John H. Beck
by Payton MacDonald
John Beck is the percussionist's percussionist. As a performer he has worked in a variety of situations, including the "President's Own" Marine Band (1955-59), Principle Percussionist with the Rochester Philharmonic (1959-62), Principle Timpanist with the Rochester Philharmonic (1962-present), jazz drumset with a variety of artists, including Coleman Hawkins and Hot Lips Page, and solo appearances with the Rochester Philharmonic, Eastman Wind Ensemble, Marine Band, Syracuse Wind Ensemble, and a variety of chamber music organizations. Beck has been equally successful as a teacher, having guided scores of percussionists to successful careers. Finally, he has served the Percussive Arts Society as Second Vice President (1982-84,) Vice President (1984-86) and President (1987-90), and also served as President of the New York State PAS chapter (1976-82) and the New York State School Music Association (1970-72).
Payton MacDonald: Describe your early percussion education.
John Beck: "Percussion education" is a fancy expression for how I really started, which was at age ten with a snare drum lesson given by a neighbor of mine in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, who was really a house painter. He played drums in the local fife and drum corps, in which my father played the fife. The incentive really came from watching that local fife and drum corps, which was quite popular in the 1940s. Also, the high school band, which had been non-existent for many years, was starting up again by a man named Robert Beckman. Ironically, he had been my father's high school band director.
He wanted me to play clarinet but it looked too complicated, so I decided to take drum lessons from Oscar Angstead. My first lesson was on how to hold the sticks. The second lesson was on how to tuck a skin drumhead; he told me that if I didn't know how to tuck a head I wouldn't be able to play the drums because the skins would frequently break. The third lesson was on how to read notes. He gave me thirteen lessons and then he said he didn't know any more.
Then I went to someone who taught drum lessons and tap dancing, which was a natural combination in those days. I took a few lessons and realized that what he was teaching me on the snare drum was not really that good. After that I went to a music educator in another town who knew the drum rudiments. I went to him until he finally told me that he didn't know any more and I should go study with a real drum teacher. So I found a real teacher in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania named Art Harbert. Art worked in a drum shop run by Bill Hammond, who was one of the thirteen original signers of the National Association of Rudimental Drummers.
Pittsburgh was 225 miles from my hometown. So I would take off from school for a week - by this time I was a freshman in high school - and I would take a Greyhound bus to Pittsburgh, stay at the YMCA, and hang out at Art's drum shop. I would take lessons, watch Art give other people lessons, and hang out with other drummers and learn how to repair instruments and so forth. Then I would go home for half a year and practice what I'd learned in that week at the drum shop.
Throughout high school I played drumset with local bands and went to rudimental drumming competitions. This continued until I auditioned for the Eastman School of Music. What I played, though, wouldn't even get a student past the front door now; I only played a rudimental snare drum solo, a little bit of piano, and that was it! I had played some timpani in high school, but I had never really played any mallets. But in 1951 the acceptance standards to get into a music school were a lot different than they are now. So I was accepted. I was the only one in my class. There were only about four or five of us. Stan Leonard, Mitch Peters, Jimmy Dodson and Gordon Peters were at Eastman at the same time. I went to Eastman for four years, and when I graduated I auditioned for the Marine Band, was accepted, and stayed for four years.
MacDonald: Do you remember what the audition was like for the Marine Band?
Beck: It was pretty much like a symphony orchestra audition now, but not as intense, because no excerpts were required. I was asked to play "Romeo and Juliet" on timpani. The conductor, Albert Schoeper, said: "Here, play this." There were only two timpani, and I said: "But sir, I need three timpani to play this part." Ollie Zinsmeister, whose place I was taking, was running the audition, and he said: "That's right sir, he needs three timpani." "Okay, well then don't play that," was the reply. The audition was mostly sight-reading. I also played a marimba solo, some marches and a little sight-reading on snare drum, and that was pretty much it.
Before getting out of the Marine Band I auditioned for the Philadelphia Orchestra. Al Abel and I auditioned at the same time and he got the job. I was going to stay in the Marine Band a little longer, but my predecessor at the Eastman School, William Street, called me up and said that he was retiring and wanted to know if I wanted to audition for the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. So I took the audition and got the job as principal percussion, which I held for three years. Then, Hugh Robertson, who was the timpanist, decided to leave and I auditioned for the timpani job. I've had it ever since.
MacDonald: When did you start teaching at Eastman?
Beck: I started playing in the orchestra in 1959 and started teaching at Eastman the same year, although I taught for eight years in the preparatory department, what is now called Community Education Division. Bill Street was still teaching here from 1959 to 1967. Gradually he eased himself out and I taught the freshman, then the sophomores, and in 1967 he said he was going to retire so I applied for the job and got it. I also got my master's degree in 1962 from Eastman.
MacDonald: Is playing in the orchestra now different than when you first started?
Beck: Yes, it is different. Let me start with the social aspect. During my junior and senior years at Eastman I was an extra in the orchestra. I played under Eric Liensdorf. At that time the orchestra was primarily an all male organization, except for the harpist. So attitudes that men have, such as telling off-color jokes, playing practical jokes and slapping each other on the back, was the norm. There was a lot of smoking, a fair amount of beer drinking, and a lot of poker playing then - a lot of the things men do.
Gradually the orchestra has become more of a co-ed organization. It's now about half male and half female. I did an interview once and was asked if this bothered me. I said, "Absolutely not!" If someone plays well, that's the important thing.
The orchestra has become very health conscious. Plastic shields are placed in front of the brass section or percussion section and always around the drumset player. Rehearsals are in a smoke-free environment and temperature limits are strictly enforced. Those things were never even thought of in those days. Yes, it was loud, but you put up with it. Yes, your back hurt, but you put up with it. Your arm hurts? So what? Do your job. None of those attitudes are manifested today. Now, if someone plays a loud note on the trumpet, you put up a shield. The pendulum has swung the other way to the point where it makes things uncomfortable sometimes.
MacDonald: How do you balance a career as both a performer and a teacher?
Beck: With difficulty! One thing that helps is that my studio and the stage are less than a minute apart. So I can finish a lesson and get to a rehearsal immediately. There's a lot of scheduling that has to be carefully arranged. There's not a whole lot of time for getting sick, going on vacation, that sort of thing. It's pretty much seven days a week if you want it to work. So it is difficult, but I enjoy teaching and playing. If I had one without the other I wouldn't be as content.
And I also like to play jazz. I forgot to mention that back in high school I played in big bands. Duke Ellington, Gene Krupa, Count Basie - those bands were the incentive for all of us who were aspiring to be drummers. And so I did a lot of jazz. I played three concerts with one of the saxophone greats, Coleman Hawkins, and I also played with Hot Lips Page. So I like the classical side, the jazz side, and the teaching side. I do less jazz now because there isn't enough time. But from the time I got a drumset when I was thirteen years old until the present I've played dance jobs.
MacDonald: Have you noticed any difference between the students you have now and the students you had in 1959?
Beck: In those days there were fewer percussionists in the school, and there was more of feeling of esprit de corps, a camaraderie among the percussionists that doesn't always prevail now. For instance, we would never miss a rehearsal, we were always on time to set up, parts were learned - that kind of attitude was happening when I was a student and when I first started teaching here. I understand that now there is so much going on at this school that to practice all your parts and be ready for every rehearsal is impossible. So in that sense I see a difference between the earlier students and the later students.
There was also a period of time in the late '60s and early '70s, during the drug-cult era, when the attitude of the students was that they were coming to the Eastman School to tell the teachers how to teach. But what they didn't understand was that they didn't know what they were talking about. It was a difficult time because it made a very defensive type of teaching situation. Here come students who are telling you what they want to do, or that that's not the way to do it, and disregarding the experience that the teacher has. No teacher can always play technically as fast as a younger student who has a lot of chops. But the student doesn't have the experience and knowledge that the teacher has, and that's what it's all about.
Now the attitude is much more respectful. There's no question that students today are much better prepared for an Eastman School type of musical education. The level of playing that I hear from high school students is just outstanding. It's the same level of playing with which students were graduating in the '70s and '80s.
MacDonald: You've taught many students who have gone on to become leaders in the music world, including orchestral percussionists, such as Chris Lamb, marimbists, such as Leigh Howard Stevens, and drumset players, such as Steve Gadd. Have you noticed any common traits with these and countless other successful players you've taught, many of whom have developed important careers outside of the spotlight?
Beck: I think there is a common trait: They are very disciplined people who are very focused on what they want. They are well-organized, cooperative, and reliable. They aren't here to have a good time; they are here to learn. They have a goal, and they're going for what they want. Talent is a given. So I do see that common trait.
MacDonald: How do you approach teaching percussion now? As I look around the studio I see some people who want an orchestral career, some people who just want to play marimba, others who are interested in world music or jazz, some who balance composing or musicology with percussion playing, etc. How does one teacher meet the needs of all these different people?
Beck: The first thing is that I try not to interfere with what they're going after. I have had enough experience and have seen enough that I know how to advise them on certain aspects of what they're doing. Take a person who wants to be a solo marimbist. I know the music they need to perform, and I know that if they practice and have discipline, they will attain that. I can show them some things that I think might work better - a sticking or some kind of a move - but most notes and combinations of notes can be learned if you stay with it long enough, practice slowly, gradually increase that until the motor reflexes take over and then you've got something. Time is a big factor. I'm not necessarily telling them how to do what they want to do; I'm advising them, and if I hear something that doesn't sound good, I'll point that out. But mainly I stay out of their way, and let them mature naturally. If they have the other ingredients that I talked about earlier, I just sit back and watch it grow.
Then there are the students who really need a lot of fundamental instruction. They also have to grow, but they're growing from a different root. Then I am a little more involved in telling them exactly what they should do.
MacDonald: What is the future of percussion playing?
Beck: There is no question that you've got to be versatile, and you've got to think on a more global scope than the percussionists when I was a student. We had only one small focus. We were ensemble players; we had to hone in on those skills and become good players in orchestras and bands and so on. Gradually it became more of a marimba-type of world where we had marimba soloists along with the ensemble players. The drumset players were always around.
So where is it all going? Any percussionist of the future has got to know a lot about a lot of things. Sure, they're going to specialize in a certain area, and maybe that is where they'll want to spend most of their time, but the world is getting smaller, particularly in music. You have to know what a tabla is, a mrdangam, a doumbek, you have to know how to make the proper sounds and a couple of rudimentary rhythms so that if you've got to play a T.V. jingle and they want a doumbek sound, you know how to do that. Percussionists of the future have to expose themselves to rudimental drumming, jazz, country-western, rhythm & blues, symphonic playing, the whole works. At least try all of these different areas, because once you try it you have a better feel for it.
Versatility is important, and that's something I've always fostered here. I never want specialization in the Eastman School because I don't think its healthy. You have to know a lot of things, especially about percussion. Everyone does specialize in their own way, and that's what I don't interfere with, but I don't foster specialization. There's a lot of transfer of skill between the marimba, the timpani, the drumset. For example, timpani and drumset is a natural combination. In a symphony orchestra the timpanist is the drumset player and in a jazz ensemble the drumset player is the timpanist. You can't improvise in a classical situation, but you certainly can drive an orchestra.
MacDonald: When you were a student there were five or six percussionists in the whole school. Now there are twenty. Let's take the top twenty music schools in America. Every year, three or four students graduate and begin competing for jobs. So we have sixty to eighty new people competing for very few jobs every year, and this is probably a low approximation. Is the market over-saturated?
Beck: Yes, and it has been for a long time. In the mid-'60s I presented a paper at an MENC convention, and I said that the supply and demand was going to get out of hand. And sure enough, I think it is now. Two hundred people show up to audition for a job that pays $10,000 a year. That's why schools are trying to develop new programs so that students are diversified and can do many things to earn a living. So yes, it is a problem. But, I still feel that if you have talent and are willing to adjust and do lots of things, you will always be able to earn a living in music, if that's what you want to do. It may not always be the greatest, most musically satisfying experience, but you'll be able to do something, and that equates to a salary, and that equates to food on the table, and that equates to living.
MacDonald: You've had quite a bit of experience in administration. For example, you were President of PAS for a while.
Beck: Prior to becoming President of the Percussive Arts Society, I was the state chapter president, and at that time hosted the first PAS International Convention at Eastman in 1976. There were around 400 people in attendance, I had a budget of about $600 and didn't even use it all. Now, the budget for PASIC is astronomical and thousands of people attend. I was President at a time in the PAS when there was a $60,000 debt. I had to diminish the debt. Fortunately, we did. Also during my tenure as President there was an opportunity to get a permanent headquarters in Lawton, Oklahoma, which we took advantage of. I think those two things, more than anything else, helped the society to become quite healthy.I learned a great deal about how to become an administrator. One thing I discovered that is very important, and I try to do this in the percussion department, is to have a good line of communication. Any leader should never do something without telling others what they are doing. That's why I have a percussion department meeting at the end of every year and ask for ideas to try to make things work better. I'm still involved in PAS. I'm the chair of the International Committee and also helped organize the Health and Wellness Committee. And I'm still a reviewer for Percussive Notes. It's a great organization.
MacDonald: Any final words?
Beck: Well, I'm not retiring! I really enjoy teaching and playing and interacting with students. They keep me alive; I hope I keep them alive. If I don't practice, I can't demonstrate certain things. So I have to keep on top of things both technically and musically. I do like teaching and I do like playing, and I don't think I could do one without the other.