Jacob Steuer, Percussionist with the Estonian National Opera

For this entry of ExpatDrummer I sat down with Jacob Steuer, Percussionist with the Estonian National Opera. Jacob was one of the first people to reach out to me when I started this website. We talked about his time in San Francisco, Chicago, Berlin and then finally to Estonia. He gave some very interesting information about studying percussion in another country.

Can you give us a little bit of your background?

I went to high school at San Francisco School of the Arts, and around 16 years old I started taking orchestral percussion seriously. Around that time, I joined the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra. Even at that age I knew that orchestral percussion was super competitive, and if I didn’t get into this youth orchestra I would have gone the drum set route.

I did my undergrad at San Francisco Conservatory where I studied with Jack van Geem and David Herbert. Jack studied in Germany in the 70’s so his snare drum playing is a bit unique to America. When I first started to go to Germany for lessons in 2012 my snare playing in particular made sense to teachers!

After that I went to DePaul to focus more on audition prep where I studied with Eric Millstein and Marc Damoulakis. Towards the end of my Masters I was thinking about moving back west and start gigging, and maybe going back to playing drum set. However right at the end of my degree I was unexpectedly invited to study at the University of the Arts in Berlin.

What brought you to Germany?

In April 2014 I was invited to study at the University of the Arts in Berlin. This was for a grant application that I had put together at the last minute, identical to my Fulbright proposal which was rejected. I applied for DAAD (Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst, which, as everyone knows, means German Academic Exchange Service), which is like a German Fulbright. I was enrolled in the school, but as a non-degree seeking guest student, so I was basically just taking lessons.

What were your studies like in Berlin?

My primary teacher was David Punto. David is an extremely passionate teacher.  He is more interested in getting the best out of his students, and not so much to get them playing like him.  I don’t want to speak for him too much, but I remember my first lesson on timpani very vividly.  The technique basically is having the most relaxed grip and biggest sound possible at the same time.  That’s about as “German” as we got.  He asked me to play at least five *completely* identical strokes in different dynamics, different hands, and different drums, etc.…  I totally couldn’t do it, so I had to work on this as my base for a few months before even thinking about moving on to any etudes or excerpts.

One of the few smart moves I ever made was to just drop any ambitions of taking any auditions right off the bat after arriving in Berlin, and spend the first several months working exclusively on technique and phrasing in the most micro sense possible. David was insistent that every single note has to go somewhere, and no note should sound exactly like the one before it. I had six years of training prior to this in what was an endless cycle of excerpts, recitals, concerts, festival/mock/professional auditions, and somehow, I was never able to get that concept in my head.  I was probably always too busy in San Francisco and Chicago to just slow down and think.  In Berlin, I felt I had nothing to lose, being in a completely foreign place, so it made practicing fun and interesting again, and I felt fresh exploring the same old repertoire from that angle, thinking of what happens literally every single time contact is made on the instrument.  It was excruciating at times, but I knew that any time something didn’t sound exactly how I wanted it to, I had to work to fix it. 

When did you take the audition for the National Opera?

The original plan was to get a Praktikum (kind of like a 1-2 year fellowship that most German orchestras have in each section) with an orchestra in the spring of 2015, which gets you invited to full-time job auditions in Germany. However, I decided to first test out my several months of practicing in January of 2015 in Estonia and I was offered the position, certainly not due to technical perfection or nerves of steel, but from a sense of direction on every single note they asked me to prepare from the relatively small list.

What is the Estonian National Opera like?

We play Opera, Ballet and Musical Theater, and currently have about 55 pieces in our repertoire. And once we premier a work we have to be ready to play it again at any moment because we won’t be rehearsing it anymore, like ever! I play about 125 shows a season, and sometimes we are so busy that I am only looking a day or two ahead or I will forget what I just played when I am at the pub afterwards. For almost everything in our repertoire, I can play just about any part without hesitation at this point.  There have been times where a student is playing with us and had prepared a different part than I expected, which I will find out 5-10 minutes before we start, so we just switch at the last second and go for it.  It doesn’t happen much, but it’s in the realm of normal! 

Is there a certain instrument that you tend to play more often?

Usually when there is a difficult snare drum part it gets delegated to me. In fact, I am pretty sure that my snare drumming is what got me my job, as I feel particularly spoiled with good snare drum teachers. Also, we often have to do a lot of Bass Drum and Cymbals together, so I’ve gotten pretty good at that, although luckily we are having students from the academy play with us now as the section grows older.  Then of course I try to pry my way behind the timps as much as my colleagues allow.  You can learn so much about playing in an orchestra by playing different styles of opera and ballet. 

What language is spoken in rehearsal?

Rehearsals are done almost all in Estonian, which is not a slavic language, but an erratic relative of Finnish with some German loan words and even less grammatical consistency. If a conductor needs to say something to me or somebody else not from Estonia, they will speak English directly to us. Sometimes, though, they will say something really fast, especially when we are frantically rehearsing something like a gala concert with 20 songs with errant cuts scrubbed in, and I’ll get a little left behind, but as long as I hit all the right things at the right time in the performance, then I am generally on good terms with everyone.

Are there any other Expats in the orchestra?

There are about 100 members in the orchestra, and about 15 of us are not from Estonia.

Can you elaborate a little on any differences in playing in a German style?

It is very common to find flat xylophones over here (the accidentals at the same height as the natural notes). The flat xylophone is negotiable after a few weeks of practice, but the feel of the bars is quite different.  The mallets don't bounce back at you as much as a Deagan, so you have to rethink your technique of getting around the instrument with flow to your playing (and get some sticks that better suited to it).

Their glockenspiel to this day I really struggle with. The most common instrument you will see here is very low so you sit and use a pedal to dampen constantly.  Notes ringing into each other have never bothered me, but it is not always welcomed in Germany!

The mallets I was asked to get by fellow students and teachers were very short and thick bamboo shafts with a heavy head, which also stay on the instrument more like on their xylophone.  So you have much less room to maneuver around the instrument and the pedals make each excerpt about 3 times harder to master.  There are people there who can still play “Pines of Rome” flawlessly like this.  Just not me!

Snare drum for me was not a huge change.  You sit down, but I played drum set as a kid so I’m not scared of 32nd notes sitting down!  Jack Van Geem, who I studied percussion with for my undergrad, studied snare drum in Germany and has very open rolls, which is how I tend to play (although people employ closed rolls as well, especially on soft dynamics, or also a triple-bounce roll!).  My Coopermans were too thuddy for their taste and not ticky enough so I got 2 pairs of Kolberg sticks for that, and that is more than enough. 

The first time I saw a Bison snare drum was in Berlin, yet they are based in Illinois and I hadn’t heard of them when I was at DePaul for 2 years!  Those are quite common to use.  You can also find old Dresdeners of course, and even some Pearl Philharmonics.  It is very common to take old kalfo heads off timpani and cut them to fit a snare drum. The sound is very crisp and the head is going be very thick for a snare drum, so you don’t need to mute much, which I always like.  Also, drags and ruffs are more often seen as an effect, although you are certainly allowed to play them exactly as written…

What are your thoughts on studying in another country?

What’s the worst that can happen?! When I went to Germany I thought that the worst thing would be that I didn’t like it, I move back to America with knowledge of a second language! If you are interested in studying with someone, buy the cheapest ticket you can find and come over. In Germany almost all of the schools and orchestras have calf heads on the timpani. I think in America there might be half a dozen schools that use calf heads so it would be great to get a chance practicing on them before you start auditioning and working professionally.

And also, WHY NOT? If you don’t get into a summer festival or something, use that money, travel to Europe and take some lessons!

Is there anything that you would like to tell people about Estonia?

Come visit Estonia! It’s really hard to explain what it’s like here. There are so many things that I’d like to talk about. I’m not really sure about my long term plans, but I am really lucky to be able to live here and play!