Story by Abbie Blach
Called “commandingly elegant” by the New York Times hardly draws a single thought of risk. Sounds of over 125 bells glide off walls at the hands of the quartet Third Coast Percussion, but there could have been silence if the quartet had not decided to embark on a full-time performance adventure four years ago.
“One of the scary things was that there isn’t exactly a formula for how to make a full-time job out of a percussion ensemble, so each one of us had to commit to it and take the risk of quitting our other jobs,” said Third Coast’s Sean Connors. “We were all teaching at the time, some of us full-time with jobs at universities or private studios.”
That decision was described as ‘scary’ by Connors. That seems to be putting it elegantly, commandingly so. He, along with his co-Third Coast performers David Skidmore, Robert Dillon and Peter Martin perform at CSU on March 1. They met while studying music at Northwestern University, and that camaraderie propelled the decision to take Third Coast to the full-time level.
‘Throwing ourselves in’
“The trajectory of the group was really positive, and we were all very excited about it, and so we were comfortable committing to putting everything else on hold and throwing ourselves in,” said Connors.
Trajectory and risk could catapult you anywhere. To failure. To settling. To a ditch. But then again, trajectory could also mean being one of the most applauded percussion names in the arts. Connors doesn’t take that positive outcome for granted.
“We’re very passionate about what we do. When we’re ever on stage we strive to connect with our audience and hold ourselves to that highest standard, and we’ve been really fortunate to gain accolades from The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and so it’s been a gradual widening of our fans,” he said.
Before hiring a lead administrator, the full-time percussionists also had to act as their own managers — something to an extent they still do. But Connors sees his role in Third Coast like any other job, except he has a role every day, night and weekend. It’s constant work, fueled by the passion that brought the group together in the first place.
Yet regardless of the lives they left behind, the quartet found a way to rekindle their talent for teaching to thrive in a world now filled with touring.
“Between the four of us, we have experience teaching every level of music, from beginners to collegiate level and professional teaching,” Connors said. “So when we are on tour, we really do love to interact with students, and sometimes they’re percussionists, but often times they’re not.”
Performance, tours, teaching, all while experimenting for the most innovative sounds — the functions that Connors and Third Coast play are as diverse as the music they fill a performance hall with.
The role that makes Connors beam with pride? The role of collaborator.
Since Third Coast started touring four years ago, a critical component was the inception of their collaboration series Emerging Composer Partnership, a project designed to bring new compositions for percussion to the stage.
Connors and Third Coast have a simple process: they listen and read through applicants’ scores, samples and proposals. They narrow their applicants down a few times, then pick two each year. Simple, right?
“The third [year] we got 100, and this year we got 189 applications, and they represented every continent except for Antarctica, actually.” Connors said. “We were really thrilled and we were way overwhelmed because we listened to everything that people submit and we read everything people submit.”
For Connors, the challenge not only comes from the amount of applications, but from the level of talent he and his group come across. But unlike other collaboration programs, Connors and Third Coast aren’t interested in a “call for scores,” as he put it. They’re looking to work with composers in all stages.
“What we’re more interested in is the collaborative process and really getting to know a composer that we really believe in, and interacting with him or her several times, in our studio, in Chicago, and building a piece that we’re really passionate about together.”
For the 2017-18 season, one chosen composer was young Chicago native Ayanna Woods, whose breadth of talent — which includes composing film scores, her own vocals, a hip-hop compilation and playing bass — culminated with her youth as a recent undergrad, made her a huge stand-out.
A second composer
Her fellow selected composer, Tim Page, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago who had applied before, applied again for the 2017 season, much to Connors’ delight. “He sent us a proposal of dipping these pipes he built in water, and dipping them and lowering them in the water to create intricate melodies,” Connors said.
Page’s proposal also included a Third Coast performance implementation plan, something that later earned him his spot as one of the final two Emerging Composers.
“We sort of looked at who needs this opportunity more, or who is ‘emerging’ — you know you can take that word for whatever it means — we don’t set any limits on it. It’s completely self-identified by the artists and composers who apply to this.”
Much like the lack of limits the ensemble sets on their budding artists, the only boundary in front of Connors and Third Coast are would-be walls that can’t be pierced, and once witnessed live, you know they’ll never find one.
Four years ago Sean Connors and Third Coast took a risk – it became our reward.
You can hear Third Coast Percussion March 1 at 7:30 p.m. at the Griffin Concert Hall in the University Center for the Arts. Get tickets here.
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