I began studying the drums when I was eight. I had started on piano but wanted to move to the drums. There was no one reason that I chose drums. I just felt an immediate and intangible attraction to them. And, at eight years old, I had no concerns about whether a girl ‘should’ play drums or not. My parents said yes (Very good parenting or very bad? Who knows?) and that was all that mattered.
I’d say two of the most profound influences were my two NY teachers, Scott Stevens (in the MET Orchestra at the time) and Buster Bailey (then in the NY Philharmonic). They were not just musical influences; they were both really life mentors. Apart from them, and more broadly, I have to say that every person I’ve ever played with was an enormous influence on me. Good, bad, it didn’t matter. I learned something valuable from every colleague along the way.
Three musical experiences immediately come to mind as ‘standouts’. The first was playing with the heavy metal band, Metallica, at Madison Square Garden about 20 years ago. The Orchestra of St. Luke’s was hired to back them up for their NY show. I was already a huge fan of the band and my secret ‘fan-girl’ persona exploded as I realized I was on stage with one of the greatest rock bands ever and playing to 17,000 screaming fans at the Garden. The second was the first time I played at the Musikverein in Vienna (with Orpheus). And third was playing Zimmerman’s Die Soldaten at the Armoury at the Lincoln Center Festival. It was a difficult, powerful opera. For all three, the music, combined with the settings, made for unforgettable evenings.
When I consider the challenges I faced, I have to confess that I feel they are the same challenges any musician faces in any workplace. Being prepared, behaving professionally, and being a good colleague have been my focus. And my field has changed a lot over the last 20 years; there are now plenty of female drummers and percussionists in important positions around the country. But, even when I was starting out — and could be I was just unaware or naive — I didn’t think of myself as a “female” percussionist. Probably because I was so fortunate along the way to have supportive colleagues who never made me feel I didn’t belong. They accepted me (as long as I did a good job) and that was the end of the story.
Last thoughts? I love my colleagues and I love NY. I would not have been able to have the kind of career I’ve had in any other city in the world.
Maya Gunji, percussion, received her BM and MM from the Juilliard School, and has performed with many of New York’s leading ensembles, including the New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, the New York City Ballet Orchestra and the New York City Opera Orchestra. Maya has also performed as a guest artist with the Berlin Philharmonic, St Petersburg Philharmonic, the Mariisnky Orchestra, the Israel Philharmonic, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and the St Paul Chamber Orchestra. She is a member of the American Ballet Theatre Orchestra, The Orchestra of St Luke’s, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, and was the timpanist for the Radio City Music Hall Orchestra, from 1992-2006. Performances on Broadway include productions of The Three Penny Opera, The Man of La Mancha, Les Miserables, Miss Saigon, and Mary Poppins. (photo Matt Dine)
This interview by Martha Hyde and Sara Cutler first appeared in the March 2023 issue of Allegro, the magazine of the NYC musicians’ union Local 802 as part of a feature called “Women’s Lives, Women’s Stories”