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Chatting with ... Third Coast Percussion

Grammy Award-winning alumni quartet talks music and more.

Third Coast Percussion
From left, Robert Dillon, Sean Connors, David Skidmore and Peter Martin of Third Coast PercussionImage: Saverio Truglia

By Clare Milliken
January 23, 2020
Online Exclusives

Northwestern alumni and faculty were well represented at the 62nd annual Grammy Awards. The all-alumni quartet Third Coast Percussion was nominated for the second time, for best chamber music/small ensemble performance for Perpetulum (the group won the award in the same category in 2017). Here, the four members — Sean Connors ’06 MMus, Robert Dillon ’02, Peter Martin ’04 MMus, ’11 DMA and David Skidmore ’05 — discuss their dream collaborations, the best part of the Grammys and what’s playing in their headphones.  

Do you each play different roles in the group?

Connors: My girlfriend has assigned each of us a title as one of the dwarfs from Snow White. Rob [Dillon] is Sneezy because he always carries around tissues, and Peter [Martin] is Grumpy because he has “resting grumpy face.” Dave [Skidmore] is Sleepy because he falls asleep before everyone else after practice, and I’m Dopey because I’m more likely to do a goofy dance than anyone else in the group.

What’s the best part of attending the Grammys?

Martin: What I remember most from the last time we were at the Grammys was the sense of community you get with all these different artists and musicians who are all operating in a variety of different styles and genres. Whether you’re Beyoncé or Third Coast Percussion, you feel this sense of community from everyone. Everybody has that drive for artistic rigor, and it’s a really special night.

Can you share a “pinch me” moment?

Skidmore: It was soon after we decided to make Third Coast Percussion our full-time job. We were performing, and I just thought, “I can't believe we get to do this,” and at the same time, “I really hope we don’t crash and burn.” Then, at the Grammys, I remember we were all accepting our award and I looked at these three guys and thought, “Wow, I guess it’s good we did this after all.”

Dillon: A few months ago, we had a concert scheduled in Medellín, Colombia, on the university campus. The concert ended up being postponed because of student protests that shut down the campus. We couldn’t get back to our hotel, so we went with our host to a food court in a mall, where we could look out and see the whole city and the mountains around it. We were sitting there talking about what was going to happen next, and I just looked around and thought, “How is this my life?”

What’s the best part of your job?

Dillon: For me, it’s being onstage during a concert and knowing all four of us are in the groove together. The audience is onboard with us, and we’ve gotten to this certain point in the concert where we feel like, alright, everyone’s with us — we’re doing this. There’s something really special about that. It’s one of those rare moments when you’re really living in the moment.

Who would you love to collaborate with in the future?

Connors: It would be really cool to do something with Chris Thile. Yo-Yo Ma would also be amazing to work with.

What’s in your headphones these days?

Skidmore: I listen to a lot of Chicago artists, especially a lot of Chicago hip-hop artists — Noname, Saba, Chance the Rapper. There’s an artist based out of Evanston, Kweku Collins, who I’ve also listened to a lot recently. There’s a lot of great music coming out of Chicago and the Chicago area.

What advice would you give aspiring musicians?

Connors: One, work really hard on your art and your craft. Two, there's plenty of room for excellence. If you are excellent at what you do and you love it and you connect with people who are also doing it, you can make a living. You just have to work hard and put in the time. And then, number three is just probably good advice for anyone — we tell this to ourselves all the time: just be nice. Just be a good person. Treat people well, and people will want to work with you. And you’ll enjoy life more.

How did Northwestern prepare you for your life now?

Skidmore: The Bienen School of Music at Northwestern is excellent and on-par with the greatest conservatories and programs in the world. But the other thing that Northwestern has is just an incredibly diverse range of other classes that you can take. In particular for a group like ours — which is unorthodox and requires the four of us to be holistic thinkers in order to run the business side of our organization as well as being excellent musicians — I think Northwestern is the type of place that can actually help you do that. You're learning not just how to play music really well but how excellence in music fits into the broader context of what it means to be a citizen of the world.

**Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity

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