Percussion trifecta: PSO's Reamer plays, teaches, makes drums
Andrew Reamer enjoys getting around, and not only on the instruments he plays. You're likely to find him bicycling or kayaking when he's not working at Heinz Hall, teaching at Duquesne University or making instruments at his shop in Ben Avon.
The 2014-15 Pittsburgh Symphony season will be Reamer's 25th year with the orchestra. He became principal percussionist in 2008 and is fluent on a vast array of instruments. He often plays several kinds during a concert, including ones laid out like a keyboard, such as xylophone or marimba. Or he may play a drum set, which requires all four limbs to play the snare drums, cymbals and bass drum.
“Andy is as low-key as he seems and as nice as he seems,” says symphony percussionist Christopher Allen. “We've known each other since 1978 when he was at Temple and I was at Curtis. In 1979, we started subbing with (the Philadelphia Orchestra). In 1980, we started our first year at the Grand Tetons (Music Festival in Jackson Hole, Wyo.) together. We drove out, four days, all the way to the Tetons, and lived in the same condo.
“Back then, Andy was the quintessential boy scout and I was the quintessential hippie. Nevertheless, we got along absolutely fabulously and have been the greatest of friends ever since.”
They are so close they often have the same idea at the same time, no matter who says it first. But friendship is about more than agreement.
“When we went to the Tetons, I had never been west of Lancaster and never spent time outdoors,” says Allen. “He taught me how to backpack and hike, how to camp out in the woods and hang my food so the bears wouldn't get it.”
Many people bicycle, but, by two measures, Reamer's enthusiasm goes beyond the ordinary. When the symphony goes on tour, Reamer takes along a special bike with a detachable frame that fits into a standard-size suitcase. He also has completed Pittsburgh's Dirty Dozen, a competition on the 13 hardest hills in Pittsburgh that is held on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
“The hills are insanely steep and difficult, but you basically take it easy in between,” he says. ”But it was cold and blustery this year and I couldn't get motivated to do it.”
Reamer, 57, lives on the North Side with his wife Ruth Ann. His two children from an earlier marriage are married. His three stepchildren also are out on their own.
Motivation has never been a problem for Reamer when it comes to music. He has been playing for more than half a century. His dad William Reamer, a semi-professional percussionist who won two national snare-drum competitions, was his first teacher.
Reamer studied with Alan Abel, the legendary Philadelphia Orchestra percussionist and instrument-maker, starting in junior high school and finishing his masters degree with him at Temple University.
“Andy was a very likable person, very talented, cooperative and hard-working,” says Abel, who has played three sets of concerts as an extra with the Pittsburgh Symphony since he retired in 1997.
“He's matured. He's still a great player and continues to maintain his abilities and grows and becomes more and more of a thorough musician,” Abel says. “He actually manages the section in a very nice way. Everyone is content and happy.”
As a principal player, Reamer says he's expected to the play parts “with some heat,” such as the snare drum in “Bolero.”
But he begins by mapping out the parts for each concert, seeing how many instruments from the vast array of percussion instruments are needed, deciding who will play what and seeing if extra players will need to be hired. The Pittsburgh Symphony has only three percussionists.
“I am very fortunate in this section with Chris (Allen) and Jeremy (Branson),” he says. “They can play anything. There's no pigeonholing, like some other major orchestras. I purposely mix it up to keep everyone fresh.”
When Reamer joined the Pittsburgh Symphony in 1989, he didn't expect to be playing drum set as much as he does. Many popular acts don't bring their own percussionist.
“It's a whole other language. I like to think of the drum set as one instrument. There's a whole set to interpret,” he says. “Sometimes, you get a skeletal part, sometimes not even actual notes. You have to know to feel swing or Latin or bossa nova. I'm fortunate that I get to play all that because I do enjoy it. I like that it's a constant change of pace and shifting of gears to play in the Pittsburgh Symphony.”
Allen particularly admires Reamer's drum-set playing in the orchestra, a role many otherwise-excellent drum-set players do not do well.
“His motivation is to be helpful at every moment of every bar,” Allen says. “He has extremely good musical judgment and huge ears that are aware of everything going on, on stage.”
Reamer is a jazz enthusiast who, after playing Pops concerts with Megan Hilty last weekend, went up Penn Avenue to enjoy groups he admires, such as Snarky Puppy, at the Pittsburgh JazzLive International Festival.
“He's a great jazz player, which I know is rare for someone who does what he does normally” says Harold Smoliar, the orchestra's English horn player who founded the White Tie Group. In the jazz trio, Smoliar plays piano, Reamer is the drummer and Don Evans is on bass.
“He's very inventive with what he does, and part of his contribution to our work is he keeps us on our toes,” Smoliar says. “He's very good at keeping time. A lot of people you hear tend to rush, and Andy is like a metronome, but a very interesting one.”
The year after Reamer joined the orchestra, he began teaching at Duquesne University, where he is chair of percussion at the Mary Pappert School of Music.
“The best part about teaching is the one-on-one with a person who is sincerely looking for something,” he says. “When I can offer some enlightenment or give some feedback and see something click for the student, that's really cool.”
“He's my favorite teacher,” says Candice Gu, a Duquesne graduate who just completed her first year as director of the percussion ensemble at Carnegie Mellon University.
“He's very patient and musical. I really love his snare-drum playing, especially,” she says. “It's very musical and delicate. That was mind-blowing. I never thought the snare drum could be that musical and sound like he's saying something. I told him I wanted to play like him. I had to relearn everything. We started over from scratch.”
After his father's death in 2007, Reamer moved the family's instrument-making business, Drummers Service, from Lancaster to Pittsburgh in 2009. He continues to make drums and sticks for snare drum and bass drum. The shop is equipped with a wood lathe and other equipment to bend flat wood into circular drum shells.
Reamer also paints the designs on rope drums he makes, the kind used in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars before drums were made with metal tighteners.
Recently, Drummers Service took on another manufacturing dimension.
“I kind of invented the suspended swivel bass drum stand in the early 1960s,” says Abel, who also designs celebrated overtone-rich triangles.
Abel has sold about 415 bass drums since then, “and Andy made a lot of the bass drums which went into those stands. I'm 85 and have had enough lifting those things. I turned all of it over to Andy. He's carrying on the Abel bass drum. I have only the best words for Andy.”
Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or firstname.lastname@example.org.