Want to play percussion on Broadway?

Students get inside tips from Local 802 musicians

Volume 117, No. 1January, 2017

Sean Statser

These students learned what it takes to be a Broadway percussionist.

As a new year begins, we can say for sure that the past 12 months were a great time for live percussion on Broadway. In 2016, the New York University Percussion Studies Program, under the direction of Jonathan Haas, hosted its 10th annual Broadway Percussion Seminar at Local 802 for music students from around the world. As we celebrated a decade of producing these summits, we brought together the most renowned Broadway percussionists for a five-day intensive study of the skills, experience, and know-how necessary to succeed in the world of Broadway percussion.

We kicked off the first day by listening to Javier Diaz, an Afro-Cuban specialist who plays in the show “On Your Feet.” He told us about putting the percussion book together from the beginning and the importance of possessing basic Latin percussion and hand drumming skills.

Next up were Broadway veterans Joe Passaro and Clint de Ganon, currently playing in “Beautiful: the Carole King Musical.” They spoke about their paths to the world of Broadway percussion, the passion and persistence to pursue what you love doing, and how to be the type of person everybody wants to work with.

Monday night’s session is always a seminar favorite. Students get a chance to work with the legendary Ben Herman, who has them sight-read several TV and movie cues in a studio environment. It’s an eye-opening experience and a way to get a brief glimpse of the high-pressure world of the recording studio. Next is time with Wilson Torres for a Latin hands-on session. In addition to the jaw-dropping experience of watching Torres play, students are led through a series of exercises, rhythms and techniques that are necessary for all Broadway percussionists.

It’s virtually impossible not to love the music of George Gershwin and that was exactly how we began our second day. Warren Odze and Andy Blanco shared with us their current show, “An American in Paris.” They took students through many favorite tunes, worked with a couple students who had prepared a portion of their book, and spent a good amount of time talking about the importance of knowing the style of music you are performing. It was an enlightening and informative session, which left everybody wanting to know more.
For the past nine years Kory Grossman (“Broadway’s Super Sub” as Jonathan Haas refers to him) has presented one of the most unique and important sessions on Broadway subbing. It seemed appropriate though that for our 10th anniversary he would change things up, as Mr. Grossman was the percussionist for the hit revival of “Fiddler on the Roof.” It was thrilling watching Kory as he took everyone through his demanding book, which combines both percussion and drum set into one part.

The final session of Tuesday night featured returning presenter Sean Ritenauer, percussionist for “Something Rotten.” He talked about how he interprets the notes on the page and how to give character to everything you play. He created an atmosphere that left everyone feeling enthusiastic about what their futures hold.

Wednesday is everyone’s favorite day, when we pack up and head to the Broadway theatres. Students sat in the pits with the percussionists, and they also got to see shows from the audience seats.  This unique experience brought into focus the topics discussed throughout the week – sound quality, operating within an isolation booth separate from the rest of the orchestra, using conductor’s monitors and more.

For the sixth consecutive year all participants enjoyed dinner at Local 802 in between shows, one of the most distinctive and fascinating elements of the seminar. We were fortunate to be joined by Recording Vice President Andy Schwartz. With his years of knowledge and experience, Schwartz discussed the purpose and benefits of the union, what it truly means to have a career in the music business and why it wouldn’t be possible without having a group of individuals working to support musicians’ rights. He talked about health insurance, pension plans, the plethora of contracts that have been negotiated by Local 802, and how the NYC music scene differs from the rest of the world. He also briefly explained the concept of doubles, which was especially interesting to future Broadway percussionists. Everyone left the session feeling extremely informed and appreciative for the advice and information they received.

The final day began with Charlie Descarfino, the “Sage of Broadway.” Charlie presented a session on subbing and his career as a Broadway percussionist. He has performed more shows than  most people have heard of and his extensive background and career were extremely interesting to the participants. He gave students an in-depth explanation and description of what it is like to sub on Broadway and discussed techniques and strategies for learning a show. He continually stressed that you can never be too prepared. It was the perfect way to close, as nearly all presenters had mentioned the topic of subbing throughout the week.

After an action-packed week, the final event of the seminar was a roundtable discussion with Broadway contractor John Miller. Everyone learned, laughed, shared stories and furthered their notion that performing as a Broadway percussionist is a dream come true. To see this amount of enthusiasm, experience, friendship and knowledge in one room is an experience that will not be forgotten.

If you know a music student who would benefit by signing up for the next percussion seminar, scheduled for June 11 to June 15, please see