Jacksonville Symphony percussionist Kevin J. Garry recalls his first concert at Oberlin Conservatory of Music: “While playing glockenspiel on a wind ensemble piece by Joseph Schwantner, my hands had shaken so badly that the colored label tape on my mallets looked like a solid band of color. I left the concert extremely dejected. Several blocks from the concert hall, I heard Mr. Rosen call my name. He caught up with me, put his arm around me, and assured me that everything was going to be okay, and that my performances would get better and easier with time. It meant the world to me then, and it still does today. He could have easily gone directly home, but he chose to find me and make sure I was all right.”
Michael Rosen has been nurturing students at Oberlin Conservatory since 1972, after serving as principal percussionist with the Milwaukee Symphony from 1966 to 1972. He has also performed with the Grand Teton Music Festival, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, and the Concertgebouw Orchestra, and he has been active with PAS as a columnist and editor for Percussive Notes and a member of the PAS Board of Directors. He received the PAS Lifetime Achievement in Education award in 2014.
Rosen was born in Philadelphia. As a child, he studied piano and sang in the elementary school choir. “When I got to middle school,” Rosen recalls, “I was called out of class to go to the choir room to audition for the choir. When I passed the band room, I saw a group of drummers playing. Wow! They seemed much more cool than the choir, so I went in the band room and asked about drum lessons. I was already taking piano lessons, so playing xylophone was relatively easy for me. I continued in high school, usually playing the mallet parts.”
He then attended Temple University, earning a bachelor’s degree in Music Education in 1964. While at Temple he studied with Charles Owen, principal percussionist with the Philadelphia Orchestra. “From Charlie—we never called him Charlie to his face!” Rosen says, “I learned the Moeller snare drum method from the Moeller book, but Charlie didn’t emphasize the large arm motions associated with Moeller these days; it was a more subtle motion. He emphasized the rudiments and the orchestral repertoire. Charlie also taught me how to tuck calf heads.
“Probably the most important lessons I got from him were by example,” Rosen adds. “He had an extraordinary concept of sound, and he passed that on to me. When I was in undergrad school at Temple University, I would have my lessons at the Academy of Music after the 2 p.m. concerts on Fridays. One time, right after a concert ending with Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony, I ran up on stage and played the same cymbals Charlie had just played. I wanted to imitate that sound. He was a great inspiration to me.”
Rosen then attended the University of Illinois, where he received his master’s degree in Percussion Performance in 1966 and studied with Jack McKenzie. “I learned about how to perform and appreciate contemporary music from Jack McKenzie, in addition to the composers who were at the University of Illinois at the time: Sal Martirano, Herbert Brün, and Ken Gaburo,” Rosen says.
In 1966, Rosen joined the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra as principal percussionist. “The most important thing about my tenure with the Milwaukee Symphony is that it was there that my wife, Marlene, and I nurtured a family,” Rosen says. “Both of our children, Rebecca and Joshua, were born there. That was the beginning of our life as a family together—a memory that will always remain with us.
“In the orchestra I had the opportunity to perform all the standard literature for percussion at least three times,” Rosen continues. “It was there that I realized the necessity for consistent, serious practice, and how to relate that practice to performing. I also was fortunate to work with such conductors as Kenneth Schermerhorn, Roy Harris, Carlos Chavez, Aaron Copland, and Lukas Foss, to name only a few.”
After seven years with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, Rosen joined the faculty of the Oberlin Conservatory in 1972, where he teaches, conducts the Oberlin Percussion Group, and is director of the Oberlin Summer Percussion Institute. He is the Ruth Strickland Gardner Professor of Percussion and served as director of Oberlin’s Division of Woodwinds, Brass, and Percussion for many years.
But when he took the Oberlin job, he didn’t plan to stay very long. “I came to Oberlin with the intention of using the time I wasn’t teaching to practice for the next audition at one of the top-five orchestras,” Rosen admits. “I was the first full-time percussion teacher at Oberlin. My teaching schedule was rather light with only four students. After a year, I realized that I had come face to face with my calling: teaching and conducting the Oberlin Percussion Group. I managed to build up the department with wonderful students, and I feel honored to have worked with them over the years.”
As soon as he arrived at Oberlin, Rosen started the Oberlin Percussion Group. “My goal has been to bring little-known music to the stage with many American premieres of pieces,” he says, proudly. “Among the pieces that were written for the group are ‘Soundscape’ by D.J. Mizelle, ‘Percussion Quintet’ by Ed Miller, ‘Tap Dancer’ by Conrad Cummings, ‘Ultimate Words’ by Param Vir, ‘Lex’ by Michael Daugherty, ‘Aquarium’ by Massimo Lauricella, ‘Loose Change’ by Ross Karr, ‘Ideogram’ by Lewis Nielson, ‘KSI’ by Dominique Lemaître, ‘Kalaninka’ by James Wood, ‘In C’ by Tom Lopez, and ‘Orbits’ by Adam Rudolph. Oberlin Percussion Group also did the American premiere of ‘Pleides’ with Iannis Xenakis in attendance, and ‘For O, for O, the Hobby-Horse is Forgot’ with Harrison Birtwistle in attendance.
“Some of my favorite memories I have at Oberlin are when Keiko Abe, Iannis Xenakis, John Cage, and George Crumb were here. The Oberlin Percussion Group played their music, and then each of them came over to our house for dinner. I remember having dinner with Xenakis, who seemed rather bored and not talkative. For some reason my son Josh, who was about seven at the time, came into the dining room asking about his math homework. Xenakis came alive. He immediately took Josh into the other room and helped him for about an hour.”
Rosen has mentored over 125 students over the years, and says he is proud of all of them—even the ones who ultimately did not pursue careers in music. “Two are lawyers, one works for the Bank of China, one is a financial advisor (mine), one is chemist, one a software engineer at Facebook, one owns a brewery, and one is a Catholic priest, just to name a few. Al Otte was my first student and was instrumental in getting me the teaching position at Oberlin. He took lessons from me when I was still in Milwaukee, and he drove down from Sheboygan. Other students included Ross Karre (ICE), Matt Duvall (Eighth Blackbird), Kevin Garry (Jacksonville Symphony), Steve Fitch (Phoenix), Chris Cabrea (Honolulu), Isaac Fernandez (South Florida), Rolf Thunander (Royal Swedish Opera Orchestra), and Graham Johns (Liverpool, England), to name a few. And then there are the teacher/performers: Bob Van Sice (Yale), John R. Beck (North Carolina School of the Arts), Jen Torrence, Bonnie Whiting (University of Washington), Stu Gerber (Georgia State), Jim Culley (University of Cincinnati), and Filippo Lattanzi, to name just a few. There are too many to mention all of whom I am proud. The students I have been honored to work with have made my career what it is.”
Oberlin graduate Jeffrey B. Kahan recalled that Rosen demanded “nothing less than the best” from his students. “Although his commitment to excellence is not unique in America’s premier conservatories,” Kahan said, “his insistence on self-motivation and personal accountability set him apart from any teacher I have ever encountered. From the outset of our educations, Oberlin percussionists were expected to solve their own problems. With Mr. Rosen’s firm guidance, we learned to work with difficult personalities, how to negotiate difficult entrances, and how to transition silently on stage. He required his students to do more than play notes on a page: he expected them to listen to the music they created and find ways to enhance it. We were taught to believe that satisfaction did not lie in merely playing a part. Rather, Mr. Rosen expected that we would exhibit the judgment to identify instruments sonically appropriate to our performances and techniques that masked technical difficulties.”
Becoming a teacher at Oberlin was not the end of Rosen’s own learning. He continued his education by studying with Cleveland Orchestra timpanist Cloyd Duff and Philadelphia Orchestra timpanist Fred Hinger. “Cloyd Duff was the artist!” Rosen says. “From him I learned how to clear timpani heads and how to alter my stroke to the color necessary to fit with the texture of the orchestra. Duff studied with Oscar Schwar, who was the fabled timpanist with the Philadelphia Orchestra, although [Fred, aka Dan] Hinger was timpanist after him. I feel fortunate to be in a line beginning with Schwar. Hinger had a fuller sound, which was necessary because of the acoustics of the Academy of Music, while Duff had an elegant sound derived from his conductor, George Szell.
“I was particularly fascinated with Dan Hinger,” Rosen continues. “Every time he struck the timpani, he made a twitching motion with his mouth and squinted his left eye. At the time I thought this was affect and frankly silly. Later I realized that this motion was his way of creating the necessary energy in the stroke needed for a well-centered sound with a clear pitch. That was a lesson well learned when later I studied timpani with him. I learned how to get a centered, focused sound.”
Teaching at Oberlin was not the end of Rosen’s performance activities, either. He played with the Cleveland Orchestra and the Concertgebouw Orchestra, as well as the Grand Teton Music Festival and the Sunflower Festival. He has performed under the batons of Pierre Boulez, Lorin Maazel, Riccardo Chailly, Zubin Mehta, Leonard Slatkin, Lukas Foss, and Pablo Casals. His collaborations with Luciano Berio, John Cage, Salvatore Martirano, Herbett Briin, George Crumb, Lukas Foss, Iannis Xenakis, and Harrison Birtwistle consistently placed him at the forefront of contemporary music. Invitations to perform and teach in Germany, Switzerland, France, Italy, Canada, China, Spain, Finland, Brazil, and Holland reflect his eminent standing in the musical community and recognized dedication to the highest ideals of professional integrity.
In 1973, he played the American premieres of “Torse III” and “Marimbastiick mit zwei schlazeugem” at the Illinois Day of Percussion. In 1974, he presented an encore of that recital at the PAS National Conference, the forerunner to PASIC. He also premiered “Spirit Cat” by Alan Hovhaness, which he performed with his wife, Marlene Ralis Rosen, at the 1973 Illinois Day of Percussion; “Meditation Preludes” by William Duckworth, which he performed in March 1978 at Oberlin; “Conversations” for marimba by Walter Aschaffenberg, and “Lullaby for Ben” for marimba and voice by Edward J. Miller, both performed at PASIC ’81; and “Marimba Music” by Dan Asia at Oberlin in 1984.
Rosen has been heavily involved with PAS in a variety of roles, serving as a member of the Board of Directors from 1975–86 and 1991–98 and on the PAS Orchestral Committee. He has served for many years as an Associate Editor for Percussive Notes, and has appeared at PASIC 24 times as a recitalist, panelist, clinician, or conductor.
“I became a member of PAS in 1967,” Rosen recalls. “I was among the second wave of members after PAS started in 1961. I remember the first PASIC in Chicago when it was held in conjunction with a band convention. It was there that I met William F. Ludwig Sr. He was old then, but I remember him well.”
Rosen is especially known for his continuing Percussive Notes column, “Terms Used in Percussion.” “I have always been intrigued by language,” Rosen says. “After playing in the symphony for a while, I came across many terms that were confusing and contradictory. I asked myself, ‘What is a tambor, a bachetta, a holzslagel?’ I was determined to find out exactly which instruments these were and what percussionists from other countries would choose to play. In June of 1974 I received a grant from Oberlin to travel to Europe to research the terms used by European percussionists. I would go to the studio of percussionists in Europe and show them a 3x5 card with the name of an instrument on it. I would then ask them to show me the instrument they would pick if they saw this term in the music. In this way, without suggesting an instrument or trying to translate it, they would pick out which one they would use, and I would write in English which instrument they chose. This was the nascence of the ‘Terms’ articles and the beginning of many long-lasting friendships in the European percussion world, like François Dupin, Jan Pustjens, Christof Caskel, Karlheinz Peinkofer, Jan Labordus, and Siegfried Fink.
“The first article I wrote appeared in 1974 in the Vol. 13, No. 1 issue of Percussive Notes. I am now in the process of preparing my 100th article, which will appear in 2020. I have also penned articles in Percussive Notes about John Cage, Michael Bookspan, Sylvio Gualda, Red Norvo, and Jan Williams. Subjects have included ‘Ballet Mécanique’; how to practice; tips on auditioning; mounting, clearing, and tucking timpani heads; and many reviews of music. I have enjoyed working with the Percussive Notes editors and staff all these years.”
Rosen is in demand as a clinician and has appeared for such organizations as the TBMA, OMEA, TMEA, MENC, MBDC MusicFest Canada, and NYSMA. He has served as panelist for the National Endowment for the Arts and has recorded for the Bayerische Rundfunk, Opus One, Furious Artisans, Albany, Lumina, and CRI labels.
“Mike Rosen was my teacher in my final year of high school, before he was at Oberlin,” says Allen Otte. “I drove down from Sheboygan to Milwaukee, where he was in the symphony. Even though the actual marimba lessons with him go back more than a half century, I think for all of us here today, it is pretty much the same: what was initiated back then and has stayed with me ever since is that it’s about so much more than the drum lessons. It’s about the books to read, the food to eat, the care in preparing that food, how you take care of all those around you—including your dog. It’s about what it can mean to be both a student and a scholar of this art form. Michael Rosen is clearly a beautiful example of a contributive career and life well led, and the PAS Hall of Fame award is a much-deserved recognition of exactly that.”
Rosen says he is very honored to be elected to the PAS Hall of Fame: “The highest accolade one can receive is from one’s colleagues and students,” Rosen said. “I am humbly flattered and grateful that they have recognized my work as a teacher and performer, and that I have been selected to join the venerated percussionists who are members of the PAS Hall of Fame—people I look up to.”
Photo by Jennifer Manna