Philadelphia Orchestra watchers know that the small army of hyperalert people navigating the back-row percussion hardware in Verizon Hall must lead intricate professional lives. But could anybody guess that an orchestral percussionist could write such a rich, entertaining memoir as Patti Niemi's
Sticking It Out
(ECW Press, 249 pages, $24.95)?
You might be tempted to dub Niemi's book the new, and more likable, Mozart in the Jungle. But what annoyed readers about Blair Tindall's confession of a party-prone oboist on the loose in New York City is not to be found in Niemi's narrative about perfecting her dings and thuds, starting out in her native Rochester, N.Y., and now in her current longtime gig with the San Francisco Opera Orchestra. In fact, Sticking It Out is one of the funniest-ever classical-music books (granted, there's not a huge amount of competition) and certainly among the best written. And you'll never take percussionists for granted again.
As you might expect, the job is about far more than just hitting things.
Percussion is the rogue section of the orchestra. It's the one place where any single person is expected to play multiple instruments equally well. It also differentiates orchestras of the 20th and 21st centuries from all that came before them. The gradations of percussion sound are infinite in any instrument, but perhaps harder to control because you can't exactly wrap your arms around a timpani - or triangle - the way you would a violin.
Nothing says it's man's work. But, as Niemi puts it, "few parents would fall to their knees and pray that their daughter becomes a drummer." Now 51, she wasn't the only female percussionist at the Juilliard School in 1983. You're kind of surprised that anybody even noticed her gender. She describes the school as a windowless bunker with students cloistered in practice rooms eight hours a day, the primary human contact being a one-hour weekly lesson with a teacher.
Niemi doesn't complain. She practiced so long and so hard that she began hallucinating that flies were stubbornly residing on her percussion instruments. Most people would be concerned upon seeing things that aren't there. But Niemi was proud.
"Without a concert to gauge my progress," she writes, "hallucinating flies was at least proof of my effort."
In fact, she looked down at fellow players with outside interests: "Something about the pressures of conservatory life combined with the soul-sucking winters in Rochester made several students turn to Jesus. I took them less seriously ... because of their divided loyalties."
Matters such as sex and drugs, which supposedly reveal the corrupt underbelly of classical music, are in Niemi's book just part of the landscape, points of relief, since pot and copulation may be healthier than practicing herself into insect hallucinations.
At Juilliard, Niemi adopted the Machiavellian practice of sticking close to your enemies - quite literally. After encountering a fellow student named Sebastian, who was more accomplished - and thus potential competition - she made him her boyfriend, thereby acquiring an in-house master class.
Anxiety is such a big part of Niemi's story that she admits to taking more-than-prescribed doses of Inderal (in the class of drugs called beta blockers) to keep her hands from shaking. She kept charts of her dosage and sometimes feared an in-concert overdose. Inderal's side effects include face swelling. Not that she would have minded. She didn't mind when she broke her leg, either, because her playing wasn't impeded.
One ulcer later (also a point of pride), the graduated Niemi was among the founding members of now-famous New World Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas in then-seedy Miami. Nobody at that time knew how long the New World Symphony would last. In her zeal to get a permanent job, her anxiety became a malevolent roommate: "It sat quietly in the corner while I practiced. ... While I slept, it chewed on my stomach lining. ..."
Auditions require grueling preparation, and Niemi concedes to having had a breakdown of sorts. She continued to perform well for the New World Symphony, but found herself hiding in her own closet, regarding her neighbors with shame because she knew they knew she wasn't practicing. A healthy percussionist is not a quiet percussionist. She recovered.
But for all of Niemi's endearing frankness, the swiftness of her book's narrative left me wanting more. I was dying to talk to her, and did for a half hour on the phone.
She knows Philadelphia well; her boyfriend is Philadelphia Orchestra principal percussionist Christopher Deviney. Having kept a journal for years, she had easy access to vivid details of her earlier life. Her intention in writing the book was to show how one achieves an unlikely ambition when the journey isn't smooth. "I like to know what people do when they hit failure," she says. She has another book, nearly finished, about her San Francisco pit-orchestra life.
One of the more provocative statements she makes is that good performances often happen in spite of conductors. Not all are that way: She maintains solid loyalty to San Francisco Opera music director Donald Runnicles (who departed in 2008).
Standing back from her book, you wonder how enviable her life has been - especially when her married, much-older Juilliard teacher confessed his love for her, and he created such a tense atmosphere that only with the advent of the Anita Hill story did Niemi fathom what she herself had been through. Never physically violated, she experienced harassment on a psychological level. That's suffering for your art.
Yet, that idea is foreign to her. "That period when I was undone by the harassment, even then I loved what I was doing. I loved pursuing music."
This might come as a surprise to outsiders. But the Philadelphia Orchestra's Deviney, speaking strictly as a fellow professional, believes the book rings true: "Big dreams, hard work, emotional highs and lows, dealing with anxiety, these are all factors that musicians on any professional level are familiar with."
And just for the record, she says her hallucination-inducing practicing hasn't carried over into adulthood. How else could she write two books?
The next question is a movie sale. Does she have one? No.
Well, she should. And when that happens, who might play her? Glenn Close playing the adult Patti Niemi?
"Yeah!" Niemi said. "She's good at showing 'crazy.' "
So maybe, with her towering discipline, she could be played by a young - very young - version of Maggie Smith?
"I don't know who that is," Niemi said.
"Haven't seen it."
So maybe her practicing hasn't slowed down that much.