Music Makers: George Nickson

By Michael Merschel

To the casual observer, George Nickson’s vintage percussion collection might appear to be an obsession.

“I have probably 30-35, snare drums, I think,” he says, running down the list. “Dozens and dozens of cymbals. Probably 25 triangles. Maybe 20 or 30 tambourines.” Plus the xylophones, glockenspiels and marimbas. He owns 10 of those. Each.

But Nickson, who holds the Margie and William H. Seay Principal Percussion Chair of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, says he has a good reason for acquiring each piece: “It’s just a constant pursuit for the absolute right sound.” One snare might be ideal for the toy drum part in Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. Another might provide the military feel necessary for cutting through a big Shostakovich symphony. 

Nickson, who joined the DSO in September 2019, selects the percussion instruments for each performance. He draws on the symphony’s own collection, which includes hundreds of pieces dating to the orchestra’s founding in 1900. He leans on knowledge accumulated by his predecessors, he says, and the insight of his fellow percussionists.

On a given week, he might test 15 triangles. The differences might be subtle to a casual listener – “They all go, ‘Ding!’” he says. But piccolo-heavy score might lead him to one with a lower sound, to avoid clashing in the high range, whereas if he’s playing alongside basses, he might select the opposite.

Sometimes, he’ll present music director Fabio Luisi with multiple options. But at the end of the day, Nickson says, getting to choose from hundreds of sounds for every situation means “we’re just kids in a candy store.” Which is a comfortable place for someone who grew up literally surrounded by drums.

Nickson, 34, was born to a musical family, although it wasn’t classical music. His mother was on the production team for rock acts such as Billy Squier and Eric Clapton. His father, who’d drummed with Pink Floyd and Blondie, ran a music store in New York that studio percussionists frequented. He also performed all over town, and often he brought his son to work. “I would just park myself behind one of the drums, hidden from the audience.”

George was set on becoming a drummer by the time he was seven or eight. His parents made him take piano first, but he credits school band programs in South Florida for exposing him to the music that would make a classical percussionist of him. He didn’t have much use for Mozart, Bach or Haydn – “They had no drums,” he says. But he would gather Mahler symphonies, skip to the last five minutes and listen to them one after the other. “And I just kept thinking, ‘That’s what I want to do. I want to wait until the end of the piece, and be there to put the capstone on everything, and bring it home.’”

Nickson hardly turned his back on all things modern, though. With his wife, violinist Samantha Bennett, he founded ensembleNEWSRQ, which emphasizes contemporary classical music. He’s drawn to that for many reasons, including how composers are reacting to contemporary issues, such as the pandemic.

His own pandemic year changed the way he thinks about his work. Before, he says, he might have considered an orchestra to be simply entertainment. “Then, as the pandemic went on, it started to feel more and more that what we did was essential to people’s daily humanity, or people’s ability to exist in modern society.”

He expects the lessons learned in the past year to lead to a “supercharged” orchestra. He can’t wait. Because he says that musicians love their work. They crave the goosebumps that recall the first time they performed Mahler’s Fifth or Beethoven’s Ninth, “the uncontained energy of what 110 people working toward the same goal can achieve.”

In short, they want the same thing listeners want. “We’re all just chasing that feeling again and again, trying to bring it to the audience and bring them along for the ride.”