Nice work if you can get it: Percussionist

This is one of of our many intriguing interviews with friends of mine who have fascinating, ency-inducing jobs. David and I actually hail from the same tiny, one-stop light town of 2,000. He was one of my dad’s students and I was one of his dad’s patients. He was a band superstar from fifth grade on and the object of every band girl’s desires. Pity that there wasn’t any band camp. David no longer play snare drum in the Aitkin High School Band, but lives in New York and travels the world, engaging in all sorts of percussion.
So what’s the deal? What do you do?
I’m a professional classical percussionist in New York City who recently fell into his first day job. For the last year my title has been ‘Promotion Executive’ for Boosey & Hawkes, a music publishing company based in New York, London, and Berlin. It’s my job to talk conservative orchestras and opera companies into playing music by the company’s roster of living composers. Essentially, I’m a salesman for strange new music.
When I’m wearing my other hat, I’m a professional performer of contemporary solo and small ensemble music. I no longer freelance, but play artistic projects of my choosing. And I have to say, this is quite nice. Primarily I work with a group which I helped to found called the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE). Other projects include a bass clarinet/percussion duo called Ensemble Breekbaar, a yet untitled trio consisting of one pianist and two percussionists (if any of your readers have any genius ideas, please have them email me – at the moment we have gigs scheduled but no name), and a collaboration with the JACK string quartet. In all of these situations I play music composed by living (or relatively recently deceased) composers. I haven’t played an orchestra gig since I took my day job – part of me misses it, the rest is just fine.
Tell us about an average day in life of your job.
Average day: Get up at 7am, feed the dog and drink a lot of coffee, spend some time with my wife. Get to the office around 9:30 and act like a ‘Promotion Executive’ until about 4:30 (without a lunch break so I can leave earlier). Jump on the subway down to my practice studio in deep Brooklyn and practice for somewhere between 1 and 2 hours, which is really all I can cram in at this point, then head either home or to a bar. Sleep, repeat next day.
I feel like I should also say that the less average (but not uncommon) day/week involves flying to places like Chicago, DC, London, Paris, Helsinki, etc to play concerts with ICE or one of my other groups. I typically like those days better. Come to think of it, the going to a bar part mentioned above stays the same…
Did you go to school for this? Or get any special training?
I’ve got degrees in Music Performance from the Oberlin Conservatory, The Yale School of Music, and SUNY Stony Brook. For better or worse, it’s about as specialized as you can get.
How did you get into this line of work?
I’ve wanted to be a profession musician for as long as I can remember. Then, while in college I became interested in contemporary and experimental music. After college I went on for a Masters degree, which is fairly standard practice for a classically trained performer these days, then moved to New York City. From there it turned into the wild, unpredictable ride that living in New York always is, and somehow I find myself here.
Are there any drawbacks to working in music?
Mostly what you would expect: the conflict between doing what you would like to do artistically but doesn’t pay enough and doing what the market wants you to do, but will pay much more and sometimes even give you health insurance. The problem, of course, of course is finding a balance between the two where you do just enough of one to support the other, without it taking up all of your time. Also, the older I get, the less ok I am with being broke all the time. Maybe its me…
Also, of course, when I say ‘will pay much more’ I am not talking about a lot of money. No one makes a fortune in my little niche industry, even by ‘selling out’.
What are the highlights?
The music – there is nothing like rehearsing and performing music you love. Also, I like the randomness of the travel. For instance, I’m going to Finland in 2 weeks. It’s not a place that I would have planned a trip to if I didn’t have a gig to take me there. I’ve gotten to go to some unexpected places that way.
What suggestions would you give to people interested in becoming a professional musician?
Well, my experience and knowledge is pretty specific – there are so many different ways to go about it. I would say, however, if you’re an instrumentalist you must practice as much as you can as early in life as possible. I’m seriously still coasting on the skills I built by practicing 6-9 hours a day for four years in college. That time goes away immediately upon leaving an academic institution. That’s probably true with any field.Any drummers out there dreaming of making it a career? Ask Dave some questions!

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