The next Forthcoming interview is with Steven Simmermon, a percussionist at UCA. For those of you who don’t know, I was a percussionist in my high school band. I met Steven at All Region freshman year and can personally attest that he’s a talented musician. After all, he did beat me that year and every year after (totally deserved, it’s okay). Now he’s a junior at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, Arkansas where he studies music education with an emphasis in percussion under Dr. Blake Tyson.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why did you choose UCA?
You see, it was honestly my last choice for college. There were a lot of factors because I got into other larger schools, like the University of North Texas, for example, that as a huge percussion program. That’s like the biggest music program in the United States. It’s very well known. Also UT Arlington and Indiana University. But I had three factors in mind when deciding: professors, money, and environment.
When I say environment, I really mean the musical maturity of those around me. I knew that if I went somewhere like University of North Texas, the musical maturity in terms of like the people that study there is going to be way higher than if I go anywhere in Arkansas.Those professors are going to be very good, but they’re very expensive, and I didn’t get like enough money to just pay for it. With UCA, I was able to just pay for everything with music and academic scholarships.
Why does musical maturity of other people matter for you whenever you consider a program?
I wish I was the type of person to naturally have this super high standard, put on blinders, and jump to it. But there’s not a ton of people that can just grind it out. I really want to have people that are so much better than me around. Without it, it can be very difficult to push myself to play 100% when I don’t feel like it.
I don’t know if you remember Jon Wheeler (SP:also a percussionist who beat me at all region) He’s one of the guys where anything can be going on around him. He’ll just forget about everybody else. He just has that thing where he’ll figure it out no matter what. I’m trying to push myself to be more like that.
What do you think is the biggest difference between high school and college?
Have you studied Confucianism?
SP: A little bit.
I think college is kind of like his philosophy. They give you like one fourth of the problem or one corner of the problem, as in the Analects. Then they want you to come back with the other three quarters or whatever.The biggest difference with that is that you just can’t coast in college, unless you just remember everything (which most people don’t). Nobody’s gonna do anything for you.
When I got to college, I had to learn how to actually study. In high school, I just didn’t study-study. I just kind of vomited my words on a paper, and then they just kind of fell out of my brain the next day. I wish somebody could have showed me how, but I know that isn’t possible because that process is kind of different for everybody.
SP:I think that’s pretty normal though. The things you see around you influence what you think is possible. For example, I was a really good percussionist at RHS because there were some people who could barely read music. I had played piano for years before I started, so I was always at an advantage. But then we’d go to All State auditions, and I’d see people like you and Jon, and it was just like “yeah..y’all just play better.” I didn’t really know how to get where you were, and that’s definitely hard. How would you recommend pushing yourself?
So the one thing that I do all the time is, I’ll just write out what I need to get done. Every week, I’ll write out my entire schedule for the whole week, like hour by hour and detail what I’m practicing. When I get to my practice session, I know what piece I need to play and what I need to fix.
Then the other way is I just watch good people. I can look at people on the internet even if it’s not exactly the same as watching people in person. It’s a whole different experience when you watch somebody so good, like, right in front of you. You can just feel here just how much more refined individuals are. I remember when I was a freshman, and I was in a practice room next to a junior and I heard him playing.
I had no idea who he was, but I knocked on his door and was like, “Can I just listen to you?”
He was just like, “…I guess??? You want to hear me play something?”
He totally shook my world for what was possible. So listening things out, and like listening to good performances really motivates me to create a very high standard.
One thing I regret during high school was not investing in a private lessons teacher. If I could go back, I would, I would get lessons with Chal Ragsdale at the University of Arkansas. I think I could have progressed a lot faster.
Tell me about Drum Corps.
Drum Corps is like marching band on steroids. It’s a three month long process. The drum corps season starts at the end of May, and you just do marching band all day and train for like a month. Then you go on tour across the United States playing your show.
Drum Corps is the most unique experience I think anybody could ever get. Because it’s the only period of your life where you only have to focus on one thing: band. You go to sleep, you wake up in the morning, and the only thing you’re thinking about, your whole job, is just being better than the day before and making the show great.
It’s less so nowadays because like everybody has cell phones, and they can text people and whatnot. Things can come up, but I seriously recommend it. It’s really hard. It hurts, but it’s amazing. When you get to Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, and there are like 70,000 people in the stands, it’s so cool.
What was the process of getting into a drum corps like?
It’s very nerve wracking. I’ve only auditioned for the Cavaliers before but it took me three times to actually make it. The Cavaliers set up multiple first round auditions in major cities all over the country. There’s one in Texas, one in California, one in Florida, etc. Anyone can audition for the first round, and I auditioned for Front Ensemble which is keyboard and stuff.
The first time I auditioned I was 16. I got screwed by my parents because they wouldn’t let me go. But the week before the audition, they changed their mind, so I got all the music and spent every day trying to learn it. I didn’t do a very good job, and I got completely destroyed. It was just rough because they’re so straight up with you. They’re like “you’re not doing blank but you do blank. You’re not gonna make it.”
The second time, I made the second round of auditions in Chicago. I practiced more than I’ve ever practiced anything in my entire life. I remember that Christmas break. For two weeks, I’d wake up every day, go eat breakfast, and get ready. From nine o’clock to four o’clock I just practiced non stop except for an hour lunch break.
I worked harder on it than I’d worked on anything. That was our senior year. I remember I auditioned for all region and immediately flew to Chicago. I get there, and I’m just scared as hell. I’m late because of the all region audition, but they already knew that. I walked in, and there’s this room with 13 people in it and keyboards everywhere. Someone walked up to me and asked, “Are you Steven Simmermon? Go get on the marimba in the front. Let’s just see what you can do.”
Within a day, I could already see how good everybody was. There was a line of people getting cut off, and I was like teetering on the edge, but I ended up getting cut.
It was weird honestly because it was the first time in my entire life that I felt that I had gone 100%. I did everything in my power to prepare for what that was. And I still failed, but I wasn’t upset at all. I literally couldn’t have done anything more to prepare for this audition. So I had no harsh feelings about it which was very, very cool.
I feel like a lot of people don’t truly go 100% when trying to do stuff. That’s where disappointment and regret comes from: not putting in the work. But I can say that I did everything.
The next year, I practiced more, learned from experience, and I made it on the marimba line somehow. The rest is history.
Do you get paid?
SP: I’m sorry, that seems a little ridiculous. You work so hard, and then you have to finance all this yourself?
I mean,if it were as popular as basketball or something, no, we would not need to pay money, but it’s just not. It is only getting more and more expensive for a variety of reasons. For auditions, you have to pay for the physical camp because staff comes in, and they feed you.
Once you make it for the tour, you basically pay a set amount of money which pays for transportation, food, uniforms, and etc. I mean, we transport four buses and three semi trucks. It’s a lot of gas. Food is another big one because we eat four meals a day due to the amount we’re working. If you don’t eat, you’ll just lose weight and drop dead. We also have to pay the salaries of the staff that come in and teach us. That’s probably the biggest expense.
I know that band takes a lot of time, especially if you’re studying music, so how do you balance the time you need to spend practicing and doing other music related things with your other academic commitments?
I’ve talked about how I just write down everything I have to do. If I don’t do that, I’m gonna forget something—especially with the amount of things that come at me. My goal is always to practice at least for three hours every day, so at the beginning of the week, I’ll figure out every single homework assignment that I’m going to have. This week is actually a great example because there’s a ton of stuff happening. I have a paper due on Friday, another project due on Friday for another class, various other homework assignments, and I taught kids online this morning. I also have a concert tomorrow, marching band rehearsal, and after this, I have to go record a bunch of stuff for this Cavaliers virtual ensemble that will take four hours.
So I just wrote it all out and thought ‘what’s the best way to logically do this to where I’m not freaking out all on one night?” To get more specific, on Monday and Tuesday, I basically finished all my school work, my project and essays, that I needed to do for Friday. That frees up time that I’d be spending probably Friday at 11pm writing and doing all this stuff. So I can just focus on achieving these other musical things.
What advice do you wish someone had given you before you started college?
You will never regret putting in the work. Nobody looks back on something they did and says
“no, I’m really glad I only put like 50% of the work.”
Usually what happens is that they say, “I really wish I did that better.” If somebody who I looked up to said something like that to me, it would’ve changed my mentality towards achievement. You’re never ever gonna feel bad about doing something well.
It’s okay not to go to your first choice school
College admissions and decisions often feel very make or break. While it does matter where you go, and you should shoot high and dream big, there isn’t only one “right” school for you. You have the capacity to be happy and flourish at many different schools. Rankings aren’t everything, and it’s perfectly reasonable to decide to go to a less selective school due to a number of considerations. Where you decide to go is just the beginning of a chapter in your life. What you do with it will be more important.
If you want to do music and have the capacity, invest in a private lessons teacher
One thing Steven and I talked a lot about was how the people around you push you to a higher standard. Sometimes, you don’t even know what you don’t know, and it takes someone who’s further on along to help you see it. As a former high school percussionist and percussion private lessons teacher, I can attest that lessons are so important for your growth as a musician.
Personally, I really benefited from a private lessons teacher who stuck with me from 7th-12th grade. He listened to me play every week and pushed me to be better. The personalized attention and understanding of my tendencies was invaluable. I realize that paying for private lessons is not financially feasible for everyone, so I’ll also say that my band director and other band staff were more than happy to listen to people play 1-on-1, and not enough people took advantage of that. It can be scary to put yourself out there, but band directors really do want you to succeed and are generally happy to help in any way they can.
Additionally, seek out mentors/upperclassmen who are doing what you want to do in a couple of years and learn from them!
Figure out what your priorities are and plan around them
Many students ask me for advice on time management, and I think Steven highlighted a really important principle. You have to figure out what you value, whether it’s music or something else, and then you build your schedule around it. College is busy. Work is never quite done, and things can always come up. You won’t accidentally do everything you want to do, so if something is important to you, you should make it a priority when you schedule your time.
Steven’s interview is part of a series called Forthcoming, an interview series where people reflect on their educational/extracurricular experiences. If you’d like to be interviewed for Forthcoming, please fill out the form at the bottom of this post. If you have questions or suggestions for future interviews, please get in touch here!