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A Musical Crusader - Gordon Peters

Most of us in the chorus have at one time or another enjoyed an excellent view of Gordon Peters as he pursues his percussion activities at the rear of the CSO. There is much that he is and does that is not apparent in that setting, in particular his passionate concern for quality music education.


The Civic Orchestra


Peters is conductor/administrator of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, the training orchestra of the Chicago Symphony. This is not only an administrative and conducting position, as his title indicates, but also an educational one.  This became very clear when I picked up two of Peters' articles available outside the door of the sixth-floor Orchestra Hall office of the Civic Orchestra.  They are titled "Guidelines for Preparing Music for an Audition" and "Instrumental Mastery vs. Musical Illiteracy:  A Growing Dilemma".


Mr. Peters has also written a comprehensive study of percussion history and pedagogy, titled The Drummer: Man. "I have the distinction," he says, "of having had my book stolen from such libraries as the New York Public Library, the Chicago Public Library and others, so I assume I have achieved a certain degree of notoriety."  He no longer holds a teaching position at a university (he was instructor of percussion instruments at Northwestern University from 1963 to 1968).  He does teach as a conductor and mock-audition coach and he is actively concerned with music education per se.  To quote from the second article mentioned above: "Considering the state of the art and the inability of students to play beautiful and musically logical phrases on their instruments, questions should be raised about our current systems of training musicians; the issues of defining interpretation and style, of learning efficient practice techniques, of effective usage of the metronome and tape recorder, of skills looked for at job interviews and auditions. All of these need careful examination to determine whether we are producing instrumentalists or musicians, technicians or artists."

Mr. Peters expanded on his concerns for music and music education when I talked with him at Orchestra Hall a few weeks ago.  I would like to allow him to speak for himself, as he expressed himself in that interview.


The Aural By-Pass

Said Peters, "The thing that is lacking in the pedagogy of most musicians is sitting down with the music and studying it; learning it away from the instrument.  I hesitate to use the word memorizing, because memorization to me has a connotation of superficiality as practiced.  But learning the music fully so that not only is all the ink on the page vocalized, but the internal dimensions, the insight and insides of the music are being communicated to the listener.  In other words , you have to learn what is there mechanically and then add the spices of your own insight before you start vocalizing or playing the instrument.  This is the lost art of conceptualization."

He grew quite impassioned as he spoke of this "aural by-pass." "Making music has become a visual/manual skill," he said, "which by-passes the ear. And when you skip that, you also skip this and this," pointing to his head and heart.


The Lost Art of Evaluation

The other concern which he expressed during our conversation was for "the lost art of evaluation." "What do you listen for in your music making and others so that you can evaluate it and improve it? I don't think we are taught the art of listening critically."

"You know yourself," he continued, "there are many that as soon as they get an engagement they run to the vocal coach, the recording or the teacher.  They cannot confront the composer themselves.  Some don't even want to hear themselves on tape. One told me that.  This is anti-art.

It's like the doctor syndrome.  Why do we have to run to the doctor when we're sick?  Well, because we don't feel well.  But maybe we drink too much or don't sleep enough or we eat the wrong things.  Without getting into homeopathy and a lot of discussion, there are a lot of things we can ponder on our own.  The business of going to a teacher is akin to going to a doctor.  We go, we pay, we are supposed to be made well.  We expect the teacher or doctor to give us the answers without seeking them ourselves."


A Crusade


Mr. Peters hopes to mount a crusade against what he sees as incomplete educational practices.  His two articles are soon to be published.  He said, "I'm going to circulate them.  I'm going to challenge deans and department heads of our musical institutions.  I have a right to challenge, for the simple reason that I am a consumer of their products in the Civic Orchestra."


Chicago Symphony Chorus Member


It is interesting to note that in the process of educating himself as a musician and conductor, Mr. Peters saw fit to include 13 years of choral singing, including early in his CSO career three years in the Chicago Symphony Chorus. This was under Reiner, approximately 1959-62.  "The arrangement was" he said "when I was not needed in percussion, I would sing.  The Missa Solemnis, Brahms Requiem - I sang them.  I had to audition every year just like everyone else."


His motivation for participating in choruses was two-fold.  "First, being interested in conducting and being a rhythmicist, I wanted not only rhythm, but a melodic conditioning focusing on the interpretation and phrasing of a mucial line."


But more importantly, in the event I ever had to conduct choral works with orchestra, I wanted to know what was going on from the inside.  Hence, the accumulation of repertoire singing with Miss Hillis and Dr. Genhart (at the Eastman School of Music, where he received both bachelor's and master's degrees).  I have lots of scores and lots of markings.  I have not yet been confronted with such a situation, but I feel able to handle it."


Early Musical Experiences


I asked Mr. Peters for some childhood memories of music.  His earliest brush with that medium was dancing lessons, which lasted one week.  Then came piano lessons, an idea which he says "started in my mother's head, not mine."


He seems to feel that the real beginning of music in his life was "the day I I decided to take my first drum lesson."  Free lessons were available at school.


"I don't remember why I wanted to take drum lessons.  I did live in a community, namely Cicero, Illinois, which was very musical at the time.  I must have heard some music going on at school or on the street or some place, and I had the instinct to want to play the drum."


Drum lessons started with a pair of sticks and the heel of a shoe mounted on a piece of wood at a 45 degree angle which his father put together for him.  "In the fifth grade," he recounts, " I was a percussionist in the elementary school orchestra which had forty members and met once a week.  I liked it and I liked music, but I didn't like playing the piano to produce music."


Mr. Peters says he never seriously considered making his living in anything other than music.  He has fulfilled many roles within that art, including composer (of The Swords of Moda-Ling, a piece for percussion ensemble that is widely performed in the U.S. and elsewhere), conductor, percussionist, educator, author, administrator and crusader.  Given the contributions he has made, I think we can all be glad that a young boy in Cicero, Illinois "had the instinct to want to play the drum."