When Pat Petrillo (83) gets a pair of drumsticks in his hands, he goes places.
Over the course of his extensive career as a percussionist and music educator, he has played for and instructed some of the world’s best marching drum corps through Drum Corps International (DCI). He has held down the rhythm section in the pit of numerous Broadway shows. He has collaborated with world-class musicians and backed up some big names in popular music. Through drum seminars, master classes and instructional videos, he has helped improve the playing ability of countless aspiring percussionists around the world.
The amount of passion and energy he has poured into making himself and others better players wouldn’t have been possible without those who first saw potential in him. For Petrillo, he chalks up a good portion of his professional and educational accomplishments to his experience of taking the trip from his home in New Brunswick, New Jersey, to the mountains of Eastern Kentucky to study music at Morehead State University.
Petrillo initially got hooked on music and discovered his rhythmic gifts as a kid. He listened to and played along to The Beatles courtesy of his older brother Jim’s record collection and then started listening to some of his father Frank’s records by Elvis Presley and Tommy Dorsey. He joined the fourth-grade jazz band before his mother, Millie, found a newspaper ad for drum corps. Even though Petrillo admits he “fought it for the longest time,” he ended up joining his first local drum corps at the age of 11. It would turn out be the first of many drum corps Petrillo would join. He played with The Saints from 1974 to 1977, The Garfield Cadets in 1978 and 1979, and The Bridgemen from 1980 to 1983.
“That’s where I learned rudiments and I learned to memorize cadences and street beats, which was pretty easy for me because I grew up with ear training,” he said. “Joining the drum corps, that day was huge.”
As Petrillo was mastering and showcasing with The Garfield Cadets during the summer of his senior year of high school in 1978, his mother ran the souvenir booth and had a chance meeting with former MSU percussion professor Frank Oddis. He was handing out fliers publicizing Morehead State University’s music program and Millie proceeded to brag on her youngest son. Prior to this, Petrillo said he was considering becoming a music educator, attending Trenton State College (now The College of New Jersey) to study jazz drumming or to simply “maximize my gifts and my talents the best I can to make a living.”
After meeting with Oddis, Petrillo wrote him a letter expressing interest in the program. He received a letter from Oddis two days later in response (and one “seemingly every third day” after that). He decided to enroll in the MSU music program in the fall of 1979, but he had to audition first. Up to this point, Petrillo still couldn’t read music and had to play both timpani and vibraphone in the audition. That, along with getting a chance to watch a yearly band clinic held at MSU, gave him a few unfamiliar feelings of fear and doubt in his playing, but an even stronger desire to become a part of it.
“I saw the percussion ensemble at the (clinic) concerts, and I was blown away by Morehead State’s ensembles. That really made me say, ‘(sigh) how are you going to do this?’ I wanted to be in a situation where I’m the worst. I wanted to learn to be like them. I wanted to be in a challenging situation and Morehead State provided that.” -[Pat Petrillo]
Petrillo referring to himself as “the worst” in the program may have been an exaggeration. After some deliberation, Petrillo impressed Oddis enough to be admitted into the program and was given a couple of small scholarships. When he was on campus, he auditioned for the MSU Jazz Vocal Ensemble under the direction of the late music professor Jay Flippin. It was here that he would oftentimes get music anywhere from a week to mere hours before a performance, which later ended up being a circumstance he encountered frequently later in his life.
“Sometimes, you don’t get a lot of prep. Sometimes, it’s the drop of a hat,” Petrillo said. “Jay got me ready for my professional life. Treated me like a professional.”
After earning a bachelor’s degree in music education and a master’s degree in secondary education from MSU, Petrillo’s professional life came to what he called a “fork in the road” shortly after he left Kentucky. He returned to New Jersey and took a job as an assistant band director at Jackson Memorial High School, but his desire to expand his drum set playing also led to him playing jazz drum gigs in the evenings. It also compelled him to enroll as a student at the Drummer’s Collective in New York City, where he honed his technique and became versed in different styles of playing, studio drumming and world rhythms under the tutelage of notable drummers like Peter Erskine and Frank Malabe, among others.
In 1985, he tagged along with one of his teachers and sat in the pit while he played drums for a Broadway production of “A Chorus Line.” Prior to this, the only pit experience Petrillo had was his junior year at MSU playing in the pit for a community theatre group called The Maysville Players. Through his connections and his abilities, he worked his way into becoming a substitute drummer for the production. Petrillo then worked his way up to becoming a faculty member at the Drummer’s Collective while performing in the pit on Broadway for popular productions like “Grease,” “Footloose,” “Newsies” and a national touring production of “Dreamgirls.”
But when he reflects on his time on Broadway, he once again chalks up being able to succeed in that environment partially to his time at MSU.
“My experiences in Morehead got me ready for this. Being under a baton, that’s something you only get in college,” he said. “I learned that being in college on a high level.”
His abilities and professional experience caused him to be in high demand as a touring drummer, leading him to international tours with the likes of R&B legends like Patti LaBelle and Gloria Gaynor, and other notable hit-making artists like Patty Smyth, Glen Burtnik and Deee-lite. He also went on to tour with his own projects, most notably Grooveallegiance and Pat Petrillo’s NYC Big Rhythm Band.
While Petrillo was living out his dream as a professional musician, he also had a desire to pass on the skills he had learned to others on a much wider scale. Through the Drummer’s Collective, Petrillo helped develop one of the first drum instructional videos in 1987 called “Snare Drum Rudiments,” which he said went on to sell hundreds of thousands of copies around the world.
He later went on to create other instructional DVDs like “Hands, Grooves, & Fills” and “Learn to Read Rhythms…Better!” Petrillo has adapted his instructional video teachings to the times, going from VHS to DVD to online streaming by now being a featured drum instructor on the popular YouTube drum educational channel Drumeo.
At this point in his life, much of what Petrillo is doing has led him to go back to the places and inspirations where it all started. Late last year, his NYC Big Rhythm Band traveled to England’s Abbey Road Studios to record an album covering Beatles classics he used to listen play along to as a kid. Back in his home state of New Jersey, he founded the Music Tech Contemporary Music School and the nonprofit Jersey Arts and Music Inc., the parent company of the DCI drum corps Encorps Marching Music Experience, both based in South Brunswick. When he was developing his signature three-tiered, multi-surface practice pad in partnership with Drumeo, the Drumeo P4 Practice Pad, the process of seeking a manufacturer led to his product being produced at 4C Innovations in Morehead, mere miles from his alma mater.
“Just from me Googling something, I came back to Morehead,” he said. “It’s so wild how it’s all come full circle.”
Petrillo always had the capabilities to make something of himself as a musician, but the lessons he learned and the education he received at Morehead State made him emphasize using his skills for more than his own aspirations. In fact, he still makes the occasional trip to MSU, like he did this past fall to conduct seminars and masterclasses for the next generation of successful percussionists.
Whether it’s an instructional video or a school, a practice pad or a drum corps, Petrillo continues to play and perform and is making sure the beat goes on to the next generation. For Petrillo, the many aspects of his successful career in music and education may not have been possible if this skilled and slightly intimidated kid from New Jersey didn’t take a leap of faith coming to MSU.
“It was, for me, life-changing. So many things have come from me being here,” he said. “It gave me the experiences that I needed.”