During 50 consecutive weeks in 2021, Sean J. Kennedy tasked himself with recording all 50 snare drum etudes from Anthony Cirone’s Portraits in Rhythm (https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLEO6F0fP2Xi8FUmuvJHYfAh9O1fMYRxzs), posting a new video each Thursday on his YouTube channel. Upon completion of this task, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sean via email and recording some of his motivations, hurdles, and take-aways from this significant, year-long project.
Josh Gottry: Congrats on completing the monumental task of recording all 50 of the etudes contained in Portraits in Rhythm! What prompted you to take on recording an entire etude collection for snare drum?
Sean J. Kennedy: There were a few factors that all converged for me when the pandemic struck. First, I had fewer gigs — at times, no gigs! — and therefore a lot more time in my practice studio. Secondly, I started participating in a lot of virtual performances with old and new friends from around the globe. Then, about two months into the lockdown, I started learning more about home recording and video equipment and techniques and some of the possibilities that were open to me. I had always wanted to explore this avenue, but never really had the time. At that point, time is all I had at my disposal. With my newfound skill-set, I was looking for a meaningful long-term project to complete, rather than just some random one-off videos. I wanted it to be meaningful for me, and hopefully for other people who might watch or listen to it in the future.
JG: What prompted you to select this particular book of etudes?
SJK: During high school, I studied briefly with a prominent teacher just outside of Philadelphia, Ken Miller. He was the principal timpanist for the Philly Pops and played percussion with Opera Philadelphia for decades. At one of my lessons, Mr. Miller was lamenting about the large pile of percussion technique books that he had on a shelf in his studio. He specifically said, “Man, I wish I could go to a desert island for a few months and go through that pile of books and learn every page!” That was in the late 1980s, and his words always stuck with me for some reason. I’ve seen my own pile of books accumulate in my studio since then and, like Mr. Miller, I realized that I would never really have enough time to go through every single book and glean every bit of knowledge from each page. However, in early 2020 I knew that the circumstances at hand could be my “desert island” moment! I knew that I would most certainly have at least a few months more of practice time in the studio, but which book would I choose to focus on from the ever-growing pile? The choice for me was obvious!
Back when preparing for undergraduate music school auditions in the early ’90s, many institutions required an etude from Portraits in Rhythm or something similar as part of the snare drum requirement. Portraits in Rhythm helped me get into the university of my choice, and subsequently that book was also the first-semester freshman-year snare drum jury requirement. The percussion instructor at West Chester University, the late Joe Goeble, loved Portraits in Rhythm, and chose approximately 20 etudes for each freshman to master during their first semester. At the end of that first semester Mr. Goebel would choose three for you to perform at your jury.
Since graduating college, I’ve used Portraits in Rhythm with my students and have continued working through this book for almost 30 years, yet I hadn’t actually played every etude at a performance level. Out of the 50, prior to doing this challenge, I probably had only thoroughly prepared about 30. The remainder I might have done in a lesson with a student or perhaps glanced at for reading practice. Coincidentally, I turned 50 years old in 2021, so the 50 years and 50 etudes seemed to go together perfectly.
JG: Were there any etudes in the collection that you particularly enjoyed and why?
SJK: The entire collection is outstanding, but of course, I have a few favorites! Etude 1 is probably the one I’ve played the most often, and I’m a sucker for the funk feel in line seven. Etude 13 was the piece that I prepared for my undergraduate audition, so it is near and dear to my heart, and some of my students have used this in auditions as well. I think this etude is a perfect entry into solo snare drumming. Etude 16 is just weird, and I like that about it. It makes you think. Etude 18 is just plain fun to play! Who doesn't dig a Can-Can?
Parts of Etude 26 were troublesome for me to perform back in the 1990s, and this was Mr. Goebel’s favorite etude. It is particularly musical and really pleasant to listen to, even for a non-percussionist. For those reasons, it was lots of fun to revisit. I really took Mr. Cirone’s advice on Etude 41 and made it my own. I increased the tempo a bit, and I performed the entire etude with one hand, interpreting the whole thing like a jazz ride pattern. Purists might note that I swung everything, and I didn’t make the dotted eighths and sixteenths rigid. I played it a few times as written, but I didn’t like to listen to myself play it. Even though I’m standing up playing a snare drum, I’m still a drumset player at heart.
Etude 42 is so slow! But it has so much going on between the beats. It is extremely dense and allows the performer virtually no time to come up for air. It also has such a variety of nuances. Etude 50 was some chop-city fun. It is open to a lot of personal interpretations on tempi, sticking, etc. as well.
JG: Which was the hardest etude to prepare and record successfully and why?
SJK: I’m not sure that there was any one etude in particular; there are many isolated challenges in any number of the etudes throughout the book. However, to answer your question, the last ten etudes were the most challenging for me to get high-quality videos completed, on time. They were difficult for two reasons: first, there are some formidable rhythmic and musical challenges in these, and second, the specific time of year that I was recording them posed additional hurdles.
In all transparency, the first 20 etudes or so were pretty easy, simply because I’ve been playing and teaching those the longest, plus I started recording them when I still didn’t have any gigs, my teaching schedule was a bit lighter, and not much was going on at home outside of music due to the lockdown. That all changed in August. My teaching, gigging, and family commitments seemed to quadruple in that time period, so my preparation and recording window seemed to keep getting narrower and narrower as the performance-level expectations increased. Since I was going in order and had a schedule to release one every Thursday, the clock was constantly ticking. A perfect storm of problems.
JG: What equipment did you use to record the audio and video for this YouTube project? Are there any particular reasons for your choices that may be helpful for other students or professionals doing similar recording projects for auditions or other applications?
SJK: I used three microphones for this project: MXL 990 used as an overhead, about four feet above; MXL 991 used under the drum, about four inches from the batter head; and a Zoom R16 Built-in Room Mic, about eight feet from the drum. This setup allowed me to edit how I wanted each take to sound. The locations of close, very close, and far were helpful in audio mixing, depending on the overall dynamics of an etude. Even though I was in my modestly sized studio, I was able to change the sound of the space if needed. The MXLs are great mics and very affordable, both for less than $150. The Zoom R16 has two built-in room mics, and is a great user-friendly interface, which I ran the MXL’s through.
My DAW of choice is Presonus’s Studio One. They were running a special in March 2020, which prompted me to purchase it and try it out. It is really great software, with lots of extras, that I’m still learning about.
For video, I used an iPhone 11 mounted on a ring light with a 53-inch Extendable Tripod Stand and 10-inch Dimmable LED Selfie Circle Lights with Phone Holder. All the videos were created and edited in an online platform called WeVideo.com. I've been using it for years at the school where I teach, so I was already familiar with its capabilities.
Having done so many virtual projects, I knew that I had to make the background easy to set up and break down, especially since it was a year-long endeavor, and to make it easy to duplicate each time. I also wanted consistency in my appearance, and did not want the time of year to be noticed to a first-time viewer. I intentionally chose to do a tight shot of the snare and my hands, with a simple red background, added in post, since I used a green screen. I chose red because whenever I think of Portraits in Rhythm, I think of that classic red book cover. I also didn’t want to be wasting time setting-up a green screen each week, so I hung the green screen on a set of tubular chimes: easy up, easy down, as needed.
For my on-screen wardrobe, I didn’t want to be wasting time searching for something each week, so I used my black velvet blazer and jeans or khakis for every video. I left the blazer hanging on the wall in the studio all year, so that I could be ready to film a video in under a minute. Consistency and ease of set-up were my goals.
Actually, the only consistent thing throughout all 50 videos is that blazer! I switched snares, heads, and sticks a few times throughout the year.
JG: What did you learn through this process, about the collection, about the snare drum, about the recording process, or about yourself?
SJK: I learned so many lessons by engaging in this challenging endeavor. First, regarding the collection, I believe this is still a great resource for percussionists of every level. Some of the etudes are difficult, reading-wise and execution-wise, so engaging in studying and performing them benefits the entire musician — eyes, ears, and hands on any or every percussion instrument. Some of the etudes I’ve performed most frequently presented unique and unexpected challenges. For example, I’ve played Etude 1 so often with students over the years that I was playing it too fast when I started the video production. I needed to go back to basics and use a click for a little while to slow down and perform it at Cirone’s suggested tempo.
This project led me to set up an interview with Mr. Cirone for my podcast, “Backstage at The Enharmonic” (https://seanjkennedy.com/podcast/blog/anthony-j-cirone). I learned more about Mr. Cirone and lots of information about the genesis of this seminal percussion text.
Secondly, regarding the snare drum, there is nothing as brutally honest as making a video of yourself and evaluating yourself to make you feel humble. The process really makes you think about many tonal issues that you might not always notice while you are playing: where to strike the drumhead, how to strike the drumhead, which sticks to use, what heads to use, what tuning is best for a particular selection, how much muffling should be used, how closed/open should your rolls be, and it goes on and on. For 95% of the videos, I used my Grover G2 Concert snare, with Evans Orchestral heads, and Vic Firth Matthew Howard Symphonic Drumsticks.
Third, as regards the recording process, as time went on it got easier. Through trial and error, I found the sweet spot for mic placements in my studio and the post-production mixing presets in Studio One (DAW). The video post-production became pretty easy as well, through repeated productions. Once I had the intro/outro, backgrounds, text overlays, and graphics, in Wevideo, I set up a template and just plugged in the latest video/audio files week-to-week, and I could get a finished video done in very short order.
Fourth, about me, when I started the project, I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to do it. Having done it successfully, while also inspiring other people in the process, is very gratifying. I’ve grown significantly as a musician and recording engineer, and will most certainly be a better teacher because of this project. Due to some of the pitfalls I encountered and overcame to see it through to the end, I’ll be able to be a resource for other musicians who might be thinking of embarking on a task like this, and hopefully provide some guidance for them.
This also proved that I work best with hard-and-fast deadlines. Once a date and time are set, I’ll plan accordingly and see it through to completion. If the ending of a task is nebulous, I’ll probably procrastinate or not finish.
JG: Do you have a project lined up for 2022?
SJK: As of now, I don't have a similar challenge like this in the works for 2022. But I just got a copy of Jeff Sipe’s book, Rhythm Patterns for Drum Set, and I’ve begun digging into all that book has to offer, so I’m certain that there will be lots more practicing in the studio this coming year. I also have some new interviews lined up for my podcast, “Backstage at The Enharmonic,” and with live gigs finally coming back, two of the big bands that I perform with, The Gardyn Jazz Orchestra and The Doc Severinsen Tribute Band, have started lining up some dates for new studio albums. And lastly for 2022, I am really looking forward to collaborating and getting to work on some new and exciting projects as a member of the PAS Drum Set committee. Stay tuned!
Sean J. Kennedy is an American drumset and percussion artist, serves as the drummer for The Doc Severinsen Tribute Band, featuring Jay Webb, and has been 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. He has performed on drumset and percussion receiving standing ovations at sold-out venues such as Radio City Music Hall and Carnegie Hall with world renowned acts like Il Volo, Roger Daltry and The Who, Evanescence, Lindsey Stirling, The Philly POPS! Orchestra, The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, The Jacksonville Symphony, and The Allentown Band. Kennedy was appointed to the Percussive Arts Society Drum Set Committee in 2021, is the author of numerous drum set, percussion and improv books, and in 2018 was invited to present a TEDx Talk 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!” More information about Sean is available at www.seanjkennedy.com.
Josh Gottry is a respected educator, accomplished percussionist, and internationally recognized composer and 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.