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Meet a Drummer: A Q&A with Patti Niemi on Her Eye-Opening Autobiography, Sticking It Out

Patti Niemi Sticking It Out

January 31, 2018 | by Andrew K. Lau

Let’s see now: Anxiety? Check. Relentless, grueling practice schedules? Check. Nerve-wracking, possibly career-defining auditions? Sure, why not? Sexual harassment? Afraid so. How about a dream job? Yep, that too. In her 2016 memoir, Sticking It Out [ECW Press], Patti Niemi documents her experience attending Julliard studying percussion in the early ‘80s and the subsequent chase to become a professional musician.

Through her keen, unflinching eye, the book is fantastically blunt, almost clinical and peppered with enough humor to keep it realistic (“Puncturing that silence felt like standing on a pew in church and screaming ‘FUCK’”). Better yet, Sticking It Out lacks the usual clichéd ingredients found in most books dealing with a musician: Struggles with international fame, addiction to Class A drugs, inter-band fistfights, break-ups, and flimsy reunions. Instead, Niemi gives us a look into a world not often talked about — the cutthroat, competitive world of becoming a professional classical musician.

Niemi sits across from me at small café table with a smile on her face, completely amicable and without pretense, her strong hands gripping a large cup of tea. Despite the few feet that physically separate us, the differences between our worlds and experiences are quite vast. This woman is a classically trained percussionist who devoted much of her youth studying to hopefully acquire a prestigious job as a professional musician; there was no guarantee her toil would pay off. She is now a tenured member of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, one of the most respected companies in the country.

As for your faithful reporter here, I am completely unschooled, self-taught, can’t read music, played aggressive noise-rock in small, dank clubs, traveled in a Ford Econoline Van, haven’t been in a working band for 20 years, and couldn’t tell you the last time I sat down at my instrument. My sense of awe was inescapable.

NO RECESS!: I noticed while you were waiting in line for your tea you were tapping on your legs. Is that a natural habit?

PATTI NIEMI: [smiling] Yes, I can’t help it.

NR!: Okay, good. I do it as well.

NIEMI: Oh really? Your whole life?

NR!: Once I started playing seriously, yeah. [Starts tapping on the table top] It’s worse when I’m sitting and can use my right foot at the same time. People are not into it.

NIEMI: Agreed. I know! I remember teachers telling me, “Just stop, please.” One said they’d tie my hands and feet together, so…

NR!: That seems illegal.

NIEMI: It was in the ‘70s. Anything kinda went.

NR!: What’s your schedule like these days?

NIEMI: Right now, very busy; we go for six months a year, basically from May until the middle of December. So I have about six or seven more services this week between rehearsals and performances, and then that’s it until the middle of May.

NR!: Services?

NIEMI: Either performance or rehearsal — five performances and maybe two rehearsals.

NR!: Is that excessive within the industry?

NIEMI: It entirely depends on the opera. There are three operas this week that are fairly easy, two that are pretty difficult, so it’s an average week. But if there’s something really difficult going on, yes, that’s a lot of work.

NR!: When you were studying at Julliard, was the idea of playing for and with an opera not something that was on your mind?

NIEMI: That’s an interesting question. It was a possibility; there are fewer professional opera companies in which you can make a living than there are orchestras. I wasn’t even aware of the San Francisco Opera Company — so far away, much smaller season. But, along with Chicago Lyric and the Metropolitan, those are the three big companies [at which] you can make a living. But I wasn’t totally aware. I was thinking about symphony orchestras.

NR!: Does it take a lot of rethinking as far as your playing is concerned, switching from symphony playing to operatic?

NIEMI: Not a lot of rethinking. The main difference is that [in an opera] you’re an accompanist, and being an accompanist you do a lot more following. It’s really about the singers; it’s less about you. But in a way, I think the pride and the fear and the anxiety come from playing for your colleagues — they’re the ones who know you best. In a symphony orchestra, there’s a little more attention on you.

NR!: You’re what they’re watching. I would suppose that takes down the anxiety a bit.

NIEMI: Being in a pit? I think for some it would, for me it never did because it was, “Can I live up to my own expectations and those of my colleagues?”

NR!: You’re pretty hard on yourself throughout most of the book, as far as living up to your high standards. I was getting anxious reading it.

NIEMI: [laughs]

NR!: Taking anxiety medication and practicing until you’re hallucinating…

NIEMI: Or bleeding.

NR!: That part in the book where you’re practicing for the Boston Symphony audition and your joints freeze up…

NIEMI: That’s all accurate; practicing for 12 hours a day isn’t an exaggeration. I mean, it could be for some; horn and reed players can’t do that, even fiddle or string players can’t. As you know, [for percussionists] there are so many different movements — little snare drum parts, you have mallet percussion, you have what we call “large muscle group instruments,” like bass drum and cymbals, because there are so many different muscles used. So, I could practice 12 hours a day quite a bit. It’s not out of the box for people to do that.

NR!: You paid a heavy price to get where you are; you don’t apply for the job with a resume as you would for most jobs. The dedication is intense and admirable, and that’s why I wanted to talk with you, because it’s so different from my experience. First of all, I haven’t played in years. Secondly, I didn’t take any lessons, can’t read music —

NIEMI: Wow, interesting.

NR!: — I listened to records, practiced on my bed as a young kid, eventually got into a band, and practiced, practiced, practiced. I wouldn’t say it’s polar opposite, since we’re both playing the same instrument. I didn’t study in school but was complexly devoted to music early on. You pointed out there was very little talk among your classmates about the feeling of music.

NIEMI: Almost none, I would say. That was my experience — doesn’t mean that was everyone’s experience. But we didn’t talk about how it made us feel, we talked about how to get better, so we could beat each other. [laughs]

NR!: That’s fascinating. I love that part, because on my side, it was all feeling. We had to be emotionally connected to it somehow. Otherwise, why bother? Even if it was a riff. You guys were… I don’t even know how to put it into words… it was…

NIEMI: It was more like a sport, and I think I said that at some point [in the book], it was more like going to the Olympics.

NR!: [quoting from the book] “Art colliding with sports, no romance.”

NIEMI: Right. None, zero. And, again, I’m not speaking for anyone else. [For me], it was, “here’s the goal, here’s me — how do I get there?” Practice all the time and relentlessly criticize what you’re doing wrong and get better at it. That left very little room for musical enjoyment. Which is not to say I don’t enjoy the music. I wouldn’t have gotten into it if I didn’t enjoy the music. But the enjoyment of music now is more about how I get to sit in a front row seat and listen to these amazing singers every night.

NR!: To take romance out of the equation changes everything up.

NIEMI: It was fun in its own way. I hope I got across the fact that I loved every bit of it — not every bit, that’s not fair to say. I didn’t love the anxiety, the harassment, but it was like a great puzzle. “How do you figure out how to do this?”

NR!: And it’s a puzzle not too many people can help you with, because it’s such an uncommon career path.

NIEMI: Yeah. We help each other, my colleagues.

NR!: Who, at the time, were also forging their own paths. One of my favorite parts of the book was the cymbal-buying trip, because I’m a bit of a cymbal enthusiast.

NIEMI: Zidjlan?

NR!: Anything. To get different sounds I’d use broken cymbals, maybe put two together for a more jagged effect. I used all rides, no crashes, in order to combat the volume of the band itself, and I had a 23-inch ride, which took me a month to figure out how to use, how to bring out its nuances. I had buyer’s remorse for a while, because I couldn’t figure out how to use it.

NIEMI: [laughs] Twenty-three! That’s a gong!

NR!: [laughs] How important are cymbals in what you’re doing currently?

NIEMI: That’s what I play the most.

NR!: And what opera are you doing tonight?

NIEMI: Girls Of The Golden West, John Adams’ new opera. Tomorrow night we have [Giuseppe Adami / Renato Simoni] Turandot, which is pretty much my favorite because everything comes together — we have great parts, tons of percussion, and [English artist and stage designer] David Hockney did the sets. And then there’s an Adler Fellows performance of up and coming singers… I think that’s all we have this week. We generally have two or three going at one time.

NR!: How difficult is that to juggle?

NIEMI: It totally depends on how hard the opera is. Turandot is pretty hard, but I’ve done it many, many times. Girls Of The Golden West is fairly easy, so it depends. We’re doing The Ring in June of 2018, and that is incredibly difficult for strong platers, brass, winds. [Percussionists] don’t have a lot to do, but the operas are loooong. Götterdämmerung is five and a half hours. That’s a slog.

NR!: How much do the stories of how your colleagues got their jobs vary?

NIEMI: It varies a lot by generation. People who are 20 years older, it was less competitive; they might not have had auditions where as many people showed up, or some may have been called to have private auditions. When I was coming through, it was blind auditions. Now there are even more people coming through, kids in their 20s. My God, I don’t want to compete against them — it’s even harder.

NR!: Is it a possibility that you have to compete against a generation younger?

NIEMI: Not anymore, because I choose not to. I came to the point long ago where my anxiety made it too hard, and I didn’t want to do [auditions] any longer. I couldn’t make myself figure out the anxiety portion of it, so I stopped.

The sub-plot to Sticking It Out is Niemi having to deal with sexual harassment at the hands of one of her teachers. In her blunt style, she unfolds the drama with the same mystified, is-this-really-happening stance she had at the time. So along with the highly competitive world of Julliard and her own high expectations, Niemi now had to deal with another layer of stress. “Richard didn’t seem to think anything about this was bad,” she writes. “I never thought he intended to cause me any anxiety. So much went on behind those Julliard studio doors: behavior running from physical to emotional; true to embellished to invented; forced, coerced, to mutual pursued. But whatever went on, no one talked about it. If no one told Richard it was wrong, was it wrong?”

NR!: Did you know at the time [you were being harassed]?

NIEMI: I think I knew it at the time. I was at Juilliard for four-and-a-half years, and it was the last year and a half that he told me all these things, so if there was any issue before, I wasn’t aware of it. So when that started happening it was overwhelming to me. There wasn’t a moment when I wasn’t thinking about it. I’ve talked to a lot of women about it, and even the lightest type of harassment involves so much managing on the part of the harassed: “If I go here, will he show up, if I do this will he think this… will I make him mad? If I make him mad, what will the repercussions be?”

NR!: It’s almost like he was trying to derail you.

NIEMI: He almost did. Yeah, it felt like it. And I wrote in the book, the boyfriend I had at the time was also his student — [the teacher] dumped him. That’s why we go to these schools, to be with these teachers. He dropped him as a student.

NR!: Did you have to get clearance with him before the book went to press?

NIEMI: No, he passed away 10 years ago. That made it easier, though his wife is still alive; she’s very elderly, and I hope she didn’t read it, but I suspect she did. The climate that’s happening right now, today, every single day. [Metropolitan Opera conductor and music director accused of sexual abuse] James Levine, now… that was something most of us had heard for 20, 30 years. Everybody talked about it. All of us who are in classical music, who lived in New York, who are in the field specifically, it was talked about.

NR!: As a male, as a white male… as a straight, white male [laughs somewhat nervously]… it’s hard to wrap my head around some of these things. It’s mind boggling.

NIEMI: I think that’s the good part that’s coming out. Men who — I don’t want to say just “men” because I’m sure there are women in positions of power who don’t appreciate what they’re doing to their underlings — but it’s just coming out, “In which ways are you making these underlings have to constantly manage you as a powerful person.” We have musicians in the opera who are substitute musicians. Sixty-nine of us are tenured — we’re not going to get fired for what we do. So if I have conflict with a male colleague, and I feel like he’s harassing me in some way, I have power to go to management and say, “Hey, this is unacceptable.” So, at least I have an avenue. Substitute musicians are hired per performance; they have zero power, so what’s our responsibility to them? We have power over them. The principal of any section in the opera is the one responsible for hiring those musicians. You have to be very aware. What if you say, “Hey, you want to go out for a drink afterwards?” Are you asking all the musicians, or are you asking one who happens to be an attractive young woman?

NR!: And those substitute musicians must be constantly targeted, because they’re temporary and probably won’t make much of a fuss.

NIEMI: Right. Sure, they have the power to say, “He’s a creep.” What’s the creep going to do? Not hire that girl anymore. That’s where the managing comes in.

NR!: “Where are my anxiety pills?”

NIEMI: [laughs] Exactly. I had that experience with a conductor. It was the Jupiter Symphony, which was a freelance orchestra, and I was in the position of being a substitute musician. And because I was in school I was so excited, and he was just weird. I didn’t get it, but he eventually stopped [hiring me]. Maybe I played something he didn’t like, I don’t think so; I think he wasn’t getting the feedback from me that he wanted. That’s a real minor example. If I was relying on that income for my living, that would be a major example.

NR!: And that’s one industry.

NIEMI: One incident, one industry, one person times many, many, many.

NR!: Alright, let’s get to this part: The Cleveland Institute of Music guy who told you women “usually aren’t very good” percussionists. That came up very early in your book; you didn’t really comment on it, you just reported it and moved on, almost like it was originally brought up: Off the cuff.

NIEMI: Just casual sexism.

NR!: Yeah! So, what kind of weight does that put on a young female musician’s shoulders? It just raises the bar even higher.

NIEMI: I think that’s true. There were a couple factors that made me dismissive of that comment. One was, I didn’t really want to go to Cleveland; I desperately wanted to go to Julliard. So, if someone at Julliard had said that to me, it would’ve made more of an impact. Second factor, I had plenty of females around me. My teacher at Eastman Prep was wonderful, and she had been through it all before me, so it didn’t occur to me that I couldn’t do it. [His comment] was pretty easy to dismiss, because [making it as a percussionist] is so hard to do, the odds are stacked so much against you that it felt like, “Okay, can’t control that part. What can I control?” What did affect me was the harassment — being a female amongst so many powerful men certainly had an effect, but it wasn’t specifically telling me women can’t do it, because I never believed that. But being alone in a room with powerful men — that had an effect.

NR!: I’ve always thought the world needs more female drummers. It’s better for everyone involved. The classical world doesn’t seem to be so male-dominated.

NIEMI: I don’t think it is. It wasn’t that long ago [when] it was 100% male — 50 years ago or so, although I could be wrong about that. The Vienna Philharmonic, they didn’t have women until the ‘90s maybe? We can look it up. I remember the protests at Carnegie, because it finally occurred to everybody that they systematically did not let females in their orchestra.

NR!: That late?

NIEMI: And now they have maybe a handful, like they invited a harp player….

NR!: You’re in a fairly unusual position. How many other professional/classical female percussionists are there?

NIEMI: I counted. We have an ICSOM directory [International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians], and I would say there’s about four or five thousand people covered under that umbrella, which are the full-time orchestras in the country. At the time I counted, which was maybe about two years ago, there were nine [women] out of 181 [percussionists]. It’s fewer, but in all honesty, I never really bought into that aspect; it never occurred to me that [the job] required an unusual amount of strength or absence of a uterus. I never bought into it. Technique, as you know, is not about strength — it’s about doing it correctly. Without injuring yourself.

NR!: And it’s about wanting to do it, as well. A lot of it seems to be getting girls into [drumming] at an early age, or finding a child has talent and fostering it, instead of being dismissive of it: “Oh, why don’t you play the flute instead?”

NIEMI: Right! That’s something I also did not run into, fortunately. My vintage, the ‘70s, there were band programs in schools — anybody could do it. You’d say, “This is the instrument I want to play.” And I was encouraged to play. A 10-year-old will say, “Of course, I can do that!”

NR!: How different are the New York and San Francisco classical worlds?

NIEMI: It wasn’t just New York. There’s Philadelphia, there’s Boston, there’s D.C. We [in New York] were surrounded by it. Here [on the West Coast] it’s just San Francisco; for me, that’s a huge difference. Going to school [in New York] felt incredibly competitive. I don’t know what it would be like to go to school here, but it’s just smaller. But it’s such a small world — musicians coming up in San Francisco are just as good and just as aware.

NR!: The classical world seems so much more professional and well-managed than the rock world in which I was part of.

NIEMI: It is. It’s very difficult to get into, but it’s a very clear path. I think for you or a jazz musician, it’s more about, “How do I make a name for myself.” For us, it’s practice until you’re great and then go take auditions.

NR!: Playing jazz, blues, or rock, you can step out for a while and take a rest if necessary, while in the classical world that doesn’t seem to be an option.

NIEMI: I don’t think so. I’m sure there are people who’ve done it, but that didn’t seem possible to me. It also seems like a young person’s game — that’s what I see. Young people are more successful at it; again, once you get older you get competition from wanting a family or wanting a life, extracurricular activities.

NR!: Speaking of it being a young person’s game, have you noticed a change in your arms or breathing patterns as you’re progressed with your career?

NIEMI: Interesting. For me, it became easier because practicing for auditions is the hardest possible time in most of our lives — it was for me. It was the most intense and most repetitive, so everything was repeated over and over, and that was the time when I had most of the problems. And I wasn’t even that badly affected in comparison with other people. I never really had to stop. I had to take little breaks, a half a day or whatever, so for me it’s only gotten better. I haven’t had any lasting problems. String players would differ vastly — they play for hours non-stop in operas [pretends to hold a violin, accentuating the bent wrists and extended elbows] — their bodies are off-center, unbalanced.

NR!: I never considered that.

NIEMI: Oh yeah, it’s rough on them. Everything is out of whack. I know many get physical therapy and other interventions. So, it’s a little luckier to not be holding something for hours at a time. I get up, play cymbals, put them down, and sit down again.