Interview with Josh Vonderheide, Sub-Principal Percussion of the Malaysian Philharmonic

For this entry of ExpatDrummer I sat down with Joshua Vonderheide, Sub-Principal Percussion of the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra. We talked about his early influences, his audition for the MPO and his Instagramming!

Tell us a little about yourself.

I grew up in Lake Jackson, Texas (an hour south of Houston) and was studying with a local percussionist Eric Harper. When I got to my sophomore year in high school I started taking percussion more seriously, and began studying with Craig Hauschildt, who was a DMA student at Rice at the time. Craig became a teacher, mentor and friend, and was someone that made percussion cool!

I also lucked out that my high school had a pretty serious Percussion Ensemble, because we got to go to PASIC twice as performing artists.

I played in the Houston Youth Symphony, which was led by Dr. Michael Webster. He was very extroverted, and full of energy. Eric, Craig, and Dr. Webster were all big, early musical influences in my life. My parents were also both music majors, so that definitely encouraged my arts path!

Where did you go to College?

I got my Bachelors and Masters at the Juilliard School of Music. During my Undergrad, I studied percussion with Greg Zuber, and Timpani with Joe Pereira and later with Markus Rhoten. For my Masters, I primarily studied with Daniel Druckman.

After getting my Masters I decided to go to Rice for an Aritist’s Diploma. If I would have stayed in New York I could have possibly freelanced, kept auditioning and hoped for the best. But, I wanted to go to a place where I could be more focused on honing my craft, and thought that studying with Matt Strauss was the way to go. And within the first year of the program I won the job in Malaysia!

What was the MPO audition like?

I sent a tape in March of 2016. The tape was a hefty, full audition, about 35 minutes long. Some people prefer to audition live, but tapes have always been more successful for me. That October I heard back from them, and they invited me out for some substitute weeks in November where the big program was Mahler 1. I then played a trial in February 2017 and we played Rite of Spring and Capriccio Español, so all really exposed percussion pieces. In March they offered me the position!

Is that how most of the auditions work for the MPO?

Not necessarily. That is common for many people, but sometimes they will invite people to sub with them for a few weeks, and then do a more traditional live audition while they are there. 

What is the season like?

We have our usual subscription concerts, playing works by composers like Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, but there are also programs like Family Fun Day, which is exactly what it sounds like! Those concerts are about an hour long, with a presenter, and we will play Disney music or maybe Super Hero stuff and it’s all really fun for the kids.

There are also Chamber concerts about once a month, which people can sign up for, and program pretty much what they want. The orchestra seems to be really open to the program.

The MPO also does quite a bit of touring. This past season the orchestra went to East Malaysia (Borneo) and Japan, and for this next season we will be traveling to Singapore and West Malaysia.

Does the MPO do any educational concerts?

Yes, we have a few different programs that we use for that. Sometimes it is a full orchestra, and other times it can be a small chamber group, a woodwind workshop, and any kind of different chamber groups. It just depends on when your number is called.

We also do a few side by side concerts with the Malaysian Philharmonic Youth Orchestra. These are really important concerts for the kids. It would have meant so much for me to have been playing side by side concerts with the Houston Symphony as a kid, so I always try and put in the effort to make sure our students are getting the most out of the experience.

What is the make-up of the members of the MPO?

It’s a very international orchestra! We have pretty much all of Europe covered, people from a lot of Asian countries and about 7 or 8 Americans. When we go on break immediately there are 10 different languages being spoken. If there was one place that prepared me for orchestral life in general, it was the Verbier Music Festival. It was really international, you had to learn to be a team player, work together with a lot of different playing styles and ideologies. I feel very much the same here in Malaysia.

What is the concert attendance like?

The attendance is really hot and cold. They love when we have singers, ballets and shows like Cirque du Soleil. But when we played Mahler Symphony No. 7 recently, the hall was only about 40% full! There seems to be a slight disconnect between the audience and the true bread and butter classic pieces. The orchestra is only 20 years old, and before that there was no well-known major orchestra here. But after concerts, when I meet people in the lobby and such, they are most always very excited and happy about what they just saw! With some key new additions in artistic leadership, we are all eager to get the hall filled with curious-eared attendees.

What is your life like in Malaysia

I live in Kuala Lumpur, which is the capital of Malaysia. It is very comfortable to live here, although it is extremely hot! Rent is very affordable, and eating out is extremely common and cheap. A lot of the service industry is cheap here, like if you want to hire someone to clean your house, or a personal trainer, it is way cheaper than anywhere in the states. Also the quality of food in Malaysia is much higher when compared at the same price point to restaurants back home.

What is the Expat Scene like?

There are about 4 different types of expats here: People working for the Oil and Gas industry like Petronas (which is the primary sponsor of the MPO), English teachers, Tech Start-Ups and Embassy workers. In fact my neighbor who literally moved away last night was working for the Czech Embassy. Of course there are many others, but these are the people I’ve run into most often.

How was the move to Malaysia?

The orchestra does a great job of setting up its members. They take care of the shipping of things from wherever you are in the world, which is a huge relief. They also put you up in a hotel for one month, so you have plenty of time to find an apartment and take care of your banking, phone and internet.  I came here as early as possible so I could be as settled and comfortable as I could.

Have you learned any Malay?

I can say a few basic phrases like the “Hello, how are you?” types, and I’ve also learned to order food. But, since I have been here I have not met a single person that I cannot have a full conversation with in English! English is the first language many younger Malaysians, with Malay, Chinese and Tamil being the other common languages here.

What is the social life like in Malaysia?

There are bars and clubs, but lots of people hang out at the mall. And there is definitely a culture of going out to the movies. It is very hot here, so there are less outdoor activities. If you want to go for a run it has to be early in the morning, or it will just be too hot.

What do you do to keep connected back home?

I do a lot of Snap Chatting with my friends, and recently I have been doing a lot of posts on Instagram, trying to get a little online persona. I have been posting funny percussion tutorials; things that are hopefully helpful, but also entertaining. It also helps to keep me honest with my playing, as well as keeping connected with people. When my washing machine ends, it plays the melody from Schubert’s Trout Quintet, and I arranged it for some percussion instruments, so be sure to check that out! My handle is @joshua_vonderheide

I have found that there is often a direct, negative correlation between how long you have been playing an instrument and how much you still enjoy it. I want to make sure that I keep doing things that are engaging for me creatively so I never lose the love I’ve had for the instruments since I was a kid.

Do you have any tips for someone thinking about moving to a new country?

Go for it! Before I arrived here, I was afraid that I might feel more disconnected, or I might get a little lethargic sometimes because of less people around to push me. Honestly, all of that happened! But, don’t let those little, fixable obstacles be the reason that you miss out on potentially the most important life experience you’ll ever have. There are so many more positives and growth experiences that you’ll have by leaving your comfort zone than staying within it.

by Chris Tusa, August 2018