It's not drumming, it's percussion

by: ELLEN SPITALERI Alex McDougall of Milwaukie just won a $1,000 scholarship from the Oregon Music Hall of Fame. He plans to make a career  as a percussionist.

There's a big difference between being a drummer and being a percussionist, noted Alex McDougall, and the recent Central Catholic High School graduate knows what he's talking about. The young Milwaukie resident has a boatload of music awards for his percussion skills, and this June he added to them with a $1,000 scholarship from the Oregon Music Hall of Fame.

On June 10, he joined four other recipients of the award as they each played a solo on the huge waterfront Rose Festival stage. McDougall played 'Multiple Episode #3,' by Mario Gaetano; his percussion set included three woodblocks, a snare, two bongos, a conga drum, a low tom-tom, a tambourine and a suspended cymbal.

As for that difference between drummers and percussionists, a lot of people can sit down and play a beat, but, McDougall said, 'percussionists have a lot more depth and they have more of a background of playing with others. There are a lot more intricacies to playing percussion.'

'And it helps to have a background of classical piano,' Cindy McDougall, his mother, added.

While many of his peers will take the summer off before going to college, McDougall will be the percussion counselor at summer camp for the Young Musicians and Artists, Inc. He will also be practicing all summer long for his audition at the University of North Texas College of Music, where he's been accepted as a jazz studies major. There will be three rounds of auditions to determine which of nine big jazz bands McDougall will best fit into.

Early training

McDougall has been taking music lessons since he was five, starting with classical piano training; he also plays acoustic guitar and electric bass. In sixth grade, he began playing percussion, and in the eighth grade, he was selected by Mei-Ann Chen to be one of four percussionists with the Portland Youth Philharmonic (PYP).

'That was the defining experience of my life. Mei-Ann helped all of us see how the sound we produced was blending with everything else,' he said.

At the same time, Gordon Rencher, his instructor and 'life mentor,' was teaching McDougall 'how to be a humble musician and how to apply what I've learned as a musician to other aspects of my life. That has been priceless to me,' he said.

Rencher also taught him about 'how there is no music without a team,' McDougall added, noting that his instructor was a graduate of UNT and is the principal percussionist for the Portland Opera orchestra.

On Rencher's advice, McDougall attended two summer music camps at the university, where he was impressed with the faculty's commitment to music education and their connections to the music industry.

'They know everybody, and they are pursuing their dreams of being active musicians,' he said.


McDougall played with the PYP for three years and then auditioned for, and was accepted into, one of the two jazz orchestras of the Metro Youth Symphony, where conductor Derek Sims helped him 'start a new foundation.'

At the same time, as a direct result of his two UNT music camp experiences, McDougall developed an interest in the freedom of jazz. It seemed a natural fit since he wanted more room to explore the creativity in music, plus he was writing his own.

Looking back, McDougall noted that, 'Mei-Ann taught me how to listen to the music, hearing the details. She also taught me to listen to other people while I'm playing - that has been a big part of my musical development.'

Future plans

McDougall said his major goal now is to graduate from UNT and play music 'in whatever facet of the jazz scene' that he can.

'Music will always be a part of my life, but my dream is to be able to support myself and my family by playing music,' he added.

In his spare time, McDougall performs with his band SYNAPSE (one of his band mates chose the name after taking a biology final exam).

'We were thinking about how we are playing together and the connections that brought us together, and he mentioned how synapses facilitate connections in the brain, and we thought that was a pretty fitting description of the kind of music we play,' he said.

And it's the connection with the audience and the music McDougall most enjoys.

'The best thing is being able to share a moment with one other person or with a group, when you create something beautiful. And it is the humbleness, when I'm playing and see people tapping their feet. It is something like a language; it means different things to different people, and it has drawn me to friends, family and people I don't even know,' he said.

'I am so thankful to have had the kind of teachers where I can bring up questions,' McDougall added. 'I wouldn't be here without teachers who pushed me to answer those questions myself.'