Clara Warnaar is a strong creative force in the NYC area. With a background in music, dance, and the fine arts, Warnaar talks about defining roles and finding her place.
What kind of music has influenced you the most?
I’ve always been pretty absorbent of all genres, and get especially excited when I discover newer ones that fuse in unexpected ways or come from a time or place that I never gave attention to. I’ve been really into seeing this band Slavic Soul Party that performs weekly at Barbès in Brooklyn: their music is exactly what their band name is and the live performance is fire. I’ve somehow managed to narrow down my biggest musical influences to just two artists: Björk and Earth Wind and Fire. Lol, such a weird combo.
Which percussionists do you admire? Why?
I’m inspired most by percussionists who are pushing the envelope and who are not only concerned with being great percussionists, but also great artists and people. People who come to mind are the So dudes, the Tigue guys, Chrome Sparks (Jeremy Malvin and Bill DeLelles), Tim Feeney, Doug Perkins, John Colpitts, Robby Bowen. I’m definitely missing people. There are so many percussionists I admire, I find that the next level of admiration is found in the question, “Who do I want to hang out and work with?”
What is a typical day/week like for you?
Opening iCal… let’s see… haha. Well, my freelance schedule makes it pretty erratic, but I rarely have a quiet week. A busy day might start with a morning session working on drumming with preschoolers, followed by an afternoon of practice at my studio, followed by a performance or rehearsal with one of the ensembles I work with. Even if I have an early morning, I save time for breakfast, as I love breakfast, and I savor every free moment I have by spending time with my favorite people, cooking and going to shows and performances around the city.
What type of work do you most enjoy doing?
Work that merges different worlds, work that is challenging but within my capabilities, and work that treats musicians well. And the more I enjoy who I’m working with, the more I enjoy the work. I recently was a part of a residency that wasn’t the most organized or well-paying gig I’ve had, but the other musicians were such a good hang, and the location was so beautiful, that I had an amazing time. There are pros and cons in any given gig or project, and since there will always be cons, it’s just about making sure there are enough pros, and the right kind at that.
How do you hope to advance the art of percussion in today’s music and culture?
I find that a lot of percussionists in school and recently graduated are pretty plagued with the pressure to fit a certain category of “percussionist”, like “Will I be an orchestral percussionist? A timpanist? But I really love pan, how does that fit into it? I love playing marimba solos, but I can’t be a soloist, so is it a waste of time?” One thing I’d like to see change is young people (and their teachers) turning those questions into a positive rather than a negative. Some of the most interesting and successful percussionists I know do not at all fit any one category of musicianship. I recently spoke to the great jazz drummer Peter Erskine, who wrote a beautiful piece for cello and marimba – he puts in the time for marimba because he loves it, and his melodic thinking shines through his drumming. This is a philosophy I try and live through my performance and creative projects, as well as in my teaching and support of younger musicians.
Do you have any pre-performance rituals/warmups?
It completely depends on the gig, of course. If I’m playing drums with my band Infinity Shred, my ritual will be: wake up as late as possible, eat some yum food, get to the show on time and have a couple beers after sound-check. But when we’re talking about more high-pressure performances, it gets more specific. I try and plan my day to the minute the day in advance, eat well the day of and make sure to get a nap in the afternoon if it’s an evening performance. Naps are amazing for resetting and refreshing my brain. I also try and practice deep and even breathing throughout the day, so I’m generally in that state, instead of trying to force relaxation minutes before performing. Lastly, I need to be in a great mood and remind myself why I’m excited to perform that day. If I can’t convince myself of that, the performance will probably suffer in some way or another.
What is your favorite food and drink during practice time?
Moving my marimba from my apartment to a studio was an important move I made two years ago, mostly because it removed the issue of kitchen proximity. I used to practice for 20 minutes and think, “Hmm… I could use a cup of coffee…” and leave for 20 minutes to make coffee (and check Facebook) and then come back to practice for 30 minutes and get hungry and think, “A baked pasta sounds good for tonight, I can probably prep it really quick so that it cooks while I practice” and then I would go cook for an hour, and maybe open a bottle of wine and once the pasta was finally in the oven, I would think, “Well I’m not going to get anything productive done anymore, so I’ll just play some Bach for fun” and then do that until the pasta was ready. So yeah, it’s good that I have a studio now. I try to only have water, coffee and snacks, and my focus has been much, much better.
Your percussion quartet Excelsis is an all female group. Have you faced any challenges because of this? What has been the most rewarding aspect?
It’s a constant juggling act figuring out how to present ourselves to the public. We’re proud of being an all-female group, and think our identity is connected to our repertoire choices and playing styles, but most times, we don’t want the sole emphasis to be on the fact that we are all of one gender. The reality is that at this point, it is a thing people will want to talk about and showcase, and hopefully us doing this now will make it that the next all-girl percussion group won’t be as much about the “all-girl” aspect, and the next less so, and so on.
You have a very elegant performing style, do you feel like your training in dance has influenced that in any way?
I remember a teacher critiquing my performance once saying I was too “SoCal” for the violent style of the piece, and to this day I don’t know if my “chill” playing style is something to embrace or not. I took dance quite seriously until I was about 14 and started feeling a tug from both music and dance teachers to devote more time to each, and so I chose music. Surely a training in anything that involves coordination helps musicians, but dance is especially helpful in that it’s not only about physically coordinating but creating something beautiful with your body as the tool.
You are so multitalented with your work as an educator, performer, composer, and fine artist. Is there one area you are most passionate about?
For the longest time, I felt pressured by this question and would ask it to myself a lot, anxious that my multiple interests would get in the way of focus and professional success. Just in the last year or two, that has totally flipped, and if anything I find more joy and confidence in leading a multi-faceted life. Those different aspects of my work overlap in the coolest ways, and my networks get more and more interwoven. Now that things are sufficiently rolling, it’s more about putting enough time and energy into the projects I’m passionate about, and those projects are rarely exclusive to just one aspect of my musicianship.
I found your video “Rispleure” on Vimeo and love the idea of creating a short piece to distract audiences during setup changes. Is this something you continue to do, and how do audiences react to these pieces?
I definitely want to do more of this! Now that I’m more actively performing with my quartet, I envision ways in which two members can be performing along with a video, while the other two execute a setup change. One thing I’ve learned from many friends and collaborators in dance and theatre is that the show should be conceived of as a whole, from start to finish, and that includes every little logistic detail in between. Some musicians don’t mind that wall being down, but I prefer when my performances draw the audience into the “magic” of live performance and I can keep them drawn in for the whole duration of a show.
Learn more about Clara at www.clarawarnaar.com. Original compositions here.