Interview with Dr. Matt McClung
Principal Percussionist with the River Oaks Chamber Orchestra
They say variety is the spice of life and, for River Oaks Chamber Orchestra principal percussionist Matthew McClung, it’s also the soundtrack of life. After all, according to him, one of the great things about being a percussionist is not having to pick just one instrument. Triangle, cymbals, tambourine, drums, gong, and the list goes on—he gets to play them all.
So far, the so-called soundtrack of his life has been quite the journey, too. He received the first Doctorate of Musical Arts degree in percussion ever awarded by Rice University, while also playing three seasons with the Honolulu Symphony. He’s learned gyil (African xylophone) techniques from a virtuoso in Ghana; has performed extensively the world over—from Maui to the Middle East, Houston to Hong Kong; has inspired students with his Drumpetello ensemble (percussion, trumpet, and cello) that’s based on Mexican folklore; and has been on national tour for the Broadway show, Footloose—The Musical.
Given that colorful background, we just had to sit down with Matt to learn more about what gets him pumped. (Hint: Sometimes it’s rap before Rachmaninoff.)
How do you get ready for the big show?
Matthew: It’s been awhile, but I when I was in Hawaii, I would rock out to Eminem before an orchestral concert. That ‘Lose Yourself’ song I always used to psych myself up.
When did you know that percussion was your thing?
Matthew: My mother was a piano teacher, so from an early age, I had a musical upbringing. I was taking piano lessons, singing in the school choir… and I started percussion through the band program. I was okay at it, but I decided to study something in college that would lead to a more guaranteed job. I had tested well in math and science, so I went to engineering school but I still kept up my musical life as much as possible. Needless to say, it eventually took over my life. And here I am.
Read any interesting books lately?
Matthew: I just finished ‘Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic.’ I also read a book recently about the last days of the Soviet empire. I guess history has been my thing lately. But, don’t get me wrong, you’d find plenty of trashy detective novels on my reading list, too.
What advice would you give to young musicians? Your younger self?
Matthew: Take care of your body. You may not realize it, but the musical field is littered with broken bones, sprained wrists and fingers, neck pain, and back problems. Musicians are essentially pro athletes in a way, and it’s important to exercise consistently, follow a stretching regimen, and feed yourself well to perform at your best and prevent injury.
"Musicians are essentially pro athletes in a way, and it’s important to exercise consistently, follow a stretching regimen, and feed yourself well to perform at your best and prevent injury."
What do you always travel with when performing?
Matthew: With normal instrumentalists, they bring their respective instrument always. But, when you’re a percussionist, it doesn’t really work that way. For me, what I need to bring—instrument-wise—is completely circumstantial and depends on what’s available at the venue. That said, I always have one of those trashy detective novels to read on the plane.
Most memorable show or moment? Favorite place to perform?
Matthew: I have been fortunate enough to play with the Hong Kong Philharmonic a couple of times—Hong Kong is a great city. I spend summers playing with the Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra in Upstate New York and, one season, we went on tour to Oman in the Middle East. It was a really great place and a beautiful performance space—an eye-opening experience, to say the least. I also was honored to receive a Presser Award, which funded my two-month trip to Ghana, where I studied traditional drumming techniques with master drummers of the Ewe tribe while living in a small village with no electricity or running water. Another eye-opening experience! While in Ghana, I also studied gyil (African xylophone) techniques with Kakraba Lobi, who is considered one of the ultimate virtuosi of the instrument.
Favorite karaoke song?
Matthew: “Faith” by George Michael
How did you find out about Coregami?
Matthew: I have to admit I was a little skeptical when Alesha [Lawyer, artistic director of ROCO] was telling me about Coregami. I didn’t much think about it. But, when I tried on the Bernstein shirt, I was surprised. It really was different—by far, the most comfortable, easy shirt that I’d worn for my work uniform. Now, Coregami is outfitting all the men of ROCO this season!
What’s your favorite quality about the Coregami shirt?
Matthew: It is deceptively stretchy—considering how good it looks.
What’s up next for you?
Matthew: I am very excited to be subbing with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra in May. It’s a famous and prestigious group—and a true privilege to perform with them. Plus, my girlfriend is a violinist with the orchestra, so it makes it even more special. This fall with ROCO, I’m commissioning a brand-new concerto for percussion and chamber orchestra, which is exciting.
"Take care of your body. You may not realize it, but the musical field is littered with broken bones, sprained wrists and fingers, neck pain, and back problems."