Published on February 17, 2022 by Fifteen Questions | Share this post!
Fifteen Questions interviews Third Coast Percussion’s David Skidmore on the role of music in his life and the nature of his artistry.
When did you start playing your instrument, and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started playing piano when I was 7. My grandmother got me a tiny electronic Casio keyboard, then my parents got me a cheap upright and I started taking lessons. I played trumpet for a year, then I picked up percussion when I was 12 and fell in love with music.
I had fantastic teachers, I was good at it, and I had some incredible performance experiences in my first year of playing percussion that got me totally hooked.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
I think emulating others is particularly prevalent in the world of classical music. It took my bandmates and I a long time to get beyond old models and begin to reimagine the type of music that we could make.
Today we try to constantly surprise our audiences and keep ourselves invigorated by finding new and exciting collaborations, learning new things, and constantly challenging ourselves.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
I don’t think of myself as a classical musician, but I operate in that world. I think this makes things fun, because I get to constantly challenge expectations and find connections across genre boundaries that are artificial, but feel very real to some people.
What were some of your main challenges when starting out as an artist and in which way have they changed over the years?
The challenges are many when you start out as an artist. There is a big period of just hustling all the time and trying to make something out of nothing.
We’ve reached a level now where we feel fortunate to have lots of good relationships across the musical landscape and a pretty steady means to make our art. Now we challenge ourselves to become uncomfortable again with each project, so that we can continue to grow and find new ways to express ourselves.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first instrument?
There are millions of percussion instrument s… in fact any object in the universe that creates a sound that you want to use in a piece of music is a percussion instrument. So finding new tools of expression is just part of my job.
It’s fun to find a new sound (a wooden comb, a stair rail, a deflated balloon) and try to apply the same sense of discovery and study to it that I did to a piano when I was a kid.
Tell me about your instrument, please. How would you describe the relationship with it? What are its most important qualities and how do they influence the musical results, including your own performance?
I don’t have just one instrument … I have an infinite number of instruments. The more common percussion instruments, like the marimba, vibraphone, and drumset, I have a very deep relationship with. I have spent hours and hours making them sound the way I want them to.
But then I play on a cactus or a squeaky toy, and the challenge is to make them do what I want them to, even though they are not designed to do anything other than be a cactus and a squeaky toy. It’s pretty silly, but it’s also a lot of fun and can create really powerful art, and that’s how I’d describe my whole life.
How would you describe your approach to interpretation? Where do you start and how do you develop your view on a piece, what are some of your principles and what constitutes a successful interpretation for you?
I think successful interpretation of a piece of music is a practice in empathy. All of classical music to me is about empathy, which is why I think it is so important. Rarely is the performer the same person as the composer, so they try to embody the composer, uncover their intention, inhabit their artistic mind, speak in their voice.
But I also can’t help but be myself, so a good interpretation is deeply respectful to the composer, and has great empathy for the composer, but also is true to who I am as a performer.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives?
Our preferred collaboration is very involved, very close, and with a ton of mutual respect. We’re happiest for instance when we’re working with composers who will visit our rehearsal studio multiple times while creating for us, try out ideas with us, accept feedback from us, give us feedback, and therefore ultimately create something that could not have been created if it were not for our specific alchemy with them.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other – do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
I have absolutely no routine whatsoever, and I’ve become happy in accepting that. I’ll describe today just because it could be any other day: my daughter woke up at 5:45am so I went into her room and read to her for a while, then fell asleep on her bed while she watched a movie on my phone. We had found out at 1am that her daycare would be closed because it had snowed a ton in Chicago, so at 7:30 I texted the other guys in my quartet and asked if we could move our 9am rehearsal back to 10:30am because my wife had a meeting at 9 and I needed to watch our daughter.
At 10:15am I put on my gear and walked the 1.5 miles through the snow to our studio, then we rehearsed for 4 hours. I walked back home, played with my daughter and shoveled the snow and wrote some music while she watched some tv (she should have less screen time but we do our best), then I made dinner for us and at 7pm I took an Uber to Northwestern University where TCP is currently coaching the student percussion ensemble, preparing them for a concert later this month.
I was done teaching at 10pm and the other guys in the quartet picked me up outside the building and we drove 3 hours up to Appleton, WI, where we had to be for a concert and residency starting the next morning.
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
In 2017 we were nominated for a Grammy for the first time, and we were invited to play at the Grammy Premiere ceremony. We were incredibly nervous, and rehearsed more for that performance than we had for any single performance in years. We finished playing, walked off stage, and then our award category was called and we won. Being on stage and accepting the award with these 3 close friends was totally surreal.
Now, I really don’t think there is anything good that comes from obsessing over awards. If you don’t love what you’re doing, an award is not going to help that. But, we had been working together for 12 years at that point, trying to make great music and to get it out to a wider and wider audience, and it was a milestone and in spite of myself I was really proud of what we had accomplished.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
I think to be creative you ideally have to be a little self absorbed. So the trick for me to being creative and not being a complete turd of a person is to compartmentalize. When I’m with my family, I try to be all in. When I’m doing necessary admin work for TCP, I try to be all in. But when I’m rehearsing, or writing music, or dreaming up new ideas, I try to dive all the way in and just forget everything else.
It never totally works, there’s always a piece of you wrapped up in something else, but I think I’ve gotten better and better at it over the years.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
When COVID hit, TCP transitioned quickly and we did a livestream on March 20, 2020. When we started playing I started crying—I hadn’t realized it, but I had a lot of pent up anxiety and sadness that had gathered in the preceding weeks as I started to realize that my identity as a musician who plays live for audiences might have to change. I think at that moment music helped to heal me a little.
I don’t think music has ever hurt me, it’s sad to think that is the case for some.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses – and what do they tell us about the way our senses work? What happens to sound at its outermost borders?
Closing your eyes while listening or playing music is really special. In the rare moments when you can really get images out of your brain and just hear sounds, something incredible happens to your mind and body.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
I think one of the most important things that I can do, and that TCP can do, is to create musical experiences that people enjoy that were completely unexpected. If we can make someone love something that they knew nothing about, or thought they knew something about but then they realize they didn’t know as much as they thought they did … we’re opening them up to question other things they think they know, or they think are set in stone.
People’s hearts and minds can change, it’s just really difficult for it to happen, and I think words and concrete images aren’t always the way to change hearts and minds.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
No one can really describe what it means to be conscious and alive, and no one knows what it’s like to be dead. And no one can really describe to someone what music sounds like, you have to hear it. So they have that in common—they are important and impossible to describe.