Glen Velez is a 4 - time Grammy award winning percussionist, who specializes in the art of frame drumming. As a youth growing up in Dallas, Texas, Glen would see his uncle play the drums in various shows around town. He liked what he saw and asked his uncle to show him how to play also. Glen continued to practice and learn the drums throughout grade school and eventually enrolled in the Manhattan School of Music to continue his studies. While there, he shifted his focus to mallet drumming as he studied with Fred Hinger, who was the timpanist for the Philadelphia Orchestra. New York is a hub for music styles from all over the world because of the diversity of people living there and Glen would take in shows of various percussive styles. As he started to excel with his mallet instruments, he got a chance to audition for classic 20th Century percussive composer, Steve Reich. He passed, and this led to many years as a member of his band. Glen would also freelance with various ensembles and would work in a variety of percussive genres. In the mid 1980's, Glen started shifting his focus from mallet drumming to hand drumming as he discovered the wonderful world of the frame drum and tambourine. In typical Velez fashion, he studied and practiced hard and became a world class player in this unique art form. Another classic American composer John Cage, wrote a specific piece of work for Glen and his ensemble. Glen has recorded and performed all over the world during his career and is virtually an American ambassador for the art of the frame drum. His efforts were rewarded as the Remo drum company introduced a line of signature percussion instruments with his name. He was also inducted in The Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame in 2014. Glen now makes his home in New Jersey and frequently performs with his talented wife as a duo. I talked with Glen about his career.
R.V.B. - Hey Glen... this is Robert von Bernewitz from Long Island New York... how are you today?
G.V. - Very good. How are you doing?
R.V.B. - Are you staying warm?
G.V. - Yeah. Where are you out on Long Island? I bet it's cold out there too.
R.V.B. - I'm out near Port Jefferson. Yeah, it's chilly.
G.V. - Oh Port Jefferson right. My wife is from Roslyn... originally.
R.V.B. - That's a beautiful town with the clock tower and the water mills. Congratulations on your career... 4 Grammy's... that's quite an honor. You deserve it. You're a trendsetter and you've accomplished a lot. When you were young, growing up in Texas, how did you get interested in percussion instruments?
G.V. - I have an uncle who was a drummer. He passed away a number of years ago. He's my father's brother. My father was also a musician when he was young. His brother continued to play drums into adulthood and he was my first teacher. I would go and see him play.
R.V.B. - What kind of music did he play?
G.V. - He played jazz and dance music of various kinds. He played all kinds of music in Dallas... where I grew up. I would go and watch him play. He started to give me lessons on the snare drum and it started from there. I was around 7 when I started.
R.V.B. - That's pretty early. So you kept at it through your teens?
G.V. - Yeah, I was always interested in it. I had the enthusiasm to keep going and practice the various things that I was taught. I kept getting more and more into it. When I got into high school, I realized I wanted to go to a music school. After high school, I went to Manhattan School of Music. I continued my studies here in New York and continued from there.
R.V.B. - Did you move to New York because of school?
G.V. - Yes... to go to the Manhattan School of Music. There was a teacher here ... Fred Hinger... he also passed away... he was a famous timpanist. He played with the Philadelphia orchestra for many years. He taught at Manhattan, and he also played at the Metropolitan opera in the later part of his career. That's when he lived in New York. You would know his work because he was the timpanist in the Strauss "Thus Spake Zarathustra" in Space Odyssey 2001.
R.V.B. - The Philadelphia orchestra was one of the most popular and well respected orchestra's in the United States.
G.V. - He was a great musician. He was very instrumental, and a patriarchal figure in the school of percussion in America.
R.V.B. - In your time at the Manhattan School of music, did you take in people playing around the city?
G.V. - Yeah, I would go see a lot of jazz... I grew up playing the drumset, so I was interested in that. When I got to New York, I shifted my focus more to mallet instruments... although I still appreciate drumset playing very much. When I first came to New York back in the late 70's, I would hear a lot of jazz.
R.V.B. - Can you give me an example of somebody that you may have seen?
G.V. - I really liked Rowland Kirk at that time. I was really into Coltrane but I never did get to see him live. I was a big fan of Elvin Jones, who was the drummer with Coltrane and I saw him many times... and Roy Hanes. I saw a lot of the great drummers that were playing around in the 70's and 80's.
G.V. - When I got to Manhattan and started to study the mallet percussion more extensively, I became a pretty good reader on mallets. It's much more common now, because there's such a longer tradition of marimba and vibes playing now. Back in the 70's and early 80's, there wasn't that many people who were good readers on mallets. That was a valuable skill because it's not easy to site read music on mallet instruments. I started to do more freelancing and playing around. I became known as a mallet player, and that's how I started to play with Steve Reich. I played with him for many years in the 80's and early 90's. That's really how I started my career... freelancing and specializing in mallet instruments. Playing as a freelancer, you play whatever comes along. I played in Broadway shows and did all kinds of things. It was all stick based drumming. In other words, you either play with sticks... like on a snare drum, or you play with mallets on timpani. It took me a number of years... in about the mid 80's, when I started getting interested in hand drumming. That's when I started to switch my whole career and attention into hand drumming... specifically on the frame drums. That's what I've been involved with ever since. I found that playing with the hands, and using your hands on the drum... the intimacy and the type of playing that I do now... you're holding the drum and it's very close to your body. Those are things that really attracted me from the very beginning. I gradually weaned myself away from the stick drumming into hand drumming.
G.V. - No, not when I started. With Frame drumming... which is what I do now... it's a big category. It includes tambourines from all over the world. When I started, there used to be music row there on West 48th street. All of the music stores are gone now... Sam Ash and Manny's. They didn't have many hand drums. The only hand drums they had was Latin hand drums like congas and timbales... that kind of stuff. They didn't have Middle Eastern hand drums... African hand drums... Indian hand drums... they didn't include them in their inventory. There wasn't a market for that back then. I would just go to import shops that specialized in things that were imported... India things... things from the Middle East. There, I would occasionally find hand drums. Really, the introduction was through South Indian drumming, because when I started to play with Steve Reich, one of the other players was a very famous percussionist named Russ Hartenberger, who plays with the percussion group called "Nexus". He was studying South Indian drums at Wesleyan, which had a big music department... it still does. He told me that his teacher was living in New York and I could contact him and take some drum lessons. I had always wanted to study Indian drumming. I had always been interested in it. That's really how I got started with hand drumming. I called up this teacher... we made some lessons... and I started to study the South Indian hand drums. Everything led from there, in terms of my interest in hand drumming.
G.V. - When I was going to Manhattan, one of the other students was in the masters program at that time... I was an undergrad... named Jim Price. He was playing with Steve at that time. He saw how involved I was with the marimba and the xylophone, and he said "You should come down and audition for Steve's ensemble. He's looking for good mallet players". So I did, and I started playing with him in approximately 1979. From then on, I played with him for a long time. I love his music. It was a very important musical experience for me... not only because the music was really wonderful, but the other players were fantastic. That's where I met Russ, Bob Becker and other very famous percussion players... Jim Price, who also had a great career as a percussionist here in New York. There was a bunch of really good players in that band.
R.V.B. - So you took lessons for South Indian music, and I see that you play instruments from all over the world... Brazil with the pandeiro... Azerbaijani with the Ghaval... how did you go about studying the different areas in the world of percussion? Did you visit any of these countries?
G.V. - That was later in my studies, that I would visit the places but initially, I was just lucky that I was living here in New York. There's communities of people from all over the world here... and communities of musicians from all over the world. I started with the South Indian tambourine. There's a South Indian tambourine called Kanjira. I couldn't believe that there was so much that could be done with that instrument. When I first started studying it I thought "I know that there are tambourines in different parts of the world". So I went to the library, started to look, and I found out that it was very popular in the Middle East... very popular in Brazil, so I said "Well, I'll just go to some concerts here in the city and see if I can see some players that play these instruments". That's what happened. The first thing I did was go to some Arabic music concerts in the Asia Society. There was a man there named Hanna Merhige, and he played the tambourine. He was very good and after the concert I said "Do you give lessons?". He said "Sure, come on up to my studio". He was playing for dance classes at a place called Fazils, which was a Middle Eastern dance school in Chelsea. It's gone now, but I would go there and study with him. Once I started to study the Arabic tambourine, the world of hand drumming opened up to me. I realized these instruments are found all over the world. I was enthused about it but had no notion of what I would do with this study. There wasn't a large world music community back then. There was people who played Arabic music or people who played South Indian music... there were just isolated communities. I was really interested in it so I started to study it and it just grew from there. I went to Brazilian concerts and found Brazilian musicians... studied that. I went to some Central Asian concerts and got involved with Azerbaijani music. One thing led to another. There wasn't any goal or any map that I was following... it was enthusiasm. The more I learned about the different frame drums, the more I got into it.
R.V.B. - You were proactive and interested... and you mixed it up in New York. It's a good place for that to happen. You have a wide variety of cultures under your belt. How did you start breaking out on your own and writing your own pieces?
G.V. - When I started with frame drums, I was looking for opportunities to play them with other people. Because I was freelancing, I was meeting a lot of musicians in different contexts. I met a man named Charlie Morrow, who was a composer. He was very active in the 80's in the commercial music scene. He was also an instigator in lot of improvisational ensembles. I just jumped right into that because he was using the frame drums in an improvising context. Charlie and I had a duo and I would play in a lot of his different ensemble things that he was doing. I would also play in his commercial recording projects. He would do jingles and that kind of thing... film scores. That was my first real opportunity to play the frame drum with other people after the years of techniques I had learned. Through that, I started to get students. I started to get the idea that it would be a lot of fun to write some music, that allowed me to use the frame drum in a context that I was interested in. That's how I started composing pieces for drum. The other thing about frame drum is that when you practice on them, and play on them, they have a lot of pitch to them. You don't think of the drum as a melodic instrument. They have a note... drone that you hear. When you're practicing on them they kind of bring out different melodies that you might hear in your head. That's how I started to hear melodies when I'm playing the frame drum. It's easy to visualize someone playing the piano... creating melodies and composing. With the drum, you can do that also. It's the same kind of stimulus. It may be more rhythmic but it also has a pitch... a note component to it also. I would start to write melodies, which would be stimulated when I played with other musicians... be it with great flute players, or cello players. I then want to write something for them, and see what my melodies would sound like with instrumentalists. That's the way it started.
R.V.B. - Now your technique itself is unique and trendsetting. With all of the experience that you had taking in all of these different players... your fingering techniques... did you develop that?
G.V. - Yeah, when I would study these different styles of music and different hand manipulations... especially from South India and the Arabic world, or Brazil, or Central Asia. Because I had been studying the different ways to play them, one would bleed into the other. I would be playing an Arabic tambourine, and I would think about how I could apply some of the South Indian ideas to that instrument... and vice versa. There was this crossover... techniques from one place to another. That stimulus gave me a lot of impetus to create new ways of expanding the techniques on the individual instruments. That happened naturally because I was studying different types. Then I started getting into the history of the frame drum. I would go to the library and look at all of the different pictures of people playing in the ancient world. There are many examples from Egypt, Mesopotamia, ancient Greece, ancient Rome... all of the different ancient cultures. The frame drum was very, very popular. It was also very popular to be depicted in sculptures and wall paintings... all kinds of artwork. So you would see a lot of pictures of people playing. That was also an important stimulus for me to relive these ancient ways of using the frame drum. It was very popular in the ancient world. All of that blended into the techniques I would develop, and using groups of frame drums together, and also experimenting with how the frame drum could be utilized in different musical contexts. Like with piano... or with strings... or with wind instruments... all of that was the milieu that I was exploring.
R.V.B. - It is fantastic that you're keeping such an ancient tradition alive in the 21st century. I know that you have done a lot of collaborations with a lot of different people like Steve Reich, and someone like Suzanne Vega, the New York City Ballet, but one thing that stands out to me is that you had a composition written for you by John Cage. How did that come about?
G.V. - There was a period where I was doing a lot of group teaching in the city. 10 or 12 people would come to my apartment, and we would all play together. In that period, I was really developing ways for group drumming. There used to be a music series at Washington Square Church. In the 80's and 90's, the World Music Institute and many other organizations would do concerts there. Now that church has been re-done into condos, so it doesn't exist anymore as a performance venue. It was very popular... and I would rent it. We would play in there, and put on concerts of frame drumming. We would play for an hour and a half. It was great fun and a powerful learning experience for everyone involved. Merce Cunningham and John Cage came to a couple of those concerts, John was very stimulated by the possibilities of frame drums. He called me up and came to my apartment, and looked at all of the frame drums. I talked about what I was interested in... and he wrote a piece for me. It was a series of pieces that he did for a lot of for individual musicians. He wrote 10 to 15 of these pieces for these instrumentalist that he got interested in... whatever they were doing with their instrument that was either unique, virtuosic, or whatever. He called them composed improvisations. They had the form that he created, but there was a lot of room for improvisational context in the piece.
R.V.B. - Very interesting story. How many different instruments do you use?
G.V. - It boils down to maybe 5 or 6, that I I'm often using over and over again. It's not so much the instrument as it is the techniques. As you hold the instrument a certain way, it means that you can play it with various certain kinds of techniques. So depending how you hold it... and there are two different ways of holding it... you can apply those techniques to many different types of frame drums, that are animable to that kind of particular hold. When I go into the recording studio or I'm doing projects, I'll often take 10 or 15 different frame drums to look for a different variety of pitch references. There's highs... lows... how much jingle sound... the ring the instrument has. Some drums ring for a long time, some drums are more staccato. In particular pitch ranges, and also what's going on with the jingles. There's many factors. There's low frame drums... one of the representative ones is the bow rond. That's an Irish style frame drum that's traditionally played with a stick but I play it with my hands. It's a lower range drum and I apply a lot of my techniques on to that. It's in a position I call on the knee position. There's another style called upright position, which is what I call one hand under position. That's tar drumming. Many different frame drums from the Middle East can be used in that style. There's the tambourine styles. There's two different main ones. There's one... the riq... which is the Arabic style. There's many different regional variations on that, but it's the basic way of using the jingles and holding the drum. There's another style that is slightly different but involves a lot more possibility with pitch bending. That means that your holding hand can bend the pitch of the drum head so that you can get a lot of different notes out of the drum. There's another way of holding the tambourine, which is the Brazilian style. That has another whole range of possibilities on it. Frame drums and the tambourine are so widely spread around the world that it's just a big panorama of possibilities. Before I started looking at it as a family of drums, the different regional styles were very separate. There wasn't a lot of cross talk between the Arabic and the South Indian people. Now, with all the different kinds of media... YouTube... you can go on YouTube and hear anything. That's been a very big component in the last 10 years in the changes of the way that the frame drum is evolving.
R.V.B. - It's amazing how many sounds can come out of a tambourine when the average person plays it on their leg and keeps a beat with it... it's fascinating. Now you've traveled the world a lot with your craft. Is there any particular places that stood out in your travels that really fascinated you?
G.V. - I like Sicily. South Italy is one of the places that has the oldest continuous traditions of frame drumming. South Italian tambourine playing is one of the great styles. Sicily also has a lot of regional tambourine styles. It's a very rich scene there for tambourines. The Mediterranean is just filled with all kinds of frame drumming... North African frame drumming... Egyptian tambourine playing. There's a lot going on in Morocco...etc. The Mediterranean is probably one of my favorite places to travel to.
R.V.B. - You mentioned YouTube, and obviously there's a lot of stuff on YouTube... one of the videos that caught my eye was when you were playing something as simple as the shakers. There is another instrument that could be considered an infant toy, but you took it to another level again and got a lot of different effects just by arm movements... I noticed.
G.V. - I'm not sure why this happens? (haha) In both cases, as you said, the tambourine is not at the top of the Pantheon of respected instruments... in our tradition and the European tradition. The shakers are the same. As you say, it's not an instrument that people think there's a lot of possibility with. I came across a man that played Venezuelan style maraca playing... a number of years ago... back in the late 90's. When I saw that, I realized I didn't have any notion that you could do so much with this instrument. That got me started again on exploring a very simple instrument... trying to be creative with it... going deep into it... and finding out, the more you explore it, the more possibilities there are. That's one of my projects that I really want to get out with more. The possibilities with shakers are also very extensive... not only for solo playing but also putting then in context with different types of music. I use them a lot in my own recordings. I also use them in teaching a lot. They have a very unique way of incorporating the left and right sides of the body... experimenting in hearing with one side and the other side and unifying that... also exploring the space around your body... it's very unique to shaker playing. I use it for beginners and also for advanced players. I teach in Juilliard now, and I use a lot of the shaker playing, because it's something that is totally unfamiliar... even to most professional percussionists. It's a way to open a lot of new doors for percussionists.
R.V.B. - On the subject of teaching... you mentioned you do the master classes at Juilliard... you also teach at Mannas. Mannas recently moved right?
G.V. - Yes... they were on the Upper West side and now they are part of The New School. Now they're are on West 13th Street.
R.V.B. - How do you feel sharing all of your knowledge with a new generation?
G.V. - I have always been very happy with getting other people involved with what I'm doing. The initial impetus was to have somebody to play with... that plays the instruments that I play. The frame drum is a very group orientated instrument... you can have a lot of fun playing in groups. The more I did that, that more I realized how enjoyable it is... and how much I learned. With teaching, I was trying to de-construct the things that I was doing, so that it would become comprehensible to people. To slow things down, and make them simple is not easy. It's a continuing journey to find new ways to show people the complexity of what I do.
R.V.B. - I gather the summer series at Tanglewood is also a lot of fun for you?
G.V. - Yeah... those are younger players. They are usually high school players. People that are on a path to go to conservatories around the country. I often see those youngsters through their progression. Tim Genis is the organizer at Tanglewood, and the timpanist at the Boston Symphony, and when he was younger, he would take lessons from me. He was in early college in high school. There are a number of drummers that I have taught that are now in prominent positions in the music field. It's great to watch the progression of how that happens. Of course, frame drumming is not their main focus, but I think that they recognize that there is a lot of very valuable lessons to be learned from studying frame drumming and shakers... which is part of the wide panorama of percussion.
R.V.B. - Very interesting. Through all of your work in your fantastic career... you've been rewarded. How was it for you accepting the Grammy awards?
G.V. - Those Grammy's were with Paul Winter and that was a very collaborative process... developing the music that went on those albums. It was a great opportunity for me to use my frame drumming in a more jazzy context... and also world music and jazz mixed together. That was the main value in those situations for me. It allowed me to get a wider audience. The notoriety that you get from being on those kind of albums, and getting the recognition of the frame drum for the Grammy awards was very helpful for me as far as attracting more students, and also getting more playing opportunities. I recently received an honor from the Percussive Arts Society in the United States. It's the largest percussion organization. I got elected to the Hall of Fame in 2014. That was a big honor, because all of the great drummers of the past 20th century are in that... a lot of jazz and orchestral drummers. A lot of people that I have great respect for. We had a big ceremony, and did a concert at the convention. There is a big convention every year that the Percussive Arts Society sponsors. I've been involved with that for many years.
G.V. - An early proponent of what I do, was Remo Belli. He's the head of Remo... the drum company. He came to see me at the percussion convention in 1981... that happened in Dallas Texas... my home town. He was there, and he saw my presentation about frame drums. At that time, there was no large companies making frame drums. All of the frame drums that I had, were from the original countries. They all had skin heads. I had to have heating pads and heat lamps to get the heads to be in good tension... to be able to play them. They were from the desert... the jungle... from all different places. When Remo saw the frame drums that I was playing, he immediately recognized that, because they make drum heads, and putting a head on a wood hoop is not tremendously complicated. His company could make frame drums with synthetic heads. We had a meeting after my class that I gave, and he talked to me about it, and I said "Great, I'm into it". I saw that as an opportunity to get great drum heads that wouldn't change with the weather. Remo is now one of the main "World music" instrument makers. They have a huge catalog of drums from all over the world. That was a big pivotal moment for me because not only did he start to experiment with all the different possibilities with synthetic heads for frame drums, but I also gained a lot of notoriety from being connected with Remo for many years.
G.V. - I do a lot of collaborations with my wife. She's a fantastic singer. We have a duo and create a lot of music for voice and frame drums. She is also a very good exponent of the South Indian drum language... which she specializes in. We've incorporated that into our music. I have a trio with a recorder player names Nina Stern. She's a wonderful musician and a specialist in early music. Myself... Nina Stern and Loire Colter have the trio. I have my Handance group... which is a frame drumming group. It has some of the best frame drummers around. That's a group that can be expanded with flute and voice. That's the group that I played with for the Percussion Convention Hall of Fame ceremony. I do a lot of composing. I'm composing a piece now for a trio with percussionists... with mallet instrument... frame drum... and voice. That's going to be done in the next month at Patterson University... out here in New Jersey. I still keep active with freelancing and I'll collaborate with other musicians. I still do some commercial recording... and then there's the teaching. As a freelancer all of my life, I've been taking a wide variety of situations and that's what I really enjoy doing.
R.V.B. - It's good to be diversified and stay active like that. Congratulations again on your career and all of your accomplishments. I very much appreciate you taking this time with me.
G.V. - Your welcome, It was a pleasure to talk to you.
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
This interview may not be reproduced in any part of form without permission from this site.
For more information on Glen Velez visit his website http://glenvelez.com/
For information or to advertise on this site contact musicguy247(at)aol(dot)com
Musicguy247 has thousands of music items on Amazon... records, tapes, videos, books, CD's and more. Click here to view items. Musical items for sale