Beyoncé and “Bohemian Rhapsody” with the Percussion Ensemble

12 Nov 2018
ByKevin Ko-wen Chen, Communications Manager

When Andrej O. ’21 enters Room 815 for percussion ensemble, he isn’t buckling down to rehearse a sequence from the classical canon. He’s wondering whether the vibraphone line in the ensemble’s rendition of Travis Scott’s “Goosebumps” — with its many layers of auto-tuned vocals, persistent hi-hat, and wobbly, trance-like synth hooks — captures the mood of the original. This December, Andrej and his classmates are performing a collection of songs by Scott, a rapper whom he admires.

“I’m happy we’re doing this music, especially because he’s a more up-and-coming artist,” he says.

When Scott Latzky first started the percussion ensemble program more than twenty years ago, the ensemble’s repertoire consisted entirely of material from the school’s other music performance groups. To help his percussionists cohere as a section, Scott gathered them together to play percussion-only music: music that could stand alone without adding other instruments.

Soon, Scott began to arrange music for the ensemble. Initial compositions drew heavily from Latin music — a reflection of Scott’s own tastes — but before long, students began requesting their own preferred genres — a little ska here, a little hip-hop there. The moment Scott honored those requests, he found himself adapting music for every one of his classes.

“As soon as I introduced the idea that that was possible, I lost all control,” he laughs.

Scott now teaches percussion ensemble in seven classes, one for each grade from 6 to 12. Middle School students perform in four concerts each year: two with the band, and two on their own. By the time they enter the Upper School, percussion ensemble members have graduated to playing concerts only by themselves, performing the pieces they’ve handpicked as a group. This year’s winter concert will be at 7:30pm on Monday, December 17, and will feature music by Travis Scott, Childish Gambino, and others. In past years, the percussion ensemble at ECFS has performed a bit of everything: excerpts from the musical Hamilton, as well as a medley of Beyoncé’s greatest hits. One year, the theme of one grade’s concert was Queen’s classic hit, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a song of such diverse musical styles that it provided enough source material for the entire show.

The task of finalizing a set list is an event in itself. As with many things at ECFS, students aren’t shy to voice their opinions, and the process of brainstorming, whittling down, and finally voting on a theme is always chaotic.

“It can take three or four or five classes sometimes,” KT K., a senior in the percussion ensemble, says. “It’s very democratic, in a way.”

Though he’s no longer responsible for selecting music for his students, one of Scott’s main challenges is to accommodate the wide range of their skills and interests. Most members join the ensemble in sixth grade, but they come from different musical backgrounds: some are well on their way to becoming accomplished concert soloists, while others are embarking on their first chance to perform on stage. Students who hope to join the ensemble after sixth grade must audition as ninth graders.

Scott has found ways to both challenge each of his students and allow their strengths to shine. A junior who’s taken piano lessons for years might be able to sight-read the music on the xylophone, for example, while an eighth grader who’s formed an indie band with friends might be able to tackle a particularly tricky passage on the drums. Sometimes, Scott writes two parts for the same instrument: a basic version that only uses two mallets and a more demanding one that uses four. According to KT, students understand their strengths and choose parts with which they feel comfortable.

Performing with the percussion ensemble has inspired some students to continue their study of music beyond ECFS. Sam F. ’19 had been playing piano since age five, later adding on the flute in fourth grade. In ninth grade, she decided to audition for the percussion ensemble.

“Most of my friends were in it,” she explains. “It looked like a lot of fun, and I wanted to join.”

Now, as she looks toward graduation, Sam is preparing to audition for conservatory. In the middle of her junior year, she committed to pursuing music seriously and began researching different extracurricular options to refine her playing, “practicing like crazy” to audition for music preparatory programs. She’s currently enrolled in the pre-college program at the Manhattan School of Music.

For Sam, the percussion ensemble is a welcome complement to the rigor of a traditional music preparatory program. “I definitely love having both of those aspects of my life. It’s nice to get a break from the intensity [of the Manhattan School of Music],” she says, by performing with the ensemble at school.

Some students have used the percussion ensemble as a launching pad to explore their interests in other aspects of music. For this winter’s concert, KT, who is also taking an independent study with Scott, has been working on an arrangement of Childish Gambino’s “Boogieman.” Learning to take a song, whether electronic or R&B, and reimagine it for a dozen percussion instruments has been rewarding but challenging.

“It’s kind of like transcribing a phone call that’s got seven people talking at once,” says KT, who’s acquired a newfound appreciation for Scott’s arrangements through the experience. KT plans to study composition after graduation and is in the process of applying for music majors in college.

While Sam and KT are looking to continue their musical careers, for many students, the experience of being part of the percussion ensemble culminates in the performances at Homecoming and at the preceding Pep Rally. Seniors wear their team shirts and play for a thousand-strong audience of their peers. Scott notes that his graduating students radiate a degree of confidence unmatched by students in his other grades. “You don’t have to be a stellar musician to follow this group and stay in it,” says Scott. “There is a sense that you’ll have achieved something if you stay in the program until senior year.”

“It’s kind of like transcribing a phone call that’s got seven people talking at once."

The deference to seniors isn’t lost on Andrej. “There’s a partial injustice to the underclassmen,” he says, lamenting the fact that only the oldest students have the honor of performing at two of the school’s biggest events. But it’s something he looks forward to, even as he refines the set list for the upcoming concert.

Through the process of choosing, rehearsing, and performing their repertoire year after year, students in the percussion ensemble develop a sense of ownership and a sense of camaraderie that many professional groups would envy.

In the end, the percussion ensemble is predicated on giving students the power to control what they perform. As Scott says, “Kids are totally engaged in playing music that they love.”