Ready, Willing and Abel
Led by a legend, Temple’s graduate program in percussion focuses on giving its students a competitive edge.
Story by Maria Raha
Photos by Ryan S. Brandenberg
From castanets and triangles to xylophones and timpani, the number of percussive instruments that fit in Adjunct Professor of Percussion Alan Abel’s small basement studio in Penn Wynne, Pa., could supply numerous orchestra pits. But even more impressive than Abel’s use of space is the number of working orchestral musicians who were trained there.
The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony, the Boston Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra and nearly every other major symphony or orchestra in the nation—and many around the world—employ percussionists who have studied with Abel, a 38-year percussionist with the Philadelphia Orchestra, inventor and Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame inductee.
“I did research a few years ago,” says Chris Deviney, MUS ’89, principal percussionist for the Philadelphia Orchestra, “and of all the full-time percussion or timpani jobs in the United States, close to 30 percent of them [are held by people who] either studied with Abel, or studied with someone who studied with Abel.”
Deviney currently shares the percussion section of the Philadelphia Orchestra with Angela Zator Nelson MUS ’01, the orchestra’s first female percussionist and associate principal timpanist. Don Liuzzi, MUS ’87, is the orchestra’s principal timpanist.
Such success can be attributed to Abel and to Temple Professor of Percussion Glenn Steele, a former student of Abel who spent more than 20 years with the Philly Pops and was first percussionist for Philadelphia’s Orchestra 2001 for nearly 20 years.
The pair took over Temple’s undergraduate percussion program, housed in the Boyer College of Music and Dance, in 1972, after Professor of Percussion Charles Owen left the university.
The graduate program began in 1973, when Abel accepted Susan Jones, MUS ’74.Jones went on to land a job with the Pennsylvania Ballet Orchestra in Philadelphia, where she still performs today, along with Ralph Sorrentino, MUS ’03, who joined in 2008.
“Securing a percussion position with any major orchestra is a highly competitive process,” says Robert Stroker, dean of the Boyer College of Music and Dance. “For any one job, there are hundreds of applicants. The fact that so many of Alan’s students have found so much full-time orchestra work is a testament to
his stature as an educator and mentor.”
While Temple’s undergraduate percussion program is unique because it combines conservatory training and a liberal arts education—something not offered at traditional conservatories—the graduate program stands apart because students are expected to spend most of their time practicing.
Joseph Petrasek, MUS ’08, who embarked on his first full season as an associate principal percussionist with the Kansas City Symphony in 2009, attributes the program’s success to Abel, but also to the way the curriculum has been designed.
“Your main responsibilities are taking lessons with him and having time to practice,” he explains. “The studio was small, but closely knit and very intense, and everybody was very professionally oriented. Everyone in the program had the same goal: auditioning for orchestras and winning a full-time job. And it is set up so you can do that.”
A Tradition of Dedication
Many alumni found their way to Temple through other Abel students. For example, Matthew Kallend, MUS ’06, principal percussionist for the Opera Company of Philadelphia, learned about Abel from two previous teachers who were Temple students: Eric Millstein, MUS ’99, with the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and Ted Atkatz, retired percussionist for the Chicago Symphony.
Abel developed what is now known as the Abel triangle to harness a richer, textured ring from the instrument.
Adjunct Professor Alan Abel teaches graduate percussion students from his home studio, which is filled with percussive instruments.
Alumni of the graduate percussion program attribute their success to Abel’s determination to share his expertise. But Abel holds a more humble view. “My great success is that I’m pretty good at choosing wonderful talent,” he explains. “I look for people who have musical talent and good hand control.” He also looks for the presence of or potential for a good work ethic and passion for music.
After years of teaching—at Settlement Music School, Glassboro (N.J.) State College (now Rowan University), and Temple—Abel says he remains motivated to teach because he wants to pass on the traditions he helped to develop during his musical career.
“I love music,” he says, “and I like the idea of the way this Philadelphia Orchestra plays, and the way the percussion section fits in, and I like to carry on those traditions with generations, with the students.”
The tradition he aims to continue through his teaching is rooted in what has become the signature percussive sound of Philadelphia, some elements of which were developed by Abel and his Philadelphia Orchestra colleagues Fred Hinger, Michael Bookspan and Charles Owen.
There are many aspects of the orchestra’s percussion section that come from the rich history of the orchestra. According to Kallend, principal percussionist for the Opera Company of Philadelphia, one of those traditions is working with a smaller percussion section. He attributes it to Eugene Ormandy, legendary conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra from 1936 to 1980.
Due to a smaller percussion section, musicians trained under the tradition can sometimes be more valuable than their peers, who often are not used to being responsible for more than one instrument.
“It’s very possible that if you go to a Philadelphia Orchestra concert, people will be playing several instruments at once in the percussion section,” Kallend says. “When you start getting gigs outside the Philadelphia Orchestra and they’re working on fixed budgets, you have this out-of-the-box thinking that was instilled in you in Philly.”
But Philadelphia’s percussive style is about more than the flexibility of its musicians; percussionists trained in its sound have a strong command of overtones and resonance.
“A lot of that has to do with how the orchestra played at the Academy [of Music], which is a very dead hall,” Liuzzi, principal timpanist, explains. “That forced the percussion section to make things sound their fullest. The tradition was really about making sure that you had a full sound that matched the richness of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and tried to emulate the fullness of the strings.” Furthermore, Abel and his colleagues approached percussive instruments as melodic ones, enhancing the overall mood of a piece as well as the beat.
To further refine the sound for percussionists, Abel made structural changes to the triangle. These days, most orchestral percussion sections use the Abel triangle, a version of the instrument that provides a more textured ring. He also developed a bass-drum stand with large elastic bands that allow the drum to move when played, increasing the quality of the sound.
Though these approaches to percussion appear to give talented students an extra competitive edge, Abel’s dedication to teaching helped Cynthia Yeh, MUS ’01, principal percussionist for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, to get a job. Before her audition, she returned to his studio to rehearse.
“We started lessons at 3 and went from 3 to 7,” Yeh says. “We then rehearsed from 9:30 to midnight, just because he wanted to make sure we covered everything before the audition. We only stopped at midnight because Mrs. Abel insisted that we go to bed.”
Such dedication is evident in the relationships Abel maintains with alumni. Without hesitation, he can rattle off a list of who is employed where.
Greg Zuber, MUS ’85, principal percussionist for the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in New York City, notes that in addition to a thorough education, Abel’s students gain a sense of belonging. “If you’re accepted into his studio, you’re accepted into his family. And [that is] extremely nurturing for a young person.”
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