Musician Spotlight: Jeremy Davis
July 31st is Uncommon Instrument Awareness Day and we wanted to highlight our Principal Percussionist, Jeremy Davis and hear about what unique instruments he enjoys playing. We learned that he owns and plays castanets, a percussion instrument most commonly used in flamenco dance. Read our interview below to learn more about Jeremy and some uncommon instruments!
Tell us about yourself. Where are you from, and are you currently in school?
I am from Chino Hills, CA and I am currently pursuing a Bachelor’s Degree in Classical Percussion Performance from the University of Southern California.
How did you first get involved with AYS and become our Principal Percussionist?
My percussion instructor back in high school recommended I audition for AYS at the beginning of my senior year and I was placed on the sub list. I ended up subbing with the orchestra for the first time in November 2018 for the Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark concert and for two more concerts later in the season. At the start of my freshman year at USC in September 2019, I auditioned again for AYS and am blessed to have won the position of Principal Percussion.
What drew you to play percussion? What is your favorite percussion instrument?
I started playing music at the start of the sixth grade. Honestly, the only reason I specifically chose percussion is because it seemed like the most enjoyable instrument family to play. At first, I wasn’t serious about music at all. I just wanted to get my feet wet and experience what it felt like to make music with others. It only took a year for me to completely fall in love with music and decide that I wanted to play music professionally one day. My favorite percussion instrument would have to be the Bass Drum. It is the closest percussion instrument to the Timpani and I love all of its capabilities which range from completely driving the orchestra in a piece by Stravinsky, to literally representing fate knocking at the door or being that dark, thunderous rumble in the distance in a Mahler symphony.
We are also celebrating Uncommon Instrument Awareness Day and I hear that you also enjoy playing the castanets. Where are the castanets from and how are they played?
The castanets originate from Spain and are played a couple different ways depending on how the instruments were produced. The type of castanets that I own are the most commonly used in the orchestra. The “clackers” are attached to a shaft of wood and the player holds the shafts like a pair of drumsticks and strikes the clackers on his or her thigh or knee to produce the sound.
What kind of music do you hear the castanets being played in?
You most often hear the castanets being played in Spanish music to accompany classical or folkloric dances. More specifically, you would hear the castanets in flamenco which is an art form based on the various folkloric music traditions of southern Spain. To make dancing the priority though, Spanish natives do not play the castanets like we do here in the United States. Instead of the clackers being attached to a shaft, they hinge the clackers together with a cord and hold them at the base. This way, they can dance to the music freely and still be able to play the instruments.
Are there any composers that highlight the castanets in their music?
I wouldn’t necessarily say that Ravel highlights the castanets in his music, but he definitely utilizes them more than any other influential composer. Some of my favorite works by him that incorporate the castanets are Alborada del Gracioso, Daphnis and Chloe Suite No. 2, and Rapsodie Espagnole.
What are some other uncommon instruments that we should learn more about?
There are a plethora of uncommon instruments but some of my favorites that I recommend people learn about include the Anvil, Siren, Lion’s Roar, Guiro, Bell Tree, Flexatone, Vibraslap, Rainstick, Ratchet, Taxi Horn, Thunder Sheet, Claves, Crotales, Washboard, Whip/Slapstick, and Wind Machine. I chose these instruments specifically because they are used a good amount, when performing contemporary music in American orchestras.
Have you played any uncommon instruments during an AYS performance? Tell us more about that memory!
I played a good bit of Claves in our November concert of Apollo 13 this past season. There were even some Clave solos at the very beginning of some of the movements. I have also played a good amount of Crotales with the orchestra. I always find Crotales challenging when performing because they’re so hard to play at the right dynamic. Oftentimes, when I sit in the audience and listen to them being played, I either can’t hear them at all, the pitch is very unclear and it just sounds like high frequencies, or they are overpowering. Finding that balance in the orchestra for me was definitely a challenge!
What advice do you have for people wanting to learn more about percussion instruments and start playing themselves?
This is a great YouTube video that a percussionist with the Philharmonia Orchestra put together. It’s a great way to learn about all of the main orchestral percussion instruments that we have to play very well. My advice to those who want to start playing is to never limit yourself to one percussion instrument or genre of music. It is not impossible but it’s very hard to make a living this way. If you learn how to play multiple percussion instruments and genres, more job opportunities will come your way.
Jeremy Davis is 19 years old and lives in Los Angeles where he is a Sophomore at the University of Southern California studying for his B.M. in Percussion Performance. He studies Percussion and Timpani with Jim Babor and Joseph Pereira who are both members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He made his solo debut on NPR’s “From the Top” when he performed a marimba solo on the KUSC radio station and won the Jack Kent Cooke Young Artist Award. Through his summers, he has performed on four continents with the National Youth Orchestra of the USA and attended the Aspen Music Festival. He is currently heading into his second year as the Principal Percussionist of the American Youth Symphony.