Sam Bacco

Hometown: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Member of the Nashville Symphony since 1983

It seems like, of all the musicians in an orchestra, percussionists have the most wide-ranging roles.
Composers have always looked for ways to make their pieces unique, interesting or reflective of the times. At first, trumpet and drums (kettle drums) were introduced into the orchestra to add a military flair. To get a little more exotic, they imported sounds from the Turkish military (bass drum, cymbals, triangle, etc.). As time went on and communications improved, composers introduced many new folk cultures, popular music styles and imitative sounds into the orchestra. The vast majority of these “new” instruments became the responsibility of the percussion section. Today’s percussionists are responsible for technically and stylistically mastering an extremely diverse array of instruments from around the planet, keeping track of the historical correctness of certain sounds in certain time periods, and helping contemporary composers to continue to expand percussion writing for the next generation.

You also design and build instruments too.
Yes, as a percussionist, I’ve always had to find solutions to specific percussion needs as they arise. At first, it may have been designing and making a special mallet for a particular piece. That progressed to repairing or building my own instruments or restoring a historic drum, and eventually that path led me to learning about manufacturing processes, design work, etc. I’ve been fortunate to be able to work with and develop products for a number of well-known companies. I’ve also been able to work with some composers to create new percussion instruments for their compositions. Working in the orchestra and the Nashville recording studios has helped me to learn about the history and development of percussion instruments and amass a great collection of Instruments from around the world. I always refer to the historical examples from this collection for my design work, and we regularly perform on “period correct” instruments, where possible, in the orchestra. — some are over 100 years old!

You've worked with the Rhythm Beaters, a drum circle from Park Center, which works with adults recovering from mental illness. Could you talk about that?
It helped me reflect on why I started playing. Each of the members of the Rhythm Beaters developed a personal relationship with their drum or rattle. They learned that the sound that they were able to produce was completely in their control, and they loved to experiment! They were able to feel the power of playing together, create dynamic soundscapes and find rhythms in everyday words. Their obvious joy while they were playing and quest for knowledge was infectious. It was a great reminder of what music making can be.