In Conversation with Solo Percussionist Lisa Pegher

By: Geoff Shelton

Lisa Pegher is a super talented percussionist “known for pioneering percussion as a solo instrument within the orchestral world and beyond”. She has performed with numerous orchestras and ensembles all over the world. With a specific passion for bringing different musical genres and audiences together, she has commissioned and performed the world premieres of several new percussion concertos. When not in the concert hall, Lisa spends time composing her own works and building multi-media performances that have mixed free jazz, rock, animation and dance.

When did you realize you had a passion for percussion?

I was about seven and somebody just handed me a pair of drumsticks. I feel like the drums chose me.  I know a lot of parents were always trying to get their kids to practice and stuff, but I was the opposite. I loved the physical aspect of it. I loved just always having something to work toward and the discipline of it. I grew up in a family where hard work was rewarded. My entire family were workaholics. None of them are musicians, but they were all workaholics. It was always like: ‘I just want to be a drummer and whatever I have to do to do that, I’m going to do it’.

So how did you end up pursuing a career as a solo percussionist?

As soon as I started playing with an orchestra, I really loved it. That’s when I knew that I wanted to be a soloist. I used to get jealous of the violinists. I had this envy for the violinists because they were playing all the solos and I’m back here playing the triangle. ‘Why can’t I do what they’re doing?’ And it was also really important to me to play drums in a musical way. I wanted them to be expressive. I don’t want to say I wanted to make the drums into the violin; I wanted to find a way to play the drums in a manner that would be that beautiful and that melodic.

At that time were there known solo percussionists?

Well, this was the time when solo percussion was just starting to get known a little bit by Christopher Lamb of the New York Philharmonic.



So what year are we talking?

We’re talking just over a couple of decades. It’s a very new thing and it has skyrocketed a bit; now there are a lot more percussion concertos. It’s still few compared to violin or piano, but compared to 10, 15 years ago, it’s a lot more now. To date, I’ve commissioned and premiered five myself.

I would go to competitions [in the past] and I would call up the board of directors if they didn’t allow percussion in their competition. I would call them and say, ‘would you consider letting me compete?’ And I had instances where they didn’t let me compete, but in the next year or the next two years after that, they did start to allow it. There were competitions that I did where I was the only solo percussionist because I had asked if I could participate. I drove across the country to these places and I really believed that I could change the minds of these people.
Even now I still play with orchestras sometimes and they’re like, ‘you’re our first solo percussionist that’s ever played with this orchestra’ and it gives me a feeling that I’m accomplishing something. I’m furthering this instrument.

But I don’t think competitions are always fair and meaningful. You’re going to put a solo percussionist up against a violinist? It’s just an odd thing to do. And putting a bunch of percussionists up against a bunch of percussionists is even stranger, but I suppose it helps people rise to another level; just like competition in sports. You have to audition for an orchestra position and that’s the only reason that I can come up with [as to why] this competitive aspect of [the orchestral world] began.

How do you develop a career doing this?

From the start, I really believed that I could change the way people viewed and listened to drums. I had a clear goal in mind and took every road block as a challenge to overcome, but in some ways, I was able to build a career out of this because I was somewhat naive. Ignorance is bliss. That’s a real thing. I think that when people are looking outside of themselves and they’re looking at what everybody else is doing, they might start to question themselves. They start to question their own dreams. They start to say, ‘oh, I need to match what this person is doing’ and then the mind starts to go in all these different directions and you get down on yourself instead of persevering on the path of success.

So you’re naively going forward but what did you do? You just started getting jobs playing?

No, I created jobs. There was no market. There was no anything. I started coming up with ways to market myself. I started coming up with ways that I could put on performances that I thought people would actually be interested in. In the beginning, I was completely just driven to play percussion concertos with orchestras. I was a drum set player and would play jazz gigs, but I knew that being in a jazz club until 4:00 in the morning everyday was not for me. ‘Maybe playing a drum set in front of an orchestra would be sustainable?’ So, at some point, I started researching to see what composers I could commission and collaborate with to write me pieces that would be the best of both worlds.

It wasn’t enough to look for great composers though. I was looking to create pieces of music that would reach a broader audience. I would say that if there was one solid passion I’ve had from the beginning, it is to find music that is crossing over. I’ve been in so many different categories of music. I’ve been in the indie music scene, I’ve been in the jazz clubs, and I’ve been in the orchestral scene. “How do I get these people to like each other?” is the question I’m always asking myself. Just recently, I commissioned a concerto from one of my good friends, Paul Dooley, that combines EDM (electronic dance music) with orchestra as part of this pursuit.

Another part of this is that I can see that some orchestras are not doing as well as they could be doing. They have to please their hardcore classical subscribers, but they have the younger audience they’re not always reaching. So that’s probably still my biggest passion, trying to find that line. I still wake up every morning thinking, ‘what can I do next that’s going to push this over to the next level?’

For someone who’s coming up now, what advice do you offer? It’s really hard to stay naive with social media and the amount of information one is bombarded with in a given day.

I know that people have a much harder time staying focused now. But I would say that they should stay away from comparing themselves to other people. The number one thing that kills ideas is when you have an idea and you see that somebody else did it. Then that idea just goes right into the garbage. If you hadn’t focused on what the other person did, you might have made some kind of development on that idea that nobody thought of before. So, even though the information is out there, I think that people need to limit themselves in how much they take to heart. It’s almost like eating food that’s bad for you. You need to limit your intake. Everything in moderation. The more you can force yourself to be disciplined about the amount of information you’re taking in, and how you digest it, the more successful people can be with their own ideas and dreams.

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