Final installment in the series
Percussionist Joe Pereira:
In this story:
'Like regular skin'
Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton
'I'm making music'
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(CNN) -- This is the tenth and last entry in an exclusive 10-part series at CNN Career, on the working lives of musicians who play with the New York Philharmonic, one of the world's premiere symphony orchestras.
This week's player (drumroll, please): Joe Pereira, assistant principal timpani/section percussion.
Joe Pereira is a striking man -- literally: He strikes drumheads and gongs, woodblocks and chimes. He plays timpani and snare drums, xylophone and marimba, cymbals and thunder sheets. He has to be ready to make a musical sound out of almost anything that makes a noise: Composers have written pieces that call for percussionists to play tin cans, starting pistols, rice bowls, squeak toys and typewriters.
Pereira has been a "banger" for more than 20 years -- since he was toddler, banging on saucepans. But he says he does much more than hit wood and metal surfaces to make loud sounds: He can, with a stroke, add emphasis or color, give form and pace to a piece of music. He can give it a heartbeat.
You play any instrument that you can strike, basically. There are instruments that can change pitch, like timpani, and unpitched instruments, like cymbals and gongs. The instruments that I play the most are cymbals, snare drum, and all the mallet instruments, which are xylophone, marimba and vibraphone. Also smaller instruments -- triangle and castanets, tambourine and chimes.
Triangle can be very difficult -- it's not as easy as it looks. It's a big bent piece of metal that you're hitting with another piece of metal, and you have to make a nice sound out of that. You have to find the sweet spot, the place on each side of each triangle where the sound has the best ring.
Tambourines are also somewhat complex. The jingles can be German silver or brass or copper, or something called Chromium-25, and they all have different sounds. There are different heads for the tambourines -- plastic, goatskin, calfskin -- which all have different character. We keep the tambourines on a stand at a 45-degree angle, because when they're at that angle, they don't make noise. That way, we can pick it up just before we need to play it, and it won't make a sound before we want it to.
With percussion instruments -- drums, chimes -- it's pretty obvious if you come in wrong or make a mistake. I've dropped cymbals, in a rehearsal. And in a concert of (Aaron) Copland's "American in Paris," a piece where I play taxi horns, I once came in four bars early. Luckily, the (French) horns are playing the same thing, so it made that less obvious. When the right time came, I just played the taxi horns again.
We're asked to play strange things -- taxi horns, anvils, cap guns. In Mahler's 6th (Symphony), which we just played, the percussionist stands on a chair and swings away at this wooden box with a hammer.
The new thing now is very big percussion sections, and unusual instruments. For a "new music" thing I was playing with a chamber ensemble, they had a door onstage, and you had to make the sound of a key going into a doorknob, and the door slamming. John Zorn, a composer downtown, wrote a piece where someone has to play a bowl with little beads in it -- roll the beads around. And someone else has to play hedge-clippers -- in the middle of the piece, there's silence and then someone goes "swish" with hedge-clippers. It was very visual.
You can argue that it's gimmicky, but I like it -- it's a new sound. I'm interested in different sounds. I've been learning how to play dumbek, which is an hourglass-shaped Middle Eastern drum; the one I have is ceramic. It's a distant cousin of a bongo drum -- closer to an Indian tabla. I'm interested in different instrument combinations. I'm also a composer -- I compose experimental chamber music. I wrote a recent piece for electronic tape with voices, and percussion solos, and another for flute and dumbek.
I really don't like wind chimes -- you know, like what people have hanging on their porch, only ours are huge long rows of chimes hanging from a big frame. It's kind of a cheesy sound that a lot of modern composers use too often, I think. And it's a pain to play: Once you get them going, it's hard to get them to stop, especially quickly. And if your foot just happens to hit the stand, they'll start ringing.
Timpani are the instruments I most enjoy playing, definitely. I play it about 50 percent of the time; the rest of the time, it's played by the principal timpani, Roland Kohloff, who was my teacher.
The Philharmonic has four timpani. Two are the pedal model, which lets you change notes or pitches while you're playing, by pressing a pedal with your foot. But two are an older model: instead of a pedal that tunes it, it has a chain attached to a crank. You turn a crank and that stretches the drumhead to make the pitch higher, or eases tension to make the pitch lower. Those you can't change while you're playing -- you have to pre-set those before you play them.
Ours are fine, because we use plastic (drum)heads -- they're not calfskin. Calfskin is traditional and it is still used by some orchestras. Calfskin sounds great 30 percent of the time, and when it sounds great, it sounds better than anything else. But the remaining 70 percent of the time, it can be a little off -- the pitch goes flat. We have calfskin on our bass drum, and it changes with the weather. In the summer, forget it, because it's very damp -- you come in to rehearsal, and it's all floppy. In the winter, when it's dry, you have to moisturize it - it's like regular skin. We have to humidify it, stick wet sponges in.
Plastic doesn't sound as great as calfskin at its best, but plastic sounds good 100 percent of the time. Plastic heads still need to be adjusted. When they're new, they need time to settle. And the heads can get pushed off-center a bit as the timpani are moved onstage and offstage; they can get out of tune. I have to get to rehearsal and concerts early, and make sure they haven't been banged up too much; make sure the heads are on straight. I have my own bag of tools: a wrench, a socket wrench, and a special tuning key that comes with the timpani -- this key fits on each different lug, and you just turn it to tune it. And I have cans of WD-40 and Teflon spray to keep different parts lubricated.
Oh, I was the kind of kid who was banging on pots in the kitchen. What attracted me was the rhythmic aspect. My parents said when I was really little, I would sit on the couch and listen to music on the stereo and bang my head against the back of the couch in time to the music. I actually got a drum set when I was five, for Christmas. It didn't last long, not even one night, I don't think. I broke one of the drumheads -- it was just a toy set, and I hit it too hard. I remember being really excited to get that drum set.
I was also playing piano since I was five. The teacher I studied with for four years always said drums would be good for piano playing, because of the rhythm. He moved, I started playing percussion as soon as he left, and that was it. Drums are cool when you're a kid. You want to play in a band -- I wanted to be a rock drummer. I'd practice down in the basement: I'd turn on the stereo really loud and play along with rock songs. I would play for hours on end, as much as my parents could stand.
After we moved to another house, my dad built me a practice room behind the garage. It was loud: I had a drum set and was starting to get a lot of other instruments -- I had a marimba, which is like a big xylophone. That practice room was, like, right off the kitchen. My mom complained all the time. She'd ask me to stop, and then she'd send my dad to ask me -- they basically had to force me to stop playing. My dad told me that when I was in high school, I would sleepwalk -- he said that I went downstairs and started playing the drum set in the middle of the night. I don't remember that at all.
I played in rock bands. I don't even remember any names of these groups, there were so many. We played mostly cover tunes -- we did some Living Color, Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton. I also played in school -- I went to public high school in Stony Brook, Long Island. There were about 2,000 kids in this school and they had a symphony orchestra, three concert bands, jazz bands, music theory classes -- it was really advanced for high school. I played in a marching band, jazz band, wind ensemble, symphony orchestra and the chorus, actually.
High school, 10th grade, I got serious. I had a great teacher in my high school who turned me on to classical music, and what I would have to do to get into school to study music -- it was totally different than the whole drum set world.
After high school, I went to Boston University as a double major -- music and composition. My parents didn't let me even apply to Juilliard or Manhattan School (of Music) -- they didn't want me to come to New York City at a young age. I think it worked out for the best, being at a university instead of a music conservatory. You have more options; it's not so narrow.
Yeah. I don't know why. It could just be because of the nature of the instruments -- drums are definitely the most physical instrument.
I actually got principal timpani in the New Zealand Symphony. I went there for a month. I loved the country -- it was like a movie set, beautiful, with winding roads, mountains, a lot of sheep. But I didn't want to be there -- it was too far from home. And they wanted someone who would stay, who wanted to live the rest of their life in New Zealand. I'd just gotten into Juilliard, where I was going to be studying for my Master's with Roland Kohloff, who is the principal timpanist here (at the New York Philharmonic). I was anxious to get back.
After I came back to New York, I auditioned for the Philharmonic, for the assistant timpani position. I was a finalist, but they chose someone else. Then almost exactly a year later, they had auditions for the same position again, for some reason -- I don't know if the first choice didn't get tenure, or what happened. And the second time, I won it.
Everyone who's a member of the musicians union gets a newspaper every month that advertises open positions. Sometimes there are two or three positions, either percussion or timpani, but for the big orchestras? You could wait forever. I've heard that at Juilliard, only 2 percent of the graduates will actually get jobs in an orchestra. That's true for percussionists, too.
It seems some composers didn't think about percussion too much. We recently played the Bruckner 8th Symphony. It was 94 minutes long, and we only played two notes -- I had two cymbal crashes, and someone else had two triangle rolls at the same time. I remember looking at my watch: the concert starts at 8 p.m., and around 9 o'clock, I'm thinking, well, 10 bars before I have to come in. I have to sit there for an hour, holding these really big cymbals, to play two crashes.
We call it "mental paperwork." In rehearsals, we can do real paperwork -- in the stretches where we don't play anything for a while, we actually bring paperwork out on stage. My colleagues teach at Juilliard or Manhattan School of Music, so they've got their classroom paperwork, or we bring out a book. Right now I'm reading "The Philosophy of Modern Music." Next is a book I just bought, of Edgar Allen Poe short stories.
The percussion room is right behind the stage, and sometimes we can wait in there if we don't have anything to do for a whole piece. There's an audio monitor that we can turn on that will tell us what's happening onstage, but that's only for rehearsal. For a concert, we have to be onstage from the beginning, and we can't bring out books and papers. So we do "mental paperwork" while we just sit there and wait.
Still, you have to concentrate. Those couple of hours in a concert are very intense -- there's so much concentration. In my first year I found myself exhausted the day after the concert. I had to take a nap the next afternoon, and I never took naps.
Well, the timpani are -- that's one of the reasons I like playing timpani: every time I play, it's a solo. It's not like I'm a violinist or a section clarinet (player), where I'm playing the same part as someone else and you can't really tell who's playing what. Playing timpani, you're the center.
It's a really great time to be a percussionist, this whole century. All the composers are focusing on percussion, and it has become the new thing for orchestral writing and orchestral playing.
It's definitely a stereotype: we're seen as "bangers," as just loud. I think a lot of that has to do with the way conductors talk to us. We're just playing what's written, but conductors are always giving us The Hand - signaling us to keep it down. It's frustrating, always being told to keep it down.
We're standing up when we play, so our instruments are at head-level for most of the orchestra, and that makes it worse. If we're set up by the violins, they're all mad and they walk off before the concert when we're warming up. If we have something loud and we're set up by the (French) horns, they don't like it -- they complain. There were a couple of weeks in a row when there was a big percussion set-up in every piece, and our section was spread out along the whole back of the hall, the whole back part of the stage. And we were, like, right on top of some of the horns, and they were really upset -- they felt like we were playing loud on purpose.
It gets very loud onstage. Hearing yourself play is a problem, and hearing loss is a real problem. For a while, the trumpets were mad at the trombones because of where they were sitting for many years -- the trombone bells were right there by their heads. So the trumpets moved over by us, and then they got mad at us. It's not our fault -- it's the nature of our instruments. I can play one instrument and play louder than the whole orchestra together.
It's not as easy as it looks -- just banging pieces of metal together, or hitting something with sticks. In much of this great music we play, the composers didn't just say, "oh, the drums can just add to the rhythm of my piece." The instruments I play are the same as any other instrument in the orchestra: I can play with color, tone, depth -- and I have to find that. It isn't just making a noise, it's making a sound -- the right sound. You change the sound by using different kinds of strokes, by using different muscles in your arms and by using different sticks and mallets.
I have my own drumsticks. They're custom-made for me by a guy in Philadelphia. He's a furniture maker, and he's also a timpanist -- he plays in a local community orchestra. If I get a stick I really like, like ones I picked up in Vienna a while ago, he can copy it, or make it in a different wood for a different sound.
He makes them on a lathe, by hand. They cost about $40 a pair, depending on the wood. Some are made out of rosewood, some of maple or persimmon, some out of hickory. When I have them made, I can specify: try to get the wood from the center of the trunk, where the wood is denser. Otherwise, you might get wood from a branch, and that isn't as strong.
I have hundreds of sticks. If we're doing a classical piece by Mozart or a Haydn symphony, I would use a harder, smaller, very light stick, as opposed to something by Brahms or from the Romantic period, which is a dark, heavy sound. For that I'd use a bigger, heavier stick -- it's very fluffy-looking, with a lot of felt on the end.
I sew all my own mallet felts. You get German piano felt, you split it in half, and depending on how soft and thick you want the mallet to be, the more felt you use. You can buy these ready-made, but if you want to really get the right sound, your own sound, you make them yourself.
Yes, actually. The timpani mallets are in a special case that stands on its end. The mallets stand up in slots, so I can just grab them as I need them during rehearsal or a concert.
You learn to relax. When I'm playing, I'm hardly holding the stick at all. I teach a few students privately, and my newest student is a jazz drummer in his 60s with tendinitis -- he saw me do a master class and wants to learn some freer techniques.
I don't feel the need to practice every day now, unless there's some big piece, or something very important, and then I'll just practice for a couple of hours, to prepare. I do some practice at home, mostly on a rubber practice pad. But I do most of my practice at (Avery Fisher) hall -- almost all the instruments are kept at the hall. I'll usually warm up before rehearsals, and play for a while after.
I usually try to get to rehearsal an hour before. Usually I have a lot to set up. Stagehands move the larger stuff out on stage, but the smaller things are back in our room, and have to be picked out. We have, like, 20 different tambourines, so if we have a tambourine part, we'll find the one that we think is the best and carry that out and set it up.
Another big thing is mental rehearsal. Studying scores, I find, is more important than actually sitting there and playing the notes. Playing percussion, you have to know where your notes fit, especially if you only have a few. You have to know who you're playing with. When you're in school, you're just thinking about playing perfectly for your teacher and not missing any notes -- you're not thinking "Oh, this is how I'm going to play in an orchestra," with 100 other musicians. And you have to think about that.
The first thing I do every week is just go to the library and listen to different recordings of the score. That way, I can envision the music: Do I want to play that note that way? Do I want to make that note a little darker? Use a heavier stick for this passage?
Yes. I'm in the New York Percussion Quartet. We do anything from world music to contemporary classical music. The Quartet has a loft in Brooklyn, in what used to be a crayon factory. We got the space and spent the first year putting up Sheetrock walls and insulation. It has a little office, storage rooms and a space where we could do recitals some day. We have five drum sets there, timpani and a piano.
No one lives in the building -- it's for working artists, mostly painters. Next to us is a glassmaker and across from us is a woodworker. They make noise, too -- sometimes more than we do.
In addition to playing with the Percussion Quartet, I've also been playing with this other group. It's an electric cellist, and sometimes an electric trumpet player or sax player, and the main guy is this throat singer from Tuva who sings two or three notes. They'll just say, you know, "We want a drum set on this tune, and on this one, just do some sounds." That's fun.
I think they're afraid to do that. The management thinks the more traditional repertoire is better, and that people come to see that. But all the concerts I've played with the Percussion Quartet, with a variety of different instruments and different kinds of sounds -- people just go nuts.
I think if they programmed more "new music," it would bring in a younger audience. And I'm not saying the older audience wouldn't come. At my concerts, there were all different kinds of people there and everyone loved it. And it may help the survival of the orchestra. I mean, people who don't know classical music think it all sounds the same. That's in part because we're playing Mozart once a month, at least.
As far as being in an orchestra, I think this will be my job. But if I was to become more active as a composer, maybe I would stop. My composing is getting to be just as important as my work here. I'm starting to get commissions for pieces; I'm writing every day, sometimes for several hours. It's a lot of work to do this job and compose -- there are some nights you don't get to sleep a lot. But I'm making music. In more than one way, I'm making music.
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