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Twelve Drummers Drumming: An Interview with Sean J. Kennedy by Josh Gottry

by Rhythm Scene Staff | Dec 07, 2020

Sean KennedySean J. Kennedy is a percussionist and drum set performer, currently serving as the drummer for The Doc Severinsen Tribute Band, featuring Jay Webb, and as principal percussionist with the Philadelphia Boys Choir & Chorale since 2004. He is a multi-faceted musician who is equally accomplished on the stage, in the recording studio, and in the classroom, having earned a master’s degree in Percussion Performance and a bachelor’s degree in Music Education from West Chester University. He has performed on drum set and percussion at venues including Radio City Music Hall and Carnegie Hall with world renowned acts such as Il Volo, Roger Daltry and The Who, Evanescence, Lindsey Stirling, The Philly POPS!, The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, The Jacksonville Symphony, The Allentown Band, The Allentown Symphony Orchestra, and The Lancaster Symphony Orchestra.  Kennedy is also the author of numerous drumset, percussion and improv books. In 2018, he was invited to present a TEDx Talk (https://youtu.be/Ku70874c3vg) about the history of the drumset, titled: Happy Accidents: Drumming Up Serendipity.  Jazz legend Dave Brubeck stated that Sean’s drumming, “… sounds like it should—it swings!”

Most recently, Sean Kennedy initiated a project he calls The Rolling Buzzards Brigade. They play traditional rudimental drum music and create virtual performance videos. Their first piece, released in July, was “The Downfall of Paris.” The brass ensemble included members of the Philadelphia Orchestra and Canadian Brass and the drumline included Sean along with legends like Bernie Dresel and Clayton Cameron. For the two subsequent recordings, “Connecticut Halftime” and “Three Camps,” the drumline featured Dame Evelyn Glennie, Sherrie Maricle, Bernie Dresel, Clayton Cameron, John Wooton, Neil Grover, Sean Kennedy, and some other great players. (“Connecticut Halftime, in fact, has 12 drummers drumming!).

Via email, I had the opportunity to ask Sean about this project, other impacts on his percussion activity due to coronavirus, and what new projects he has in the works.

Josh Gottry: How did the coronavirus pandemic directly impact you and what you were doing professionally?

Sean Kennedy: All of my freelance and yearly gigs dried up instantly; working with bands and students in schools went to 100% remote learning and it halted several recording projects. As an example, with the newly formed The Doc Severinsen Tribute Band, we recorded/produced three tunes in early February of this year, with the idea of completing a full-length album, that plan was immediately shelved. My wife and four kids were also all trapped at home, working and learning remotely.

BUT some new opportunities presented themselves, fortunately! First, my tech and recordings skills improved quickly and exponentially over the first month of quarantine. I’ve had brand new recording gear on my shelf in my home studio for eight years that my parents got me for my birthday and finally, about two weeks into to the shutdown, I actually opened, set-up, and figured out how to use it all, mics, software, etc. Now I can record professional drum and percussion tracks in my home percussion studio! Thanks to this new found skill, I’ve done almost 30 virtual ensembles, interviews, etc. Some were paid and some not, but at least I have things to keep my playing/reading chops growing, and things to keep my creative juices flowing.

The second thing has been a renewed focus on drumming fundamentals. So often, as working musicians, our practice largely consists of preparing for whatever is needed for that next gig. Well, all of a sudden there were no gigs! Now what?!? For me, I went back to more rudimental playing. The shutdown essentially allowed me the time to go back and focus on some fundamentals and dig into some books that I’ve had since high school and do some maintenance on my playing.

JG: What prompted you to come up with this particular idea or what was the goal you were trying to accomplish through this project?

SK: Believe it or not it all started with a trumpet player! Last fall, Chris Coletti (friend and recently retired trumpet player from the Canadian Brass) and I did a series of educational workshops for over 1000 middle school students in suburban Philadelphia. It was so much fun that we both decided to collaborate on some crossover recording/video projects, bringing various musicians together to bring new life to old tunes. We started communicating and sharing ideas via email and phone about creating new versions of tunes that we loved, Chris started getting some folks that he knew to cover some of the parts, and I went immediately to my friend Nitzan Haroz, principal trombone of the Philadelphia Orchestra. I called him and said “There’s a project I’d like you to be part of,” and before I could finish he said, “I’ll do it, what is it!”

Unfortunately, that project got temporarily shelved because of the shutdown, but at the same time, I started getting requests to participate in lots of virtual ensembles. They are certainly not quite like live gigs, but it still was a lot of fun to collaborate and meet new folks from all around the globe with a common love of creating and performing. This inspired me to ask Chris if he had any interest in playing my arrangement of “The Downfall of Paris” for brass quintet and percussion.

He suggested keeping it to the five brass players, and because I could I got lots of my drumming friends to join in, I revamped my arrangement so that seven drummers could participate.

Rolling Buzzards BrigadeWe called ourselves The Rolling Buzzards Brigade (silly but catchy, drummers roll, brass players buzz, brigade as a homage to the military traditional both instrument families come from), and my son made our logo. Chris Coletti covers trumpet 1 and 2; Tawnee Lynn, a freelancer LA, is on horn; Nitzan Haroz, Philadelphia Orchestra, is on trombone; and David Earll, professor at Ithaca, covers tuba. Our four snare drummers are myself, Bernie Dresel, legendary Hollywood studio drummer and big band drummer with Brian Setzer, etc., Clayton Cameron, known as The Brush Master, and David Lu, Associate Principal Timpanist Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra, from Philly originally. Dave Nelson, principal timpanist from the Philly Pops Orchestra, is on bass drum and crash cymbals, and Chihiro Shibayama, New York freelance percussionist, covers other cymbal stuff.

That video got us lots of press coverage, including a feature on Drummer Nation with Bernie and Clayton (https://youtu.be/Uhlo4eNLShM), my interview on Alabama Public Radio (https://youtu.be/rUdfjOMFSwU), an interview on IrishPhilly (http://irishphiladelphia.com/2020/07/local-drummer-on-a-roll-with-a-pandemic-inspired-musical-project/), and a feature in Making Music Magazine (https://makingmusicmag.com/philadephia-drummer-arranger-brings-fresh-perspective-to-a-revolutionary-era-fife-and-drum-tune/?fbclid=IwAR1Y3_q8aE7oLLF0epXAVNZCwbeMYdaAd97sly0TSh7lHtPAA1VMAFuBLUA).

JG: How did you select and recruit some of the high-profile players you included?

SK: The original drummers mentioned above were longtime friends and colleagues who I greatly respect. The amazing quality of the “Downfall of Paris” video/audio enabled me to start thinking about a “next project,” which became the “Connecticut Halftime” and “The Three Camps” videos.

About a month after Downfall came out, I started asking the original Rolling Buzzards Brigade drummers if they wanted to do another one; they all said YES! Since “Connecticut Halftime” is a rudimental tour-de-force, I wanted lots of drummers. So, I just started asking people I knew. The new members included: Neil Grover, owner of Grover Pro Percussion; Sherrie Maricle, someone whose drumming I’ve long been a fan of and I had just featured her on my podcast; Chris Colenari, a great arranger, freelancer, and educator in North Jersey with whom I’ve collaborated extensively; Gabriel Staznik, of the USAF Band, Max Impact; John Wooton, who I actually have never met, but I had referenced so many of his great videos and books about rudimental playing that I thought I needed to include him for the inspiration he’s given me; Heather High-Kennedy, my wife who I first hear play snare drum while I was an undergrad at West Chester University School of Music back in 1994; and Dame Evelyn Glennie. Coincidentally, Heather and Dame Evelyn Glennie both had a very similar hearing-loss story, both percussionists that lost their hearing in middle school.  Dame Evelyn’s story has been well documented of course, but Heather had an almost identical journey.   This similarity led us to meet Dame Evelyn while she was on tour here in Philadelphia playing with The Philadelphia Orchestra in the late-1990s. Heather was able to correspond with Dame Evelyn through letters and Dame Evelyn and her team have been supportive of all of our percussive efforts since then.

For this particular recording of “Connecticut Halftime,” I boosted the tempo of the original a bit, to make it a little more exciting for the online audience, and changed a few phrases to match J. Burns Moore’s classic 1940’s recording.

JG: Walk me through the process of collecting, compiling, and editing the videos you received?

SK: For “Downfall of Paris,” “Connecticut Halftime,” and “Three Camps,” I did my own arrangements of each and transcribed them on Finale music notation software. For each one, I made a master version of the computer realization and added myself playing the snare drum live. I sent the master to each of the musicians and they all played along and recorded audio and video to that version.

It was really interesting how many questions I got though, even though the score was highly notated.  Things we take for granted in live rehearsals and recording now took more time and I think everyone was being very careful since the recording and the video needed to match exactly.  I would get various nuance questions like, “This note is slightly accented on the recording but not really indicated on the sheet music is that right?”  All of the percussionists recorded and sent back their audio/video, all only playing along with me from that master version.

The brass was a bit more complicated. I needed Chris to play his parts first, for intonation, inflections, etc. He recorded to the computer-generated brass and my live drum track, then we added his trumpet to the click track.  We sent that to the horn player, the horn was recorded, we added her to the click track, then the trombone, then tuba. We did it very systematically so they were really performing as an ensemble.

Since the individual performances were good and played by world class musicians I had a professional sound engineer and good friend Andrew Torre here in Philadelphia mix and EQ everything; he is an absolute magician! We all sound like we’re in the studio together and it sounded so good, that we actually have all of the audio versions available now online at therollingbuzzardsbrigade.hearnow.com. I got another friend, Rob Simmons from Chicago, who edited and put together the video versions for YouTube. 

JG: What has been the response you’ve received from the rudimental drumming community?

SK: In two words: OVERWHELMING and AMAZING! I could stop right here and just say Dr. Throwdown, John Wooton, likes it and plays on one, but we’ve also gotten tons of nice compliments from other folks. Mark Reilly, Sergeant Major at The United States Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps, has been one of my biggest cheerleaders in this project and has shared everything on his social media pages. All of the comments have been very positive and supportive. Of course, all of these pieces can and will be interpreted differently from player to player, and some folks have indicated that they noticed a change here or there, but I’ve not gotten any negative feedback. Rich Redmond called “Connecticut Halftime,” “an amazing assembly of talent! Some of the greatest drummers in the world expertly executing this exciting repertoire!" Neil Grover wrote about “Downfall of Paris” that the arrangement, “brings a fresh perspective to a time-tested standard. Arranged for brass and percussion, Kennedy’s superlative writing is only surpassed by the brilliant virtuosity of the performers themselves.”

JG: What impact do you think projects like this could have on younger percussion students?

SK: This old repertoire is still a living art form, artistically challenging and worth practicing and performing, especially if students see all of the legends that were gracious enough to join me. Speaking of the artists, look at the wide array of artists on each video! The artists cover a very wide range of the percussion world. So many backgrounds and areas are represented including jazz, Hollywood, classical, rudimental, education, and Broadway. The common ground is that rudimental instruction, playing, and training is at the core of everything we do.  That is a GREAT testament as to why young players need rudimental training. No matter your style or aspirations, you need a foundation to build upon.  The rudiments are our common vocabulary. 

JG: What’s next in line for you and/or this group in terms of future projects?

SK: Curiously enough, I have a bunch of top-level players in the wings that couldn’t participate in these and they really want to do “the next one.”  With school back in session and the holidays approaching I think The Rolling Buzzards Brigade will take a winter hiatus. Maybe in the spring I’ll start cooking up another one. The repertoire possibilities are endless, and the interest level from players across the globe is really humbling. So, for now, keep practicing, and stay tuned!

Josh GottryA respected educator, accomplished percussionist, and internationally recognized composer, Josh Gottry has been working with, and creating music for, the next generation of percussionists for over twenty years. He has served as part of the music faculty on college and university campuses around the Phoenix metropolitan area, works regularly with ensembles and students at all grade levels as a clinician and within his private lesson studio, and his performance record includes professional orchestras, musical theater, worship teams, jazz combos, community and chamber ensembles, as well as solo performances and recitals. Mr. Gottry is an ASCAP award-winning composer whose works have been performed at universities, junior high and high schools, and multiple national conferences, and he currently serves as editor for Rhythm! Scene.

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Twelve Drummers Drumming: An Interview with Sean J. Kennedy by Josh Gottry

Dec 7, 2020, 08:00 AM by Rhythm Scene Staff

Sean KennedySean J. Kennedy is a percussionist and drum set performer, currently serving as the drummer for The Doc Severinsen Tribute Band, featuring Jay Webb, and as principal percussionist with the Philadelphia Boys Choir & Chorale since 2004. He is a multi-faceted musician who is equally accomplished on the stage, in the recording studio, and in the classroom, having earned a master’s degree in Percussion Performance and a bachelor’s degree in Music Education from West Chester University. He has performed on drum set and percussion at venues including Radio City Music Hall and Carnegie Hall with world renowned acts such as Il Volo, Roger Daltry and The Who, Evanescence, Lindsey Stirling, The Philly POPS!, The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, The Jacksonville Symphony, The Allentown Band, The Allentown Symphony Orchestra, and The Lancaster Symphony Orchestra.  Kennedy is also the author of numerous drumset, percussion and improv books. In 2018, he was invited to present a TEDx Talk (https://youtu.be/Ku70874c3vg) about the history of the drumset, titled: Happy Accidents: Drumming Up Serendipity.  Jazz legend Dave Brubeck stated that Sean’s drumming, “… sounds like it should—it swings!”

Most recently, Sean Kennedy initiated a project he calls The Rolling Buzzards Brigade. They play traditional rudimental drum music and create virtual performance videos. Their first piece, released in July, was “The Downfall of Paris.” The brass ensemble included members of the Philadelphia Orchestra and Canadian Brass and the drumline included Sean along with legends like Bernie Dresel and Clayton Cameron. For the two subsequent recordings, “Connecticut Halftime” and “Three Camps,” the drumline featured Dame Evelyn Glennie, Sherrie Maricle, Bernie Dresel, Clayton Cameron, John Wooton, Neil Grover, Sean Kennedy, and some other great players. (“Connecticut Halftime, in fact, has 12 drummers drumming!).

Via email, I had the opportunity to ask Sean about this project, other impacts on his percussion activity due to coronavirus, and what new projects he has in the works.

Josh Gottry: How did the coronavirus pandemic directly impact you and what you were doing professionally?

Sean Kennedy: All of my freelance and yearly gigs dried up instantly; working with bands and students in schools went to 100% remote learning and it halted several recording projects. As an example, with the newly formed The Doc Severinsen Tribute Band, we recorded/produced three tunes in early February of this year, with the idea of completing a full-length album, that plan was immediately shelved. My wife and four kids were also all trapped at home, working and learning remotely.

BUT some new opportunities presented themselves, fortunately! First, my tech and recordings skills improved quickly and exponentially over the first month of quarantine. I’ve had brand new recording gear on my shelf in my home studio for eight years that my parents got me for my birthday and finally, about two weeks into to the shutdown, I actually opened, set-up, and figured out how to use it all, mics, software, etc. Now I can record professional drum and percussion tracks in my home percussion studio! Thanks to this new found skill, I’ve done almost 30 virtual ensembles, interviews, etc. Some were paid and some not, but at least I have things to keep my playing/reading chops growing, and things to keep my creative juices flowing.

The second thing has been a renewed focus on drumming fundamentals. So often, as working musicians, our practice largely consists of preparing for whatever is needed for that next gig. Well, all of a sudden there were no gigs! Now what?!? For me, I went back to more rudimental playing. The shutdown essentially allowed me the time to go back and focus on some fundamentals and dig into some books that I’ve had since high school and do some maintenance on my playing.

JG: What prompted you to come up with this particular idea or what was the goal you were trying to accomplish through this project?

SK: Believe it or not it all started with a trumpet player! Last fall, Chris Coletti (friend and recently retired trumpet player from the Canadian Brass) and I did a series of educational workshops for over 1000 middle school students in suburban Philadelphia. It was so much fun that we both decided to collaborate on some crossover recording/video projects, bringing various musicians together to bring new life to old tunes. We started communicating and sharing ideas via email and phone about creating new versions of tunes that we loved, Chris started getting some folks that he knew to cover some of the parts, and I went immediately to my friend Nitzan Haroz, principal trombone of the Philadelphia Orchestra. I called him and said “There’s a project I’d like you to be part of,” and before I could finish he said, “I’ll do it, what is it!”

Unfortunately, that project got temporarily shelved because of the shutdown, but at the same time, I started getting requests to participate in lots of virtual ensembles. They are certainly not quite like live gigs, but it still was a lot of fun to collaborate and meet new folks from all around the globe with a common love of creating and performing. This inspired me to ask Chris if he had any interest in playing my arrangement of “The Downfall of Paris” for brass quintet and percussion.

He suggested keeping it to the five brass players, and because I could I got lots of my drumming friends to join in, I revamped my arrangement so that seven drummers could participate.

Rolling Buzzards BrigadeWe called ourselves The Rolling Buzzards Brigade (silly but catchy, drummers roll, brass players buzz, brigade as a homage to the military traditional both instrument families come from), and my son made our logo. Chris Coletti covers trumpet 1 and 2; Tawnee Lynn, a freelancer LA, is on horn; Nitzan Haroz, Philadelphia Orchestra, is on trombone; and David Earll, professor at Ithaca, covers tuba. Our four snare drummers are myself, Bernie Dresel, legendary Hollywood studio drummer and big band drummer with Brian Setzer, etc., Clayton Cameron, known as The Brush Master, and David Lu, Associate Principal Timpanist Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra, from Philly originally. Dave Nelson, principal timpanist from the Philly Pops Orchestra, is on bass drum and crash cymbals, and Chihiro Shibayama, New York freelance percussionist, covers other cymbal stuff.

That video got us lots of press coverage, including a feature on Drummer Nation with Bernie and Clayton (https://youtu.be/Uhlo4eNLShM), my interview on Alabama Public Radio (https://youtu.be/rUdfjOMFSwU), an interview on IrishPhilly (http://irishphiladelphia.com/2020/07/local-drummer-on-a-roll-with-a-pandemic-inspired-musical-project/), and a feature in Making Music Magazine (https://makingmusicmag.com/philadephia-drummer-arranger-brings-fresh-perspective-to-a-revolutionary-era-fife-and-drum-tune/?fbclid=IwAR1Y3_q8aE7oLLF0epXAVNZCwbeMYdaAd97sly0TSh7lHtPAA1VMAFuBLUA).

JG: How did you select and recruit some of the high-profile players you included?

SK: The original drummers mentioned above were longtime friends and colleagues who I greatly respect. The amazing quality of the “Downfall of Paris” video/audio enabled me to start thinking about a “next project,” which became the “Connecticut Halftime” and “The Three Camps” videos.

About a month after Downfall came out, I started asking the original Rolling Buzzards Brigade drummers if they wanted to do another one; they all said YES! Since “Connecticut Halftime” is a rudimental tour-de-force, I wanted lots of drummers. So, I just started asking people I knew. The new members included: Neil Grover, owner of Grover Pro Percussion; Sherrie Maricle, someone whose drumming I’ve long been a fan of and I had just featured her on my podcast; Chris Colenari, a great arranger, freelancer, and educator in North Jersey with whom I’ve collaborated extensively; Gabriel Staznik, of the USAF Band, Max Impact; John Wooton, who I actually have never met, but I had referenced so many of his great videos and books about rudimental playing that I thought I needed to include him for the inspiration he’s given me; Heather High-Kennedy, my wife who I first hear play snare drum while I was an undergrad at West Chester University School of Music back in 1994; and Dame Evelyn Glennie. Coincidentally, Heather and Dame Evelyn Glennie both had a very similar hearing-loss story, both percussionists that lost their hearing in middle school.  Dame Evelyn’s story has been well documented of course, but Heather had an almost identical journey.   This similarity led us to meet Dame Evelyn while she was on tour here in Philadelphia playing with The Philadelphia Orchestra in the late-1990s. Heather was able to correspond with Dame Evelyn through letters and Dame Evelyn and her team have been supportive of all of our percussive efforts since then.

For this particular recording of “Connecticut Halftime,” I boosted the tempo of the original a bit, to make it a little more exciting for the online audience, and changed a few phrases to match J. Burns Moore’s classic 1940’s recording.

JG: Walk me through the process of collecting, compiling, and editing the videos you received?

SK: For “Downfall of Paris,” “Connecticut Halftime,” and “Three Camps,” I did my own arrangements of each and transcribed them on Finale music notation software. For each one, I made a master version of the computer realization and added myself playing the snare drum live. I sent the master to each of the musicians and they all played along and recorded audio and video to that version.

It was really interesting how many questions I got though, even though the score was highly notated.  Things we take for granted in live rehearsals and recording now took more time and I think everyone was being very careful since the recording and the video needed to match exactly.  I would get various nuance questions like, “This note is slightly accented on the recording but not really indicated on the sheet music is that right?”  All of the percussionists recorded and sent back their audio/video, all only playing along with me from that master version.

The brass was a bit more complicated. I needed Chris to play his parts first, for intonation, inflections, etc. He recorded to the computer-generated brass and my live drum track, then we added his trumpet to the click track.  We sent that to the horn player, the horn was recorded, we added her to the click track, then the trombone, then tuba. We did it very systematically so they were really performing as an ensemble.

Since the individual performances were good and played by world class musicians I had a professional sound engineer and good friend Andrew Torre here in Philadelphia mix and EQ everything; he is an absolute magician! We all sound like we’re in the studio together and it sounded so good, that we actually have all of the audio versions available now online at therollingbuzzardsbrigade.hearnow.com. I got another friend, Rob Simmons from Chicago, who edited and put together the video versions for YouTube. 

JG: What has been the response you’ve received from the rudimental drumming community?

SK: In two words: OVERWHELMING and AMAZING! I could stop right here and just say Dr. Throwdown, John Wooton, likes it and plays on one, but we’ve also gotten tons of nice compliments from other folks. Mark Reilly, Sergeant Major at The United States Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps, has been one of my biggest cheerleaders in this project and has shared everything on his social media pages. All of the comments have been very positive and supportive. Of course, all of these pieces can and will be interpreted differently from player to player, and some folks have indicated that they noticed a change here or there, but I’ve not gotten any negative feedback. Rich Redmond called “Connecticut Halftime,” “an amazing assembly of talent! Some of the greatest drummers in the world expertly executing this exciting repertoire!" Neil Grover wrote about “Downfall of Paris” that the arrangement, “brings a fresh perspective to a time-tested standard. Arranged for brass and percussion, Kennedy’s superlative writing is only surpassed by the brilliant virtuosity of the performers themselves.”

JG: What impact do you think projects like this could have on younger percussion students?

SK: This old repertoire is still a living art form, artistically challenging and worth practicing and performing, especially if students see all of the legends that were gracious enough to join me. Speaking of the artists, look at the wide array of artists on each video! The artists cover a very wide range of the percussion world. So many backgrounds and areas are represented including jazz, Hollywood, classical, rudimental, education, and Broadway. The common ground is that rudimental instruction, playing, and training is at the core of everything we do.  That is a GREAT testament as to why young players need rudimental training. No matter your style or aspirations, you need a foundation to build upon.  The rudiments are our common vocabulary. 

JG: What’s next in line for you and/or this group in terms of future projects?

SK: Curiously enough, I have a bunch of top-level players in the wings that couldn’t participate in these and they really want to do “the next one.”  With school back in session and the holidays approaching I think The Rolling Buzzards Brigade will take a winter hiatus. Maybe in the spring I’ll start cooking up another one. The repertoire possibilities are endless, and the interest level from players across the globe is really humbling. So, for now, keep practicing, and stay tuned!

Josh GottryA respected educator, accomplished percussionist, and internationally recognized composer, Josh Gottry has been working with, and creating music for, the next generation of percussionists for over twenty years. He has served as part of the music faculty on college and university campuses around the Phoenix metropolitan area, works regularly with ensembles and students at all grade levels as a clinician and within his private lesson studio, and his performance record includes professional orchestras, musical theater, worship teams, jazz combos, community and chamber ensembles, as well as solo performances and recitals. Mr. Gottry is an ASCAP award-winning composer whose works have been performed at universities, junior high and high schools, and multiple national conferences, and he currently serves as editor for Rhythm! Scene.

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