Destination Israel … to the beat of his own drum

Destination Israel … to the beat of his own drum

Elliot Beck survived three rounds of tryouts before gaining a coveted position with the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra. (Photo by Terry Johnston)
Elliot Beck survived three rounds of tryouts before gaining a coveted position with the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra. (Photo by Terry Johnston)

Elliot Beck, who will begin his position as the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra’s assistant percussionist and timpanist on Oct. 1, started his musical career not on the drums, but on the violin. Beck said that after starting violin in the first grade, he dropped it several years later when the playing and practicing became more rigorous. His parents wanted him to pick a new instrument, and Beck, who said he “was a stubborn kid,” wanted to pick something that was “a little more rebellious” than classical violin and picked drums at the start of fifth grade. Beck’s percussion career started with practice pads on the dining room table, which he practiced with for a full year before his parents invested in a kit.

Beck’s playing at this point veered away from the classical, and he played “rock music and a little bit of jazz” for a while as well as participated in a student klezmer band at the School of Advanced Jewish Learning (now J-Site). At this point, Beck, who graduated from Community Day School in 2000, said he still didn’t view drums as something he could do for a living and said that if friends and teachers from high school were asked what his eventual job would be, they probably would have said some sort of scientist or doctor, based on his love of science and math.

Beck said that in high school, he discovered the timpani, or kettle drums, which he said “had some of the coolest percussion parts” in the classical music canon. They became his focus, and Beck said that a stint in his senior year of high school with the Pittsburgh Youth Orchestra, as well as previous experiences with the Eastern Pittsburgh Youth Orchestra and the Three Rivers Young Peoples Orchestra, inspired him to want to play the timpani more and hone his skills with it, leading him to enroll in Ithaca College and study both chemistry and music. After his freshman year, though, Beck realized that what he really wanted to focus on was music, and he transferred to the University of Michigan as a music major. He received his master’s from Temple University in Philadelphia and then returned home to Pittsburgh, where he completed Carnegie Mellon’s performance residency program.

The importance of a good percussionist in a musical ensemble can’t be understated, said Beck. “At a really basic level, you’re responsible for the rhythm and the beat of the orchestra.” Each percussionist has “a very individual role” as part of a group that comes with “a lot of responsibility and power.” Beck said that while one may not notice a good percussionist, one will “definitely notice” a bad one, since it can throw everything else off.

Beck said that he had been looking on several websites that listed job openings for various symphonies and in January saw that the Israel Philharmonic was looking for an “all-in-one job” of both assistant percussionist and timpanist and jumped at the chance to apply. He described a rigorous and intensive audition process for the symphony. Beck said that, before a player is even granted an audition with the symphony, he must submit an application detailing his experience, schooling and even teachers he studied under. Then, the audition committee decides “if you meet their criteria” for an audition. “They said yes, and then the actual work began.”

Once given the go ahead for an audition, Beck was given a list of “30 to 40 pieces from the orchestral repertoire,” which he was expected to be able to play for the audition. While daunting, Beck said that many of the pieces were familiar. Despite that, Beck said he was also undergoing auditions with other symphonies, and so he was unable to focus on the preparation until about six weeks prior to the audition itself. He described “seven or eight hours of practicing a day” to prepare.

The audition itself took place over three consecutive days in July. Beck said that the first day, each prospective percussionist took a place behind a screen and played a selection from what he or she had prepared, some solo pieces, others excerpts from orchestral pieces. After each player had tried his or her hand, many were sent home, while others were invited back for the second day of auditions. Only Beck and two others made it to the second round. This time, famed conductor Zubin Mehta was present, and the percussionists played without a screen. Again, selections from orchestral pieces were played, with Mehta making some changes to them as they went along, checking to see how flexible and adaptable the players were. At the end of the phase, only Beck had made it through to the third and final day, although “typically there would be a few people. So it was up to me to either nail it or bomb it.” Beck said that after he was told he would return the next day, he was given a list of pieces to have prepared, many of which had never appeared on the original list. On the last day, Beck performed with the entire orchestra so his interactions with them and with Mehta could be observed. By the evening, after a deliberation by the audition committee, they offered Beck the job.

Beck said that he is “really, really excited” to have a place in this “incredible, world-class” orchestra. Moving to Israel “wasn’t something I planned on,” but he is looking forward to the move. “If you want to be an orchestral musician, you don’t necessarily choose where you get to live. The jobs are so scarce that you have to follow the work,” and Beck feels lucky, both professionally and personally, that work is taking him to the Holy Land.

Masha Shollar is an intern for The Chronicle. She can be reached at