Drummer Paul Gavin was recently named one of four winners in the annual VSA International Young Soloists Competition. As such he was award $2,500 and was asked to perform at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, in Washington, D. C. What was that like? Well, we asked Paul just that…
TTN: You attend the University of South Florida. What are you studying?
PAUL: I was originally a Percussion Performance major, but now I’m in Jazz Studies focusing on the drums.
TTN: Why USF? You’re pretty serious about your art; didn’t you want to go to a conservatory?
PAUL: My private instructor in high school studied at USF and recommended the percussion program, so I checked it out. It’s a great program. My family couldn’t afford to send me to a conservatory. However, my parents never completed college, so I was able to receive a full-ride first-generation scholarship, which has allowed me to study here.
TTN: You’re going to be graduating soon (2015). I hear you’re thinking about the University of Maryland for grad school. Why not a conservatory now?
PAUL: Well, I’m definitely interested in UM, but I’m not sure yet. I know I want to be in the general D.C. area. I spent a lot of time exploring and checking things out when I was there for the VSA performance, and I’m definitely interested in the opportunities D.C. presents for progressive music. There’s a lot going on musically, and there are plenty of big cities close by. I actually ended up walking to Virginia by accident while exploring one day! That’s how close everything is. So, maybe I will go to grad school in Virginia. I’ve also heard that Howard University has a good jazz program, but I haven’t checked it out yet. I’ve still got some time.
TTN: How do you feel about your current instructor?
PAUL: I was studying with Robert McCormick when I was in the percussion program. He’s great. Now that I’m in Jazz Studies, I am working with the drum professor, Ian Goodman. They’re both similar but different. I feel like Ian focuses more on concepts rather than details, which leaves a lot more responsibility on me.
TTN: Sounds like you’re really learning a lot there and getting to explore your interests and abilities as a performer.
PAUL: USF has been great- especially the jazz program! I’ve met a lot of cool people, and have learned a lot from my classmates. One of the bassists, Zack, is my favorite to play with. We just click.
TTN: What would you like to do with all of this experience and education? What would be your dream job?
PAUL: I’d like to lead a couple of bands. I’m currently the leader of Drum’n’Brass, a brass band I recently started. I also arrange most of the music for the band. I’m still getting the band on its feet and learning a lot about how leading a band actually works. Eventually I’d like to lead a Big Band ensemble and maybe a brass band. I definitely don’t want to direct a school band! I’d rather work professionally. I don’t really want to teach winds or anything; I’d rather get specific training and stick with one instrumental group.
TTN: I know you’re currently teaching a bit. What are you teaching, and what would you like to be teaching?
PAUL: I will teach anybody! I love to teach any kind of drums to anyone who wants to learn. I teach a high school drumline, and it’s the best thing in the world! I’ve worked with the percussion section of some honor bands around Tampa as well. My first private student was a 6th grader, and it was great working with him. I’ve had orchestral percussion students privately. As long as I’m teaching drums, I’m happy! I just want to share my love of music with others. If my students decide halfway through that they don’t like it, that’s cool; I just hope they’ve learned some character in the process. I feel like music ed should be better than it is currently. I realize that most of my students, for whatever reason, will not be able to pursue music, so I focus on teaching them things that will take them far in life. I like to focus on things like character, good habits, love, etc. that are necessary in the music world in order to accomplish your goals and reach your audience sincerely, but can also be applied to real-life situations, like being in a grocery store. I had one student tell me he appreciated those lessons, which gave me confirmation that any time I can impart some wisdom about life through music, I should and do. Any time I get to teach is an opportunity I don’t deserve, so I feel very blessed.
TTN: It sounds like you’ve got a great head on your shoulders. Where have you drawn inspiration from? Are there any artists, composers, directors, etc. who have influenced you?
PAUL: I love Tommy Igoe. He’s a great band leader! He only plays in bands where he can make the executive decisions, which is what I would like to do. He directs bands in NYC and San Francisco and also leads a sextet. He puts out good educational material and has a solid understanding and practice in making a viable career out of music. He’s married with kids, and has a stable family life. He’s definitely been an influence and a role model.
The band Snarky Puppy has also been very influential. They’re a progressive-type jazz band with great academic and theoretical knowledge. They play at a very advanced level with awesome execution, but their music is for everyday people. I feel like a lot of classical and jazz music is aimed at previous generations and isn’t really reaching the current generation. Snarky Puppy plays things that any “normal” person can relate to. This is something I aspire to do: play technically advanced music at a high level that anyone can listen to. Music is about “normal people”, not just “music people”.
TTN: Let’s talk about the VSA. How did you hear about it? What led you to audition?
PAUL: I heard about the International Young Soloist competition from my mom. She’s always looking for stuff for me to go after in her little bit of spare time. I was conflicted about auditioning and finally decided I’d go for it 3 days before the deadline. We had to send in 3 videos of us playing solo and a personal statement. It took many hours of setting up, recording and editing to get the videos where I wanted them to be. I finished the application and uploaded the videos a day before the deadline. Even though it took a whole lot of time to get it done, most of it was just playing the drums and I never mind that.
TTN: The VSA recognizes musicians with disabilities. How does having a disability factor into your life? What type of effect has it had on your music?
PAUL: I have asthma. It was much worse when I was a kid. I always wanted to play sports, but I couldn’t, so I looked for other things to do. When I found music, it was great! I completely stopped thinking about other pursuits and threw myself into it. My disability is highly manageable, though serious, so I don’t have a lot of problems. I’m mostly affected in really loud situations, like playing with the USF Pep Band. Loud playing can get really athletic sometimes.
TTN: What are your thoughts on being recognized as a performer with a disability, or the level of recognition disabled performers receive in general?
PAUL: I would much rather be recognized for being great at music than for having a disability AND playing music. My disability is pretty manageable, as I said before, so it’s not a huge factor. I’m doing a gig for the Florida VSA soon and a blind pianist will be playing with us. That kind of disability is very different.
As far as recognition in general: I almost never think about my disability, so I don’t have too much to say about that. I do, however, think it’s great that programs like the VSA provide some recognition for the work that disabled musicians are doing. Most of our work is done behind four walls with a metronome, so it’s great to be recognized and rewarded for it. It was cool to be appreciated for the effort and hours I put in on a daily basis.
TTN: What was it like playing in the Kennedy Center? What were you thinking and feeling as you were on the stage?
PAUL: I generally don’t appreciate the venue too much when I’m actually playing. The reactions come before and after. In high school, we played Carnegie Hall, and everyone was amazed when they left. I was very unaffected by the whole thing. A couple days later it hit me: “WOAH! That’s one of the major music halls in the U.S.! Cool!” That’s how it was at the Kennedy Center. While I was playing, I was just playing. Regardless of where or what I’m playing, I try to do the same thing: try to have a good time and connect with the people I’m playing with. As long as I’m playing, I’m blessed!
TTN: That’s an incredible attitude to have about it. You had to have been nervous, though! How did you stay calm?
PAUL: I don’t really get nervous when I play, because I just think of it as having a good time. I did get a little nervous before this one, though, because it was a huge deal! When I first saw the venue, I was really nervous, but the day of I was just ready to have a good time- and I did! I was mostly nervous about the two musicians I played with: a bass player and a vibraphonist from the U.S. Air Force. They really know what they’re doing…. and then there’s me. Once we started playing, though, it felt like we’d been playing together for a long time, and I just did what I knew- played. It was comfortable.
TTN: What kind of impact did all of this have on you?
PAUL: The thing that had the most impact, really, was that I got to play for my parents. I’m originally from Sanibel Island, Florida, and they still live there. We aren’t in the best financial situation, and they’re caretakers for a lot of sick family members, so they don’t have the time or money to come up to Tampa to hear me play. This was big, though, so they pushed a lot of stuff out of the way to get up there, and that meant the world to me. It’s one thing to play for a bunch of people you don’t know, but it’s entirely different to play for people who know and care about you. I couldn’t see them, but I knew they were out there. They were very relaxed afterward. They don’t do the screaming and getting excited thing, which is fine with me! All I could see was the front of the stage, because the lights were so blinding, but I’ve played when I was able to see them at the same time before and I know they love it. It was great to have them there and have their support.
TTN: You seem like a wonderful musician and teacher. I feel like this generation needs to hear from you. What advice do you have for today’s aspiring artists?
PAUL: The thing I’ve learned is that music is about the “normal people”. I think about that almost every day when I’m thinking about music. The academic world has discarded a lot of the life that used to be in music, and is trying to hold on to ancient, outdated music. I would say if you’re not interested in what is being taught, go and find the type you are interested in and pursue that! If it’s Liggety instead of Beethoven, or Britney Spears instead of Beethoven that’s totally cool; just go for what you love! The most important thing is that you’re doing music because you like it, not because someone told you it was important or good.
TTN: Thank you so much for letting me into your musical life! It’s been a very humbling experience; you’re a very unique asset to the world of music.
PAUL: No, thank you! You did something for me that I wouldn’t have done for myself if I hadn’t had this appointment. I got to sit by the pond and observe nature while talking about music, so you probably did me a bigger service than I did you!
Interview by Melissa Baden, for The Talent Notes