Christopher Lamb joined the New York Philharmonic as Principal Percussionist in 1985 and holds The Constance R. Hoguet Friends of the Philharmonic Chair. He made his solo debut with the New York Philharmonic in the World Premiere of Joseph Schwantner’s Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra and has performed all over the world. In 2011, he won the Grammy for Best Classical Instrumental Soloist.

In 1989, he joined the faculty at Manhattan School of Music (MSM) and is currently the Chair of the Percussion department at MSM. In 1999, he was the recipient of a Fulbright Scholars Award to lecture and conduct research in Australia. During his five-month residency at the Victorian College of the Arts in Melbourne, he presented master classes and seminars.

Stay Thirsty Magazine was thrilled to visit with Christopher Lamb at Manhattan School of Music in New York City for this Conversation.

STAY THIRSTY: What first attracted you to percussion and when did you know that you would devote your musical career to playing percussion instruments and to teaching percussion? 

CHRISTOPHER LAMB: The sound or sounds of percussion is what attracted me. It really started around 2nd or 3rd grade for me and it was simply about the sound and the “action” of playing percussion. My parents found me to be a pretty active or “hyper” kid and they bought me a drum but more wisely set up private lessons for me. It was the relationship with someone older and knowledgeable that made things develop beyond just being about sound and activity. And you can see how this grew as by the 7th grade I had 4 teachers! One for drum set, one for keyboard percussion, one for piano and theory and one for mainly timpani and all other percussion instruments. 

I think it was in the 7th grade when I also felt that I wanted to go into the music profession though I had no idea what that meant. Then in my senior year of high school I determined that I wanted to be a performance major and had no interest in teaching percussion whatsoever. Little did I know that I would eventually end up teaching so much! I started teaching almost as soon as I had my first orchestral job. And the playing and teaching have developed together through the years with most of my thought and attention now being given to teaching. 

Christopher Lamb

STAY THIRSTY: Having joined the New York Philharmonic as Principal Percussionist in 1985, you are now in your 35th year with the orchestra. How have your views on the role of percussion changed over the decades and how have percussion instruments evolved in their role with major orchestras? What impact has new technology had and are there yet newer technologies that you see on the horizon?

CHRISTOPHER LAMB: I don’t know that my view on the role of percussion has changed over the decades or that the role of percussion in the orchestra has changed so much either. Percussion continues to be either a sound or effect or the spice in the orchestra. It can also be a driving force in the orchestra, and it continues to be the avenue of “newness” often introduced to the orchestra through new compositions. World drumming or rhythms and effects will continue to come into the orchestral sound through the percussion section. Even with more techno sounds and effects it will come through the percussion section or through a synth type instrument sometimes played by a percussionist or the orchestra keyboard specialist.

STAY THIRSTY: What did winning the 2011 Grammy for Best Classical Instrumental Soloist mean to you? How has the Grammy changed your career or the opportunities that have come your way since then? 

CHRISTOPHER LAMB: Winning a Grammy was a huge honor for me. It gave some sense of validation and confirmation for me as a player and it came from a larger musical circle which deepened the confirmation. Though I felt great to be honored in this manner I don’t know that I could say there has been any career change or opportunities that resulted from getting the Grammy. 

STAY THIRSTY: Tan Dun’s Concerto for Water Percussion was commissioned for you by the New York Philharmonic. How was working Tan Dun, who won an Academy Award, a Grammy and a BAFTA, and what input did you have in the shaping this Concerto?

CHRISTOPHER LAMB: The three major concerto projects that I have done with Schwantner, Tan Dun and Botti were all set up as collaborative commissions through the New York Philharmonic. I proposed each of the composers to the orchestra with specific guidelines and worked closely with each composer on each individual concerto. I knew all the composers personally and so the collaborative aspect felt very natural and easy. Of course, at the same time I needed to know when to step out of the way of the creative process and in the case with Tan Dun he was determined to make water work! Once I understood what he had in mind I then had to create the instruments so as to make water work in a concert hall that seated 2500 people. At first, I was somewhat frustrated at having to consider how to make these sounds work and yet making sounds was what I enjoyed about playing percussion in the first place. So, I tackled the challenge with that in mind and it resulted in my fingerprints on that concerto and the others as well.  

STAY THIRSTY: Susan Botti’s Echo Tempo for Soprano, Percussion and Orchestra was also commissioned by the New York Philharmonic (NYP) for you. She is a colleague of yours at Manhattan School of Music (MSM) and has a distinguished career as a composer and singer. What was the genesis of this composition and what role did you play in its origination and its creation? 

Manhattan School of Music - Percussion Ensemble - 60th Anniversary

CHRISTOPHER LAMB: When the NYP commissioned Susan Botti to write Echo Tempo, it was started with my request to have something written by a woman composer. Additionally, I wanted to have this composition be text driven. Yes, it would have percussion, but I wanted there to be text and therefore a voice and so the composer, voice and text were all completed with Susan Botti doing it all … finding text, creating the composition and singing the vocal parts. It was another creative process in creating a concerto. 

One other aspect of these 3 concerto projects that should be pointed out … they all involved the soloist improvising. In the Schwantner Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra there is a completely freely improvise cadenza at the end of the work. In the Tan Dun Water Concerto there are numerous places where the percussionist is asked to improvise in, on, or around the water … more like a performance theatre piece. And in Echo Tempo there are several hand drum improvisation sections.

Looking back at the concerto work I’ve done over the years it’s the improvisation that felt most liberating to me. An orchestral player being asked to improvise was such a great feeling. Not being glued to the part or trying to make something that’s been written down sound fresh was truly freeing. 

STAY THIRSTY: You have been a member of the faculty of MSM since 1989. What brings students to the study of percussion and how has that changed during your tenure at MSM? 

CHRISTOPHER LAMB: When I was asked to chair the percussion department at Manhattan School of Music my vision for the department was very much influenced by my own percussion upbringing. I had multiple teachers and so at MSM we have a “studio” that has a team of teachers. Because the area of percussion can be quite expansive, having input from different percussion angles or areas of expertise can be blended together into a single program for students, which in the long run will make them more well-rounded and marketable. The field of percussion can go in many directions stylistically. Students can develop careers in solo playing, chamber ensemble playing, contemporary music, orchestral, studio, show styles and teaching. So, our program aims to establish core percussion skills so that as the student “finds their area of interest” they will have created a strong foundation of fundamentals no matter where they will go next with their developing expertise. 

I would have to say that the vision itself has not changed since I began but has deepened with how we use our faculty and guest artists. We have all grown more convinced that our broad-based approach to the undergraduate years is best for young percussionists. The program success has proven that to be the case. And the graduate level course of study takes that confirmation even further as nearly every graduate student from MSM is working in the music industry with a large component being in symphony orchestras around the world. 

STAY THIRSTY: For those aspiring students who dream of joining an orchestra upon graduation, what do you tell them? 

Manhattan School of Music - Steve Schick Master Class

CHRISTOPHER LAMB: I tell aspiring classical percussionists the same thing … “if you think your musical appetite is going to be met by playing in a symphony orchestra you are mistaken.” What that means is as much as I enjoy playing in an orchestra you need other musical outlets or interests that will complete your musical career. And, those other musical outlets will most likely make your job on the stage last longer and be more fulfilling. I earlier said something about never really giving teaching much thought early on in my journey. But it’s the teaching that inspires the playing and keeps it alive and interesting. One needs to have bigger musical interests then just learning excerpts and winning an audition. That’s really supposed to be the beginning of finding your musical voice … just the beginning.

STAY THIRSTY: You are also on the faculty of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. How is percussion viewed around the world both in its role with orchestras and in classical and non-classical settings vs. in the United States?

CHRISTOPHER LAMB: In the United States percussionists seem to elevate technical skills above all else. And the “all else” can result in very exact yet robotic playing that lacks phrasing, emotion or expression. At the same time though I often have found many young percussionists outside of the US speaking in such a way that it seems expressive and I’m hopeful for what they will do when they pick up the sticks, mallets or hand instrument … yet I often find them lacking the technical skills needed to be as expressive as they had been with their speaking. 

The finish of the story is that we need the technical skills, which is the language to say what we want musically. And too often I see those in the US, who have tons of chops, but have no idea what they want to say. And it’s pretty much been that way since I was a student. I was thinking that recently as a matter of fact. When I was a student there were always other players and teachers who were ridged, digital players who thought of percussion strokes as down or up. And that is still the case today. However, as a student, and now as well beyond those student years, I never was attracted to the robotic approach and still feel to this day that playing percussion is not two dimensional as in down and up strokes, but that it’s far more multi-dimensional. After all, it’s still about the sound, and I believe we get far more sounds out of percussion when we figure out how to activate the instrument instead of attacking the instrument. And since all the percussion instruments are activated differently “down/up” isn’t old school, it’s expressionless. I think as percussion teachers there is a need to pay attention to how other instrumentalists are taught, and then we can grow in our musicianship. Then when we play, we’ll fit better with other musicians in the ensemble.


All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.