“In the pocket” is the only way to describe Principal Percussionist Terry Schonig’s performance with legendary saxophonist Harvey Pittel at the recent California Philharmonic “Symphonic Dances” concert. While Mr. Pittel’s fingers flawlessly flew across the saxophone keys, Mr. Schonig matched him to millisecond perfection on the vibraphone. A dignitary of the drums, Terry Schonig was born in Chicago but moved to California at age 10 and has remained a resident of The Golden State ever since. It was around this time that the young Terry, having just relocated to Redding, started playing snare drum. His family then moved to Sacramento for his father’s work. Though his dad was an engineer, he had played piano in his earlier years with big bands in Chicago and occasionally sat down to tickle the ivories at home, piquing his son’s interest. It was the 1970s, era of progressive rock, funk, and soul, and Terry watched a lot of jazz and pop concerts on TV. “I always gravitated towards the drummers, because they looked like they were having a good time,” he recalls. It just seemed to be the natural progression for him to study music in college, first at Sacramento City College and then moving to Cal State Sacramento, where he received his degree (while also playing with the Sacramento Symphony).
Early in his career with that orchestra, he experienced a seminal moment which put him on the path to becoming a full-time professional musician. While performing Mahler's 8th Symphony (The Symphony of a Thousand), there is a moment when the orchestra and chorus come in together, a moment Terry found “so musically overwhelming,” it was all he could do to perform his part. “I just wanted to stand and listen,” he remembers.
After playing principal percussion with the Sacramento Symphony and teaching at Sacramento City College, Schonig decided to further his musical pursuits by heading south to Los Angeles to earn his Master’s Degree at Cal State Northridge. At the same time, he started in on the “jobbing” scene, as it’s known among musicians in Chicago. Along with playing for orchestras, he also played in rock bands and jazz ensembles, working what is known in the business as “casuals” or “one-nighters.” Such gigs run the gamut from weddings to bar mitzvahs to corporate events and everything in between; Terry was “happy to be there,” paying the bills and enjoying the wide variety of music one gets to perform.
Orchestral percussionists often follow a different path than the other musicians in the orchestra because they play so many more instruments. Everyone else in the orchestra is seated, playing one instrument, but percussionists are “stand-up” musicians, playing a variety of different instruments - timpani, xylophone, snare and bass drums, cymbals, bells, glockenspiels, and hand percussion. In this town, a percussionist needs to own most of these devices as well. And a percussionist needs to have a cartage company - a business which stores all their equipment and will cart it to the gigs, as most percussionists simply don’t have room in their homes for all their instruments (and only a few orchestras own and provide these instruments). Cartage and a mass array of tools are not the only things that distinguish percussionists from the rest of the orchestra. The personnel of the percussion section are always on the move in something that resembles a choreographed dance, going from one apparatus to the next throughout a given piece. The section leader must determine which instruments are called for and who is going to play what, when and where. It’s almost like a highly advanced musical machine shop.
How do percussionists practice and maintain proficiency on all the various percussion instruments? Mr. Schonig says they practice for whichever job is coming up, while also trying to get some daily work-outs on the basics (from xylophone to hand percussion including castanets, snare drum, timpani, and cymbals).
In the SoCal area, Mr. Schonig performs with the Long Beach Symphony Orchestra, the Pacific Symphony, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as musical theater productions and pop concerts. He has also performed on numerous TV and motion picture scores including The Jungle Book, Ice Age 5, Freaky Friday, StarTrek: DS9 The Nagus, Legally Blonde 2, I Know What You Did Last Summer, and Princess Diaries.
Mr. Schonig is also one of the original musicians of the California Philharmonic. Maestro Victor Vener has been described by many of his colleagues as being “very loyal,” consistently inviting his talent to remain with the orchestra. Thus, Terry has performed with the Cal Phil in numerous venues, playing varying repertoire for many years, watching Dr. Vener with amazement. “Victor does such a good job with the audience,” he says of his longtime Maestro and friend. “He knows so much about music and can present that knowledge clearly. The audience really loves it.” Terry also notes the Cal Phil is such “a fun orchestra to play in,” since all the musicians get along so well.
Terry Schonig, together with his musician wife Caryl, are the proud parents of two grown sons, the oldest currently “living the dream” in New York City playing drums for Broadway shows and the younger having recently received his Doctorate in philosophy, teaching film literature in Chicago. Caryl, now semi-retired, not only performed as a pianist but for many years maintained a large roster of award winning piano students. And in their spare time, Caryl and Terry volunteer at The Best Friends Animal Society, walking dogs, socializing with the animals, and giving them much needed TLC. It’s all about being in the groove, which makes Terry Schonig one of the luminaries of the California Philharmonic.