Carlisle Earns DMA While Teaching, Performing
David Carlisle knows how to keep a lot of balls in the air.
Carlisle teaches and performs as a member of the UM Music faculty. He is also Principal Percussionist with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, which carries responsibilities that extend far beyond performing, and he’s recently completed his Doctor of Musical Arts degree at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music. The deep exploration of musical forms he encountered during his degree work reflects an enthusiasm for music that he shares with his UM students.
The teacher becomes a student
“I started the degree a while ago,” said Carlisle, “then when I auditioned for the principal percussion position at the MSO, I had to put the degree on hold because the work at the orchestra was so intense — then we had our two children.”
During the last year, Carlisle returned to and completed work toward his DMA. The DMA is a terminal degree for musicians that emphasizes performance, while the PhD emphasizes research. Carlisle’s lecture recital focused on two works for solo percussion by 20th century Greek composer Iannis Xenakis. His research showed that most performers do not actually play all the notes Xenakis wrote for these complex pieces.
“His works for solo instrument are notoriously impossible to play,” said Carlisle, noting that Xenakis himself had faith that these two pieces for percussion would be playable . . . someday. “While some performers have come close, I didn’t see people come up with the solutions I did.”
“My work was to come up with innovative methods to improve the playability of Psappha and Rebonds,” Carlisle said. “I created about four different methods and demonstrated how a performer could combine those methods in different ways to play all of the music.”
“I used both feet and hands, which is unusual for these pieces.” Since Carlisle plays drumset as well as an array of traditional percussion instruments, he was well-suited to this adaptation.
Carlisle wrote about his innovations for his lecture recital, and performed the pieces themselves to demonstrate his findings and earn his degree. He also produced a video lecture about his work. “Because of Covid-19, I presented my lecture and performance by video,” he said. “I used the same technology I use to teach my UM classes online.”
Performing . . . and organizing performance
In addition to developing new ways to play unplayable music, Carlisle finds other ways to use his solution-oriented mind.
As principal percussionist for MSO, Carlisle does more than perform: he must determine who plays what, decide how many players are needed, make all the assignments, and design the percussion space on stage.
“My goal is to maximize efficiency, eliminating all the obstacles that would interfere with percussionists making music,” he said. This includes drawing a stage plot that maps out all the percussion instruments, measured to ensure that all the musicians and instruments have enough space and are arranged to create a calm efficiency during performance. The less the percussionists have to run around among various instruments, the more they can concentrate on the music.
During a recent appearance at the Orpheum, for example, MSO performed the entire score to the first Harry Potter movie while the movie was playing. Carlisle designed a percussion space that accommodated five percussionists performing on dozens of instruments along fifty feet of stage space.
Percussion is one of the most ancient modes of musical expression; it’s been around for thousands of years in cultures around the world, but until the mid 1800s, it was not fully leveraged in orchestral settings. “Now,” said Carlisle, “the entire back of the orchestra is percussion.”
“Percussion is continually developing because there are so many kinds of music that utilize percussion heavily now,” he added, “so it welcomes new strategies and innovation.”
Drawing on experience to enrich teaching
Carlisle’s interest in finding solutions extends to his teaching, as well. At UM, he teaches several sections of Music 103, or Music Appreciation, and is part of a team of music faculty from the department who are working to reimagine and redesign the course.
“This is about helping students, some of whom do not have a background in music, understand some of music’s building blocks, so that they can listen to any kind of music in a new way, talk about it more precisely, and engage with it on a richer, more informed level.”
Years ago, Carlisle began to appreciate the impact of engaging listeners by building context when he was performing in Canada at the Banff Center for the Arts. “We took a group of eight musicians and went to small towns that didn’t have established music scenes.
“We performed a variety of music genres, and we talked about the music beforehand: things to listen for, or the context or history of a piece,” he said. “We saw how it increased people’s engagement with the music and their enjoyment of it.
“It’s really about breaking down the barrier between audience and musician,” he said, “between audience and music.”
Growing up, Carlisle played with rock and jazz bands, but also performed with the Toronto Youth Symphony Orchestra and studied tabla drumming from India. “My teacher in high school said that if you’re going to play percussion, you need to play Indian drums of some kind, and you need to play African drums of some kind.”
Carlisle studied tabla drumming with Pandit Sharda Sahai and Bob Becker. “The word Pandit is really a title that indicates an extremely high level of musicianship; in fact, Pandit Sharda Sahai is a direct descendent of the person who founded the Benares style of tabla drumming 200 years ago.”
He also learned Ghanaian drumming, and loved it. “When Dr. George Dor established the Ole Miss African Drumming and Dance Ensemble, I was thrilled to be playing that music again.” Carlisle is a regular performer with OMADDE.
The fact that Carlisle enjoys and performs so many different types of music helps him as a teacher, as well.
“I grew up listening to rock, playing rock, playing jazz, and also playing symphony music, so it’s natural for me to make those connections. It’s what I do as a performer, so it’s not a leap to draw connections between different forms of music with my students,” he said.
“Classical music shouldn’t be put behind the glass to look at but not touch,” he reflected. “It’s fruitful to see connections across genres. Presenting music in new ways can allow an audience to connect more closely, and that’s the point.”