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A Smashing Success for Lamont Percussionists

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Ian Wisekal

For the Lamont percussion department, the last two years have been a series of hits.

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Lamont percussion

Each year, Lamont hosts two school-wide competitions in both solo and chamber music that culminate in public performances and a $500 prize.

While historically won by pianists and string players, who have centuries of well-known repertoire at their fingertips, Lamont percussionists nabbed the top spot not only in the 2018 and 2019 Solo Honors Competitions, but also in this year’s Chamber Competition.

Beyond campus, at the annual Percussive Arts Society International Conference (PASIC) last November, Lamont students beat out contestants from dozens of other schools to win first prize in both the Chamber Music Competition and Timpani/Percussion Mock Audition.

John Kinzie, Lamont’s adjunct faculty in percussion and director of percussion studies, points out that this string of successes did not happen overnight. When he began teaching at DU in 1998, there was only one percussion major. The state-of-the-art facilities of the Newman Center and years of diligent recruiting efforts have helped to attract the current crop of talented percussionists, who range from first-year to post-master’s and hail from eight different states.

Kinzie’s overriding teaching philosophy is that percussionists need to play musically on all of the many instruments they are required to master, whether it be snare drum, xylophone or tambourine.

“If you have a triangle note, it had better be the most beautiful note you’ve ever played,” he advised.

The culture of collaboration in his studio, which he thinks partially explains the success of his chamber groups, is rooted in his curriculum: every percussionist is required to perform with a non-percussionist on every recital.

Kevin Keith, a member of both PASIC’s and Lamont’s winning chamber ensembles and last year’s Solo Honors Competition victor, first learned of Lamont while studying with Kinzie at Colorado College Summer Music Festival. Keith was drawn to Kinzie’s approach.

“It was something that I’d never been exposed to,” he said. “It’s very Zen and relaxed; you put in the work and then you go and do it.”

At Lamont, Keith has found encouragement from the close-knit community: not only from his teacher, but also from his colleagues, other faculty and staff members.

“At Lamont, you walk into the office and people know you by name. That speaks volumes that the school cares about what we’re going to be doing in our lives. It’s incredibly rare and unique,” Keith said.

This year’s Solo Honors Competition winner is Elizabeth Karney, who was born and raised in Michigan. Her piece, Joseph Schwantner’s Concerto for Percussion, is a virtuosic tour de force that requires a dizzying array of instruments and techniques.

It takes Karney 45 minutes just to set up all of the necessary equipment, which includes xylophone, marimba, vibraphone, two concert bass drums, bongos, a gong suspended in water, and much more. The percussion department had to borrow instruments from local schools to complete the retinue, and Kinzie purchased a set of almglocken, tuned cowbells, just for this piece. Karney has been forced to reserve large ensemble rooms for all of her practice sessions. Smiling and throwing up her hands, she said, “I don’t fit anywhere else!”

At Lamont, Karney has also had the opportunity to explore passions beyond playing. Working with musicology professor Elwood Colahan, she presented a scholarly paper for Lamont Colloquium this winter.

“I learned how to really intricately craft a research paper and do research that I think is meaningful,” she said.

In the spring, Karney will be flexing her composition muscles: her first piece for full orchestra will be read and recorded by the Lamont Symphony Orchestra. Of that project, she affirmed, “It’s really great to break out of my comfort zone.”

Kinzie is proud of his percussionists. “I’m always super pleased with my students that work hard and find success,” he said.

One of his former Lamont students, Mike Van Wirt, recently won a position in the percussion section of the Colorado Symphony, where Kinzie is principal percussionist. It was gratifying for him, he said, to watch a former student become a colleague.

Asked for any advice for young performers, he counseled: “Work hard, perform as often as possible, and don’t focus on your past failures.”

See Karney take the stage with the Lamont Wind Ensemble for her winning performance on May 8, in the Newman Center’s Gates Concert Hall.

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