When facility meets artistry, we find ourselves listening to none other than the up and coming Brandon Ilaw. Below, we dive into the mind of this young artist's history, inspirations and sensibilities.
When and why did you start playing?
I didn’t actually start playing percussion until I was 16 years old as a junior in high school. I had been classically trained as a pianist since age 4 and picked up violin, cello, bass, viola, guitar, and a few other instruments along the way. However, a friend told me I should join our school marching band, and as I didn’t play any wind or brass instruments, she persuaded me to play mallets (since she claimed it was ‘pretty much like playing the piano’).
What have been the most seminal musical experiences in your life?
For me, the best moments are when I can make a personal connection with the audience. When I was doing my undergraduate in Boston, I used to play marimba at a hospital every Friday afternoon. I would start in the lobby (where the sound would carry to all the other wings) and then move to the geriatric psych ward. Although it was a bit unnerving at first, I had so many positive experiences there; I would play everything from Bach to jazz standards, and I’ll never forget one of the times I played “Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz and one of the patients started singing along with me. A lot of these people didn’t get many visitors, so they looked forward to my performances every week.
Who were your most influential teachers?
All of my percussion teachers were so important to my musical upbringing, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my very first percussion teacher, Dr. Ken Piascik. He had the unfortunate task of teaching me as much percussion as he could in less than a year before I auditioned for colleges. He gave me an extremely solid foundation of rhythm (something I hadn’t yet experienced before my life as a percussionist) as well as a source of inspiration and encouragement that I knew I could rely on.
Which percussionists do you admire? Why?
I truly admire performers that transcend our “percussion world” and those who are better described as a “musician” instead of just “percussionist”. To me, these artists are able to stray away from the stereotypes we face as percussionists (hard, fast, and loud) and are able to create musical phrases, ideas, and stories that continue to elevate our instrument as a means of solo performance. Nancy Zeltsman (one of my old teachers and dear friends) immediately comes to mind; she absolutely blew my mind when she premiered her sotte voce program, which was a 50-minute continuous recital where she rarely played above a mezzo-forte and combined photography and poetry with her musical selections. She completely subverted the classic percussion stereotype with this recital, and showed me that we still have so many paths to explore as musicians.
What is your best tip for practicing efficiently?
Set long-term and short-term goals and then make subsets of each. For example, your long-term goal might be playing a senior recital, with a smaller long-term goal to learn Velocities. Those are big goals, but if you start to segment them with short-term goals, it becomes much more manageable. When I was learning a lot of repertoire two years ago, I would define exactly how many measures of music I would want to learn in my two-hour practice session, and define how many pages I wanted to learn in a week, etc.
Do you have any pre-performance rituals/warmups?
The nerves start to kick in once I’m dressed, whether that’s a casual outfit, suit/tie, or tuxedo. I usually like to take at least a half hour right before the experience and step away from the concert hall, get some water (because it’s easy to get dehydrated if we don’t drink before the performance!), and just clear my head. The day of the performance, I try to play a little bit, but make sure not to tire myself out or run through any pieces completely.
How do you hope to advance the art of percussion in today's music and culture?
My whole mission as a musician is to create accessible music for a wide variety of audiences, particularly non-musicians. One of the musical avenues that I’m passionate about is combining different genres including classical, pop, jazz, and world styles in an effort to appeal to as many people as possible (and also because it’s fun for me and it’s all music I enjoy). I also hope to increase the pedagogy on marimba and write some fun exercises/etudes for young musicians learning to play with others!
Could you explain to us a bit about Ensemble Connect and your role in it?
Ensemble Connect is a program of Carnegie Hall and Juilliard and is also in partnership with the NYC Department of Education. There are 18 of us (I’m the only percussionist), and you can kind of simplify it to a three-pronged program: performing, educating, and professional development. Our performances take place all over New York (our first concert will be in Zankel Hall at Carnegie with Sir Simon Rattle) in addition to a few residencies at Skidmore College and Paris in December. As an educator, each of us is paired with a NYC public school, where we work with the music teacher at the school to create a deeper learning experience for the students there (my school is a high school in Staten Island). Finally, the professional development aspect trains us as musicians and entrepreneurs in the modern age, where we have meetings and sessions with a wide variety of guests, such as teaching artists, creators of non-profits, and even Glen Velez.
—Regarding the commission of Savino by Derek Tywoniuk—
What were some challenges that you faced while learning music of this type?
The biggest challenge was definitely the notation. Derek told me that the first draft of his piece involved complicated, nested polyrhythms to accurately portray the rhythm of the speech, but he thought this was too hard (for both of us: him to write it and me to read it). In the end, he ended up notating everything as eighth notes and separated the measures by phrases/sentences. For me, this meant that I pretty much had to learn and memorize the inflection and rhythm of the speech.
How did this commission come about?
I’ve always been a huge fan of Derek’s music, including his piece “For Dean Primmer”. In the summer of 2015 I was asked to be a Showcase Artist at the Zeltsman Marimba Festival, and I wanted to premiere a new piece then and Derek was the first person that came to mind. I initially asked Derek for a marimba solo, and he had a ton of ideas at first: a marimba solo, a marimba solo with a small percussion set-up, marimba+percussion+tape, and then this eventually lead to Savino, written for solo marimba and audio playback.
Are there any projects involving new music that you are currently working on?
Aside from our commissioning projects with Ensemble Connect (this year is a Caroline Shaw premiere, and we’re currently in discussion about who to commission for next year), I’ve actually started to compose more in my free time. Mostly writing for piano now, I’m hoping to incorporate some of my friends and musicians in the city whom I admire, so look out for some cross-collaborations in the future!