Student Navigator Jennifer Woodrum had the opportunity to sit down at the PASIC convention in Indianapolis this past weekend with CMPI Faculty member, Michael Kozakis. Michael serves on the percussion faculty of DePaul University and Carthage College and is a private teacher and drumline coach at two northwest suburban high schools near his home. Michael is an active freelancer in the Chicagoland area and has performed with the Lyric Opera Orchestra, the Grant Park Symphony and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Michael, what have you been up to with the return of live performances?
I enjoyed playing with Ben Folds at Ravinia, which was sort of a pandemic bookend performance. I played with him a week or two before COVID hit in Milwaukee and then last September at Ravinia. Right now, I’m playing Florencia en el Amazonas at Lyric Opera, which actually has some pretty involved percussion parts. My colleagues Doug and Eric have some pretty challenging marimba and steel drum parts. I’m playing many of the toys: bass drum, cymbals and a ship’s whistle, which is played kind of like an accordion. If you don’t push it just right, it can be too short, too long, too soft. I recently played with the Milwaukee Symphony where we performed a program of Latin music including the Three-Cornered Hat by Manuel de Falla and Ravel’s Rhapsodie Espagnole. Coming up is a Harry Potter performance, also with the Milwaukee Symphony. They have a beautiful new hall, so it’s been really fun to be back.
How do you manage your work-life balance of being an active freelancer, teacher, and father?
That’s the million dollar question. I would be lost without iCalendar. Usually, I schedule my playing gigs first each week because those are immovable. I’m very fortunate because a good amount of my teaching is flexible. I schedule the inflexible parts of my teaching on days that I know are not going to conflict, which are usually Mondays. Private lessons then get slotted in since those are one-on-one. My wife is principal bassoon with the Illinois Philharmonic, a full-time general music teacher, and also directs the Schaumburg Children’s Chorus on Sunday evenings. I try to take gigs that don’t conflict with her performing schedule if I can help it. Sometimes it’s not possible, but I really try.
Where did you grow up and how did you end up settling in the Chicagoland area?
I was born in New York and at the age of three, moved to the Dallas/Fort Worth area and I consider that to be where I grew up. Then at 13, we moved to the Chicago suburbs, which is where I live now. I teach drumline and some private lessons at my high school alma mater and have been for twenty years. I started teaching there right out of college and have stayed there because I want to give back to the community that I grew up and live in. I also like to stay involved with a high school community because it helps me understand where my college students are coming from. For example, modes of communication have changed over the years, and they communicate often via Snapchat, Instagram, and text. Once they are in college, I make sure they understand that email is the main form of communication in the business/collegiate world.
Where did you do your college training?
I did my undergraduate double-majoring in Performance and Music Education at Eastman and my Masters at DePaul. I studied with John Beck at Eastman and Ted Atkatz at DePaul. I was one of Ted’s first collegiate students. I wanted to study with him because he had just won a percussion job with the Chicago Symphony, and after studying with John, who was a well-established percussionist, I wanted the chance to study with someone that was just off the audition circuit.
How does your career differ from what you thought it would be when you were in high school?
Everyone assumes that they’ll end up the principal percussionist of a major orchestra, but that title only goes to a small few. I did auditions and got close many times. When I was pursuing my Masters, the CSO held sub-list auditions and I was fortunate to have opportunities to play with them right out of school. I had enough success in the freelance scene in Chicago that the smaller full-time orchestra jobs that are common as a first job became less enticing. Then I got married and my wife had her own career. It just made sense to stay in Chicago. Since I did my undergrad double majoring in education and performance, I always knew I wanted to teach. I truly feel blessed to be able to have a career that features both performing and teaching.
What advice does high school-aged Michael Kozakis have for his future self?
In the words of my teacher John Beck, “There’s a job out there for everyone; it just might not be what you think it is.” Looking back on the early days of my career, I stressed out a lot about when the next gig would come. I tell my students that there are three Ps in life: personality, performance, and politics. You need at least two out of the three to be successful. For almost everyone I know, I can apply this rule to their career. You have to be a nice person and play really well. There’s nothing you can do to change the politics, but you can have a great impact on your future by always being well-prepared and being kind to the people you meet along the way.
What is the most rewarding part about teaching?
I like to watch my students grow as performers and also as individuals. When they reach out with thanks later in life because they are using the skills they’ve learned, it’s very rewarding.
Now for the big question, what are you watching on Netflix?
I just finished watching The Crown. I enjoyed it immensely and highly recommend it if you enjoy historical fiction.
Thank you, Michael for taking the time to hang out with a non-percussionist during this convention. It was really fun getting to chat with you!
Top: Michael Kozakis