New Jersey native Jeff Calissi has a broad range of experience as a pedagogue, performing artist, and composer. The world of percussion has taken him to Europe, Canada, and throughout the United States performing in a variety of wind, percussion and chamber ensembles, symphony orchestras, opera companies and musical theater productions.
An active member of the Percussive Arts Society, Jeff has presented several times at the society’s international convention, PASIC, has performed at multiple state chapter Days of Percussion, and served as a member of the Scholarly Research Committee and associate keyboard editor for the Percussive Notes Journal.
Jeff’s compositions, arrangements, and recordings are available from C. Alan Publications and his research can be found in Percussive Notes and the PAS Online Research Journal. He is a member of the Vic Firth sticks and mallets education team and a Marimba One Educational Artist.
Jeff received a Bachelor of Music in Music Education from Radford University and both a Master of Music and a Doctor of Musical Arts in Performance from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He is an associate professor of music at Eastern Connecticut State University where he serves as the director of percussion studies.
In his life outside the classroom and off-stage, Jeff enjoys spending time with his wife, Rebecca McNair Calissi, watching the New York Rangers start each season on a winning streak, and being a middle-of-the-pack triathlete. He continues his quest for an Italian dinner that rivals Villa Rosa in Hawthorne, New Jersey.
I started playing along to my brother’s KISS records after receiving my first drum for Christmas when I was four years old. In the third grade I saw The Who documentary The Kids Are Alright and Keith Moon play the intro to “Who Are You” on the hi-hat. The Ramsey New Jersey school system is what put me on the right path starting in fifth grade when I was given a drum solo at the end of the year concert. Through middle and high school my life pretty much revolved around music and percussion, playing in concert band, marching band, jazz band and jazz combo, etc. and taking drum set lessons for about a year. My senior year of high school we won marching band championships and represented New Jersey in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. I went to Radford University for undergrad and majored in music education where I learned percussion from Al Wojtera on the traditional big three – snare, timpani, and mallets – but as the years went on, and I played in everything from the wind ensemble and concert band to percussion ensemble to being in the pit orchestra for The Nutcracker, I became more interested in performing, and mallet percussion in particular. It was toward the end of my sophomore year in college that I began thinking about graduate school and have Mark Camphouse (composer and current wind symphony director at George Mason University) to thank for getting me to study as much as I was practicing at the time. I wound up at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro studying under Cort McClaren for my masters degree right when the school opened a new building, complete with everything one could want from a fully outfitted percussion studio. Seeing as I just got unpacked and moved in, it was at the end of my first year in North Carolina that I knew I wanted to stick around for my doctorate, which I did, so both my masters and doctorate in performance were completed in a total of five years with an assistantship during that time which gave me experience teaching lessons and percussion pedagogy and conducting the freshman/sophomore percussion ensemble.
Could you tell us a bit about your life as a composer and performer?
After warming up for a lesson or practice session, I improvised chords and melodies (still do to this day). I soon discovered the four mallets corresponded to the four-part harmony in music theory, which I then used my understanding of chordal and modal harmony to stitch together the melodies I came up with during practicing. Along with the standard audition material for graduate school, I also played an original composition for Dr. McClaren, who in addition to being the percussion teacher at UNCG at the time (he has since retired), was also owner of C. Alan Publications. With his encouragement and guidance, and also composition lessons from Dr. Greg Carroll during my master’s degree, and taking several theory and orchestration classes through the doctorate, I was able to program several of my original pieces on my graduate recitals and eventually have them published. I recorded a compact disc of my material upon finishing my doctoral degree and since then branched out to other areas of composition like duos, trios, and chamber percussion. I approach each composition with the belief that a percussion work must not only be pedagogical and challenging for the performer, but also be pleasing in harmonic and musical language for the audience. I have always considered myself more of a teacher than a performer or a composer, so it’s with great honor that I am an Educational Artist with Vic Firth and Marimba One, in that I perform with the intent on teaching. Having my background in music education certainly helps, and with my job at a teaching-focused school like Eastern Connecticut State University, it’s an interesting culmination of the years of performing, composing, and teaching which led me here to Connecticut. At the present time, and as it relates to my current performing, I’ve been fortunate to have found a very capable adjunct in Matt Bronson (CT PAS Chapter Vice President) who also comes from a background in music education and performing. It’s with that foundation that we formed Confluence Percussion to identify and seek out new ways to deliver chamber percussion to the general audience. Eastern recently hosted Quey Percussion Duo (Gene Koshinski and Tim Broscious) as guest artists and Gene talked about how percussion groups need to be understanding of the inefficient ways concerts are delivered such as driving to a venue, paying for a ticket, sitting down for an hour, etc. as opposed to something online, and that it’s up to the performers to effectively program and translate the music for the audience in a live format to make it worth the experience. It’s with that understanding that Matt and I debuted in a September 2017 campus faculty concert with transcriptions of Billy Joel, Beethoven and other musically accessible pieces, and last March performed the multi-movement two percussion, two piano ensemble This is the World by David Maslanka behind a theatrical scrim with multi-media projections as an immersive experience for the audience.
What or who were some of your biggest influences as a percussionist?
I went to college at a time when the second generation of percussionists were taking shape. Michael Burritt had just left Kent State University for Northwestern University and Leigh Howard Stevens had his first marimba competition. Mark Ford was starting to come up through the ranks with compositions and performing and was starting at The University of North Texas after several years at East Carolina University. I had numerous chances to see all of them in action throughout the early years, along with Gordon Stout at several clinics and Eric Sammut debuting his rotations at the LHS competition, that I learned there were quite a few approaches to the marimba and all of them were different yet unique to the player. My take away was that this was all so new and interesting and there wasn’t just one person to look toward for inspiration as they were all good in their own way. As for becoming a percussionist and learning more about the world of serious western classical music, it was during my freshman year in high school that I saw Norwalk High School play Bernstein’s Overture to Candide at a marching competition and thought, “That tune is awesome and I want to know more about it”. So, my mother seeing this and wanting to expand my listening habits purchased a series of tickets to the New York Philharmonic just after Bernstein died and Kurt Masur took over. Chris Lamb was the principal percussionist for only a short time but being able to see him, and later the orchestra accompany Evelyn Glennie on Veni, Veni, Emmanuel by James Macmillan were particular highlights and influential for me as a drum set player turning percussionist at the time. In terms of drum set artists, and ones I followed from early on in my journey, were the aforementioned Keith Moon but also discovering Led Zeppelin in high school and being in awe of John Bonham’s combination of power and groove. When The Who played a concert version of “Tommy”, it was broadcast on network television and I was introduced to the absolutely incredible playing of Simon Phillips. I heard Dave Weckl on his debut CD “Master Plan” and learned of the world of jazz fusion, and it was on that album he had a drum duet/battle with Steve Gadd which opened up a whole new avenue of drum set playing that was unknown to me at the time. All told I can’t say enough about discovering Neil Peart and Rush in the 7thgrade and listening to his YYZ drum solo on the live album “Exit Stage Left” which I still remember hearing for the first time while shoveling my neighbor’s driveway that I stopped what I was doing and thought “I want to do that. Whatever he is doing, and on however many drums, that’s what I want to do”. I got my hands on every Rush album I could at the time and saw my first Rush concert at the end of my 8thgrade year. I’m very fortunate in that since he is retired now, I saw “the professor”, Geddy, and Alex a total of nine times, which interestingly followed the arc of my percussion career from my beginning years to the last show they played in Connecticut.
What is your advice to young percussionists in school?
I say this to my own students – there’s no such word as “can’t”. Keep at it and things will progress. You got here with talent and ability, but now it’s up to you to foster it along. I’m simply a facilitator and wouldn’t pick something I knew you wouldn’t be able to handle. Also, it’s important to be well-rounded as a percussionist so don’t just learn one instrument and specialize. The chances of getting gigs based on a single instrument in the percussion family is rather small. Learn the big three, but also branch out to a “plus one”. Try world percussion, drum set, marching, composition, etc. Being a percussionist means being versatile enough to say “yes” to any gig that comes your way. It’s also important to have interests outside of music because that’s what will make you an approachable and conversant person about a variety of topics, not just drumming. Lastly, but rather firstly before anything percussion or not, is to be nice. It’s amazing how many opportunities will happen if you simply check your hat and your ego at the door and be friendly and helpful. The road to glory is littered with people who weren’t so nice, and they didn’t get a call back.
How has PAS helped you as a percussionist and teacher?
In the days before the Internet, the only place to find information about percussion was Percussive Notes. It was in those pages that I learned about other percussionists and teachers out in the field to where I started to think, “I can do that”. The Percussive Arts Society International Convention (PASIC) is where it all comes together when you see these same folks up close and in person. I remember my first convention and just being blown away by the musicianship of the clinicians but also the kids my age fiddling around at the booths, so much so that I would practically run back to the practice room after my return flight with the thinking “if you’re not practicing, someone else is”. PAS and PASIC are a good gut check on all-things percussion. Not to say it’s a competition, but rather a good overview on what’s happening outside the four walls of a practice room. I’ve been active in PAS, having chaired the Scholarly Research Committee and being an associate editor of the keyboard section of Percussive Notes for several years. I also presented a few times at past conventions and served on some panel discussions on pedagogy and leadership. Being involved on an administrative or even a participatory level helps with one’s professional portfolio and leads to new contacts in the world of percussion, so I suggest to anyone reading this to get involved with PAS somehow, whether it’s serving on a committee or being on the board of a state chapter. There’s something every percussionist can contribute to this great organization. The 2004 Hall of Fame dinner at PASIC is a time I remember quite well when I was finishing my doctoral dissertation in that my topic, The Marimba Masters, was being helped along greatly by their founder Gordon Peters (first national president of PAS) who was one of the inductees that year. At the time of my writing the document, it was a rather humbling and gratifying experience to reach out to legends in the field of percussion such as Gordon, John Beck, Mitchell Peters, Peter Tanner, Stanley Leonard, and many others, and have them be so helpful in giving their time. There was an article in Percussive Notes May 2017 about the ensemble’s fifty-year reunion where I was quoted as saying Gordon and the entire ensemble was an integral part of my own career and I couldn’t think of anyone else better to be affiliated. I absolutely stand by that statement, but also what Gordon said to me at the end of my interviews with him (which are also the last words of my dissertation), “One should study music first, study instruments second – in that order of priority”.
The music program at ECSU has been growing for years. Could you tell us a bit about the development of the percussion and music program?
I came to Eastern in 2006 and began the percussion studio with one student, a few older instruments, mismatched timpani, and a brand-new Marimba One 5.0 octave. Over the course of the next few years more players were added to the ensemble and to the studio via lessons. We also developed the Bachelor of Arts degree in Music, which gave the Music Program a foundation from which to grow. It was a slow build but with the opening of the Fine Arts Instructional Facility in 2016 and funds to further develop the percussion studio with more instruments, that’s when things started to move. A year after the grand opening, it became clear that I couldn’t be in two places at one time so Matt Bronson was brought on board to teach Class Percussion and overload lessons. He has since started the World Percussion Ensemble and co-directs the Percussion Ensemble whereas I primarily teach lessons to majors, Percussion Ensemble, and coach Percussion Group which is a small chamber ensemble that plays unconducted literature. I also teach the ear training sequence and this fall I will be teaching a course on wind band literature. A few exciting new things happening this year are the addition of a new concentration, Music Industry and Leadership, to the existing ones of Performance and Musicology, and this fall we will begin fundraising to help bring a steel drum ensemble to campus as an offshoot of the World Percussion Ensemble. All in all, and over the course of a decade or so, it’s been an interesting journey to watch unfold. Patience and consistency is what has kept me going all these years, but especially in the beginning since it’s hard to balance out a percussion ensemble with a few players and not enough instruments to go around. I can’t thank Dave Smith (retired Western Connecticut State University percussion director) enough for his expert guidance and mentorship when I first arrived in Connecticut. His sharing of stories in the early years of WCSU were eerily similar to mine some 30 years later, which calmed me down quite a bit and helped keep me and the Eastern Percussion Studio trucking along.
How can we keep up with you and your career?
YouTube Channel @MusicatEasternCT