boston who is very prominent, Ray Santisi. We’ve also used Dick Johnson, who is now conducting the Artie Shaw band. We’re in the process of trying to get a lot of publicity so we can get more work. This gives me a chance to use some of my jazz chops. Of course, that’s easier said than done. When you go out to play jazz, you had better be able to make some kind of statement. I’m not a jazz player, and anybody who would suggest that I am is being very kind.
RM: A very well-meaning person once told me that someone who was serious about being an orchestral percussionist should concentrate solely on practicing orchestral percussion and not waste time playing drumset. How would you answer that?
AP: I think you need both. One of the things I stress in teaching is that one of the best ways to practice serious etudes and orchestral parts is at the drumset, with the bass drum and hi-hat going, and with a metronome. If I play a figure that’s really comfortable while at the set, then it’s really going to work well in the orchestra. So, as for the person who told you not to waste your time playing the drumset, everybody’s got a prejudice against something. All these canards—don’t play in the middle of the drum; don’t use that grip; don’t do this; don’t do that—are really nonsense. You do something if it works, and if you’ve had success with it. This is one of the philosophies we stress at my Percussion Academy.
Of course, while there are a great deal of things that you can practice and achieve at the set, if one wants to be an orchestral snare drummer, he or she is going to have to get into serious snare drum etudes, such as the Tony Cirone book [Portraits In Rhythm], the Morris Goldenberg book [Modern School For Snare Drum], Vic Firth’s The Solo Snare Drummer, the Delecluse books. . . . There are many good books on the market. You practice these etudes because they have been written by people who have a great deal of experience in orchestral playing. The figures they wrote are going to aid you in preparing to play the repertoire. Then you have to learn the actual repertoire. You should look at the excerpt, understand it, get a recording, and listen to what the tempo is going to be and whatever else you have to do to play correctly to lock in with that particular area of performance.
If I wanted to be a serious rock drummer, I certainly wouldn’t go to someone who I know is the greatest jazz trio player. I’d go to a rock player. That’s not to say that I would not be able to learn something from that person who plays great brushes with a trio, but that’s not primarily what I want to do. I f you want to be a serious classical percussionist, you should go to a good university or conservatory where there are working professionals who have been through the material, played with an orchestra, and had the experience. There are, obviously, many people who can lay a great foundation on you, and open you up to whatever area you want to go to. They can create in a particular person a fine player. From there, that player has got to find someone who can give him or her the finishing touches. These admonitions that you shouldn’t play set are crazy. By the same token, it wouldn’t hurt the set player to look at some difficult, serious etudes. And legitimate players would be wise to pick up Modern Drummer and look at some of the transcriptions of Elvin Jones or Steve Gadd that I’ve seen in there. They’re hard.
RM: Set drummers will talk about being able to play a one- or two-bar pattern over and over, and make it feel good. I’ve always thought that they could benefit by getting into Bolero and making that feel good for 20 minutes.
AP: Bolero has a bunch of problems, one of which is, of course, the concentration, and the other is the hypnotic effect on both the mind and on the muscles. The muscles seem to sometimes lock out just from the repetitiveness, and also the mind sometimes wanders. You’re into the 150th bar or whatever, and you find yourself thinking, “Gee, what am I going to have for dinner tonight?” All of sudden—this is, of course, in milliseconds—you think, “Was I on the first bar of the lick or the second bar?” Different portions of the brain control different things. One portion controls keeping your place; another controls your muscle reflexes.
When playing Bolero, a percussionist has to remember that the snare drum part is an accompaniment. So many young percussionists get the idea that their lick is the most important thing. You have to accompany the soloists in the orchestra. There are many ebbs and flows with the tempo. The trombone solo is very devilish, and the player may need a bit more latitude in the accompaniment. The conductor may want, as the piece gets louder, to create more excitement, so you are given a nod to really lay into it. Then, at another point, you might have to back off a little bit. There are a variety of situations that you have to adjust to.
RM: While we’re bringing up all these pieces from the repertoire, let’s talk about the Music Minus One album you made, Classical Percussion. How did you get involved in doing that project?
AP: I thought there was a need for some kind of a master class/repertoire book, so I wrote a book on repertoire, warm-ups, and even some repair techniques. It was as if I were going to do a symposium on symphonic percussion. I went to Belwin-Mills and the editor at the time said, “We don’t know whether or not there’ll be a market for this, but we think that the section on mallet repair could be a great success. There’s nothing like that around.” I thought everybody in the percussion world would want to buy the Mallet Repair book. Unfortunately, there are not that many people or whatever, [laughs] But the book is laid out very nicely, and really gives you a good foundation on mallet repairs.
However, then I was left with the rest of the “master class” book. I went to the Music Minus One company and asked, “How would you like to record this book?” When students want to learn an excerpt, they have to find the music, get a record, and then find the spot on the record. Here, you don’t have those problems. You have the music, and you can hear how it sounds with the orchestra. It tells you the priorities and gives you a point of departure.
The technical aspects of the album leave a few things to be desired. We would get a record of a particular excerpt, put it on tape, and then they’d play it back through a set of earphones for me. On the William Schumann Symphony No. 3 excerpt you hear me cautioning: “Now remember, we’re playing dotted 8ths/16ths, and they shouldn’t sound like 12/8.” Then I went in the studio to play this solo. I couldn’t hear myself play because I had earphones on, and I was trying to play with the tape, with out a conductor. So if you listen to that particular excerpt, you’ll think, “Gee, Arthur Press says, ‘Watch the dotted 8th/ 16th,” but it sounds like the first and third note of a triplet. That can’t be right.” If you picked up on that, you would be absolutely right. There are some technical problems that, if I could do it over, I would obviously correct. I would do many things differently in that MMO recording. There should be another one. Irving Kratka has been very nice. He said, “If you want to do another one, maybe you should. There’s a lot more repertoire.” But I suspect that he realizes the market is relatively limited. Our expectation was that every drummer would want to have this information on classical percussion. Not so far. But it’s successful in that it provides percussionists with the only recordings they can listen to with suggestions for ways to play these excerpts.
It’s always been my philosophy that you should think, and be your own person. Use your own judgment to interpret what the part means. Sometimes a composer writes a four-stroke drag, but it won’t work. Maybe a three-stroke drag is more appropriate. I played a symphony by Edward Elgar where he wrote quarter-note tremolos. It didn’t sound right. I think what he really wanted was a very crushed drag. By the same token, you play the Enigma Variations and there is a three-stroke drag. If you play it the normal way—closed—it’s not going to sound right, because two bars prior to that the trumpets play a figure that rhythmically resembles an open drag. So do you play the drag the traditional way, or do you antiphonally answer the trumpets with a more open drag? There are numerous examples of this type of thing in the repertoire, and I’m looking forward with a great deal of enthusiasm to doing a column for your new magazine, Modern Percussionist, so that I can really get into a lot of these areas and expand on them.
RM: Describe your job in the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
AP: My title is Assistant Timpanist and Percussionist, and I’m the principal timpanist in the Boston Pops. That’s a 52-weeksa- year job, and my life is spent keeping my artistry up to the level demanded by the job. I recently visited Buster Bailey, who’s with the New York Philharmonic, and he was sitting at a drumpad practicing. He does that every day. When I go on vacation, I take a pair of sticks with me. It never stops. If you want to play, you have to practice. I’m in a great orchestra filled with wonderful players, and I just see myself as part of that musical community. Every day is a learning experience.
Every day I realize that there’s so much I don’t know. When you’re playing professionally, the hardest job is to stay professional. There’s no such thing as, “Well, you’ve made it. Now, relax.” There’s so much expected of you in any given situa tion— your own expectations about yourself and, of course, the expectations of your peer group. “Don’t let us down. Play up to our standard.” I’ve been real fortunate. For example, playing with Vic Firth has been a great experience. He’s a great inspiration, along with the rest of the guys in the Boston Symphony percussion section. There’s a certain high standard that we have in Boston, so you’re always working very hard. Some people say, “You’re only as great as your last concert,” but I prefer to say, “You’re only as great as your next concert.” So what if you played great yesterday? What about tonight?
RM: Do you ever feel that your own personal identity is swallowed up by the identity of the BSO as a whole?
AP: I often joke that a week after I leave the Boston Symphony, they’ll say, “Arthur who?” [laughs] People who think that they are adding anything more than just basic embroidery to the total fabric are being presumptuous. The way I see it, the Boston Symphony was there long before I came, and it will be there a long time after I’m gone. While I’m there, I’ll use my artistry and abilities to try to help the orchestra sound good. And when it’s time for me to leave, someone else will come and, hopefully, do the same thing. It’s really very difficult to do anything different in an orchestral setting. You might come up with a certain way to do something, and if the idea gets around and others start doing it the same way, it becomes part of the tradition. A conductor might hear one of us do something, and then request that someone else do it the way we did it. Ten or 20 years later, everyone is doing it that way. So you can say that the person who came up with the idea did something historically. But by and large, most of the pieces that we play have been so historically and indelibly set up that we can’t really make any kind of a departure.
RM: It would seem that you have to sublimate your ego to a point; you have to be more concerned with the Boston Symphony than with Arthur Press.
AP: Well, I am concerned about the fact that I am Arthur Press, and I have, hopefully, a good reputation. When someone comes up to me after a concert and says, “You played great,” that truly is music to my ears. We all need a pat on the back. I want to perform well, and that’s very important to me.
RM: But still, when I buy an album by the Boston Symphony, the names of the musicians are not listed.
AP: Yes, but at least I play solo parts, such as snare drum. My part can be heard.
RM: As opposed to being one of 20 violins, who are all playing the same part.
AP: Exactly. And so I’m concerned with the way I play. I make those demands of myself. But still, I can’t overlook the fact that I’m just part of the total sound, and I have to play what’s required. There’s a balance point: You’re always thinking about yourself and your artistry, in terms of how you can keep that artistry well pol ished and well honed to meet the needs of the orchestra.