Danny (left) and Beth Gottlieb
Beth Gottlieb on Playing for Disney and Beyond
By Dana Parker
Ever wonder who recorded the catchy marimba part on “Under the Sea” from Disney’s The Little Mermaid?
It was Beth Gottlieb—a super-talented percussionist, avid runner, wife, and mother who has been electrifying crowds with Spirit of Atlanta Drum & Bugle Corps, and has a coveted Drum Corps International trophy in her clutches. She also rocks out alongside her husband, Danny, in Gary Sinise’s Lt. Dan Band, and teaches rhythm and percussion at various schools and camps.
Beth was recruited by Walt Disney Entertainment straight out of college to perform in the Epcot-based Future Corps, became principal percussionist with the Walt Disney World Candlelight Orchestra, and recorded hundreds of film and theme-park tracks for Disney. One of the most versatile percussionists on the scene today, Beth is the author of Masterworks for Mallets, and she has worked with superstars such as Henry Mancini, Tony Bennett, Amy Grant, Natalie Cole, Celine Dion, and Kansas. She is living a percussionist's dream career to this day.
What was your path to a career as a percussionist?
My mom was a piano teacher, so I didn’t want to play piano. We moved around a lot because my dad was in the army. I was a competitive swimmer from third to sixth grade, but I always wanted to play an instrument, and I really wanted to play percussion. But my dad said, “You’re a girl. You can’t play drums.” This was in the '70s. I tried to play violin, but I sounded like a sick animal [laughs]. My sister played the clarinet, so I tried that, as well, and I sounded like a really sick animal. I used to watch orchestras and see the percussionists running around hitting everything, and as I have a very type-A personality, I wanted to play all those instruments. Still my dad said, "No."
Finally, when I was in seventh grade, my dad let me join the band as a percussionist. But he made me choose between swimming and band. When I realized swim practice started at 5:00 am, I chose band. Of course, I walk into band practice, it's all boys, and they were like, “You can’t play drums—you’re a girl!”
Well, I got challenged. But I could read mallet music, I could tune a timpani, and I was a really hard worker. I kept excelling, and six months later, I became first chair in the top band, and by ninth grade, I made the snare line.
Then, when I was attending Griffin High School in Huntsville, Alabama, Drum Corps International Hall of Famer Tom Float was a clinician at our band camp. Tom wanted me to join Drum Corps when I was 16, but my dad said, “No way.” I mean, can you imagine letting your 16-year-old daughter go on tour with a bunch of boys?
Tom finally talked my parents into letting me join when I was 18. Back then, there were hardly any women—especially snare drummers. There were six snare players—four seniors, one sophomore, and I was the only freshman. I used to go home crying because they were so tough on me, but I never let them see me cry. The band directors were also tough, but it made me strong and stand up for myself. I was just a little squirt.
Eventually, you pursued a degree in music.
I was originally going to attend Vanderbilt University and become a doctor. But during my senior year in high school, I made first chair at All-State, and Larry Mathis—a Julliard graduate who studied under Saul Goodman [timpanist for the New York Philharmonic, 1926-1972]—talked me into attending the University of Alabama. They didn’t just give me a full ride, they paid me to attend. I actually graduated from college with money [laughs]. I walked into freshman music theory, though, and I didn’t even know there were three kinds of minor scales. I felt so behind. It was an eye-awakening experience. Even though I was in great middle- and high-school bands, I hadn’t really studied music theory until then. I ended up getting my Master's degree at New York's Eastman School of Music, where I studied with John Beck.
How did Walt Disney Entertainment find you?
In my senior year at college, the band director called me, a saxophone player, and a trumpet player, and sent us to play in a 500-piece All-American band for Epcot's grand opening. It was unbelievable. The next summer, I ended up making the All-American College Marching Band, and I got to work with the group all summer at Epcot. I was planning to get my Master’s at the time, but during a clinic, [jazz vibraphonist] Terry Gibbs called me up to play vibes. One of the head talent bookers from Disney was in the audience, and, after the show, he said Disney was starting a new group called Future Corps, and they were looking for a mallet player. I called John Beck, and told him I got offered a full-time job at Disney, and he said, “Take it!” He reminded me that kind of job is exactly the reason why I was getting my Master's, and I could always finish it up later. So, I left Eastman to work for Disney.
What was it like at Disney?
The '80s were one of the heydays of music for Disney. There were 500 full-time musicians at the company, and I was playing music 18 hours a day and getting paid for it. I would do three to four recording sessions per week and perform at conventions and other gigs. It was unbelievably challenging, but amazing. I didn’t realize how good it was until I looked back, and thought, “Holy smokes!”
For example, with Future Corps, I played this really cool contraption the Epcot engineers designed called the Vibe-mobile. It had vibes, xylophone, and bells. We were playing a press party that Lionel Hampton attended, and I asked him to sign my mallets. He looked at my Vibe-mobile and said, "That's a really cool instrument." Lionel Hampton!
I love Disney, and I'm still an employee. Danny and I go back every year to play the Christmas show with a full orchestra, a choir, and a celebrity narrator.
Which musical experiences most heavily shaped you as a musician?
Even though I went to two great music schools, most of my real-life experiences were at Disney, playing gigs and doing recording sessions. Nobody at school said, “You have to learn to sight read fast.” You go in the studio, and a commercial might have running 16th notes on the xylophone at 180 bpm, and the conductor is like, “One, two, three, go!” You just do it. I did a lot of recording there in the '80s and '90s. Unfortunately, Disney started doing everything overseas—and non-union—in the 2000s. But at least I was there during the glory days.
How did you and Danny get involved with Gary Sinise & the Lt. Dan Band
Gary is an amazing bass player and the most “do-good” guy on the planet. He has built over 75 smart homes for amputees. We met him backstage at Disney’s Candlelit Christmas Show in 2001. He was the guest narrator for the Christmas story, and we were in the band that played between the readings. In 2004, Gary called our house—he must have gotten our number from Disney—and said, “I’m bringing my band to Orlando to play at the Hard Rock, and our drummer can’t make it. Do you guys want to sit in with us?” He ended up hiring us, and we've been in the band ever since. We have played more than 500 concerts on military bases all over the world—from Afghanistan to Kuwait to North and South Korea, all over Europe, and countless bases in America. The whole purpose of the band is “honor, gratitude and rock 'n' roll” for our military and first responders.
It has been a life-changing experience for Danny and I, because we get to play together, travel together, and it’s all for a great cause. There is nothing like playing a concert for 10,000 cheering soldiers. And you see quadruple and triple amputees, as well as those with other severe injuries, and you think about how lucky you are to be healthy and able to play for them. It’s very humbling. CLICK for info on the Gary Sinise Foundation.
WATCH THE LT. DAN BAND!
What are some of your teaching philosophies?
In mallet playing, it’s hard enough to find the notes on the keyboard, so you don't want to worry about the rhythm. I always say if you can place the rhythm perfectly—if it's ingrained in your mind like the alphabet—then you can focus on the notes. Also, one of my favorite things to do is teach non-drummers and non-percussionists about what we do through drum circles. Watching the students laugh and have fun is really neat.
How are you guys handling the world-wide shutdown due to the Coronavirus pandemic?
Having a positive attitude is the only way to survive. We don’t know when this is going to end, and everyone has to find ways to support themselves. For example, one of my sons has a master's degree in percussion, but he's going to school online to get an MBA. Danny had an interview this morning with [bassist] Mark Egan, and he said, “Realistically, you need a dual career right now.”
I've been very frugal, so I’m okay. Through all those years with Disney and my other gigs, I was able to buy Disney stock and I saved a lot of money. All the credit goes to my dad, because he always told me to save every penny I make. I have been extremely lucky.