JONATHAN ULMAN: PERCUSSIONIST AT WORK
Rhythm. It starts with a drummer. Where most fall into the rhythm of life around them, a drummer drives the beat, setting the pace of what happens around him. The need to find the beat and synchronize their surroundings starts at an early age. It may mean beating on a pot or whatever is within reach to establish the rhythm they so desire, but as the passion builds, so does the need to satisfy their primal tendencies. How they react to this innate urge may be a matter of circumstance for awhile, until the need becomes so great they have no choice but to listen and follow that instinctive beat. If the world was a nurturing place for such talent and desire, it would be an easy path to follow your dreams and find gainful employment. Cue the cymbal crash. Playing to satisfy the soul is one thing. Earning a living from it is a lifelong struggle. Boston resident, Jonathan Ulman, is the Manager of the Percussion Department at Berklee College Of Music, one of the top music schools for higher learning in the world. It’s a day job that pays the bills. Where his soul thrives is in the night hours, where he plays as a session drummer. Playing gigs at night is what satisfies his creative drive and soulful rhythmic desires. How to reconcile daytime knowledge with nighttime opportunities to use it is the struggle of many musicians. Learning their craft takes time, lots of it, and time is money. They don’t get paid to learn. They get paid to play. Yet one must take place before the other. How to build a career out of the skills you have and the knowledge you’ve amassed is something Jonathan must pass on to the 600+ percussion students he’s responsible for at Berklee. He talks the talk very well, but walking the walk is where the work really begins.
Jonathan Ulman has always called Boston ‘home.’ Though home to one of the most prestigious music schools in the world, the city isn’t exactly known for being a hotbed for session musicians. Most of Berklee’s graduates will seek employment elsewhere in the country. Forging a profitable music path in that locale can seem as daunting as breaking away from a monarchy and starting your own country. From its humble beginnings, Jonathan’s road to playing drums for a living has been an out of the box adventure. He was not a rambunctious child looking to bang on everything in sight. His musical energy went into playing the piano, while he exerted his physical energy on the soccer field. Unlike those kids who knew exactly which instrument they wanted to play, it took Jonathan’s piano teacher to break it to his parents that he’d been playing the wrong instrument. If you’re familiar with the sound of a needle scratching across a record, that’s likely what that revelation sounded like, scratching across the beautiful melodies their son had been playing. Say goodbye to “The Piano Man” and prepare yourself for the funky beats of Wild Cherry’s “Play That Funky Music” white boy.*
Once Jonathan turned his attention towards drumming, he’s never stopped. His neighbor had a makeshift kit he left him borrow until his parents bought him a used set later. Unlike the lessons he had on the piano, his drumming was self-taught, relying heavily on ear training and memorization. In perhaps the unlikeliest of pairings, a used drum kit and his brother’s hip hop cassettes, he listened and practiced until he could mimic the drum parts and the groove of the song. Through countless hours of hip hop immersion, he learned to be a pocket drummer. From that foundation, he discovered other music he liked to play. Attending public high school in Boston, Jonathan split his time equally between music and soccer. He took the band class, learning everything he could that was percussion related, but didn’t play with any bands in high school. Instead, he played on his own outside the school environment, refining his skills for what he wanted to play after his high school years.
For anyone with a love for playing music, what to do after high school can be a paralyzing fork in the road. Guidance counselors don’t often have an option for “how to become a rock star” or “guaranteed path to becoming a professional musician.” The reality is there are no guarantees, and finding employment opportunities in the music business is a D-I-Y task. Jonathan chose a split decision, opting to pursue a college degree while continuing to hone his music skills and playing gigs to gain valuable performance experience. He enrolled in Northeastern University in Boston to study marketing as a full-time student, but this only occupied his daytime hours. After 5pm, his agenda included working various jobs and playing drums with as many bands as possible. As with marketing, where the goal is to reach as wide a demographic as possible, he didn’t limit his playing to one genre of music. He enjoyed both listening to, and playing, a wide variety of musical styles and was building a marketable resume by expanding his skills and experience. On the weekends, he would sometimes travel with bands outside the Boston area to get a taste of what tour life would be like. It was a challenging schedule that required extreme time management and discipline to pull off. Over a five year period, he had the beginnings of a solid foundation in music and earned a degree in marketing.
Armed with a college degree and a passion for music with the skills to gain employment, Jonathan now had to earn a living from his resume. For the next few years, he divided his work week into a 4/3 schedule. Monday through Thursday he worked in the construction/marketing field using his degree. Thursday night through Sunday he traveled and played with several bands. Joining a band as a full-fledged member requires an intense level of commitment revolving around a number of different factors. For a band to be successful, everyone must have the same mindset and motivation. A desire to be part of the next Motley Crue was not Jonathan’s dream. Band dynamics are a tricky thing, and finding the right group of people who can work together can be more stressful than enjoyable. Having superb organizational skills, he was often the one guy in the band who ended up handling everything by default. This led to fatigue and friction, causing him to switch bands in search of a better creative environment. At the point he felt himself continuously spinning his wheels while gaining no traction, he decided to go solo and forge a career independent of band membership. He realigned his work week by taking a job in the Brookline public school district near Boston as an aide for special needs children. This provided a regular work week, Monday through Friday, with no work-related responsibilities on the weekends. He worked the 9-5 as a job to pay the bills. After 5pm and on weekends, he played music for himself. He looked for band opportunities that allowed him to play, but not become a full-time member. He sought out session work and touring gigs to complement his live playing time in the Boston area. Finding the right balance, he moved on to the next chapter of his professional career.
While continuing to build his music resume and working to pay the bills, Jonathan was looking to enroll in graduate school to pursue a masters degree in Digital Photography. He needed to find employment with a company that would pay for grad school and be willing to work around his tour schedule/travel on occasion. On the one hand, he needed steady employment for financial stability. On the other, his ultimate goal is to make a living as a professional musician, which means playing as often as possible and creating opportunities for session work. Adding grad school to the balance of this equation was to strengthen the framework of his resume and bolster his experience in dealing with a hectic schedule in the real world. Through extreme dedication and time management, Jonathan earned his masters degree from Northeastern University in 2011. Over the next few years, he continued to work jobs that utilized his education while pursuing his music goals as well. When his tour commitments began to interfere with his regular work schedule, he quit jobs to be fair to his employer. He spent 12 years juggling a work/music balance that tested the limits of responsibility and not giving up on his dream. In 2014, he happened to be in the right place, at the right time, when a golden opportunity presented itself.
In the spring of 2014, Jonathan was back in Boston after touring Europe with a band and working at a bike shop fixing bikes. He learned of an opening at Berklee College of Music, but not just any opening. They were looking for someone to manage the percussion department. His qualifications for this position were years in the making. His passion for music, and all things percussion related, was just the icing on the cake covering the ingredients he possessed to succeed in this position. Having completed two degrees, he understood what it takes to follow through on education goals and the patience needed to achieve them. At Berklee, he would be in charge of shepherding hundreds of students into and out of that program successfully, impressing upon them that quitting was not an option. In this position, he would be surrounded by drummers all day long, allowing him to both learn from and share his experience with a new generation of working percussionists. 90% of the students and faculty at Berklee are working musicians who have to balance their days as Jonathan has for over a decade. He understands the challenges they face and his experience is an invaluable resource for the students to learn from. Much like finding a band you fall perfectly in sync with, this position has been a harmonious partnership. With everyone at Berklee juggling music/work in some fashion, they are very accommodating of tour schedules, which has made this position an ideal fit for Jonathan.
Being in Boston and working at Berklee, Jonathan has a unique window on what happens where music theory and performance are taught and where knowledge meets real world application. How this plays out is evident in his day planner. He works a full time job from 8-5pm and begins another from roughly 6pm until the work is done. His daytime hours are like writing a piece of music. He is responsible for taking all the moving parts and arranging them into something that sounds pleasant and may become profitable in the future. In the evenings, he has to hit the streets with what he’s learned and turn it into performance art that has value. This is rarely an instant gratification process. He says to expect a road paved with frustration with an occasional positive opportunity to keep the drive interesting. Even a degree from Berklee isn’t a golden treasure map to finding success in the music business. There are few cities in the world where music is a thriving business. Most are like Boston, where you have to dig a little deeper to find profitable music opportunities, and sometimes, you have to create your own.
In the absence of joining a band like Aerosmith, where you can forge a lucrative career out of a single musical entity, you may have to forge your own path where none exists. In a small market like Boston, that may be as difficult as landing on a rock and starting your own colony. Jonathan has found diversity to be the foundation of his career, and has successfully built a reputation as both a sought after session player and rock solid performer. In the last two years alone, he’s played on 25 records and has 18-20 bands that use him both live and in the studio regularly. He plays roughly 150 shows a year, which includes some tour dates, and has learned at least 200 original songs just over the last couple of years alone. Preferring to play in multiple genres, he performs live frequently with Thalia Zedek (alt), Lenny Lashley (punk), Bearstronaut (pop), Hayley Thompson-King (country), and with Moe Pope (hip hop) in the studio. It’s an ambitious schedule he keeps because he enjoys both performing live and session work, and with due diligence in scheduling and a self-made market, he doesn’t have to choose one or the other. He believes that pushing the boundaries of his skill set and building a solid reputation in the local market is what keeps him relevant and employable.
What Jonathan has learned over 20 years of working in the music business is that it’s a short hop from being a working musician to a starving artist. He’s seen many of his fellow musicians logging the hours but not the rewards. There’s a profound lack of business sense in the profession and knowledge of how to make yourself valuable in the market. There is a value that can be placed on skill set and time spent in preparation and learning, but most musicians are hesitant to put a professional price tag on it. Jonathan has a plan for the session work he does and understands the value of the process. He says it’s not as simple as just showing up to play drums and/or percussion parts. He has to learn the songs, become adept at the drum parts, meet with the artist, and perform beyond expectation. His reputation and the artist’s is on the line with the finished product. The quality of his play affects how the artist is seen and heard, and there is a significant investment of time involved to assure that quality. Adding hand percussion to his skill set is something Jonathan has enjoyed learning. He’s found a market for both drums and percussion in session work and in the live shows. Versatility is a marketable commodity which puts you one step closer to finding work and being paid fairly for it. In the live shows, pressure situations are the norm, and having to learn things last minute can quickly test your professional chops. There is no substitute for time spent playing and learning, and it separates the professional musician from the casual player. Like putting a player in to pinch hit in a clutch situation, if you haven’t won a World Series in 86 years, you probably want the most qualified player at the plate. Your performance just might paint the town red.
Jonathan is a vocal advocate for teamwork and paying it forward amongst his fellow drummers. He’s found that there’s nothing like the drum community in their willingness to help each other out. From their position at the back of the stage, there’s a certain isolation that comes with playing drums. While they have to interact with the other players on stage in a concert situation, there is often a lack of relatability that only drummers can understand. Looking out for each other is something they do quite naturally, and an aspect of the drum circle he embraces. Being at Berklee, he sits amidst likely the largest drum circle in the world with 600+ percussion students and sees their progress and their struggles from the inside out. After school hours, he’s out doing what they’re preparing to do, and he gets great satisfaction from sharing what he’s learned. Getting endorsements, of which he currently has six, and creating relationships can be vital to a working drummer, and Jonathan brings a strong business sense to his work as a professional musician. Having that knowledge can be the difference between doing what you love and having to shelve those dreams for lack of financial viability. His practical vision is a blueprint he’s happy to share amongst his peers.
The reality of the music business today is that there are an abundance of working musicians, but relatively few who do it as their sole profession. Even someone as skilled and driven as Jonathan says its hard to trust the market enough to let go of a steady pay check, like the one he gets from Berklee, and being on a big gig doesn’t offer any greater sense of security. Musically, the advantage of having his day job allows him to be more selective in the gigs and session work he takes. Because he doesn’t have to rely solely on the income from his percussion work, he says he enjoys it and can focus more on doing what he loves. Jonathan understands that playing music is a passion with no guarantees, and he believes you should do it for the right reasons. In today’s tough economic climate, he recognizes that it’s a luxury to do what you love. That’s something he tries to impress upon the students he’s responsible for. Being singularly focused in the music business isn’t an option. Multitasking is a must, and there is no reset button for missed opportunities. Drummers, especially, must have an acute awareness of everything happening around them and be able to act/react to keep perfect rhythm throughout the performance. Jonathan Ulman keeps that same sense of rhythm and timing in all aspects of his work-related activities. By day, he manages the percussion department. By night, he becomes percussionist at work. He’s built a music career in a city that once hosted a tea party and started a revolution. Drummers played a vital role in the Revolutionary War. Don’t be surprised if another drummer boy from Boston sends a signal to his fellow musicians that it’s time to redefine the term ‘working musician.’ Recognizing the value of their professional skills shouldn’t take an act of the Continental Congress. But if it does, musicians love a party. Tea anyone?
*When “Play That Funky Music” was released to Boston radio in 1976, the original version was briefly banned. Instead, an edited version was played. Where the lyric says, “Play that funky music white boy,” the words ‘white boy’ were replaced with “hey, funky music.” That alternate version of the song is now a collector’s item.
CONNECT WITH JONATHAN ULMAN
Twitter: @jmudrums https://twitter.com/jmudrums
Instagram: @jmudrums https://instagram.com/jmudrums/
Berklee Percussion: https://www.facebook.com/berkleepercussiondepartment
JONATHAN IS ENDORSED BY:
Evans Drumheads: https://www.facebook.com/evansdrumheads?fref=ts
Protection Racket: https://www.facebook.com/ProtectionRacketDrumCases?fref=ts
Westone Audio: https://www.facebook.com/westoneaudio?fref=ts
For more info on the artists Jonathan plays with:
Lenny Lashley: https://www.facebook.com/GangOfOne?fref=ts
Hayley Thompson-King: https://www.facebook.com/hayley.thompsonking?fref=ts
Listen to Jonathan’s Behind The Kit Podcast with Matt Dudley: http://mattdudleydrumming.com/2015/06/09/behind-the-kit-podcast-episode-21-jonathan-ulman/
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