BBC National Orchestra of Wales - Principal Percussionist
Chris studied at the Royal College of Music and at the age of 21 was offered the post of Sub-Principal Percussion in the BBC Welsh Symphony (now BBC National Orchestra of Wales). Four years later he was offered the Principal post in the orchestra. He has remained in this role for over 30 years. During his time with the orchestra he has worked with many of the top orchestras in Great Britain including Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Scottish National Opera, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Welsh National Opera and the London Philharmonic Orchestra.
Why did you take up percussion and how old were you?
My mother was the musical driving force in our house, and when my brother reached 9, she sent him off to the local Saturday morning music school in Chelmsford, to learn his chosen instrument, the violin, while the rest of us did the weekly washing. Two years later, my sister went to join him, and chose the Oboe, and two years later, it was my turn. The question was, what to try and play? It was more what I didn't want to play. Not strings or wind like my siblings judging by what was coming out when they both practiced, and being a very small child for my age, brass looked an unlikely fit. (I was the smallest child in my year at school). My mum said that her friend's child was about to start, and had chosen percussion, would I like to go and do that with him? It seemed a good idea…….
Who was your first teacher and where did you start?
The teacher at the music school was George Clark, ex military player. I started on Snare and Timpani, and then a little later, moved onto a bit of tuned with glockenspiel and xylophone.
What instruments/resources did you have?
At first it was only a practice pad, and a pair of cushions on the floor for timps. Little bits and pieces were added as we went along, but nothing substantial until I went to senior school at 11. By then I had a snare drum and a glockenspiel, plus some hand-held instruments. The school had a pair of hand-tuned timps and when I joined the orchestra, they bought an old Xylophone for me to practice and play on.
Do you have any advice for young percussionists during this stage of education?
Regularity is the secret to progress. Life can be busy at school with everybody wanting you to work hard for their subject, but there is still time in the day to do some practice if you get organised! Ideally try and aim to practice at the same time each day so it becomes a habit. If you have a little plan of campaign as well that helps. Each day needs a bit of technical work on the instruments you have to practice on, as well as work on your pieces. One will always help the other, so don’t try and avoid rudiments and scales. By learning them carefully, your pieces will advance quicker. Most people work their way through the grades nowadays as a way of charting their progress, but I thinks its great to play pieces for fun as well, rather than always for an exam.
With your knowledge and experience now, what performance opportunities would you suggest for young percussionists to engage with?
Take every opportunity that arises. Each one will teach you something new that you weren’t expecting, and help improve your ability to listen, blend, adapt to others, accompany, and play solo lines. Don’t be afraid to have a go, it’s the only way to improve. Also try and prepare as much as you can by learning your part really well. It will make you more confident and naturally improve your ability on instruments.
At what point did you decide this was the profession for you?
If I’m honest, when I was younger I didn’t have a burning desire to be a percussionist. I think it was more that I enjoyed it, and the more I did it in school and then with youth orchestras etc and became better at it, the less I did other things that I might have pursued as a career. So really, I suppose I sort of ‘fell into it’ probably when I met my careers adviser at school, who said that being a percussionist wasn’t really a proper job to aim for… I decided he was a complete idiot who knew nothing about the music profession, and that actually it was a career that I might be successful at. My teacher at this time was an ex-RAF percussionist called Cliff Lee and really he inspired me to go for it. He also said that I now needed to invest in my future by applying to the junior department of the Royal College of Music. If I got in, I stood a chance, and if I didn’t then maybe outside of my local area, I wasn’t good enough to be a professional percussionist. (Luckily, I got in). I am forever grateful to Cliff for his enthusiasm and guidance, without both, I would have led a very different life.
After school, where did you continue your studies and who did you learn with?
After two years with Heather Steadman at the junior department, I was offered a place in the RCM senior dept and went on to study with Janos Keszei on timps (BBC Symphony) and Mike Skinner (Covent Garden) on percussion. Both had completely different styles of teaching, but were ideal for what I needed to progress. Janos had a brilliant technical approach spending over a term just working on individual stroke production, lift and timing. It was invaluable. Mike was also a great technician who described all of the things he was teaching me (which seemed quite disconnected at the time) as being like tools in a tool bag. Every piece I would need to play in the future would require me to go into the bag, find the right tool to make the passage possible to play, and then use it. It was a fascinating approach, and mentally I found it incredibly helpful. There was always a solution; you can use any of the tools to get the best result for you. Personally, I hate the approach that says ‘there is only one to play something – my way!’ We all have different strengths and weaknesses and to some extent need to adapt to try and get our own best result.
What was your first ever professional engagement, what was it like and how did you get it?
It was with Royal Festival Ballet at the Theatre Royal in Newcastle playing Swan Lake (a different part each night depending on who was in the section) I was put up in the hotel opposite, where I could watch the telly while in the bath!! Total luxury!! All the music was handwritten and every page was in a different handwriting with loads of scribble everywhere. A real challenge, but it went ok. I got it through Heather, my old teacher at junior college, who was playing timps for them at the time.
What happened next?
In my last year at RCM the BBC regional orchestras were given extra funding to expand by an extra percussion job. I applied to the BBC Philharmonic first and did a terrible audition. It really woke me up to how unprepared I was. I had learnt various bits of repertoire and they were pretty good, but anything new on the day, was really poor in comparison. I then crammed on the core skills, (or tools in the tool bag) and spent a lot of time on sight-reading using sight singing books. These were brilliant. No melody was longer than two lines, and every one was in a different key. It made a massive difference in knowing what to look for in material I’d never seen before. My next audition was for BBC Wales, I played much better and was offered a trial. I then worked for the orchestra every now and then for about 5 months, and then I was offered the job just as I came to the end of my college course. I have to say, I was incredibly lucky, there were loads of great players around who were good enough to get the job. 4 years later, I trialed again to become Principal Percussionist after my boss had retired.
You are the Principal Percussionist for the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, what's this like?
Ever changing, constantly evolving. The workload is diverse and pretty intense. The orchestra has a flexible work pattern, so can be working any day of the week, and producing any type of material. We will normally produce a concert programme every three days, and do very few repeat concerts, so we get through a mountain of material, much of which is made up of pieces that are not played that often. It really keeps you on your toes, making sure you are organised and have prepared far enough in advance for the more complicated repertoire. We also work on soundtracks for TV programmes, CDs, education programmes, etc. The list is forever expanding and changing. I am responsible for ensuring we have the correct number of players, the marking up and organisation of the sections parts, the right instruments available, and of course generally playing the more complicated parts.
When and why did you start teaching?
I started teaching in my final year at RCM. I taught one day-a-week from 8-1 in an independent school in Wimbledon. There was little doubt that teaching would form part of my future income, so it seemed a good time to begin. The salary was a real blessing in my final year at college! I really enjoyed it, trying to work out what made students tick, and how to facilitate each one making progress.
Does teaching help your performing career?
Without a doubt. Partly because you are thinking more about why you play things the way you do, and how to explain this, and partly because it focuses you on attention to detail. Often when we play things ourselves we think we are getting across our performance, but when we hear others play in lessons, we can see more easily the things that are missing. This awareness feeds back in to our own future performances. I also think it is really important to pass on what you have learnt through your own experiences.
You are a professor at Cardiff University, what's this like?
It's definitely different to teaching at a music college where you are preparing students for a performing career. However, my approach is exactly the same, to try and realise the full musical potential of all of my students. I taught for 24 years at RWCMD, and for some of these years was head of percussion. My first loyalty was always to my students there rather than the college management, which was not always very popular with the college, even though our department consistently produced students who have gone on to have good careers in music up until the start of the pandemic. I believe that for every student, there is a way to solve the problem, and it is my job to find that way, to allow them individually, to proceed. What works for me, may not work for them, the solution always must fit the student. I remain prouder of my student’s achievements than I do of my own. For me, that is the return I get from teaching.
Does composing compliment your performing and teaching career?
Yes in that it gets me to explore and continue to be creative on instruments. I started composing because I couldn’t find pieces that I considered to be progressive stepping stones for my students. Out of this came the two study books ‘4 mallets for Vibraphone’ and ‘Going Rudimental’ which formed the core of my teaching material for 4 mallets and Snare Drum at RWCMD. Pieces such as the book Cross Sticks, (also for 4 mallets) came about again because at the time I started teaching in the 1980’s there was not a lot of material available.
Do you have any other strings to your bow?
Yes, I still sell tubular bell mallets that I developed a long time ago. Very niche, but Stocks Hammers remain a firm favourite with many of the professional players today. I also run a photographic business supplying picture libraries with images. These are available for anyone to purchase reproduction rights, and this is part of my portfolio career as it does provide some income each year. I have about 17,000 images built up over many years.
Finally, since BBC NOW went on tour to Argentina in 2015, I have set up a charity in the UK with three other musicians to provide instruments for schools and youth groups in the Chubut province of Patagonia. It is called Patagonia Instrument Project, and we estimate that we have sent or bought within Patagonia, about £50,000 worth of instruments to help groups there. We donated the first ever Timpani to the province, which stretches from the Atlantic in the east all the way to the Andes in the West. It’s great seeing these played in concerts and used to teach future players. You can find us on LinkedIn, Facebook and our website if you want to learn more, or support our work. www.patagonia-instrument-project.org.uk. I've just finished writing 'The Composers guide to percussion - Book 1, Tuned percussion' hoping to get it published soon.
What is your career highlight so far?
I think this is probably playing the Xylophone part in the Gothic symphony by Havergal Brian at the BBC Proms. Certainly not my favourite piece, but when the Proms brochure advertised this giant piece requiring around 750 performers, as having the most difficult Xylophone solo ever written.... it certainly started ringing alarm bells! In truth, many contemporary pieces are far harder, but with this piece, you could tell if it was right or wrong, there was no hiding. The prom was recorded for CD release at the same time so I knew the performance may be under scrutiny for years to come, rather than just a one-off.
What is the best thing about being a musician?
The experiences and opportunities that will be presented to you. My job has allowed me to travel to many countries in the world that I wouldn’t ever have chosen to visit, but have found fascinating. Japan, Russia, China and Argentina for example. I’ve also had the pleasure of working with many soloists in all genres of music. Some were relatively unknown at the time. A young west end singer came to work with us on a ‘Songs from the Shows’ concert at the last minute, when another singer went sick at short notice. Very modest and very good, she was none other than Catherine Zeta-Jones. It was great watching her career develop remembering that we had worked together!
What would your 'Top Three Tips' be for a young percussionist/timpanist thinking about a career in music?
1. Practice regularly, and on the days that nothing seems to be going right, work harder with even greater attention to detail. You’ll actually achieve more than on the days it all seems to go so well.
2. On every instrument, try and play musically. Phrase the same as the other instrument playing with you. If you are playing solo pieces, either sing some of the solo lines to get an idea of how you naturally phrase the music. Often when we play percussion instruments we forget to breath, or shape the music the way wind brass and string players naturally do. Without this, the results can be a correct reproduction of the information on the page, but totally lack musicality, so be a musician who plays percussion, rather than just a percussionist.
3. Enjoy what you do. If you can, try and learn material that you like. It will make the whole experience more rewarding and you’ll naturally want to make a better job of it. Then try and convey what is so great about the piece, in your performance.
If you would like to find out more about Chris' work, follow the links below: