By: Stephen Tompkins
Billy Kaufman sits sprawled out on the windowsill of his Upper Westside apartment with a drum pad between his legs. Looking through his window, a wave of skyscrapers lie in the dark background resembling monsters like Godzilla, who swallow up young musicians who come to New York City with dreams similar to Kaufman’s. He sits calm, as if he doesn’t notice the towering monsters lurking behind him and plays intricate pieces of music from a list of songs on his computer. More often than not he chooses the songs with the funniest titles. He scrolls through his list and settles on a piece called “Grilled Cheese.” His lax approach to his music is ever noticeable. When asked how he wishes to be remembered one day he doesn’t have an answer.
Kaufman, 19, a native of New Milford, CT, came to New York City two years ago to study classical percussion at Mannes. He began playing percussion 12 years ago at home as a means of putting up with his boring surroundings.
“New Milford is really quiet, and there isn’t really much to do there,” Kaufman said. “I started playing drums when I was 11, and I just did it all the time.”
At 16, Kaufman enrolled in classes at Juliard Prep in New York City to prepare for his future as a percussionist. At Juliard the professors helped prepare him for future auditions. Studying in New York at such a young age was a major stepping stone for Kaufman.
“It really helped me out in a way that I think staying in New Milford couldn’t have helped me,” he said. “It was really easy to shine in New Milford. Seeing other kids [in New York City] my age and how good they were really pushed me to become a better percussionist.”
While in Juliard Kaufman sought the highest level of musical performance and decided that it would be either jazz or classical percussion.
“For a while I thought it would be jazz drumming because there are so many amazing jazz drummers. But as I began reading classical repotoire in high school I wanted to find out who the best percussionists were and it was the people that were doing classical music.
After not getting in to college division at Juliard, or Manhattan School of Music, Kaufman decided to study at Mannes, because he wanted to go to school in New York City. Kaufman shared a memory of his 15 minute audition he underwent to be accepted at Mannes.
“I was kind of freaked out because there were five or six people on the jury, and I had to play a couple snare drums pieces, and a couple marimba pieces,” he said. “I remember going up to the snare drum and before I picked up the sticks asking myself ‘Am I really here?'”
Now that Kaufman is in his sophomore year at Mannes, he finds himself facing the city and school’s constant competitive mentality.
“Everybody thinks they are better than you. We all think that we are better than each other.”
The precarious nature of living in such a competitive city has become instilled in Kaufman and is what pushes him to be the best percussionist student.
“In New York you have to be competitive or you are probably going to get kicked out of school,” he said. “That’s just the way it is.”
Although his future is in the hands of future juries, Kaufman is optimistic about his future, and thinks things will pan out.
“I want to live in New York City and be a freelance percussionist,” Kaufman said. “I hope I make enough connections in college to keep me going.”
Back in his apartment, Kaufman gets off the window sill, sets his drum pad down and picks up a beer from a table filled with an array of classical music sheets and says:
“I want to be remembered as a fucking really good percussionst.”