One of the newest members of the PAS Hall of Fame, Peters, unfortunately, will not be able to accept this honor in person, as he passed away on October 28, 2017 at the age of 82. But his music lives on, through his recordings with the Dallas Symphony and Los Angeles Philharmonic, dozens of publications, and, most importantly, students who continue to share his methods and character with students of their own.
“I think he would be very touched by the honor, and slightly embarrassed at the same time,” shares his daughter, Michelle Peters Feinstein, discussing his induction. “He was so dedicated to his art. He didn’t seek fame, and he really didn’t think about honors.”
But his peers knew how special Mitch and his music were and wanted to recognize his many musical achievements.
A DRUMMER FROM RED WING, MINNESOTA
Mitchell Thomas Peters was born on August 17, 1935 in Red Wing, Minnesota, a small town on the banks of the Mississippi River, about an hour southeast of Minneapolis. His parents owned a small candy shop and soda fountain in downtown Red Wing, Peters’ Palace of Sweets, and Mitch worked there as a soda jerk during his high school years.
He was also a huge fan of drumset legend Gene Krupa. “My dad always talked about when his parents took him to see Gene Krupa play,” remembers Feinstein. The Peters family rode the train from Red Wing to Detroit, Michigan to see Krupa and his orchestra perform at the Eastwood Gardens on July 24, 1949. “My dad took a photo of him, and years later, when they met again, Gene Krupa gave him an autographed photo.”
Although Peters wanted to play drums, his first experience in the school band was on trombone, the same instrument his older brother played. But Mitch’s musical path changed when the band director gave him an opportunity to play the drums. He was soon playing in the school’s band and orchestra, and he began taking drumset lessons in Minneapolis.
“After my father passed,” says Feinstein, “I started going through his things and found a box of mementos. At the bottom of the box was a very yellowed envelope. The return address was Bob Bass Drum Shop and Studios in Minneapolis—‘the only complete drum shop in the Northwest!’ It was addressed to ‘Mr. Peters, Red Wing, Minnesota’—not my father, but my grandfather. It’s dated November 8, 1951, so my father would have been 16 years old.”
In a calm voice, which wavered with emotion only a few times, she read the letter aloud:
Dear Mr. Peters,
Mitch was telling me that you would like to have a report on his progress. I am happy to state that Mitch is perhaps the finest student I have had to date. He seems to have no trouble at all grasping the material and comes back with it worked down as well as I can play it myself in many cases. He shows marked aptitude for music and drumming, and although I have no idea how he performs, he does wonderfully on the lesson material. Given experience, he is going to be a very good drummer some day, and I would heartily recommend his following music as I believe with his talent and interest, he will be able to do well in the music business; it is a tough business, but there is room for a few to make a good living out of it on the top.
I don’t like to overpraise students to their face, as I think that this can sometimes make them “let down” some, but I hope you will believe what I have said as I am sincere. If Mitch’s interest in drumming continues, I believe he will go far.
Sincerely yours, Bob Bass.
Mitch Peters graduated from Red Wing Central High School in 1953 and moved to Rochester, New York to further his musical education.
A MARIMBIST AT EASTMAN
Peters was accepted to the prestigious Eastman School of Music, where he studied percussion with William Street. During his five years there, he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees, along with the coveted Performer’s Certificate, graduating in 1958.
While still an undergraduate, Peters joined a groundbreaking percussion ensemble: the Marimba Masters. Their first performance was a noontime recital in Kilbourn Hall on March 11, 1954 “by the Students from the Percussion Class of William Street.” (Their iconic moniker would not come for another year, when they adopted the name Marimba Masters before their first national television broadcast.) Under the direction of Gordon Peters (no relation), the other members of the group, in addition to Mitch, were John Beck, Stanley Leonard, James Dotson, Douglas Marsh, and Donald Snow on double bass.
Just over a year after their first concert, the Marimba Masters were invited to appear on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, a radio and television variety show airing on Monday nights on CBS, which was a mid-century forerunner of 21st century programs like The Voice or America’s Got Talent. Although Godfrey offered them an engagement in Las Vegas, all the players agreed to stay in school, so additional fame would have to wait a few more years.
In the spring of 1956, the Marimba Masters recorded their only, eponymous LP record. The recording featured popular and classical music, along with an expanded percussion section of bongos, maracas, and other percussion instruments.
Then on January 12, 1958, the Marimba Masters—now Mitch, Gordon Peters, and new members Ron Barnett, Jane Burnet (Varella), Vivian Emery (Speca), Peter Tanner, and Edward DeMatteo on string bass—performed two pieces on The Ed Sullivan Show, Sunday night “must see TV” for people of a certain age.
“I still remember the first time I saw the video from The Ed Sullivan Show, which was at my dad’s memorial service,” recalls Feinstein. “He looks over from the marimba, and then the next time we see him, he’s playing the bongos, which was a surprise. He was so young—and that smile! It was so wonderful to watch.”
(More information about the Marimba Masters can be found in the May 2017 issue of Percussive Notes.)
“Mitch Peters was my friend and colleague in the Eastman Percussion Department, as well as a great percussionist,” states John H. Beck, Professor Emeritus of Percussion at Eastman. “We enjoyed many memorable moments together as schoolmates, playing in the Eastman Wind Ensemble and the Marimba Masters. Mitch was always there with the smile and the talent to take care of business. He will be missed, but never forgotten.”
Following his graduation from Eastman, Mitch Peters auditioned for the principal timpanist position with the 7th U.S. Army Symphony Orchestra, which was stationed in Stuttgart, Germany. “He told me that he was very nervous about the audition,” Feinstein remembers. “The last piece they played was [Prokofiev’s] ‘Peter and the Wolf,’ with my father on timpani. When it was over, the other players in the symphony gave him a standing ovation!” During the next three years (1958–60), he performed with that orchestra throughout Europe.
Before he left for Stuttgart, Peters received a letter, dated August 1, 1958, from Frederick Fennell, longtime conductor of the Eastman Wind Ensemble. “Every good wish that one man could have for another goes from me to you for this next adventure in your life. Since the experience of life constantly refutes one’s statements, I may make music long enough to run into a better percussionist than you, but I doubt it very much.”
AN ORCHESTRAL PERCUSSIONIST IN DALLAS
Following his Army service, Peters won another audition, this time in Dallas, Texas. He served as principal percussionist in the DSO for eight seasons (1961–69). “When he joined the Dallas Symphony,” Feinstein says, “they were not a full-time orchestra, so he took a lot of freelance jobs. He played drumset with the Dallas Summer Musicals; I remember going to see him play in Sweet Charity when I was about five years old. He also played in a nightclub, across the street from Jack Ruby’s club.
“He started giving private lessons when we lived in Dallas,” she continues. “He felt there was an unmet need of materials for his students, so that’s when he started writing and composing. When he went to print his first book, he had to order a minimum number. The local drum shop asked if they could sell the extra copies, and they sold out.”
During the 1960s, there were not as many percussion ensemble pieces available as there are today, so Peters added to the repertoire with classics like “A La Nañigo” (written as a percussion quintet to introduce students to the unusual 6/8 African rhythm) and “A La Samba” (a groove-oriented sextet with individual improvised solos), published in 1967 and 1969, respectively.
In 1969, Peters moved his family to California when he joined the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra as a section percussionist. Four years later, he became the co-principal, a position he held for another nine years.
A TIMPANIST IN LOS ANGELES
In 1982, Peters took over from longtime principal timpanist William Kraft, where he stayed for another 24 years. During his time with the L.A. Philharmonic, he played with some of the best conductors in the world, who served as Music Directors in Los Angeles: Zubin Mehta (1962–78), Carlo Maria Giulini (1978–84), André Previn (1985–89), and Esa-Pekka Salonen (1992–2009). He also played with such guest conductors as Leonard Bernstein, Pierre Boulez, Sir Simon Rattle, Michael Tilson Thomas, John Williams, and countless others.
“Mitch was always prepared for rehearsals,” explains Raynor Carroll, former principal percussionist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic (1983–2016), who played alongside Peters for 23 years. “Not only did he research an upcoming program with recordings and scores, but long before there were personal computers, he would meticulously hand-copy timpani parts for all significant works. He kept multiple copies for various conductors: a set of Beethoven symphonies with Mehta’s preferences for mallets, dynamics, etc., a set for Rattle, a set for Salonen, and so on. When conductors returned and repeated repertoire, rarely did they have anything but thumbs-up for Mitch!”
“I knew Mitch Peters as a timpanist, percussionist, composer, teacher, and colleague,” states Kraft, who was a member of the Los Angeles Philharmonic for more than a quarter-of-a-century—eight years as a percussionist and the last 18 as principal timpanist, plus several years as the orchestra’s composer-in-residence. “He was admired as a musician, but he remained modest and unassuming. He was a joy to work with, cooperative rather than ambitious. He always put successful musical performances ahead of anything else.”
Michelle Peters Feinstein has her own memories of her dad’s years with the orchestra. “I remember going to rehearsals and hanging out backstage at the Music Center, or at the Hollywood Bowl,” she recalls. “The other percussionists—Chuck Delancey and Walt Goodwin—were best friends with my dad, and we used to sit backstage and play cards. They taught me how to play cribbage! Meeting all the musicians and conductors was a lot of fun. And one year, we went to Zubin Mehta’s house for a Fourth of July party.
“When I was in fifth or sixth grade,” she continues, “I was chosen to play snare drum—my dad’s part!—on [Haydn’s] ‘Toy Symphony’ with the Los Angeles Philharmonic during one of their youth concerts.” Over the years, Peters also gave his daughter marimba lessons, although she never pursued music professionally.
“I think my dad’s favorite piece, or favorite instrument, is whatever he was playing at the time,” Feinstein says with a laugh. “But I loved watching him play drumset. My favorite recording is when Leonard Bernstein conducted his ‘Symphonic Dances’ from West Side Story. I still get chills every time I listen to that.”
That 1983 recording is also a favorite of drummers around the world. “Mitch was not only one of the nicest human beings you could ever meet, he was also one of the few percussionists to master the drumset part to Bernstein’s ‘Symphonic Dances’,” says drumset master Peter Erskine. “His swinging swung, and his fills filled without overflowing the orchestra or the music. I learned so much from studying his recorded performance with Bernstein and the L.A. Phil, that I always think of him whenever I play the piece. Mitch was truly one of the great percussionists and gentlemen of our time.”
In addition to numerous orchestral recordings by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Peters can be heard playing timpani on soundtracks for the movie 2010: The Year We Make Contact, as well as the original television series Battlestar Galactica.
In 2006, he was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Sabian cymbal company. That same year, after 37 seasons with the Los Angeles Philharmonic as both a percussionist and timpanist, Mitch Peters retired from the daily rigors of being an orchestral musician, but he continued to teach—and to play.
One of his former students, Theresa Dimond, remembers a production of Wagner’s “Ring Cycle” by the L.A. Opera. “My colleague and friend, Greg Goodall, floated the idea that Mitch Peters, having recently retired from the Phil, might like to be one of our anvil players. The next morning at 9:01 a.m., my phone rang and it was Mitch, who wanted a copy of the part to study. I told him it was two pages of quarter notes played on a piece of pipe with two ballpeen hammers, and that he could sight-read it. Then he repeated, ‘When can you get it to me?’ So I dutifully got in my car a few minutes later and brought it to him.
“As his colleagues and students know, Mitch was all about preparedness,” she continues. “Having the score, listening to a recording, marking your part, and being ready to go at the first rehearsal. Mitch later told me that he particularly liked that job because our sound was ‘piped’ in from a rehearsal room on the fourth floor—pun intended!—and he didn’t have to put on a tuxedo and got to have a cup of coffee in his hand when he wasn’t playing. He even went so far as to say that if all jobs were like that, he might not have retired from playing so early.” Dimond, Lecturer of Percussion at UCLA, percussionist with the L.A. Opera, and PASIC ’97 host, smiles at the memory.
COMPOSER, EDUCATOR, MENTOR
The final portion of Peters’ musical life was perhaps his most important role, that of an educator, which in turn led to another of his legacies: a composer of numerous percussion solos and method books. “My dad didn’t consider himself a composer so much as an educator,” Feinstein says.
Perhaps his most popular piece is “Yellow After the Rain,” the ubiquitous four-mallet marimba solo performed by young players around the world. “The publisher told me it is probably the most performed marimba solo in history,” adds Feinstein. Almost fifty years after it was published, “Yellow After the Rain” is still considered a stepping stone between two- and four-mallet playing.
Other early marimba compositions included “Chant,” “Sea Refractions,” “Teardrops,” “Undercurrent,” “Waves,” and “Zen Wanderer.” Later solos were “Barcelona,” “Dog Beach,” “Galactica,” “Pastiche,” and “Starscape.” He also wrote two books of Fundamental Method for Mallets, containing exercises and etudes for two- and four-mallet playing, Fundamental Method for Timpani (both published by Alfred), and pieces for accompanied marimba, like “Sonata Allegro” and “Theme and Variations for Marimba and Piano.”
In an effort to provide his students with other instruments to play, he wrote pieces for multiple tom-toms (“Introduction and Waltz,” “Passacaglia and Trio,” “Perpetual Motion,” and “Rondo”) and timpani (“Primal Mood,” “Rondino,” “The Storm,” and “Tribal Serenade”). Peters also wrote two volumes of Stick Control for the Drum Set.
The etudes from his snare drum books have been performed thousands of times in auditions and recitals by high school and college students. Who doesn’t have Elementary Snare Drum Studies, Intermediate Snare Drum Studies, Advanced Snare Drum Studies, Developing Dexterity, or Odd Meter Rudimental Etudes in his or her collections of percussion music?
His final composition, a marimba solo, “Firefly,” was published in 2015 and dedicated to his three grandchildren, Sarah, Andrew, and Lucas.
“All of Mitchell Peters’ etudes offer particular musical and/or technical challenges, sometimes in isolation, and sometimes in combination,” states former student Aaron Smith, who currently teaches at Loyola Marymount University and California State University-Northridge. “These etudes develop not only the percussionist, but the musician. Even the simplest pieces offer opportunities for phrasing and thoughtful playing. His etude books progress naturally and in a way that is challenging enough to be satisfying, without being frustrating.”
In addition to his busy performing schedule, Peters always maintained a private studio, teaching students young and old. One such student was Ruth Komanoff Underwood, a retired professional percussionist who gained national attention as a mallet percussionist with Frank Zappa. “I had seen Mitch play both timpani and drumset with the L.A. Phil,” she recalls. “I have always been drawn to artists who straddled the edge between two worlds. Someone who was outrageous as a classical player, but yet refined and musical in the so-called wild genres.
“I moved to L.A. in 1969, and a year or two year later, I wanted to brush up on my orchestral percussion skills for some upcoming performances, so I called Mitch. He had an innate ability to zero in on a student’s weaknesses and strengths. He was not judgmental, regardless of the genre, but helped you achieve your musical goals. I only had eight lessons with him, but he made a profound impression on me.
“He always greeted everyone with ‘How are you?’,” Underwood continues. “He taught me how to navigate through the life of being a professional musician in a very volatile, tricky environment. Mitch’s mantra was ‘Keep your mouth shut and your ears open!’”
Peters also taught at several schools in southern California, influencing hundreds of young percussionists, many of whom are performing and teaching today. His first college position was at California State University-Los Angeles in 1969 where he taught for 15 years. Peters began teaching at the University of California, Los Angeles in the early 1980s and spent almost three decades there until he retired in 2012. He also taught at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara for more than a decade (1990–2002).
“There was just so much heart in everything he played,” Feinstein says, “and he was very passionate about teaching. He had such a strong work ethic and set high standards for himself and his students. Even though he was unassuming and humble, he was able to get amazing results from his students.”
“I just assumed it was normal for your teacher to write books and solos,” remembers Aaron Smith, who graduated from UCLA in 1994. “It was several years later before I realized his significance in the percussion world. During a tour to Mexico with the UCLA Wind Ensemble, the percussionists who hosted us were star struck; they couldn’t believe we all studied with Mitchell Peters.”
Mitch Peters passed away on October 28, 2017. A celebration of his life was held on January 27, 2018 in Schoenberg Hall at UCLA. Former students and colleagues gathered to speak about him and play his music. The finale was a mass snare drum ensemble performance of “Etude No. 6” from Peters’ Advanced Snare Drum Studies. Twenty-three former students and colleagues filled the stage with a moving rendition of the popular etude. His family—daughter Michelle and her husband, Harley Feinstein, son Mitchell Peters II and his wife Lauren, and three grandchildren and one great-granddaughter—were in attendance.
During the ceremony, a letter from Peters’ Marimba Masters’ colleague Stan Leonard was read: “Mitch was an unassuming but perceptive person. He accepted all the challenges that came to him in his musical life,” Leonard wrote. “His musical searching and creativity were evident in his performance, composing, and teaching. Mitch was dedicated to excellence. He excelled as a timpanist, percussionist, composer, and teacher. His legacy of percussion music and educational methods will contribute to provide inspiration and challenge to percussionists for generations to come.”
In honor of keeping his legacy alive at UCLA, the Herb Alpert School of Music has established the Mitchell Peters Scholarship Fund, which will support percussion students in the department of music. Anyone interested in making a contribution can contact Valentina Martinez, Associate Director of Development, at (310) 825-3629 or visit giveto.ucla.edu/school/herb-alpert-school-of-music/
“While Mr. Peters often talked about musicality, he rarely spoke of artistry, and I viewed much of what he did as craftsmanship,” states Smith. “He had high expectations for his students, but he was always patient and kind. The highest praise one could expect was, ‘It sounds like you worked on that.’ But you knew you were in trouble when he said, ‘I’d like to hear this again next week.’ Years later, I realized not only had he taught me how to play, he had modeled how to teach.”
“Mitchell Peters dedicated his life to music and percussion,” summarizes Raynor Carroll, who resigned from
UCLA’s percussion faculty earlier this year. “He excelled at the highest levels of performing, teaching, and composing for percussion. He has left a legacy that is an inspiration and an example for future generations of percussionists.”
“I am humbled and honored to say that I am a former Mitch Peters student,” Theresa Dimond adds. “Mitch Peters was, and is, percussion royalty. He was a true gentleman, musically and in life. For me to have had the opportunity to be first a student, and then, as the years passed, a colleague and friend, has been a remarkable blessing in my life. I will always remember his ‘tremendous lightness of being,’ that refreshing giggle that ended every sentence, and his generosity in helping me in my career and in life. I know this generosity of spirit—the essence of Mitch Peters—will live on in his wonderful compositions, his students, and the professionals he inspired.”
Peters’ daughter Michelle sums up her father in a few words: “He was the best of the best.”
Photos courtesy of Michelle Peters Feinstein.