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By Jeff Bleiler
Drums have always been a part of Ian Antonio’s life.
He’s been around them so long, he cannot pinpoint when he first started playing.
“It’s probably pre-conscious memory,” said Antonio, assistant professor of music in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance. “The instruments and sticks were just laying around the house. It’s just one of the things we did at home.”
Both his parents are retired public school music educators, and his father is a percussionist so Antonio would watch him give private lessons. Those early years of exposure led to a lifetime of playing, performing and teaching those same instruments that were lying around the house.
Antonio grew up in Albany, New York, and started playing in his elementary school band in third grade. He was blessed with a teacher who, despite being stern and “old school,” was a percussionist himself and helped nurture a love for the instruments.
His future was clear from a young age.
“Percussion has always been central in my life,” he said. “My best friends in high school were percussionists in the youth orchestra and percussion ensemble and band program. So it was something I never really thought twice about.
“When people ask you what you want to do later in life, I never had anything else to say.”
Antonio said Albany is home to a strong community of percussionists, many of whom, like Antonio, studied with the legendary teacher Richard Albagli. One of those was the principal timpanist in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra with whom Antonio studied while attending the Manhattan School of Music.
“It was kind of in the water, I think,” he said.
He thought for a time he would pursue an orchestral career. But while studying percussion ensemble and contemporary ensemble as an undergraduate, he found his calling.
While at the Manhattan School of Music, Antonio joined Wet Ink Ensemble, which formed when he first started at the school. His first concert with the ensemble was in 1999, and he still performs with the group a dozen or so times a year. The New York Times named it “Best Ensemble” of 2018.
“It’s evolved over the years,” Antonio said of Wet Ink, for which he serves as co-director. “It started as a sort of loose collective, but for the past dozen or so years, the group has operated as a tight-knit ensemble of composers and performers.
“We work in a sort of band-like fashion, making small tweaks, suggesting sounds and techniques, finally arriving at the premiere. Sometimes authorship is a bit fuzzy because everyone is contributing to the result.”
One of Antonio’s most memorable performances occurred in 2016 with Josh Modney, the Wet Ink violinist, when they played at the Park Avenue Armory in New York.
“It involved a hundred live sheep on stage,” he said. “They had to get trucked in every day from a farm in Pennsylvania. They wandered out from a foggy nook in the back of the stage.”
Antonio is also a member of Talujon, a group of percussionists all with New York roots or ties. It is less active than Wet Ink, which is not exactly a bad thing for a musician who has performed on four continents but is now a father of two young daughters.
“The days of three months on the road in a van are sadly and not sadly behind me,” he said. “I miss playing in a different town each night, but I don’t miss sleeping on floors for weeks on end.”
While he has been performing for over two decades, he’s only recently joined the ranks of teaching. He spent five years teaching at the State University of New York at Purchase before coming to U-M before the 2020-21 school year.
Teaching has provided its own rewards — much like the ones his parents reaped when he was younger.
“Percussion is such a giant family of instruments,” he said. “Anything you strike, shake or scrape, and pretty much anything else other people don’t want to do. That’s one thing I talk to my students about. I think of percussion as a comprehensive approach to music making rather than only acquiring specific skills for specific instruments. It’s approaching instruments, objects, and situations with a musical mindset.”
While his daughters have not yet taken up drumming like their father did as a child, his 2 ½-year-old is intrigued by one instrument in particular.
“She’s been saying she really wants to play a marching bass drum. We live in Ypsilanti and the Eastern Michigan marching band marched through our neighborhood this past fall,” he said. “She’s been all about the marching bass drum since then.”
The first time I entered the balcony at Hill Auditorium to hear the School of Music, Theatre & Dance’s large ensembles perform really stands out. The talent of the students and the incredible acoustics and awe-inspiring design of Hill combined to make an unforgettable moment.
There is a small, forested area outside my office window, between the new Dance Building and the south side of the Music Building. Several tall trees in the grove reflect the seasonal changes and are super responsive to the wind and sunlight. I could stare out that window for a long time.
I’m lucky to be surrounded by inspiring people at the School of Music, Theatre & Dance every day. The students constantly amaze me with new ideas and fresh approaches and my faculty colleagues are simply the best.
Every week is a race to not get behind on my New Yorker subscription. They can pile up fast!
It’s tough to name just one person, because I’ve had the great fortune of working with and learning from so many incredible people. One crucial influence on my musical journey was Claire Heldrich, who was director of Manhattan School of Music’s Percussion Ensemble and Contemporary Ensemble in my early undergraduate years. The attention to detail she brought to her work every day was jaw-dropping, and her dedication to the music of today inspired me to consider reorienting my musical path as well.
By Jeff Bleiler