Want to play percussion on Broadway? The New York University Percussion Studies Program, under the direction of Local 802 member Jonathan Haas, recently hosted the seventh annual Broadway Percussion Seminar and Summit, 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 Broadway Percussion Seminar opened my eyes to new realms of music,” said Jimmy Cooper, a music student from Mansfield, Texas. “I felt like a rock star.”
Local 802 musicians were an important part of the summit. Charlie Descarfino, percussionist at the Off Broadway production “Far from Heaven,” told the students about the art of subbing. “When you fill in for another player, you must not only adapt to their setup, but also their playing style,” Descarfino said. “The highest compliment you can receive is the other players in the pit don’t even realize that the regular player was gone.”
Kory Grossman also discussed techniques for subbing and methods of preparation. Students had prepared for him pieces from “Pirates of Penzance,” which contains one of the most difficult Broadway mallet percussion books ever written. At the end of the session, students got a special treat as Mr. Haas called longtime friend William Moersch, the show’s original percussionist, and put him on speakerphone for everyone to say hello and hear his thoughts on the show.
“The musicians taught us how to add color, character, and life behind the music,” said student Brian Maldonado from Massapequa Park, New York. “I will take the lessons I learned in expressing yourself and making the music you play your own with me for the rest of my life.”
Recording in the studio was another topic covered. Ben Herman had his students sight-read the scores to actual films and jingles, while playing along with the recordings. Herman stressed that in these recording jobs, the music is presented to the musicians only minutes, or even seconds, before the recording takes place. The ability to sight-read is crucial to success.
Javier Diaz gave a session on the role of a percussionist in Afro-Cuban music. Diaz talked about grooves and time feel, and also about the various instruments that students will have to pick up, including hand drums and auxiliary instruments. He explored ideas of soloing within certain grooves and talked extensively about the role of the clave, the heartbeat of this style of music. By the end of the session, he had everyone playing, dancing, and singing at the top of their lungs.
One would think that after twelve years as the percussionists for “Mamma Mia,” you would get tired of playing the same songs over and over again, but not Ray Marchica and David Nyberg. Nyberg told the students, “If you want to do this, you have to be happy about your job. The person who shows the most passion and interest will always come out ahead.” After an insightful discussion about the work that goes into being a Broadway musician, Nyberg and Marchica called up a group of students to play some “Mamma Mia” excerpts for them. As each student performed, they suggested improvements in technique and playing style. Then it was time for Marchica and Nyberg to perform. The students watched in awe as Marchica laid down a solid beat on the drums, while Nyberg moved from the timpani to the timbales and the tambourine with ease. As the music of ABBA blared over the speakers, Marchica and Nyberg played with contagious enthusiasm.
Later, students gathered at Player’s Theatre for a discussion with Sean Statser and theatre owner and percussionist Michael Sgouros. They talked about the history of Off Broadway theatre, their own musical backgrounds, and noted the changes that have occurred in Broadway theatre over the years. Sgouros also told the students to look out for performing opportunities and attend as many shows as possible. “Be active about finding shows and staying involved,” he said. Then it was time to watch the show “Hollow.” As the artsy, witty musical unfolded, Sgouros and Statser played the timpani, vibraphone, crotales, glockenspiel and marimba, adding great musical depth and taste to the events being depicted on stage.
One experience that stood out for everyone was James Saporito’s session on the Tony Awards. Mr. Saporito has played the awards show for many years now and brought much Broadway knowledge and experience with him. First, he told the students to figure out how to fit the plethora of instruments in a very small space. Then he talked about the process of sight-reading quickly and efficiently, while having the students play along with recordings from the show. His session demonstrated the skills needed not just for Broadway percussion, but all forms of percussion performance.
As part of the summit, students had the opportunity to view a Broadway show from the pit, sitting with the percussionists students had met throughout the week. For the matinee, half of the students went into the pits of “Spiderman,” “Mamma Mia” and “Far From Heaven,” while the other half watched “Mamma Mia” 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, after working side by side with the percussionists throughout the week.
Equally important was the opportunity to visit Local 802 in between shows for dinner and a discussion with President Tino Gagliardi and Financial Vice President Tom Olcott. They spoke extensively about Local 802, what the union has to offer musicians, and what the union works and fights for each and every day. They also discussed the concept of doubling, in which a musician can make more money by playing additional instruments for a certain production – an entirely new and exciting concept to these young percussionists. It was an extremely informative and highly appreciated session.
After a thrilling day on Broadway, the participants returned for a session on “Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark” with percussionists John Clancy and Jon Epcar. What makes the show uniquely difficult is the importance of playing together in the correct style, complimenting what is happening on stage. When Clancy and Epcar played through tunes, they were dynamic, exciting to watch, and most importantly, perfectly in sync.
After a full week of shows and clinics, all of the percussionists, as well as Broadway contractor John Miller, gathered one last time for a roundtable discussion. Students talked about their experience throughout the week and asked every last possible question that came to mind. In turn, the percussionists happily answered all questions, shared stories, reminisced, and most importantly, talked about why they all love doing what they do. To be able to witness this much enthusiasm, knowledge, expertise, and joy in one room was a truly unique experience for everyone involved.
“I had the time of my life learning about the ins and outs of Broadway,” said music student William Marinelli from Ithaca. “The guest percussionists were truly down to earth and willing to talk about anything for us.”
If you know a music student who would benefit by signing up for next year’s percussion summit, tentatively scheduled for summer 2014, please see www.bitly.com/broadway-summit.
This article was written for Allegro by Douglas Chew, Luis Jacome, Brandon Nestor, Sean Statser and Karina Yau