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Students, Faculty + Alumni

Yale Percussion Group breathes as one

Percussion multi-setup

As a Texan teen learning to play the marimba, Chad Beebe ’25MMA watched a lot of YouTube videos. Those that most piqued his interest featured the Yale Percussion Group and its director, Robert van Sice. Watching and listening to the performance and interview clips, Beebe told himself, “This feels like something special.” The lyricism he heard in the playing and the sensitivity with which each percussionist approached their role in the group drew Beebe in and, eventually, to the Yale School of Music — and, more specifically, to the Yale Percussion Group. Last week, as prospective students auditioned for a place at YSM, Beebe sat in the Adams Center Atrium, which bustled with activity. It was just a year ago that he was one of those hopeful auditionees.

Michael Yeung
Michael Yeung

One such applicant carried a copy of Iannis Xenakis’ Rebonds B, a solo-percussion piece that the senior-most member of the current YPG, Michael Yeung ’22MM ’23MMA ’24AD, will perform on the group’s March 1 concert, a program titled “From Piazzolla to Pléïades,” which will showcase keyboard-percussion playing and drumming. Yeung, who in November was named a winner of Young Concert Artists’ prestigious 2023 Susan Wadsworth Final Auditions and a recipient of YCA’s Jacobs Fellowship, said the YPG has been working since the beginning of the academic year on the repertoire for its upcoming concert. “Everyone has dedicated their time to this common project because it’s why we came here,” Yeung said.

The YPG is better described as a chamber-music group than a percussion group. “It’s chamber-music-making that just happens to have percussion,” Yeung said. The distinction is an important one for van Sice, who recently said it’s been his “lifelong endeavor … to give percussion the dignity and the validity that other instruments have had.” Groups like string quartets, he pointed out, have had “a 300-year head start on us.” Still, van Sice’s work as a mentor and pedagogue has helped close that gap. The Percussion Collective, a group he started to extend the YPG experience for alums, offers concertgoers “a level of artistry, beauty, and insight more commonly found in great string quartets,” the Beijing Morning Post has said. Van Sice also pointed out that there are only a few full-time percussion groups in the United States — more than there were 30 years ago but not anywhere near the number of working string quartets. The ethos in van Sice’s YSM studio amplifies the School of Music’s chamber-music focus and sense of community.

“Music and the art of playing music is something that is larger than we are,” van Sice said in 2017, explaining at that time that his students “know how to musically interact with other people.” More recently, Van Sice said “they all bring large personalities to the table.”

Chad Beebe
Chad Beebe

While each member of the group travels their own path, Yeung said, they’re always mindful of the group dynamic and function. They’re empathetic musicians who relish working together, communicating, and, in a sense, practicing democracy, Yeung said, speculating that this year’s incarnation of the YPG comes very close to what van Sice imagines is the ideal balance of individual artistry and ensemble excellence.

“We’re only six,” van Sice said of the group. “When two swap out” — each year, of course, new members arrive as others graduate — “the entire complexion of the group changes.” This year’s YPG, van Sice said, “is unbelievably sensitive to each other. They really breathe as one.”

“It’s just really palpable how we want to play chamber music with each other,” said Yeung, who’s been at YSM since 2020. “This incarnation is … absolutely fantastic.”

For Beebe, the YPG experience has been all that he expected and more. Asked what he hopes the audience will take way from the YPG’s March 1 performance, Beebe leaned forward as eager applicants waited to audition, and said, earnestly: “The sincerity that all of us are trying to give to this music and to them.”

The Yale Percussion Group, under the direction of Lecturer in Percussion Robert van Sice, will perform a program called From Piazzolla to Pléïades,” featuring music by Piazzolla, Alejandro Vinão, and Xenakis, on Friday, March 1, at 7:30 p.m., in Morse Recital Hall in Sprague Memorial Hall. Learn more here.