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An Opera Percussionist Traces Her Path 'From Juilliard to the Orchestra Pit'


This is FRESH AIR. Our guest, percussionist Patti Niemi, got a clue about her calling when she was 10 years old and her school gave a music aptitude test to see whether students should be encouraged to take up an instrument. Niemi scored in the highest percentile for rhythm and the lowest for melody. Niemi now plays instruments ranging from kettle drum to the triangle. She's been with the San Francisco Opera Orchestra since 1992. Before that, she was a member of the New World Symphony in Miami.

Patti Niemi has a memoir about her life in music, called "Sticking It Out: From Juilliard To The Orchestra Pit." She brought some of her instruments with her when she spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. Let's start with the San Francisco Opera Orchestra playing the prelude to "Carmen," with Patti Niemi on cymbals.


SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: Patti Niemi, welcome to FRESH AIR.

PATTI NIEMI: Thank you very much.

BRIGER: I thought maybe we should start this interview with a crash. Would you oblige us with that?

NIEMI: I would love to do so.

BRIGER: OK, great.

NIEMI: (Playing cymbals).

BRIGER: That's great. So what are some other sounds that you can make with cymbals?

NIEMI: They can be short. They can be long. These particular cymbals are pretty bright, something like "Romeo And Juliet," Tchaikovsky, I'd do something like this, very short notes. (Playing cymbals). I have another pair of cymbals here. These are something I would use for a Rachmaninoff piano concerto. They're much darker. I would make longer sounds with them and quite a bit softer. (Playing cymbals).

BRIGER: Now, you say that cymbals are actually really unforgiving as an instrument. Why is that?

NIEMI: They are very unforgiving. You can't take them back. If you play them, that's it. They're out there. And a lot of what we have to do is put things in the right place when we play in the orchestra. The less frequently you play, the more important it is to put that note in the right place.

BRIGER: So what are the instruments that a percussionist is supposed to be able to play in an orchestra? It's a long list, isn't it?

NIEMI: It's a very long list. Some are obvious, like all kinds of drums. We have timpani. There's usually one timpanist who plays just timpani, all kinds of drum, like bass drum, snare drum, tom-tom, drum set. There are mallet percussion instruments - xylophone, glockenspiel, marimba, vibraphone, chimes. Those are set up more like a piano keyboard, and then a long list of accessories like tambourine, triangle. I brought a very unusual one for you called a lion's roar.

BRIGER: Oh, cool.

NIEMI: Which, believe it or not, I have played in an opera, in a Ligeti "Grand Macabre" opera. Would you like to hear it?

BRIGER: (Laughter) Definitely, I want to hear that.

NIEMI: We'll see if it sounds like a lion's roar. (Playing lion's roar).

BRIGER: So what are you doing there? Are you, like, rubbing, like, a string or something or pulling a string?

NIEMI: Yes, that is a drum with one head instead of two, and it's suspended. And there's a string coming out of the head and I'm just pulling a washcloth, a wet washcloth, down the string. It makes that sound.

BRIGER: So you said that percussionists in an orchestra - there's one percussionist that usually concentrates on the timpani drums and then the other percussionists do everything else. Why is that? What exactly is a timpani? And why does that - why does someone concentrate on that?

NIEMI: Percussionists tend to gravitate towards either timpani or percussion. There are some percussionists who are good at both. I wasn't really one of them. I liked percussion a lot better. Timpani have a lot to do with pitch and that, to me, was very out of my wheelhouse. They have to change the pitches of those drums, so the head on the top is changed by a pedal at their feet.

BRIGER: I see.

NIEMI: The pitch is changed.

BRIGER: Now, are those timpanis, are they the ones that you hear in the theme song for "2001: A Space Odyssey?" Like, the (imitating drums)?

NIEMI: Yes, that is it.

BRIGER: Those are the - OK, got it. So you went to Juilliard School in the 1980s, and a lot of your memoir is based there. And it sounds like a lot of your time was just spent practicing to get ready for the auditions that you would take - during the final years of your time there. And I imagine that there's a lot less percussion audition opportunities than, say, violin because there's a lot fewer percussionists. Is that true?

NIEMI: Correct, yes. Most orchestras have three or four percussionists in them, so a lot fewer opportunities.

BRIGER: So in the book, you say that you have obsessive-compulsive tendencies. And when you were growing up, everything in your room was lined up at right angles. And you confess that you used to fold your garbage before putting it into the waste basket. Do you think that those obsessive-compulsive tendencies helped you keep a rigid practice schedule or in some ways harmed you?

NIEMI: Probably some of both, but I like to look at the positive side. And I think if you have a little bit of that tendency towards obsessiveness and perfectionism, I think it serves you well when you have to sit in a room by yourself and self-direct your practice schedule for hours at a time. If that's your tendency, you don't really have a problem telling yourself, get in the practice room and do it now.

BRIGER: How many hours generally would you practice a day?

NIEMI: It certainly varied, but I would say the period leading up to an audition it wasn't that unusual to put in a good eight or 10 hours. And it sounds like that's an exaggeration, but it really isn't. We have so many instruments to cover. And it helps that we're using a lot of different muscle groups because there are so many different instruments. I would say someone who plays French horn or violin, it might be a lot more difficult to put in those kind of hours because the repetition is - it's repetitive the whole time, so they're more likely to get an injury from doing that.

BRIGER: One time you practiced in a stairwell for so long that you hallucinated seeing flies on your drum pad. And you were actually happy about that because it meant that you'd really put your time in?

NIEMI: I felt pretty good about it. I thought, wow, this is - I'm practicing a lot. So in my own little perverse world, I thought that was great.

BRIGER: You say that if you would spend five minutes arranging your locker, someone else would've been spending that five minutes practicing, and that that other person would be at some point a competitor at an audition. It sounds like it was a real pressure cooker. Is that true?

NIEMI: Yes, although I think the pressure just comes from within us because it's such a self-directed profession. Nobody is spending all their time with you telling you to practice. There's no coach. There's no teacher who spends all that time telling you what to do. They tell you one hour a week. But the rest of the time, it's all up to you. So if the pressure is coming from anywhere, it's deep inside you telling you, get out there and work hard now.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with Patti Niemi, percussionist with the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and author of the new memoir, "Sticking It Out." There's more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with Patti Niemi. She's a percussionist with the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and author of the new memoir "Sticking It Out: From Juilliard To The Orchestra Pit."

BRIGER: So when you were at Juilliard, you had your first real panic attack. You had gotten a freelance job with the Westchester Orchestra to get some more experience. It was your first rehearsal there. What happened?

NIEMI: It was pretty unexpected, very embarrassing, very upsetting to me. I went to go play a snare drum part for "Capriccio Espagnol," which is famous for its long, loud role that then descends to nothing and becomes very soft indeed. And it's just you and the concertmaster playing together. And I was playing this part unexpectedly because someone didn't show up who was playing that night, volunteered and begged to do that part. They let me do it. And when I got down to play the soft role, very suddenly it was almost impossible to play. My hands were just shaking very badly.

BRIGER: So as a result of that, you started taking Inderal, which is a beta-blocking medication. Which, I guess...


BRIGER: ...It slows your heart down - your heart rate down.

NIEMI: Right.

BRIGER: And you take it before big performances or auditions. But you kept it a secret from everyone. Did you feel at that time that taking a medication like that was somehow cheating?

NIEMI: Absolutely. I did feel that way. There's so much, again - and this pressure we put on ourselves, but there's so much pressure to conquer fears, conquer performance anxiety. And it doesn't feel like you're supposed to conquer it by taking a beta blocker. It feels like you're supposed to conquer it by meditating and being strong and being confident and preparing. And I found that I could do all those things and prepared very much, and it still did not help my performance anxiety. For me, it was very bad.

BRIGER: It sounds like now there's - a lot of classical musicians take inderal. It's fairly common, but was there a stigmatism against it in the 80s?

NIEMI: I don't know if there was more of a stigma at that time, but for me it was just very personally upsetting. I didn't want to think about it. I didn't want to admit to myself that I had to do it, so I certainly wasn't going to talk to anybody else about it. And, in a way, that's just too bad because I think I would have found a little company if I had just spoken to people and been upfront about it. I would have found that I was not the only person who took it.

BRIGER: Well, let's hear an excerpt from a difficult xylophone ragtime piece that was called "Whirlwind," which I think when you were learning it caused you a lot of anxiety. Is that right?

NIEMI: Yes. When I played it - this performance was at Davies (ph) - it was 1993, and it was a performance on a chamber music concert with some other percussionists. It's one of those high-wire acts for xylophone just running 16th notes up and down the instrument. And the xylophone bars are very small, and you have to hit them - each one correctly.

BRIGER: Well, let's hear a little bit of this. This is a private recording from the performance, and, Patti, you're playing the lead part?

NIEMI: Correct.


BRIGER: So that was a piece called "Whirlwhind." It's a ragtime xylophone piece with our guest Patti Niemi playing the lead. So, hey, that sounds like a really difficult piece. Can you talk a little bit about the challenges in performing it?

NIEMI: Sure. The biggest one is that it all relies on muscle memory for accuracy. It's one of the - I can think of only one other instrument, harp, in which you can't get feedback from your hands about which note you're playing. Harp - you're feeling the strings, but it's not telling you which string you're playing - same with xylophone. We have sticks between our hands and the instrument.

So everything that we do to make it as accurate as possible relies on muscle memory. You're not touching it like you would a piano. So that's the first part. It just needs so much repetition and slow practicing. If you're practicing fast and making mistakes, you are putting muscle memory with mistakes in, so you have to practice very slowly.

BRIGER: And how did taking inderal help you with that performance?

NIEMI: When you take inderal, your heart will not beat out of its chest like it kind of feels it's going to when you're really, really nervous. It stops that process from happening.

BRIGER: So you don't have to - you're not as worried. You can concentrate on the piece.

NIEMI: Yes, although you can be very worried inside your head about other things. Will I make a mistake? Will I have a memory slip? There are a lot of other things to worry about, unfortunately, but you don't worry that your hands are going to shake. That's the one worry that's taken away.

BRIGER: So do percussionists ever get flak from the other instrumentalists in the orchestra?

NIEMI: Oh, absolutely. We play far less than they do, and they're working much harder. And, to be fair, a lot of that is deserved. They're right.

BRIGER: From reading your book, it sounds like you've taken kind of a beating during your pursuit of music. I mean, you suffered serious amounts of anxiety. You had this - what you describe as a breakdown. You've got an ulcer from the stress. Has it been worth it to you?

NIEMI: Absolutely, yes. It's a great privilege. It's possible that my personality is so anxious to begin with that I would have had this problem in any field, but maybe it was just more extreme with music. That's a possibility, but it was definitely and is definitely worth it.

BRIGER: So what's your favorite instrument to play?

NIEMI: I love to play cymbals. I think it's so much fun. They almost always happen at the climax of operas. So I get to be right there and put the lightning in - the lightning and the thunder and raining down from heavens. I get to do it, so it's a lot of fun.

BRIGER: Well, Patti Niemi, thanks so much for being with us.

NIEMI: Thank you so much.

GROSS: Patti Niemi spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Sam Briger. Her memoir is called "Sticking It Out: From Juilliard To The Orchestra Pit."


GROSS: If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like our interview with Jessi Klein, the head writer of "Inside Amy Schumer" and Rachel Starnes, who's written a memoir about being a military wife, check out our podcast. You'll find those and other interviews.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden and Thea Chaloner. John Sheehan directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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