This article is only 1900 words long but it was Years in the Making. When I first started writing about music, in 1988, I noticed that two of the busiest freelance percussionists in the city were women-- even though the percussionists in major orchestras tend to be men. It was a good idea for an article, but I didn't know where to market it. The paper I was reviewing for was an unusual publication that only published opinion pieces. It never published straight articles.
Then the paper became the property of owners who weren't interested in a classical music review column. The arts editor wanted me to do some features for her, however, so I suggested my female percussionist idea. She liked it, and I interviewed the two subjects and wrote the article. As we had planned, the editor scheduled it for the week the Scottish woman percussionist Evelyn Glennie was supposed to solo with the orchestra.
Unfortunately, the paper didn't sell enough advertising that week. The page count had to be reduced and the management decided an article on a pair of classical musicians was less important then the movie reviews. They didn't want to reschedule the piece because they felt it had been pegged to Evelyn Glennie's visit.
A few months later I started writing for a new regional arts magazine called SEVEN ARTS. I showed the editor the article, she asked me to update it, and it finally appeared in print a year after I'd written it.
The editor, Ginny Moles, had to cut it some. I've restored some of her cuts and eliminated some of the references to the 1996-97 season I added to make the piece sound like it had just been written. The title is Ginny's. My title was THE HAND THAT ROCKS THE DRUM SETS THE BEAT. Ginny's is clever and shorter.
Susan Jones was in the 9th grade when she realized the boy percussionists usually got all the best parts, but she didn't react to the situation with resentment.
"I just realized that's the way it was," she says. "And I'd have to be two hundred percent...three hundred percent....four hundred percent...better."
If you look at the major symphony orchestras, you will observe a striking socio-biological phenomenon. Women gravitate toward the front of the stage.
Nowadays, a third of the musicians in the violin section may be recognizably female. You will also notice a respectable number of gowns and hairdos in the sections that play flutes, oboes, and other small winds. When your eye strays to the very back-- to the area where the drummers and trumpeters pursue their trade-- women musicians are about as common as women admirals.
Last season, the Scottish percussionist Evelyn Glennie was the featured soloist at two Philadelphia Orchestra concerts. The Orchestra's press releases didn't mention it, but Glennie was probably the first woman percussionist to play a solo with the orchestra. The number of women percussionists who've played with the orchestra in any capacity could probably be counted on the strings of one violin.
If you examine the other musical organizations in Philadelphia, on the other hand, you'll discover the situation at the Orchestra hasn't been ordained by natural law. Women percussionists may be a rare phenomenon on the international concert circuit, but the two most visible freelance percussionists in Philadelphia are both obviously and undeniably female.
Martha Hitchins is the timpanist for the Concerto Soloists and you'll also see her playing with the Philadelphia Singers, the Opera Company, and the Academy of Vocal Arts. Susan Jones is the principal percussionist for the Pennsylvania Ballet and she frequently works beside Hitchins at events staged by the Opera Company, Concerto Soloists, and AVA. Jones also plays with Orchestra 2001 and the Ocean City Pops, subs for the Philly Pops, and does "a lot of church work" at sites such as Tenth Presbyterian and Christ Church.
Most musicians would feel they had put in a good day's work if they filled a key spot in a single Nutcracker performance. Last December 24th, Jones sprinted between six engagements-- one Nutcracker matinee, three church performances (including a midnight service at Christ Church), and two rehearsals.
Susan Jones began her affair with percussion in exactly the same way Sam Jones would have. When she was seven years old, she says, she used to march around in the basement with pots and pans.
"I loved the way the bass drummer marched down the street," Jones says. "You could feel it in the pit of your stomach."
She grew up on Long Island, in a school system that offered its students a good range of musical opportunities "and I just kept going and going. Each year I learned a different instrument. I started with bells and glockenspiel. Then I moved to the snare drum. Then I started playing timpani when I was in the fourth grade. And I had no idea it was difficult or unusual for a girl to play percussion."
"In the fourth grade I was chosen to play a solo in the band. I learned a glockenspiel solo and there weren't any orchestral parts to go along with it. So I decided to accompany myself. And with one hand I played the bells, and with the left hand I played the snare drum. And I didn't think anything of it. But people said, Gee, that's really unusual."
She started winning scholarships to summer music camps in 7th and 8th grade. In 1964, she played at the New York World's Fair and took home a medal. At her local St. Patrick's Day celebration, the musician who usually led the parade was young Susan Koscinski (as she was then known}.
With the talent she was displaying, Jones probably would have made it into one of the top music schools. She did, in fact, receive her "best formal training" in the Juilliard School prep department, when she was in junior high. She had already decided she wanted to play classical music, but her teacher at Juilliard steered her toward a teaching degree. Women, he told her, shouldn't go into professional playing.
She earned her teaching credentials in Ithaca, New York. And there she met a teacher-- a Curtis graduate-- who was "the first person who really started treating me as a talented musician. He never really regarded me as a woman, but just as a percussionist."
Martha Hitchins believes the bias against women percussionists is primarily "a regional thing." She grew up in Colorado and made it all the way through high school without learning there was anything unusual about a girl who played percussion. Female percussionists, she says, were a common sight in the part of the United States that shaped her first impressions of the musical world.
Her first teacher was a percussionist with the Utah Symphony. No one had ever told him, apparently, that women were supposed to become teachers, not players. Hitchins found out she was going to be a professional percussionist when he introduced her to his colleagues in the orchestra and told them she was a student who was going to be a professional musician. She found out she wanted to go to Curtis when the director of Curtis played at the Mormon Tabernacle and her teacher introduced them backstage.
"This is my student," her teacher said. "She would like to go to Curtis."
Hitchins didn't begin to feel unusual until she came to Philadelphia and began her Curtis years. Even then no one made her feel she might be laboring under a biological handicap. She lugged the timpani around just like the boys did. She played full-sized cymbals.
Hitchins' biggest problem with discrimination has been a flap over her hair. She played with the Delaware Symphony for nine years and one of the local critics didn't like the way her long hair bounced around. He went after her in print after her first concert in 1979 and she became the center of a controversy. People wrote her letters. A man in Chads Ford kept a file on her. At one point the orchestra presented her with a contract that included a typed-in clause that required her to tie her hair back during performances. She refused to sign the contract and the management backed down and sent her another version without the clause.
Is there any rational basis to the idea that women shouldn't be percussion players? Jones doesn't think so. She does note, however, that she knows she's going to have trouble with a conductor when he tells her she isn't playing loud enough.
"Every now and then," Hitchins says, "I've encountered a conductor-- maybe an older conductor-- that I think-- I don't have any proof but I think-- looks back and sees me and wonders if I'm going to be able to play. But then he sees I am able to play and it's not an issue."
Jones and Hitchins have both noticed that all the female percussionists they know tend to be early arrivers. They both usually enter the concert hall an hour-- sometimes an hour and a half-- before the conductor lowers his baton.
Jones spends much of her prep time arranging her equipment. She got her job with the ballet-- the job that established her in Philadelphia-- partly because she's a one woman band. When the Pennsylvania Ballet goes on tour, it travels with timpani, xylophone, marimba, bells, triangles, and all the other instruments composers have added to the percussion section over the last three centuries. But it only has to provide transportation for one percussionist.
There have been times when Jones has actually set up mirrors in the pit, so she can turn her back on the conductor when she switches to a different instrument.
To play multiple percussion well, Jones says, you have to spend much of your practice time "road mapping" and choreographing. "You have to know which stick you're going to put down when, which foot's playing what, which hand is playing which instrument. You don't have time to think. Sometimes you just have to drop and pick up and hit."
At a recent Opera Company production, Jones had to climb some backstage stairs to play a passage offstage. "I had sixteen measures of three counts each to get back to the pit to play the next note. And I actually counted how many steps I took to get from the back of the stage down to the pit. Every one in the orchestra was looking at me like I'm crazy. I'm counting each step. But I got there every time. And the conductor would just beam when I got there to play that note."
When she isn't actually hitting an instrument, she says, she's usually "looking ahead and getting ready for the next entrance. Or making sure the instruments are where they're supposed to be. Or turning pages. You're always ten steps ahead of the game."
Hitchins normally plays one instrument-- the timpani. She spends her setup time analyzing the local acoustics, examining the effects of temperature and humidity, and exploring the characteristics of the instrument she'll be using.
Thanks to a grant arranged by the Astral Foundation, Hitchins owns two first class German timpani with "big, heavy German kettles". She doesn't have a van, so she can't take the German drums to performances. She uses them for practice and tries to make the performance instrument reproduce the sounds she heard when she rehearsed.
Oboe players can talk for hours about the time they spend cutting their reeds. Percussionists, Hitchins says, can drive themselves crazy re-covering their sticks. Long sheets of German felt must be cut and sewn. Each stick must be covered with the right number of layers, made from the right kind of felt.
"Fortunately," she notes, "my mother made me take sewing lessons when I was young."
Hitchins owns over sixty pairs of sticks. She may use half a dozen pairs in a single performance. Soft, heavy sticks may be used to produce rolls. A harder, pointed stick may be the instrument of choice for more articulated passages.
But sticks are no substitute for subtle, perfectly controlled hands. The teachers that both women praise the most are the mentors who taught them to play "sensitively."
Many people, Hitchins has discovered, think percussionists are "musical idiots". When members of the audience come up to her after concerts, they're sometimes surprised to see that the music on her stand includes real notes, complete with pitches and all the other requirements composers impose on musicians.
"We play a lot of different roles," Jones says. "Sound effects. The sparkle. The beat. The tonality. Harmony. Each hand is a different voice speaking."
Sometimes opera percussionists even get to play on stage, as part of the cast. Jones is particularly fond of the time she played an on stage drummer in an Opera Company production. The drum beating extra in the opera was male, of course. When Beverly Sills stepped into the scene during a rehearsal, she immediately detected the true gender of the musician who was standing there in a moustache and a complete set of male clothing.
"See that," Beverly Sills said. "Girls can do it, too."
Copyright (c) 1996 by Tom Purdom. All rights reserved. This document may be printed out and archived for personal use only. All other use is strictly prohibited. A slightly different version of this piece appeared in Seven Arts for November 1996.
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