Interview with Andrew Reamer, percussion player/drummer

(08. 02. 2019, made by Ellen Moysan in Pittsburgh, PA, USA)


Andrew Reamer



Interviewer: Ellen Moysan

Interviewee: Andrew Reamer, Pittsburgh Symphony Principal Percussion Player


My first question is: what is the definition of inner song, or inner music for you?

What I’ve been able to do is make my living at music and I’ve been here in Pittsburgh 30 years so, 99% of the time, realizing what a composer put on paper, trying to make it come alive but all during that time I also have enjoyed working on and learning the language of jazz, not just in drum set and percussion but also in on jazz vibes, a melodic instrument. So when I think about the inner song, I’m still fascinated by that myself because, in improvisation, with jazz in particular, it’s like there are ideas inside when I hear the chord changes or whatever the parameters are of the music going on, and ideas come, like that, and I want to let them come on the instrument. So, as far as inner voice, that’s the very immediate expression of what I’m hearing right in the moment, it’s what I do when I play jazz, when I improvise. On the stage with the orchestra, it’s more of a cooperation, we’ll all agree on these parameters, in this piece of music and for this moment in time, for this tempo, but yet you can still be yourself, be expressive and let your personality come out often. Because, in the percussion section, each of us is usually the only one playing a particular instrument at a given time.

So, you make a distinction between jazz and orchestra, because in jazz you’re not alone?

I’m not alone in either setting, of course, but in jazz I play with a quartet usually, guitar, vibes, bass and drums.We improvise, unlike classical, sometimes far from the original score. Playing jazz helps me in the orchestra, a lot.  Hearing and listening, it’s just another creative outlet that I personally enjoy a lot, so they all relate to each other. There are so many similarities about listening, and responding, picking up the tempo, feeling where the music is going or where it’s been, or where it’s supposed to go.

Would you say that the sound is a feeling, or would you say that you feel the sound. Would you say that this music that you hear is more about an abstract thing or very concrete?

I’m not quite sure because, let’s say we’re all on stage and we’re all playing and there’s the music, and everything, the way it’s written, the orchestration, the way the conductor is, the way the audience is responding, there’s a mood on stage. I’ve been counting rests, and now it’s my turn to get up and give my part, so as far as fitting in, I try to be very, very cognizant of what’s going on around me and those notes on my page that I have to offer to the overall sound. It’s almost like I want to fit in and be part of the emotion which we’ve all agreed on. So some of it is actually very calculated, all the years, the hours and hours of practicing and training, I know where to strike the percussion instrument, how to hold the sticks, or what kind of grip I’ll need to play this part, there’s a lot of that technical stuff behind what I do, and then actually in the moment I probably don’t think about it at all, because I’ve spent thousands of hours thinking about it; in the moment, you just let all that go.

So it’s a habit that enables you to react on time.

Yes. Because I’ve probably practiced these habits, which hopefully are good ones, so many thousands of hours, that in the moment I have lots of facilities at my disposal. So, if the conductor wants to do this with the tempo and will pick it up, or maybe change a phrase, to me, it’s just a fantastic opportunity to play with such creative and wonderful musicians on the same stage. There is such incredible magic that can happen.

Plus you’re in the back, where you can embrace the whole thing.

I can take in a lot that some of the people in the front can’t. Because everybody’s in front of me. And I’ve been a student of how my colleagues make their sounds, how the brass players breathe, how they release a note, how they all play a note together, and the wind players and their certain tendencies, and the string players when they take a note with their bow, or pizzicato. I think it helps me play with my colleagues to get the ensemble together.

So does it inspire you because it helps you to understand the mood, or because their sound can help you to find your sound?

Both, because somebody could play something so hauntingly, a beautiful solo, like in a Shostakovitch symphony and I’ll have some keyboard part maybe that is going to come soon or is going to be part of that character that’s already set up, so that would influence how I play, absolutely. And it also inspires me to be here and hear so much great playing. Most of the time it’s very inspirational, you want to be part of that. It gives you energy, it gives you inspiration to play. In percussion, many times we have a lot of choices that we can make as far as our sounds, you know, cymbal sounds, drum sounds and the bass drum sounds, all kinds of sounds. We actually have a lot of choices as far as our tone colors, and I’m always thinking of what would fit best here. Most of the times composers do not get very specific as far as the percussion sounds. Let’s take a very famous cymbals part, Debussy’s La mer. There are so many ways to interpret that.

So Debussy doesn’t say which instrument should play?

Oh, no, it just says, ‘cymbals.’

So how do you choose?

I’ve watched my teachers play it, I’ve listened to recordings and then every time a conductor comes, maybe they have ideas, or they might say, use a stick here or scrape the cymbal there, most of the time they don’t. And then, it’s imagination, you have to come in and play with imagination. To me, that’s when stuff can be fun and be happening.

Imagination is the center of my research, I think it’s what allows you to be creative, to reshape what you’ve already heard. How would you explain this mechanism, you’ve heard this piece already, so you have an idea of what can fit and then you feel the mood of the orchestra and so you think about the color that could fit in?

That could be part of the process. Where does imagination come from?

I think imagination is a kind of mechanism, you have already a lot of tools, like your technique and you have musical culture and then you have something that comes new. It’s partly something that you create and partly something intuitive.

Exactly. And I think part of the key there must be communication with the other humans in the space.

Even with the audience?

Yes. We can see faces and we can absolutely hear reactions. The more the ensemble gets reduced and the audience is closer, the interaction goes up. At Alphabet City, when the quartet played, the place was packed, and we could see everybody, so you get their reaction—you play something, they smile, and so it makes it exciting, the proximity to people. So communication, I also think that inspires. Communication between your immediate colleague, your section, or if I’m trying to fit in a snare drum section with the trumpet or the wind section, we’re all ears, we want it to fit; it’s a matter of non-verbal communication.  And then communication with the conductor, that’s always a variable, the signals they send with the stick, their eyes, their face, everything.

To come back to the audience thing, I remember Keith Jarret saying that the Japanese are extremely polite.

Yes, I remember that in Japan, no sound, no coughing or anything. And then as soon as it’s over, very polite clapping.

Yes, so I understand that there is the communication with the audience, and so the conductor then cannot be fully in control of what is happening on stage at the last moment, so you have your freedom with him, right? You still have to agree—you have a tacit agreement—but at the same time you have a certain freedom, even more as a soloist, right?

Yeah, a little bit. But are you going to wait until a performance to change it? I’m probably very flexible with what they want because that’s how I’ve learned a lot. You accumulate what they bring to a piece of music. You go along with their tempo, their presentation of a particular piece. Maybe this slower tempo here will be effective, and it’s only sometimes that you think, that’s not going to work.

Do you see any difference between the characters of the orchestras you’ve played in?

Yeah, orchestras have personalities. And the PSO is game all the time. If a conductor comes and they want passionate playing, this orchestra will absolutely respond. Even if a conductor’s not happening, when it comes time for a concert, I find players really step up. And that’s really not the case with other orchestras. During the strike in 2017 here, I got calls to go play with six different orchestras. I played with Cleveland, New York, San Francisco, Minnesota, National, Philly. It was fascinating. I’ll never forget it. I still think about the things I saw and the lessons I learned.

What did you learn that was important?

The personalities of the orchestras, the relationships backstage and onstage, how the principal players present their sounds in their particular halls. It was a question of fitting in in the different places. You listen; and if the principal percussion has any suggestions, of course, you go with it. I was there as their extra, their guest, so whatever they wanted me to do, I was game. Its the same way if some of them came here. And they know they have to play this loud or not this loud on particular instruments in Heinz Hall, so you learn to make the adjustments.

Do you hear different things here compared to other places?

Yeah, definitely. There’s a real contrast between when we play Heinz Hall and when we play elsewhere in Western Pennsylvania. I think we make big adjustments as far as our sound when we go to a place which does not have a good concert hall. We have acoustic rehearsals before we play. We’ll play at Muzikverein in Vienna, and we’ll have a half hour acoustic rehearsal two hours before the concert. And it’s to just check some balance and the conductor will make adjustments. But now most of us have played there enough that we know what to listen for and how the sound is going to be different on that stage.

And its not the same when it’s full as when it’s empty, right? So you make new adjustments?

Correct. A little bit. Usually people play louder.

So that’s for the orchestral part, but you play a lot of jazz right?

Yeah, I’d probably like to play more.

So the vibraphone is melody right? And you play the drums too.

Yeah, melody and harmony too because I can play chords when somebody else is playing a solo. But I also play drums.

So do you think that there’s inner song for the drums too?

Oh, absolutely. There’d better be. I think with the best drummers, absolutely.  On a drum set in jazz, you dedicate each limb to some sound. Usually our right foot is playing the kick drum or the base drum. Your left hand has got the snare drum. The right hand is often a ride cymbal or a hi-hat, and your left foot is on a sock cymbal or a hi-hat cymbal. So there’s a constant dialogue between your limbs. And with the best drummers it will sound like one instrument coming out to your ears. All those sounds will be balanced and it will sound spontaneous and free but purposeful and in sync.

So how does the liaison between two sounds happen? With a melody you can see how each sound connects with the next, but when it’s with the drum it looks more like something that happens in the instant—it looks more disconnected but I imagine that it’s not. Do you hear that as a melody?

Yeah, I think it’s very possible to hear as a melody, or rather as a line. Some of the percussion instruments ring a lot, like cymbals, and they vary in the degrees that they ring. The drums vary less, but they do vary in terms of sustain. And of course you could roll on certain drums too where you create an illusion of a sustain. So you have all those different manipulations of color at your hands. And then, like I said, with the best drummers, you’ll hear this line, because of the balance between their limbs and their independence—each limb doing a different thing—yet the sound comes out like it was meant to be that way and you hopefully get a groove.

It’s not like a chord though, right?

Yea, you’re right, you’re not hearing pitches, but you hear lows, middles, and highs depending on how many tom-toms there are. You hear variations in non-pitched sounds and variations between sounds that ring and that don’t ring. And there are thousands of colors that you can get out of percussion instruments depending on what you play them with too—what kind of sticks or brushes. And that’s up to the player in the moment and the ones with a great imagination can make it sound very very interesting.

It’s very interesting that it’s not a pitch. With my classical training I cannot dissociate sound and pitch. It’s not a noise either. It’s a color, right?

Yeah, we use colors a lot. Dark colors, bright, musicians use those words a lot. With jazz drums, you have to introduce the word feel. Whether it has a feel and whether it has a good feel. I try to equate that word with time too—the distance between the notes. As C. S. Lewis said, time is the union of permanence and change. So to me, feel equals time. Audiences can’t very often explain why something feels good. Usually it feels good because of the time. Time being a rhythmic thing: it’s the way the notes are played, the space between the notes, the shadings or the volume of different notes, and the number of notes. And then this is kinda getting into what a drummer can do. The sound of the notes. I could play a drum part from the old rock group Led Zeppelin. John Bonham always had a great feel to his drumming and that was because of the way he played, the way he struck the drums, the sound of his drums, and then the way they were recorded. You could have a not so good drummer play one of John Bonham’s simple beats to a Led Zeppelin song and it just wouldn’t feel right. And then you’d have John Bonham play and it was like, ‘Man, that really feels good.’ So why? Why does that feel good? Well, it’s these little subtleties: the space between the notes, how hard he’s hitting.

So, anyway, time equals feel. And that even happens in the orchestra. We do the Thanksgiving weekend where we play all these waltzes and polkas, the Strauss stuff. And you know there are the notes on the page which could be deadly boring. And then there’s what Manfred Honek brings to it and how he has us play it. And it’s always manipulating the time.

Well that’s his culture too. I went with my family to Vienna once and we heard waltzes and polkas from Strauss. And I remember my parents who were musicians saying ‘They know how to play that. It’s their culture.’

Well, that’s what he brings here. And he’s always manipulating the time which changes the feel and the way he does it feels great, it feels fantastic.

Maybe it’s easier when there are fewer people. I like Ahmed Jamal’s Poinciana. This particular piece shows how his touch is so elastic. Time looks elastic when he plays that. The time value is written or you know what it is, but then you add something by the way you feel things.

Right, right. Even so. The time meter—4/4, 2/4, 7/8—is a parameter that musicians agree on. But does everybody’s note line up exactly on a steady meter of 4/4 when they play a solo or something? Well, I hope not. That would be like a machine.

What my professor from Russia was teaching me was to get rid of the metronome and tuning fork. She was saying it’s to train you to feel it instead of hearing it from the outside. The metronome is good to exercise with but you need to feel it. You need to be on time but at the same time you need to feel it and the feeling is not a mechanical thing at all.

Yeah, I mean that’s what’s wrong with a lot of pop music today: it’s mechanized. It’s literally corrected in the studio. And they can correct pitch too, you know. In a recording studio, if a drummer comes in and plays a beat that doesn’t feel right, the recording engineer can take like a snare drum hit and put it wherever it needs to be. That happens all the time nowadays. But as far as the metronome, I think it’s a great tool and you need to be very very comfortable with playing with the metronome. I tell my students ‘You have to know how to play metronomically and what that feels like and then you need to let it go. But it’s good to know what it feels like because we all have little tendencies. If I play a snare drum part in Shostakovich, I would practice that so I know what it feels like to exactly line up. But then on stage, that might not be a good thing to do with your colleagues. You know, maybe the brass needs to breathe at the end of eight measures or something. So you need to know those things but then let it go and when you’re in the moment you need to show flexibility.

Well, there are a lot of moments when you don’t play so you need to know exactly where you are. Do you count or do you rely more on what you hear on stage?

Both. It just depends on the piece of music, how often I’ve done it, or the tempo, or if it’s a tricky entrance.

Your instrument is very tricky because if you miss the point it’s very obvious.

Yeah, I’ve been there. I’ve missed stuff. It happens. It’s probably both, counting and listening.

And in Jazz too?

It’s probably both. Maybe more just listening, but it’s definitely both. You have to be aware. Maybe that’s because jazz musicians have counted so much when they were learning or learning a song. But then again you let it go in the moment and you go with what your gut is telling you.

I guess with Jazz, one of the most impressive parts is the entrance for each instrument.  Like it happens spontaneously. But when you speak with jazz musicians they say, ‘no, we know when to come in.’

With jazz, even if you get to a jazz jam session, but somebody calls out a song like Straight, No Chaser, there are parameters. Usually it’s in F or maybe B flat. It’s going to be 4/4. It’s twelve bars long. The fifhth bar is going to be going to the IV chord. The first bar’s going to be on the I chord. So everybody knows those parameters are settled. And you would agree to play the head—which is just the tune—twice and then you can have a solo. Or even if you’re not playing your solo, you’re still keeping track—‘we’re on bar one, five, nine. Now we’re back to bar one again.’ So now maybe that person’s going to take four choruses, so they’re going to go through those twelve bars four times and then the next person on the solo will maybe come in. Like here on this stage, we’re agreeing to many more parameters because we’re playing a whole piece of music. But there’s always flexibility and space. Especially if you have solos in an orchestra, there’s always space for you to do something and for your personality to come out.

Do you think your classical training helps you improvise or hinders you in jazz? There is a huge difference in training and in some way it can limit your ability to just let it go.

In some aspects it’s a different animal. And that’s a discussion that has been going on for a long time and will continue. There are some people who cannot do that and don’t want to try. And then there are some people who enjoy both. I’ve found with jazz, you can work at it just as much as with classical music.

How did you learn to improvise? By imitating people? I remember my younger brother spending hours on the piano imitating Keith Jarrett and a lot of others and taking time just writing the solo.

Yeah, I’ve done that. I would transcribe the solos. And now if I hear something I really like I’ll listen to it over and over and I’ll copy some of the patterns. It’s copying, listening. You do that so much and what you listen to influences what comes out. So if you begin to improvise then it’s your own voice that will be coming out eventually.

How do you describe your voice? What is my voice? Is it my own sound, it’s made with my body whether I have more strength or am lighter?

That’s a deep question.

I remember a video on YouTube from Paul Tortelier doing a masterclass where he sings just like a cello. And I thought there’s obviously some relationship. My instrument shapes my voice when I sing and the way I speak or breathe probably influences my instrument’s voice too. It’s interesting that the same instrument doesn’t sound the same with two different players. So it means that it’s your sound. And for jazz players, they say that a lot of time in jazz is just looking for a common sound for your group or just for yourself. And in the orchestra it’s not so much the individual but if you are two or three players, you need to have this common sound that is just you.

Right, I would agree with that. And one of the reasons I like playing with the jazz quartet is because I love each person’s sound. Eric plays this wide-bodied jazz guitar, and Jeff, the way he plays jazz bass, and then the way Tom plays drums and the sound he gets, it’s very satisfying for me to add the vibraphone to that. And I really love the combination, especially with the guitar and the vibes, because we both have a lot of sustain, the way the notes ring. It’s a more unique sound, especially for Pittsburgh right now. Now all those guys also play with a lot of other people. It’s just the sound that’s worked for us.

So how did you choose your instruments?

We were all friends and I’ve always liked all of their playing. And for the music we do you have to have drums and bass. And I just think guitar is a great instrument. It’s so expressive. It’s got such a range and can self-accompany.

Do you breathe with your instrument?

Yes. Even though we are doing percussion and we’re not using wind to produce the sound, I still breathe. And for me, that’s because I’ve been a student of how my colleagues produce sounds. So if I have a phrase with the flute I will try to listen to how they breathe and where maybe there’s going to be a space, a millisecond between the note, where there’s a breath to make a new phrase, and I’ll try to be part of that.

Philip Pandolfi said that for him the inner song is this breath just before playing.

The cool thing about being so close to these players when we’re on stage is that you can see and hear all the little things that people do just before they make their sounds. The breathing in, the counting, the ways the eyes go—music, conductor, music—there’s a lot happening out there. Yeah the inner song, what’s mine? I guess what comes out is somehow reflective of the passion that I have for what I do. I feel like I’m blessed that I’ve gotten to do this for a living and I get to keep doing this—it’s the greatest gift from God that I could possibly ever hope for. When it’s time to play, I try to just be passionate about it and bring everything I can to the moment.

I guess the way you breathe is also is the way you connect the two notes together. What makes the connection between the sounds is the in-and-out movement.

I don’t know. You can hear the differences between the players, you pick up their personality, it comes out in how they play, how they look, how they move, their sound on the instrument, how soft they might play or how loud and aggressive, how they do their vibrato. There are a lot of little differences between all the players and I guess that time and a hundred on stage, that’s what makes an orchestra unique.

I think a great musician is one who can express exactly what is inside. For example, Perlman, when he played here after the synagogue shooting, I was thinking, you can recognize his sound in a second whenever you hear it. It looks like he’s so free that there’s no obstacle between what he has in his mind and what he actually plays.

I think that is the mark of a great artist. You get the connection right away with the head, the heart, and there are no hangups with any technical things about producing what they want to say musically.

That’s why I think it’s a voice, you don’t need to think about it, you just express it; but you need an amount of technical mastery to be able to do that.

It would seem so, although, don’t you think that even in young, even very young players, you can sometimes see the talent? So you can tell there’s something there, it’s like they’re already expressing some kind of inner voice, and yet maybe they don’t have all the technique to do it in a mature way, but you can spot talent in young kids. What do you call that? I think kids have an inner voice too.

So the inner voice is not related to your age, I don’t think. Although, it changes with the age too.

As far as instrumentals, I suppose that your sound would change, that as you change and you mature, you’re bringing more wealth to what you’re producing. So that might temper your sound too.

So, when you find your inspiration for what you are going to play in the jazz band, you listen to the drummer but you listen to the harmony within the group too.

Yes, and the time, and the feel of the song.

I really like that in jazz you can hear the same song by a hundred different people.

In fact, when I’m learning a song, I go online and I’ll capture a dozen different versions of it. I just like to hear how other people play the song and also what they do as far as improvisations. I’ve heard people say that your own voice is your truest sound.

I guess we spend so much time looking for something we really like that it’s the way we develop our own song.  I like that, I don’t like that. You adjust your touch to the kind of song that you want to produce.

We actually still get to do that in percussion too. We play a keyboard excerpt or something like that, where you can phrase and put some musical things into it, phrasing. It all comes down to, are you telling a story with what you’re playing? It’s always a story. People want to hear stories. You’re going to hear a story through the music and it’s going to take you places. I wish more people came to hear live music like that, it would change lives, I think. It’s timeless. It’s the fact that you have this group of people that are creating, right in the same space and, to me, that’s just something fabulous and wonderful to behold.

Thank you very much for this fantastic interview and see you on Friday on stage!

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