Kenneth McGrath has been teaching percussion in the Community School since 2016. Ken is originally from Kansas City, MO.
This interview has been lightly edited for content, clarity, and length.
What brought you to Colburn?
First of all, certainly the opportunity to teach at this institution. It’s a school that I’ve been aware of forever, ever since I moved back to LA, and certainly as a performer at Disney Hall, whenever I’m fortunate enough to play with the Chamber Orchestra. When they said they were looking for someone to do a little more developmentally with the Community School, it was like, absolutely.
How has your experience here been?
It’s been wonderful. I really appreciate that from the minute I was brought on board, I felt like I was getting a very warm welcome, which is not always the case. I’ve also taught in very large university settings and it’s so big, you kind of get lost in the shuffle.
And it’s been very exciting, especially in the percussion realm of the Community School, to see what an immediate commitment they’ve made to it. The percussion world is a bit of a special needs thing. We have to have so much gear and rooms large enough to do all the things that we do, and so far, the school has been great. The parents, the kids, the administration, all the colleagues that I’ve gotten to know, many of which I already knew anyway just from gigging in Los Angeles, have been great too.
Why did you choose percussion?
I’ve always been a tapper, from a very young age. There was always music in our house. I’m the only musician, but my dad and my brother were always listening to records. Piano was my first instrument, and I’m very grateful that it was. I encourage all of my students to take piano because it really does lay a great foundation. In fourth grade, they came around with the instruments like, hey, what do you want to do in band? And to be honest, initially I always had a fascination with the trombone, but especially as a little kid I had tons of problems with asthma. I just didn’t have any breath support, and I tried it, and agh. And then it was like, let’s try the drum thing. And it stuck. And really from the get-go, I really loved it. I had my little pair of sticks and this really basic drum pad and I think I drove my parents crazy because I was always playing it.
What are some skills and challenges unique to percussionists?
Well, we have certain functions. This actually answers it right here: It depends on what ensemble you’re talking about. The percussion world is so vast, so some of our functions and challenges, let’s say if we’re playing in an orchestra, are vastly different than if we’re playing in a rock band. Or even if we’re playing drum set in a jazz band. Or if we’re playing in an West African ensemble. So I would say maybe the thing that makes us so unique is, the sky’s the limit. You can go your whole life and barely scratch the surface on all the cultures that use percussion.
Something that a lot of people don’t realize is that as percussionists, we have to be really organized, because we have all of these different types of mallets. Like, if you go to a concert, oftentimes you’ll see a percussionist that has gosh, 10, 20 instruments that they’re responsible for and you just really have to know how to navigate how to set things up. For instance, if you’re playing a Broadway show, maybe you’ve looked into the pit and seen the percussion setups for that. You’re surrounded by instruments and it’s really like choreography. Like okay, I have to turn this page here while I’m setting this mallet down, and then I have to pick this up, and meanwhile I have to have the shaker in my right hand while I’m changing the B-flat to an E-flat on the timpani. And that’s obviously a professional level, but even at a student level, you just have to be organized. You have to know how to set up wisely; you have to know how to work as a team, especially if you’re in a section in a band or an orchestra. Organization is a big one.
What do you think is the importance of contemporary music and working with living composers?
It’s something that I have been extremely fortunate to be involved with, certainly as a student but then also as a professional. For me personally, it really feeds the soul to be able to work firsthand with some of the amazing composers that I’ve had a chance to work with, and to premiere a piece, to have kind of that first crack. That’s really exciting. I’ve been so lucky to either work under or be on premieres with John Adams, Thomas Adès, Unsuk Chin, Esa-Pekka [Salonen].
For me, it’s a twofold thing. Personally, it’s extremely satisfying and gratifying, and then in a bigger picture, you have to do that to perpetuate classical music. And I have to say, that’s one of the great things about being in LA. You have a great culture and establishment of both new music/modern music and standard repertoire, whatever you want to call it. Those two things are able to coexist. I think that happens better here than almost anywhere else in the world, certainly in the US. That’s been my experience, and it’s great.
Have you found that audiences in LA are more likely to want to hear standard repertoire or new music?
It’s been my experience here that listeners here want to be challenged, I truly believe that. It also depends on the ensemble and the environment of course, but I feel like especially here in Los Angeles, audiences want a challenge. Not everybody, of course.
I’m very grateful for that as a musician, because I think it would be kind of hard to be in another location around the world or in the country where maybe that’s not the case. As a percussionist, we’re kind of the new kids on the block as far as concert instruments. I mean, we’re the oldest kids on the block when it comes to instruments, period, but we kind of live in a modern language with a lot of what we play, so I’m grateful that audiences want to hear that. From the percussion angle, I find that audiences are fascinated by what we do, because there’s a visual element to percussion.
How do you think students can get their foot in the door of the LA music scene?
I only know my own experience. So for me, it was a lot of patience and persistence. Being concerned with your craft, rather than getting the gig. It’s been my experience that if you take care of business with your playing, and just being a good colleague and all that kind of stuff, hopefully the other stuff will follow. There’s no guarantees. Also, being flexible. Coming out of school, I had a very defined idea of what I would be doing professionally and it has turned out to be wildly different than when I came out of school.
Lastly, always realizing that you never know what one thing will lead to another. I can’t tell you how many times I was maybe playing on a concert or whatever, and I always made sure that I was prepared and sounded good, and then two years later, someone out of the blue is like, ‘Hey I remember that. Do you want to do this?’ You just never know where it’s going to lead.
You have a Percussion Ensembles concert coming up. What’s going to be on the concert?
This is something that fortunately we were able to start up when I first joined the school. I truly feel that percussion ensemble is a great bridge between students’ individual lessons and larger ensemble playing. It’s our version of chamber music, essentially. It’s pure percussion chamber music. Sometimes in a large ensemble, the percussionists, well, they sit around a lot. So it’s this great opportunity for percussionists to really get to play in a more intimate setting.
So Tuesday, we’re going to have our spring concert. We do a concert every semester and this one will feature both ensembles as they always do, the intermediate percussion ensemble and then the chamber percussion ensemble. At the end, we do one piece with everybody. The theme of this concert is Rhythm and Grooves, and so it’s all works dedicated to various aspects of one of our principle duties as drummers and percussionists: keeping time, and keeping a groove. Our guest artist this spring is Ted Atkatz, who we all know at Colburn, and he’s going to be featured drum set player on a piece by Chris Rouse called Bonham, which is an homage to Led Zeppelin’s drummer, Bonham. It should be great.
We’ve had wonderful concerts here all along and this will be no exception. It should be fun. It gives folks a chance to see a lot of different types of music, different instruments, and just different sounds, different colors you might not ever hear anywhere else. Percussion ensemble can be pretty unique.
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