Get to know ASO’s Principal Percussion/Timpani, Sami Butler

8 Nov 2022
  • Musician Spotlight
by Adelaide Symphony Orchestra
Get to know ASO’s Principal Percussion/Timpani, Sami Butler

I knew I’d make a career in music when:
I watched the ASO perform Mahler 7 with Arvo Volmer back in 2011. After that concert I decided I wanted to study music at tertiary level and things played out accordingly from then on.

Your parents Martin and Shirin both played collectively with the Orchestra for more than 50 years, was there any pressure to follow in their footsteps?
Not at all! Since they are string players, there was a lot of pressure for me to play violin when I was younger, but I didn’t like it. After my parents let me stop being a violinist (this took many years), there was a while where I wasn’t too involved with playing music until I started taking things a bit more seriously on percussion when I was around 15 years old. From then on, I slowly found my own way towards wanting to follow in their footsteps without any pressure from them at all, which is the best thing they could have done for me.

What music did you listen to growing up?
The first CDs I owned were mostly 2000s rock/pop bands including The Cat Empire, Coldplay, Wolfmother and Jet. Of course, there were also the ever famous ‘So Fresh’ CDs that fellow 90s kids will be familiar with! My music tastes slowly expanded over time into jazz, fusion and rock music mainly from the 60s – 90s, and by the time I was seriously drawn to classical music I was almost 18.

Who made you practise more, Mum or Dad?
They both usually wanted me to stop playing – their ears are probably still ringing from all the drumming.

How did you feel when you knew you had a principal position with the ASO?
It was incredibly overwhelming and took weeks to really sink in, but I guess I felt an immediate sense of relief as the ‘journey’ of taking auditions was finally over. Reflecting on it now, it was one of the best days of my life! Being Associate Principal really is the dream job for me really as I get to do a bit of everything – I often play tutti percussion but sometimes I lead the percussion section, sometimes I play principal timpani and sometimes I’m the second timpanist when we play pieces that need two players.

What do you love about playing with the orchestra?
All of it. A few things I really enjoy are education programmes and outreach tours to remote communities. Both are an incredibly underrated part of what orchestras do and it’s also where you can so often clearly see that what we do can have a truly profound effect on peoples’ lives.

If I weren’t a professional musician I’d be:
Doing something related to computer science or maths – perhaps a software engineer? Or a maths teacher even? I was actually one year into my maths/comp sci degree before playing music fully took over, but I still tutor maths to a few students and love doing it.

How did you choose percussion and timpani?
Funny story – I wanted to be a drummer when I was young because I wasn’t enjoying playing violin, and I also soon realised my parents wouldn’t be able to nag me about playing out of tune if I picked an instrument that was never in tune. Thanks to some great teachers, over time I learned more percussion instruments besides just drum kit and loved the variety it offers.

Is there anything special about your actual instrument/does it have a name/any quirks?
Being a percussionist and a ‘gearhead’, there’s far too many instruments that I and the ASO own to list out all their features and quirks here, but a special mention must go to my ‘Baroque triangle’ made by Matt Nolan from the UK! It is equally historically informed as it is modern and innovative, and it has scrolls on the ends as well as a customisable selection of rings and zills that creates a fiery, boutique, sizzling sound!

Describe the best thing about being a musician:
Being lucky enough to earn a living doing what I love. I’m also a real night-owl, so I love always being out late at concerts.

What piece of music are you most looking forward to playing in Season 2023 and why? What makes the piece of music so special?
The Rachmaninov piano concertos cycle is going to be massive! All four as well as the ‘Rach-Pag’ performed back-to-back will be one of the highlights of the year for sure. They’re amazing pieces that feature just about everything the piano can do.

Finish this sentence, Music is…
the ultimate artistic medium in which everything known to humankind can be expressed, even the parts of our lives that perhaps words cannot describe. (Did I sound clever??!!)

Who has influenced you most as a musician?
My parents – I have always trusted their musical thoughts and opinions over anything else. My teacher from my Undergraduate, Amanda Grigg, also hugely shaped the way I listen to and think about the music I’m playing.

If you could play a different instrument, which would you choose and why?
Anything but violin!!

Which solo or moment in the timpani orchestral repertoire is your favourite? And why?
Beethoven wrote incredibly for timpani, so it’s hard to go past some of his greatest hits (a-ha!). The transition from the 3rd to 4th movements of his 5th Symphony is one of the most fulfilling moments in orchestral music in my opinion, and it just so happens that the timpani is incredibly important in this section.

My most memorable performance/s with the ASO so far:
There have been lots of great performances so it would be hard to pick just one. One special highlight is Mahler 1 with Christoph König in 2015, which was memorable as it was my first concert with the ASO back when I was a guest musician with the orchestra and still a student at the conservatorium. It was a real eye-opener for me back then.

Name three things people may not know about you?

1. I play on the ASO indoor cricket team on Monday nights. I’m also the team manager i.e, the annoying guy who keeps texting orchestra members about playing next week. When we occasionally win it’s never thanks to me.

2. I can handle high temperatures but high humidity climates absolutely destroy me. I spent two years living in Sydney sleeping with a pedestal fan blowing cold air onto my face and barely made it out alive.

3. I once spelled my own name incorrectly on the NAPLAN ‘Basic Skills Test’ in the third grade (oh, the irony). Having always gone by ‘Sami’ as a child, I had never written out my full name and don’t ask me how, but I really thought it was spelled ‘Samule’. Yikes. Not great for an 8 year old. I’m pretty sure I didn’t pass the actual test either and my teacher and parents certainly were concerned.

What’s your idea of a perfect day in Adelaide? 
It would have to involve waking up to no alarm, grabbing a coffee and a lemon citrus tart by Henley Beach, maybe more food from Plant 4 Bowden later in the day… and then performing with the ASO at night! Followed by after-concert drinks and snacks of course. I’m now realising how much of this involves food.

If you could ask one composer one question what would it be?
Why do you all keep making me count 200+ bars of rests to play one note that will probably sound slightly out of time no matter where I place it?

What’s the weirdest thing in your fridge/pantry?
I have a soft spot for choccy milk, but it’s okay, I’m only 28 years old.

Is there an anything else you would like to share?
Please keep in mind that when the concert finishes and the conductor starts standing the orchestra up section by section, it’s standard procedure to clap and cheer twice as hard for the percussion section.

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