by Rick Mattingly
Ask those who have studied with Sal Rabbio, or ever heard him play, what struck them the most about the longtime Detroit Symphony Orchestra timpanist, and they will likely cite Rabbio’s sound. Rabbio himself considers sound the most important facet of being a musician.
Every player should have a concept of what they want the instrument to sound like,” he said in a 2000 Percussive Notes interview. “You can take lessons from very good teachers, and they will show you how they do it, but you have to develop it yourself. In some cases, teachers are not flexible enough to help you develop your own sound; they show you how they do it and you become a clone. Vic Firth, Cloyd Duff, and Fred Hinger were all terrific players, and they each had a unique sound that I can recognize on a recording. I can tell if it’s Boston or Cleveland or Philadelphia just from the sound of the timpani.
“Playing all of the fortes forte and all the notes in the right place is not enough,” he explained. “The sound is secondary today, and not enough attention is given to phrasing. For example, if you play Beethoven’s ‘Fifth Symphony,’ it’s nothing but G’s and C’s, but every measure, every two measures, every four measures, are all musical phrases. In order to do something with the music, you have to think in terms of phrasing; don’t just play the notes, play the music. Music is not a technical art, it is an expressive art.
“The sound is sacrificed today because it takes a long time to develop. The mallet in the hand should be able to vibrate atmezzo forte and above; it requires no tension at all in the hand, fingers, and wrist, and the sticks should be loose enough to produce a natural rebound. The sound that one develops pretty much tells me what a player is all about.
“Being from an Italian background,” he added, “where opera is so important, I think of singing when I play, and I always try to make the drums sing. You make the instrument sing by producing a beautiful sound. The great timpanists of the past were never known for their technique, they were always known for their sound.”
As is PAS 2013 Hall of Fame inductee Sal Rabbio. Born in Boston, Mass., on July 27, 1934, Salvatore Rabbio began his musical studies at age 13 when he started taking drum lessons from Bob Hayward in junior high school. “My first teacher gave me a good basic background on the snare drum, the rudiments, and rudimental drumming,” Rabbio recalled in a 1985 Percussive Notes interview. “From that point, I went on to do quite a lot of drumset playing.
“My high school music-education teacher was a very important influence in my life,” Rabbio told Percussive Notes in 2000. “One of the requirements for his music-appreciation class was that all his students had to go to a symphony concert. I was about fifteen, and it was the first time I had ever gone to Symphony Hall and heard classical music. The timpanist was Roman Szulc, who had the most gorgeous sound of anybody I can remember. Szulc was a very strong influence on me. The sound he produced left quite an impression.”
Meanwhile, Rabbio developed a reputation as a jazz drumset player, and he was very active in the Boston jazz scene, playing with such jazz luminaries as the Sammy Lewis big band, Herb Pomeroy, and Don Ellis. In a 1997 Percussive Notesinterview, he cited Buddy Rich as his first drum “hero,” and also expressed admiration for Gene Krupa, Joe Morello, and Steve Gadd.
When it was time for college, Rabbio attended the Boston University School of Music, where he studied with Boston Symphony percussionist Charles Smith. “One reason I went to Charlie was that my keyboard playing was not very good,” Rabbio recalled. “I had never studied timpani, either. I needed to get some keyboard training, and since he was a great mallet player, I went to him. Once in a while we would have a timpani lesson.”
Rabbio had a timpani sound in mind, based on hearing Szulc, but he didn’t know how to achieve it. “I experimented with different grips, strokes, angles, movements,” he explained. “As I got more and more into it, I went to a lot of concerts to hear other timpanists. I would go hear Fred Hinger with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and he had a phenomenal sound! Cloyd Duff was another player who had a great sound. Vic Firth had a wonderful touch. Each player had his own unique sound, and I would watch and see how each of them produced it. Then I would go home and work on developing my own sound.”
While still a student he performed with the Boston University Orchestra in the American premieres of Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress,” conducted by the composer, and Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana,” conducted by Leopold Stokowski. Rabbio was also a member of the Boston Percussion Ensemble, conducted by its founder, Harold Farberman. He received his Bachelor of Music degree from Boston University in 1956.
After winning the Boston University Concerto Competition in 1956, in which one of the prizes was a solo appearance with the Boston Pops, he was invited to be timpanist with the Pops, with whom he toured in 1957 and ’58 under the direction of Arthur Fiedler. He also played extra with the Boston Symphony.
In 1958 Rabbio accepted the position of Principal Timpanist with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, a position he retained until his retirement in 1998. “In those days, the audition procedure was not like it is now. A conductor, a series of conductors, or a teacher usually recommended players for positions,” Rabbio told Percussive Notes, noting that he had been recommended by Arthur Fiedler and Charles Smith. “The audition would then take place with the conductor and personnel manager. There was no such thing as a play list; the conductor would usually ask for something off the top of his head. Some of the time would be spent talking about your experience, background, perhaps the music he asked you to play, or whatever came to his mind. Auditions could last from an hour to an hour-and-a-half. I had a one-year probation, like there is now.”
During his 40-year tenure with the orchestra, he played under some of the world’s leading conductors, including Sir John Barbaroli, Paul Paray, Sixten Ehrling, Antal Dorati, Neeme Järvi, Eugen Jochum, Seiji Ozawa, Charles Dutoit, and Eugene Ormandy. “I’ve been blessed that I had the opportunity to work with great conductors who really knew music and were links to the past; that’s pretty special,” Rabbio said in the 2000 interview. “I loved working with Sir John Barbaroli; he was in Detroit early in my career and was a phenomenal musician. I learned an awful lot from Paul Paray. I think a lot of it is due to the fact that he was such a great teacher—so knowledgeable and so respectful of the music. Dorati was another great conductor. He knew and worked with Bartók, Kodaly, and Stravinsky. Sixten Ehrling was another conductor I liked very much. He knew a score better than anybody I ever worked with. I worked with him for thirty years, and I never remember him making a mistake.”
The Detroit Symphony toured extensively and recorded on the Mercury, London, Chandos, Columbia, and RCA labels. “The authority and character of Sal Rabbio’s timpani sound is front and center on these historic recordings,” said New York Philharmonic Principal Percussionist Christopher Lamb. “The anchor that he was for this orchestra during those exciting years in Detroit’s booming era cannot be denied.”
Rabbio performed the world premieres of several concertos for timpani and orchestra, starting with Malloy Miller’s “Ngoma,” which he performed with the Boston Pops in 1956. He also premiered Harold Laudenslager’s “Concertato” for timpani and orchestra with Wayne State University in 1964, and Robert Parris’s “The Phoenix,” which was a 1970 Detroit Symphony Orchestra commission. In addition, he performed the Midwest premiere of Johan Fischer’s “Concerto for 8 Timpani and Orchestra” with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in 1992.
In addition to being a performer, Rabbio has been very involved in education. He was on the faculty of Boston University from 1954–56, and then served as head of the percussion department at Wayne State University in Detroit from 1962–86. In 1973 he began teaching at the University of Michigan during the summers while Charles Owen was at the Aspen Music Festival, and from 1987–98 he served as Adjunct Professor of Timpani at the University of Michigan.
“We shared responsibilities, working with all of the percussion students, from those who needed ‘the basics,’ to our most talented and advanced percussion students,” recalled Michael Udow, Professor of Percussion at the University of Michigan from 1982–2010. “Through those years the students continually expressed wonderfully supportive comments about Professor Rabbio’s artful timpani instruction, insightful musical wisdom, genuine concern for the total education of each student, and well-organized, methodical teaching approach.”
Rabbio also taught at Boston Conservatory from 2001–2006. He has been an active clinician in the United States and Europe, and he has been guest lecturer and many of the world’s leading universities, conservatories, and music festivals.
“His technical skill, sound concepts, and steadfast demands helped mold me and several others and a very young age,” says Lamb. “His system of teaching started with the earliest drumming levels, moved through keyboards, and eventually ended up at timpani. Salvatore Rabbio is not simply someone who played in an impressive timpani position for a long time; he is a great percussion teacher and persuasive artist. His published interviews, master classes, and clinics since his retirement in many ways have been turning heads.”
In his 2000 Percussive Notes interview, Rabbio talked about the changes he has seen in students during his career. “Years ago, students were much more meticulous,” he said. “The time involved in making something happen was not that important as long as it happened. I find that during the past five to ten years, students don’t have patience. I think it’s part of the instant-gratification society. Their attention span is short. When they listen to today’s music, each tune doesn’t last more than three or four minutes. As a result, when they go to an orchestra concert and hear a Mahler symphony, it seems endless. It takes too long for the ‘fast food’ generation.
“Students also try to do too much nowadays,” he continued. “They are interested in the electronic aspect and the business end. I don’t know why they need to go in so many directions, but I guess they are afraid and want to end up with some kind of job. I ask new students what their goal in music is, and some say they want to be a symphony musician. Fine. Then I ask them when was the last time they went to a concert. Some tell me they’ve never been to an orchestra concert. I ask them what pieces they like, what composers are their favorites. Many times they tell me someone like John Williams. Twenty or thirty years ago, they would have responded with composers like Stravinsky or Bartók—mostly contemporary composers, not necessarily Bach or Mozart, but at least they knew about them. There are exceptions, but that seems to be the norm. [Today’s students] don’t have the intellectual curiosity like students from years back had.”
In addition to Lamb, several of Rabbio’s former students hold positions with major orchestras, including Mark Griffith (Houston Symphony), John Spiritus (Kennedy Center Opera, Washington D.C. National Opera), Bruce Pulk and Fred Marderness (Phoenix Symphony), Brian Prechtl (Baltimore Symphony), Trey Wyatt (San Francisco Symphony), Shannon Wood (St. Louis Symphony), Matt Prendergast (Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra), Gregg Koyle (Sarasota Opera and Orchestra), and Guy Leslie (U.S. Navy Band). A number of Rabbio’s students also hold positions at universities, including Lamb (Manhattan School of Music), Joseph Gramley (University of Michigan), Dan Armstrong (Penn State), Gary France (University of Australia), Gary Cook (retired, University of Arizona), Tony DiSanza (University of Wisconsin at Madison), Alison Shaw (University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh), Nick Petrella (University of Missouri—Kansas City Conservatory of Music), and Pat Roulet (Towson University).
In addition to his playing and teaching, Sal designed a wooden timpani mallet for the Cooperman Drum. Company, specifically for use on plastic heads, and he is the author of Contest and Recital Solos for Timpani, published by Alfred Music in 2011.
Rabbio has been active in PAS, presenting clinics at PASIC in 1984, 1999, 2001, and 2010; participating in six PASIC Symphonic Emeritus sessions between 2001 and 2011; serving on the PAS Symphonic Committee; and authoring several articles for Percussive Notes.
In 2010 Rabbio was awarded the Boston University College of Fine Arts School of Music Distinguished Alumni Award. When he was informed of his election to the PAS Hall of Fame, Rabbio says he was stunned.
“I had just returned from a three-day clinic and master class I had done,” he recalls. “There was a phone message, and after I heard it I had a feeling of peacefulness and serenity. It made me feel very satisfied with my life and the completeness of my work. And then I thought of my parents who came here from Italy with nothing, and how proud they would be of me being granted this special award.
“As a symphonic player all my life, so many of the names in the PAS Hall of Fame are people who influenced so much of my professional life, and I am humbled and honored to be in that same list. I feel exceptionally blessed to have had all of the wisdom, inspiration, and support they have given me all of these years.”
PERCUSSIVE NOTES ARTICLES
“Focus on Timpani: Salvatore Rabbio,” Vol. 23, No. 4, April 1985
“Salvatore Rabbio: The Detroit Symphony Years,” Vol. 35, No. 4, August 1997
Interview with Sal Rabbio, Vol. 38, No. 6, December 2000
“The Conductor Wants me to do WHAT?” Vol. 48, No. 5, September 2010