At the NWfPP, we like nothing more than to get inside the minds of hard-working percussionists. Here's our interview of Bill Solomon, an active performer with a unique perspective on music and some quality insight into what it means to be a percussionist in our modern world.
What caused you to start playing percussion?
I played piano from a young age (and still do!), taking lessons starting in Kindergarten. The school I went to started band instruments in fifth grade, and my parents talked to my piano teacher about what she thought a good second instrument would be for me. She suggested percussion, and that's what I went with!
What music (composer, genre, ensemble, etc) has influenced you the most?
That's such a broad question, I can't really begin to approach it! Different music has been important to me in different phases of my life, and I tend to get really obsessed with something for a while, then move into other areas, particularly as I meet new people, or find myself in new surroundings. I grew up listening to a lot of standard-practice classical music, particularly orchestral and keyboard music. But then as I got older, I found myself interested in rock, rap/hiphop, world (especially balinese gamelan!), pop, musical theater, etc., and then a lot of contemporary classical music, which is where I spend most of my energy professionally. In grad school, I spent a lot of time listening to new music from contemporary Europe, and that has been extremely crucial to the work that I do. Nowadays, I'm mostly listening to a lot of dance and hiphop, along with a lot of Baroque and Classical keyboard music, and this year has been a big Reich year with Signal, so I'm playing many of his large ensemble and chamber works.
Who were your most influential teachers?
I spent the most time working with Ben Toth at Hartt, who was my classical percussion teacher, and main mentor throughout grad school. Ben really built up my technique, and I'm forever grateful to him for that. He is a very literally-minded person, and that can be great when you're preparing a score, holding me to playing true dynamics, and very precise rhythms. I also am very indebted to all of my piano teachers, Patricia Carleton in high school, Jeff Gilliam in undergrad, and my harpsichord teacher Jane Solose. While I don't perform professionally, I take my keyboard work very seriously, sometimes preferring it to working on percussion. It really informs my phrasing, my sense of musicality, and allows me to access a repertoire that is otherwise not accessible as a percussionist. So, my keyboard teachers really influenced me in a huge, if somewhat tangential, way.
What is a typical day/week like for you?
If only I could have a typical week or day! My schedule really fluctuates a lot, depending on the time of year, so its hard to say! As the summer is a bit slower for me usually, I spend time in the studio working on rep for the upcoming season, and keeping my chops up. I'm also spending more time right now composing, as I have more time free. But once things pick up, I'm in the studio preparing rep for concerts, managing gear logistics, and then a lot of rehearsing and performing! I also spend a fair amount of time traveling, so that also needs to be taken into consideration as I build my schedule. Part of what I like about my career right now is that it is always changing, giving me periods of intense work, and then much needed rest time. I couldn't be someone who is always on the road, or has a set schedule; it doesn't seem like my personality is well suited for that.
What are your best practicing tips?
Practicing isn't about how much time you put in, but rather that quality of time you spend. I remember in school people would brag about practicing 6 hours or something like that, and my thought was, why practice for 6 hours when you can get the same amount of work done in half that time! I tend to practice in short bursts of intense work, with breaks in between. Your brain needs time to process things, and just pushing so hard is rarely going to produce good results. Part of this means that I put in time with the music outside of the studio, particularly in score study, research, listening, and general thinking about best ways to learn the piece or tackle a new skill. If you have a good plan before you in the studio, and stick to a schedule, you'll get so much more done, with more free time for other things in life! Also, don't forget to schedule time to goof around, as that can be just as useful as focused, goal-oriented practice.
What is your preferred practice environment?
My preferred practice environment would be a HUGE room where I could leave a lot of different set ups out, along with a workbench with tools, a big messy desk, and lots of bookshelves. I spread out when I work, and currently have a tiny (10'x15') space where I need to get everything done. Unfortunately, such a space will likely not materialize for me in NYC, so I'm lucky to have the space that I have. I'm not too picky about the exact space I'm in, as long as I can be as loud as I want, and can be a bit messy when I need to be.
Do you have any pre-performance rituals or warmups?
Ideally, I will take a nap right before I go on stage. Naps clear my mind, and nothing makes for a great performance like an empty brain. Caffeine is usually nice 30 mins beforehand, along with a small amount of food. I try to stay warmed up throughout the day, keeping loose and playing single strokes. If I have something highly technical to play, I have some arpeggio keyboard warm ups that I like run through.
Percussionists have the privilege of playing many various instruments and set-ups. What is your favorite instrument to perform on?
I've really come to appreciate the vibraphone as an instrument with extreme expressive abilities, and I love much of the repertoire for it. At times, this seems to be in opposition to the dominance of the marimba, particularly in academic settings, but in new music especially, being able to properly play the vibraphone is such a more useful skill to have. While there are many great vibe players around, I see a lot of people approach it as a cousin of the marimba, instead of its own instrument, requiring different skills. I've played several vibes recitals over the years, and would eventually like to record all of these pieces.
Bill playing Steve Reich's "Radio Rewrite" with Ensemble Signal:
What advice would you give to someone trying to follow in your footsteps?
Well, I would advise not trying to follow in someone's footsteps! There are always people to look up to, but each person's interests and skills are unique, so its unwise to set someone else's career as your goal. But in a larger sense, if someone wanted to have a career in new music, I'd suggest getting really solid technique (don't forget snare drum!!!!), and then listen to music, buy scores, go to concerts, attend festivals, etc. that are related to new music in any way. "New Music" isn't just one type of music, but rather an approach to bringing new works into the world. The more you know, and can connect to other works and artists, the better equipped you are to meet composers and work on their pieces. Also, have a good sense of history and culture, as the work we do doesn't exist in a vacuum, but rather along a continuum. That's great if you really like composer X, but if you really want to play X well, you really need to know A through W to understand what X is all about.
Finally, how do you hope to advance the art of percussion in today's music and culture?
Percussion is less interesting to me than music overall; I view myself in a larger context as a musician first, percussionist second. That means I'm not too precious about ideas surrounding "percussion" as a special category. Yes, I understand that there were many people who fought for percussion music to be accepted as equal to any other musical genre, and for them, I'm grateful, as I have an audience that "gets" what I do. But beyond that, I don't tend to like the navel-gazing of percussion world, and would prefer to engage with a larger musical audience. So I guess in that way, I am hoping to advance percussion by not paying it too much attention, just moving ahead as if everything is completely normal.