Unsnared Drum

I’m excited to announce a new project dedicated to pushing the limit what’s possible with the snare drum. Over the next year four of America’s most interesting composers—Nina C. Young, Hannah Lash, Tonia Ko, and Amy Beth Kirsten—will collaborate with me on new works for snare drum solo with or without electronics or video.  These four composers will expand the expressive potential of this underutilized instrument through dramatic, sensitive, creative, and multi-media solos. In the process, we will change the way that people think about, listen to, perform, and practice the snare drum.

I love the snare drum.  While I perform frequently on myriad percussion instruments, I’ve always (moderately) comfortable playing the snare drum, and the instrument forms a significant part of my playing and teaching.  Yet, the snare drum’s identity as a solo instrument is constrained by its history as a militaristic time-keeper.  I believe the snare drum is a vast horizon, both an unexplored taxonomy of sounds and a playground for percussionists’ most subtle and refined techniques.    


As Amy, Nina, Tonia, Hannah and I work together over the next year, we will shine a light on our collaborative process, we will posting video and audio of our explorations, written reflections of our work together, and all sorts of snare drum related miscellany. 

Thanks to Vic Firth, each of the composers will have an assortment of sticks, mallets, and other implements with which to experiment as they write. I’m also grateful for the support of Pearl Drums, whose drums the composers will be exploring over the next year.  

Stay Up to Date

This fall, I’m partnering with Second Inversion to showcase some of our workshopping activities.  In the meantime, stay up to date here, and through Instagram (#unsnareddrum).


A Reflection on Reflection

For people who live their lives according to the academic calendar, summer vacation is our “New Year.” This year one of my “New Years Resolutions”  was to write more frequently.  Writing focuses my mind, and the specificity required to write about music is a frustrating challenge.  I want to use my blog to describe and clarify valuable experiences, and use those reflections to support creative works in process I thought I’d begin with an ode to reflection, the perhaps the most valuable part of my own creative work.

My students at the University of Kansas have all sorts of amazing musical experiences.  Some of these take the form of slow, hard earned epiphanies.  Others, though, are rapid fire “epoofanies” (a tiny epiphany): a comment in a percussion group coaching, the way a guest artist inflects a melodic line, a composer’s choice of adjective, or the sudden burst of adrenaline from that first perfect four stroke ruff.  This all in one day!  Unfortunately, we’re all busy.  How do we continue to grow when the growing experiences seem to come too quickly to process in the moment?  

For me, the answer has always been reflection.  This idea that we do not truly learn something until we both experience it and reflect upon it is a significant part of my teaching, and a tremendous part of my personal learning. 

Simply put,

Learning = Experience+Reflection

Reflection involves articulating the specifics of an experience, making thematic observations, and connecting these experiences to broader contexts.

A Sample Reflective Process:

reflection 1.png

I’m hoping to use specific examples from my own projects to unfold these ideas in future writing. For now, I want to focus on what reflection can do for performers, and why taking time to assess and articulate our experiences can inform works in progress. 


Habitual Journaler Doogie Howser uses reflection to trigger an epiphany.

I taped almost every lesson I took during my undergraduate degree  (“nerd!”).  Even though I took copious (and, it turns out, illegible) notes during lessons, my written summaries of lesson recordings—typically made the same day or one day after—were more coherent and cogent.  Reflection for me was and is a journey that begins with refined summary and  deliberate mental organization.  (Mine include frequent outlining, lots of charts, an occasional Ven diagram).  I can’t understand a concept unless I’m able to re-articulate the essential elements of its argument in my own words.  In college, I double-majored in History, and much of my work understanding voluminous, semi-interesting tomes lay in creating an outline, distilling an author’s arguments and re-articulating them in my own words.  


This style of reflection, focused on careful distillation and not  transcription (I’m no Pierre Menard), is a terrific way to draw parallels with other experiences and develop critical thinking.  Reflecting on a masterclass you attended could allow you to work out a larger idea about music from a specific insight describing the problems encountered in learning a marimba solo could remind you of a great practice technique your teacher might have mentioned in your lesson in a class years ago.  Reflection can CREATE epiphanies. Just look at master detective Hercule Poirot, who reflects upon his observations during a case, draws connections between the cast of rogues which inevitably surrounds him, and crafts well timed epiphanies:

Poirot Does it Again!

A point of inflection for KU students.  Hope they reflected!

For performers, frequent reflection on rehearsals, lessons, practice sessions, etc  focus longterm projects by helping us articulate major themes amidst the daily weed-whacking of practice. In February, KU was lucky to host a masterclass from MET timpanist Jason Haaheim (BTW, check out his blog), and during his information-packed presentation I reflected of the power of reflection in learning maximization (I promise I was paying attention!).  I loved his insight that an astute learner brings their teacher problems to solve, not mysteries to diagnose, and that a single lesson should take creative student weeks to fully actionize.  Jason highlighted the importance of  immediate and focused feedback in the practice room and long-term tracking at the computer in learning and retaining new information.  I would add that prose is also a valuable technique for analyzing progress within the practice room, a helpful change of medium that might jostle free some revelatory observations.     

Reflection also allows us to work towards not making the same mistakes twice.  Recently, I’ve been trying to use Carol Dweck’s notion of the growth mindset to dispel my anxieties and calm negative self-talk.  (Productivity guru Astrid Baumgartner has a great summary of Dweck’s writing as it applies to practicing musicians).  While I look forward to unpacking those ideas more fully in the coming months, I was struck by the degree to which a growth mindset can be enabled and reinforced through reflection.  Reflection serves as reframing, as positive empowerment.  “I did more than I thought! I’m not at my goal yet, but I’m taking steps to get there.” At the same time, reflection is a way for critically thinking artists to evaluate and keep tabs on their process.       

This notion that a dialogue between action and reflection can empower creativity is especially important to those of us who struggle with doubt and indecision.  Self doubt is a constant in my artistic projects; always lurking, but rarely articulated, a silent partner to the types of projects I aspire to as a percussionist, educator, collaborator, and curator. Because of this, I’m resolving to be more public with my own reflections with the hope that they will serve as a counterbalance to the cloudy glaucoma of doubt and keep me rolling.  Perhaps by publicizing what’s on my plate and reflecting publicly (although, let’s be honest…) on how the issues could be emblematic or representative of the kinds of wonderful creative collaborations happening all around the world, I can empower myself to think more clearly about my own artistic practice and agitate my little grey cells.

Community Building through Commissioning: Catharsis

Today opens David Crowell week for New Morse Code.  On the docket:

I met David at the Bang on a Can Summer Music Festival, where where Vicki Ray, Isabelle O’Connell, Brian Archinal and myself premiered his Mapfumo.  Since then, I’ve enjoyed following his work. He’s a fantastic performer and deft composer, touring with the Phillip Glass Ensemble on saxophone and playing guitar with Empyrean Atlas. I love the vitality of Empyrean Atlas’ music, the way in which the loops of West African-inspired riffs conspire to create deep harmonic textures.  Layers of rhythms become a sustained texture which drives the music inexorably forward.  No long tones in sight, but larger lines are inferred through the repetition gradual harmonic change. 

I followed with interest his album-length project with Brian Archinal, and when Ian Rosenbaum asked me to join an all-star consortium to commission a marimba+electronics solo from David, I jumped at the chance. I like the way in which the resulting work—Celestial Sphere—blended the two aspects of David’s music: long layers of slowly changing harmony, and fast-driving hocketing rhythms with asymmetrical verve. David expanded these ideas in his Music for Percussion Quartet, a really killer four-movement work.  In these percussion works, David takes interlocking patterns and slides them out of their grid, using clashing rhythms (quintuplets against sextuplets against 16th notes, for example) to create clouds of harmony. As it turns out, marimbas and vibraphones are well-suited to repeatable loops of fast, short notes.  I hear Sandbox Percussion’s recording of Music for Percussion Quartet is coming soon.  I can’t wait

After being in touch with David about performances of Celestial Sphere and Point Reyes in Kansas, Hannah and I asked him if he’d be interested in working on a piece for cello and percussion.  Since New Morse Code’s mission is to build community through music-making, we organized a consortium of 19 cellists and percussionists from across the country to commission David.  

We wanted a work that could be performed by the two of us, but could also be a platform for collaboration with our friends and colleagues.  Catharsis is written for 2 live performers and a number of pre-recorded cello, percussion, and vocal tracks.  The work can also be performed by 4 players, with reduced electronic forces. 

The demos David sent us sound amazing, with a great combination of vitality and sensitivity. After receiving a final draft a few weeks ago, Hannah and I have been busy preparing our parts.  I’m dusting off my 7:8 and knocking the rust off of my drum set chops. This week, David is coming up to Avaloch Farm Music Institute to workshop the piece.  After a few days, we’ll head to Guilford Sound for two days of recording.  I can’t wait to see how the whole thing sounds.

 Time to practice!

Time to practice!

Much of the work New Morse Code does is centered on building community through music.  In many instances, we think of relationships between performers and audiences, between composers and performers, and between communities and the common issues that unite them.  What’s exiting about Catharsis is that we’re working to build community among cellists and percussionists.  It’s been a joy getting to know other musicians through the commissioning process.  And, since the piece is performable by a quartet, I hope to play with everyone involved in the near future. Stay tuned for the results!


NMUSA Update

Thanks to support from New Music USA, Sarah Frisof, Hannah Collins, Ingrid Stölzel and I spent three days at the Lansing Correctional Facility this May. We worked with inmates on engaging their creativity, composing new music, and refining their own compositions.  Daniel Pesca contributed a brilliant piece remotely.  I continue to be humbled and inspired by this time, and struggle to encapsulate in words how this project changed me.  Luckily, Sarah and Hannah have provided some eloquent prose. 

I am happy that our project is featured on the NM USA website.

Find out more here:



Thanks to Second Inversion for premiering my video of Mark Applebaum's Aphasia.  Video, as always, by the amazing Four/Ten Media. We recorded this way back in February 2017, and I'm delighted with the final video.

Full Coverage

Including a short interview

I loved answering Maggie Molloy's request for 2 short paragraphs with a gigantic brain barf about how training as a percussionist actually does a fairly good job preparing one for learning a piece for solo singer with tape.

If you're STILL interested…

here's a little program note I wrote about the piece:

Mark Applebaum (b. 1967) is a musical inventor and consummate original thinker whose music combines the unrelenting rigor of post-war European Modernism with a strong sense of the ridiculous and whimsical. He zooms obsessively and exactingly close to the mundane, finding theatrical and dramatic elements in his own focus. Aphasia, a language impairment condition, typically results from brain trauma, resulting in the inability to comprehend and produce language.

Applebaum calls his Aphasia (2010) a depiction of “expressive paralysis” inherent in confronting the act of composition anew. At the same time, the piece also enacts aphasia. A single performer gestures with what Applebaum calls “a kind of alien, pre-verbal, and rhythmic sign language.” Their motions are synced precisely with pre-recorded vocal fragments, alternately frenetic and calm, sharp and dulcet—gestural neologisms that appear deeply ingrained but meaningless. All the while, the performer is frozen; “automatic, robotic, performed, steady, practical, habitual and silent.” We watch and listen but cannot comprehend. Finally, we escape. Gestures and words align semiotically, counting in ascending numerals in multiple languages, creating a direction that seemed so unthinkable earlier.

Lastly, a reminder of what kept me motivated through the recording and editing process:



Avaloch 2018

Getting excited to head back up to Avaloch Farm for another season of inspiring chamber music and innovative collaborations. 

Here's the full list of ensembles and composers joining us this season

In addition to learning from all the fantastic groups through osmosis, Avaloch is a key time for developing my own projects.  This year I'm excited for:

Stay up to date by following Avaloch Farm on Instagram and FB

Janky Marimba

Super excited for a new piece from frequent collaborator Robert Honstein.  We’ve assembled a consortium of 34 percussionists from around the world, and Robert should finish a brand new prepared marimba solo by June 1.   

Robert and I have been collaborating since 2011, when New Morse Code's first-ever concert featured Patter:

Since then, NMC has commissioned two pieces from Robert, recorded three of his works (one of which we did in three different instrumentations), and spent many hours together at Avaloch Farm.  Robert played at our album release show, and in April, KU's Percussion Group presented what Robert claimed was the first concert dedicated solely to his music!

Our next collaboration is a long time coming.  In preparation for what would eventually become Down Down Baby, Robert and I met up in Boston, took over Maria Finkelmeier's marimba, and recorded a variety of crazy sounds on the instrument.  We hit every part of it, put stuff on top of it, and generally went to town. Robert ended up going in a different way with Down Down Baby—instead of two people on one marimba, we got a piece for two people on one cello—but he kept the samples.

 NB: KU Band stand is  required  for successful performance 

NB: KU Band stand is required for successful performance 

The idea was to expand the sonic possibilities of the marimba without having to add a bunch of additional instruments.  We decided to “prepare” the instrument by laying various items on the accidental keyboard.  Originally, we thought about removing all the black notes from the keyboard, but found that a little bit too restrictive.  In its current configuration, the Janky Marimba (as we’re calling it) allows for access to all the accidentals and naturals on the keyboard.  Some are buzzy, some are clear, and some are muted and dull.  In addition, we’ve assembled. Quite the arsenal of other sounds, including:

  • Metal bowl inside tambourine
  • 2 roto-tom frames
  • small food service container
  • 2 jamblocks (higher one not pictured) 
  • 3 bottles
  • teeny tiny woodblock
  • guiro
  • small metal shaker

And my personal favorite, the kick pedal-actived IKEA Filur tub, first seen in Robert’s Down Down Baby:

I’m excited for the next chapter in collaboration between Robert and myself.  Stay tuned for information about the premiere and eventual recording!


Summer is…Over?

Back from an amazing and largely un-blogged summer.  

Fabulous time at Avaloch with Hannah, Tonia, and some of our best friends.  I learned:

Thanks to Mike Kirkendoll for having me as a guest faculty member at the Cortona Sessions this year.  We had a blast, with plenty of music, wine, cinghiale, and joy (maybe not in that exact order) to go around.

Looking forward to another exciting year at KU.  I’m excited to welcome some great friends (Triplepoint Trio, Robert Honstein, Matthew Barnson, and the Yale Percussion Collective), play TWO (not just one) performance of JLA’s Inuksuit, pre-release our little album, and represent Jayhawks at the annual PAS gathering in Indiana.  KUPG has another epic year planned, so stay glued to this space.  



Hannah and I were honored to be a part of Martin Bresnick's 70th birthday celebration at National Sawdust last month.  He was and is one of the most influential mentors in my life, and it was a joy to hear more of his eloquent remarks.  Songs of the Mouse People is based on Kafka's last short story, about a community of mice and their diva Josephine.  Mouse People has been a NMC staple since our first "want to play something together?" emails, and I'm proud to keep playing softer, softer, softer.