Cameron LeachFebruary 21, 2019
Percussion soloist and ALP Alumnus Cameron Leach received his Master of Music and Performer’s Certificate from the Eastman School of Music in 2018. Leach has concertized across the United States, Canada, Europe, and Asia, and is the winner of both the Percussive Arts Society International Solo Artist Competition and the Yamaha Young Performing Artist Competition. In addition to his work as a concerto soloist and recitalist, he frequently appears as a guest artist and clinician at universities and summer festivals. Leach’s upcoming engagements include his concerto debut with the Grammy-nominated Dallas Winds, the world premiere of Dave Maric’s percussion concerto “SPIEL,” and residencies at Purdue University Fort Wayne (IN), the Space City New Music Festival (TX), and the MalletLab Summer Intensive (FL). Along with his active touring schedule, he regularly performs with the Columbus Symphony Orchestra, and recently held a professorship at Kent State University. Leach is endorsed by Black Swamp Percussion, Beetle Percussion, Sabian Cymbals, and Malletech.
1. You have an active career as a performer, clinician, and educator. How do you balance the variety of artistic endeavors you choose to pursue?
Time management and life balance have been the biggest challenges as I’ve transitioned from school to the “real world.” I moved back to my hometown, Columbus, OH, and leveraged prior connections in order to get steady work, basically taking any and every job I could. This fall, I found myself teaching as an Adjunct Professor at Kent State University, teaching the Dublin Coffman Marching Band, playing part-time in the Columbus Symphony Orchestra, and touring the country as a recitalist/clinician. While I am so thankful to have had so many wonderful opportunities this semester, it quickly became apparent that I was in over my head, and needed to make big changes in order to follow my dream.
While my first passion was teaching, my goal is to make a career as a percussion soloist, and because most of my work post-graduation has been teaching (often with very long commutes), it put my solo career on the back burner. I found myself emergency-prepping recital programs just three to four days before I had to perform them, with avoidable onstage mistakes and post-performance praise from audience members that felt exceptionally undeserved. Sometimes (more often than I’d like to admit), I wouldn’t touch an instrument for weeks. Additionally, it left me little to no time to continue building my network, communicating with presenters/conductors/orchestras, and pursuing creative projects, which are arguably some of the most important factors in forging a career as a soloist. I’ve come to realize that the solution is to leave behind regular teaching commitments in favor of guest artist opportunities. This kind of work can be scheduled well in advance, does not require constant attention, and has very good financial potential. You can set up your own clinic/master class offerings that are easily replicable, determine if something works in your schedule, and negotiate fees, all of which allow you to have more control over your life.
In short, I haven’t balanced these endeavors very well, and big changes are in order. Beginning in January 2019, I will be performing full-time, taking the leap that so many successful performers have talked about as necessary for their careers and overall happiness. Of course, I will still be teaching clinics and master classes while on tour, but I will be leaving all of my steady teaching work behind. I couldn’t be more excited for this next chapter, and to take charge of my own life (and schedule)!
2. “Elision” is an electroacoustic show that combines integrated electronics with solo performance. Can you describe more about this show, and explain the inspiration behind it?
ELISION is an entirely electroacoustic solo show that is designed to blur the lines between solo recital, EDM show, and rock concert, both in terms of its musical style and production value. For those who may be unfamiliar, “electroacoustic music” means that my acoustic performance is being altered electronically in some way. While there are countless (and sometimes very complicated!) ways to do this, I have chosen to perform only with fixed media, which is basically an electronic backtrack. I wear a wireless pack with in-ear monitors, allowing me to hear what the audience hears, as well as any click tracks or cue tracks designed to help me align my part with what is happening electronically.
The show contains two halves that essentially run themselves, meaning that the electronic backtracks for each piece are combined in a way that seamlessly transitions from one piece to the next. This means that all of the gear for the first half is set at the beginning of the performance, so that as the electronics transition into the next piece, I can easily move to the next “station” without resetting any gear. This setup usually takes up the entire stage, so it can be quite a headache!
The inspiration for ELISION came from two people: Colin Currie and Casey Cangelosi. Colin Currie, the world’s foremost solo percussionist, was in residence at Capital University during my undergraduate studies. He was the first person to show me that it was possible to be a globetrotting solo percussionist, which is the inspiration for my own pursuit. At the Percussive Arts Society International Convention (PASIC) later that year, I attended a concert by renowned percussionist and pedagogue Casey Cangelosi, which was a theatrical, multimedia performance that had very seamless transitions between pieces. This performance by Casey, along with the impact of Colin’s residency, came together at some point during my graduate work at Eastman and formed the basis for ELISION.
The first iteration of ELISION came together in February 2018, with support from the Johnstone Fund for New Music at a black box theater in Columbus, OH. The show felt completely homemade; I rented a truck, hauled gear from a local university, called in favors from friends and relatives, and had one tech rehearsal (if you could call it that) to make sure the performance would even work. Unfortunately, due to the timeline and everything that was happening during my final year at Eastman, this show wasn’t able to entirely embody the concept that I had envisioned. I had to form a program out of repertoire that I had prepared at the time, and not all of it was electroacoustic, so I had to rebrand the performance in order to avoid falsely advertising as “entirely electroacoustic.” With that said, the show was received unbelievably well, and I was able to learn all about the process of putting something like this together with a small budget, small team, and small window of time.
Moving forward, ELISION will be completely made up of new compositions that I’ve commissioned for solo percussion and electronics, many of which involve others in the percussion community. I have been hard at work leading commissioning consortiums for new electroacoustic pieces, and as a result of having a large social media presence, I have been able to garner immense and increasing support for these projects. The first commission was Eastman professor Matt Curlee’s Decay No. 2, which involved around 20 people. The second was David Skidmore’s I Leave You the Real World, involving over 50 people. And now, a new piece by Emmanuel Séjourné is on track to involve more than 100 people from around the world. These group commissions will be supplemented by individual commissions of my own, in order to fill out an entire show-length program. This is an important step forward, as it turns the show into something more original and personal, provides new repertoire for other percussionists to play, and will hopefully make an impact on the genre of electroacoustic percussion music. It looks as if this new-and-improved version of ELISION will debut sometime in September 2019, but I can’t say anything just yet.
Down the road, I hope to collaborate with lighting designers and video artists to transform ELISION from a simple electroacoustic performance into an immersive multimedia production. I was able to see this unfold firsthand as an intern with Third Coast Percussion, observing the production process for their show Paddle to the Sea as part of the Arts Leadership Program in July 2017.
3. How do you incorporate your personal brand into your projects and performances?
Before talking about my personal brand, I think it’s important to understand what those two words actually mean. Many people think that a personal brand is just a fancy logo, but it runs much deeper than this. A personal brand is essentially the means by which people remember you, whether it be your personality and the way you interact with others, the way you dress from day to day, or your logo and color schemes. These are all recognizable brand elements that paint the overall picture of what it means to be you. They are your Nike Swoosh, the expected John Mulaney suit, the mission and cause of TOMS Shoes, or the cadence and pacing of a Barack Obama speech.
The keys to effective personal branding are self-honesty and consistency. Self-honesty means identifying who you are and what you can offer in order to capitalize on these in ways both natural and strategic. If your message is honest, it becomes easy to naturally reinforce, but if your message is deceptive, it becomes forced and easily spotted. Once your honest message is established, it is important to remain consistent so that these brand elements begin to take hold and become recognizable.
The goal with my own brand was to represent myself as a performer and person. I wanted something timeless, but with a modern flair—a balance of professionalism, passion, and personality. It also had to be approachable on multiple levels, with an appeal to both audience members and higher-ups in the music industry.
All of these things find their way into my projects and performances, whether it’s the inclusion of my logo and design elements on various marketing documents, the way that I consistently dress on stage, or the way that I simply interact with audience members or followers. The feedback that I’ve received has been overwhelmingly positive, and it seems that people in the industry are beginning to associate me with these brand elements. I would encourage everyone, particularly those planning to freelance or forge a more individual path, to dig into the idea of personal branding. It may feel a bit uncomfortable, vulnerable, or even superficial at first, but I believe it is a fundamental way to separate yourself as an artist.
4. Although many of your performances are soloistic in nature, you have extensive performance in ensemble settings as well. In what ways do your solo performances inform your collaborative performances, and vice versa?
Three words come to mind: know your role.
I love performing as a soloist because I have full control over everything that happens on stage. My role is to clearly communicate my music, message, and emotion to the people in the room. If I’m firing on all cylinders, then I’ve done my job, but if something goes wrong, it’s all on me. It’s a role of pressure, risk, and reward.
As an ensemble member, you give up some level of control for the good of the group. Whether you give it up to a conductor and the orchestra, three other members of your quartet, or your duo partner, there is a careful balance to be struck. This is a role of awareness, selflessness, and communication.
The lines get blurred with electroacoustic pieces and concerto performances. These mediums have both a solo and ensemble element, one with a fixed, “cold” accompaniment, and the other with a malleable, human group. It often feels like walking a tightrope, and for that reason I would say that these are roles of balance, respect, and confident humility.
Having a breadth of experience in each of these settings is invaluable. I find that my experiences inform one another in this way, and the sum of these varied experiences in different performance environments allows me to adapt to a musical situation with confidence. I would encourage everyone to not only try their hand in different, uncomfortable settings, but to communicate openly and vulnerably about the psychological uncertainties that each presents in order to build a holistic understanding both in theory and in practice.
5. How have your past experiences with the Arts Leadership Program impacted your current professional career?
The Arts Leadership Program has been instrumental in my development as an artist, providing the tools necessary to create a relevant, meaningful, and rewarding career. The program helped me to establish new ways of thinking, particularly with regards to the resourcefulness and creativity of entrepreneurship, the practicality of creative projects, and the question of what it truly means to bring value to an audience. The internship experiences with Third Coast Percussion, the Heartland Marimba Festival, and the ROCMusic Collaborative were incredible ways of gaining hands-on experience in many different aspects of the music industry, and taught me so much about the day-to-day logistics of operating as a musical “business.” And because the Arts Leadership Program runs deep and wide, the network that the program has connected me with is immense and invaluable. If you’re a current or future student at Eastman, you absolutely cannot afford to overlook this program!