Sticking It Out: From Juilliard to the Orchestra Pit: A Percussionists's Memoir269
Sticking It Out: From Juilliard to the Orchestra Pit: A Percussionists's Memoir269
When Patti Niemi was ten years old, all the children in her school music class lined up to choose their instruments. Boy after boy chose drums, and girl after girl chose flute—that is, until it was Patti’s turn. From that point onward, Patti devoted her life to mastering the percussive arts. Cymbals, snare drum, marimba, timpani, chimes: she practiced them all, and in 1983, she entered Juilliard, the most prestigious music conservatory in in the world.
Set against the backdrop of a rapidly changing New York City in the 1980s, Sticking It Out recounts Patti’s years mastering her craft and struggling to make it in a cutthroat race to a coveted job in an orchestra. Along the way, she has to compete with friends, face her own crippling anxiety, and confront the delicate, and sometimes perilous, balance of power between teachers and their students.
Bringing us inside a world that most of us never get to see, Patti’s vivid memoir is “an eye-opening tale of demanding teachers, grueling practice schedules, severe performance anxiety and bias against ‘girl drummers’—a funny, poignant first-person account of the fierce commitment it takes to succeed in classical music” (San Jose Mercury News).
“One of the funniest-ever classical-music books . . . and certainly among the best written.” —The Philadelphia Inquirer
“A shattered-mirror insight into the bizarre world of hitting things with sticks.” —Neil Peart, bestselling author, lyricist, and drummer for Rush
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... there was practicing.
For those of us who began in the fall of 1983, our formal introduction to Juilliard took place in the school's recital hall on a soggy September morning. Onstage was acting president Gideon Waldrop, standing in for last year's president, Peter Mennin, who had recently dropped dead. This, to paraphrase, was our orientation:
Whether it's playing music, acting, or dancing, you are what you do. We don't care about your private life. Make the school look good.
Welcome to Juilliard. Now go practice.
And practice I did — relentlessly, persistently. Quantity mattered; there was no time to waste. For all the practicing I would do over the years, I never went at it as desperately as I did those first few weeks at Juilliard.
It would be reasonable to guess that getting accepted to Juilliard might make me relax for a while. I could walk the hallowed halls with their orange wallpaper and think, I'm attending the most famous music school in the world. This is where I will learn how to win an audition. Reasonable, but wrong. My thoughts were about math: there were about 50 orchestras in the country in which one could earn a living, three or four percussionists per orchestra, and, at any given audition, about 75 others like me who would show up for one opening. I waited with my fellow vultures around the country for death or retirement to make room for us.
The truth was, most of the students I'd been sitting with at orientation would not get jobs in music. We were beginning a long winnowing process — those who ran out of time, money, stamina, or courage would fall by the roadside. This knowledge filled me with a creeping dread. I was a walking piece of anxiety-filled meat, and the only offensive against that fear was to practice.
So I practiced. Unlike music itself, there was no romance here — learning to play an instrument was the point at which art collided with sport. You had to be comfortable with solitary confinement and endless, mind-numbing repetition. Imagine an uninitiated apartment dweller hearing that a violinist is moving in next door. He might be expecting beautiful music to accompany life's mundane activities, maybe a nice Bach sonata while washing the dishes. What he'll get instead is scales, three octaves up and three back down, major then minor, slowly, and then arpeggios, followed by some technical études. Just about the time the neighbor is ready to open the window and leap to his death, the musician might finally begin learning one of those beautiful Bach sonatas, excruciatingly slowly, with missteps for weeks before it becomes a polished product. Next day, start again with the scales.
Finding a place to practice was a sport all its own. There were 20 other drummers crowding the halls with me that fall — too many for the number of available jobs or practice rooms. We had only two studios dedicated to us: big windowless rooms anchoring each end of our hallway and filled with the odd tools of a percussionist's trade: xylophones, timpani, marimbas, bells, chimes, snare drums, tom-toms, music stands. There was nothing on the white walls — no pictures or posters, no diplomas or artwork, no distractions. We could sign up for only six hours a week in these rooms. Six hours a day wouldn't have been enough, so I sought out every empty hollow that squat little building had to offer. I took a tambourine up to the roof and practiced while watching a man run laps on the roof of the Chinese embassy across 66th Street. When the artificial light took over from the sun, I could see Broadway slice the crosstown streets, one blazing X after another. There were four floors of basement, so I took the elevator down with my snare drum and camped out in whatever cinder-block corridor happened to be deserted. Sometimes three or four of us would practice in the hallway in front of our studios, standing ten feet apart and trying to ignore each other.
Except for 8 a.m., there were very few times when I got to school and stepped off the elevator on the third floor and didn't hear practicing going on. I would return from picking up some dinner, and by the time I came around the corner and passed the harp studio, I could hear xylophone or timpani or tambourine in the hallway. I knew it wasn't the same person practicing all the time, but it didn't matter — it was a reminder that someone was practicing and I wasn't. If I went for lunch or dinner, someone was still upstairs practicing. If I went to class, if I went to the bathroom, if I spent five minutes trying to clean up my locker, someone else was spending that time practicing.
A non-musician might ask: practice what? What, exactly, did "percussion" mean? When a regular person asked me what I played, sometimes I said, "Drums," sometimes "Percussion." If saying "drums" conjured an image of me behind a drum set performing with KISS, saying "percussion" elicited a stare as blank as a sheet of paper. Any accurate explanation of the instruments involved — drums, of course, but also xylophone, vibraphone, tambourine, triangle, and anything else you could shake or smack — was usually met with "Oh."
I heard a story from one of my new colleagues, Frank, a fellow percussionist, about an experience he had in the emergency room. One winter day, he skidded on an icy patch of sidewalk in front of his building and reached out to break his fall. What he grabbed was a railing with a serrated top ridge, a decorative row of pointed shapes designed to keep pigeons from perching there. It sliced his hand like a bread knife. When he got to the ER, he used his unmangled hand to whip out his Juilliard id and lay it on the counter in front of the triage nurse. "I'm a Juilliard pianist," he told her, and he was promptly stitched up by the hospital's best hand surgeon. Frank, though in pain and shock, had thought quickly. "Juilliard" was easily understood; "pianist" was also immediately clear. In the time it would have taken to explain what percussion was, Frank would've bled out.
At Julliard, I didn't have to explain percussion. My fellow students were narrowly focused, unathletic, apolitical, average-looking geeks. We may not have had the highest sat scores, or even bothered to take the sats — we may not all have known what "sat" stood for — but every one of the students, even the dancers and actors, knew what percussion was.
* * *
If the odds were bad and the work hard, going to a music conservatory instead of a real college at least meant the decisions I had to make were limited. Nothing about classes or majors or even social situations. When to practice? All the time. Now and later. In high school, spending that much time alone was isolating and — at least for girls — isolation in high school felt like all the other baboons had moved on while you were sleeping and left you on the savannah to fend for yourself. I wasn't good at being in high school. I wasn't popular and, worse, I cared that I wasn't popular. I didn't know how to become popular like Suzanne Moore, forever immortalized in a yearbook photo in which she showed off her savvy, her style: it is a close-up of her standing on the football field behind the school, squinting in the Saturday-afternoon sun and wearing an outfit — red jacket and black turtleneck — that matched the red background and black tongue on the Rolling Stones ticket she held next to her smiling face. That was being successful at high school, and no amount of practicing would make me better at it. Having Juilliard as a laser-focused goal was a gift; I wasn't happy, so I was living in the future where it was better.
Now my friends and I were toddlers at parallel play, alone together. Every morning I'd show up at seven-thirty and sit in the lobby with Caroline. Since we'd met three years earlier at a national music camp, she'd been both my best friend and my competition. My first image on these mornings was of her hair: straight, black, parted in the middle, it would cover the sides of her face as she bent forward to focus on the lid of her coffee cup. Coffee ubiquity was decades away; we didn't yet have lids with the perfect opening for a mouth. These were the blue and white cups that decorated the desks in police procedurals. Caroline had to take the lid off in order to tear a perfect half circle on the edge. That accomplishment might cause her to shuffle her feet or maybe give a half smile, showing, at most, a few of her perfectly straight teeth. No more than that though — a full smile would've been aggressively cheerful considering the hour and the amount of work ahead of us. We'd spend a half hour on our bench, drinking coffee and orange juice and eating bagels while the lobby filled up with the rest of the early-morning crowd. The only people allowed upstairs before eight were the blind piano tuners who would ply their trade during the only hours of silence a music school would afford them.
At exactly eight a.m. we crammed ourselves into the elevators, Caroline and I getting off at the third floor, the pianists continuing on to the fourth floor to hog their favorite pianos for the day. Caroline and I would stop at our lockers — giant closet-sized compartments that held our music, sticks, tambourines, triangles, snare drums — then head to whatever room or hallway or storage area we thought would give us a few hours of uninterrupted time.
As the days became shorter and colder, I became more neurotic. Everyone around me practiced furiously; everyone around me was driven to succeed. I began taking efficiency to a more obsessive level. After English, my only academic class, I would feel so desperate about having wasted the last hour and a half that I would run down the fifth-floor hallway, past the famous Ms. Dorothy DeLay's violin studio and the prodigies and parents who were always waiting to see her, past the glass doors of the library, and down the two flights of Stairway E to start practicing again.
Before the fall became winter, I would sometimes walk up Broadway to Vinnie's Pizza for dinner, then take my slice of grease and cheese and eat it on the way back to school. While I walked, I would practice rhythms in my head. This meant I had to keep steady time in my feet, which involved cutting a path through hundreds of people in the course of those 16 round-trip blocks, scouting ahead to find a path so I wouldn't have to slow down. Or I would get a sandwich at Sims Deli and eat that while walking around the fourth floor, looking for an empty practice room. I'd discovered I could practice in one of those rooms after dinner, when so many other drummers were looking for practice space on the third floor. The violinists and pianists didn't welcome me to the fourth floor. I never talked to any of them — I stepped over their outstretched legs as they sat in the hall, taking a smoking break — but they could not have appreciated that I was banging away in one of their rooms. The walls of these rooms were covered with heavy gold curtains, but that did little to muffle the sound of a snare drum or tambourine — or worse, cymbals, which to a pianist sounded more like construction noise than music.
* * *
One morning at the end of October, I took a practice pad and stool to the bottom of Stairway E. I'd discovered I could practice there even if someone was practicing above me on the third-floor landing. Nobody ever went down there; it was just an emergency exit. The only light came from an air shaft. The bottom of the shaft was covered with all the debris that had been pushed through the wire grating — tissues, plastic cups, pencils, gum, cigarette butts. I set up next to the exit door. The muffled noise of traffic droned in from Broadway. On the music stand, my metronome clicked.
I'd been practicing rolls and exercises for about two hours when a fly landed on the corner of my pad. I pushed my stick toward it, just touching it with the tip, and it flew away. Soon another appeared, and then more, lazily landing on the rubber part of the pad, flying away when I touched them, circling slowly above me, then landing again. I did this for a while, their buzzing low and constant in my ears, then decided to reach out and touch one with my hand. There was nothing there. I had been hallucinating.
I was thrilled. It was probably an indication of sleep deprivation — I was too anxious and excited to waste much time with my eyes closed — but I took the imaginary flies as a sign I was working hard.
At this point, I had no opportunity to prove in a performance that my effort was paying off. Playing a concert was ephemeral enough, the opposite of doing laundry, a chore I secretly loved with its piles of folded accomplishment stacked in front of me at the end of the task. But at least playing a concert was an end point, something to practice toward. I was placed in the lowest of the four school orchestras, the non-performing Conductor's Orchestra. It was as if we were part of a post-Depression make-work program, taking pieces we were not ready to attempt — Mahler's Fifth Symphony, Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition — and slopping our way through them for six hours a week, only to then put them away and pick up something else. The conducting students of the school were the ones who led us through these majestic orchestral works, the blind leading the blind. Without a concert to gauge my progress, hallucinating flies was at least proof of my effort.
I hadn't been so focused even six months before. Just before graduating from high school I'd had my last physical with my pediatrician. Dr. Marx was nasty: his teeth, hair, and skin were stained yellow from the smoke of the cigarettes he never stopped sucking on, not even during my exam. He had an ashtray next to his typewriter so he could park his cigarette long enough to listen to my lungs.
Even though he was nearing retirement, it bothered him that his patients had already started to request his younger partner. In an effort to stay current, he decided he would ask about my mental health.
"What do you like to do? What are your hobbies?" Dr. Marx asked, blowing smoke.
"Well, I practice a lot," I said. Then I elaborated: youth orchestra, lessons, comprehensive music theory exam, piano.
Did I belong to any clubs at school?
Yes, I did. Band, jazz band, and orchestra.
He leapt on this. "Do you ever get so involved in music that you lose track of time? Do you ever stop playing your instrument only to 'wake up' and wonder where you are?"
"Do you have a boyfriend?"
"What are his interests?"
Having sex and smoking pot.
"Skiing," I said.
This seemed to reassure him. At least my boyfriend was not a musician. Exam over.
I was mortified. Never once had I lost time while practicing. I always knew where I was. My boyfriend was one of the amusical masses. This phlegm producer, Dr. Marx, had just pointed out my biggest shortcoming: I was unfocused.
Now, at Juilliard, the knuckles on my left hand sported permanently tattooed bruises from where the cymbal rested; I practiced so much tambourine, I scraped the skin off my right-hand knuckles and got blood on the head. I had hallucinated flies.
I had nothing to apologize for.CHAPTER 2
In the beginning ...
Every Sunday of my childhood, I was dragged to church.
One week when I was in seventh grade, our congregation had a picnic. Membership was declining, and they were attempting to make religion more casual and recreational. After the service, we ate a potluck lunch and then our pastor divided us into groups. We were going to have discussions.
In my group was a man named Mr. White. His daughter was in my Sunday-school class. He sat across from me at the picnic table, squinting in the sunlight.
"I have a question," he said, kicking off the discussion. "How could it be that Jesus was both man and God? Is He a man or a God?" Mr. White slammed his hand on the table. "I have a harder time with that than with the virgin birth!"
The adults at my table began throwing out their thoughts on Jesus: man or God. I wondered if Mr. White was so dramatic about everything. I imagined him at home, holding a tomato aloft and asking his wife, Is it a vegetable or a fruit? I just don't know!
Mr. White's passion for the subject made me aware of my own lack. In all those years, nothing about church had led me to experience a single spiritual feeling. Not the rote memorization, not the stained-glass windows, not the praying, not the Sunday school lessons. Not even my fantasy that the pointy wooden cross hanging above the pastor's head would fall and slice him in half.
It's not that I would've been able to say what was missing. I only knew that I hated going to church, and every Sunday my sisters and I would complain that we didn't want to go, and our parents said we had to go, and we'd sit in the pew and sulk, and our parents would sit in the pew and beg God for better children.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Sticking it Out"
Copyright © 2016 Pattie Niemi.
Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1. ... there was practicing.,
2. In the beginning ...,
3. The Peculiar Institution,
4. Stage Fright, Part I: The Seeds,
5. Competition and the Tribe,
6. Stage Fright, Part II: Full-Blown Flower,
7. Real Pretend Job,
8. Girl Drummer,
10. Petty Tyrants,
11. Learning to Fail (aka Audition #1),
13. Stage Fright Part III: Constant Low-Grade Fear (with acute flare-ups),
14. Tribal Breakup,
18. Brave New World,
19. Waiting for Auditions,
21. Losing It,
22. I Believe,
About the Author,