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Percussionist Tom Stubbs Reflects On 51 Years With The St. Louis Symphony

 Tom Stubbs, center, leads a session of St. Louis Symphony's online education program, Soundlab earlier this year at Powell Hall. He is joined by principal timpanist Shannon Wood, left, and IN UNISON Programs Coordinator Michelle Byrd. [8/26/21]
Dilip Vishwanat
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St. Louis Symphony Orchestra
Tom Stubbs, center, leads a session of St. Louis Symphony's online education program, Soundlab, earlier this year at Powell Hall. He is joined by principal timpanist Shannon Wood, left, and IN UNISON Programs Coordinator Michelle Byrd.

A half-century ago, Tom Stubbs was still a student at the Juilliard School in New York when he auditioned for his dream job. He got it.

The job was a spot in the percussion section of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.

Once he got that seat, the Kansas native never gave it up, until now. After 51 years specializing in timpani and cymbals at Powell Hall, Stubbs is retiring.

He’s played under six different music directors and been a part of the orchestra’s climb in national and international prominence.

“It took a couple of years to really lock in that I was getting the sound I wanted to get,” Stubbs said of his early time with the orchestra. “I was able to walk in the door, and it was good enough, but I had to think about it too much. By a couple years into it, it was just second nature. Like falling off a log.”

Stubbs has taught young percussion students at the Aspen Music Festival and School since 1989, and many of his students have gone on to successful careers as professional musicians.

St. Louis Public Radio’s Jeremy D. Goodwin spoke with Stubbs about his early years as a musician, the relationships among musicians in the orchestra and his thoughts on the many conductors he’s worked with.

Jeremy D. Goodwin: I can imagine young violin or trumpet players dreaming about joining a symphony orchestra when they grow up. That’s not my first thought when I think of a young drummer. How did you set out on this path?

Tom Stubbs: It’s one of the unique things about my story. I was taking a music class in high school, and the teacher asked what do you want to do, basically, when you grow up. And I said I want to play in the St. Louis Symphony. It just kind of popped out of my head, not premeditated.

Goodwin: Were you an avid listener of European classical music at the time?

Stubbs: No. I was more into marching band and playing in the drum corps and playing jazz with my friends, and all the different varieties of music I had access to in Hutchinson, Kansas.

 Tom Stubbs has played under six music directors at Powell Hall. [8/26/21]
Tom Stubbs has played under six music directors at Powell Hall.

Goodwin: I’ve heard there can be almost cliques in symphony orchestras based on what section you’re in. What’s life like among the percussionists?

Stubbs: My experience has always been that we’ve been best buddies. Even the extras we bring in. This is a very special place, in St. Louis. We’re all kind of a big family. Believe it or not, in some orchestras musicians sue each other, they sit next to each other and don't talk. I can’t understand that. But this is just the opposite in my experience in St. Louis. I have yet to find a string player that won’t say hello and be friendly. I think it’s just a big family. But especially in the section.

Percussionists tend to be friends with bass players. That’s why I married one. All my best friends have been double bass players.

Goodwin: What are some pieces when you really get to shine?

Stubbs: Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4. Debussy’s “La Mer.” Those are both recorded with [then-music director] Leonard Slatkin.

Goodwin: What is it about those pieces that gives you the opportunity to really shape the sound?

I’m just happy with the way I’ve learned to play them over the years. And I’m happy with the recordings. I listen to it and think: Yeah, that’s good.

Goodwin: You’ve heard as much St. Louis Symphony Orchestra as anybody in the last half-century. Are there particular pieces that just really work with one generation of the orchestra, and maybe that changes over time?

Stubbs: I think each generation owns certain repertory. With Slatkin, it was the Gershwin, Rachmaninoff stuff. With David Robertson, it was more the contemporary stuff. And all these conductors are wonderful. David would be my conductor with the clearest beat I’ve ever seen. And with Slatkin, it’s like falling off a log, all those years. Big favorite.

I’m a little sad that I have to retire now just when I’m beginning to understand Stéphane Denève and appreciate his special gifts. Because he’s very special, too.

Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @jeremydgoodwin

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