By Becky St. Clair
(Photo taken by Brian Kyle)
Brian Simpson, PUC’s new drum and percussion instructor, was a fifth-generation Sacramento kid, though today he lives and teaches middle school music in Vacaville. In the 1980s he attended Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, and returned in 1989 to begin the American side of his music career. Today that means serving as principal timpanist for North State Symphony in Chico, California, teaching part time middle school music, and now part time for both PUC and Paulin Center for the Arts, based out of the department of music.
We caught Simpson between classrooms full of energetic young musicians and asked him to tell us a little bit about himself. Pro tip: Don’t miss the part where he tells us about his fold-up timpani.
What role did music play in your childhood?
Music was everything. My mother was a semi-professional singer and played piano. My siblings are all doing music. I started hitting pots and pans at the age of 4, and my mom put me in snare lessons two years later. I sat behind my first drum set when I was nine years old, and I’ve never looked back. Music has taken me places I never would have gone and allowed me to meet people I never would have met. My wife is a musician so I wouldn’t have this lovely human in my life if it wasn’t for music. It encircles everything I do and everything I am.
When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I knew at 13 I wanted to be a musician. That was the year a drummer at the shop where I took lessons introduced me to my first professional ensemble concert. I saw my first marimba and xylophone and timpani, and when I heard all the possibilities, not to mention the sparkle and coolness of percussion, that was it. I just knew.
When and how did you realize you wanted to teach others to love it as much as you do?
Honestly, teaching found me more than I found teaching. After college I was having a hard time finding any gigs, so I started subbing for some of the teachers in the city. To my surprise, I found that I liked it. So I went back to school—night classes while also teaching—and got my credentials. I’ve been teaching 33 years now and I still have most of my marbles, so I’d say it’s been a success!
What is the best piece of music you’ve ever performed, and why did you love it so much?
This is an impossible question! But since the last 19 years of my career have revolved around timpani, I’ll say Beethoven’s 7th, which I’ve been privileged to perform three times now.
When you play Beethoven a lot, you begin to realize his music is a series of trick questions, thinly veiled, with seeming simplicity. This is in no way, shape, or form, accurate. I have to know not just my own part, but everyone else’s part, too. It’s so sporadic—you play at the end of phrases, standing out, accenting, under something else—you have to know it inside and out and I spend weeks in the score with a pencil before I even get near a timpani.
Specifically what I love about Beethoven’s 7th is the second movement—the slow movement. I want this piece of music played at my funeral. He composed this particular piece after his bout with suicide ideation, and as a reuslt it’s just so expressive and sad and mournful, but it’s the most gorgeous, beautiful death. It starts with basses in low tones and builds and builds, and when the timpani come in, they’re all on D, sforzando. The hammer on the nail of the coffin. Just absolutely heart-rending.
What is the weirdest instrument you’ve ever played?
I played the saw once…but that’s not my answer to this question. Last year with the North State Symphony I was a typewriter soloist (no, really) and I turned it into a comedy bit. I used my dad’s typewriter that he used to write a dissertation in 1957 and it was awesome.
What is the most challenging thing about being a percussionist?
Preparation. Knowing what is required before you even walk into rehearsal. If you’re not prepared you have no business being there. That’s true of any instrument. Any field, really, but I take this notion very seriously in my own work.
What do you think is the most common misconception about percussionists and drummers?
That it’s easy. And everyone thinks they can do it. When you’re playing a wind or string instrument, you’re using one or two hands to play. Organists, pianists, and percussionists often use both hands and both feet. We’re splitting the halves of our brains into quarters. There’s always this adorable moment when a kid gets behind a drum set and realizes they can’t do it as easily as they thought that makes me smile. Because I know we’ll figure it out, it’s just that we first have to experience that painful “aha!” moment of it sounding terrible.
You play timpani professionally. Most professional musicians have their own instruments they take with them to performances and can practice on between rehearsals; how do you practice timpani between concerts?
I have my own timpani set.
Absolutely. I also own a vibraphone, miscellaneous auxiliary percussion instruments, and what I call my “Steinway” which is actually a massive drum set with around 30 pieces. Normal people have a living room, but we have a music room instead.
But going back to your original question, my timpani are not standard concert timpani, they’re called tour timps. Picture what IKEA would likely sell if they did musical instruments. It’s a thin shell the same size as regular timpani, on an X stand with a compression pedal holding all the lugs with the same tension—just like a regular timpani. (Something like this.) I use them all the time, but they fold up and I can tuck them away like I don’t have them, or take them on tour performances—which I have done.
Wow. Okay, so you’ve got everything you need to practice at home; what is your process for approaching learning a new piece?
Listen to it first. See what it sounds like, without looking at music. Just listen. See where it goes. What is it saying? Especially if it’s a 20th century piece. I have to figure out what I’m listening to and what instruments are used and go from there.
Say you’re on vacation, cruising down a coastal highway in a convertible, no worries nagging at you. What’s blasting through your speakers?
Django Reinhardt. Gyspy jazz. Funny enough there’s no drums in his music, but I love it. My brother introduced me to it when I went to visit him on weekends in Santa Cruz. He had this record and I was at the beach and the jumpy jazz was perfect.
When you’re not practicing, teaching, or otherwise involved with something musical, what are you doing?
I love cooking. I make a mean Indian meal.
Interested in drum and/or percussion lessons with Brian? Contact the department of music office at 707-965-6201 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Not a PUC student? We’ve got you covered! Just contact us.
Learn more about PUC’s music program at puc.edu/music.