by James Strain
For fifty years, Alexander Lepak, co-author of the famous Friese-Lepak Timpani Method, has been playing timpani in his hometown with the Hartford Symphony. His founding of the percussion department in the late 1940s and the percussion ensemble in 1950 at the Hartt School makes it one of the oldest university percussion programs in the United States. In addition to percussion, the now-retired Professor Emeritus of Theory and Percussion also taught ear training and conducted the Hartt Concert Jazz Band, which he founded in 1955.
Lepak's career in music began as a youth in his home. His father, a Polish immigrant, arrived in the United States with a violin under his arm. "I was one of ten children," recalls Lepak, "and we always had a musical group playing polkas or waltzes from the old country." After hearing a performance in which the timpani were out of tune, Lepak auditioned and won the position of timpanist in his high school orchestra, and then began studying theory with Ralph Baldwin. He began to compose and arrange music, and performed in various clubs and hotels with both John Mehegan and Paul Landerman's Orchestra.
Lepak served as the conductor of the Marines' 3rd Brigade Orchestra during World War II, seeing combat while stationed in Samoa, the Marshall Islands and Guam, all the time performing concerts throughout the islands. When the war ended, he relocated to New York, performing with orchestras of Bob Chester, Les Elgart and Raymond Scott. It was during this time that he began his studies with Henry Adler and Alfred Friese. When the first of his ten children was born, he returned to finish his degree at Hartt, graduating cum laude in 1950 and immediately being appointed to the theory and percussion faculty.
Although Lepak had early opportunities to leave Hartford for a tour with Duke Ellington and to take a timpani position with the Pittsburgh Symphony, his family ties to Hartford always won out. In 1991, Lepak retired from the Hartt School, having been honored as the 1981 Alumnus of the Year and having received the 1986 Hartford Artists Collective Honors Award for contributions to African-American music and the Roy E. Larsen Award for Excellence in Teaching.
His successor, Benjamin Toth, says, "The most impressive thing about Mr. Lepak is his versatility as a musician. He is constantly changing hats from an orchestral timpanist, to a big band drummer, to a jazz teacher, to a percussion teacher - both classical and jazz - to a music-theory professor, and then to both composer and publisher roles. I realized this the first week I was in Hartford when I heard him go from performing as timpanist with the Hartford Symphony to playing a jazz drumset gig the very next day!"
Regarding his teaching philosophy, Lepak says, "Every student is a teacher's responsibility. I was always interested in them as people - not only as musicians." His teaching career at The Hartt School and for the National Youth Orchestra of Canada has created a list of students that reads like a who's who of percussion, including composers Stuart Smith and Michael LaRosa, recording artists Emil Richards, Joe Porcaro and Judy Chilnick, Noble & Cooley drum designer Bob Gatzen, Prague Percussion Project founder Amy Barber, jazz drummer Eric McPherson, African drum manufacturer and performer Joe Galeota and Milwaukee Symphony timpanist Tele Lesbines, as well as Bill Hayes, Bob Zimitti, Thad Wheeler, Ed Mann, Brian Johnson, Brian Slawson, Frank Vilardi, Tom Oldakowski, Ira Newman and dozens of others.
Many of these former students were anxious to comment on their former teacher. Emil Richards wanted everyone to know that, "Al is a wonderful, great person. He became the father-image to all of his students." Judy Chilnick said that he is "the ultimate pedagogue - a player with a specific method of teaching. Although he has a laid-back personality, his teaching method is very forceful and results in each of his students being armed with all the necessary tools they need to earn a living in the real world, whether it's a Broadway show, a big band, 20th-century music or a symphony orchestra."
Bob Gatzen, a noted product designer in the drum industry, stated that, "Al's diversification is his strongest suit and he prepares his students in that way. He plays wonderful timpani, great drumset and mallets, and can improvise in all styles from trios to big band. He influences his students by recognizing each one's individual strengths, desires and goals."
In addition to teaching, Lepak has contributed significantly to the world of percussion as a noted performer, composer and publisher. He can be heard as timpanist on numerous recordings with the Hartford Symphony on the Vanguard and Decca labels. During a 1979-80 sabbatical spent in Hollywood he recorded soundtracks for Star Trek, The Jerk, Shogun, numerous television shows, and Frank Sinatra's Trilogy album.
Lepak has composed or arranged numerous jazz compositions for the Hartt Concert Jazz band and for percussion ensemble, and in addition to the world-famous Friese-Lepak Timpani Method he has contributed a significant body of literature for percussion education and performance. His best-known works include Thirty-two Solos for Timpani, 50 Contemporary Snare Drum Etudes, "Concerto for Mallet Instruments," "Suite for Solo Vibraphone," Control of the Drum Set and the popular "Crescendo" for percussion ensemble. Most of Lepak's music and methods are available through Windsor Publications, which he founded in 1967.
Lepak cites Alfred Friese as his most influential teacher. "Friese was very systematic," Lepak says. "His lessons were planned to obtain slow and deliberate results. His technique was based on a fulcrum approach with the wrists and hands using a turning motion." For drumset he cites "Chick" Webb as his childhood idol, humbly admitting to following Webb from gig to gig to hear him play.
As a seasoned teacher and performer (he's performed Bartok's "Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion" more that fifty times!), Lepak suggests that percussionists should "always listen critically to the music. Identify the various ways composers combine instruments. In this way you'll have a better understanding of your role as a percussionist and be able to contribute musically and artistically to the performance.
"The most important aspect of playing timpani is the tuning," he says. "You can have great technique, but if the pitch is bad you're in trouble. I never teach with gauges. I strongly encourage young percussionists to study another instrument, like piano, to learn pitch and harmony, and reinforce that with sight-singing. Sing, sing, sing!"
Lepak says he is "overwhelmed" by his election to the PAS Hall of Fame. "I've received a lot of awards," he said, "but to be included with all of these great musicians is the greatest honor of my career."