A Conversation with Third Coast Percussion

For more than 15 years, Third Coast Percussion has been reimagining how to connect with audiences. 

Their musicianship is unparalleled: In 2017, they became the first percussion ensemble to win a Grammy Award in chamber music for their recording of the music of Steve Reich. But Third Coast does so much more than play exceedingly well. They regularly collaborate with composers to create new works – commissioned composers have included the likes of Augusta Read Thomas, Philip Glass and Devonté Hynes – as well as other artists such as architects at the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation and dancers from Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. They’ve created free mobile apps that allow fans to try their own hand at composition. Most of all, they remain fiercely committed to interactive performances, whether it’s in one of their education workshops for young listeners or at a high-profile concert that encourages the audience to play along. 

Third Coast Percussion was invited to a residency at DePauw School of Music, but plans for their performances and workshops had to be quickly adapted as the coronavirus rolled across the nation and forced schools and concert halls to shutter. Never ones to shy from a creative challenge, the members of Third Coast Percussion – David Skidmore, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin and Sean Connors – modified their performance for a livestreamed event, making it the first time the ensemble had ever held one of their Think Outside the Drum workshops online.

Here, 21CM director Mark Rabideau chats with ensemble member David Skidmore and managing director Reba Cafarelli about how Third Coast Percussion approaches their multipronged business model and the agility required of artists facing a global pandemic.


Mark Rabideau: Third Coast Percussion has a different business model than many artists do. It’s not strictly gig-based, where you play a gig, get paid and move onto the next one. Can you talk about how your approach strengthens your business model?

“Niagara” from “Paddle to the Sea”

David Skidmore: We always found that there was so much work to be done that had nothing to do with rehearsing and performing – that has to do with artistic planning, dealing with finances, dealing with travel, all the logistics that go into performing, booking gigs. All of that work we do every day. Once we started to pay ourselves every day (even though when we were first on salary, the salaries were quite meager!), there was this huge psychological shift. Not only is this a passion project, but I actually got a paycheck yesterday even though we haven’t played a gig in three weeks. I better get off my butt and do some work. 

Now, in the current environment, it’s a similar situation. Although I believe and hope that this will change, there is not a robust infrastructure right now for audience members to pay to see a concert remotely that is livestreamed. We have to all be thinking about how we become a self-contained not only source of content, but source of revenue. 

Our residency with DePauw – you guys were so incredible and generous in even considering the idea we had of moving the whole thing online.

Rabideau: That was important to us. It was, as a principle, important to our team to say, perhaps we could do the work that it takes to make the pivot, and to see if we can attract audiences and help create a future model. We’re issuing contracts for all of next season, and all of them have that hybridity built into them.

Skidmore: That’s amazing. At least for the next year to a year-and-a-half, I feel that presenters will either take the view that you all have, or they’ll run a real risk of not being able to do anything that is their mission. And certainly not with the type of planning and forethought and dedication to excellence that so many presenters have.

Rabideau: Let’s talk about the program you did at DePauw. We might have had more people watching online than we would have squeezed into an auditorium. I just loved the Think Outside the Drum workshop. People sent in photos from all over the world of their kids participating in it. What did that feel like for you as a performer?

Think Outside the Drum, the Timbre Game

Skidmore: It was amazing. We probably do that program more than any other single program that we’ve ever done. It’s an educational program for secondary education. But we have absolutely never done it without a live audience [before]. That live feedback is always important when you’re a performer, but this particular program is predicated on an aspect of our philosophy behind educational performance, which is that it should be 100 percent participatory. Every 10 minutes, 15 at the most, we need to get every single person in the room – student and teacher – actively being a part of the learning process. We do that through these musical games. We did it in our studio, and the only person in the room playing along was Colin [Campbell], our studio manager, who was running the cameras and microphones! But we had done enough other livestreaming events to know that there would be people out there and live participation. And families at home are just dying to do something cool with their kids, you know? It was a blast, and I hope we get to do it a bunch more. 

Rabideau: Third Coast Percussion is all about audience connection. Can you talk about what that means to you as an ensemble? Why have you made that such a priority? 

Skidmore: From the inside, it’s just what we love. We started doing this as students just in love with the music. From early on, we were saying to ourselves, not only do we love this music, but other people will [too] if they get to know it – and it is a music that few people know. So we’ve been hungry for making that kind of connection from the very beginning. We speak from the stage, I think, more than most groups – before almost every piece. Nothing academic or insider, just aspects of the piece that we find the most interesting.

“Amazon River” by Philip Glass

Reba Cafarelli: I feel like that’s been really helpful with translating what you do from a normal concert stage to what people are seeing in their homes [for] a livestream now. Because you invested, as musicians, in being good communicators verbally, that it’s only helping to further the reach of what you’re doing now. I feel like as I’ve watched you get more comfortable, you’re getting across who you are, your personalities. 

Rabideau: Reba, maybe more than anybody else, your bird’s-eye view of the organization gives you an opportunity to see what’s working and what’s not working. What have you observed so far? 

Cafarelli: There are certain things we’ve been trying to keep consistent for audiences to make them feel like they’re attending a concert, such as providing program notes [and] a program order. Having a way to submit questions that can get answers. Usually Third Coast would be in a lobby chatting after a show, so we’re trying to re-create that in the Q&A sessions that we have. It makes it stand out. As much as I love the rebroadcasts of livestreams, there’s something really special about being able to have spontaneous communication with the audience. That makes it feel more real to people, I think. We also have a lobby before the show. We have a 30-minute “doors open” situation, which is really fun. It gives us a chance to get our fingers on the pulse of what people are talking about, where they’re watching from. It just deepens the connection. I’m starting to see the same people show up from concert to concert who are in no way affiliated with us. They’re just curious or interested or they heard about it, and now they keep coming again and again. You can’t buy that. That’s precious. 

Rabideau: Thank you both for sharing your insights and your time.

These highlights have been edited for length and clarity.

Eum Porta, diuturna/accusare/censuram; Esse Avertat, funnii; Eaque Parata, quam wisi amet modi lius nescit modi dicta quia iure

Eum Porta, diuturna/accusare/censuram; Esse Avertat, funnii; Eaque Parata, quam wisi amet modi lius nescit modi dicta quia iure

Eum Porta, diuturna/accusare/censuram; Esse Avertat, funnii; Eaque Parata, quam wisi amet modi lius nescit modi dicta quia iure


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