Maya Stepansky got her musical start in elementary school playing with her school’s precision drum corps, and got hooked on the physicality and rhythm of the instrument. She took lessons in rock and jazz drumming, and in her senior year of high school, won an opportunity to be the 2017 Grammy Jazz Combo drummer, performing at the 59th Annual Grammy Awards. The following year she toured and recorded with the Brubeck Institute Jazz Quintet on a fellowship, playing the Monterey Jazz Festival, Dizzy’s at Lincoln Center, and internationally in Paraguay at Teatro de las Americas.
Stepansky now plays quite a bit around the East coast with both jazz and more contemporary-style groups and artists, and, through her studies has had the honor of performing in the past with master musicians such Oliver Lake, Dave Liebman, Ambrose Akinmusire, Lauren Sevian, Linda Oh, and on percussion with Andrea Bocelli onJimmy Kimmel Live! She’s excited for a new project where she’ll be playing for indie artist Julien Chang as a part of his band The Deep Green.
Women are underrepresented in the percussion world. Our weekly series, Woman Crush Wednesday (#WCW), aims to recognize, celebrate, and inspire female percussionists of all stripes. Each Wednesday we’ll feature a profile of a drummer, who will share tips, advice, and videos.Want to be featured yourself? Send an email to email@example.com telling us more about you.
What is your city, country, and age?
I grew up in Montclair, New Jersey, and I am 20 years old.
What kind of gear do you use? What’s your setup?
I just invested in a beautiful Gretsch Broadkaster with a 14″ snare, 12″ mounted tom, 14″ floor tom, 16″ floor tom, and a 20″ bass drum. I also use Zildjian and Meinl cymbals and Promark sticks.
What bands/groups do you perform with, if any?
I was the drummer for the Brubeck Fellowship where I spent the 2017-18 season touring and recording with the Brubeck Institute Jazz Quintet. We got to play so many great places—the Monterey Jazz Festival, Dizzy’s at Lincoln Center, even internationally in Paraguay at Teatro de las Americas—which was really thrilling for me.
I now play quite a bit around the East Coast with both jazz and more contemporary-style groups and artists. Some people I have had the honor of playing with include Oliver Lake, Dave Liebman, Ambrose Akinmusire, Lauren Sevian, Linda Oh, and vocalists Mary Stallings, Rene Marie, Carmen Bradford, Jazzmeia Horn, and (on percussion) international singing star Andrea Bocelli on Jimmy Kimmel Live!
I am in a jazz quartet called Voyage with fellow jazz musicians who are in school with me and we’ve been gigging around quite a bit in the NY/NJ/Philly area. I am also excited for a new project where I’ll be playing for up-and-coming indie artist Julien Chang as a part of his band The Deep Green.
What led you to your instrument? What’s your origin story?
I was really fortunate to grow up in a very musical household where I was surrounded by music all of the time. When I was in elementary school in Montclair, I was immediately drawn to our school’s precision drum corps, called Drums Of Thunder. It was intense and super fun—we were only nine- and ten-year-olds, but had great routines and costumes, and got to play at the halftime shows for international sporting events for teams like the Knicks, Nets, Giants, Jets, and 76ers.
The physicality and rhythmic elements of drumming completely drew me in, and I was hooked. After that, I began to teach myself the drum kit basics, and before I knew it, I was jamming with my pianist twin brother in the living room. Soon I began to take actual lessons from a wonderful rock drummer in my area named John Castiglione. As I got older I was introduced to jazz through Melissa Walker’s fantastic program “Jazz House Kids” and eventually began to study with the legendary jazz drummer Billy Drummond, and continued on to study with another iconic drummer, Lewis Nash, at the Brubeck Institute.
Along the way, I’ve been really lucky to get scholarships to some very cool summer festivals and workshops where I’ve gotten mentorship from renowned drummers like Sherrie Maricle, Carl Allen, and Matt Wilson. In my senior year of high school, I won the spot to be the 2017 Grammy Jazz Combo drummer and performed in LA for a week at several of the 59th Annual Grammy Awards events, which was beyond exciting.
All of these experiences, teachers and programs truly shaped my playing and made me the drummer and musician that I am today. I am now a freshman at Princeton University where I am pursuing joint academic and musical studies, and am heavily involved in the jazz program there, directed by award-winning saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa.
Who is your favorite drummer and why?
It’s incredibly hard to pinpoint one drummer, as I have a multiple influences from a variety of genres. I seriously admire Billy Drummond for, among many things, his beautiful touch and his ability to create colorful, artistic textures and soundscapes, and also Lewis Nash for his very special touch, his unique, sharp attack on the drums and his unbreakable lock with the rhythm section and the rest of the band. I also greatly look up to the playing of Brian Blade because I fully resonate with the emotion and feeling that is transferred through his sound whether he’s playing unbelievably delicately or dropping thunderous bombs during a crazy solo. I think of his playing as completely based on a flowing “gut feeling.”
Other drummers that I am heavily influenced by are Mike Mitchell, Justin Brown, Marcus Gilmore, and Tyshawn Sorey, who are doing just crazy and unimaginable forward-thinking things on the drum set, and are completely changing the way I think about and approach the set. Lastly, I look up immensely to Terri Lyne Carrington who I had the good fortune of studying with for five weeks this past summer at Berklee College of Music. I admire how insanely technically skilled she is, and that she has an immense knowledge of a multitude of drumming styles and can basically do anything and everything.
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How do you practice? Do you have a routine?
I usually start with a warm-up of rudiments, and will just play around the kit for a while to get loose. After I warm up, I’ll set a micro goal for myself; whatever I am doing, I’ll start slow and gradually build up speed on the metronome. Once I have accomplished that, I’ll give myself a set amount of time—say, 30 minutes—to play/jam to a song that I’m really digging at the moment. After that, I’ll either end the practice session or move on to another micro goal. I stay focused in my practice sessions, but also give myself room to have fun. Not that practicing can’t be fun, but it’s generally tedious and requires intense focus, so I make a point of taking breaks to just play around the drums.
Are there any specific playing tips or techniques, or advice, exercises, or discoveries you’d like to share with Drum readers?
If you’re having trouble focusing in practice sessions, I think that a great thing to do—this really helped my own playing—is to sit down on the kit and just play for enjoyment. I didn’t become a huge practicer on the set until just a few years ago. The way that I learned my way around the kit was just by playing, playing, and more playing.
At first, that was mostly solo time or jamming with my brother Jeremy at home, and later on in high school, it meant adding a couple of great musician friends to “the band” who loved playing as much as we did. I, of course, think that it is important to have direction in practice and to study the “greats,” but if you’re just starting to get familiar with the drum kit, sit down and see how you work your way around it. And playing along with songs in your earphones can really teach you how to groove and develop great time.
I would also stress the importance of constantly listening. If I am not eating, playing, sleeping, studying, in class, or with friends, you’ll likely find me listening to music. Whether it be jazz, R&B, rock, soul, classical, pop, or folk, as long as it elicits an emotion inside of me, I’ll connect with it. Listening to music will open your mind to the many ways in which you can create with your instrument, and finding the styles and drummers that you like can really help you develop your own individual voice and sound in music.
What’s something you believe about drumming or music that other people think is crazy?
Drums are objectively the best instrument—but I’m not biased or anything.
As artists, the goal post for “success” is always moving. There’s not one “I made it!” point. How do you think about and define success?
I find that when it comes to my career as a drummer, I’ve already reached my “success” of identifying the drums and music as something that I would like to devote my life and career to. Now I am just on this journey towards the mastery of my instrument, with full knowledge that I will always have more to learn. That fact can be daunting at times, but also incredibly exciting and what pushes me to keep striving.
When you sit down to make music and are starting with a blank canvas, what’s your process like?
I’ve only recently started to write my own music, so most of the composing I do is at the drum set in a musical group setting. I find that I can compose most easily when I am playing in a jazz setting where I have the freedom to shape entire solos and add colors and textures to melodies within my orchestration of the music.
When I compose through the drum set, I also often think to myself, “How can I make this music dance?” And in my mind, music that dances does not always just mean the typical “groove” music that you can tap your foot to. It can mean any music that literally or figuratively moves you.
How important is failure in making music/performing?
Failure is insanely important when it comes to performing. Making mistakes forces you to musically learn how to cover up mistakes so that they are no longer mistakes!
Mistakes are also important because they are often the result of risk-taking, which I think is a key aspect to any musician’s development. When you take risks, you push yourself to the next creative level of musical self expression.
Any advice for girls contemplating getting started and making it in this arena?
If you put in the work and have the drive and passion, you can certainly achieve your goals. I think that it’s so important to hold on to all the positive people, supporters, and mentors in your life, and know that there is a whole community of women drummers out there who love this instrument too and are supporting you on your journey.
Where else to find Maya