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  • Odessa Percussion Fest: First International Festival of Percussion Performers in Ukraine by Anna Ralo

    by Rhythm Scene Staff | Jul 06, 2020

    Odessa Photo 2

    Anna Ralo and Percussion Ensemble under the direction of Alexey Ralo

    There is a rapid development of percussion globally, led by many factors including international festivals, contests, training courses, and master classes all around the world. However, not every country is actively involved in this process, and in this context, an international contest of percussionists in Ukraine is quite a remarkable event in the cultural life of both this country and the percussion community as a whole.

    On September 27–30, 2019, Odessa, Ukraine hosted the Odessa Percussion Fest, the first international festival-contest of percussion in the country. The hosting city is located in the South of Ukraine and is one of Europe's trading, economic, and cultural centers. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the city was home for outstanding composers, musicians, writers, artists, scientists, and inventors including Guzikov, List, Rubinstein, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Oistrakh, Gilels, Aivazovsky, Kostandi, Mickiewicz, Pushkin, Gogol, Twain, Mechnikov, Utochkin, Korolev, and many others. It is quite natural that such a city as Odessa, with its history and rich cultural legacy would host an event of this kind.

    Historically, first in the USSR and then in Ukraine, no contest or festival that would be devoted to percussion performance was organized. All percussion contests used to be carried out only within a restricted nomination of "percussion," which usually just accompanied major nominations at the different contests and festivals of winners. Since the 1990s, in Ukraine, there were several similar contests of brass and percussion performers, hosted by Lviv, Rivne, and Chernivtsi.

    However, the idea of establishing a festival-contest for percussion performers only has long been cherished. It has grown from the impressions gained at various international competitions and masterclasses held in Europe as well as from direct communication with acknowledged American and European musicians and pedagogues. This resulted in the creation of a festival-contest, which is unparalleled today in Ukraine. It included a competition, masterclasses, several concert events, and a scientific-and-practical conference, covering the issues of history, theory, and practice of percussion.

    One of the distinguishing features of Odessa Percussion Fest was the members of its jury. This was the first time in the history of percussion contests in Ukraine when the jury was represented by renown professors of the higher educational institutions and soloists from the USA and Europe: Dr. Adam Blackstock, prominent marimba soloist, associate professor of percussion studies at Troy University (USA), chair of the PAS Keyboard Percussion Committee and member of the PAS Percussion Ensemble Committee; Dr. Piotr Sutt, renown percussionist and marimba soloist, head of the percussion department, full professor of Academy of Music in Łódź, percussion and chamber music instructor at the High School of Music in Gdańsk and the National Consultative Centre for Percussion, and member of the PAS; and Dr hab. Stanislaw Halat, composer, arranger, percussionist, drummer, associate professor in the Institute of Music in Maria-Curie Sklodowska University in Lublin, author of over 200 compositions for percussion solo and percussion ensembles, coordinator of the European program Erasmus+, and vice-principal of Karol Szymanowski Complex of State Music Schools No 4 in Warsaw.

    Odessa Photo 5

    All members of the jury.

    In the jury, Ukraine was represented by Dr. Anna Ralo, a laureate of the international contests in Italy, Serbia, Moldova, and Ukraine, and professor of percussion at the Department of Music and Instrumental Training of the South Ukrainian National Pedagogical University named after K. D. Ushynsky (art director of the festival-contest). The Odessa Percussion Fest jury was chaired by Dr. Alexey Ralo, the soloist, scientist, teacher acknowledged in the former Soviet Union, Europe, and Ukraine, laureate of the international music contests in Italy and Germany, and associate professor of Department of Orchestral Wind and Percussion Instruments at the Odessa National A. V. Nezhdanova Academy of Music.

    This project was due in part to the comprehensive support of the Department of Culture and Tourism of Odessa City Council, the South Ukrainian National Pedagogical University named after K. D. Ushynsky, and the Odessa National A. V. Nezhdanova Academy of Music. The venues of the event included the most prestigious sites in the city: The Grand Hall of Odessa Oblast Philharmonic Theater and the Golden Hall of Odessa State Literature Museum. The contest auditions took place in the Children's Music School #3, one of the oldest educational institutions in Odessa founded as early as in 1930. Today, it provides the most favorable environment for percussion training for children of different ages in Ukraine.

    Day one of the contest began with a solemn opening ceremony in the Golden Hall of the Literature Museum. On this day, contest judges Adam Blackstock and Piotr Sutt performed their concert programs and were warmly welcomed by the Odessa audience.

    Odessa Photo 3

    Piotr Sutt

    On day two, the contest auditions for different age groups began: first (ages 6–9), second (ages 10–13), third (ages 14–17), and fourth (over 18). With the contest format being unprecedented for Ukraine, the contestants themselves could choose the pieces they were going to perform. Participants could perform their program on a variety of percussion instruments, excluding timpani (i.e., marimba, xylophone, snare drum, drum set, and multi-percussion).

    The youngest category included applicants who had only made their first steps in the art of percussion, but many were still notable. One contestant was Daria Zaika, an 8-year-old from Odessa. Despite her young age, her performance was light and flexible. The judges appreciated the two-mallet technique she displayed while playing the marimba. In the second age category, the first-prize winner and one of the most memorable contestants was Supel Natan from Poland. His skillful "tremolo" technique with various dynamic shades on the snare drum impressed both the judges and the audience. In the third category, there was a battle among the participants from different cities of Ukraine; one could observe a similar battle between the members of the jury when they were discussing the participants of this category. The well-deserved second position went to Myroslav Vasyliuk, the contestant from Zhytomyr, Ukraine, who showed his commitment to percussion, creativity, and emotion. The fourth category became one of the most intriguing parts of the audition, where the students of secondary and higher education music institutions from France, China, Poland, and Ukraine were competing. Each performance was captivating, and each contestant represented a specific performing school with its peculiarities and traditions. The most remarkable contestant, according to the judges, was a Poland-born participant from France, Bartlomiej Sutt, who won the Grand Prix of the Odessa Percussion Fest. The technique and sound production he demonstrated in his performance on marimba and vibraphone made a great impression upon all the judges and the audience.

    Odessa Photo 4

    Supel Natan

    Odessa Photo 1

    Bartlomiej Sutt

    When the contest audition was over, the Odessa Percussion Fest judges Adam Blackstock, Piotr Sutt, and Stanislaw Halat each presented a masterclass. They shared their best practices with the contest participants and instructors and presented the methods and approaches they widely apply in their teaching and performing activities. Sutt presented his own exercises to warm up muscles with no instrument involved, which could be applied by any percussionists in their playing practices. Moreover, he shared his training techniques that could be of great use for the teaching practices of percussion teachers at music schools and schools of Arts. Halat presented several exercises to improve the double-stroke technique on the snare drum, and Blackstock conducted an engaging masterclass on marimba, emphasizing the spot of the stroke on the bar and its effect on how the instrument sounds.

    On September 29, the Grand Hall of Odessa Oblast Philharmonic Theater became the venue for the award ceremony of the laureates and participants, teachers, accompanists, and judges, where they received the commemorative diplomas and presents, along with the gala-show of Odessa Percussion Fest. The gala-show included the most noticeable contestants and featured solo programs and collaborative performances by the judges. One performance was by Piotr Sutt and Anna Ralo with the percussion ensemble of South Ukrainian National Pedagogical University named after K.D. Ushynsky and Odessa National Music A.V. Nezhdanova Academy. The ensemble was led by Alexey Ralo.

    Odessa Photo 6

    Professor Adam Blackstock presenting the diploma of the laureate Gleb Mikhalyuchenko

    The last day of the event on September 30 brought about the first international scientific-and-practical conference on history, theory, and practice of percussion. There, the contest judges, as well as the teachers of primary and secondary educational institutions of Ukraine, presented their reports. The issues covered in their academic and methodological pieces of research were so resonating that presentations often ended up with heated discussion between the speakers and the audience.

    Odessa Photo 7

    Piotr Sutt’s speech at the Scientific Practical Conference

    During the last warm days of September 2019, Odessa turned into a pearl of percussion. Odessa Percussion Fest accomplished its mission: to discover and support talented children and youth and improve the creative and performing levels of percussionists. The participants of the Festival-Contest could demonstrate their skills of percussion playing, while their mentors enjoyed the fruitful creative communication. Despite a very busy schedule, each participant explored extensive information about performance on different percussion instruments and was greatly impacted. Piotr Sutt said of the Gala Show, "Every percussionist should feel like a royal, and should be proud of being a part of this beautiful world of percussion instruments!"

  • Unplugging to Recharge: The Benefits of Decluttering Your Digital Self by William Shaltis

    by Rhythm Scene Staff | Jun 29, 2020

    It’s probably not big news that smartphone use in our culture is linked to a decline in mental wellness, especially for those born after the ubiquity of the internet. No matter your age, engagement with these technologies have the power to createbehavioral addictions and amplify anxiety. In his bestselling book, Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport suggests adopting this eponymous strategy, which he defines as “a philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.” In other words, you need to control the technology, not have the technology control you.

    Mandating You need to control the technology, not have the technology control you.

    Perhaps the most crucial step when unplugging from technology is to limit your time on platforms such as Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, and Tik Tok. In many ways, those apps were created to keep you engaged. For instance, do you get your news from your Facebook or Twitter? Do you get a sudden rush when you post a comment or photo and instantly see a red heart or blue thumb? Are you actively trying to keep a Snapstreak alive? These design elements intentionally try to keep your eyeballs on their app, and that can be mentally, emotionally, and physically detrimental.

    To combat this, Newport suggests doing what he terms a “digital declutter:”

    1. Take a break from these technologies for 30 days. If you need to access those apps for work-related or creative reasons, set some parameters. For instance, you are only allowed to check those sites from a desktop computer. Set time limits or feed restrictions so that your time on those sites is minimized to the information that you absolutely need.

    2. During that time, discover activities to replace the time you would have spent on those optional technologies (which we’ll discuss in a moment).

    3. After 30 days, reflect on which technologies you need and why they’re important to you. Reintroduce those technologies that meet your use benchmarks and ignore those that don’t. You will probably discover that you will gain a lot of extra time in your day AND that your mental wellness will improve!

    Taking a closer look at Step 2, what are some ways to fill that extra free time? I’ll offer a few general suggestions as well as some specific examples of how I implemented these strategies.

    As musicians, one fundamental way that we can grow is through the thoughtful creation of new art. With this new-found time, perhaps you can write a new work, learn a new piece, curate a new recital, use social media thoughtfully by posting media, or learn a new program to enhance your creativity such as music notation software, DAW (digital audio workstation) software, or live electronic software (such as Mainstage or Max).

    The stay-at-home mandates during the 2020 pandemic meant I had to give up preparing a few large projects because they were either cancelled or postponed. I decided to use this new-found time to learn or create a new piece every day for a month and share it on Facebook (what I called my “Social Distance Music Project”). It was fun to learn and share an eclectic mix of projects, and I feel that it helped my artistic growth in myriad ways.

    Pick up a new hobby
    Often times, a great solution for your new-found time is to learn a new skill or develop a new hobby. Has there ever been a moment where you said to yourself, “I’d love to learn X, but I just don’t have the time”? This is the perfect opportunity to start! For many other people, learning a musical instrument may be their answer. Since I assume you already play an instrument, my advice would be to find a hobby that is not music-related, and really throw yourself into it!

    I wanted to pick a hobby that allowed me to use my hands to create a physical product, so I decided to get into woodworking. I started with a few simple projects, some basic tools and supplies, and dove into “basics of woodworking” videos on YouTube. I’ve found it challenging, yet relaxing—and it’s extremely satisfying to have a piece at the end that I can proudly display!

    Lean into your physical health
    Less time being mind lesson your electronic devices means you will probably have more time to be mindful about your physical well-being. Use that extra time to go for a walk, learn yoga, or join a gym. Be mindful of your food choices; this doesn’t mean to necessarily go on a diet, but you should reflect on what you’re putting into your body and how much. You should also take stock of how much rest you’re getting. Sleep is vitalto healthy living, as are moments of quiet reflection (e.g., mediation, walking through a park, listening to nature). Little tweaks to these three areas of your physical health can reap massive benefits to your overall quality of life and your art. 

    I decided to invest in a health app that offers daily advice on nutrition and exercise and tracks meals/caloric intake. I also have a goal to run a 5K by the end of summer; I have either been jogging, walking or doing HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) 3–4 times a week to progress towards this goal. I’m already noticing that I have more energy, stamina, and focus. It has also been mentally helpful to push through temporary discomfort to complete short-term goals on the way towards the long-term goal.

    Keep learning
    Your brain wantsto learn new things all the time. Reading books or listening to podcasts are great ways to pick up new skills or insights into your craft (or anything else, for that matter). Watch informative TED Talks online or attend workshops that interest you. Go to live shows or watch masters perform concerts on YouTube. Attend a museum or learn about a new artist. Deep thinking and listening are fundamental to your growth. Even if you don’t immediately see a connection to what you are currently doing, it may present itself later.

    I have been listening to podcasts for several years, and I found that it was an easy thing to integrate into my commutes, workouts, and woodworking hobby. I’m really into sports, especially basketball and football, and I have found it fascinating to learn about teams and team dynamics. I have also enjoyed reading non-fiction books that I think are useful in some way, whether they’re are about peak performance or about finances. 

    Hopefully, you will find a few of these tips helpful. The process of digital decluttering isn’t easy, but the benefits you can reap are profound!

    William ShaltisBill Shaltis is Assistant Professor of Percussion at the Rudi E. Scheidt School of Music, University of Memphis, and Principal Timpanist of the New Hampshire Music Festival. Shaltis has performed and presented nationally and throughout Europe and Asia. He is the co-founder of the Two Rivers Timpani Summit, and his debut album Essence/Descent: 21st Century Solo and Chamber Timpani Repertoire can be found on all major streaming platforms.

  • Strategies for Successful Percussion Students, Part 2 by Josh Gottry

    by Rhythm Scene Staff | Jun 22, 2020

    Middle school and high school percussion classes, ensembles, and programs are becoming more of the norm throughout the United States, and anyone who has attended a recent PASIC knows that some of these programs are exceptional. Beyond the level of performance in an ensemble setting, however, the objective of any academic institution is to develop the individual. Be it through large ensembles such as concert band or symphonic orchestra, chamber music with percussion or mixed ensembles, and solo literature in a class or private lesson setting, seeing percussion students progress from the first time they walk on campus until the day they graduate is the ultimate desire of every educator. 

    What are some of the strategies that might allow that desire to be fully realized? This series of short posts over the next few months will address a few tips, tricks, thoughts, and ideas from percussion instructors in a few of the finest programs from around the country.

    Percussion is an amazingly diverse and broad family of instruments. Everything from drum set to marimba, from timpani to steel drum, from triangle and tambourine to djembe and pandeiro are included in the list of instruments high school students will possibly, if not likely, be required to play. How do you balance creating an environment that encourages well-rounded, total percussionists, but also allows for the limited time a high school student has to focus on a primary, favorite instrument?

    Adam Wiencken (Broken Arrow High School): There is always a debate on whether it’s more beneficial to be a jack-of-all trades and master of none or to focus on one element for mastery. Especially in regards to the high-school level and music education as a whole, it’s fundamentally implemented into our program to show competency on all instruments. It’s also important to stress the importance of not only keyboard, snare, and timpani, but accessories. Let’s face it, if you only have three pieces with an ensemble on a given concert, not everyone will have the opportunity to play timpani, but a majority will have to demonstrate proficiency on accessories.

    Our approach focuses on two truths: First, don’t fight the natural strengths of any student. Every percussionist is going to have one he or she is more interested in or on which that person demonstrates a higher level or proficiency. Fortunately, however, every instrument can be considered a “crossover,” meaning improving on snare drum directly helps with 4-mallet techniques, etc. Second, especially at the high school level, and in especially smaller programs, everyone has to play everything; this balanced level of competency across the board is crucial to the success of the ensemble. Most students in a program understand the value of elevating the program through their contributions and will embrace this second principle.

    Josh Torres (Center Grove High School): I understand that 75–90% of my students will end their career with high school percussion, but that doesn’t mean they can just focus on one instrument. I view my percussion ensemble course as a class like any other in the building. Just as you might only take French for four years and then abandon it, that doesn’t mean you can skip learning the fundamentals of grammar, spelling, sentence construction, etc. The job of any teacher is to prepare student for the next level (in case they decide that it is their future career field), so it would be irresponsible of me to let my students completely focus on one instrument.

    All of that being said, it is also not right for me to deny a kid his or her passion. I try to be very sensitive when it comes to fostering a love for an instrument or an area, but making sure that they have the tools to perform on the other instruments. Here are some general thoughts for students that might help with that balance:

    If you are interested in studying music at the next level, it is not an option that you have to be well-rounded. Being an amazing marimba player will only get you so far when it comes to your college auditions. Find the time to improve on snare drum and timpani even if you aren’t as passionate about those.

    Be incredibly organized! We’ve heard that before, right? There is nothing wrong with scheduling your practice time out each week. Keep a journal and write down everything that you practiced, need to practice, etc.

    Learning how to be a better musician is never a waste of time, whether you intend to pursue a music degree or simply are interested in future outlets in percussion, be that drum corps, drum set with a band or combo, etc. Consider how much playing piano helps you play marimba? It’s similar to how much playing marimba can help you understand music better as it relates to snare drum.

    Consider taking two sets of private lessons: one on your primary instrument and one on your other instruments. This will allow you to move ahead on one instrument at the pace you desire, but also move forward on the other instruments.

    Adam Wiencken (Broken Arrow High School): Allow me to piggyback on this one! One thing we do in our program is have students take lessons with one teacher who focuses primarily on the concert side of percussion (All-State etudes, orchestral repertoire, etc.) and then students take lessons with a separate teacher to focus more on a specific skill set, whether that be instrument-specific or genre-specific (marching, drum set, etc.). 

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