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Gotham Gigs: New York Philharmonic timpanist Markus Rhoten on making a career in classical music


STICKING TO IT: Although his father discouraged him from a career in classical music, Rhoten enjoys the lifestyle

Markus Rhoten started learning piano as a toddler in Germany, "but I would always go to the low notes. I had an affinity for bass," he said.

So his parents started him on drum lessons when he was 5. At age 28, in 2006, he was named principal timpani player for the New York Philharmonic.

The timpani—a set of large copper cauldrons covered in stretched calfskin—is one of the most unmistakable instruments in the orchestra, producing thunderous drum rolls and bursts of punctuation.

Growing up, "there was always music in the house," Rhoten said. His father, Bruce, was principal trumpet player for the Northern Germany Radio Philharmonic; his mother, Sharon, was a classical pianist. Both parents are from the American Midwest but moved to Germany in the 1970s when Bruce got an orchestra job.

By age 10, Rhoten recalled, "I would come home from school and practice piano for an hour, drums for an hour, vibraphone for an hour and then cello for an hour."

He tried the trumpet, too, but rejected it because he didn't like the way it made his lips tingle and go numb. "I was worried it would make me a bad kisser," he acknowledged.

Occasionally, Rhoten would accompany his father into the orchestra pit, once sitting next to the timpani during a performance of Igor Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. He remembers feeling the booms reverberate through his body. "It all fell into place at that moment," Rhoten said.

His father tried to talk Markus out of being a classical musician, reminding him of how far he had moved to find a job, and of how much work was involved. But Rhoten had a front-row seat to his father's career and liked what he saw.

Besides, timpanists are among the higher-paid orchestral musicians—and among the most competitive, because most orchestras have only one or two.

Rhoten played in several regional orchestras in Germany, working his way to principal timpanist at the Berlin Symphony before moving to New York.

Philharmonic musicians' base salary, negotiated by the players union, is nearly $147,000. On top of that, principals have individual contracts with the orchestra, the terms of which are not disclosed. Rhoten is also a salaried faculty member at Juilliard.

Because the timpani often establishes the tempo and strength of a piece, the timpanist is sometimes referred to as "the second conductor." There is little margin for error, Rhoten said—but that's part of the thrill: "It's one of the loudest instruments in the orchestra, and I'm the only one playing it."


Markus Rhoten

AGE: 38 BORN: Hanover, Germany RESIDES: Upper West Side EDUCATION: B.A. in percussion, Berlin University of the Arts SACRIFICES: To avoid arm injuries, Rhoten won't play volleyball or basketball. Tennis is out, too, because it can make arm muscles develop unevenly. TICKLING IVORIES: Rhoten has a grand piano at home. He plays Rachmaninoff or Brahms to relax. "I never perform for anyone," he said. "I play it because it makes me happy." RISKY BUSINESS: Some compositions, including Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, are feared by timpani players. "People have been fired for getting lost on the last pages of that piece," Rhoten said. "It's a famous timpanist killer."

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