PASIC 2019

Posted: November 19, 2019 in Music
Tags: , , , , ,

For the first time ever, I attended PASIC this year. I’ve been seeing a lot of people writing about what a great PASIC this was, and while I agree that it was worthwhile, I want to add my perspective to the mix. Enjoy!

Please note that this post may not reflect the opinion of all female percussionists and is not intended to; it is my own personal experience and observations.

I am currently on the plane home from PASIC, the Percussive Arts Society International Convention. PASIC is the largest percussion convention in the world, and I have wanted to attend since first attending a PAS Day of Percussion in high school. This was a check on my bucket list, and I now intend to recheck that box many more times. 

PASIC was a roller coaster for me. When I arrived on Wednesday, I followed my couchsurfing hosts’ advice and went to the Soldiers and Sailors Monument. According to my host Blake, Indianapolis has the most war memorials in the US outside of Washington, D.C. Then I visited the Rhythm! Discovery Center, self-described as “the world’s foremost drum and percussion museum.” How cool! The museum is interactive, and I had fun playing the instruments (although I imagine this would not have been quite as fun if it had been more crowded).

The Soldiers and Sailors Monument
Images from the museum (clockwise from top L): Me with a huge gong drum, Dave Samuels’ vibraphone, instruments behind glass in the research section, Neil Peart’s drum kit, Clair Omar Musser’s celestaphone, and some Tanggu drums from China.

Next, I walked to the Indianapolis Convention Center and visited the Logistics crew room (volunteer at PASIC, attend for free!) where I learned what to do for my upcoming shift that evening. The convention had not officially started at that point, so there weren’t too many people walking around yet besides those setting up in the exhibition hall.

Being on the Logistics crew proved to be a great volunteer choice. Shifts are supposed to be six hours, but in reality are only five. Most of that time is spent sitting in the Logistics room watching people tune drums and waiting for a task to volunteer for. Typical tasks include opening doors before concerts, moving percussion equipment from room to room, and watching performances backstage. There is also a raffle at the end and every crew member walks away with at least a small auxiliary percussion instrument (or something bigger, like a snare drum). Awesome! The pace of the shift allowed me time to grade student work online between moving equipment and watching performances.

During that first shift the whole crew got to watch Nate Smith and KINFOLK. That was mind-blowing. Not only is Nate Smith an incredible drummer, but he also knows how to work an audience of fellow living metronomes. Before one solo piece, he pointed a stick out at the audience. “Ok, you’re all drummers, don’t let me down.” Then he counted to seven, clapped one downbeat, and let the audience carry the 7/4 downbeats for the rest of the piece while he played polyrhythms, syncopated patterns, and complicated subdivisions over our timekeeping. Never in my life have I heard an audience clap so cleanly, and I could not stop grinning. What a great way to start the convention.

Scenes from PASIC (clockwise from top L): Backstage at the Collegiate All-Star Percussion Concert, Red Norvo’s xylophone(!!!), Haruna Walusimbi with the Tri-University Emaire Project, Nate Smith, a King George bass marimba (you have to stand on that step to reach it).

The next few days were a whirlwind. Time and again, I was blown away and inspired by the performances I saw and clinics attended, reminding me why I love percussion (have you ever seen Theodor Milkov play marimba?!?!). I ran into many percussionists I’ve met over the past decade, and even those I hadn’t seen in years remembered me and were happy to reunite. It was especially awesome to catch up with Christos Rafalides, one of my all-time favorite vibes players and lesson teachers, and Mark Foster, a percussion teacher from my time at Saint Rose. I also loved meeting Anders Åstrand, who I now need to add to my list of favorite players/clinicians and AJ Kostromina, one of the best marching snare drummers in the world, who happens to work at the same after-school program as me. Grad school has made me feel very removed from my identity as a percussionist, and these interactions reminded me that I need to keep this important part of myself strong. I love percussion so much and that needs to stay central to my existence.

There were many highs of PASIC, but there were also a fair share of low moments. Unsurprisingly, around 85-90 percent of the people I passed were male, and there were multiple instances when I felt singled out for my gender. While volunteering, a fellow crew member felt the need to explain to me how to pack up a drum set, which he did not do to the guys on the crew (I began playing drum set in 6th grade and this was PASIC – like most people there I am confident in my ability to handle drum equipment). At one booth in the exhibition hall, the man running the booth only interacted with the guys looking at his products. It wasn’t until I played one of the vibraphones that he acknowledged me, as if I’d needed to prove my competence on the instrument first. I had similar experiences at a few clinics. On two separate occasions, when I went up to talk to the presenter at the end, the man running each clinic put his hand on my shoulder as we talked. In both instances, the clinicians did no such thing while interacting with the males who also came up to talk to them.

I was frustrated to see similar things happening to other females at the event as well. Time and again, I watched small groups of high school and college players pass by consisting of a bunch of boys and one girl. Often these boys joked with each other, practiced drum cadences together while sitting in the halls, while the token girl sat on the side and wasn’t included in the cadence practice or the jokes (of course this wasn’t the case every time, but enough that it was frustrating to watch). The “boys club” dynamic of the percussion world is real and while I know that not all men act this way, far too many do. It is uncomfortable, uncalled for, and I want it to stop. 

Seeing all these instances of “boys club” interactions spurred me to attend the PAS Diversity Alliance committee meeting (I was thinking of attending this anyway, but all these moments made me certain I would go). I was happy that their meeting was well-attended, as were the performances, panels, and presentations they sponsored throughout the week. I’d like to get more involved with the Diversity Alliance and the work they are doing for those of us who are not white, cisgender, heterosexual males in the world of percussion. The Diversity Alliance is possibly the most important special interest group that exists within PASIC and they must succeed.

One of the panels the Diversity Alliance organized this year was a “me too” discussion. I won’t get into all the details, but the fact that this panel existed felt like a big step forward. I went to this session with high expectations, for a number of personal and professional reasons that have amassed over my two decades of time as a percussionist who happens to be female. The session was not what I wanted it to be, but I was happy that it was part of the schedule at all and that so many people – male, female, and nonbinary – attended despite the early morning scheduling. I hope more sessions like this are organized in the future because this is important; percussion needs these conversations.

My interactions with the Diversity Alliance spurred me to, on a whim, stop by their booth in the expo hall to say thank you for their efforts. This tiny thank you turned out to be extremely worthwhile, as I discovered that the men sitting at the booth are familiar with the South African deaf marimba band program I am going to write about for my dissertation. This summer I will travel to South Africa for a festival the band competes in, and I was surprised and thrilled to learn that one of the men not only has attended the festival, but has written a publication about the event, and will be returning to it this summer. Americans do not typically attend this festival, and this marimba program is not well known outside of South Africa yet. Somehow I’d managed to accidentally find perhaps the best possible connections for my project, all because I wanted to say a simple thank you. 

So…PASIC was a roller coaster, and I’m glad I finally had the opportunity to ride it. PASIC is a bit exclusive, but I feel that it is important that I continue to attend this convention, especially as a woman. One of my primary life goals is to be an inspiration to young girls playing percussion, and even if I’m not there as a performer, my presence at PASIC adds another female face to the sea of males walking around for the middle and high school girls to look up to. One reason I have not attended PASIC before is that it conflicts or is too close to a conference I’m encouraged to attend for my PhD program. However, given my life goals, interests, and even my dissertation research, this feels more important to both my personal and professional identity. 

Thanks PASIC, and see you next year. 

Special shoutout to my couchsurfing hosts Jen, Blake, and Daniel. You all rock.

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