A Q&A with the School of Music's Chair of Percussion Studies
Percussionist Bonnie Whiting and her students at the University of Washington were uniquely prepared for the remote learning and performance environments they’ve encountered over the past year. Part of their musical training has them always on the ready to perform or embrace what Whiting calls “the next thing,” or “the other.” “The percussionist is always asked to do the thing that is ‘the other,’ she said shortly after her arrival at the UW School of Music in 2016 as director of Percussion Studies. “When composing Pines of Rome, Ottorino Respighi needed someone to ‘drop the needle’ on the recorded birdsong at the end of the third movement and that fell to the percussionist. When Edgard Varèse was composing Ameriques and thought, ‘Oh let’s add a siren,’ that fell to the percussionists. In live electronics, we percussionists are always happy to do the next thing. We’ve been brought in and out of music throughout history to do ‘what is next.’”
Whiting reveals more about the specific ways she and her students have adapted to learning and performing in largely remote environments in this interview, conducted via email in a week busy with preparations for her May 13 presentation on the UW’s Creative Resonance series and an upcoming concert by the UW Percussion Ensemble.
Q: Your percussion students may have adapted to digital environments and lack of access to their regular practice and performance spaces and instruments a little more readily than some of the other instrumentalists who are not as accustomed to experimenting with alternate sources of sound. Did your students’ previous experience with experimental modes of music-making help to prepare them for the current environment for music studies and performance?
A: Percussionists are used to being resourceful, and we have a long history of finding ways to make sounds with everyday objects. We're also often the first folks to be asked to do the "next" thing: adding electronics or tech elements, choosing our own musical materials. Furthermore, much of percussion's repertoire is from the mid 20th century and beyond, integrating experimental practices that are more flexible, asking musicians to be more active participants in the decision-making process than older collaborative models. To study percussion is to enter a unique problem-solving environment. I’m not just talking about how to fit a set of timpani and two marimbas in a minivan, or play several instruments simultaneously, though of course this is part of what we do. A natural extension of liberal arts learning, percussionists excel by learning how (rather than what) to think. As young percussionists develop, their problem-solving environment becomes progressively more complex; there are more choices to make and these choices (of materials, mallets, sticks, implements, repertoire, collaborators, specializations, etc.) shape each musician's unique sound and identity. In the field of experimental music from the 20th and 21st centuries, the challenge for each individual percussionist evolves; each person also engages in their own version of problem-seeking. Put another way, composer Herbert Brun described experimental musicians as people who are “. . . interested in the music we don’t like yet.” The problems percussionists solve (and ultimately seek) are different for every musician. One of my joys as a teacher has always been approaching a technical or musical problem by confronting something other than the instrument on which the problem begins. This is a roundabout way of saying that I think the percussion students were able to confront our pivot to virtual and hybrid learning models as variations on that natural problem solving and problem seeking environments they already inhabit.
Q: Are there any aspects or practices that you and your students have embraced during the pandemic that you will retain in the return to in-person teaching and performance?
A: This spring, I was scheduled to be on the East Coast for an intensive workshop period for a new chamber opera. The other musicians were from Toronto, San Francisco, New York City, Washington D.C., and Chicago. We managed a productive rehearsal period entirely via Zoom and JackTrip (a low-latency music application that allows for close to real-time sound transmission via networked connection.) While I look forward to our next rehearsals on this project in person in 2022, mitigating our carbon footprint and maximizing time at home felt good, and we got a lot of work done. In the spring of 2020, I often lamented being locked out of my studio, and locked out of concert halls. It was –and it continues to be- work to shift that mindset to instead consider myself someone who is locked in a library, as performance becomes archived in greater quantities on the internet. Yes, the library is the often-befuddling YouTube rabbit hole, but it’s also the new releases of friends and colleagues that are immediately at my fingertips. It’s an opportunity to connect with musical communities scattered around the world. It’s the ability to sit with my young son during a streamed performance (even sometimes one in which I’m performing) and talk with him about the show, without the fear of him interrupting the concert. Somehow, it’s extra time and space, which I have tried to use as an opportunity to interrogate and reframe what I find engaging about live performance. Can we let people see things more closely? Participate remotely? Foster accessibility by showcasing music and art in virtual spaces so more people can watch and listen, with fewer barriers?
Q: What sorts of surprising discoveries have you and your students made in facing the freedoms and limits of virtual music-making?
To mitigate risk, we've done some outdoor recording, and found some incredible spaces. From old bunkers at Fort Casey on Whidbey Island, to secret spaces near Red Square on campus, to field recordings subtly integrated with percussive soundscapes, we've found ways to deal with deflection in truly striking environments.
Teaching music via Zoom has also forced me to re-think some pedagogical strategies, creating new exercises that work even when students can't hear one another in real time. I even held a section of our percussion ensemble completely asynchronously, to accommodate students with slow internet connection, inability to come to campus, or particular schedule needs. I was blown away by the music and video folks were able to record while communicating through Google Drive!
We also made some pretty gnarly feedback/distorted sound on Zoom.
Q: When might we see and hear some of the music you and your students have been preparing this year?
To study percussion is to enter a unique problem-solving environment.