Musicians do not exist in vacuums. Every musician has had teachers and, directly or indirectly, students. Piano lineages particularly fascinate me: Mozart may have taught Beethoven a few lessons; Beethoven taught Czerny; Czerny taught Liszt; Liszt taught Siloti; Siloti taught Rachmaninov; and some living musicians can trace their roots to this lineage.

There have also been interesting stories of composers as teachers: George Gershwin went to Paris to study with Maurice Ravel, who famously refused to teach him, asking "Why should you be a second-rate Ravel when you can be a first-rate Gershwin?" John Cage was told by Arnold Schoenberg, "In order to write music, you must have a feeling for harmony." When Cage told Schoenberg he had no feeling for harmony, Schoenberg described this as an impassable wall toward his study for music; Cage replied, "In that case I will devote my life to beating my head against that wall."

Likewise, contemporaries largely influence a musician's artistic output. Strauss and Mahler, the two titans of late German Romanticism were well aware of each other (I have heard both as friends and rivals). Tchaikovsky couldn't stand Brahms. Bartok and Shostakovich parodied each others' music in their own pieces.

Here is the fun part for me: much of percussion music has gone through a colossal transformation in the past 100 years; beyond that, probably the most exciting part of this transformation has come in the past 50 years. Many of our Mozarts, Strausses, and Bartoks are still alive today (or are only one generation in the past). Living percussion legends still actively perform today: Steve Gadd, Alan Abel, Keiko Abe, Steven Schick, and Giovanni Hidalgo, just to name a few. Lineages are relatively easy to trace too: Clair Musser worked for J.C. Reagan; Musser taught Vida Chenowith; Chenowith taught Leigh Howard Stevens; Stevens has influenced just about every marimba player today.

In a previous post, I mentioned the influence Keiko Abe and Kate Vorel had on my concept of sound. Other influences have included my first percussion teacher, Don Bick, who inspired a great love of music within me; Mark Ford, who taught me how to play with precision; William Moersch, who taught me what great music is; and Svet Stoyanov, who taught me how to perform.

My greatest influence—perhaps inspiration would be a better word choice—is not one that might be immediately evident in my playing: Ed Smith.

Ed is (mostly) a jazz vibraphonist by trade, having studied with David Friedman. Dig deeper, though, and you find that Ed formed a world music group, D'Drum, in 1992; spent a brief amount of time performing with John Cage; and has been traveling to Bali, Indonesia since 1995 studying gamelan music. All these influences inform Ed's vibraphone playing. In 2009, Malletech brought a new vibraphone to PASIC with a unique vibrato system, and Ed became the first signature vibraphone artist for this new instrument.

Three years later, Ed had his PASIC debut, which I was lucky enough to be in the audience for. Ed opened the concert with his own composition, Neptune:

The second Ed started playing, my eyes welled up with tears. At the time, I was completely unhappy with how I sounded and I wanted some sort of fast answer to fixing my playing. I now had the answer: I was on a journey. Ed's playing has been informed by so many influences, and he continues to tweak and refine his playing. In short, he doesn't have it completely "figured out" who he is, and that's what makes his playing exciting and beautiful.

Ravi Shankar greatly influenced George Harrison's music, not in style, but in philosophy. Likewise, Ed Smith influenced not what I play or how I play, but why I play music.

Who influenced you?

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AuthorBenjamin Charles