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June 1, 2023IM -
Local 586 (Phoenix, AZ) percussionist Shaun Tilburg has been a member of The Phoenix Symphony since 2013. A committed educator, Tilburg is also a composer, contributing an acclaimed method book, The Regimen, to the snare drum pedagogy. The book subsequently led to other compositions, and ultimately inspired him to launch his own business featuring pieces by other percussionists. The International Musician asked Tilburg for some words of wisdom for others looking to follow the same path.
International Musician: How old were you when you started playing, and why percussion?
Shaun Tilburg: I started at age 11, in 6th grade. I was involved in a ton of stuff at the time, including karate, baseball, Boy Scouts, and football. But I really wanted to play some kind of instrument, and my mom agreed if I would drop a couple of the other things. In the band room, they had tables set up with all the different band instruments. I wanted to play the trumpet or trombone, but we were shocked at the price. I gravitated toward the snare drum, and when the nice lady told my mom that we could probably pick up a drum with stand and case from a local pawn shop for $50 or less, we were sold!
IM: When did you decide you wanted to be an orchestral percussionist?
ST: It came pretty late for me. I was already committed to orchestral training at Rice University, one of the top music schools in the country. I knew that I really liked playing the drums and that I was pretty good at it, but I wasn’t 100% sold on playing in an orchestra for the rest of my life. One day in theory class, we were introduced to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. I had never heard anything like it—which is funny because that piece has been getting that same reaction for over 100 years. I was immediately in love.
IM: Who are your most influential teachers, and why?
ST: Number one for me is Ted Atkatz, former principal percussionist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra [and current member of Locals 7 (Orange County, CA) and 47 (Los Angeles, CA)]. He is the best teacher I’ve ever seen on any instrument. He’s also one of the most natural musicians you’ll ever meet, with an amazing ability to pinpoint the exact thing that’s missing and put it in the perfect frame for whoever he’s teaching. I also learned a lot about relaxation and musicality from Brian Del Signore, principal percussionist in the Houston Symphony [a Local 65-699 (Houston, TX) member].
IM: What prompted you to write The Regimen? Did you feel there was a dearth of or gap in good percussion pedagogy materials?
ST: Oh, there are way too many drum books! Drummers love to write books. I put The Regimen together solely because I was tired of repeating myself in lessons.
IM: What set The Regimen apart from other snare drum methods already out there?
ST: I tried to keep The Regimen very simple and clean. The idea was: here’s a thing that just about everyone struggles with, here are a few groovy little exercises to address that thing, and here’s a little box of tips that relate to that thing. I think the fact that it doesn’t try to do too much makes The Regimen useful for a large range of players. It provides some base materials for creating your own daily practice routine.
IM: When did you start composing your own pieces, and what made you want to do that?
ST: The first piece I remember writing was a multi-percussion piece I played on my junior recital at Rice, following a really bad breakup. There was screaming and stick-throwing involved. [Laughs] I was exorcising some demons, obviously, but I remember people really dug the piece. I was encouraged by that, and composed a few more things for myself. It wasn’t until I taught at the first Ted Atkatz Percussion Seminar that I decided to write something I hoped to actually distribute. I leaned heavily on my love of Radiohead and my marching background to make this strange mashup of emo-Radiohead tape with dueling rudimental snare drums. I called the piece 4 Minute Psychosis (after a Radiohead lyric) and it was a pretty decent hit for me.
Composition has just been for fun, though. I’ve never had any aspirations to make a living as a composer, and I don’t depend on it. That means I can do whatever I want and not care if anyone likes it. These days I’m happy to entertain specific commission projects, and I really enjoy writing denser stuff for small chamber ensembles. For instance, I have a premiere coming up in March, a trio for mezzo-soprano and two percussionists, a contemporary musical setting of a Japanese children’s song. There will be whispering, things dropped in water buckets, and some lighting cues. It’ll get weird.
IM: What prompted you to start your own business with Pocket Publications?
ST: I don’t see Pocket as a business. It’s more like a vehicle for distributing things I like. When I put The Regimen together and started selling hundreds of copies, I thought it might be nice to get a large distributor/publisher involved. But I was horrified by the standard industry contracts. It all seemed like a scam. The artist/writer gets almost nothing in these deals. That’s not how Pocket operates. I’ll never make enough money from Pocket to retire, but I take care of my artists. After all, without their hard work and creativity, I have no publications to sell.
IM: How did you identify and reach out to potential customers?
ST: I’m actually pretty bad at that side of things. With The Regimen, I relied entirely on word of mouth. People just talked about it and started contacting me. Eventually, I got more organized, made a website, contacted distributors, etc. Once I started selling other people’s publications, I felt more of a responsibility to do actual marketing. Talk to any college kids these days and you’ll know they get 100% of their information from social media. You need lots of audio and video clips, and they need to be made at a professional level for anyone to notice. I also ask my artists to do their part in spreading the word.
IM: Were there any big hurdles or learning curves with starting your own business?
ST: I had to research how to create an LLC and file my taxes. Other than that, it’s mostly having a functional website. Printing, packaging, and shipping can get a bit tedious, but I have it dialed in at this point.
IM: Do you have any advice to other musicians wanting to do something similar?
ST: My motto has always been quality over quantity. I’m pretty sure I didn’t make that one up. I focus on promoting only the things that I think truly deserve to be distributed. The best thing you can do is practice your craft honestly and diligently, and be confident that you know what you are doing before you just start throwing things at the wall to see what sticks. If it’s quality, people will respond.
IM: What do you do in your spare time?
ST: I don’t have spare time, to be honest. It’s a constant topic in my house, and I think it’s a common problem for musicians. I’m currently running graphic design, marketing, and catering management for a restaurant group, teaching at two universities, subbing consistently with multiple orchestras around the country, and trying to compose some music. It’s anarchy, but I love it. Having said that, I usually take Sunday mornings, and I always make time for my son. He isn’t leaning toward music yet, but he is prodigiously talented in one of my other loves: video games. He’s only 6, but he routinely destroys the 5th graders at whatever game they choose.