116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — Tom Mackey’s business still is feeling the effects of the pandemic.
“When COVID hit, all the performing went out the window,” Mackey said. “So anybody who called me up and wanted lessons, I said, ‘Sure, you’re in.’
“So I’m kind of overloaded right now with students. I think I have 54 students right now, which is really a full-time job. It’s a lot.”
Employing masking, distancing and regular hand-washing, Mackey’s students came to his northeast Cedar Rapids home.
The basement is a fully equipped percussion studio with everything from simple snares through full drum kits, timpani and a full complement of xylophones and other mallet instruments.
“I usually have a vibraphone over there, but it’s at the Paramount” Theatre, where he’s rehearsing as Orchestra Iowa’s principal percussionist, Mackey said.
“I perform a lot, I play a lot, I practice down here,” he said.
Along with Orchestra Iowa, he’s also a section percussionist with the Des Moines Symphony. He’s shared stages with local stalwarts such as Kevin B.F. Burt and Alisabeth Von Presley and world-renowned artists Yo-Yo Ma, Branford Marsalis, the Moody Blues and Harry Connick Jr., among others.
Just this year he became an adjunct instructor in Coe College’s music program.
“That’s the nice thing about being self-employed,” he said. “I can kind of determine my own schedule. If I have rehearsals in Des Moines, I will pretty much take the week off from teaching the lessons.
“It’s a balancing act, for sure. That can be an added stress because you’re trying to prepare all your music for concerts, and you’re trying to teach all these students. It gets really busy, but I’d rather be busy than the opposite.”
Music, he continued, “is one of those professions where nothing’s guaranteed. You don’t know when the phone’s going to ring.”
Born in Washington, D.C., Mackey moved to Macomb, Ill., in 1979 to live with an aunt and uncle after the deaths of his parents -- his father in a traffic accident, his mother to a heart attack. He’d already begun serious percussion study in the fifth grade, just like many of his students today.
“My aunt was great,” he said. “She was head of the English department at Western Illinois University. It was a small town, kind of out in the sticks, but it had a lot going on because of the university.
“As a kid I saw Count Basie and Woody Herman and Cheap Trick, the Chicago Symphony, the Atlanta Symphony. A lot of things came to town back in those days.”
Mackey continued his studies, earning his bachelor’s degree in percussion at Illinois Wesleyan University and a master’s degree in percussion performance from the New England Conservatory of Music.
He moved to Cedar Rapids as “a young, poor musician” in 1993.
Owner: Tom Mackey
Address: 3504 Swallow Ct. NE, Cedar Rapids
Phone: (319) 721-0200
While he doesn’t have the music education degree needed to work in public schools, Mackey wanted to teach percussionists like his younger self.
“I was interested in teaching, but not as a band director,” he said. “I was interested in private teaching.”
Mackey’s students typically come to him in the fifth grade, many continuing through high school graduation as he ensure their progress through 30- or 60-minute weekly sessions.
“A lot of teachers teach basically the drum set, the kit and the snare drum,” he said. “I teach what they call total percussion. That includes all the mallet instruments -- marimba, xylophone, bells, vibraphone and also timpani. I try to cover it all, and I think the band teachers like that because that’s what they’re doing at school.”
There are weekly written assignments with tailor-made practice plans, but it’s not all work.
“I try to keep things entertaining, but yet very educational,” he said.
“Music to me is, bottom line, you want to have fun. Percussion should be fun, it should be enjoyable, but they should learn things in the process, too.”
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