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Columbia College freshman Hugh Maxey is perfecting his passion for percussion

Growing up as a Christian on the Far South Side of Chicago, Maxey started singing and playing music in the church. Before long, he had fallen in love with percussion.

Hugh Maxey was born with rhythm.

“When I was two years old I started beating on my grandmother’s pots in the kitchen with spoons and forks,” explains Maxey, the 18-year-old percussionist currently studying music performance at Columbia College.

Growing up as a Christian on the Far South Side of Chicago, he started singing and playing music in the church. Before long, he had fallen in love with percussion.

“It was just a feeling,” he says. “When I first got on a drum set, I felt the music within me. I taught myself how to play, and once I got to high school, I learned how to read music, write and play keyboard percussion. It has really been the only thing I’ve been interested in with a passion. Music is my calling in life and I’ve found that people have always been very receptive to me playing.”

Among the most receptive are his mother and grandmother, who are also Maxey’s biggest supporters and those who have invested the most in his art.

“They are always there for me and have never strayed me away from music,” Maxey says. “Once they saw how serious I took music they were willing to do anything. My mom has spent thousands of dollars on musical instruments for me. My grandma even paid for private piano lessons when I was eight. They are just great at always encouraging me and I really appreciate them.”

Encouragement from others has become crucial this past year as COVID-19 forced Maxey to more closely examine his craft.

“Playing music behind a screen makes it much harder to capture the energy of the music and the people around you,” Maxey explains. “For small things like volume, tonation and musicality, it is quite hard. Without COVID you would meet musician friends and go have performances and practices and vibe off of each other. Now things are through a screen and from a distance.”

Despite the current challenges the pandemic has created, Maxey has maintained a positive attitude while finding ways to perfect his artistry.

“The pandemic is making me stronger as a musician because it forces me to listen and it forces musicians as a whole to lock in,” Maxey says. “Things are changing. Now is the time for musicians like myself to stop in place and make a name for ourselves. This is a crucial time period but can be a good time period in the midst of a bad situation. It’s about being able to adapt.”

The young drummer also emphasizes that he now has plenty more time to practice.

With three drum sets at home — two acoustic and one electric — Maxey is able to practice every day. He is trying to stay disciplined and motivated, even as so much of the future remains uncertain.

“Everyone is struggling and nervous wondering what’s next,” Maxey explains. “Now is the time to do anything to bring a smile to someone’s face, and music is one of those things. Music is a language that everybody speaks and understands.”

Maxey has always understood music because his mother exposed him to various genres from a young age.

“My mom is a huge music lover,” Maxey says. “There was always music in my house. When I was little it was mostly gospel and pop, then in high school is when I got into jazz, reggae and Latin music. I like to listen to everything and draw inspiration.”

Among his biggest inspirations are Stevie Wonder, Art Blakey, Buddy Rich, Calvin Rodgers and Eric Moore. Listening and studying musicians Maxey admires, while also putting his own twist on the tunes, is how he plans to advance his musical career moving forward.

“As drummers, we are timekeepers. It’s our job,” Maxey says. “It is also important to remember to be expressive while keeping your timing. As much as instructors and mentors tell you to practice and prepare, you don’t want to lose the fun because it’s all about enjoying and expressing yourself.”

Maxey plans to continue his musical progression and expression by one day teaching music to kids or adults.

“My dream is to teach,” he explains. “I would also love to be a theater musician, to play in the pit and be one of the drummers or to play soundtracks for movies.”

When thinking of what his future holds and the goals he’d like to accomplish, Maxey remains grounded in who he is, where he comes from and what that means for not only himself, but others.

“What drives me with my music and throughout life is first God and then my family,” he says. “Being the only male in my house, I feel that I have an obligation to make an impact. It’s good pressure that keeps me going and makes me realize there is a bigger purpose to all of this. Once you see the impact you have on people, you understand you are not performing in vain. You are doing this for a higher purpose and changing the world.”

Francesca Gattuso is a writer for the Sun-Times marketing department.