Meet The Nanotechnologist Behind The Timpani At The Met

Jun 17, 2017
Originally published on June 17, 2017 1:36 pm

How does a scientist become a principal timpanist at the Met?

Jason Haaheim gets that question all the time. The 38-year-old is a former nanotechnology researcher, with a master's degree in electrical engineering. But four years ago, he made a major life pivot: to play professionally with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.

When Haaheim started auditioning for orchestras — everywhere from Baltimore to Oslo — he experienced failure after failure. (In a blog post on his website, he refers to himself as a "tenacious loser.") But he tells NPR's Melissa Block that his other career gave him an edge in the process.

"The timpani community is very collegial — a lot of us end up in the same bar after the audition," he says. "Of course, there's some of the people who are like, 'I don't know how long I can keep doing this, I don't know how long I can keep this up.' And it was at that point I realized ... I have a major advantage here, which is that I have this other career which gives me sustainability in this. My efforts don't have an expiration date."

The Met was Haaheim's 28th audition; this year, he completed his fourth season there. He says he doesn't miss his scientific work — because he's still thinking in similar ways all the time.

"Science, for me, is ... motivated by fundamental curiosity, seeking outward," he says. "Music and art is this similar curiosity, but it's seeking inward, to try and understand our humanity. And so it just feels more like two different directions on the same axis."

Hear Haaheim's conversation with Melissa Block at the audio link.

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(SOUNDBITE OF METROPOLITAN OPERA ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF RICHARD STRAUSS' "SALOME, OP. 54")

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

How did a scientist become a principal timpanist with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra? Jason Haaheim gets that question all the time. He's a former nanotechnologist with a master's in electrical engineering. He's 38. And four years ago, he made a major life pivot to play professionally with the Met Orchestra.

(SOUNDBITE OF METROPOLITAN OPERA ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF RICHARD STRAUSS' "SALOME, OP. 54")

BLOCK: The Met Orchestra is in its offseason right now. So Jason Haaheim has plenty of time to join us from our studios in New York to talk about his winding career path. Jason, welcome to the program.

JASON HAAHEIM: Thank you, Melissa. It's great to be here.

BLOCK: Jason, why don't you describe the timpani for folks who might be thinking a bit about - which one is that again?

HAAHEIM: (Laughter) Yeah.

BLOCK: Tell me about the timpani.

HAAHEIM: So a lot of times, people - you know, they're like, what do you do? I'm like, I play timpani in the Met Orchestra. And they're, like, huh?

BLOCK: Yeah.

HAAHEIM: Yeah. Yeah. The kettle drums.

BLOCK: Ah (laughter).

HAAHEIM: Oh, the kettle drums. Bum, bum, bum, bum. You know, you think of the...

(SOUNDBITE OF RICHARD STRAUSS'S "ALSO SPRACH ZARATHUSTRA")

HAAHEIM: "2001: Space Odyssey," the "Also Sprach Zarathustra" theme. It's like, yes. Those are the timpani, the big, kettle, copper instruments in the back of the orchestra. I usually have four of them arranged in front of me in sort of a semicircle. And they have pedals on them. And they can get different pitches by changing the tension of the drum head.

BLOCK: So you describe in your blog how you started auditioning for orchestras from everywhere from Baltimore to Oslo. You were auditioning over and over and over and getting nowhere. You call yourself a tenacious loser. And I wonder how you powered through all those failures.

HAAHEIM: I think, for a lot of people - and that's not just in orchestral music - but a lot of people in performing arts, acting, just anything like this. You start off with a desire to do this thing, this passion about some sort of art form. And yet you're not skilled enough. Your craft does not evolve to the point you would be able to do it. So I think a defining experience for a lot of people who get into these creative fields is you have to really embrace failure. Frame it as constructive growth and be interested in that.

BLOCK: Were there a lot of moments when you just wanted to give up just to say, you know, I've had my run? I've tried and tried and it's not working. I'm going to stay in science.

HAAHEIM: You know, I saw a lot of people around me in the audition circuit racked by that question. You know, basically, a lot of times, like, the tympani community - it's very collegial, you know?

BLOCK: Yeah.

HAAHEIM: And a lot of us end up at the same bar after the audition.

(LAUGHTER)

HAAHEIM: And, you know...

BLOCK: Two timpanists walked into a bar.

HAAHEIM: Yeah, totally. No - or, like, 17, you know?

BLOCK: Yeah (laughter).

HAAHEIM: And at that party afterwards, of course, there's some of the people who are like, oh, man. Like, I don't know how long I can keep doing this. I don't know how long I can keep this up. And it was kind of at that point I realized, oh, man. I have a major advantage here, which is that I have this other career which gives me sustainability in this. My efforts don't have an expiration date.

BLOCK: So when you're playing with an opera orchestra, as you are with the Met Orchestra, what's the role that you see of yourself as the timpanist in conveying the dramatic action onstage?

HAAHEIM: Yeah. It's a great question because a lot of times, as timpanists, we're sort of taught by teachers and mentors to - you know, your playing should be expressive. And it should tell a story. And, you know, in works - symphonic works by Beethoven or Brahms or something - you know, you're playing should definitely be expressive. But in opera, you're telling a very specific story. No matter how you play it, a comedy like "L'elisir D'amore" by Donizetti is still going to be a comedy. And something like "Parsifal" by Wagner is still going to be a intense drama. (Laughter) And that's sort of the dramatic world you're in. And so in the instance of two examples that I was working with - both by Puccini - "La Boheme" and "Tosca," the printed timpani parts as written show an E natural fortissimo roll.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUM ROLL)

HAAHEIM: And if I didn't really know what the story was, it could be easy to just play them basically the same. But these moments are dramatically different in terms of what's happening in the story.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUM ROLL)

HAAHEIM: In the first instance...

BLOCK: In "La Boheme"...

HAAHEIM: In "La Boheme," the character Marcello is redeclaring his love for his ex-girlfriend Musetta.

(SOUNDBITE OF METROPOLITAN OPERA ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF GIACOMO PUCCINI'S "LA BOHEME")

ALESSIO ARDUINI: (As Marcello, singing in Italian).

HAAHEIM: And in the second instance, Tosca, the heroine of the story, finally gets her chance to stab in the heart the villain Scarpia.

(SOUNDBITE OF METROPOLITAN OPERA ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF GIACOMO PUCCINI'S "TOSCA")

GEORGE GAGNIDZE: (As Scarpia, singing in Italian).

BLOCK: And that's you conveying that through the timpani.

HAAHEIM: I am the stab. I am the knife.

BLOCK: What do you think the points of intersection are for you, Jason, between your science brain and your music brain? Where do they merge?

HAAHEIM: Almost completely (laughter).

BLOCK: Oh, yeah?

HAAHEIM: I was actually - I just - in a way, the question of, like - do I miss science? - is one I get a lot, too. And, you know, my basic answer is no because I'm still doing so much of that. I kind of get to scratch that itch through, you know, this extensive analysis of opera scores. I do a lot of work with timpani mallets and design - and kind of making those for myself, getting data about them.

And, you know, science for me is this kind of concept of - it's motivated by fundamental curiosity, seeking outward, whereas music and art is kind of this similar curiosity. But it's seeking inward. It's kind of trying to understand our humanity. And so it just feels more like two different directions on the same axis.

BLOCK: Jason Haaheim is principal timpanist with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in New York. Jason, thanks so much for being with us.

HAAHEIM: Melissa, it was my pleasure. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.