PAS Hall of Fame

Steven Schick

by Lauren Vogel Weiss


Steven Schick“Nice” can be defined as something—or someone—pleasant, agreeable, satisfactory, kind, polite, and/or respectable. It can be a one-word summary of a musical experience featuring great precision or sensitive discernment. And when asked how he would like to be remembered, it is one of the words that 2014 PAS Hall of Fame inductee Steven Schick used to characterize himself and his musical legacy.

“I know ‘nice’ is a pallid word,” he says, “but to me it also means generous. I hope that composers will say that I gave their music its due, that students will say they had my attention when they wanted it, and that people who write me random emails will say, ‘He responded to me.’ I know it sounds silly, but if ‘nice’ is fleshed out to be worthy, considerate, friendly, and generous, then that is how I’d like to be remembered.”

His modest summary of a career that champions contemporary percussion music through performing, teaching, and conducting can be traced to his humble beginnings as the son of a farmer in Iowa. “I was a farm kid who never intended to be a musician,” Schick explains. “My uncle played drums in a rock band, which made it desirable for somebody like me. When the band director sent home a letter to all prospective band parents of elementary students, my mother noticed that parents didn’t have to buy an actual drum, just the sticks. My mother thought that was a good idea financially, so the instrument choice was really her decision!”

Schick played in the band at Clear Lake High School but did not receive any formal percussion instruction until his senior year when he took drum lessons from Don Keipp, a student teacher in nearby Mason City who would later become a classmate at the University of Iowa.

“I was going to be a doctor,” Schick says, “and enrolled in Luther College, which had a good wind ensemble. My plan was to go through pre-med training and play in the band for four years. But I ended up hanging out with all the musicians. I became really passionate about music and much less passionate about biology.”

After one year at Luther, Schick transferred to the University of Iowa as a music major, where he studied with Thomas L. Davis. “I credit Mr. Davis and my fantastic classmates for the validation that I was doing the right thing,” Schick says. “Don [Keipp, Professor Emeritus at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah] became a classmate, as well as John Beckford [Furman University], Richard McCandless [percussionist/composer] and Robyn Schulkowsky [percussion soloist in Europe], to name a few. Mr. Davis, an all-around percussionist who specialized in jazz vibes, was not a contemporary music specialist. But he gave me a solid technical base and never tried to bend me away from what I really wanted to do. I think about him so often with my own students, who sometimes want to do things other than what I do. I now realize how very generous that was.”

Schick earned his Bachelor of Music in Percussion Performance degree from the University of Iowa in 1976, followed by a Master of Music degree. His interest in contemporary percussion stemmed from the school’s Center for New Music, a performance organization devoted to then-late 20th-century repertoire, and originally funded by grants from the Rockefeller Foundation. The Center, functioning as a laboratory for the university’s composers, took new music to a wide and diverse public, from schools to town forums in farming communities across the state.

“I remember hearing William Parsons, the percussionist with the group, play something by Stockhausen,” remembers Schick. “I realized this was a world I had no inkling even existed. This was the counterpart to the beginning of piano solo music in the late 18th century. And ‘wow!’ I was on the ground floor of something special. I didn’t always understand the music I played, but I certainly related to the idea that something important was being invented and discovered, and I could be a part of that.”

After graduating with his master’s in 1978, Schick nominally became a doctoral student, thanks to a combination of assistantships. “Essentially, I became the full-time—although poorly paid!—percussionist for the Center for New Music,” he states. “I stayed in Iowa in a kind of netherworld between being a faculty member and a student for three years. That was a great period of time in which I began to develop solo music and also formed a duo with [pianist] James Avery.”

In 1980, Schick won First Prize in a competition sponsored by the American Wind Symphony Orchestra. The following year, he won a Fulbright Scholarship to study in Germany and enrolled in Staatliche Hochschule für Musik (State Academy of Music) in Freiberg, where he earned a Soloist’s Diploma in 1982. “Jim [Avery] left the Iowa faculty to go to Freiberg, and that was a good enough reason for me to pack up and follow him there,” explains Schick. “He is on my mind a lot lately because the last recording of Stockhausen pieces we made together before he died in 2009 was released last month.

“Being in Europe was an amazing experience,” he continues. “I was a part of the German percussion community, working with a lot of composers and performers. I won the Kranichstein Prize, an important award at the Darmstadt Summer Course, in 1982. I also met the second great teacher that I had, Bernhard Wulff, who was the ‘photographic negative’ of Mr. Davis! Whereas Mr. Davis was a wonderfully conservative musician in all the right ways, Bernhard was this crazy visionary whose imagination is almost unlimited. But they both revered a very strong basic technique. So contemporary music was never this crazy you-could-do-whatever-you-want-to thing; it mattered whether or not you could play a decent roll.”

Upon returning to the States from Germany, Schick and his then-wife Wendy spent a year in Washington, D.C. “I was minimally employed, teaching English as a second language, and practicing eight to ten hours a day,” he recalls. “It was a practice year and I needed it.”


In September 1983, Schick joined the music faculty at California State University-Fresno. “I learned how to teach and put together a percussion class there,” he says. “The department let me do the kind of music I wanted to do and develop students, including graduate students, who were interested in playing modern music. Fresno State didn’t have a tradition of contemporary music, so coming in and playing a piece like Xenakis’s ‘Persephassa’ with students whose goal was to teach high school band was an amazing experience. We were able to play very demanding concerts and play them well.

“The students gave me an amazing realization that this was not music for a small intellectual elite,” adds Schick. “This was music for anybody who would give it the time. During this period, I was also on the roster of [the now defunct non-profit performing arts organization] Affiliate Artists, who put emerging artists in unconventional venues. I remember spending six weeks near Wenatchee, Washington where I played a hundred performances of Stockhasuen’s ‘Zyklus’—during lunch at a fruit packing plant, at a Kiwanis Club, in libraries and old-folks homes for basically anyone who would listen to it—and the audiences responded fantastically! It made me believe that this music could be for a lot of people, and what made the difference was whether or not you intended it for them.”

Schick is also known for performing his solo concerts from memory. “If I was playing without a score, I could feel the music in my body more strongly, which came from being a rock drummer,” he explains. “So when I started playing Stockhausen and Xenakis, if I played it from memory, it felt more like playing a drumkit in a band. And, of course, there are logistical reasons, like not having to worry about where to put music stands!”

How does one memorize all the notes as well as instruments, especially in a new composition? “First of all, leave yourself an unbelievable amount of time,” says Schick. “It takes longer to learn but in a way it’s easier to retrieve the pieces once you’ve learned them. I learn a new piece like I would learn a language, by starting with the most basic thing that you can say at the beginning and just keep adding. I calculated it took nearly a thousand hours of practice to learn Brian Ferneyhough’s ‘Bone Alphabet.’ It took me almost a week just to learn the first bar!

“You have a different relationship to a piece if no one else has played it,” he continues, “because you’re inventing the standard. In the case of ‘Bone Alphabet,’ it’s for freely chosen instruments, so anyone who came along after I premiered it in 1992 had to contend with whatever choices I made. Then you have to either ignore them or build on them, but you’re not unaware of them.”

In 1991 Schick accepted a position at the University of California-San Diego. “UC-San Diego is a research institution, and the music department puts its considerable energies to contemporary music,” states Schick. “So it was the other end of the spectrum from Fresno. UC-San Diego is the institution I most identify myself with, and I love my students. But there are drawbacks to being around a community of specialists, like losing contact with the different kinds of conversations you might otherwise have.”

Shortly after moving to San Diego, Schick gave his “New York debut” concert and was reunited with a former classmate from Iowa, David Lang, who had written “The Anvil Chorus” for him. Lang, co-founder of the Bang on a Can festival—a music organization created to commission new composers as well as perform and record the new works, all while developing new audiences and educating the musicians of the future—invited Schick to become the resident percussionist with the ensemble, where he performed  from 1992–2002. During his frequent trips to New York for rehearsals and performances with Bang on a Can, Schick also began teaching regular master classes at the Manhattan School of Music.

Currently a Distinguished Professor of Music at UCSD, Schick founded an ensemble of graduate percussion students in 1995 called red fish blue fish. “This ensemble, currently comprised of six doctoral students that I recruited, is probably the single most nourishing thing in my professional life. We’ve played great concerts, commissioned pieces, made recordings, including a three-CD-set of all the percussion solo and ensemble literature of Xenakis, and toured fairly widely. [Their recordings of the early percussion music of Stockhausen was released by Mode in October.] We have the best of both worlds: The performance level is professional, but because they’re students, we have support from the university and I don’t have to worry about which way the commercial winds are blowing. If I want to do a piece because I think it’s a strong piece, even if it won’t draw a large audience, we can still do it.”

Since joining the UCSD faculty, Schick has graduated 19 doctoral students, many of whom have gone on to established careers in percussion, including Terry Longshore (1999, University of Southern Oregon), Vanessa Tomlinson (2000, Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia), Brett Reed (2001, Paradise Valley Community College in Phoenix), Ivan Manzanilla (2003, Universidad de Guanajuato in Mexico), Aiyun Huang (2004, McGill University in Montreal, Canada), and Morris Palter (2005, University of Alaska). 

red fish blue fish performed an evening concert at PASIC 2004 in Nashville as part of “The Avant-garde: Old and New” theme of Focus Day. “Another huge highlight was the first time we went to New York and played ‘Drumming’,” Schick says with pride. “And Steve Reich was in the audience!”

Reich, in a letter to PAS on behalf of Schick’s nomination to join him in the Hall of Fame, writes, “I had the pleasure of hearing my composition ‘Music for 18 Musicians’ performed at Walt Disney Hall in Los Angeles [in 2010] by red fish blue fish with the help of a few Bang on a Can All Stars as guest performers. It was a memorable performance, and I could see how Steven Schick put the piece together for his ensemble to create a lucid and extremely moving performance.”

As Schick often jokes, “The first percussion solo is younger than I am!” Since there is not a lot of “old” material, he not only premieres new music, but also commissions many pieces as well. A few of his oft-performed commissions include David Lang’s “The Anvil Chorus,” Brian Ferneyhough’s “Bone Alphabet,” and Roger Reynolds’ “Watershed.” Schick also gave the first American performance of “Rebonds” by Xenakis and “Six Japanese Gardens” by Kaija Saariaho.

With several dozen solos in his repertoire, does he have a favorite? “It’s like asking me to pick a favorite kidney!” he laughs. “Yet at any given moment, there are favorites. There are pieces that pose questions that are more relevant at certain points in life. There are moments in which the landscape of a Xenakis piece feels like the right place to think for a while, so you end up playing that piece a little bit more—until it goes out of favor because you played it too much!”

If he doesn’t have a favorite piece, does he have a favorite instrument? “I gravitate towards noisier instruments,” he replies, “because they’re more complex and can be made to work. I began as a drummer and still feel most comfortable playing drums. But, and some will say this is heretical, I don’t care very much about percussion instruments. I know it sounds odd but I consider them a tool to get into a realm where you can have interesting thoughts and conversations.

“I’ve spent my entire life learning how to play the instruments,” he continues. “I take good care of them and honor their traditions, but I’m not a collector or a musicologist. I’m an active percussionist. There are certain moments in pieces where you need a specific tool. If that tool is a 20-inch hammered K. Zildjian suspended cymbal with just the right harmonic content, then that’s what it is. But I am more interested in the way people interact with instruments than in the instruments themselves.

“You never make music in isolation,” Schick adds. “I’m being honored in part for my work as a solo percussionist, but there isn’t such a thing as being a soloist. Imagine playing in a hall without a lighting engineer or a ticket salesperson or somebody to make your mallets. You’re involved in an intricate web that encompasses a community. And I can’t imagine doing what I’m doing without my wife, Brenda. The sensitivity she has brought to me in terms of what the natural world sounds like and what really counts in life is something I value. To have someone who’s not a trained musician—she’s a lawyer by training who now does important land conservation work—listen to you and react honestly is a true gift. It underscores what I said earlier about Fresno State: This is not music for the few; this is music for anybody whose ears are open.”

In 2009, Schick founded “Roots and Rhizomes,” a summer course on contemporary percussion music held at the Banff Centre for the Arts in Alberta, Canada, and he continues as its Artistic Director.


Another chapter of Schick’s life began in 2007 when he accepted the position of Music Director for the La Jolla Symphony and Chorus. “I started conducting by accident,” he admits. “The symphony—a half community/half student orchestra—has a relationship with the university and uses our facilities. The conductor left, they needed someone to fill in at the last minute, and I thought, ‘How hard could it be?’ Since I thought I would be conducting just one concert, I chose a piece by my friend David Lang, Tan Dun’s ‘Crouching Tiger’ concerto—because it had a lot of percussion and I thought I’d have something to say about that—and [Stravinsky’s] ‘The Firebird.’ I had such a wonderful experience with the orchestra that I applied for the position and was chosen! On my first ‘official’ concert, we did a Beethoven symphony, and conducting Beethoven was the wildest experiment of my adult life! It was much weirder than doing Xenakis because by then I knew Xenakis’s language very well, but for me, Beethoven was the outlier! As an orchestra, we’re committed to contemporary and progressive music. For example, our next concert will be Mahler’s Fifth Symphony plus a commissioned work from Nathan Davis for Percussion Quartet and Chorus.”

In 2011, Schick took the position as Conductor and Artistic Director with the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, an ensemble of 21 players, which commissioned 12 pieces in 2014 alone. He also does more and more guest conducting. Schick will not be at PASIC 2014 in Indianapolis to accept his Hall of Fame award because he will be conducting the world premiere of James Dillon’s “Concerto for Piano ‘Andromeda,’ Physis No. I & II” with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra on November 29.

Another addition to Schick’s “repertoire” is the title of author. The Percussionist’s Art: Same Bed, Different Dreams was published by the University of Rochester Press. “I decided to write the book I wanted to write,” he explains. “I stopped playing for three or four months—I didn’t want my thoughts about music to be confused by actual music!—and went to live in Paris, which by itself was a fantastic experience. I finished the manuscript in 2002. Thanks to a mutual friend, arts patron Betty Freeman, I contacted British music critic Paul Griffiths, who took the time to read it and put me in touch with the publisher. Thanks to Paul’s generosity and friendship, my book came out in 2006.” Schick is currently working on his second book, A Hard Rain, scheduled to be finished in 2016.

“Don’t stop!” is the advice Schick would give to young percussionists and composers. “A life in music is a cumulative one. You build on experiences and memories. I’ve had much more than my share of good luck, yet there wasn’t a single decisive moment—a concert or competition—which was make-or-break. Whenever I thought that was the case, I was always disappointed that my life didn’t change. What I most value as I look back is that, in good times, I was only as good as what I was going to do next. And in bad times, I realized it wasn’t ever about a single experience but rather a long arc.

“I love the university and I love highfalutin conversations,” he concludes. “But in the end, it all comes down to very simple questions: When people listen to you, have their lives been improved? Has someone’s existence been made richer as the result of having listened? The answers to these questions and the conversations they inspire are the truly important things. These are not ‘ivory tower’ conversations at all. They’re the same ones that any working person, an artist—or a farmer—would have.”


On the Bridge: The Beginnings of Contemporary Percussion Music with Steven Schick — To Be Musical. In the debut episode of a 6-part series exploring what it means to be musical, renowned percussionist Steven Schick presents the origins and global development of percussion-based composition as a “physical art.”

Steven Schick plays “Zyklus” (Cycle for a percussionist) by Karlheinz Stockhausen at UCSD.

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