Josh Hickman

Hometown: Columbus, Ohio
Member of the Nashville Symphony since 2015

When and why did you choose the timpani?
It wasn’t really a choice. When I was in high school, I spent pretty much all of my available time playing drum set and percussion, but I had always been really interested in psychology, and I was intending to pursue a degree in it. I started taking classes at a local college, but found myself gravitating more toward composing, so I decided to try to audition for a college music program in Columbus, Ohio. A couple of attempts went by before I was finally admitted, but once I was, I won a scholarship as freshman music major of the year.

Even then, I still didn’t know what I was going for in music – was it going to be composition, music technology, or playing an instrument? My first year, we had a master class with Ben Ramirez, the principal timpanist from the Columbus Symphony, and I immediately became interested in the instrument. Other percussion instruments weren’t catching my attention, so I set up lessons with Ramirez. Within a few months, he stopped me in the middle of a piece and said, “You could do this if you wanted to.” It was the first time I’d ever heard anything like that – someone verified that I had a skill set that could be used in a professional capacity.

So I spent the next three years learning technique and music that other students, who were at least five years more advanced than me, had already learned. It was a long road of catching up before I could get to the stage where I was competitive with everyone else, but once I got to that point, I just stayed focused on keeping up with practicing and putting in the effort. I have also had the support, training, and mentorship of fantastic musicians — Robert Breithaupt, Ben Ramirez, Jauvon Gilliam, and Tony Ames to name a few — who helped me find a style and sound that could be convincing in auditions and with an orchestra. It took 26 orchestra auditions, but it finally paid off.

What’s it like performing in a major American orchestra?
Already, it feels like things are settling in to where I’ve always wanted to be. There’s never been a point when I’ve been in front of this instrument and I felt like I was out of place. And now I get to work with the same group of musicians each week, and actually get a chance to blend with them and develop my sound to what the music director wants.

What are the unique challenges and opportunities of playing the timpani?
The instruments themselves vary by the manufacturer. And even then, you could have one company making one set of drums, and the very next set will sound different. Each drum has its own character. The same goes with handmade instruments and unique models. Each set of drums has a range of pitches they’re capable of, but sometimes you get a set of drums where the ranges are more limited or expansive, and some sets where one drum sounds a little bit off from the rest.

Beyond that, when you’re preparing music for rehearsals and concerts, you don’t only have to know what everyone else is doing, you also have to choreograph where your feet have to be, where you’re going to place the pitches, what kind of sound you want, who’s playing when, and when you’re going to be playing with those people. You have to know how loud to be, and how soft to be. And then, once you get into rehearsal and you hear what everyone else is doing, that could all get thrown out the window because what you prepared might be too much, or too little, or may not work in a particular venue.

It’s nice to come in with a plan, but being flexible is important. The maestro may stop and say, “I want this,” and you have to immediately make that change. Sometimes when you make that change, and you hear it with the rest of the orchestra, you can hear how it made everything smoother and more blended.

What’s your earliest musical memory?
We had a metal railing going up our stairway, and I can remember being up at night, taking toothbrushes and banging out rhythms from the music that we’d been listening to in the car. My parents noticed that I was really fascinated with music, so they started buying me kids’ drums sets and Casio keyboards. My dad would get out the old 45s, and I started to gravitate toward this music. On the radio, we’d hear the band Chicago, and I really liked something about the harmonic motion of it. I paid a lot of attention to what the drummers were doing, tried to emulate it, and it just went from there.

What has your experience performing with the Nashville Symphony been like so far?
In general, it’s been a very smooth transition. I was nervous at first, but everyone here has been very welcoming and very friendly.

Are you a reader?
I don’t read a lot of novels, but I do read a lot. I’ll go to the magazine shop and buy Scientific American and other publications that keep me involved in what’s being done in the fields of psychology, psychiatry and how the mind works.

What’s the first record you ever got?
When I was in grade school, if we did well on our assignments, we’d earn so many points and our teacher would get a record or cassette for us. I had heard about this album called The Joshua Tree, and the only reason that I wanted it was because it had my name on it. But from that point on, I was into U2 for a long time and bought all their albums. That was the first band I followed.

Do you enjoy listening to music when you’re not performing or rehearsing?
I do listen to music in my free time. I try to pace myself, because sometimes it’s nice to have some silence. If I’m listening to something, it’s completely unrelated to work — something relaxing like Debussy, or songs by Mahler, Schubert or Schumann.

What is your favorite movie soundtrack?
It’s tied between John Williams’ ET and Gladiator.

If you had the chance to meet any composer, living or dead, who would it be?
I would like to meet Mahler. He’s my favorite, and I would like to have a conversation with him about what it was actually like to be in his shoes, as opposed to reading what people have written about him. I’d like to know how he dealt with the perception of failure or success, and, in his own words, what it was like to live in his own musical world for an entire summer and then have to shut it off when it was time to go back to work as a conductor in the fall.

Among composers living today, I’d really to meet John Williams, Howard Shore and other people who write film music. I’d like to learn about what they do when they get a call to write 75 or 80 minutes of music: “OK, we’re going to do another Pirates of the Caribbean movie. How do I make this sound unique without making it sound overdone?” How does John Williams still sound like John Williams, but each of his movie scores has something unique about it?

If you could go anywhere in the world, where would it be?
I’d like go to New Zealand for a summer and spend every day walking to as many places as I can, being isolated from everything and enjoying nature. It seems like the perfect place to do it.