Along with serving as President of the Percussive Arts Society, Dr. Brian Zator wears many hats. He is starting his 17th year as the Director of Percussion at Texas A&M University – Commerce, serves as a School Board member for Royse City ISD, and plays drumset at the church his family attends. He is proud to be a life-long Texan, having grown up in Spring, Texas. He attended Baylor University for his undergrad, University of North Texas for his doctorate, and has only lived outside of the state for a year in Japan, studying with Keiko Abe, and two years earning his masters at the University of Michigan.
Rhythm!Scene: How did you get started in percussion?
Brian Zator: My older sister was in band and she said the “cool” people play percussion or trumpet. Since I wasn’t really “cool” back then, I decided that if I was going to be in band, I should play the coolest instrument of them all: percussion!
R!S: What is your favorite percussion instrument and why?
BZ: I gravitate towards marimba, primarily. I enjoyed playing keyboard in junior high and high school, then I played marimba for three years in the front ensemble with the Cavaliers from 1994–1996. I was later able to study marimba with Keiko Abe in Japan, which solidified my love for this instrument.
Brian Zator with Keiko Abe
R!S: Who was your percussion idol growing up?
BZ: I had two percussion instructors during my junior high years who made an indelible impact on my future path: Gregg Rinehart and Lamar Burkhalter. They pushed me to reach my highest potential, even as a junior-high kid. These two individuals have impacted so many students over their incredible careers and I am honored to have worked with them during my formative years.
R!S: What was one of your most memorable performances as a student percussionist?
BZ: This is a tough question, because I was very fortunate and blessed to be part of so many incredible performances and groups as a student. Performing with Keiko on seven concerts around Japan was incredible, but my time with The Cavaliers was just as memorable. The performance we had in 1995 to win the DCI World Championship and earn the High Percussion award is one of those moments that I will never forget.
R!S: Who were key or memorable teachers in your musical education?
BZ: Without a doubt, Dr. Larry Vanlandingham was my most influential teacher and mentor for so many years. I met him after seventh grade during a Baylor summer music camp, and I saw him several times more during additional summer camps and solo and ensemble contests. When I finally decided to be a music major, in March of my senior year, I called Dr. V and he offered me a scholarship without having to audition.
R!S: What sort of music activities are part of your job—performing, teaching, composing, recording, engineering, other?
BZ: Sometimes my job has nothing to do with any of those things. Still, I love every minute of it! Everything I do is to help my students, alumni, and future students. I work hard to foster relationships, develop well-rounded percussionists, and mentor young professionals to be successful in whatever career they choose. We conducted a strategic plan for the studio and have a vision, “Empowering Excellence,” for the program. I strive to help my students through my teaching, performing, putting students in places to be successful, and giving them resources to grow.
R!S: What was your introduction to PAS?
BZ: I didn’t know much about PAS until college when I began my studies with Dr. V, who was a PAS Past-President. He encouraged us, the students, to be members of PAS, and a group of us attended PASIC ’95 in Phoenix, Arizona. Like many other first-time PASIC attendees, I was completely overwhelmed by the incredible concerts and artists.
VIDEO: Keiko Abe - "The Song of Trees" (WORLD PREMIERE) performed by Dr. Brian Zator
R!S: What’s the first section you read in a new issue of Percussive Notes or Rhythm!Scene?
BZ: I usually check out the cover story for each of these publications. I enjoy the interactive aspect of R!S with the variety of audio and video options. For Percussive Notes, I always look through the New Literature section. I was a contributor for quite a few years, and it is great to read about new pieces that are available.
R!S: What is your most prized percussion-related souvenir?
BZ: I have two of these. First, I was very fortunate to meet Minoru Miki while I was in Japan and then work with him in the early 2000s until his passing in 2011. While I was working on my dissertation on two of Miki’s works, he mailed me one of his working scores for his “Concerto for Marimba and Orchestra,” which has some of his pencil and pen markings for changes to the music. Secondly, Keiko gave me some of the original programs from her three seminal recitals in 1968, 1969, and 1971.
Brian Zator with Minoru Miki
R!S: If you aren’t playing or teaching percussion or working for PAS, what are you doing?
BZ: I spend time with my beautiful family: my wife of 18 years, Trina, and our kids, Dylan and Haley. Our son is a freshman in high school, and we are excited to be band parents, as he is a percussionist and playing vibraphone in the front ensemble. Our daughter is in fifth grade and is involved in a dance studio; she is constantly doing cartwheels around the house. I am also quite involved in our community, where I am serving my second term as a School Board Trustee for Royse City ISD, and I am the Chair of the Royse City Community Plan Action Committee. I also play drumset for our church praise team, and I am a co-leader for our church Connect Group. While it is percussion-related, I am also the Chair of the Texas Prescribed Music List (PML) Percussion Committee.
R!S: What music or station is playing when you turn on your car?
BZ: I enjoy listening to 94.9 KLTY, which plays praise and worship music. But I have a variety of programmed stations I flip through including NPR, ESPN, pop, ’80s, and classical. But I thoroughly enjoy listening to books on tape during my 30-minute drive to and from school.
R!S: What’s the first app you open on your phone or first program you start on your computer each morning?
BZ: Outlook. It seems like there are always emails I need to read, respond to, or take action on.
R!S: What is one thing you wish all student percussionists knew about PAS?
BZ: It is never too early to become involved in the organization: attend PASIC, read Percussive Notes, reach out to artists to ask them questions, and become a Student Delegate. Know that your membership dues aren’t just a way to gain knowledge, but are an investment into the future of percussion as a whole. PAS is not just a repository of information; it is the global connection of percussion and percussion artists.
R!S: If you could tell your 18-year-old self one piece of musical advice, what would it be?
BZ: Although my son isn’t 18 years old, he is in the high school band as a percussionist, so I’ll tell you what I try to tell him, in my “#notyourteachernotyourfather” kind of way: “Have patience and practice the basics more than you think you should. It will help everything you do.”