Northwestern alumni percussion group nominated for Grammys, attribute success to university
February 9, 2017
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Peter Martin was not having a good morning.
It was 8 a.m. on Dec. 6 and Martin (Bienen ‘04, ‘11) was rushing to get to his classical percussion ensemble’s — Third Coast Percussion — studio space to start practicing before all the musicians began their group rehearsal at 10 a.m.
The week was a busy one for the group: They had an intense rehearsal schedule to prepare for a couple of recording sessions, and they were in the middle of an educational project at an elementary school on the South Side of Chicago.
“I’ve got to get to the studio; I’ve got to get there,” Martin thought, stumbling out of his Chicago apartment. But as soon as the door shut, he froze. He had left his keys on the counter, locking himself out.
Frustrated, Martin spent about a half hour sorting out the situation before he finally began his walk to the studio. But moments later, his morning luck changed. His phone chimed with a text message. It was his sister congratulating him.
His group’s album, “Steve Reich,” had just been nominated for a 2017 Grammy Award.
A rocky start
Third Coast, made up of four Northwestern alumni, was nominated for the first time, and several other alumni and faculty members were nominated separately. Martin’s ensemble is competing for the title of Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance.
“(The Grammys is) that award that literally everybody associates with music,” Martin said, laughing. “Now people really recognize and really believe that I have a job. Before I was the guy that played percussion, and now I’m a Grammy-nominated musician that plays percussion.”
Most of the ensemble members first began exploring chamber music with percussion instruments under the guidance of Michael Burritt, a former Bienen professor of percussion. In 2005, four NU alumni — including Martin, Robert Dillon (Bienen ‘02) and David Skidmore (Bienen ‘05) — found each other while playing in the Civic Orchestra of Chicago.
Through the symphony, the musicians had the opportunity to put together a quartet to teach music at schools and perform small chamber music concerts around the city, Dillon said. After they realized how much they loved performing as a group, Third Coast was born.
But gaining recognition for the group was difficult, Skidmore said. There were very few professional percussion ensembles to use as models.
It took years for the members to find a stable and affordable practice space — which they finally did on the North Side of Chicago — and to work their way up financially so they could buy more percussion instruments: marimbas, vibraphones, cymbals, tin cans, gongs and more.
And when it came to advertising their music, they were working on a steep learning curve, Skidmore said.
Third Coast started off playing at small but established rock clubs known for experimental music, but when it came to performing in their own shows, they weren’t as successful in getting the turnout they wanted.
One of Third Coast’s opening shows was at NU, Skidmore said, recalling how the members gathered to make dozens of posters hours before the show and handed them out at Norris University Center, hoping people would attend.
“The first few shows it was, like, five people in the crowd,” Skidmore said. “Most of the time we’d do all this work to put together and rehearse the music, and then we’d forget to advertise it at all. We’d just go out and grab people to come and listen to us play.”
At this point the men were only playing part-time, juggling Third Coast and their day jobs as music educators in universities and high schools across the city.
A helping hand
As they were trying to find their footing, the members reached out to the Northwestern community knowing they would receive the support they needed, Dillon said.
He said the group met with renowned composers like Augusta Read Thomas, who taught at NU during their time as students, and also learned from alumni in contemporary classical music ensembles that were further along in their careers.
In 2012, Third Coast turned into a full-time job. After a bit of shuffling around, Sean Connors (Bienen ‘06) replaced the original fourth member of the quartet and the group began an ensemble-in-residence position at the University of Notre Dame.
Connors said as their shows slowly gained more traction — they now played for audiences ranging from a couple hundred to a couple thousand — the group began working on an album that hit close to home: a recording of composer Steve Reich’s works.
Reich is especially influential in the percussion world because of his contributions in building the genre of classical percussion music, substituting percussion instruments for roles traditionally performed by string instruments, Connors said.
Skidmore said the album, “Steve Reich,” was the first time the alumni had recorded Reich’s work despite having played it for many years as NU students and performers in Chicago.
The album was released in February 2016 and gained a lot of notice, even catching the attention of Reich himself. He contacted Third Coast to let them know how much he enjoyed it, gave them feedback and helped them spread the word about their music, Skidmore added.
Martin said the group’s journey goes to show that even though the members worked tirelessly over the last 11 years to get to where they are now, they would be nothing without NU’s influence.
“We haven’t been students at Northwestern now for a very long time, but in many ways, Northwestern is part of our identity as a group,” he said.
The next act
With the validation and attention the Grammy nomination has brought the group, the members said they are excited to take their work to the next level.
In addition to touring over the next few months, they are currently working on composing music together for the first time. Their next album will come out in about a year and will feature original songs.
As for the immediate future, Martin said Third Coast was invited to perform at the Grammys, just 15 minutes before the results of their category would be announced. The group’s recent opportunities have felt surreal, he said.
“You know, my little sister was the first person to text me about the nomination that morning,” Martin said. “For a long time, she had this ongoing kind of joke ever since I released my first album. She said if I ever get nominated for a Grammy she has to go to the Grammys with me.”
“Now,” he said, laughing, “I get to take her.”