Lisa Pegher: Marching to the Beat of Her Own Drum

Percussionist and software engineer Lisa Pegher recalls her first time picking up a pair of drumsticks at her rural public school to playing on some of the world’s biggest stages.

| 15 May 2024 | 02:42

Lisa Pegher credits her early path to a career in music to “divine intervention.”

“Because I really do believe there’s no other real explanation for it because I grew up in a very remote area, not really exposed to a lot of things. I also didn’t grow up with a ton of means,” she said.

Pegher, who now lives in FiDi, was raised in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in a non-musical family. When she was 7, her music teacher noticed her innate talent, but the family didn’t have the money for drums lessons, so he offered to pay for her first drum set and a year of instruction.

“As soon as I got that drum, I was the happiest kid. It was bigger than me at the time and came in this huge plastic case, but I would take it on the bus with me,” she recalled. “We lived out in the country so I would have to walk pretty far with the drum, and I have a scar on my knee from it.”

The then-aspiring solo percussionist, who was the first in her family to earn a college degree, had to forge her own path in the industry, and was able to earn a merit scholarship for a full waiver of tuition for her undergraduate degree in music performance.

“I knew as a kid that I’d have to pay for my own way through college if I wanted to go,” she said. “I thought if I practiced hard enough, there was a chance I could become a famous drummer and my parents would never have to worry again.”

Once in college, she used the prize money she won from a music competition to buy another essential percussion instrument, her first marimba. In her junior year, she won her school’s concerto competition, which led her to start performing with different orchestras around the world for a decade before landing in New York City.

Pegher did the opposite of what most musicians do, and honed her craft first, before coming to play in the Big Apple. “In New York, it’s all about connections and running into the right person at the right time. For me, I was just trying to get to New York,” she said.

In 2012, she moved to Brooklyn and made her on-stage New York debut at the Cell Theatre in Chelsea.

Her foray into studying software engineering and incorporating electronics and coding into her compositions came after she “started to realize that, if I wanted to bring percussion music to the front of the stage and to a larger audience, I wasn’t going to be able to express that in the same traditional ways that had already been done.”

Pegher then began exploring using artificial intelligence in her music, and her show A.I.R.E.– A One-Night Only Musical Journey from Acoustic to A.I. Generated Music,” debuts at the DiMenna Center for Classical Music on West 37th Street on May 17th.

You started playing the drums in elementary school after a teacher noticed your natural talent.

We had a very modest family growing up and I went to public school just like every other kid in the neighborhood. And when I got to the time when students were supposed to try out for music lessons, I tried out and they basically give you all the different instruments. When I got to the drums, the teacher handed me the drumsticks and the test was, he would play rudiments and I was supposed to play them back. He started playing rhythms, which were very difficult, apparently, and I was able to pick up most of them almost immediately.

So the teacher gave me this paper and said, “You have to give this to your mother. Tell her she has to come talk to me at the open house.” So we went to the open house and this teacher came back to my mom and said, “Come to the front of the line, I have to talk to you. You have to have her take drum lessons.” And again, I came from a pretty modest family and my mom was like, “Well, we’re not paying for drum lessons. We don’t have that kind of money.” And the teacher was like, “Just so you know I’m real about this, I will literally pay for her first drum and get her through her first year of lessons.”

Tell us about your first experience playing the drums.

As soon as I started playing, I kind of became obsessed with it, in a way. I started practicing all the time. It’s all I wanted to do. My mom would always be telling me to stop practicing, unlike a lot of other parents who are trying to encourage their kids to do music. My mom was like, “I don’t understand this. I can’t get my kid to stop practicing.”

What was the start of your career like?

I really had to fight my way to every step. I kind of attribute making it to my naivete and also really believing in the dream and having that innocence when you’re a kid. If you only know your dream, you’re going to follow it, so that’s all I knew. There wasn’t anyone around to tell me that I couldn’t do anything, it was mostly just, “How am I going to do it?” People talk about the glass ceiling, but I can tell you firsthand that having to start from a place where you have to figure out each step is really where the problem lies for most people.

You went on to earn a master’s degree in music performance.

I went to Chicago (Northwestern) to do my master’s degree and that was the first time I really realized that it’s the connections that you make in the area that you are that really start to build your network. Now I’m in Chicago and I’m having the realization that if I would have just gone to school in New York City, I probably would have been able to skip a lot of these steps.

How did you get into software engineering?

I got into it as a byproduct of my music. I was trained in classical and jazz, and performed with symphony orchestras, which was my main focus early on. But I’m a person who has a strong aversion towards doing everything the way that it’s been done in the past. In percussion, you either play in a jazz trio, rock band, or symphony orchestra, and then you become a college teacher. And I’m thinking, “That’s not what I want to do.”

Explain how you incorporate A.I. into your music.

A.I-generated music is taking some kind of prompt and generating something musical from that prompt. Somebody can type in “Play me a song in C major.” And the model will play you back its interpretation of something in C major because it has learned what a C major scale is. In the program that I’m doing, we do it differently where the composer has actually mapped out a way for it to listen to what I’m playing as a performer and it will take what I’m playing, hear it, and then it has certain responses that it will play back to me. So in this case, I’m actually playing back and forth with the computer.

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