Alumni Profile: Percussionist Marcelina Suchocka
December 12, 2017, Janet Fagan
“Marcelina attitude” is what this From the Top alum had from at an early age. Her full name is Marcelina Suchocka and she was born in Bialystok, Poland.
“My mom was a pianist. She played with the philharmonic of Bialystok and taught piano in their school. After I was born, she went right back to work. I have memories of being in the hallway waiting for her lessons to finish. I saw people moving very large percussion instruments around and I thought, ‘Wow! There are so many different kinds!’”
Marcelina marveled over the timpani, snare drums, marimba, and the beautiful xylophone.
Both of the principal percussionists in her hometown orchestra happened to be women. So, Marcelina presumed that playing percussion “was a girl thing,” and decided early on that this was for her. However, her mother, the pianist, thought differently.
When Marcelina was six, her mother urged her to take up the cello – something standard and easy to work with. She set up Marcelina’s first cello lesson with the orchestra’s principal cellist. He was happy to oblige because he had planned to give a teaching demonstration for his pedagogy students, and would use Marcelina as an example.
At the arranged time, Marcelina’s mom brought her to the cellist so she could learn as his older students watched.
“When he handed me the cello, I immediately told him – with my Marcelina attitude – that there was no way I was going to play that cello. ‘I’m playing the drums!’ I declared and proceeded to walk out. My poor mother was mortified, but from that day on she got the message and set me up for several lessons with the female percussionist of the orchestra.”
For Marcelina, beginning to study percussion “just felt so natural – like I was meant to do this.”
A big move
Marcelina’s parents were planning a big move: immigrating to the United States. They wanted a better life with more opportunities for Marcelina and her sister, and their grandmother was already in Chicago. Marcelina was eight years old when they arrived and she adjusted easily. “I learned English in two or three months. My brain is a sponge for learning languages,” she explained.
Marcelina entered third grade in a local public school. At the start of the year, fliers were passed out about an organization called the Percussion Scholarship Program which offers intensive individual weekly percussion instruction on a full scholarship basis. Participating students are selected through a rigorous application and personal interview process.
Marcelina and her parents realized this was a big deal, but by the time they found out, the deadline had passed. As Marcelina explains, they begged the teachers to let her give it a go and finally they agreed. “It was my mom’s perseverance that got me in.”
“This program was life-changing for me. And I owe everything to my two teachers – Patsy Dash, who was one of the first female percussionists in a major orchestra and is a percussionist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and her husband Douglas Waddell.”
Waddell is a percussionist with the Lyric Opera of Chicago. As part of the program, Marcelina was able to play a wide array of instruments. “They actually give you music, sticks, drum pads, mallets, and a marimba to use at home. All of this was loaned to me up through my last year of high school,” she explained.
Receiving the Jack Kent Cooke Young Artist Award and performing on From the Top
Marcelina received From the Top’s Jack Kent Cooke Young Artist Award at a crucial time: when she was a 17-year-old senior ready to move on to conservatory.
“I cried when I first found out because I was so grateful. With the funds from the scholarship, I bought everything I would need in college: a xylophone, bells, mallets, cymbals, triangles, snare drums, tambourines, and even cases for everything! I brought home two enormous boxes and my mom was literally in tears because it was a huge financial help to us as immigrants.”
Marcelina first appeared as a member of The Percussion Scholarship Group on From the Top with Host Christopher O’Riley Show 206, recorded in Dallas, Texas in 2009.
Since then, she has performed on the show three more times. She performed as a member of The Percussion Scholarship Group Marimba Duo with John Ringor on Show 220, recorded in Davenport, Iowa in 2010, when she was also awarded the Jack Kent Cooke Young Artist Scholarship.
She then appeared as a soloist and chamber musician on Show 231, recorded in New York City in 2011; and most recently as a soloist and member of the Excelsis Percussion Ensemble on Show 296, recorded in Washington, DC in 2014.
“From the Top has been like a second family to me. Everyone has been so supportive. Even though I thought of myself as a kid, they always treated me as if I were a professional. They really appreciate young talent. The folks there really inspired me to keep going. I loved working with Christopher O’Riley as well as the other kids on the show who were all so talented. I’m still friends with them now.”
Studying at Manhattan School of Music
Marcelina went on to study percussion at the Manhattan School of Music (MSM) on a full scholarship. Her teachers were Christopher Lamb of the New York Philharmonic and Duncan Patton of the Metropolitan Opera.
“It was amazing to go to school on a full ride. My parents wanted me to go to the best school possible. We definitely wouldn’t have been able to pay and honestly this was a dream come true.
As the child of immigrants, you have this feeling that you owe it to your parents to succeed. I know that other immigrant kids feel the same. We feel we have more pressure on us to make it. My parents brought me here for a reason and so I know I need to realize my goals.”
Starting Excelsis – Marcelina’s all-female percussion ensemble
“We formed our group in 2014,” Marcelina explained. One of the members, Mariana Ramirez, kept seeing predominantly male groups. She got the idea to form an ensemble of female percussionists.
“When we began we took the name ‘Excelsis,’ which comes from the root Excelsior, the Latin word meaning to go higher or to be better. We want to constantly improve as an ensemble, and we want the music world to do a better job of giving a voice to women and minorities. Mariana contacted each of us and we agreed to join the group. Our first performance was at the NYC Day of Percussion. The performance was a success! We sparked an interest out there for our female percussion quartet. People wanted to see what we would do next. Now we rehearse a few times a month and perform as often as we can.”
What Comes Next?
Marcelina, now 24, is completing her Master’s Degree in percussion at MSM and is applying for orchestral positions and fellowships. This involves a long process involving recordings, live auditions, and interviews.
“It’s a big deal. In fact, I am submitting one application today! It might sound corny, but I love playing music and I’d love to be a principal percussionist or timpanist in a major orchestra. I want to put another female in that position. That would be my ultimate goal.”
In addition, Marcelina would love to work and teach in a conservatory.
“I want to be an educator and shape young minds to think differently and innovatively in a way that comes from my personal experiences as a woman. I want to continue doing everything! I’ve been lucky to be surrounded by greatness and I have plenty of inspiration to keep me going.”
Check out Excelsis here: https://www.excelsispercussion.com/