The Snare Drum, Nostalgia, and My Former Teacher
During much of my PhD program in music composition and theory, my percussion playing was really out of shape. In the midst of some demanding coursework, I barely had the bandwidth to practice for outside performing projects I was hired for, so a lot of fundamentals practice fell by the wayside. This summer, now that the doctorate is done, I’ve been spending time practicing snare drum fundamentals and I have to say… it’s been really fulfilling, but not in the way I would expect.
It’s fulfilling physically, of course; it feels good to refine technical basics. But it’s also been emotionally fulfilling. I’m also going back through these old method/étude books that I’ve had since high school, and it’s brought back a lot of memories, particularly those from my first year of undergrad.
I arrived at the Cleveland Institute of Music as a percussion student in the fall of 2006. At the time, I loved playing keyboard percussion and timpani, but I was terrible at the snare drum, to the point where I don’t even know if I really understood just how deficient I was on the instrument. It is the first instrument most percussionists learn, and in many ways, it is the most unforgiving. Every technical deficit is readily apparent.
That first year, I began studying with the late Richard Weiner, principal percussionist of the Cleveland Orchestra, who was absolutely mad about the snare drum. Each week he would write in my spiral notebook the etudes that I needed to learn for the subsequent week: Peters, Stone, Delécluse, Wilcoxin, Pratt, and a selection of his own exercises that were painstakingly handwritten and had been photocopied and re-photocopied and re-photocopied.
Each week I would work my butt off just trying to get through all the material. Progress felt glacial, and although I didn’t realize it at the time, I still was very much learning *how* to practice, so I was not always very efficient or intentional in what I was doing. And each week I would come to my lesson, and play through the material, and Weiner would just slice apart my deficiencies. He would sit on the opposite side of the room, demonstrating his technical and musical ideas on this ancient Remo drum pad with a pair of even older Vic Firth SD1 sticks (both were marked with his initials, “RW.” He had a habit of marking everything with his initials, even his favorite music stand at The Cleveland Orchestra). If what I had prepared wasn’t up-to-snuff, he would have me repeat that material for another week. If it was good, or even adequate, he would send me away with a fresh list of exercises and music to learn. This weekly cycle came to feel sisyphean in nature.
And the thing was, at the time, I would get so frustrated with myself and with him. In that year, I think he told me that something sounded good only a small handful of times. At that time, I felt like I never would or could be good enough.
Over a decade later, as I play through all of these materials again, and look at all the notes written in the margins of these pages, I’m overwhelmingly touched by how devoted he was as a teacher. In every minute of those lessons he was fully present, and truly dedicated to helping his students improve to the best of their ability. Even after nearly 50 years in the Cleveland Orchestra, his passion and energy for music was infectious. And, in all of my moments of struggle with the snare drum, even when he was exacting in his standards, he never once gave me the impression that I was incapable of success. It’s only in retrospect that I’m able to fully appreciate this — that so often, he had faith in me when I did not have faith in myself.
Richard Weiner passed away in 2018, and I don’t know what else to say, other than I wish I had kept in touch more, and that I miss him. Tell the people you care about how you feel, and often.
[originally posted as a Twitter thread, 1 August 2019]