Asheville Percussion Festival celebrates five years

TAKE FIVE: Allison Miller is one of the many talented teaching artists at this year’s Asheville Percussion Festival. The Brooklyn drummer and composer has played locally as part of backing bands for Ani DiFranco, Brandi Carlile, Natalie Merchant and Erin McKeown and hopes to bring her own group, Boom Tic Boom, to town in the near future. Photo by Shervin Lainez

Five years ago — after five years of planning — local musician River Guerguerian’s dream came true. A week of percussion-based musical collaborations, set in Western North Carolina, was realized with the inaugural Asheville Percussion Festival. The concept remains alive and well, thanks to its enticing annual mix of an artist residency, an intensive program that takes students to the next level and public workshops throughout the weekend of Friday, June 17, to Sunday, June 19, at the Odyssey Community School. The festival culminates with a concert at Diana Wortham Theatre on Saturday, June 18.

“From the beginning, I’ve always tried to keep it within our means,” says Guerguerian, the percussionist and composer for such groups as world jazz trio Free Planet Radio and the global Americana ensemble The Billy Sea. To accomplish that goal, he implemented a sustainable business model that’s maintained affordable costs for participants while attracting professional musicians of consistently high artistic integrity.

In selecting the festival’s teaching artists, Guerguerian looks for talented individuals from diverse backgrounds. He also seeks different types of musical traditions and players with amiable personalities and a willingness to collaborate, both with their fellow professionals and on a more casual level with festival participants. “A lot of the feedback I get is how much [participants] enjoy being around those artists, not just for the stuff they did with their hands,” he says. “A lot of times I request [of] the artists during the weekend festival, even if you just have one workshop, just be around and let people pick your brains about this or that.”

Allison Miller meets all of those requirements. The Brooklyn-based percussionist and composer has toured through Asheville as Ani DiFranco’s drummer a handful of times. She’s also stopped by in that capacity with Brandi Carlile, Natalie Merchant and Erin McKeown. Miller’s own band, Boom Tic Boom, has yet to play locally, but she says she hopes to make the right connections during the festival week and potentially set up a future show.

Miller’s friend and past festival teaching artist Lizz Wright recommended her to Guerguerian, who was mesmerized by the groove Miller wrote for Wright’s song “Freedom.” Wanting to be a part of anything that had Wright’s endorsement, Miller became increasingly sold on the festival the more she read about its ideals. The mixing of artists and styles — Miller is one of only a few featured jazz players — from around the world was also attractive. Sealing the deal was the personal connection forged with Guerguerian during a phone chat, which she greatly appreciated in an age where most people limit themselves to email communications.

“He made it kind of a focal point of the conversation to let me know how much this is about community and collaboration as much as getting superdeep with the music,” Miller says. “I like organizations that are focused on bringing people together to bring the love to the stage.”

The festival’s structure also stood out to her. Miller is involved in a number of music camps each summer, including Jazz Camp West and the Stanford Jazz Workshop, both in California. Where those and similar gatherings often involve teaching all day followed by impromptu public concerts each night, she says the Asheville festival’s allotted daily rehearsal time to bring collaborative compositions to life makes the week more appealing.

True to Guerguerian’s hope for the teaching artists, Miller plans to completely immerse herself in the festival and learn as much as possible from those around her. She especially likes to watch other masters because the love for what they do influences her own classroom methods. For her “Innovative Approach to Drumset for All Styles” workshop on Friday, June 17, Miller says she’s likely to get hands-on and interactive in a hurry, and give the equivalent of a private lesson in the context of a master class.

As for her teaching style, Miller says she’s more of a nurturing educator — like Richard Dreyfuss in Mr. Holland’s Opus — but that she’s the product of an instructor eerily similar to J.K. Simmons’ Fletcher in Whiplash. “Honestly, I haven’t even seen the movie. I’ve only seen snippets of it from other peoples’ screens on the airplane, but when that movie came out, I had about 10 different people call me and say, ‘Hey! They finally made a movie about Walt[er Salb],’ who was my first teacher,” she says. “If that many people called me and said that, I have an idea of what that movie’s about. My first teacher was very strict and hardcore and passionate and completely over the top and sometimes inappropriate. So, that’s where I come from, but I do not teach in that way.”

Along with the infusion of Miller and other first-time participants, the 2016 festival features an expanded wellness track, made possible with a sponsorship from Four Seasons Compassion for Life. Music therapist Lara McKinnis will hold one-on-one guided imagery classes, and both she and industry colleague Emily Keebler are leading separate classes on the therapeutic sides of percussion. Pennsylvania-based artist Bob Miller is down to teach a course on drum facilitating, and a sound meditation class will again be offered, incorporating Tibetan singing bowls, gongs and 22-inch hand pans that Guerguerian likens to “an old-fashioned UFO.”

WHAT: Asheville Percussion Festival
WHERE: Odyssey Community School, 90 Zillicoa St.

WHEN: Friday, June 17 to Sunday, June 19. Tickets range from $20 for individual concert and workshops to $120 for the entire weekend. Full schedule of workshops and concerts at

About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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