by Lauren Vogel Weiss
This is the story of a young boy from a very small school in the Midwest who fell in love with music, especially percussion, and went on to become a teacher for nearly four decades, sharing his passion for music. This passion spread to a then-fledging organization called the Percussive Arts Society, and together they helped to develop the society into one that now shares information about this “percussion passion” all over the world.
GROWING UP IN MICHIGAN
Born and raised in the small community of Portland, Michigan, approximately thirty miles northwest of Lansing, Gary Olmstead was encouraged by his mother, a pianist, to follow in his sister’s footsteps and learn to play the piano. By the time he reached sixth grade, Gary began to play the drums.
“This was a very small school system,” Olmstead remembers of the one-building school that housed all the students in grades K–12. “They had a concert and marching band, but no orchestra.” He soon began taking lessons from Frank Perné, a former snare drummer with John Philip Sousa. “My parents would drive me to Lansing for weekly lessons,” explains Olmstead. “I would sit next to my teacher and we would play in unison on practice pads, page after page out of the Ed Straight books called The Straight System. I learned how to be a really good reader, which stuck with me throughout my teaching and performing career.”
During his junior year in high school, Gary applied for a two-week summer band program at the Interlochen Arts Camp in northwest Michigan. “When we didn’t hear back from them,” Olmstead recalls, “my parents called and discovered that my application had been lost. But I was invited to come to the orchestra camp. And even though I had no idea what an orchestra was like, I fell in love with it at Interlochen.
“While there, I had the privilege of studying with Jack McKenzie, who was truly inspiring to me,” he says of the percussionist who then taught at the University of Illinois. “If I was somewhat unsure that I wanted to go into music before the Interlochen experience, I was completely sure afterwards. Those incredibly intense two weeks had a major impact on my decision as to what I was going to do for the rest of my life. I wasn’t sure what format my life would take, but I definitely knew it was going to be music.”
After graduating from high school in 1959, Olmstead decided to pursue his musical education at the University of Michigan. “I felt their program at that time was just outstanding—and still is, of course—so I only applied to one school. I auditioned for William Revelli, the famous band director who taught there for many years, and for James Salmon, who became my percussion teacher.” (Salmon was one of the earliest members of the PAS Hall of Fame, being inducted in 1974.)
The highlight of Gary’s time in Ann Arbor came during his sophomore year. “I was a member of the 1961 University of Michigan Symphony Band, under the direction of Revelli, which was selected for a 15-week cultural exchange tour of the Soviet Union, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe. We were told that it was an attempt to ease the Cold War tensions.” The longest State Department-sponsored cultural tour in history, it began with a concert in Moscow on February 21, 1961 and culminated in a performance at Carnegie Hall in New York City on June 2.
Members of that band recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of the “Russian Tour.” According to Olmstead, “It was a life-changing experience. We traveled to many places you can’t even go to anymore because of the political situations there. We had no idea what kind of reception we were going to get, especially in the Soviet Union. But over 5,000 people came to our concerts, and they were quite amazed at the sound of this group.”
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in music education in December 1963, Olmstead spent one semester as a band director at a small rural school north of Ann Arbor. “After a few months, I realized that public school teaching was not going to be the route for me,” he says. “Upon a recommendation from Jim Salmon and Bill Revelli, I was invited to Ohio University [Athens, Ohio] for my graduate assistantship. The negative part was that they had no full-time percussion teacher, so I would not have an instructor. But the positive part of my assignment, as a graduate assistant, was to be the percussion teacher.” That’s when Olmstead realized that he wanted to teach percussion at the college level.
Following his 1966 graduation with a Master of Fine Arts degree in music education, he accepted a college teaching position in Pennsylvania and thought he would give it a couple of years to see how it would go. It was a good fit; Gary started teaching there in the fall of 1966 and retired 37 years later.
PROFESSOR OF PERCUSSION
When Olmstead began his teaching career at Indiana University of Pennsylvania in the city (not state) of Indiana, there was no percussion ensemble. “When I first arrived at IUP,” he recalls, “there were four percussion students but barely enough equipment to put a basic section behind a band or an orchestra. During my interview with the chairman of the department, I asked him if there was a percussion ensemble library. He said, ‘As a matter of fact, I have it right here in my desk.’ He proceeded to show me a copy of the Chavez ‘Toccata for Percussion’—with part 5 missing! That’s quite a difference from the 4,000 titles in the library when I retired.
“Between the new students, who had no previous instruction, trying to build a library, and trying to add equipment to play the pieces, it was a very challenging experience from day one. The school didn’t even give credit for the percussion ensemble class until a few years later. At the beginning, I taught other classes, like freshman theory and even a year as assistant band director, before I had a full-time percussion load. During my first couple of years, I couldn’t schedule a percussion ensemble concert; we had to share the program with another ensemble. But soon we had our own concerts, with standing room-only audiences. That went on as long as I was at IUP and continues to this day.”
During his first years in Pennsylvania, Olmstead decided to make up for not having a percussion teacher in Ohio by taking lessons from Stanley Leonard, then-Principal Timpanist in the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. “That was a wonderful experience and allowed me to get connected with the Pittsburgh music scene and the wonderful orchestra and players they have there,” Gary says. “Stanley was quite a strong mentor for me throughout my time at IUP. He even wrote pieces for our ensemble on several occasions.” Olmstead also taught for one semester at Carnegie-Mellon University during Leonard’s sabbatical.
In the early 1970s, Olmstead decided that a doctoral degree was becoming an important qualification for college teaching. “I had the ‘Big Ten’ school experience at the University of Michigan and a ‘small school’ experience at Ohio University, but I wanted to have the conservatory experience to add to my feel for what music education was all about,” he explains.
Olmstead applied for, and was accepted to, the DMA program at the Cleveland Institute of Music. He studied with Cloyd Duff, then-Principal Timpanist with the Cleveland Orchestra (and his third percussion teacher who is now in the PAS Hall of Fame, along with Salmon and Leonard). Olmstead received his Doctor of Musical Arts—the first to do so with a performance major in timpani and percussion—from CIM in 1976.
During his years as an educator, Olmstead performed as much as possible. He served as Principal Timpanist with the Westmoreland Symphony Orchestra for 23 years and a decade with the Johnstown Symphony Orchestra. He also performed as a concerto soloist with both Westmoreland and the Pittsburgh Symphony Chamber Orchestra. “I felt that keeping up my personal performance was something I needed to do as a teacher.”
One of Olmstead’s former students, Jim Catalano—who graduated from IUP in 1975 with a B.S. in music education as a percussion major and is currently the Trade Show Manager for Conn-Selmer—remembers a performance with his former teacher. “About a decade ago, I had the opportunity to play percussion in a recording session with the Keystone Wind Ensemble,” Catalano recalls. “Just listening to Gary perform very complex timpani parts with demanding tuning gave me a whole new respect for this great percussion teacher, who was also an exceptional performer. Although I only studied with Gary for a short period of time, he made a difference in my life that propelled me to be a performing percussionist and positively impacted my music-industry career.”
With almost four decades of teaching college students at IUP, what does Olmstead consider one of his highlights? “The development of the percussion ensemble and seeing it grow from year to year,” he replies with no hesitation. “Building a percussion studio from nothing is not easy. I was a dedicated teacher and established a tradition of trying to get the students to do their best. At every lesson I walked into, I learned something, and I hope the student did, too! I learned things by thinking through the process of teaching. ‘Why are we doing it that way?’ or ‘Why doesn’t that work?’ In addition to giving the students information—that’s the easy part—you have to teach the students to be responsible, to be prepared, to show up on time, to be the best they can be at any moment in time—not just in the percussion studio, but everywhere. I tried to establish a tradition of excellence.”
“I am grateful to Dr. Olmstead for creating a very unique environment at IUP,” agrees 1988 IUP graduate Paul Rennick, Principal Lecturer in percussion at the University of North Texas and Percussion Composer/Arranger and Caption Head for the Santa Clara Vanguard Drum and Bugle Corps. “The percussionists were always busy and productive, and you could find people practicing at any hour. There was an atmosphere of closeness among the students in the entire percussion department; we were all working very hard to meet the standard set by Dr. Olmstead. I always felt like I was part of something special.”
Many IUP alumni have gone on to successful careers in music: teaching at all levels; performing in ensembles from the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra to military bands in Washington, D.C.; working in the music industry and in business. As a tribute from his former students, Olmstead was nominated for and received the PAS Lifetime Achievement in Education award in 2004.
“My time at IUP as a student and graduate assistant helped prepare me for the challenges of running a university percussion program,” says Brian A. West, Professor of Percussion at Texas Christian University, who received his Master of Arts in percussion performance in 1994. “Dr. Olmstead’s musicianship, teaching, organization, and meticulous attention to detail brought the IUP Percussion Studio to the highest levels of success and sustained it there for his many years of service.”
In the years before his retirement, Olmstead helped design a new percussion studio, which was completed after he left. The new, larger room in the renovated Cogswell Music Hall was named the Dr. Gary James Olmstead Percussion Rehearsal Hall in his honor.
PAS—FROM STATE TO NATIONAL
During his first year at IUP, Olmstead saw Sandy Feldstein—then president of the New York PAS chapter and the percussion instructor at SUNY-Potsdam—give a percussion clinic at a music educators conference. “I loved his clinic and enjoyed meeting him,” remembers Olmstead. “He was quite an inspiration to me. We talked about the state chapters, which were just getting underway, and in 1967, I founded the Pennsylvania PAS chapter.” Olmstead served as president of Pennsylvania PAS, only the sixth state chapter in the organization at that time, attending the annual PAS meetings held in conjunction with the Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic in Chicago each December.
“PAS was pretty much a meeting-only society at that point,” Olmstead explains. “It was fascinating for me to meet these people who I was reading about in the journals.” During the 1968 meeting, Olmstead was elected to the PAS Board of Directors, a position he held for eleven years. At the meeting in December 1970, Olmstead was elected First Vice-President, a position he held for two years until Feldstein, who was elected President in December 1967, resigned at the 1972 meeting. So Olmstead served as president of the society during 1973, along with the two, two-year terms he was subsequently elected to, making him one of the longest-serving presidents of PAS.
As president, Olmstead presided over three PAS National Conferences (one in Anaheim, California in March 1974 and two in Chicago, Illinois in December 1974 and 1975). He also presided over the first two PASICs in Rochester, New York in 1976 and in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1977. During these five years, membership grew from approximately 3,000 to 5,000.
“When I attend PASIC today and compare it to the first ones, it just boggles my mind!” Olmstead says, shaking his head. “In some ways, it is unrecognizable, but on the other hand, so many elements of the first conventions are still with us. I remember that certain board members didn’t want exhibitors selling merchandise, but we made a decision to allow it and that stuck. So often I have heard from people who go to the convention that they found the perfect pair of sticks or a great pair of cymbals or a gong they absolutely had to have. And even though we don’t have a banquet anymore, we still recognize the people who have been inducted into our Hall of Fame.”
How does he feel about joining his teachers and mentors in the Hall of Fame? “I’m absolutely and completely honored,” he says, humbly. “I served PAS in many different capacities over the years, contributing on both the state and national levels. But I was also involved in establishing a percussion program from scratch—and I was a dedicated teacher.”
“Dr. Olmstead was the consummate professional in every sense,” says Rennick. “Through his teaching and conducting he had a way of making everyone rise to the occasion and perform at the highest level. No matter what the ensemble, it was always very noticeable that the groups played better when he was on the podium. He commanded respect and brought the best out of each musician.”
“Gary Olmstead was one of the most important people in my life,” adds Catalano. “He taught me the entire world of percussion as a performer and an educator. He was exacting and we all respected him immensely. He was ‘Dr. O.’ During my time at IUP, he was the President of PAS and now, 40 years later, his election to the PAS Hall of Fame is so very well earned.”