Want to play percussion on Broadway? The NYU Percussion Studies Program, under the direction of Local 802 member Jonathan Haas, recently hosted the eighth annual NYU Broadway Percussion Seminar and Summit. The event 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!
David Nyberg and Ray Marchica returned to this year’s summit to present a session on “Mamma Mia.” These outstanding musicians offered great insight into the extensive techniques used for playing ABBA’s fun pop tunes.
One key point stressed throughout was the importance of keeping the music vibrant and exciting. David’s expertise and brilliance in tambourine playing was applied to the creation of the percussion parts, which are still used in the show today. Ray’s timing and pulse were impeccable, and hearing him speak about his approach to playing each tune was invaluable. Their experiences were inspiring and entertaining all at once.
Bill Hayes has earned his reputation as one of the hardest-working musicians in New York City. In his long and distinguished career, he has performed with Liza Minelli and Barbra Streisand, and is currently the percussionist on Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical “Cinderella.” In his class, Hayes explained that there are two crucial steps for success as a Broadway musician: “Be a great sight-reader, and be able to play the same thing 400 times and still make it exciting.”
Hayes called up several participants to perform a few excerpts from “Cinderella.” As they played, it was clear that Hayes enjoyed helping the students improve their technique and sight-reading skills. But even more than that, he was passing on his knowledge to a future generation of musicians.
The show “Heart and Lights” was supposed to open at Radio City Music Hall back in spring, but was canceled for reasons beyond the control of any musician. Josh Samuels had won the percussion seat for the show, and since Radio City only uses electronic percussion instruments, he had learned the show on the MalletKAT and PanKAT. Josh also played the Christmas Spectacular at Radio City and has extensive knowledge of the MalletKat and its inner workings and history. Josh spoke of his own story and how he won both jobs at Radio City. At the end, students walked out with an understanding of a part of the percussion world that is rapidly growing in importance and use.
The second day began with “Broadway’s Super Sub,” Kory Grossman. He has subbed on dozens of Broadway productions over the years from “The Pirates of Penzance” and “Porgy and Bess” to “Cinderella” and “Rocky”. He discussed the demands of subbing on several shows at the same time and creating a career as a Broadway sub.
“You have to learn your music outside of the theater,” Grossman said. He also discussed the importance of sounding like the regular percussionist in the pit. “You want to do everything this person does,” Grossman said, “Listen as much as possible. Your creativity is based on how you sound like the show’s regular player, and what steps you take to become him or her.”
Next came Javier Diaz and Warren Odze from the new musical “Rocky.” Over the course of the masterclass, Diaz and Odze focused on their stylistic approach to performing the written music. The percussion and drum set books are high-energy and heavily featured in fight scenes.
Odze and Diaz repeatedly stressed that one of the most important lessons they could give us was the need for percussionists to explore as many genres of music as possible. While Odze may play drum set professionally on Broadway and Diaz may specialize in Afro-Cuban music, they both agreed that it was their passion for all things percussion, and all things music, that got them where they are today.
The final classes of the evening were with Wilson Torres and Ben Herman. Torres, who is currently a percussionist at “Les Miserables,” gave a clinic on Latin percussion. He told the participants a bit about himself and his story as a young and successful musician, and then preceded to give a rundown of some basic Latin grooves and patterns necessary for pursuing a career as a Broadway percussionist. By the end of the session, everyone was playing and creating wonderful music together.
Ben Herman’s session took place in NYU Steinhardt’s state-of-the art James L. Dolan Recording Studio, and gave participants a chance to experience what it is like to work as a studio musician. The students were given several pieces of music that they had never seen before and were asked to sight-read them along with the soundtrack. Once this was accomplished they would, as Ben Herman says, “Turn it over, and then never see it again.”
Herman shared his own experiences, and discussed the process of recording for movie soundtracks and commercials. He spoke of the joys of being free from hours of rehearsing, but instead being required to play in the moment and let the music happen. This high-pressure environment does indeed require years of practice, and the students certainly got a taste of this when entering the recording booth.
Wednesday was the much anticipated show day, as everyone headed uptown for a day spent on Broadway. Perhaps the most unique aspect of our summit is the opportunity for participants to view a show from the pit, sitting alongside the percussionists they met throughout the week. For the matinee, half of the students went into the pits of “Beautiful,” “Cinderella,” “Rocky,” “Mamma Mia” and “Les Miserables,” while the other half watched “Rocky” from the audience. Then for the evening shows, they all switched. Even viewing the show from the audience, the students had a unique perspective on what they were hearing and seeing.
Another distinctive element of our summit is the opportunity to visit Local 802. For the past four years, the group has graciously been invited in to the Club Room between shows for dinner and a discussion with Local 802 President Tino Gagliardi and Financial Vice President Tom Olcott. The two spoke extensively about the union and how it assists and empowers the musicians of NYC. They discussed topics such as doubling, musicians’ rights, royalties, residuals and much more. It was one of the most thought-provoking and intriguing sessions of the summit, and everyone was extremely appreciative of the advice and information they received.
After a jam-packed day on Broadway, the participants returned Thursday morning for a session with Joe Passaro and Clint de Ganon on Broadway’s hit musical “Beautiful.” In their session, the two focused on life in the Broadway business, playing in pits, and offering advice on how to move forward into the world of Broadway percussion. They were both enthusiastic, reassuring us with statements such as, “If you really have a passion, go for it,” and, “Never say no to any opportunity.”
Having Joe Passaro and Clint de Ganon at the Broadway Seminar was truly a wonderful learning experience, not just by sharing their extensive musical knowledge, but also by offering valuable life advice that every musician should hear no matter what direction they are heading in their career.
After an intense week of sessions and shows, all of the percussionists who presented reconvened, along with the participants and Broadway contractor John Miller, for a final roundtable discussion. Participants shared their thoughts and experiences from the week and asked any questions that still lingered. John Miller discussed creating a career on Broadway, and the professionals in the room shared stories, answered questions, talked about why they chose this career path and the choices they made along the way. 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 next year’s percussion summit, scheduled for summer 2015, please see http://steinhardt.nyu.edu/music/summer/percussion.
This article was written for Allegro by Sara Barsky, Sarah Bennett, Indigo Cook, Luis Jacome, Carime Santa Coloma and Sean Statser.