Although Upper West Side resident Markus Rhoten was born and raised in Hanover, Germany, his family hails from the midwest. His parents, who are both musicians (his mother is a pianist and his father is a trumpet player), moved to Germany when his father won a position in the town of Flensburg. Rhoten received his bachelor’s degree in percussion and timpani from Berlin’s College of Arts and joined the Juilliard faculty in 2009; he also teaches at Rutgers. He has played with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra; Berlin Symphony Orchestra; Munich Philharmonic; Opera Orchestra, Zurich; North German Radio Philharmonic; State Opera Orchestra Hanover; and Nationaltheater Mannheim.
When did you first know you wanted to be a musician and how did you come to know it?
My parents are both musicians, therefore I’ve been exposed to music for as long as I can remember. I started taking percussion lessons at age 5, but it wasn’t until I was 13 that I had an experience which would change my life forever. My father, who was the principal trumpet of the North German Radio Philharmonic, was asked to substitute one evening in the Hanover Opera House and took me along to the performance. The ballet that night was Stravinsky’s great Rite of Spring. Dressed in a black suit, I was allowed to sit in between the two timpanists, and the ride began. That was the moment I knew I wanted nothing more than to be the timpanist of a major orchestra.
Who was the teacher or mentor who most inspired you when you were growing up and what did you learn from that person?
Professor David Punto at the College of Arts, Berlin, was definitely the biggest inspiration to me, and is, to this day, an incredibly wise mentor. His passionate approach to timpani and its repertoire taught me to look beyond what’s written in the music as well as what it takes to infuse your musical interpretation with your personality, once you have mastered the instrument itself.
What was the first recording that you remember and what was its significance?
The Rite of Spring conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas and played by the Boston Symphony Orchestra was the first recording I remember hearing. Given the amount of times I listened to that recording, I’m lucky it was a CD and not an LP.
What’s the most embarrassing moment you’ve had as a performer or in your career?
That clearly was the time I played Mahler’s Second Symphony with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under Lorin Maazel. As I lifted my mallets before a loud roll, one of my sticks slipped out of my hand and flew 20 feet into the air. Luckily, it flew straight up and I was able to catch it and immediately continue playing. The choir, which was sitting directly behind me, thought this was extremely amusing. The maestro, however, did not.
If you could have your students visit any place in the world, where would it be, and why?
I would probably recommend that they visit Europe, the home of classical music. The various nations and their rich cultures and traditions vary greatly, even though they all are in close proximity to each other. However, seeing any part of the world and its differences in architecture, arts, foods, or religions is an inspiration to one’s growth as a person and as a musician.
What are your nonmusical interests or hobbies?
I’m a passionate diver. I try to plan two to three trips a year to some remote island. So far my favorite is Palau, Micronesia. Nowhere else have I seen such a plethora of marine life.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
I have never performed the timpani part of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony! And I drive a BMW motorcycle.
How has your teaching changed over the years?
I have come to the conclusion that there is no single way to approach teaching. One person’s musical interpretation of a particular piece will differ from the interpretation of another player, due to the difference in personalities and depth of understanding of the work. Therefore, the personality of a student needs to be considered during the formation of this very important teacher-student relationship. My hope is that my students will have grown as musicians and people as much as instrumentalists. Stepping outside of the school and into the “real world” after formal education is finished can be a frightening feeling at first. Suddenly you have to decide for yourself what the “right” or “wrong” way would be. This is why I search to make a transition from a) leading the student into the right direction to b) merely safeguarding his/her achievements later on—and focusing on developing the expression of the student’s personality and character through the medium of music.
What is your favorite thing about New York City?
The vast numbers of cultures and nationalities in New York City are two of my favorite things about living in Manhattan. Every subway ride is an experience. N.Y.C. gives me the feeling of being at the center of the world.
What book are you reading right now?
I have noticed that the hectic pace of my life and its busy schedule have lately prevented me from actually sitting down and reading a book. Perhaps it’s through the increasing availability of the Internet that I prefer informing myself of current political and economic events throughout the world in The New York Times and The Economist online.
If you weren’t in the career you are in, what would you be doing?
For me, there never was an alternative, so I never really thought about it. I’m grateful that I never had to, either.