Download Gordon Peters Bio
by Lauren Vogel Weiss
Pop quiz: Who was the first President of PAS? If you said Gordon Peters, give yourself a rimshot for knowing your Percussive Arts Society history!
"There was a hunger to communicate and learn from each other," Peters recalls. "Before The Percussionist was published, the only percussion-related publication was the NACWAPI (National Association of College Wind and Percussion Instructors) bulletin." In preparing his master's-degree dissertation from the Eastman School of Music in the late 1950s, A Treatise on Percussion (later to become the book The Drummer: Man in 1975), Peters included a questionnaire about percussion that he had sent to teachers and performers. "The response clearly pointed to the need for the percussion profession to have its own organization."
Although Donald Canedy served as de facto president of PAS from its organization in 1961 until a constitution was adopted three years later, Peters was elected as the society's first president in 1964, an office he held for four years. How did he become involved in PAS?
Could he foresee the future of this fledgling percussion organization? "No," he says, smiling and shaking his head. "It absolutely blows my mind what I have experienced at recent conventions. None of us had any idea where PAS was going, although we had hopes and dreams. But I could not imagine the international dimensions and intercultural mix that we have today."
Born during the Great Depression (January 4, 1931) in Oak Park, Illinois, Peters grew up in nearby Cicero where he lived upstairs in a "two flat," with his Czechoslovakian grandparents downstairs. His Scottish father played saxophone a little, but it was his mother who wanted him to study music. His attempt at tap dancing failed after two weeks, and he began to take piano lessons at age six. By the time he entered fourth grade, Gordon added percussion lessons to his weekly schedule and, for four years, he played timpani in his elementary school's 40-piece orchestra as well as the Inter-High Band, consisting of the best players from ten other elementary schools. Following a bout with scarlet fever in seventh grade, he dropped piano studies and concentrated on percussion.
"My first 'professional' job was filing music for the school music director, Emily Volker, at two bucks an hour," Peters chuckles. "When I was in seventh grade, my teacher, Mr. Brabec, thought I should get a xylophone. So he took me out to Crystal Lake where a retired gentleman had one for sale. That retired musician turned out to be former Chicago Symphony Principal Percussionist Bohomil Vesely! Later, Harry Brabec became Principal Percussionist with the CSO, as did I! Harry was my mentor in school, and I emulated him. He blazed the trail for me."
Brabec soon sent Gordon to Roy Knapp in downtown Chicago, where Peters studied snare drum, timpani, and harmony. Knapp, in turn, referred Gordon to José Bethancourt. "José was a significant figure because he played fiddle repertoire on a Guatemalan marimba on the radio in the 1930s and '40s," Peters explains. "He was a marvelous teacher, too." Peters also studied timpani with Otto Kristufek, who was former Timpanist of the St. Louis Symphony and the Chicago Opera (now known as the Lyric Opera).
The J. Sterling Morton High School music department in Cicero was under the direction of European-trained Louis M. Blaha. "It was a disciplined, professional environment that was pivotal to my future career," says Peters. During this time he started his 25-year drumset "career" with bands and combos. "Mostly ethnic weddings!" he laughs.
Following high school graduation in 1949, Peters enrolled at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois so he could study with Clair Omar Musser. "I wanted to be a marimba soloist," Gordon recalls. "He had a marimba ensemble and I loved it. Then the Korean War came along and changed everything."
During the war, Peters served as a Percussionist, Assistant Timpanist, and Marimba Soloist with the United States Military Academy Concert Band at West Point. While there, he went to New York City every week to study with Morris Goldenberg and Saul Goodman at the Juilliard School, as well as with Harry Breuer (for vibes) at Carroll Bratman's Drum Shop. When he left the Army in 1953, Peters decided to explore the opportunities available to him at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York.
"While I was at Eastman, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra twice asked me if I was interested in auditioning," Peters explains, "but I declined. I had the G.I. Bill, which, though it was only 3,600 bucks, covered four years of schooling. It was very important for me to finish my education."
At Eastman, Peters studied with William Street, who, along with Gordon's previous teachers Knapp, Musser, Goldenberg, Goodman, and Breuer, would eventually be elected to the PAS Hall of Fame. "Street, who was the original percussion instructor Howard Hanson appointed when the school was formed in the '20s, was the most refined timpanist," says Peters. "When I saw him play with the Rochester Phil, I knew that's the way I wanted to be! Coming out of an Army military band, I had a lot of rough edges. He showed me a gentlemanly approach to the instruments that was uncommon at that time." Peters played alongside his mentor in the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra from 1954-59.
During his first year at Eastman, Peters founded and directed the Marimba Masters, an ensemble that entertained both locally and nationally (via radio and television). Peters, who had played in two of José Bethancourt's large marimba ensembles at Soldiers' Field in Chicago in addition to Musser's marimba ensemble during his year at Northwestern, wanted to create a chamber music experience for percussionists: "Something akin to the string quartet, woodwind quintet, and brass groups who are playing melody, harmony, and rhythm," he explains. "This was, and is, what's missing in our percussion educational system."
The group's first performance was at a noontime recital on March 11, 1954, where Peters conducted Stanley Leonard, John Beck, James Dotson, Douglas Marsh, and Mitchell Peters on marimba, accompanied by double bassist Donald Snow. Since there was relatively little repertoire for marimba ensembles at that time, the Marimba Masters played arrangements by Musser of popular classical pieces such as the overture from Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro," the "Dance of the Comedians" from Smetana's "Bartered Bride," the "Largo" from Dvorak's "New World Symphony," and excerpts from "Carmen" by Bizet. The concert also included an original composition by Robert Resseger, "Chorale for Marimba Quintet."
On the day the Marimba Masters performed that first recital, David Harvard, founder of the Rochester Commerce Club, went to the Eastman Theatre to meet his wife, who worked in the box office. While waiting for her, he heard marimba music playing in Kilbourn Hall and saw Peters' unique ensemble. He soon invited the Marimba Masters to play for his organization ("We'll give you five bucks and lunch!"), which led to more local performances, including ones for Kodak, Xerox, Gerber, and other national companies. Just 15 months after their first performance, the ensemble was invited to appear on The Arthur Godfrey Show--11 television and radio shows in two weeks. Godfrey also offered them an engagement in Las Vegas, but all the players agreed to stay in school. In 1958, the Marimba Masters were featured on The Ed Sullivan Show. They also appeared on five pops concerts with the Buffalo and Rochester Philharmonic Orchestras. During Peters' last year at Eastman (1958-59), the Masters performed over 30 engagements.
In addition to the Musser arrangements published by Forster Music, the Marimba Masters played original pieces by Theodore Frazeur ("Poem for Marimbas"), John Schlenck ("Lento"), Peter Tanner ("Andante"), who joined the ensemble in 1957, and Kenneth Wendrich ("Scherzoid"). Peters also "cleaned up" the Musser arrangements and made scores for them. These versions, as well as most of the Marimba Masters' library, are now available through Steve Weiss Music. Copies of the original Marimba Masters library and scrapbooks are on file at the PAS Museum in Lawton, Oklahoma.
During his five summer vacations from Eastman between 1954–58, Peters was Principal Percussionist with the Grant Park Orchestra in Chicago, playing next to Otto Kristufek, another of his mentors. "My time there was basically an audition for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra," he recalls. "I was occasionally asked to play extra with the CSO, particularly during the summer season. Brabec, my teacher, was in the orchestra and knew my playing. At that time, the audition process was quite different than it is now. Conductors and personnel managers would call Saul Goodman and Moe Goldenberg at Juilliard and say, 'We need a mallet man in Houston,' and they would recommend someone."
The third time the Chicago Symphony contacted Gordon, he had finished his degrees—bachelor's, master's, and a Performance Certificate from Eastman—and at age 28 he was offered the position of Principal Percussionist and Assistant Timpanist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, a job he held until his retirement 42 seasons later.
Peters performed under the batons of CSO Music Directors Fritz Reiner, Jean Martinon, Georg Solti, and Daniel Barenboim, plus such gifted conductors as Pierre Monteux, Leonard Bernstein, Claudio Abbado, James Levine, and Pierre Boulez. "The most notable tour I remember was under Solti," he recalls. "In 1971, we toured Europe for six weeks and the European audiences went wild! That's when Mahler's Fifth [Symphony] became our 'theme song.' It was a very exciting time.
"I also remember playing [Ravel's] 'Bolero,' which I used to play with coins instead of sticks," he continues. "Two Kennedy half dollars. I came up with that idea because the conductor always wants it softer. I also played it right in front of the conductor, which is much easier than playing back in the orchestra because your colleagues can hear you better."
In addition to his playing career in Chicago, Peters also had a conducting career. "Because I was interested in conducting, I became friends with many of the conductors. I wasn't trying to ingratiate myself," he chuckles, "I was trying to learn!" One of these conductors was Jean Martinon, who became the CSO's Music Director in 1964. Since Martinon knew of Peters' interest in music education and his conducting training with the great French Maestro Pierre Monteux from 1952–63, Martinon asked Gordon if he would be interested in taking over the Chicago Civic Orchestra--the Training Orchestra of the CSO--as Conductor/Administrator, a position that Peters held from 1966–87.
Did he ever think of giving up two sticks for one? "We all dream of that, but once I got the percussion job with the Chicago Symphony, I gave up the idea of a conducting career because I'm a pragmatist," Peters replies. "I believe in pensions, security, family. You could say I'm a bit of a coward!"
In addition to performing and conducting, Peters taught for several years at Northwestern University (1963–68). He composed "The Swords of Moda-Ling," which has become a popular percussion ensemble. Peters also wrote articles for The Instrumentalist and Ludwig Drummer magazines, and last year he revised his book, The Drummer: Man, which is now available on CD from PAS.
What advice would Peters offer young percussionists today? "Find the best teacher you can afford," he replies. "Many of my teachers were first-generation Americans who had studied with Europeans who valued music, art, and aesthetics as a high priority. In Europe, in particular, students learn Solfegge [sight singing] before they study their instrument. They learn to read--and hear--music and become musically literate before they're concerned with instrumental techniques." His philosophy on preparing music for a performance is summed up in an article from the June 2003 issue of Percussive Notes.
Peters passionately believes in marimba ensembles in the percussion curriculum. "This makes musicians out of percussionists," he states emphatically. "I would like to be remembered not only for believing in them and advocating them, but for helping to provide a nucleus repertoire for marimba ensembles."