How do you play percussion on Broadway? The New York University Percussion Studies Program, under the direction of Jonathan Haas, hosted this year’s ninth annual Broadway Percussion Seminar, an event which brings together an array of renowned Broadway percussionists and participants from around the world, for a five-day intensive study of the skills, experience and know-how necessary to succeed in the world of Broadway percussion.
The seminar kicked off with a welcome session. Everyone gathered, introduced themselves to one another, and listened anxiously as Jonathan Haas and Sean Statser took them through the week’s events – masterclasses, recording sessions, visits to Local 802, Broadway shows and more!
We began bright and early Monday morning with one of Broadway’s most popular musicals, “Mamma Mia!” David Nyberg and Ray Marchica began their session by giving students an introduction to the world of Broadway pit orchestras. One of their main points throughout wasn’t about technique or musicality – it was about personality. Attitude goes a long way in the music business and people will remember whether they enjoyed playing with you or not.
Monday afternoon featured Sean Ritenauer, percussionist for “Something Rotten.” He is just as brilliant, fresh and energetic as the new musical he plays on. Sean stressed the importance of giving some “character” to every lick. Once the notes can be played accurately, the next step is to consider what each phrase is depicting. In this way, the musician can contribute to the collage of widely varied styles, characters and sounds that make up a Broadway musical.
The last session of the day featured Charlie Descarfino and Rich Rosenzweig from the Tony-winning Broadway revival “On the Town.” This was the only revival featured in the seminar, so they were able to give a fascinating description of the work that goes into producing a pre-existing show. They also spent a great deal of time discussing how the sound that reaches the audience is vastly different than what the performer hears and how to properly address that issue.
On Tuesday morning, the participants attended a session with Matt Beaumont, who discussed playing in the orchestra at Radio City Music Hall. The first half of the session was dedicated to the audition process, while the second half focused on three selections from the Radio City Music Hall Spring Spectacular. Perhaps the most unique element of this show is its use of the MalletKat, a MIDI percussion mallet controller. For most participants, this was their first time seeing a MalletKat. There was a great deal of discussion on how to operate the instrument, and the implications of electronic instruments within a pit.
Kory Grossman is known as the “Super Sub” among his colleagues. He has worked as a Broadway substitute on dozens of shows, including “Porgy and Bess,” “Rocky,” “The Pirates of Penzance” and “Les Miserables.” How does he handle this responsibility? According to Grossman, it comes down to preparation, skill level and networking. “Nothing says more than the way you play,” he advises his students. “Make your desires known and let the universe know that this is what you want to do.”
Tuesday evening, participants had the opportunity to visit NYU’s Dolan Recording Studios and experience a recording session for various film and television tracks. Led by Ben Herman, they were put under the spotlight to sight-read music, while feeling the pressure of a click track in their ear and consciously thinking of every note being played. Between discussing the importance of staying in time with a click track and the humorous stories told by Mr. Herman, the atmosphere of the session was both relaxed and intense.
Participants were also fortunate enough to sit in with Javier Diaz on Tuesday evening. A specialist in Afro-Cuban percussion, Javier taught the fundamentals for students to approach Afro-Cuban instruments. A large chunk of the class was dedicated to the study of congas, bongos, timbales and drum set. He also had a distinct focus on improvisation, a crucial element for any Afro-Cuban percussionist.
On Wednesday, all participants got the chance to see Broadway musicians in action. Trading off between matinee and evening performances, students had the opportunity to sit within the pit for various productions, as well as see a show from the audience. This experience put many things in perspective when it came to the importance of space, sound quality, and operating within an isolation booth separate from the rest of the orchestra. Students also experienced what it’s like backstage, the use of conductor monitors, and how performers choreograph their way around the setup. The Broadway shows included “On The Town,” “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” “Something Rotten,” “Mamma Mia,” “The Lion King” and “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.”
For the fifth consecutive year, all participants got to enjoy dinner at Local 802, a distinctive element of the seminar. Financial Vice President Tom Olcott discussed the purpose and benefits of the union, which was extremely beneficial for any student who wishes to work in the music business. Mr. Olcott also discussed health insurance, contractual agreements and pension plans. It was one of the most thought-provoking and intriguing sessions of the seminar, and everyone was extremely appreciative for the advice and information they received.
Clint de Ganon and Joe Passaro, the rhythmic backbone for the hit musical “Beautiful,” presented the last clinic of the seminar. From the beginning, they stressed the concepts of persistence and passion. They performed many charts from the show, including “On Broadway” and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling.” They both displayed remarkable finesse and precision on their instruments, and made their music come alive.
After a busy week, the seminar closed with a roundtable discussion that included all students, presenters and John Miller. This was an invaluable opportunity for students to ask questions of one of Broadway’s busiest contractors. He shared some funny anecdotes and further emphasized many topics discussed throughout the week. The students were also given a chance to share their thoughts of the seminar and ask any lingering questions of the professionals in the room. To see this much enthusiasm, expertise, experience, knowledge and camaraderie in the room is an unmatched experience that nobody will soon forget.
If you know a music student who would benefit by signing up for the next percussion seminar, scheduled for June 12 to June 16, please see http://steinhardt.nyu.edu/music/summer/percussion.
This article was written for Allegro by Andrew Adams, Alex Appel, Doug Chew, Adam Kiefer and Sean Statser.