Rick Morgan, Percussion, has been performing with the Madison Symphony Orchestra since 1979. This Q&A is part of our Home Is Where the Art Is series of artist stories featuring our musicians.

When did you first start playing your musical instrument?           

I first started playing the drums in 5th grade through my school. My parents also started me in private lessons at that time. My father played piano as did his parents so he knew the importance of private lessons. The choice of drums and percussion was easy. I used to play rhythms (or at least make a lot of noise) with my hands or sticks on pans and other things since I was a toddler, according to my mother. She figured she had better channel that productively. When I became a father, my mother bought my kids rhythm kit instruments and said, “This is payback for all your beating on things.” They all ended up playing music, two of them professionally.


How do you prepare for concert rehearsals?

One of the reasons I love Percussion is that we have such a variety of instruments to play. That, however, is one of the challenges. When the Principal Percussionist gets the music he/she must review it for what instruments are needed. Composers are not always clear about what they want. As an example, the composer usually will say a percussion instrument such as “cymbals” or “suspended cymbal” but we have many different types and sizes of cymbals each with their own sound.

Once the Principal figures out the instruments, then he/she assigns the instruments to the specific players. The player (in conjunction with the Principal) will then have to make a judgement as to which cymbal to use for a specific sound that fits the composition and period. That is why we often will have more than one cymbal for a particular piece of music. in addition to the instrument (ex: specific cymbal) that we will play, we need to choose what mallet or stick to strike it with.

We all have different mallets that vary in size, hardness, density, and weight. Sometimes we can’t choose a final mallet until rehearsals and we hear how the sound works with that instrument and mallet with the orchestra in the hall. For some compositions this is very easy and straightforward, but for programs that include such things as the sound effects in the Harry Potter movies, this process takes a lot of time. When each of us has multiple instruments to play like in Harry Potter, we also have to work on location of the instrument, especially if we share an instrument. We may only have one large instrument, like a Tam Tam (gong) that a couple people may have to share so we consider its location so both players can get to it in time. We “choreograph” our movements so we can get around without disturbing the other players and try not to distract from the music.

Then, to prepare to perform, we of course need to learn the parts through pre-rehearsal practicing. As part of that practice, I usually listen to one or more recordings of the piece to better understand how my parts fit into the composition. I may also need to refer to the score to see how the part fits with other instruments and to write in cues.


Describe the things you do to warm up before rehearsal.

Preparing for the rehearsal at the hall is mostly making sure the instruments are ready and all the sticks and instruments are in the correct location. As part of the preparation of the instruments, you may see us tuning the instruments. For drums, this is adjusting the heads to the correct tightness and pitch. The big bass drum takes a lot of care. The heads of the drum are skin. Like any animal’s skin, it can dry out and crack so we must keep it from getting too dry especially under the lights. I suspend a wet sponge inside the drum before the concert to make sure it doesn’t dry out. The skin may also stretch too far to fit the drum, so to store the drum we tighten the head. Before each concert, this needs to be loosened to the desired pitch for the piece. Some snare drums are also skin heads that need extra attention. We make other small adjustments on other instruments if needed.

To warm up, we need to make sure our wrists and arms are stretched and flexible. We will do stretches and play the instruments to get loose.


What is special about playing with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, John DeMain, and performing with your colleagues?

It has been a privilege to play in the MSO all these years under Maestros DeMain and Johnson and watch/hear the orchestra mature and grow. I think one of the differences between the MSO and other full time orchestras is that we come to play together for the love of the music, not just as a job. While there are many players where this is part of the multiple ensembles they put together as a musician, for many of us, this is our avocation and passion and not our primary job. We do it because we love it.

We are fortunate to have a wonderful and dedicated Board and Symphony staff. I am in the unique position to also be on the Symphony Board. Due to my professional non-music expertise, I have been on the Board for a number of years working with the Board and staff. They are all fabulous, hard working and dedicated people. Much of the MSO success goes to their hard work. I also think the community and our patrons have been very special. They are special in their support and in the relationships that we have built together. We are not just coming together as individual players and audience members; we are coming together as a community.


Tell us about what you most love to do outside of your career as a musician.

My other life from a career standpoint is that I am a consultant. I have my own firm that helps utility companies develop programs to help customers with energy efficiency in their homes and businesses. Musically, I have been working with Madison Memorial High School as Director of their Percussion Ensemble since 1996. My family, kids and grand kids are an important part of my life too. Hobbies include photography, backpacking, and handball.