Last week, I had the opportunity to attend Birch Creek Music Performance Center's
Opening Night of the Percussion and Steel Drum
Session. It was a beautiful event held on a beautiful, but cool Door County evening, and I was delighted by the musical selections of the evening that seemed to warm up the night. Traditionally, the percussion session happens in July at Birch Creek, but this year, it leads off their season, June 19-28, with performances tonight (Weds 25) through Saturday.
Although I typically attend a performance in each of the 3 sessions at Birch Creek, Percussion and Steel Band, Symphony,
and Big Band Jazz
, I never miss the opportunity to come out for the percussion sessions. I am a huge fan of the steel drum, and it's distinctive sound never fails to transport me to an island in Carribean. Over the years, I've admired the incredible skills of all the instructors, but I have grown to become a true fan of Steel Band Director, Liam Teague
. After many years of admiring his humility and skill on stage, I caught up with him recently to talk about Birch Creek, his music, and his journey from Trinidad and Tobago to the Door County peninsula.
1). You are from Trinidad and Tobago, what originally brought you to Door County?
I came to the USA when I was about 19 years old to study at Northern Illinois University, which at the time was the only accredited music program in the world to offer a music degree with specific emphasis on the steel pan. And that was through Al O'Connor, who was at the time the Associate Dean of Music at NIU and Head of Steel Band studies and the Head of Steel Band program here at Birch Creek. So maybe two years or so within my stay in the USA, he invited me to perform here, and that’s how it all came about and I’ve been here ever since (laughs). Liam is now in his 19th
season at Birch Creek.
2). Tell me about your early musical influences and introduction to the Steel Pan.
I am a little different from most Steel Pan players, as I started off listening to and playing classical music from a very early age. Calypso music, which is from Trinidad, was also a huge influence, as it’s everywhere on the island. Then once I moved to the USA, I became interested in jazz and world music, from India and Brazil, so I pride myself in being a musical chameleon.
3). Did you always want to be a musician?
I didn’t know that music was going to become my profession, but I was always passionate about it. It was the only thing I was ever really good at (laughs) and I just stuck with it and it eventually morphed into my profession.
4). What other instruments do you play?
Well, I actually started out playing the recorder, like many people, but I took it very seriously trying to play music like Vivaldi and Bach. Later on I started with the steel pan and then maybe 2 years after that, I started playing the violin. So I played it for about 9 years, played in the orchestra, and I haven’t touched my violin since, which is perhaps good for the world (laughs)!
5). What keeps you coming back to Door County?
This place is just magic. First of all, it’s so beautiful here, and to be immersed in a creative environment 24/7, and being able to spread the gospel of the Steel Pan is a great passion of mine. To work with all of these young kids, the majority of whom have never played the instrument (steel pan) before, and they are asked to perform a concert, that people paid for
, in the space of 4 days, to see that development is really one of a kind. So, you know, it’s an honor to be asked to do it year after year. What we say here is that we have serious fun. You see us dancing on stage and laughing, but this is serious for the students and serious for us. We have fun, but it’s serious fun.
And with that, Liam headed back toward the classrooms and his students, who are fortunate to have him. While I was driving away from the campus, I caught a glimpse of him, out of the corner of my eye, showing off a few joyful and well-executed moves with a soccer ball. Serious fun indeed!
Don’t miss your chance to enjoy the remaining Percussion and Steel Pan performances at Birch Creek. Wednesday night, June 25, there is a special Night Sky Viewing after the performance, with members of the Door County Astronomical Society.
Concertgoers are also in for a real crowd-pleasing performance at Birch Creek's Comedy and Pops concert on Friday June 27. "Joy Ride," a song composed in 1999 by Birch Creek's Percussion Program Director Ben Wahlund, is a piece that is sure to entertain with the use of an old truck as the main instrument. The truck is named "Ole Blue,” a baby blue 1971 Chevrolet C30 pickup that has been used around Birch Creek for several years. Percussion students will be drumming on Ole Blue, using different parts of the vehicle to play the parts of the song. "It's meant to be fun," said Ben Wahlund. "This is something you don't normally get to see."
In addition to “Joyride,” another unique piece will premiere at Friday’s concert: Composer Brian Nozny will unveil his fresh composition titled “Skeleton Key” that will utilize old scaffolding and a wooden pallet as the main instruments. The scaffolding and pallet were donated by Dan Kiehnau for the performance. A group of Birch Creek percussion students will be performing the piece under Nozny’s direction.
Birch Creek Music Performance Center is a summer music school in Door County, WI, for advanced young musicians. With a performance emphasis, students are taught by nationally known performers and educators during the day, and perform alongside them in concerts at night. Five sessions focus on percussion and steel band, symphony, big band jazz, and vocal jazz.
2014 Season Concert Schedule
Percussion & Steel Band – Now through June 28
Symphony – July 3 – 12
Big Band Jazz – July 16 – August 9
Vocal Jazz – August 12 – August 16