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The Beta Percussion International Institute by Natalie North and Zackary Truesdale

Dec 16, 2020, 08:00 AM by Rhythm Scene Staff

Beta Percussion

A worldwide pandemic could not stop 40 percussionists and musicians from coming together to do what they love: playing percussion and continuing their pursuit for a deeper understanding of the art of music making.

Taking place from July 12-25, 2020, the Beta Percussion International Institute is a two-week, intensive, bi-annual percussion workshop where high school through graduated doctoral students learn from the best teachers and performers in the field. This year’s seminar included faculty members Michael Udow, Mark Ford, Casey Cangelosi, Eriko Daimo (co-director), and Pius Cheung (co-director), with 30 students from Venezuela, Mexico, Poland, Finland, Estonia, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the United States gathering virtually at least twice a day for the entire two weeks. Events included masterclasses, group composition meetings, performance classes, one-on-one individual lessons that were open to the other participants at the decision of each person having the lesson, a tele-performed composition, and Pilates. While the seminar could not be held in person on the beautiful University of Oregon campus with spacious facilities, the workshops and classes were formatted in a way that allowed all the participants to continue to learn, explore, and study in a creative and inspiring way from their kitchens, foyers, dorm rooms, and in some cases practice facilities at their schools. 

Kicking off on Sunday, July 12th with a welcome party, it was a fascinating experience to virtually come together in a seminar with up-and-coming percussionists with diverse musical interests and perspectives from around the world. It was especially inspiring as those of us from the United States saw our newly found friends tuning in to the lectures at midnight from Europe or 6:00 a.m. in Asia. The love of percussion knows no bounds. 

At this welcome meeting, we also discussed our group composition project. Each faculty member guided one or two groups, each consisting of four to six participants. By the end of the seminar, each composition group presented performance videos of their wildly different compositions, complete with video editing and audio production. While one group ended up composing for a can of beans, tape, water glasses, marimba, and snare drum, another composed by splicing short videos of water themed sounds with the addition of a harpsichord. The possibilities were endless, and it was an amazing experience to witness the creativity of the participants. 

Masterclasses with faculty members showcased performance of a wide variety of music ranging from classical transcriptions of piano works and traditional works by Bach to cutting edge contemporary music as well as some of the participants' own compositions. This facilitated a platform to not only work with the faculty, but also reach out to other members of the Beta community for feedback. In addition, students were able to take three lessons with three faculty members of their choice throughout the seminar. Participants were able to choose to open their lessons for observations or remain private. 

Beta faculty members presented an in-depth discussion on a topic of their choosing. The diverse classes and clinics were rich with new and exciting points of view that caused us to reflect and think about the ways in which we approached our art. Udow presented a class on many topics including: developing your inner pulse, tutoring those (both young and old) who are new to music, the importance of stroke types, and performance optimization techniques. Cheung’s class on “Three Stages of Music Making” used Bach as the vehicle for discussing his personal methods and approaches to understanding music. This not only focused on the way in which Cheung draws out a graphic notation of the work for creative analysis, but also how he uses this graphic notation method for composition. Cangelosi opened with a performance of his composition, “Big Hair Air Guitar,” which was followed by an in-depth look at the intricacies of the piece as well as the compositional process; he also addressed performance optimization. Daimo’s masterclass afforded students the opportunity to follow along with scores of concertos performed by her while she discussed the many detailed nuances of performing as a soloist with different orchestras around the world. Ford’s masterclass focused on shaping one’s career and artistic voice in the music industry through imagination and vision. 

Saturday, July 18th everyone came together via Zoom to play and record renowned composer Dai Fujikura’s “Longing from Afar,” a composition brilliantly designed to be tele-performed. Everyone signed in on Zoom with headphones, an additional recording device, and a variety of self-determined tonal instruments, idiophones, and membranophones. After we all pinned his video, Mr. Fujikura conducted us through his piece from the United Kingdom where he teaches composition at the Royal College of Music. The experience was both profound and exciting. Given this global pandemic, it was an unforgettable experience to come together and finally get to perform with all of the participants in real-time after a four-month forced hiatus. 

The first week concluded with a Pilates class, taught by Eugene gym owner and yoga instructor, Jessica Ingalls. The class was informative in establishing healthy practice, good posture, and the importance of regular exercise especially as a percussionist.

In addition to the Beta faculty masterclasses, there were also two talks given by guest speakers who represented companies that provided tuition scholarships for three of the participants. The first was a talk given by Ron Samuels, Marimba One president and founder, in which the many facets of marimba and instrument making were discussed alongside the creation and development of his company. The second masterclass was given by guest speakers John Wittmann, Yamaha Director of Education and Artist Relations for the Band and Orchestral divisions of Yamaha, and Jalissa Gascho, Yamaha artist relations manager. This talk was unique with discussions of personal identity, establishing one’s own artistic profile, and branding. These topics were very intriguing for young musicians who are at the beginnings of their careers. 

A unique feature of this year's Beta was “Synced/UnSynced” by Pius Cheung. According to Pius, “This pair of works was composed for Beta participants and faculty to play and record together as a group project. The question is, how do we play together while not being physically together? As the titles allude, “Synced” uses the obvious solution of playing with a click track. “UnSynced” is music that does not need to line up in a specific way. All players play from the same part with free instrumentation. Part of the creativity is in how the ensembles, or editor, choose to align the players.” Both pieces were written for free instrumentation. 

The grand finale of the seminar was a virtual concert. It showcased premieres of the group composition projects, the unveiling of “Synced/UnSynced” and “Longing from Afar,” as well as participant performance videos during this time of celebration. Special thanks to the Beta team including Dr. Crystal Chu-Sharp, in charge of social media during the seminar, and participant David Lee, who edited all the videos for the concert. 

The concert brought together the grace and energy of all 30 students who completed the two-week seminar, connecting people from 10 different countries onto one platform to share their ideas and what they had worked on tirelessly. These efforts culminated in an evening that was fluid and provocative while also illustrating the possibilities of what we can all achieve during these uncertain times when we all cannot necessarily be physically together. 

Natalie North is a percussionist, pianist, harpsichordist, composer, arranger, researcher, and educator. She is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Music in Percussion Performance as well as a Bachelor of Arts in Music Theory at the University of Oregon. 

Zackary Truesdale is a native of South Carolina where he completed his undergraduate studies at the University of South Carolina. Zack is currently pursuing his Master’s degree from New York University.

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