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Meet the SLSO: Thomas Stubbs, Percussion

When did you start with the SLSO? How have things changed since then?

I started in 1970. I think it keeps getting better and better, and we seem busier than ever. I’m really interested to see where we go with Stéphane. So far I’m very encouraged. I think he makes the orchestra sound really good, and I like how he takes care to make new ideas special and unique.

What’s it like to do so many different kinds of programs? Is it demanding?

Some of the things we do are pretty time-consuming, especially things like movies. That’s like learning an opera, and some of them are pretty complicated. It’s demanding in different ways; staying focused and keeping your place can be very challenging when you might not play for a 20-minute stretch.

What’s a common misconception about playing percussion?

I think people don’t realize that each instrument is so different and unique. Lower instruments like the bass drum and timpani respond relatively slowly, so you have to play more on top of the beat. Whereas instruments that are very bright, like the triangle and cymbals, respond instantly. You have to adjust the timing and use different mindsets for each instrument.

Did you always know you wanted to go into music?

This is a true story: When 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. And I’m from Kansas! 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 five years older than me and a professional trumpet player. He was very helpful and kind in keeping me on track, showing me which teachers and schools would be the best for me. He started playing with the Israel Philharmonic when he was 18, which is like starting right at the top of the pack. He also played trumpet in the Masterpiece Theatre theme for years, and did a lot of freelancing in New York. I thought I was going to have an instant career because of him! That’s not how it works, but he knew things that I wouldn’t have had a clue about; I’d probably still be back in Kansas if it hadn’t been for him. He bought me my first drum when I was in grade school. We’ve gotten to play together twice in our careers, once in the American Symphony, and once in a concert that he produced with lots of our family members to honor our parents. The big tune was “Home on the Range,” since we’re from Kansas.

Tell me about your instruments.

I play Turkish cymbals, and they’re all pre–World War II. They’re incredible, handmade, and I’ve been lucky to acquire them from other orchestras. Some are from the Toscanini era of the NBC Symphony, some are from the George Szell era of the Cleveland Orchestra, one very special pair I’ll be using in the Beethoven 9th Symphony from the Stokowski era of the Philadelphia Orchestra. I also have some that came from the New York Philharmonic. They all have a history, it’s kind of like a living tradition.

I’m associated with Zildjian cymbal company, and in the past they’ve taken some of my cymbals and tried to design new ones based on them. Some people say cymbals wear out, but that hasn’t really been my experience, if you know how to play them. They’re really one of the most misunderstood instruments, you really have to learn them by doing.

Saul Goodman, my timpani teacher, would make you fully realize that you’re only as good as your instrument.

Tell me about your teaching.

I’ve done a lot of teaching over the years. I was at Indiana University for about five years, and the Aspen Music Festival for 27. I really enjoy teaching, and a lot of those kids have turned out to be pretty successful! I have former students playing in the symphony orchestras in Chicago, Detroit, and Seattle.

With young adult students who are after a career, I really love to work on the most basic things like fixing rhythms. I produce a program for grade school kids called the Rhythm of Words, and we learn about percussive words like fish, cupcake, and peanut butter. I use the same thing to teach college kids, and it really does help.

How do you practice percussion?

I was kind of a weird kid because I never had to be asked to practice, and would practice two or four hours a day without any prompting.

Practice for percussionist involves a lot of listening. Gathering up several recordings of the same piece and listening to when they played relative to the beat, how loud or soft, if they’re blending in with the orchestra or standing out, listening in to all of those nuances is what’s really helpful.

I have a studio in my basement and a studio in Maplewood. I have a lot of different instruments and it’s a little bit out of control, but that also makes it fun.


An abridged version of this interview appears in the December 2019 Playbill.


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