Percussionist & Composer

Chris Marshall

Cardiff born Chris Marshall graduated from Trinity College of Music with a BMus(hons) degree in 2003. Since then he has travelled extensively performing and composing internationally. Performing credits include the BBC symphony Orchestra, English National Ballet, London Mozart Players, The Royal Shakespeare Company and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Chris has also worked on many productions in London's Westend and International touring show, these include; We Will Rock You, Wizard of Oz, Zorro, West Side Story, Evita, and Elf the Musical. Chris has a passion for playing instruments from all around the world, and it has resulted in seeing him perform on recording sessions for TV and film. He also performs as part of C2 duet with his wife, and former Official Harpist to HRH Prince Charles - Claire Jones. This unique duo has travelled extensively throughout the UK and in the USA. Chris balances his performance schedule with a flourishing career as a composer and arranger. His growing portfolio of compositions, includes the music for Heartstrings which was recorded for Classic FM/Decca in 2012 and was featured on Claire Jones’ album - Girl With The Golden Harp which reached number 3 in the classical charts. Recently, Chris has composed Bluestone and arranged many tracks on Claire’s latest chart topping album Journey. In addition, Chris has composed music for TV adverts including a track for Clogau, shown internationally, and for ‘Fishermans Friends’ currently shown in the USA. At the moment, he is working on his first film and TV series with Capture Studios in the USA along-side producing and arranging a new album with the Portuguese singer, Yolanda Soares.

Why did you take up percussion and how old were you?

 

So my Dad was a drummer as a hobby so i grew up around live music, but the reason i started learning Percussion was because my school music teacher told me i had two days to learn to play the xylophone for the school orchestra! I did it and was hooked so started lessons. I was quite late starting at age 14. 

Who was your first teacher and where did you start?

 

My first teacher was Adrian Evans who was the peripatetic teacher in my school in Cardiff. We started on the xylo as i mentioned but then it was drum kit plus percussion. 

What instruments/resources did you have? 

I was lucky, the school had a xylo, glock, timps and a kit - everything to get going on!

  

Do you have any advice for young percussionists during this stage of education? 

 

Firstly i never did a grade exam, my first exam was my degree at music collage. I covered a lot of the syllabus though. I would recommend taking grades as it gives a good structure to your education however keep in mind that passing exams is only one part of the journey. My advice to players at this age is, be a sponge! Take everything in, learn as much as you can from wherever you can. As well as lots of amazing teachers, courses and classes out there you have the internet, which is an amazing resource. By the time i was 16 i was going to my local music centre 5 nights a week. I was in the wind band, brass band, jazz group and a few of the orchestras - it was amazing and i couldn’t get enough. 

With your knowledge and experience, what performance opportunities would you suggest young percussionists to engage with? 

 

I can’t stress enough the importance of playing in groups with other musicians whatever they play. You will learn so much about music and also your own playing. Join as many things as you can - you won’t regret it! 

At what point did you decide this was the profession for you? 

 

I can remember a really big turning point. I was on stage at St David’s Hall, Cardiff playing Timpani with the youth Orchestra. We got to the final chords and i had a great big Timp roll - it felt like i had electricity going through my body. It was then i realised if this is what performing does to you, count me in!! 

After school, where did you continue your studies and who did you learn with?

 

I moved to London and studied Percussion at Trinity College of Music. There were a team of teachers but Head of Department was Kevin Nutty for Percussion and John Chimes for Timps ( this changed to Paul Turner for the last two years). These guys changed my life in terms of music and my approach to it. Also i met a teacher called Dawson Miller who taught world percussion which really became a passion of mine.

 

Why did you decide this pathway? (Were there others available?) 

 

At the time i had my mind pretty set on a classical percussion career. This path seemed the obvious choice for me. There are lots of different courses available now which weren’t available then. Do your research and find out what each course is about. Look at the teachers and find out what they are known for etc. 

There is somewhere to suit everyone...

What was your first ever professional engagement, what was it like and how did you get it?

 

It was English National Ballet performing Coppelia. It was in the Mayflower theatre in Southampton. 

I had the call the day before from Kevin my teacher. He was Principle percussionist at the time. I didn’t know that Ballet and as it was the night before all i could do was borrow a dvd from the collage library and watch it to get a feel of the music. I travelled down the next day not knowing what i would be playing but the section were lovely and put me at ease. I think i played bass drum and some suspended cymbal, nothing too hard but basically sight read the entire gig. I must have done ok as i played on and off for the ballet for the next few years! 

 

What happened next?

 

I played a bit more for the ballet in my last year of collage and also started depping for Dawson Miller at a production for the Royal Shakespeare Company playing middle eastern drums. I then got some extra work with BBC Symphony but this all lead me to where i wanted to be, the West End theatre shows. My first show to dep on was We Will Rock You. It was great fun and I ended up doing it for 6 years. 

You were the Principal Percussionist for the West End show Big The Musical, what was this like?

 

Big was a great show with a beautiful score. The musical supervisor did all new arrangements and orchestrations and basically wrote the part with me in mind. I had about 50 instruments on the set up and it consisted on many styles of playing from fast big band xylophone, classical opera timps, funky congas and electronic drums/pads. It was a challenging play which was pretty non-stop. It was also great to be part of a great large band with 16 players in the bit.!

Were there any challenges?

 

The set up took a lot of working out. 50 instruments is great fun but you need to be able to play everything easily in a small space. I ended up using scaffold as starting point as a giant rack so i could instruments up higher rather than occupying the same floor space. As a general rule Westend percussion chairs are more about logistics - working out where you need to be, with the right sticks and the right page of music open! Rather than difficult notes ( although they are there too! ) 

 

What would your advice be to a young percussionist aiming for a career in musical theatre?

 

Firstly do as many shows you can, amateur dramatics, school shows, church shows etc. You will start building your repertoire and also learn how the genre works. Secondly - learning how to cope with multiple instrument set ups. Its an extra skill you don’t always think to practice on. A lot of my learning of multi set ups came from playing in Brass Bands. It was a great training ground for me. Thirdly - when you are at the stage you may be eligible to play in big theatre shows contact the the show or the players and ask if you can “sit in”. Which is watching the player perform the show. You can learn a lot and ask questions. I know it sounds silly but be nice! You be surprised  that some players come in with a pushy attitude and the only thing this will achieve is that people will definitely not book you.

You have performed with many orchestras, ensembles and theatre productions, what do you enjoy about the ‘portfolio career’ of a percussionist?

 

I think if you put Music at the top of your thought process you can play in any situation. I’ve always enjoyed music of many different genres and i think it makes you better as a player to have influences from a broad spectrum of styles. 

You've also played for many recording sessions and TV broadcasts, what's this like and is it different to performing live?

 

There is definitely a different mentality when it comes to recording. Firstly you are often seeing the music for the first time and have little time to work everything out ( sight reading is essential!). You also play in a different way. The best way i can describe it is safer.... you want to be able to do the job for the producer and keep the session going. As a percussionist you also get sessions where its just you on your own doing multiple layers. This can happen after the rest of the ensemble has gone home. I’ve always found these session to be a bit more creative with producers and arrangers asking you for ideas and your input. So have ideas, try to be useful! A couple of other tips for session playing are; 

 

Make sure your gear is in good condition- a rattle on the vibraphone or a badly tuned drum can waste time in a session and nobody wants that.

 

Eat well! I know it sounds funny but a recording session can be very mentally draining. Eating and drinking healthly can keep you more alert and less likely to make mistakes

 

Lastly, do your home work. When you get booked, ask to see any music that maybe finished and learn it. Are there computer mock ups you can listen to?

 

Maybe have a chat with the producer before hand to get a vibe of what they want. Sometimes you don’t get any of this and you just have to turn up. I once had a session and the only information i had was the times, studio address and bring a xylophone and bongos. It ended up being 6 hr session cartoon music which was some of the hardest stuff i’ve seen. Luckily the sight reading gods were with me that day!!! 

You are also an established composer, how and when did you start composing?

 

I’ve always had an interest in composing since school. However when i got to music collage i chose to do an elective in Arranging and musical direction. It was a game changer for me and i started arranging a lot for different people and earning money out of it. Later on when i met my wife we started a percussion and harp duet which of course had very limited repertoire. I wrote a set of dances that we premiered at a festival and i had a great reaction from the audience which gave me more confidence to write more. Later on i was asked to write all the arrangements for my wife’s album with Classic FM/Decca and i also included an original composition which got used on an advert for Jewellery company. I’m loving my writing and the outlet it gives me.

Does composition compliment your performing career?

Totally! They are often intertwined- weather performing my own double concerto or using my percussion knowledge to inspire my writing! Also the study of orchestration makes you think about frequencies and space which is great for Percussion playing and finding your space.... 

What is your career highlight so far?

 

Its really hard to narrow it down but i would say performing my double concerto with my wife as the other soloist with an orchestra in the US and a wonderful friend conducting. Ye that was pretty special

What is the best thing about being a musician?

Doing what we love, working with like minded people and the opportunity to be creative. 

What would your 'Top Three Tips' be for a young percussionist thinking about a career in music?

 

1. Learn as much as you can from where ever you can

2. Be as nice and helpful as you can, as you never know who will be the person who helps you on the next part of your journey.

3. Enjoy your journey! 

 

Any last thoughts?

 

Remember everything thing you do adds to you as a player. The Top Session players all did other things on their journey. Do as much as you can and become the best you can be. 

Thanks Chris! 

If you would like to find out more about Chris, check out his website:

 marshallmusic.co.uk

Social Media:

Insta: @marshallcomposer

FB: @chrismarshallcomposer