Young percussionists hear Broadway calling their names

Volume 112, No. 9September, 2012

Local 802 member Javier Diaz (left) gives pointers on playing hand percussion on Broadway to Ryan Fedak, Sean Harvey and Brendan Kent.

If you’re a percussionist, how do you make it to Broadway? The New York University Percussion Studies Program, under the direction of Jonathan Haas, recently hosted the sixth annual Broadway Percussion Seminar/Summit.

This much-anticipated 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.

“This was an amazing experience,” percussion student Sean Harvey, told Allegro.

Harvey, who came to the seminar from Ithaca, New York, added, “The best part of it for me was getting to hear the musicians’ stories. Each of them told invaluable lessons about how to survive as a freelance musician in New York.”

The seminar offered panels on everything from subbing to sight-reading.

Michael Sgouros and Sean Statser taught the students about theatre management and composing for theatre.

Dan Haskins and David Ratajczak showed students the percussion part for “Mary Poppins.” When students looked at the music, it seemed impossible to juggle every instrument, but Haskins and Ratajczak demonstrated the intricate choreography that goes into pulling it off. They also discussed the importance of being able to play with a video monitor.

“It was the most complete look possible at the percussion role on Broadway,” said Brandon Nestor, who came to the seminar from Las Vegas.

Nestor added, “From having a contractor explain the hiring process of musicians, to playing pieces from the shows alongside the Broadway percussionists and sitting in the pit during the performance, this program provides invaluable experiences. I would be a part of it again in a heartbeat.”

Many students felt that “Porgy and Bess” was one of the most challenging percussion books on Broadway today. Aside from the infamous xylophone excerpt that opens the overture, the rest of the book is filled with fast stick and mallet changes, difficult licks and various style changes.

Despite that, percussionist Charles Descarfino made the whole thing look easy. Descarfino discussed the history of this musical and the difference between the old version and new adaptation currently on Broadway. He talked at length about the importance of knowing the function of your parts and how they fit into the music. “If something is soloistic it needs to be brought out, whereas if it is supporting another player’s solo, it must be performed that way,” Descarfino said.

Tuesday night, Javier Diaz presented a hands-on clinic, focusing on Afro-Cuban hand drumming. In the world of Broadway, hand drumming is often implemented to give the Latin feel to many scenes and pieces. Beginning with the basic principles of the different sounds produced by the congas, Diaz demonstrated mastery of the art form. Following a discussion of the clave, he then assembled students into a band and built up an entire Afro-Cuban groove. Learning the basic rhythms, from the tumbao pattern to the guaguanco, students began to understand their importance and application to Broadway percussion.

On Wednesday, the entire group took the subway up to the theater district to visit Broadway in real life! Everyone had the opportunity to view one show from the pit and one from audience. The chance to see how the players and conductors interact in the pit – with the background knowledge of having learned the books in preparation – was a fantastic experience from which the students gleaned much knowledge.

Following the matinee, everyone met at Local 802 for dinner and a discussion with union staff. They talked about the purpose of Local 802 and what services they provide to protect musicians.

The final event of the seminar was a roundtable discussion, which brought together all of the percussionists who had presented throughout the week, in addition to contractor John Miller.

Within days, these strangers became friends and realized there are others all over the world that are just as eager to jump into the music scene as they were.

This story was written by Crystal Chu, Matthew Lau, Jeremy Lowe, Sean Statser and Jim Woolf.