NIU alum Jim Roberts tells percussion students the best instrument is ‘right between your ears’

More than 30 years after he graduated with a Master of Performance degree from the NIU School of Music, Jim Roberts was back on campus for a visit, interacting with NIU students and faculty, and reflecting on how his time here guided his career.

Roberts is an accomplished percussionist, producer, artist and educator who has performed, taught and studied all over the United States and the world.

“To say I’ve been all over the world, well, the world’s a big place,” he said. “I’ve been places.”

Roberts earned his undergraduate degree from East Carolina University in music education. His arrival at NIU came after a slight detour.

“I had gone to Europe to do some Eurail travel around as a young graduate,” Roberts said. “When I was in London, I called my dad to check in, and he said, ‘Rich Holly just got a new job and he wants you to come where he’s at.’ I asked my dad where’s that and he said, ‘Northern Illinois University, and he has an assistantship for you.’ So, I became Rich Holly’s first graduate student.”

Holly had gone to ECU to study under Harold Jones, the chair of the instrumental department in percussion.

“Rich had been at SUNY Potsdam with Jim Petercsak, so he’d already had a great teacher, and he came to ECU to further his education with Harold, and I happened to be there. Rich and I got along great and he must have liked what I did as a student because when he came to NIU he wanted me to come study with him again.”

Walking around campus brought back memories to Roberts, including using the stairwells in the Music Building to record for his electric music class because, “it had a great, long reverb trail, and I’d take a tape machine in there and record sounds to use in pieces.”

He also talked about the influence that NIU professors Al O’Connor and Robert Chappell had on exposing students like him to other forms of percussion.

“Al O’Connor started the first university steelband in the country here at NIU,” Roberts said. “There are hundreds of them now, but it all started with Al. He went down to Trinidad and heard those bands down there and said, ‘we have got to do this.’

“Thanks to Al and Robert Chappell I joined the steelband, and I had no idea what steelband even was,” he said. “That’s when my eyes opened to the fact that there was something besides snare drum, marimba, timpani, multi-percussion and marching percussion. It began my great education that continues to this day.

“It gave me enough information to know where and how to look to follow my interest. I just can’t tell you what Northern did for me as an individual. Very few schools had world music programs, and NIU had three of them. That is why the school has the strength of percussion majors that it has today.”

Though his visit was short, Roberts sat in on rehearsals and lessons and got a chance to talk to a class taught by Greg Beyer, NIU professor and head of Percussion Studies.

“The best instrument you have is right between your ears,” Roberts told the students. “If you can’t hear what’s happening around you, and you can’t notice those things, your tenure as a professional musician is going to be very short. Percussionists do not often get ample rehearsal time. They are an afterthought for a lot of people. They’ll say, ‘hey we could use some percussion come sit in.’ I can’t tell you the number of times that I’ve sat in with a band onstage and not had rehearsal once. I have to be able to know that I’m not in the way and that when I add something that it needed to be added. That’s why the old percussionist saying is, ‘when in doubt, leave it out.’”

Roberts has been on the faculty at Elon University in Elon, NC, since 2007. He also directs the Elon World Percussion Ensemble which he started in 2008.

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