Succeeding as a professional percussionist is all in the timing. Consider Keith Carrick.
Earlier this year, Carrick sandwiched his two-day audition for Utah Symphony principal percussionist between a Sunday opera matinee and a Wednesday morning rehearsal at the Sarasota Orchestra in Florida, where he was principal percussionist for five seasons.
"It is grueling, but that's how much you want it," Carrick said of the quick turnaround. "I barely slept, I was so excited" after learning two or three hours before his flight departed that he had won the Utah job.
A percussionist also must be versatile. "From week to week, even from piece to piece, you will be playing an entirely different instrument," he said. "You have to be a quick learner, because you might have an instrument you've never had to play." People skills are important, too, because the percussionists literally rub shoulders as they follow Carrick's carefully choreographed "road map," moving from instrument to instrument.
Carrick and his snare drum will move from their usual spot at the back of the Abravanel Hall stage this week as the orchestra performs Maurice Ravel's "Boléro."
"I will stand in the middle of the orchestra to enhance cohesion," said the percussionist, adding he hopes there won't be a spotlight on him, as there was the last time he performed the piece. ("Talk about frightening.") Though the snare dominates the 15-minute work, "I don't think it's actually a snare-drum solo," he said. "I accompany all the solos all the woodwinds, sax and brass. It's not the most technically challenging, but it is mentally extreme. You're battling a giant crescendo and you have to pace it out over 15 minutes."
Playing percussion is an unusual job, even by orchestra standards, said Carrick, who estimates his work as principal percussionist is one-third performance, two-thirds preparation. "I assign all the parts. I consider a million things everyone's strengths and weaknesses, solo parts, how much space and equipment we have, who can run from what part to what part. I make a musical contribution mostly by making the right assignment."
Often, the most important part isn't the solo. "I'll play xylophone in [Gershwin's] 'An American in Paris,' but most people will remember the taxi horns."
The life of a orchestra percussionist entirely glamorous. Carrick often has to haul equipment to work in a minivan though there are exceptions, such as the recent Utah Opera run of "Il Trovatore" when all he took with him was a pair of earplugs "because I had to bang on that anvil so loud." Then there are the long stretches of silent concentration. Carrick noted that the temptation of a nap is particularly strong in the dark, cozy opera pit.
He isn't worried about nodding off during "Boléro." "It's hard to be bored during Ravel," he said. "It's all about color, all about timbre. He was a fabulous orchestrator. One value of live entertainment is that it's never the same way twice. That's what you don't get off iTunes."
George Brown, the orchestra's principal timpanist, is impressed with Carrick's work so far. "Everything he has done on all the percussion instruments, he has done not only technically well, but extremely musically," Brown said. "As principal percussionist, he has shown good leadership skills and he's a nice person as well."
Utah Symphony music director Thierry Fischer said he was "blown away" by Carrick's precision in his audition. "What I loved was the musicality into every note he played massive control of loud and soft," Fischer said. "Since he arrived, [I have seen] a lot of eagerness. He is really, extremely involved."
Carrick, 28, grew up in Maryland and took up percussion in eighth grade. Originally he wanted to play piano, but that wasn't an option at his school. His second choice was trumpet, but there were too many trumpeters already, so he turned to drums. He earned a bachelor's degree at Boston University and a master's at the New England Conservatory before his stint in Sarasota.
He and his wife, freelance trumpeter Kyra Sovronsky, have enjoyed hiking in Utah. "The hiking in Florida is abysmal," he noted. Now skiing is at the top of the couple's agenda.
Besides the state's recreational amenities, Carrick said he's impressed with the arts scene. "It's nice that there are a lot of home-grown arts groups here," he said. "That says a lot about the values of a place."
David Burger contributed to this story. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Utah Symphony performs Stravinsky's Divertimento from "The Fairy's Kiss," Saint-Saëns' Piano Concerto No. 2, and Ravel's "Pavane for a Dead Princess," "La Valse" and "Boléro."
With • Conductor Thierry Fischer and pianist Ingrid Fliter.
When • Friday and Saturday, Nov. 9 and 10, at 8 p.m.
Where • Abravanel Hall, 123 W. South Temple, Salt Lake City.
Tickets • $18 to $53 ($5 more on performance day).
Learn more • Utah Symphony VP Toby Tolokan and Fischer will discuss the music onstage at 7 each night; free to ticket holders.