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High School Percussionists Sample Juilliard

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For the majority of Juilliard’s percussionists, a Juilliard education starts well before first year: in high school, at the annual summer percussion seminar. What began in 1998 as a six-day workshop to help recruit college applicants has expanded to an intense two weeks of master classes, chamber music rehearsals, ear-training classes, world-music instruction, and a variety of performances. Each year, 16 of the most talented high school percussionists from around the world are accepted by audition to attend the seminar, and two-thirds of Juilliard’s current percussionists are alumni of the program.

Students from last year’s seminar and current second-year master’s percussionist Sam Budish (third from left) jam on all sorts of percussion instruments.

(Photo by Danny Chan)

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“The seminar opened up a new world for me. It was the first time I had ever been around that many people all in one spot that loved drums like I did,” recalled fourth-year percussionist Jeremy Smith, who attended the seminar in 2006 and was a resident advisor for it this year. Like many of the seminar students, Smith was introduced to a higher level of playing than he’d ever encountered in his hometown of Knoxville, Tenn., one that would be necessary to achieve in order to succeed in college auditions. Christian Krogvold Lundqvist, a first-year percussion student from Norway, said that being exposed to that level of playing was “kind of a shock,” but that it allowed him to confront his weaknesses and plan a more direct path to successful college auditions.

A chance to work with Juilliard’s faculty is one major draw for participants, who have the option to perform in master classes and repertoire classes with the entire Juilliard percussion faculty observing. That can be a bit intimidating. “When we did our first class with Mr. Druckman, everybody was just freaking out and saying that if we even got one note [wrong], he was just going to rip us apart,” said Ahzad Syed, a high school senior from Princeton, N.J., who attended this year’s seminar. Syed was referring to department head Daniel Druckman’s annual class on college auditions. Luckily, it did not turn out to be that scary. “These legends are playing in the best orchestras in the country, but they’re more down-to-earth than you could imagine,” Syed said. 

Working with the faculty in this setting is seen by some participants as sort of a pre-audition for Juilliard or a way for them to make a good impression before their actual audition. Others view it as a way to test the waters and determine which Juilliard teacher would be the best fit for them. Smith, for example, first met his teacher Gordon Gottlieb after Gottlieb’s high-energy rhythm class and immediately determined that he wanted to work with him. (Six years later, Smith is still thrilled with the match.)

College auditions are a hot topic at the seminar as most students have plans to pursue studies at a conservatory or university with a strong music program. According to Druckman, this is exactly why the seminar is important. “It demystifies, to a point, the audition process, and gives the students some real practical tools and information to navigate that process,” he said, referring to a curriculum that touches on everything from the most appropriate repertoire to what to wear to an audition. And while some students might find it intimidating to work so closely with and perform in front of peers who are also future competitors, Syed found it was the opposite. “We’re all in the same boat: we’re all a little bit scared about auditioning for schools but at the seminar we just get to be with each other and hang,” he said. “It takes a little bit of the pressure off knowing that all the people we’re going to be competing against aren’t stuck-up.”

Former staff member and alum Joseph Gramley, who has been the head of the seminar since 2001, aims to create a noncompetitive environment so that students can maximize their learning. “We’re more about the process,” he said. In the program, skills such as effectively using rehearsal time and respectfully offering criticism to peers are as important as teaching, for example, proper four-mallet technique. During his 12 years with the seminar, Gramley has added an ear-training curriculum and other components to help students succeed in an ever-changing music world. “We have morphed the offering to better illuminate what students are going to see in a 21st-century marketplace,” he said. “We have included more multi percussion, more world percussion, increased focus on contemporary music and mixed chamber music and have also incorporated Broadway and drum-set offerings.”

World percussion is one very popular offering of the seminar that many students don’t experience in their music programs at home. Malin Sjokvist, who came from Stockholm this year to study at the seminar, listed Glen Velez’s workshop on frame drums as one of her favorite classes. “I’d seen bongos and congas before, but not frame drums—they’re amazing!” she said. Velez’s class combines movement and drumming with a crash course in a South Indian time-keeping method. Javier Diaz is another world-percussion master who teaches regularly at the seminar; his wild, groove-driven Afro-Cuban classes get the students singing in addition to conga-ing and cowbell-ing—and feel more like a party than a class.

Amid a jam-packed schedule of percussion-centric events, the social aspect of the seminar is truly exciting and unique because, for many of the students, it is a first time they get to meet people who are as serious about percussion as they are. Ask any alum, some of whom are now playing in the world’s top ensembles, and they will likely have a funny story about their time at the seminar—whether it was ordering late-night Chinese food in the dorms to fuel marathon mallet-wrapping sessions or playing jokes on their counterparts in the Summer Dance Intensive. Or, as third-year percussionist Joshua Vonderheide said, “the seminar was one of the best experiences of my life!”

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