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October 1, 2021Stephen Laifer -
Alana Wiesing is one of the few Black women timpanists to hold a principal position in a symphony orchestra. She hopes to change that and encourage others to break barriers—and the proverbial glass ceiling. A member of Local 33 (Tucson, AZ), Wiesing plays principal timpani in the Tucson Symphony Orchestra and also serves as an adjunct professor of percussion at the University of Arizona’s Fred Fox School of Music. She gains visibility in her role as an orchestra musician, but it is as an educator that she believes she can make the most impact.
Wiesing believes the skills she passes on to her students have great relevance to their lives off the stage. “The skills we learn in our musical training help us to become better people,” she says. “Things like time management, effective communication, organization, discipline, work ethic, creativity, and exploration, can all be learned and developed through the study of music. These things don’t just make us better musicians; they make us better humans.”
A Phoenix native, Wiesing grew up in a family that wasn’t necessarily musical, in that they didn’t play instruments. “But music was constantly played in the house,” she adds. “And my parents made sure I listened to everything.” Wiesing recalls that she gravitated towards rock (specifically grunge) pretty early on. She had started playing piano at age five, but wanted to quit because she got tired of practicing. “My parents urged me instead to pick a different instrument. So, I chose drums, mostly because of rock.”
Wiesing had dreams of being in a rock band. And then she learned about and auditioned for the Phoenix Symphony’s well-organized youth orchestra program. She landed almost randomly behind the timpani in 7th grade after filling in for someone—and was instantly hooked. “I saw the timpani as this amazing marriage between two elements of percussion: the raw drumming of a snare or tom toms, combined with more melodic elements of mallet percussion instruments,” she says.
Hungry to learn, Wiesing launched into private lessons with the principal percussionist of the Phoenix Symphony. She continued her studies with him through high school and her first few years on a full scholarship to ASU, before transferring and finishing her undergrad degree at Indiana University, where she also completed a master’s degree. After three years of active freelancing and taking auditions, she won her current job in Tucson in 2019.
She still loves the sound and the role of the timpani every bit as much as the day she first played them. “I also love what’s entailed in the leadership capacity of the timpani chair,” she adds. The timpanist’s shaping, timing, and phrasing can help guide the entire orchestra because it’s a loud and powerful instrument. “I love that responsibly and sense of agency over the music,” she says. “The pressure is a privilege, and we get some of the most interesting moments in the entire orchestral repertoire. It’s also fascinating to see how the timpanist’s role has changed over the last couple of centuries, hand in hand with the development of the instrument and its technique.”
Given that a good set of timpani can cost more than a luxury car, Wiesing does not own her own set—yet. “That’s a bucket list item I’ve been saving for,” she laughs. “I’m very grateful that the Tucson Symphony has three sets I get to play on and am also responsible for maintaining.” Timpani maintenance can be surprisingly complex: “I change drum heads once a year, but there’s daily maintenance like clearing heads, the process of making sure the tone and pitch coming from the drum is as clear as possible. This means making sure all tension points on the heads are balanced. And that’s daily work, before and after every rehearsal and performance.”
When not engaged in timpani maintenance and performing, Wiesing can be found immersing herself in her other musical component: education. She began her adjunct faculty position at the University of Arizona during her first season with the Tucson Symphony, and immediately threw herself into the role.
“I value being able to serve as a mentor and resource for my students,” she says. “Every day I strive to make sure I’m not only here for them as a teacher in a musical sense—but I’m also here for anything they need to open up about, and that I can help with, to the best of my ability.” This responsibility and openness, says Wiesing, centers around creating a safe space where students can be themselves musically and personally. “Both of these aspects are inseparable. Time spent in a practice room is not just getting to know your instrument better, but also getting to know yourself better. Dealing with problem solving, for example, or self-criticism, overcoming negativity, perseverance, and how you treat yourself—I work to incorporate all of this in my teaching.”
Audition preparation is a big component. Wiesing councils her students to play audition materials for nonpercussionists as much as possible. “The reality is that there usually isn’t a timpanist on an audition committee because you’re auditioning for that vacancy. It’s just smart practice to do mock auditions for nonpercussionists because their feedback is so different from a percussionist. Their detailed advice can help you stand out and win a job.”
She also advocates finding a situation where it’s possible to play on as many different sets of timpani as possible to acclimate to different instruments. “You typically have to play on the orchestra’s set when you audition. They usually let you know about their setup ahead of time, so it can be invaluable to be able to try to get on something comparable, and learn how to adjust.”
To further her goals as an educator, Wiesing took part in launching a nonprofit called Network for Diversity in Concert Percussion. “In the wake of George Floyd’s murder in the summer of 2020, there was a rising tide shifting toward needing to address issues of racism as they pertained to classical music—and, in this particular case, concert percussion,” she explains. “As an African American woman in a largely male dominated field, I’ve experienced both racism and sexism. I felt I needed to be a positive force for good, and help establish meaningful, lasting change. Orchestras in this country need to become an environment where people of all backgrounds can be seen and heard.”
Components of the Network include professional development sessions and mentoring. “We deep dive into aspects of the audition circuit, and what it really takes to be a successful percussionist, outside of just developing proficiency on your instruments.” She adds her hope that the mentoring aspect of the program will be especially inspiring: “These students can see someone who looks like them, with a similar background and experience, who has achieved what they want to do.”
Following meetings with Network for Diversity’s founders, Wiesing stepped into the role of president. “Over this past year we have grown it to a point where we can take applications for our annual Cohorts of Youth and Emerging Artists. This involves contacting music educators to help create and sustain greater change in our industry.”
Wiesing is equally enthusiastic about helping the industry through the union. “Providing service to local musicians contributes to our goal of sharing music throughout the community,” she says. “The local advocates for our musicians, ensuring our needs are met and providing that safe space where we can discuss how the industry is changing. The local is also a place where we can collectively hold ourselves accountable and foster greater working relationships between musicians and institutions that employ us.” Another benefit, Wiesing adds, is the professional standard that comes from affiliation with union colleagues. “I attend every meeting I can, and I contribute to our local’s newsletter. It’s vital to be invested in what other musical institutions in Tucson are doing, and how we can collaborate to make sure it all works smoothly.”
When not playing or teaching, Wiesing unsurprisingly still stays as active as possible. “Cultivating hobbies outside of music is one of the most important things we can do for our well-being,” she says. She believes a big part of that is keeping on top of one’s physical health, which can only make for a better musician on stage. She enjoys hiking, cycling, running, and pretty much anything outdoors. “Tucson is an outdoor person’s paradise when it’s not baking,” she laughs. “I know I’ve become a better musician because of my focus on fitness.”
Back on stage, her position as a role model for women and orchestral musicians of color is inevitable, and in prominent view every week at the Tucson Symphony. “Seeing is truly believing,” she says. “Winning a job as a Black woman timpanist in a symphony orchestra—that visibility—is everything. Whenever I make it to the final round in a timpani audition I’m keenly aware that I’m probably the first Black woman in the orchestra’s history to achieve this. I’m doing everything I possibly can to keep making myself visible, and be a resource and support system for others like me who want to achieve similar—or even greater—goals.”