The life of a symphonic percussionist can be lonely and quiet, given the vast body of literature from before about 1750 that had no parts to play. That’s why works by 20th-century composers Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich are among the favorites for one home-schooled junior from Piqua, Ohio: “There are very few places where you’re not playing,” the Piqua Daily Call reports. And life is suddenly loud.
Ethan Marsh, 16, you see, is a symphonic percussionist, which gives you a hint that his favorite instrument is the timpani, by far the most popular percussion instrument in the body of orchestral literature composed after 1750. The paper describes him as a “soft-spoken man of few words” who “wields a loud mallet.”
Because he’s home-schooled, he needs to find ensembles to work with, which he has so far done, thanks to teacher Christine Roberts, in school bands, first at St Patrick School in Troy and then at Troy Christian High School. He said the repertoire might have been more challenging at the high school but included more percussion instruments to master. (Troy is a little south of Piqua, but still in Miami County, just north of Dayton, Ohio.)
But for symphonic music, he participates in the Cincinnati Symphony Youth Orchestra to his south as well as the Springfield Youth Symphony to his east. He’s got a concert coming up with the Springfield Youth Symphony on November 20, featuring Aram Khachaturian’s “Sabre Dance” and its active percussion, but no Prokofiev or Shostakovich this time.
The CSYO provides ensemble opportunities for more than 200 students in southwestern Ohio, northern Kentucky, and southeastern Indiana. They come from about 45 schools. Ethan’s in the top group, the Philharmonic, for which he spent several weeks last summer sweating over audition excerpts. The group is made up of 84 very talented musicians.
“They give you actual excerpts from pieces,” the paper quoted him as saying. One especially “weird” passage “looked like someone had spilled a bottle of ink” because of all the notes dotting the paper, he said.
“To us, it’s a big deal because it’s so hard to get in,” the Call quoted Ethan’s mom as saying. “From what I’ve heard, the audition process is kind of brutal. They do it just like a professional orchestra. It’s a wonderful preparatory orchestra experience.”
When you’re the “heartbeat” of an ensemble, you might be playing louder than anyone else, but the key is in the timing, he said: “The director of SYS likes to say, ‘Entrances aren’t a race; if you’re first, you don’t win.’ Everyone has to come in together.”
And thus is one benefit of working in an ensemble with other student musicians. Ethan said he hopes to major in music at college but also double-major in some computer field. Symphony orchestras usually have one timpanist, maybe two, and when they hold auditions, it can be extremely competitive, given that several hundred people often show up.
Right after the new year, the New Jersey Symphony will be conducting timpani auditions. The orchestra has scheduled three days for the auditions and posted the repertoire required. No Bach, no Mozart, but plenty of Prokofiev and Shostakovich—of course.