A world-class multiple-percussionist plays many different instruments with skill, creates a proper musical interpretation, envisions the correct setup and “choreography,” and shares that knowledge with others. In Michael Udow’s case, multiple percussion, while one of his favorite “instruments,” is an excellent metaphor for his multi-faceted career.
“Michael is a remarkable solo, orchestral, and chamber music performer, as well as an educator, author, composer, inventor, organizer, and entrepreneur,” says Dan C. Armstrong, Professor of Percussion Emeritus at Penn State University. “His accomplishments during his 50-plus years as a creative musical artist are simply amazing.”
Udow served as Principal Percussionist with New Mexico’s Santa Fe Opera (1968–2009). Former students play with orchestras in Baltimore, Houston, Jacksonville, San Antonio, San Francisco, Seoul, Singapore, St. Louis, and Taipei, and in unique groups such as the Silk Road Ensemble. His compositions have been performed and recorded by Keiko Abe, the Rhode Island Philharmonic, Boulder Philharmonic, Madison (Wisconsin) Philharmonia, and the Colorado Chamber Orchestra, where Udow served as composer-in-residence.
“I hope that I’ll be remembered as someone whose mission was to truly help the next generation of percussionists achieve their dreams,” says Udow.
Michael Udow was born in Detroit, Michigan on March 10, 1949. He began studying snare drum in fifth grade. In 1961, his family moved to Kansas, where he studied with Wichita State University grad student Robert Lee. In 1964, the Udows were living in southeastern Pennsylvania.
“I have known Michael since he was a high school student in Philadelphia,” remembers Russell Hartenberger, a five-decade member of the Nexus percussion ensemble, who taught Udow when he was a member of the legendary percussion ensembles at the Settlement Music School. “Michael showed promise even then as a percussionist, and also as a composer. I encouraged him to attend Interlochen so he could have a wide-ranging musical experience.”
Udow first met Jack McKenzie, a PAS co-founder, at Interlochen’s National Music Camp. “Mr. McKenzie introduced me to matched grip,” Udow says. “He explained that traditional grip worked beautifully for a drum slanted on a sling, but now drums could be played flat, so why not match the left hand to the right hand? It made the transition to timpani and mallet instruments easier, which made sense to me.”
After attending the Interlochen Arts Academy for two years, Udow graduated in 1967. “The orchestra at Interlochen was incredible,” he recalls. “We played a major concert every week — Bartok, Mahler, Hindemith, plus standard Romantic and Classical repertoire.”
Udow decided to attend the University of Illinois where McKenzie was on the faculty. “Something else I learned from Professor McKenzie was his teaching style,” says Udow. “His demeanor was so even-keeled, which put me at ease. Russell Hartenberger and Tom Siwe had a similar approach.”
Siwe began his three-decade teaching career at Illinois during Udow’s junior year. “Professor Siwe encouraged students to be open-minded,” Udow remembers. “He exposed us to repertoire from Japan and Europe during his percussion-literature course, the first one of its kind at the university level.”
Udow graduated from the University of Illinois with a Bachelor of Music degree in both percussion and composition in 1971, his Master of Music degree in 1975, and his Doctor of Musical Arts degree in 1978, the latter two in percussion.
During his senior year as an undergrad, Udow auditioned for the New Orleans Philharmonic and, after graduation, played with them for one season (1971–72). That same year, he also applied for a Fulbright-Hays Fellowship but did not learn he received the grant until he was in Louisiana. So in 1972, Udow moved to Warsaw with his wife, Nancy. Why Poland? “Herbert Brün had been one of my composition mentors,” explains Udow. “He introduced me to Jósef Patkowski, who created the Experimental Studio of the Polish Radio, where I was able to compose electronic music.”
When Udow returned from Poland in 1973, he officially joined the Blackearth Percussion Group, along with Garry Kvistad, Rick Kvistad, and Allen Otte. But after one year, he decided to leave. “It just seemed like too much,” Udow says with a laugh, “being married to a percussion group and a wife!”
Udow began his college teaching career at the University of Missouri–Kansas City (1978–81) before moving to Penn State University (1981–82). “Charlie Owen [former Principal Percussionist with the Philadelphia Orchestra] was planning to retire from the University of Michigan, and I assumed his replacement would be another ‘primo’ orchestral percussionist,” recalls Udow. “Professor Siwe suggested I apply for the job. Nancy and I had only been at Penn State for a month when Michigan called.”
Udow taught at the University of Michigan from 1982–2010, officially retiring in 2011. “My favorite memories from Ann Arbor were lessons with students,” Udow says, “working with them in percussion ensemble, and teaching percussion pedagogy and literature.”
Brian Prechtl, percussionist with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and a student at UM when Udow began teaching there in 1982, recalls, “Mike had a profound impact on my playing, both stylistically and technically. He helped me mature as a player by encouraging me to become more analytical about sound production and technique, while still encouraging me to develop my own voice on the instruments. I felt he cared about me as a person and as a player, and our lessons were exciting and vibrant. It was also inspiring to see that he maintained an active performing schedule, as well as a rigorous composing schedule, in addition to his teaching load.”
Shannon Wood, Principal Timpanist with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, remembers being an incoming UM freshman in 1985. “Michael Udow opened my eyes and ears to sound, time, thinking, and believing. His weekly lessons, talks, repertoire classes, hangs, and discussions mustered a mixture of technique, phrasing, skill, listening, and musical maturity, so this little fish from Saline, Michigan could swim in the larger sea of talent around the globe.”
Internationally renowned marimbist and composer Julie Spencer taught alongside Udow from 1994–98. “While at Michigan, I personally experienced that Mike was always quick to give enormous support in whatever way was needed — emotionally, logistically, artistically, or professionally. He was available, respectful, and encouraging to students and colleagues, with a particular sense of justice for gender and racial equality. It was an exceptionally creative atmosphere of motivation and inspiration.”
Ian Ding, Artist Faculty at DePaul University, was Udow’s colleague at UM from 2005 until Udow’s retirement in 2011. “I was lucky enough to have a front-row seat to Professor Udow’s amazing ability to connect with young percussionists. He always found just the right way to bring the best out of every individual — to encourage and inspire them — and he went to incredible lengths to establish the culture of innovation, collaboration, and teamwork that the UM Percussion Studio is well known for.”
Several other faculty team-taught with Udow over the years, including Joseph Gramley, Brian Jones, Cary Kocher, Ted Piltzecker, and Salvatore Rabbio. Owen himself even came back to help with the overload. “It was so nice to wind up my teaching career with a dedicated, congenial group of percussion faculty, with Joe heading the program,” says Udow.
In conjunction with his retirement from UM, Udow received the PAS Lifetime Achievement in Education award in 2010.
Michael joined PAS in 1967, served on the Board of Directors for 14 years (1980–87 and 1990–95), and has participated in a dozen PASICs. In 1981, Udow and his wife Nancy gave a concert as Equilibrium, the percussion and dance duo they started as undergraduate students in 1971 and continued for 37 years.
“The first time I heard Michael perform was at PASIC ’81,” recalls marimbist and composer Keiko Abe. “His composition and collaboration with improvised dance was a powerful and memorable performance.”
Udow also hosted PASIC ’84 on the University of Michigan campus. “I urge you to explore the diversity of the percussive arts by attending clinics, concerts, lectures, and panel discussions in areas with which you may not be familiar,” Udow wrote in the convention program. “I assure you that this approach will lead to a worthwhile and exciting experience that may well catapult you into new adventures in your own music-making.”
When asked about favorite PASIC performances, Udow responds, “In 1986, Meredith Music published my book, The Contemporary Percussionist: 20 Multiple Percussion Recital Solos. I demonstrated how students could creatively use the solos to better their skills in a percussion ensemble.” He also remembers a 2001 concert in Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium featuring Keiko Abe with Galaxy Percussion.
Abe remembers a 1993 performance with Udow: “He organized a commemorative concert with the Michigan Chamber Players [oboist Harry Sargous, saxophonist Donald Sinta, and percussionists Anthony Di Sanza and Udow] when I was inducted into the PAS Hall of Fame.” Abe was a frequent guest artist at the University of Michigan, and several UM students also studied with her at the Toho Gakuen School of Music in Japan. “He has trained many excellent students, both in terms of education and humanity,” Abe says. “This was an example of Mr. Udow’s educational guidance as he nurtured the next generation of students.”
Other memorable PASIC performances included a fully-staged production of Udow’s opera, “The Shattered Mirror,” in Orlando, Florida in 1998; a 2015 concert by the University of Texas Wind Ensemble featuring two concerti by Udow, “Apparition for Timpani” (Daniel Karas, soloist), and “Moon Shadows for Multiple Percussion” (Anthony Di Sanza, soloist); and a 2018 performance of his marimba duet “Stepping Stones” by former students Pius Cheung and Eriko Daimo. (Udow wrote the piece for them as a wedding gift.)
“I well remember his performance at PASIC  in Dallas where he appeared in Japanese dress, including a face mask, and rotated around as a different character,” recalls Ruth Cahn, a former member of the Rochester Philharmonic, referring to Udow playing his own marimba solo, “Tennei-Ji,” which he had premiered at the World Marimba Competition in Okaya, Japan the year before. “I do not know another percussionist/artist who could have kept us all spellbound throughout the performance of this work.” Here is a link to that performance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jr3wcaS9JJs
“I use the term polymath to highlight his musical, artistic, humanitarian, and compositional skills.” Cahn adds. “Michael is a uniquely talented person who has always shared his gifts and passions with all of us.”
Between his freshman and sophomore years at the University of Illinois, Udow was invited to join the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra as Principal Percussionist in 1968 — for the nominal salary of $85 a week! — a position he held for 42 years.
Does he have a favorite opera performance? “It was being onstage for the 1984 American premiere of Hans Werner Henze’s ‘We Come to the River’ as the drummer/madman,” he replies without a moment’s hesitation.
“For 30 seasons, Michael and I were members of the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra – Michael as Principal Percussion and myself as Timpanist,” says Mark Johnson, former Professor of Percussion at Michigan State University. “The opera gave a world or American premiere nearly every season, so there was lots of new music with extensive percussion. Michael even had two major onstage solos: besides the Henze opera, he played cimbalom solos on an electronic mallet keyboard in Kallman’s ‘Countess Maritza.’ And he must have played the glockenspiel solos in Mozart’s ‘The Magic Flute’ at least 50 times!”
Necessity is also the mother of invention, as demonstrated during the opera’s production of Richard Strauss’s “Die Schweigsame Frau (The Silent Woman).” “The score called for regular chimes and an octave of bass chimes, so I decided to make my own,” Udow remembers. “While on tour with the Interlochen orchestra, we went to the Deagan factory. Henry Schluter was tuning chimes and he showed us how to minimize the out-of-tune harmonics. That made a big impression on me and, with experimentation, I was able to create the bass chimes we needed. I started receiving requests from other orchestras, like Boston and Washington’s National Opera.”
Another unique instrument Udow made is his Timbrack, which is in the Rhythm! Discovery Center collection in Indianapolis. It is a keyboard-configured, multiple percussion instrument with 13 different timbres he built for Brün’s “Stalk and Trees and Drops and Clouds.”
Udow’s inventive mind helped create instruments such as piccolo woodblocks, a bass drum/cymbal attachment for suspended stands, bass drum muffles, specialty glockenspiel stands, and a variety of mallets, including the famous “Magic Flute” brass models.
In addition to playing, teaching, and building unique percussion instruments, Udow composed over 150 works. One of his earliest pieces, “Bog Music,” won first prize at the 1978 PAS Composition Competition. Another one of his commissions, “Coyote Dreams,” written for Katarzina Mycka, was premiered at PASIC ’97 in Anaheim.
His film, Echoes of the Past, “is based on images of burnt trees at Mesa Verde National Park,” Udow says. “I directed, produced, and composed the music, working with photographer Robert Rosen and animator Tal Ormsby.” The 18-minute film, scored for six percussionists, received laurels at 16 international film festivals in 2020.
His most recent composition, “The Sun and the Moon,” was premiered June 22, 2022 at the Seoul Arts Center by Yun Park. “The work is for a singing multiple percussionist, who narrates this famous Korean folk tale, and two Korean instruments, daegeum and gayaegum,” explains Udow.
Udow’s 2019 book, Percussion Pedagogy: A Practical Guide for Studio Teachers (Oxford University Press), “speaks to up-and-coming percussionists and inspires forward thinking philosophies for teachers,” comments Michael Sammons, Percussion Area Head at the University of Utah and chair of the PAS University Pedagogy Committee. “With this resource, Michael provides a missing and much needed link to our pedagogical evolution as a craft.”
A companion website exists with hundreds of online instructional videos and musical examples. (www.oup.com/us/percussionpedagogy) “Bob Breithaupt wrote the drum set chapter and Dennis DeLucia wrote the marching percussion chapter, because those were two areas of expertise I did not have,” Udow humbly admits. “I wrote the other 19 chapters. My goal was to share information I received from my teachers, explore it in my own way, and then pass it on to the next generation.
“My teachers and students have all been a major inspiration to me. My students always challenged me, asking great questions; they are the ones who made me a better teacher,” Udow attests.
“I’ve witnessed how Michael Udow’s esteemed reputation commands great admiration,” states Ted Piltzecker, Professor Emeritus at Purchase College and an acclaimed vibraphone artist. “I also know about the deep respect that Michael has for each artist or student with whom he engages. Along with his lengthy list of artistic accomplishments, it is his sense of humanity, his constant giving, and positive nurturing that I find extraordinary. Although not the most outwardly evident, this is a mighty component of the Udow legend.”
Julie Spencer calls Udow “a force of nature, continuing to create, explore, and pave the way for others to find out what they are capable of, because of his consistent example of the highest standards as a percussionist, composer, organizer, trend-setter, and beautiful human being.”