Camp faculty profile: Garry Kvistad

  • Kvistad with the 2019 Percussion Institute faculty. From left: Terry Longshore, Keith Aleo, Jeffrey Irvine, Garry Kvistad, and Neil McNulty. Photo courtesy of Keith Aleo.

  • Kvistad as a student at Interlochen Arts Academy.

You don’t need to set foot in a concert hall to hear Garry Kvistad’s music.

Kvistad (IAC/NMC 63-64, IAA 64-67) is the founder of Woodstock Chimes, a company that makes premium-quality windchimes that are precision-tuned to create beautiful melodies when played by the wind. Since 1979, Woodstock has sold thousands of chimes and has appeared on The Today Show, NPR’s All Things Considered, and The Wall Street Journal.

Outside the Woodstock Chimes factory, Kvistad maintains an active schedule as a performer, and is a champion of contemporary percussion music. Kvistad has performed as a member of Steve Reich and Musicians since 1980, and joined NEXUS in 2002. He’s currently in residence at the Bard Conservatory of Music.

Kvistad, a graduate of Interlochen Arts Academy, recently returned to his alma mater to teach at Interlochen Arts Camp’s Interlochen Percussion Institute. Here’s his advice on navigating the music business, balancing dual careers, and following your dreams.

How did you start playing percussion?
I started playing in the fourth grade, following in the footsteps of my brother, Rick, who is also a percussionist. Rick was a camper at Interlochen in the 1960s, and I followed six years later. In my third summer as a high school camper, a recruiter came into our cabin and told us about Interlochen Arts Academy. I said, “That’s what I want to do!” I called my parents, and my dad said, “That’s great!” and my mom started crying.

How did you start building instruments?
Percussionists can’t call a technician up to fix their instruments like a pianist can, because we have hundreds of instruments. So you need to know how to repair your own. I had a fascination with the mechanics of percussion instruments and wanted to learn more about how things are tuned.

I started reading about the music of John Cage and Harry Partch, and how they were using found instruments in their music. I read that they used these instruments so that they could play ancient music, and I wondered what that ancient music sounded like. When I was teaching at Northern Illinois University, I found an acoustician in the physics department who allowed me to take his courses while I was on faculty. I also studied woodworking and metallurgy in the art department so I could learn how to make things. Eventually, I started making xylophone-type instruments out of lawn chairs so I could hear those ancient scales.

What impact has making instruments had on your performance career?
Having a knowledge of the mechanics helps you understand how the instrument works. It can also teach you where to hit it, what mallets to use, and what techniques create a certain tone or feeling. Knowing what those acoustical properties are really makes you hone in and helps you train your ear.

How do you balance careers in business and music?
When you’re performing, you are the performer, and you have to perform. But in business, if you surround yourself with good, trustworthy people, your business can float on its own. I oversee the big picture and am always involved in product development and quality control, but I don’t deal with daily operations. When I’m not wondering what kind of products are needed, I’m able to focus on building instruments and practicing.

What are some pieces of advice you give to your students?
As creative people, we’re great at thinking outside the box. It’s good to learn how to think inside the box a bit: learn how to balance a checkbook or write a contract, the types of things that make us miserable because we can’t do it. A lot of musicians go broke because they don’t understand business or can’t work with a manager.

As cliche as it sounds, follow your passion. If you’re not happy with what you do, you won’t be good at it and it won’t be satisfying. Always be honest and truthful. There’s a lot going on these days that shows what happens when people aren’t truthful.

What do you find rewarding about working with young artists?
It’s humbling for sure. Today’s high school kids are doing what we did after we graduated from college in terms of technique. They’re playing the most incredibly difficult music. They seem to have it in their blood, which is fantastic. It also keeps you honest: When they ask a question, you have to have an answer.

What would you say to someone who is considering coming to Interlochen?
Come! Figure out how to make it work financially. Even though the tuition was lower when I was a student, it was still a lot of money, especially for a family that had three kids in private schools. You don’t need to know what you’re eventually going to do, you need to know what you want to do now and pursue it. It worked for me, and it’s worked for a lot of people since then.

Want to study with Garry? Apply to the Interlochen Percussion Institute.