For sixty years, the University of Michigan percussion program has occupied a significant place in American music education. Its faculty has included some of the field’s most outstanding teachers, and its alumni have achieved success in all areas of percussion performance, pedagogy, research and composition.
The percussion program was born under the leadership of James Salmon* in 1954. A Michigan alumnus and active performer in the Chicago music scene, Salmon was renowned for both his teaching gifts and his writings on percussion. It was during his tenure that he founded the University of Michigan Percussion Ensemble, which gave its first performance in 1958.
In 1968, Salvatore Rabbio*, longtime principal timpanist with the Detroit Symphony, joined the faculty, adding his expertise to that of Mr. Salmon’s and starting a relationship between the percussion program and the Detroit Symphony that would continue long into the future. Following James Salmon, in 1972, Charles Owen* was named Professor of Percussion at Michigan. Owen made his name as the timpanist and mallet keyboard soloist with the U.S. Marine Band from 1934 to 1954 and then later as the principal percussionist with the Philadelphia Orchestra, under Eugene Ormandy, a position he held for 18 years. Professor Owen’s artistic inspiration continued to motivate the strong work of the U-M Percussion Ensemble, and the group recorded its first two albums, in 1975 and 1981. Owen was known as an inspirational teacher and a source of encouragement to both his colleagues and the many percussionists who studied with him. His legacy continues through the Owen Memorial Master Class Fund, which brings a guest artist to campus for an extended period each year. The James D. Salmon and Charles E. Owen Percussion Scholarships also honor the legacy of these two outstanding teachers and recognize their significant place in the history of the Michigan percussion program.
In 1982, Michael Udow** took the reins of the program for a tenure that would last 27 years. A founding member of the pioneering Blackearth percussion group, and the longtime principal percussionist for the Santa Fe Opera, Udow was known as an outstanding performer, composer, and teacher. Under his direction, the percussion ensemble quickly gained an international reputation for its numerous recordings and performances with renowned soloists and ensembles around the world. During his tenure at Michigan, the percussion ensemble was featured at multiple PASIC conventions, toured Japan and Taiwan, and performed in New York’s Alice Tully Hall and Merkin Hall. Timpanist, Salvatore Rabbio continued to teach as a member of the percussion faculty during these years, along with a number of adjunct professors, which included marimba virtuoso, Julie Spencer, and jazz vibist, Ted Piltzecker. Additional former adjunct faculty include composer/percussionist, Warren Benson, and Sousa Band percussionist, John Heney.
In 1995, drumset artist and U-M alumnus, Gerald Cleaver, was called on for his teaching and performance expertise serving as Assistant Professor of Jazz Studies from 1995-2000. A Detroit native, Cleaver has been mainstay of the New York jazz scene since 2002 and has made his name performing with artists such as Roscoe Mitchell, Miroslav Vitous, Yaron Herman and Ralph Allesi, among others.
In 1998, Michael Gould was added to the faculty as a second full-time artist/teacher of percussion and who now continues to teach as a member of the UM jazz faculty and as a faculty member of the UM Residential College primarily mentoring jazz majors in drumset study. Also in 1998, Salvatore Rabbio, the longtime timpanist for the Detroit Symphony retired after 40 years of service to the orchestra and along with his retirement from the orchestra retired from his position at Michigan. A native of Boston, Rabbio returned home to the east coast and continues to teach and mentor young students while continuing to maintain a national profile with PASIC clinic appearances most recently, in 2010.
Following in the footsteps of Salvatore Rabbio came Brian Jones who won the Principal Timpanist chair for the Detroit Symphony in 1998. Jones, a native of Texas, studied at the University of North Texas where he was a member of the renown “One O’Clock Lab Band” and later at Temple University where he studied under Alan Abel. Following his Detroit Symphony appointment, in 2001 Brian Jones began teaching as Associate Adjunct Professor of Percussion working with students in private percussion and timpani lessons as well as teaching the orchestral repertoire class. His inspired playing, teaching, and mentoring of UM percussion students continued until his departure to take the Principal Timpanist chair in the Dallas Symphony, in fall 2011.
Brian Jones’ colleague at the Detroit Symphony, percussionist Ian Ding, joined the faculty in 2005 and shared his expertise with U-M Percussion students until 2014, teaching lessons and teaching the orchestral repertoire class. Ian’s experience as an orchestral artist as well his experience as a performer of contemporary solo and chamber repertoire, made him a valuable and unique asset to the percussion program’s stellar faculty. Ian continues to be an active performer and currently resides in Chicago, IL.
In 2007, following a major national search, Professor Joseph Gramley was hired to serve as coordinator of the percussion program and director of the percussion ensemble. Known for his dynamic solo playing, his experience as both a soloist and as a member of Silkroad Ensemble with Yo-Yo Ma, he added a new dimension to the program’s already diverse offerings. Gramley also has extensive orchestral experience having performed with the New York Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony, Metropolitan Opera and many other groups. Also in 2007, vibist and drummer, Cary Kocher, was added to the Michigan percussion faculty mentoring students in the area of jazz vibraphone and improvisation.
In November of 2009, Professor Michael Udow announced his retirement from Michigan, effective Fall 2010. Professor Udow gave the University of Michigan nearly three decades of leadership, artistry, and pedagogy as attentive as it was inspred. Under his tutelage, he has trained hundreds of musicians and teachers and, through his own compositions, has been a major force in the expansion of percussion’s canon and general presence in the musical world. Following Michael Udow’s retirement, in 2011 another national search was conducted, culminating in the hire of Professor Jonathan Ovalle. A gifted teacher, performer, and improviser, his diversity of experience as a soloist/chamber musician, and experience as a drum set player/world percussionist added additional depth to the program's offerings. In addition to their studio teaching, Professors Gramley and Ovalle co-direct the percussion ensemble as well as lead additional percussion course offerings in Percussion Literature and History as well as Percussion Pedagogy, respectively.
In 2017, Tom Sherwood (Percussionist, Cleveland Orchestra) and Jeremy Epp (Principal Timpanist, Detroit Symphony Orchestra) joined the program and teach private lessons, coach chamber music, give masterclasses and teach orchestral studies classes.
As proud alumni of the percussion program themselves, both Professors Gramley and Ovalle are dedicated to honoring the program’s history, artistic legacy and maintaining the high standards set by their predecessors. Their current work is focused on preparing percussionists for the ever-changing demands of the 21st-century music world. Their dedication to teaching, performance, and research is making a new mark on the program as it grows and pushes forward into a new chapter in it’s storied history.
*Member of the Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame
**Awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award in Education from the Percussive Arts Society (2010)