At Musical U, we think sharing is an important part of helping musicians press forward in their musical journeys. There’s no shortage of members helping and encouraging other members within the community, but it’s also beneficial to get an outside perspective.
We had the opportunity to chat with Lior Shragg, a percussionist with a masters degree in ethnomusicology and a passion for world music. Lior’s story is certainly an interesting one – read on to gain some insight from this very talented musician.
Musical U: Thanks for taking the time to talk with us, Lior!
Lior Shragg: Sure!
It Started with Impatience…
MU: Give us a little background about how you got started in music.
LS: My start is kind of like how most people start – you know, fourth or fifth grade, people will do “instrument petting zoos” and bring instruments to school. Kids will try them and see what they want and then decide from there what they want to play.
I really wanted to play trumpet but the line for trumpet was so long! I was way too impatient and so I thought, “I’m just going to go to the line for percussion.” There was nobody in it! So I was like, “Great, I’m going to go there because I don’t have to wait.” And so the rest, as they say, is history.
I took concert classical percussion lessons all throughout elementary school and middle school and then in high school, I started playing in jazz bands and orchestras and stuff like that. And then I decided to go to college to study music.
I did my undergrad at Winona State University in Minnesota and I studied percussion and jazz there. I played a lot of concert music and jazz; I played in some orchestras and wind ensembles.
And from there, I moved to Arizona to go to the University of Arizona where I did my masters in ethnomusicology. And then, once I’d finished that (this is an abbreviated timeline!) – once I finished up at Arizona, I moved to Chicago to start trying to play some music professionally.
I got some work in musical theater. I started – and still am – playing drums for rapper/MC Hugh Lee in Chicago and touring with him and playing in a couple of other bands. And then, last August, I got into my current PhD program and now I’m in Ohio!
MU: Do you play any other instruments?
LS: Well, in college they make you become proficient to a certain level at piano. So I technically have piano proficiency but I would never call myself a pianist! (Laughs) I compose and I write a lot of music, so the knowledge of piano I have helps me compose a lot.
That’s one of the reasons I love percussion because – not to “diss” another instrument – but if you play clarinet, you play clarinet. That’s all you can learn. If you play flute, you play flute and you’re done. But percussion, there’s thousands upon thousands – just a universe full – of instruments from every culture. You know, no one is ever “done” learning percussion.
When I was younger, I didn’t quite realise it to the extent I do now. But especially in college and beyond, this idea of, “Okay, what else can I play?” or “Here’s this cool instrument from another country” or all this stuff – it’s just an infinite universe of different sounds and how you can use those sounds to create new music.
MU: Wow! What an interesting journey. Tell us a bit more about the bands and the rapper you’re currently touring with. How did you get hooked up with them?
LS: You know, when I left Chicago, I had to part with and say goodbye to a couple of the bands – they’re still playing and of course, they need somebody to play with them. They’re all great people and amazing musicians, I love them dearly; shoutout to Signal To Noise! But it just so happened to work out with the timing of it that the rapper – my good friend, Chris – when I was leaving, he was sitting down to write a new album so he wasn’t actively touring at the time and didn’t need to replace me.
I spend my winters and summers in Chicago, so I’m going to play a bunch of shows with him this summer and kind of see where that goes.
But Chris and I met on Craigslist which is actually… Craigslist has become this kind of – I guess not-so-secret anymore, but this kind of musical connection hub. It used to have such a stigma – I guess it still kind of does – but the music connection page is a great resource for people to meet up and play with people and push projects.
I saw Chris post that he was looking for a percussionist. I listened to a lot of his music and was instantly hooked by his sound. I met him in-person to chat and we just got along really well. He’s a great dude with a good head on his shoulders and we started playing.
Yeah, so, in the past 10 years – because there’s no, you know, universal “find a bandmate.net” – that doesn’t exist. So, Craigslist has become this somewhat authority on hooking people up.
MU: You mentioned that you studied ethnomusicology. What is ethnomusicology?
LS: In short, it’s the study of world music and cultures and the study of people making music. So, “musicology” really only focuses on what we conceive of as “classical music” – like Western orchestral music from around 1400 to 1900 and from a couple of select countries in Europe.
But there’s an entire world of music out there and that’s what ethnomusicology does: it aims to broaden the scope of world music.
MU: What did you envision yourself doing with your masters degree when you entered your program? Did you have any specific plans for what you would do after you graduated?
LS: I didn’t have any specific plans but I knew that ethnomusicology was kind of “where it was at.” It really was a passion of mine and something I enjoyed doing and learning about, certainly more than anything else.
At the time, I didn’t really know how I wanted to apply it because I still loved performance and I still wanted to find a way to connect all of these things about music that I love. So, ethnomusicology was kind of a way for me to connect all of those.
MU: We saw your Cirque du Soleil audition tape on YouTube and it was amazing. What was that for? Did you get a callback?!
LS: Thank you! I did not – which is okay. The process there is not dissimilar to some others. Once a year, they have open “general auditions” which are available to anybody. They put the material out there and you [the musician] put together this portfolio of prerecorded music. They give you the sheet music scores and recordings of pieces from previous Cirque du Soleil shows that they want you to play and you put together this portfolio of “prescreening tapes” – that’s what they call them.
And from there, if the “powers that be” decide they like you and they want you, if you pass that round of the audition, you’re then eligible to audition for current openings. So they kind of place you in a big pool – and people can wait in the pool for years for an opening. These are amazing jobs so people that get them don’t want to give them up.
MU: How did you come across this opportunity?
LS: Cirque du Soleil has always been on my radar as a dream job, if you will, because – not just as a musician but as a percussionist, especially – the content of their shows are so rich musically and culturally that the sheer amount of instruments that the percussionists are required to play and have a mastery over is so fun and it’s such a challenge.
I also think I was drawn to it because a lot of the percussion work for Cirque du Soleil is similar to musical theater which is something I’ve been doing my whole life and I have such a passion for. So, it’s very similar in that sense of, you know, “Here are 30 instruments that you have to play all at once in a span of 6 minutes – good luck!” You know, they’re just incredible shows for any musician but especially for percussionists, you can’t ask for much more. It’s a dream role.
The “Right” Musical Path
MU: Let’s go back to your start in percussion. You mentioned earlier that it was kind of a process of elimination: all the kids were wanting to do trumpet or other instruments and you chose percussion just because you were too impatient!
Did you ever feel like you had made the “right” decision or that you were made for percussion or was it just something that you learned and stuck with?
LS: Oh, absolutely. Whether I realised it at the time as a fourth grader or not, I can’t imagine doing anything else. I love everything that percussion is about. If you ask anybody I grew up with (or currently share an office with) – this innate desire of constantly tapping, constantly drumming on my desk – it’s like rhythm and music is always present.
I also have a vivid memory of being drawn to the [percussion] sound and what the percussionist and drummer got to do and what his job was in a band. My dad is also a musician and so, from a very early age, he was sort of curating my musical taste, if you will! (Laughs)
I was able to listen to famous jazz drummers like Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa and guys like Keith Moon from “The Who.” Ginger Baker from Cream – some of my dad’s favorite musicians. My dad’s not a percussionist, but those drummers and percussionists affiliated with those groups caught my ear as the most incredible.
MU: What instruments does your dad play, out of curiosity?
LS: My dad is kind of a “jack of all trades.” He’s a singer, he plays bass and guitar and piano. He plays some percussion, too.
MU: So you grew up in a very musical home. What’s your earliest musical memory or one of your best musical memories from your childhood?
LS: I remember very well the day I came home and I was like, “I’m going to study drums and percussion” and my dad was very supportive. He said, “Cool. If you’re going to be a drummer, you’ve got to listen to this music.” And so he gave me a couple of CDs and was like, “Go in your room and don’t come out until you listen to this.” (Laughs)
MU: Have you used a practice journal? Now or ever?
LS: Totally. Anything that keeps you on track and organised and lets you be your own judge or boss is helpful. But especially in something like music where it takes careful and particular practice methods… So many young musicians – and I’m guilty of this, as well – and even older musicians can be the best players in the world, but if you’re not practising right, it can be pretty detrimental to your habits.
So yeah, a journal is a great way to do it. To say, rather than trying to tackle the macro, “I’m going to tackle it from a micro level and I’m going to spend this week only looking at these 12 bars of music. I’m going to become a master at these bars.” And so you work in chunks and slowly, add it up and quicker than you realise, you have a whole piece of music.
So a practice journal is helpful in that regard. Anything helping you keep on track and making sure you play for 15 minutes a day or whatever it is – whether you’re a professional musician or you’re just starting now.
MU: How do you keep track of your own practice journal?
LS: I’m a big writer in the scores. In the music itself, I’ll make brackets around what I want to learn for this week or what I’m currently focused on. That not only is a demarcation of what I want to do but also, visually, it shows, “I’m only worrying about this so don’t stress about the rest of the big stuff.”
MU: Do you have a typical practice routine?
LS: Any musician, regardless of instrument – it’s important to warm up your hands. Not just the instrument needs to be warmed up, but your body as well because your body is the way you control and manipulate this instrument.
So, number one, stretch out. It might seem silly, but I do a lot of finger stretches and make sure that everything is warmed up and loose and that blood is flowing in the body. And then, the first part of my practice session, I just improvise for a bit. I think going in and trying to sit down and immediately trying to practice something strict not only is not productive, but the most fun of music making is the actual “play” part of it and the improvising.
Anytime I sit down to practice, I give myself 5-10 minutes of improvising and “noodling.” I’ll play some stuff that I love just to get some stuff under my belt and get my hands warmed up and comfortable and improvise. And once I’ve hit a point, I’ll start to transition and dive into what I should be practising on or learning that day.
MU: That’s great that you improvise so much!
LS: Creative play is so important to not just getting a handle on the instrument, but getting invested in it.
MU: What kind of system – or do you have a set system – for when you sit down to compose things?
LS: Well, it 1000% depends on if I have a deadline for something or not! In Chicago, I was fortunate to meet some great people and get started on some projects writing some music for a couple of different web series, an animated TV pilot, radio and commercial music…
In those contexts, with film or TV, music is the last thing to happen because it has to line up and sync and help to set the tone and the mood for the scenes and everything. So since the music is always the last thing to happen, it’s also the thing that’s under the most time-crunch because they just spent all this time editing and now it’s done and close to the time they have to turn it in or publish. But I’m the kind of person who needs a good deadline and works well under pressure. Writing for a web series or a TV pilot, when they say, “Okay, this has to be ready and sent out producers on Tuesday,” then I know I have to be done by then.
Let’s just say, no deadline, “fun” writing – again, to me, it all stems out of improvisation. So whether I sit down at the piano or I sit down at a vibraphone, a marimba, a drumset, whatever – I’ll just kind of play. And maybe out of that, I’ll have one lick or one idea that I really like and I then expand on. But it also depends a lot on the context of the kind of music I’m writing for. If I’m writing for strings, if I’m writing something for a web series or a radio commercial. It’s always all about contextualising it.
MU: How did you find your paid writing opportunities? Did Craigslist come into play?
LS: Not Craigslist, actually! One of my favorite projects I was working on, I met the writer and creator of it through the improv comedy scene in Chicago. We hit it off and she asked if I wanted to be involved in this project and I, of course, leapt to it.
I met another writer and director because we happened to live in the same apartment building – this is actually a great story. I’ve worked on 3 different projects now writing music for him. We used to live in the same building and his car was next to my car in our parking garage and I hit his car one night parking. I left a note with my name and information and we started talking. It came out that he was this actor and director and that I wrote music. I was the pretty stereotypical poor, broke musician. So he was like, “I get it, How about this? You write some music for my show, I’ll consider the car pro bono off of that.” We had a great experience working together and so I ended up working on 2 more shows with him.
You know, it’s funny how serendipitous life can be at times!
Continuing the Work
MU: Tell us more about your doctoral program. What are you currently working on?
LS: I’m in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts at Ohio University which is a very cool program. It’s one of the only ones of its kind in the country in the sense that it is separate from the School of Music. I work and collaborate not just with musicians but with artists, dancers, and filmmakers, writers, poets, et cetera. They really push the interdisciplinary and collaboration which has been something I enjoy – working with other people for something bigger than yourself.
So, it’s a good place and I think it’s a good fit for me. My research, right now, I’m working with some Afro-Judaic communities and their musical practices.
MU: What do you plan to do after you finish your doctoral program?
LS: Always a loaded question! The silliest thing in life you can do is make a plan! Every time I’ve done that, it’s turned out to work the opposite. BUT, something I discovered, even being back in Arizona, is that I really love to teach. At least in ethnomusicology, you can’t teach at the university level without a PhD. So, number one, this would let me teach.
The really cool thing about it is that, even though it’s in academia, it’s still in a fine art and music, so I would still be encouraged and ideally, would continue to play and perform and do this stuff at the same time as teaching and keeping up my research.
MU: What advice would you give aspiring musicians?
LS: Oh my goodness, I feel like I’m an aspiring musician! Like, who am I?
For younger people, I would say really find what aspect of the music you’re passionate about and grab onto it as early as possible. The scariest or worst thing that could happen to a young musician is burning out or feeling disassociated or dispassionate about something. Whether that’s a result of a bad teacher or educator or a lack of focus – or a good mentor, I should say… The quicker and sooner you can really explore the musical universe and find out what you really love, the more successful you’ll be.
I would also really push this idea of working with other people and collaborating and sharing. Learn to play with other people. Learn to play with other people outside your instrument. To me, that’s where the real music happens: when you work with other people to create something bigger than yourself.
Explore your passions. Commit to them and give them their due diligence.
Lior Shragg is currently studying at the School of Interdisciplinary Arts at Ohio University. You can follow on his musical journey by subscribing to his YouTube channel or following him on Instagram.
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