PIQUA — Though he’s just 16, Ethan Marsh is already drumming up a name for himself on the youth orchestra scene.
The teen percussionist, who lives in Piqua, spends much of his time being chauffeured by mom Carol to and from dual stints with the Cincinnati Symphony Youth Orchestra (CSYO) and the Springfield Youth Symphony (SYS), and private lessons at Wright State University under percussion director Jerry Noble.
Offstage, Ethan, who plays the gamut of percussive instruments — snare drum, timpani, marimba, xylophone and glockenspiel among them — is a soft-spoken man of few words, but in the orchestral realm, he wields a loud mallet.
“My favorite pieces to play are anything by Shostakovich and Prokofiev,” the home-schooled junior said, adding that his instrument of choice is timpani because, “There are very few pieces where you’re not playing.”
Ethan’s reason for taking up percussion is twofold: his mom wanted him to play an instrument, but moreover, he liked the beat and boom of the instruments he heard in orchestral pieces on the radio.
“It’s really intense,” he said. “You have to really know how to be able to listen to it.”
Ethan comes by his musical talent honestly: his mom plays piano and organ, his maternal grandfather was a music teacher, and his maternal great-grandfather had an orchestra band in the ’30s. In addition, he has an uncle who writes music, and his older brother, Clayton, played violin.
Ethan’s interest in playing percussion led Carol Marsh to contact Christine Roberts, then with St. Patrick School in Troy, to ask if there was a place for Ethan in the school band. “It’s hard for home-schooled students to find a way to play with a group,” Carol explained, “And they need to play with a group to have experience.”
Roberts made room for Ethan in the band, and when she moved on after two years to direct the band at Troy Christian, Ethan followed.
“The repertoire got harder,” he recalled. “But I was able to play more instruments and expand upon that.”
It was Noble, Ethan’s private music teacher, who told him about CSYO, believing the teen had a good chance of getting in. Noble was right, as Ethan has played with the group for several seasons.
CSYO is made up of several groups: the Philharmonic, the Concert Orchestra and the Nouveau Chamber Players. Collectively, the groups comprise more than 200 student musicians representing over 45 schools. Members come from southwestern Ohio, southeast Indiana and northern Kentucky. The Philharmonic — the group Ethan plays with as principal of percussion — has 84 members.
Carol and husband Edward couldn’t be more proud of their son. “To us, it’s a big deal because it’s so hard to get in,” she said. “From what I’ve heard, the audition process is kind of brutal. They do it just like a professional orchestra. It’s a wonderful preparatory orchestra experience.”
Ethan has been through that process three times, since prospective musicians must audition each year. For weeks leading up to the audition, Ethan eats, sleeps and breathes no other music than percussion audition pieces.
“They give you actual excerpts from pieces,” he remembered, noting that one especially “weird” passage “looked like someone had spilled a bottle of ink” on the sheet music because of all the notes dotting the paper.
Because people often forget that the percussion section is the heartbeat of an ensemble, these musicians often are underrated. “People think that because we’re loud, we don’t know how to play music. We don’t play loud because we’re not musical; we play loud because we are,” Ethan said. “There’s a technique to making loud sound good. Also, it’s all about timing.”
Timing, he said, is one of the toughest parts of being a percussionist. “The director of SYS likes to say, ‘Entrances aren’t a race; if you’re first, you don’t win.’ Everyone has to come in together.”
After a performance this past Sunday with CSYO that included such pieces as Debussy’s “La Mer,” Ethan’s next concert will be a Nov. 20 performance with SYS at Southgate Baptist Church in Springfield that will feature works like Khachaturian’s “Sabre Dance.”
When he’s not pounding away at practices and performances, Ethan — in addition to his home-schooling — takes classes through College Credit Plus at Edison State Community College and Wittenberg University. He also enjoys Bible quizzing at Wapakoneta Nazarene Church and he’s an inveterate “Star Wars” buff.
Beyond high school, college is definitely in his plans, followed by a career involving music in some capacity.
“I definitely want to go into college as a music major. I want to do a double major with something in IT,” he said. “And I would love to be a principal timpanist.”
Reach Belinda M. Paschal at firstname.lastname@example.org or (937) 451-3341