John H. Beck is Professor Emeritus of Percussion at the Eastman School of Music and retired timpanist of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. He is active throughout the United States, Europe, and South America as a performer, composer, clinician, and conductor. He is the editor of Encyclopedia of Percussionpublished by Routledge, has published numerous articles in professional journals, and has written many solos, percussion ensembles, and instruction books for percussion. The proceeds from his book Percussion Matters, Life at the Eastman School of Musicgo to the John Beck Percussion Scholarship Fund. He was inducted into the PAS Hall of Fame in 1999, and in 2016, he received an honorary Doctor of Music degree from the College of Performing Arts, Rowan University, N.J. and was inducted into the Rochester Music Hall of Fame.
Rhythm! Scene: How did you get started in percussion?
John H. Beck: My inspiration came from the local fife and drum corp in my hometown. I took lessons and then joined the high school band when I was 10 years old.
R!S:What is your favorite percussion instrument and why?
JHB: Snare drum was my favorite instrument along with drum set. But when I came to the Eastman School of Music, I got interested in all percussion.
R!S:Who was your percussion idol growing up?
JHB: Gene Krupa; he was the idol of all us teenagers in the ’40s.
R!S:What was one of your most memorable performances as a student percussionist?
JHB: Playing the Milhaud “Concerto for Orchestra and Percussion.”
R!S:Who were key or memorable teachers in your musical education?
JHB: My first teacher was the house painter in my hometown who played in the fife and drum corps. My first real drum teacher was Art Harbert in Pittsburgh, Penn. I am most indebted, however, to William Street, who was my teacher at the Eastman School of Music.
R!S:What sort of music activities have been part of your job—performing, teaching, composing, recording, engineering, other?
JHB: I played timpani in the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra for 43 years (1959–2002), taught percussion at the Eastman School of Music for 49 years (1959–2008), and am still teaching at Eastman as the Professor Emeritus of Percussion, teaching the History of Percussion for two hours a week in the first semester of each year. I also played drum set in the Arranger’s Workshop at the Eastman Summer School for 11 years and played in the President’s Own Marine Band, Washington D.C. from 1955–59. I publish with Kendor music, have written articles for various musical publications, and present percussion workshops and masterclasses both domestically and internationally.
R!S:What was your introduction to PAS?
JHB: I was introduced to PAS by Gordon Peters and Donald Canedy back in the early 1960s. I joined the society by 1962 and was the host for the first Percussive Arts Society International Convention in 1976 at the Eastman School of music.
R!S: What is one thing you wish all student percussionists knew about PAS?
JHB: I wish all serious percussionists knew how important it is to belong to PAS. It is a stepping stone for their career. It will give them information about percussion activities worldwide. It will also provide them with information and playing opportunities in orchestras and colleges. For them, it will be their networking contact for the percussion community.
R!S:What's the first section you read in a new issue of Percussive Notes or Rhythm! Scene?
JHB: I usually look at the last page of Percussive Notesto see what PAS Historian James A. Strain has to offer; it is probably my age that causes me to do this. I then open the first page and browse through. I never forget to look at the New Percussion Literature and Recordings.
R!S:What is your most prized percussion-related souvenir?
JHB: The Eagle Rope Drum and glass snare drum given to me by my son. Also, the photo of my son and I playing together with the inscription “Father and Son play together.”
R!S:If you aren't playing or teaching percussion, what are you doing?
JHB: I play some golf, but as I get older, my game gets slower and shorter. I am an amateur wine maker. I have been doing that for about 20 years, and I make about six cases a year. I buy the juice and work on the wine for the year, then bottle it once it gets to the taste I like. I once won a bronze medal for a blend of red wine I worked on for about two years. Sorry, there is none left.
R!S:What music or station is playing when you turn on your car?
JHB: I only listen to WGMC 90.1, the jazz station in Rochester.
R!S:What's the first app you open on your phone or first program you start on your computer each morning?
JHB: The weather; I need to know how to dress for the day.
R!S:If you could tell your 18-year-old self one piece of musical advice, what would it be?
JHB: Don’t try to play like someone else, but play the best youcan play. Once you find out how well you can play, then you will start to improve.