A Musician's Integrity

It’s a cliche. The Artist with a capital A quits his job to pursue his craft full time. The musician bucks the establishment to start a rock band. The drummer gives up financial security to live a life of freedom and independence and ramen noodle soup.

Except Ted Atkatz isn’t just any drummer, and he didn’t just quit any job.

Ted left his prestigious gig as the principal percussionist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra two years ago to lead his band NYCO full-time. At that level the world of classical music is more competitive than the NFL, the NBA, or MLB. Like the U.S. Supreme Court, you’re appointed for life, so hopefuls basically have to wait for someone to die to get one of the coveted spots. Yet Ted walked away.

His break with the CSO has been written about in everything from Wikipedia to the New York Times. During our three hour conversation it inevitably came up, and it was a natural part of the discussion because that’s just part of his life and experiences, but we talked less about the sensationalism of his decision and more about his life, his integrity and his self-awareness.

Ted started taking drum lessons when he was ten, and like many kids learning an instrument he wanted to be a rock star. He’d listen to Zeppelin and the Doors and Neil Young and would read Modern Drummer.

“My dad would take me to drum lessons, and I would sit in the back seat and I remember reading this interview with Ringo Starr,” he said, “and as I was reading it I was picturing myself giving the interview, and saying ‘when I was little I was sitting in the back seat of my father’s car reading magazines…”

As he grew up he considered more practical professions, like being a psychologist or an attorney, but his skill with and love for percussion led him to Boston College, the New England Conservatory, and eventually to audition for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. When he got the job “it was magical,” he said. “It didn’t dawn on me for three days, and people were congratulating me but it was totally out of body, and three days later I started crying because it just dawned on me. I was like, why am I crying? And then I thought oh, wait a second, this is what you’ve been striving to do for the last ten years of your life.”

Despite the exclusive nature of his position, after awhile he realized it was still a job, one where his life and his schedule and where he lived would be dictated by someone else for the next 30 years. “The thing I wanted to do between age 10 and now is be a rock musician, and at some point I got practical, and that’s why this whole quitting the job thing had to happen. At some point I looked back and thought I was too f-ing practical. When I quit the job I was divorcing myself from being pragmatic.”

At the same time it was a natural progression. For Ted. Ten days after he got the job with the CSO he wrote his first song. “What does that say? When I got the job it’s almost like that was the release so that I could start this other career, which is so f-ed up.”

His mantra is do what you love and the money will come after. “Why would I leave that mantra if that’s what got me here? If anything {quitting} was the most logical thing to do.”

Logical or not, going from a salaried position to an independent career as a musician is a risky move, not just financially but also because of his professional reputation. He’s been teaching percussion at DePaul University and has seen a change in the applicants to the school. “I was getting students from Eastman, from New England Conservatory, and from Julliard, and from Manhattan School of Music, and lately it’s died down because kids go Ted’s not relevant any more.” It’s a shame because he feels like he’s actually a better teacher now, that he’s sharper. At the same time he relates to the underdog since he went to Boston College, which isn’t as well known for its percussion program.

Many of his contemporaries also didn’t understand his decision, thought he must be crazy, and figured he must be making a lot of money with his band to make that kind of leap. For Ted it’s not about the money. “It’s really about risk tolerance, but it’s also about integrity…in terms of my career choice, in terms of what I’ve chosen to do and be, and how much of it is tied to the golden handcuffs.”

This attitude, this willingness to ignore societal norms and follow his passion stems from his parents. “My mother’s a painter and she actually got her masters in painting. My dad was a frustrated violinist, and he was a puppeteer and he did voice-overs for commercials, and he was a writer and he wrote ad copy for books. Now he’s a proofreader.”

But they were also practical and wanted their son to succeed. Ted believes their proudest moment was when he got the job with the CSO, and one of Ted’s proudest moments was when his mom heard the second album and said “you’re a true artist now.”

He was also moved by an early visit to Israel. As a member of the New England Conservatory Youth Orchestra he traveled to the embattled country and stayed in a Kibbutz for four days. His parents’ socialist leanings had prepared him for a communal environment, but he was not as prepared for how naïve he and other Americans were. “I still remember going into their bar, which was basically a bomb shelter, and you go down this ladder, and there’s this 19-year-old kid with about a case of beer and some vodka and we’re sitting around smoking cigarettes and talking, and they’re really excited to meet Americans because we’ve got this opportunity and all they see on TV is about America, and you hear these kids in France talking about the Israeli conflict, and then this African kid says ‘well, you in America, what do you guys know about this?’ And I said ‘Nothing. We know nothing.’”

“Here are these 19 and 20 year old kids talking about not only their experiences, but what they know about the world, and I’m just thinking we are so self-absorbed with capitalism, we’re so tied into it, and by watching TV we accept that as the norm…I think that as I made this decision to leave monetary security it was really nothing. It’s a matter of perspective.”

Ted’s progression from a tuxedoed percussionist in the back of the orchestra to a shaggy haired frontman of a rock band was influenced not only at that Kibbutz, but also when he was in Boston. He would often see a local band and to hear him talk about it is like hearing that kid in all his testosterone-fueled glory. “What I loved about the band was that they’d get like 500 people packed into this bar, and it was mostly chicks, and it was the coolest thing, and I’d just sit there out in the audience and they’d call me up to play cowbell on a Talking Heads tune. So I’d come up and play cowbell and would think ‘this is the best this is the best this is the best how do I join this band,’ and then they asked me to play drums in the band, so I did that and it was awesome. And then at some point we realized the lead singer was a complete asshole so they kicked him out. And I said why don’t I play a couple tunes, I’ll get behind the drums, I’ll play percussion, and until we get another singer, I’ll sing a couple tunes.”

Those contrasts, the classically trained musician and the socially-minded rock star, seem to coexist like a sibling rivalry in NYCO’s music. Even the difference between the live show and the CD is like a belligerent detente between the raw and the polished. “I want it to be like Billy Joel meets Slayer,” Ted said.

The live show achieves that, and is big and aggressive and energetic. The CD is, how shall I say, more palatable to the general ear. I’ve listened to it over and over, not because I have to but because I want to. I love “Hold The Line,” and “Koolaid” has won me over after my initial “huh?” reaction. “Girls Of Summerland” needs to be this year’s summer song. Yet as I listen to those songs, they’re tempered by the realization that when I see NYCO live, they’re going to take on a whole new energy. Basically, I ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

I’m a fan of Ted Atkatz and NYCO not just because of the music, but because he’s believed in himself with the same conviction that earned him a place in Symphony Center’s rarified atmosphere. What’s very telling about him is that when he talked about going to his 20th high school reunion, his barometer of success wasn’t that he was in one of the top orchestras in the world, but that he would be recognized as a rock musician. Being successful “is a vindication of what I chose to do.”

“You’ve gotta be self-aware, and you’ve gotta be realistic, and you’ve gotta say in addition to my natural ability, am I working as hard as I can, am I giving it my all? I think it’s really about accepting what’s on both of those scales, and then determining if there’s enough weight to go after the thing you want to do, and then the love for it.”

It seems contradictory that a musician would have both a pragmatic and also a non-commercial approach to his career, but that is precisely what Ted Atkatz does.

His next step is a move to LA. Not normally considered a practical move, but, once again, for Ted it’s a progression. He’s gone from orchestral percussionist, to band member, to a move on his own halfway across the country. In his last concert (for now) in Chicago, things will come full circle. The Elgin Youth Symphony will be performing with NYCO at Park West on May 18. Ted instructs them, and their director had heard of the Phish show with an orchestra in Vermont and approached Ted with the idea. He thought it was “the best idea I’ve heard.”

As a fan of music in general, young musicians broadly, and artists who believe in themselves specifically, I can’t wait to see this show. Ted, I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but know that after you’ve left, you will be missed.






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