All things percussion: Matthew Henry grows UMSL program’s reputation and repertoire

by | Oct 26, 2016

The associate teaching professor has been expanding the percussive possibilities at his alma mater – and throughout the broader community – for over a decade now.
UMSL Percussion Ensemble

Associate Teaching Professor Matthew Henry encouraged the audience to clap along with the UMSL Percussion Ensemble during Founders Dinner earlier this fall. His students in the Department of Music, including Katie Busby (at left), gain a lot of real-world performance experience as undergraduates. (Photo by August Jennewein)

There’s something about a drum – something that teacher and musician Matthew Henry loves.

“All you have to do is be able to move your hand in some way, and you can make a sound – there’s just this connection,” says the University of Missouri–St. Louis faculty member. “When someone sees a drum just sitting there, there’s a sort of innate human drive that makes them want to hit it.”

A 1999 UMSL graduate himself, Henry has been growing the percussive possibilities at his alma mater for over a decade now. And for the students he teaches and directs – as well as the campus and community audiences who frequently enjoy their performances – it’s having an impact.

“I feel like we get a lot of opportunities here that you wouldn’t get at other schools,” says music education major Katie Busby. “We get a lot of different instruments in the repertoire of what we study here, rather than just marimba, snare drum and timpani, which is kind of the standard. I feel like our knowledge is very inclusive of a lot of different types of drumming.”

Involved in both the UMSL Percussion Ensemble and the pep band, Triton Sound, which is also under Henry’s direction, Busby stays busy applying that knowledge at all sorts of gigs around campus, St. Louis and the surrounding region. Earlier this year, the percussion ensemble was also selected to perform a series of compositions at the 2016 Missouri Music Educators In-Service Workshop/Conference.

“We get to go out and play in the community a lot, and sometimes for university functions – and we even played at a birthday-slash-retirement party last year,” adds Busby, who started taking piano lessons at age 3 and first got into percussion while playing the marimba in her high school marching band. “It’s very real-world ensemble experience.”

Henry got his own start in the world of music – particularly percussion – in his elementary school band.

“It was after they took the trumpet out of my hands and after they took the trombone out of my hands and put me in the back of the room,” the associate teaching professor admits with a laugh.

That early connection to drumming stuck. And these days – whether it’s lectures to 70-some UMSL students coming from all majors or his launching of SpecDrum, an initiative to be housed in .ZACK, a new space funded by the Kranzberg Arts Foundation – he’s using the power of music to bring people together across difference.

“I don’t pull punches in terms of how we’ve been marketed to think a certain way about women, for instance, and people of other cultures, and I think that students really appreciate that,” Henry says of his Pop Music in American Culture class, which is currently underway. “It’s a course where we can sort of talk about anything, because tracing music in history traces culture.

“Music is a reflection of what’s happening in society, and so it’s a really great tool to be able to talk about a lot of different issues. You can talk about drug abuse, you can talk about racism, you can talk about religion, you can talk about misogyny, you can talk about homophobia.”

On the first day of a class, Henry asks, by a show of hands, who listens to music. Inevitably, everyone raises their hands, and the initial common ground is established.

“Now we all have something in common in our lives, and you can reach them,” he says. “And yet ironically, that’s the first thing we cut in high schools and middle schools – the music programs. It’s frustrating, and that’s why I’m trying to do SpecDrum – just trying to get out there and make a difference and have fun at the same time.”

UMSL is one of the only universities in the country with a group performing in the West African drumming style like the Percussion Ensemble did, to exuberant applause, at this fall’s 25th annual Founders Dinner.

“We also perform more western-style percussion pieces, and last semester we had one where there was a fog machine and lights and video projections,” Busby adds. “It was very cool.”

Though she still has about a year left of her studies here at UMSL, Busby is already teaching the front ensemble for the marching band at area high schools. She rehearses with the Francis Howell, Parkway North and Francis Howell North bands on many afternoons after an already busy day on campus.

But she wouldn’t have it any other way – and neither would Henry.

“The biggest thing for me is that our undergraduates get as much professional experience as possible,” he says. “We’ve played at the Muny, the Percussive Arts Society International Convention, Founders Dinner, UMSL Day and many others. That experience out in the world is so important.

“That’s also why I run Triton Sound the way I do. You’re expected to know your part and expected to be able to make people dance. And so if you come to the halftime show at Triton basketball games, you’ll see we go song to song to song. There’s no stopping, no counting off. I play with a lot of professional bands, and that’s how it works.”

The UMSL Experience

Evie Hemphill

Evie Hemphill