Five Decades On: Percussionist Tom Stubbs Retires from the SLSO

Tom Stubbs, Associate Principal Timpanist as well as Percussionist, retired from the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra at the end of the 2020/2021 season, after more than fifty years in the position. In an interview, Tom talked with me about his upbringing, the highlights of his time with the orchestra, and how the orchestra has changed. I was struck again and again by his humility, his curiosity, his undimmed enthusiasm.


Tim Munro: Tell me a little bit about your childhood in Kansas.


Tom Stubbs: Everyone in my family played music. I was the youngest of five, and there wasn’t a drummer yet, so I started playing things like shakers when I was very young.


My brother is older—he’s a professional trumpet player. He was very helpful in keeping me on track, showing me which teachers and schools would be the best for me. He bought me my first drum when I was in grade school.


When I was young, people would ask me, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” I told them I wanted to play in the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.


TM: You got your job in the SLSO when you were just out of school?


TS: I was a senior at Juilliard. Rich O’Donnell was the SLSO principal, and he couldn’t have been more gracious. Here I was, totally green—I’d never had a playing job in my life—and he was so helpful. We remain good friends to this day.


The person that I replaced played violin and cymbals, if you can believe that. My contract read "cymbal specialist and percussion.” In percussion you have to kind of be a jack of all trades—you play a little of everything—but then you’re also asked to specialize.


I’ve been lucky to play with several colleagues from Juilliard: Rick Holmes and John Kasica. They had both studied with the same teacher I had, Saul Goodman.

TM: I imagine it was a bit of a baptism of fire—so much new repertoire in this unfamiliar world.

TS: The transition from student to a professional was pretty stark. One thing that helped smooth that transition was attending the Aspen Music Festival, where as a student you play side-by-side with professionals. That transition was very helpful in preparing for playing in the orchestra.

Water Susskind was Music Director of the SLSO at the time I joined. My first rehearsal was Bedřich Smetana’s Ma Vlast. I had this idea that the cymbals would sound like the skies opening. Susskind said to me, “You know, I like a great cymbal crash as much as the next guy, but I just don't want to hear ten in a row.”


His point was that sometimes the cymbals play and it might be the skies opening, but other times it is just to reinforce the ensemble. My percussion teacher at Juilliard, Saul Goodman, said the best teachers that he ever had were conductors. That was the case for me.


I was with the SLSO when we took Antonín Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances to Carnegie Hall. Saul came to the concert, and he said, “You're on the right track, you’re doing a good job.” His seal of approval was so important.

TM: How did the orchestra sound different during Leonard Slatkin’s time as Music Director?

TS: Leonard would really let the orchestra play. There was a freedom and a relaxation—he trusted the musicians, and wouldn't rehearse every little detail. That was perfect for the kind of music that we recorded with him, like Sergei Rachmaninoff and George Gershwin.

It was a thrill to be in the orchestra at that time. I think we had one of the biggest recording contracts of any orchestra at that time. Without any hesitation, my favorite recording from that time was Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances.

TM: How has the sound of the orchestra evolved during your time in the SLSO?

TS: Each Music Director has put a stamp on the sound of the orchestra. Listening to recordings from before I was in the orchestra, it was great back then, and the level of playing top to bottom has continued to grow and improve.

Some of the players have been legendary. Richard Woodhams was Principal Oboist when I joined the orchestra, and he was still a teenager. He’s one of the premier oboe players of all time.

Tom Stubbs (center) with Principal Timpanist Shannon Wood (left) and IN UNISON Programs Coordinator Michelle Byrd (right), during a recording session for SLSO SoundLab

TM: What are some pieces that—whenever you see them coming up on a season—you get excited?

TS: Playing cymbals on Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, for sure. And Gioachino Rossini’s Overture to William Tell—there's nothing more fun than that. That was the last piece of the last concert I played with the SLSO.


TM: What a true joy! Now, I know that you are a true cymbals geek. What makes a good set of cymbals?

TS: They have to have some weight to them, so they can contribute to the ensemble. But each piece is a different story. In Claude Debussy’s La Mer, the cymbals add color, sparkle, and shimmer—it makes the orchestra more magical.


The best cymbals are handmade in Turkey. When things are handmade, there is a great variety—they can be great or terrible. Now they are all machine-made, which means they’re all good, but you don't get some that are amazingly good.


I’ve been associated with Zildjian cymbal company for many years. They’ve taken some of my cymbals and tried to design new ones based on them. Cymbals really are one of the most misunderstood instruments.


There was a dealer in New York who helped me acquire some incredible instruments. So when you came to an SLSO concert you would hear cymbals that were used in Leopold Stokowski’s Philadelphia Orchestra, or George Szell’s Cleveland Orchestra, or even Arturo Toscanini’s NBC Symphony.


TM: What are some things that you’ll miss most?

TS: First and foremost I will miss the camaraderie with my colleagues. It's been fifty years, but it feels like five. That must be a testament that it is fun—it’s not like going to work.


And I’ll miss being a part of an organization that is so, so good. It is so much fun to play with great timpanists like Rick Holmes or Shannon Wood. Man, these folks are good!


Probably what I’ll miss the most is being able to plug into the teamwork of this amazing orchestra.

TM: Do you have retirement dreams?

TS: I find myself practicing more—working on things that I just never had a chance to address. Like jazz, for example. As a teenager in Kansas, I knew I wouldn’t have a career playing jazz—there were better drummers around. But now I get a chance to kind of pursue those things.

TM: What a lifelong musician you are—that after all these years you’re still curious, still finding new avenues. Are there any final thoughts you’d like to share?

TS: Just a feeling of thankfulness. I have been blessed to be in an orchestra of this caliber, to have the friendships of so many people here. I’m very thankful for that.

Tim Munro is the SLSO's Creative Partner. A writer, broadcaster, and Grammy-winning flutist, he lives in Chicago with his wife, son, and badly behaved orange cat.