Percussion Soloist & Chamber Musician
Colin is a percussion soloist and chamber musician. He performs with the world’s leading orchestras and has had over 30 concertos written for him. He has founded two ensembles, the Colin Currie Group which specialises in the music of Steve Reich, and the Colin Currie Quartet, which explores the latest repertoire for percussion quartet. He has his own record label, Colin Currie Records, which runs in partnership with the London Symphony Orchestra.
Why did you take up percussion and how old were you?
Honestly, I don’t know where the original impetus came from. My earliest memories are just a frenzied blur of homemade percussion set-ups, kitchen utensils, upturned chairs and eventually toy drums, none of which lasted very long as they were usually played until broken. I received my first drum lesson aged 6.
Who was your first teacher and where did you start?
My first teacher was a local man called Jimmy Grossart. I distinctly recall the unbearable excitement of this first lesson and my first time playing a real snare drum. I proceeded with snare drum and drum-kit until the age of 12, at which point I felt the urge to branch out into the highly unknown and exotic world of orchestral percussion, timpani and somewhere on the horizon, the marimba.
What instruments/resources did you have?
I had a second-hand drum kit which we bought via an ad in the local paper. To audition for the Junior Department of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, we borrowed immensely old-fashioned books/tutors from the Edinburgh Music Library and I learned pieces/studies for my audition by myself on the instruments available at the school where my mother taught at that time.
Do you have any advice for young percussionists during this stage of education?
Be diligent. Become your own best critic. Don’t let anything slip. There is plenty of time. Don’t be impatient. Work hard and enjoy yourself.
With your knowledge and experience, what performance opportunities would you suggest for young percussionists to engage with?
Absolutely anything and everything. I was lucky growing up when and where I did, in Edinburgh. I played in bands, ensembles and orchestras nearly every day of the week and all of it helped me enormously. I also joined my national youth orchestra (NYOS) from the age of 13 and this was of course of extraordinary benefit - everyone in the section was older and more accomplished than me so this pushed me firmly along. Form a band. Join an orchestra.
In 1992, you won the Gold Medal of the Shell LSO Competition and were subsequently the first percussionist to reach the finals of the BBC Young Musician of the Year. What was this like and did it help shape your career?
These developments in my mid-teens were utterly unforeseen and I had absolutely no inkling of how things would progress for me. Going to London to attend the Shell/LSO Scholarship aged 15 was like going to the moon as it was, so to make it to the final and perform with the orchestra was genuinely unreal. I immediately caught the ‘performance bug’ and I am still scratching that itch to this day - but it started there and then. The Young Musician of the Year was another unexpected scenario - I recall calmly watching the 1992 final on the television without, of course, the vaguest idea that in the following competition I’d be up there myself giving my first concerto world premiere. The link to the LSO remained strong - I studied with Neil and Kurt, with Simon becoming a strong early mentor, and I started freelancing in their section aged 19. The Young Musician competition led directly to my professional debut as a concerto soloist and ultimately the revised aim of devoting my career to that particular angle.
At what point did you decide this was the profession for you?
I did always think I’d be some kind of a performer. Initially in a rock band - then as an orchestral player and finally as a soloist.
After school, where did you continue your studies and who did you learn with?
I resolved to go to London. This was a big decision as I had an incredibly strong relationship with my teacher in Glasgow, Pamella Dow, but it was decided that I was ready for ‘town’ and I went to London’s Royal Academy to pick up studies with Kurt Hans Goedicke, Neil Percy and the various visiting professors there. It was definitely the right decision.
Why did you decide this pathway?
I auditioned only for two music colleges, the RSAMD (as it was then ) and RAM. I think I got a taste for London in these brief visits ‘south’ for the competitions and indeed the audition for RAM, and I felt drawn to the epic amount of cultural activity there - so many orchestras, and concerts every day of the week of the most astonishing quality. I lived in London and was an avid Londoner for over quarter of a century, so it was certainly the right place and the right time.
At what point did solo and chamber performance become your main focus?
That is hard to say. Starting at RAM I had one main goal, and that was to be an orchestral musician. This changed during my studies however - there were many unexpected influences and opportunities which affected me, not least of all the musical mentorship of British composer Steve Martland, who encouraged a more individual and creative streak in me. I simultaneously joined his ensemble and began my concerto career, all within a few weeks, and without knowing it, my direction was changing quickly and irreversibly.
What was your first ever professional engagement, what was it like and how did you get it?
This also is a little hard to say, but my first professional concerto engagement was with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in 1994. This led to a re-invitation from them to perform the (still rather new then) Veni, Veni, Emmanuel by James MacMillan two years later. This was an enormous step and led directly to my US debut in the same year with Marin Alsop - another stroke of luck had come my way.
What happened next?
I busied myself with anything and everything. I had my duo with Sam Walton, which was terrific fun and brilliant for my playing, played occasional concertos (mostly the MacMillan at that stage) and I was freelancing with LSO, BBC Symphony and the London Sinfonietta, all still in my undergraduate years. I had wonderful support and encouragement from many many people. Eventually the bias towards new music and the relevant hours of practice tipped the balance, and one night in spring 2004 I gave what was to in fact be my last ever contribution as an orchestral player - Mahler 5 with the LSO.
As a soloist, you perform regularly with many of the world's finest orchestras and conductors. What's this like?
Stupendous - a pure joy. My love of the orchestra in the context of these exciting new works for solo percussion combines my deepest musical passions perfectly. It is a great honour to perform with these orchestras and their spirit of support and the energy they commit to these concerts means absolutely the world to me. It is still surreal to me to be playing concertos week in week out - I honestly love every second of it.
Are there any challenges?
There are immense challenges. Scheduling is the main issue - I have many weeks back-to-back playing different works in different continents constituting thousands of notes spread out over thousands of miles. Also - I have found out that the psychological challenges on soloists and the pressure to deliver manifest themselves in many strange ways, and these complexities have to be addressed carefully. No one can teach you any of this, it is something you have to go through - so yes, there have been some difficult times and much to learn. Never a dull moment!
In 2006, you formed the Colin Currie Group, what was the impetus behind forming your own group and how did you evolve it to a point of performing at events such as the BBC Proms?
The BBC Proms approached me about an event to celebrate the 70th birthday of Steve Reich. This was more or less a carte blanche invite, and so I put together a programme that centred on ‘Drumming’ and brought in a whole gaggle of the great players in my generation. This consolidated a desire to have some kind of group and tap into the wonderful talent that was in my generation of percussionists from the UK. I realised there was a unique collection of players around me and working with them has been of immeasurable importance and enjoyment to me, the perfect foil to all the solo work and travel.
What do you enjoy about chamber performance?
The immediacy of the music-making. The slightest alteration of sound or time-keeping is instantly refracted by those around you. The collective spirt in my group and quartet is very easy-going yet unbelievably focussed and intense. I am sure I learn more than anyone in these situations, and keeping up close work with percussion colleagues and friends has been crucial for me.
You are a Visiting Professor of Solo-Percussion at the Royal Academy of Music in London, what do you enjoy about teaching?
Teaching is a huge responsibility. I was fortunate enough to have astoundingly good tuition - so I am endeavouring to give back what I can. Occasionally, I can really strike a chord with someone, and either technically or philosophically, huge strides can be made. I think my Professorship at RAM is around the 15 year mark now, so it is wonderful to look back over the huge roster of students from this time. They make me question matters and articulate more rounded pictures of my outlook, and I usually come away from teaching exhausted yet somehow energised.
You are the Artist in Association at London's Southbank Centre, can you tell us more about this?
This is the consolidation of a relationship that took hold abut 10 years ago. Initially, I was regularly playing as soloist with two of their resident orchestras (LPO and Philharmonia), and also playing with the Group - Steve Reich and I also met in person for the first time at the Southbank, so there is important history there. In 2014 we put together my first percussion festival ‘Metal, Wood, Skin’ and I had a once-in-a-career brace of premieres there, which they all supported; Steve Reich, Louis Andriessen, Anna Clyne and Sir James MacMillan all within a few weeks of one and other. It was an amazing season, and I also won the Royal Philharmonic Society Instrumentalist Award that year, so I have to thank the Southbank for a lot. We continue with discussions for new projects, and especially for developing my community and outreach work under their auspices.
In 2017, you launched Colin Currie Records, can you tell us about this project?
This was initially a way to release our recording of ‘Drumming’ but it has become a huge, multi-faceted project which sees the release of some of my more niche musical projects alongside major releases of Reich’s core repertoire. The LSO is my artistic partner for this, so I am in exceptional hands. It is a huge amount of work for my agent…but the results are amongst some of the ones we are committed to the very most.
What is your career highlight so far?
Conducting Steve Reich’s ‘Tehillim’ at Tokyo Opera City with my Group. Our original flight was cancelled, we lost 50% of our rehearsal time, nobody had slept, and I hadn’t even conducted an ensemble before - ever. This concert simply should not have worked out, and yet it had a stratospheric power and the highest of emotions, onstage and off. I still think about that concert very very often.
What is the best thing about being a musician?
What would your 'Top Three Tips' be for a young percussionist thinking about a career in music?
1. Be yourself
2. Practise hard
3. Don’t give up
Any last thoughts?
I really meant it when I said form a band.
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