PAS Hall of Fame

Arthur Press

by Rick Mattingly

Arthur Press“Arthur Press was in many ways the heartbeat of the Boston Symphony Orchestra percussion section,” recalls Frank Epstein, a longtime percussionist with the BSO. “Always positive, helpful, and supportive of his colleagues, Arthur was the backbone of the section. He was a consummate professional and a gifted percussionist, and his snare drum playing was second to none. I remember his sound very well. He was fanatical about practicing and being ready at all times. He was a gentleman, he dressed in a stylish manner, and he was a gifted orator and a wonderful teller of jokes. He performed to the highest standards throughout his career. His pride in the orchestra and being a member of it was remarkable. He was also a devoted teacher, starting his own school of percussion in his home. There are many fine percussionists around today who studied with Arthur and can remember his supportive nature.”

Neil Grover first met Press when he was a Boston Symphony Fellow at Tanglewood. “Arthur was Assistant Timpanist of the Boston Symphony,” Grover says, “and I had the great fortune to get to observe his stellar musicianship and virtuosity for the three seasons that I was in the fellowship program. He not only served as a mentor to me, but to dozens of other notable percussionists. Later, after I started to regularly play percussion with the BSO and Boston Pops, Arthur was always a very supportive colleague, and to say I learned a lot from him is an understatement.” 

Born on July 9, 1930 in Brooklyn, New York, Arthur Charles Press became interested in music by listening to such radio shows as Robin’s Nest and The Make Believe Ballroom. “I used to play along with hairbrushes on an old fruitcake tin,” he recalled in a 1984 interview. “I bought my first pair of drumsticks while I was in my freshman year of high school. Finally, I got a small set of drums.”

Soon, he started dropping by New York City rehearsal studios where he would see such bands as the Duke Ellington Orchestra or the Count Basie Orchestra rehearsing. Then he would go to one of the theaters where, in addition to seeing a first-run movie, he could hear such big bands as those led by Benny Goodman, Woody Herman, and Gene Krupa. “Afterwards,” he said, “I’d go backstage and talk to the drummers about what they did and how they did it.”

Press began studying drums with Roy Harte, and later he took lessons from a show drummer named Sammy Gershack. The music department in his Brooklyn high school had an orchestra, concert band, and swing band, all of which Arthur participated in. He also played in Dean Dixon’s All-American Youth Orchestra and the YMHA Symphony in Brooklyn.

During his final year in high school, he began studying with Morris “Moe” Goldenberg at the Juilliard School. “Moe took me on as a student and helped me get a scholarship to go to Juilliard on a full-time basis,” Press said. “Being in that environment, I tended to move away from the big-band jazz scene and into a different kind of musical bag.”

Upon his graduation from Juilliard in 1952, Arthur became solo percussionist with the Radio City Music Hall orchestra, a job he held until becoming a percussionist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Boston Pops in 1956. Eventually he was named Assistant Timpanist and Percussionist for the Boston Symphony and Principal Timpanist with the Boston Pops. Before retiring in 1992, Press played on over 50 recordings by the Boston Symphony, and also recorded the Bartok “Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion” with Vic Firth and the Boston Chamber Orchestra in addition to recording with Empire Brass.

“That’s a 52-weeks-a-year job,” he said of the BSO in 1984, “and my life is spent keeping my artistry up to the level demanded by the job. When I go on vacation, I take a pair of sticks with me. It never stops; if you want to play, you have to practice. Every day is a learning experience. Every day I realize that there’s so much I don’t know. When you’re playing professionally, the hardest job is to stay professional. There’s no such thing as ‘Well, you’ve made it, now you can relax.’

“I’m in a great orchestra filled with wonderful players,” Press said. “For example, playing with Vic Firth has been a great experience. He’s a great inspiration, along with the rest of the guys in the Boston Symphony percussion section. There’s a certain high standard that we have in Boston, so you’re always working very hard.”

Besides playing with the BSO and the Pops, Arthur also played drum set with the orchestra’s jazz band, the Renaissance Jazz Ensemble. “I worked my way through my first couple of years at Juilliard by playing club dates,” Arthur explained. “I also had a lot of experience playing Latin drums. Everything you do in music you are going to be able to utilize, whether it’s playing a Jewish or Greek wedding or playing Latin music.

“One of the things I stress in teaching is that one of the best ways to practice serious etudes and orchestral parts is at the drum set, with the bass drum and hi-hat going and with a metronome. If I play a figure that’s really comfortable at the drum set, then it’s going to work well in the orchestra.”

It wasn’t that long ago that drum set was looked down upon by “serious” players, and it was not taught in most music schools and conservatories. “The admonitions that [orchestral players] shouldn’t play set are ridiculous,” Arthur said. “By the same token, it wouldn’t hurt set players to look at some difficult, serious etudes, such as the Tony Cirone book [Portraits in Rhythm], the Morris Goldenberg book [Modern School for Snare Drum], Vic Firth’s The Solo Snare Drummer, and the Delecluse books. And legitimate players would be wise to look at some of the transcriptions of Elvin Jones or Steve Gadd. They’re hard!”

Press also had a significant career as an educator. Besides teaching at Tanglewood (summer home of the Boston Symphony), he became Head of Percussion at the Boston Conservatory of Music (now The Boston Conservatory at Berklee), where he began teaching during the 1968–69 academic year. “Arthur invited me to join him on the faculty of The Boston Conservatory, eventually asking me to become Chair of the Percussion program,” said Neil Grover. “In that capacity I observed Arthur’s successes as a wonderful teacher of percussion. Not only is he a world-class percussionist, but he is a highly respected educator and musical scholar.”

Press also invited Nancy Zeltsman to teach at Boston Conservatory. “In the summer of 1990, my marimba/violin duo Marimolin performed a recital during the Tanglewood Music Center’s Festival of Contemporary Music,” Zeltsman recalled. “Arthur, then a member of the BSO, was in attendance! I had met him only briefly before this, so I was very pleased he was curious to be there. Arthur warmly congratulated us after the performance. He told me he taught percussion at The Boston Conservatory, where he was part of a team currently contemplating ways to revitalize and garner attention for the school’s music division. Arthur thought: What about initiating a master’s degree in marimba performance — perhaps the first in the country? 

“Back in Boston, we met a few times to discuss that further,” Zeltsman says. “I treasured those meetings, and the way Arthur created a feeling of a safe space for free-flowing ideas. That stuck with me and probably influenced how I came to brainstorm future projects. In the fall of 1993, I was invited to begin teaching alongside Arthur at The Boston Conservatory. That year, we had two students, one of whom was the first to earn her master’s degree in Marimba Performance. Our program has grown to a combined percussion/marimba studio with about 25 students. I likely owe my now-30-year teaching position to Arthur Press.”

Press also founded his own teaching studio. “Arthur Press, his wife, Beverly, and I started The Percussion Academy in their home studio in September, 1972,” recalls Gene Roma, who at the time was the drummer for the Boston production of Godspell. “I was studying mallets and timpani with Arthur, and he asked me if I would be interested in starting a school with him. Beverly would handle all the business responsibilities. We started some radio advertising and had a logo designed, and basically just started teaching out of his home. Arthur attracted many mallet students, and my students primarily focused on drum set and theater playing.”

A flier from the Percussion Academy listed “Jazz, Rock, Latin, Classical Percussion, Timpani, Vibraphone, Marimba” and “Private Instruction utilizing Stereo, Tapes, and Records.” In addition to Roma, David Wood, Dean Anderson, Gary Spellissey, and Bob Kaufman taught there at various times. “No man alive has had a bigger impact on my life,” said Wood. “His professionalism, his mastery, and his generosity as a friend and a mentor shaped the world as I know it. I’m sure many of his former students feel the same way. When times were tough, whether it was bad gigs or bad living conditions on the road or petty hassles with people, he would say to me, ‘David, always remember, it’s crowded at the bottom.’ He was right and his perspective has guided me for decades to strive to find higher ground. He made navigating this life a little easier than it would have been without him.”

Kenny Aronoff started studying with Press at The Percussion Academy when Kenny was a sophomore in high school. When he showed up for his first lesson, Arthur asked him, “What mallet piece did you prepare for me?” Kenny told him he didn’t play mallets. “Did you prepare a timpani piece?” Kenny had never played timpani. “Well, what DO you play?” Kenny said, “Drum set.” So Arthur put Kenny behind a drum set and put on “Spinning Wheel” by Blood, Sweat and Tears, which Kenny had been playing along to at home. “After about 30 seconds he stopped me,” Aronoff recalls. “He told me to go over to the practice pad, and we started right from the beginning. He eventually got me into mallets and timpani. I would see him once a month, and in the summer I would study with him every week at Tanglewood.”

Aronoff eventually became an in-demand drum set player, playing and/or recording with such artists as John Mellencamp, Sting, Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, Johnny Cash, Rod Stewart, Lady Gaga, Jon Bon Jovi, B.B. King, and many others. He says that Arthur was a very important influence on his eventual success. “I saw that this guy took it so seriously,” Kenny says. “And he wanted everyone who took lessons from him to take it as seriously as he did. By the time I graduated from high school, I was practicing eight hours a day. Arthur instilled in me hard work, self-discipline, and perseverance, and once you learn that, you can apply it to anything.”

For those who couldn’t study with Press privately, there was his two-album-plus-book set, Classical Percussion, published in the mid-1970s. “I thought there was a need for some kind of master class/repertoire book, so I wrote a book on repertoire, warm-ups, and even some repair techniques. It was if I was going to do a symposium on symphonic percussion,” he explained.

Arthur took the book to Belwin-Mills publishers. They didn’t think there was a big enough market for the book, except for one section that showed how to re-cover timpani, vibraphone, marimba, and various other percussion mallets. Belwin-Mills published it in 1971 as Mallet Repair, and a revised version of the book was later published by Alfred Music. 

That left Arthur with the rest of the book. He went to the Music Minus One company and asked if they would be interested in recording the book. They were. The resulting package, Classical Percussion, contained three vinyl records and a book with exercises and excerpts from classical masterpieces for snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, castanets, tambourine, and triangle with performance suggestions. The vinyl records (later available with CDs and now with online audio content) contained narrated instruction, with each piece demonstrated solo, then given again with soloist and ensemble, as well as a play-along version with orchestral accompaniment minus the percussion part. 

In the 1980s, Press also wrote several articles on symphonic playing for Modern Percussionist magazine.

Press retired from the Boston Symphony in 1992 and The Boston Conservatory in 1994 to take care of his wife, who had cancer. After his wife’s death, Arthur moved to Birmingham, Alabama, and for several years he often played with the Alabama Symphony Orchestra.

Press was extremely proud of his 36-year tenure in the Boston Symphony, during which time he was one of the most respected classical percussionists in the world. But he remained humble. “I often joke that a week after I leave the Boston Symphony, they’ll say ‘Arthur who?’” he said in 1984, laughing. “People who think they are adding anything more than just basic embroidery to the total fabric are being presumptuous. The way I see it, the Boston Symphony was there long before I came, and it will be there a long time after I’m gone. While I’m there, I’ll use my artistry and abilities to try to help the orchestra sound good.

“When someone comes up to me after a concert and says, ‘You played great,’ that truly is music to my ears. We all need a pat on the back. I want to perform well, and that is very important to me. You’re always thinking about yourself and your artistry, in terms of how you can keep that artistry well-polished and well-honed to meet the needs of the orchestra.” 

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