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Virtuoso Solo & Multi -Percussionist

Dame Evelyn Glennie

Dame Evelyn Glennie is the world’s premier solo percussionist, performing worldwide with the greatest orchestras, conductors and artists. Her solo recordings exceed 40 CDs and are as diverse as her career on-stage. A double GRAMMY award winner and BAFTA nominee, Evelyn is also a composer for film, theatre and television. Evelyn was awarded an OBE in 1993 and has over 100 international awards to date, including the Polar Music Prize and the Companion of Honour. Evelyn is currently forming The Evelyn Glennie Collection with a vision to open a centre that embodies her mission to Teach the World to Listen.

When did you take up percussion?


I started percussion shortly after moving to secondary school, where I added my name to the long waiting list and waited to be called up. So, the day came around for my lesson and I went into this tiny room with a xylophone, snare drum and my teacher. My teacher proceeded to hand me a snare drum and told me to take it home to practise. Now, I had no idea what I was supposed to do with this drum, I didn’t have any sticks, or a stand and my parents were very confused as to why they had a drum in their house! So I quickly got to work trying out all the sounds I could find, I had hearing aids at this point so I was very interested in how the drum acted like a resonating chamber. I put the drum on my bed and tried playing it with my hands and in every way I could think of, then I took the drum out and started to explore it in many different places. I grew up on a farm, so I took it out to the barn and tried it on a hay bale and was amazed that it reacted completely differently, then I put it on a slab of rock and again it reacted differently.   


That sounds like an amazing first lesson, so you were really thinking about the sounds and how you create those actually even before establishing technique or referring to the notation?


Yes, and I think what was very special about that teacher was that he realised what a musician is, and this is something we can all ask ourselves, what are we? Are you a percussionist, a clarinettist, a pianist or are we musicians first? An instrument is just the tool that you use and that doesn't define you, so whether you have a little beginner clarinet or fancy marimba or drum kit the common thing that we all have is that we create sound. You could have a paper and comb, it doesn't matter what you have, we all create sound! As musicians we want people to have an emotional connection to the sound and he understood the fact of really trying to draw sound pictures first of all rather than focussing strictly on technique. Because once you have that feeling of exploration, and we all have this because we do this when we are teeny weeny when we're really, really young, you can show anything and we don't want to lose that curiosity!


And as you go through the years and you become a professional musician and you're learning new repertoire, that curiosity will allow you to delve into all sorts of different ways to explore techniques that you never knew existed and you may never find in a book and a teacher may never even tell you!


So, from the very beginning you were learning by ear, listening to the music and responding to it and then taking that to notation, rather than starting with the notation. Do you still use this approach of using sounds to respond to the notation rather than relying on the composer to tell you what to do?


Absolutely and if there's one thing I feel we could take out of this session is to know that we're all improvisers, we started life improvising, we started life by observing and then feeding everything into our system in very profound extraordinary ways. And somehow we begin to cap all of that, we put a lid on it and then it becomes ‘well I can't do that’ and ‘no I'm not an improviser’ and ‘I don't know how to do that’ and suddenly all this negative baggage lands on our shoulders and the older we get the worse it becomes, but, we can combat that if we can find that balance with how much we read music and how much we improvise. So you might think yourself ‘okay, for the next 10 minutes or 5 minutes or two minutes I'm only going to concentrate on that one bar and dynamics’ so you explore for that time all the different dynamics and take note of the different senses of touch that happen. Or you might say ‘I'm only going to concentrate on rhythm’ so just explore rhythm in any way you want, and then think to yourself ‘I explored rhythm, what happened to the dynamics?’  and then think to yourself ‘now I'm going to concentrate on sound colour’, ‘distant sounds, spooky sounds, loving sounds, angry sounds, aggressive sounds, nervous sounds, lazy sounds’ and it goes on and on, so with that one bar you're giving yourself that opportunity to explore.


It is all improvisation and this just helps you push your boundaries as regards to what you can do.


You mentioned before about your hearing aids, when did you start to lose your hearing and how have you adapted your musical learning to use your hearing in different ways?


Well I began losing my hearing from the age of eight and it was through mumps, and then the nerves of the ears deteriorated and by the time I was twelve I dependant on hearing aids. So, during all of my teenage years really, I was trying to work out what was important for me to hear through the ears and what then was important for me to feel. My percussion teacher in the early days asked me to put my hands on the wall of the room and he played two hand tuned timpani, with the intervals quite wide apart, when he struck one of the drums I said ‘yes I can feel that pitch from here to here’ and then he struck the other drum and I could feel that from ‘here to here’ and he gradually made the intervals closer together and it was so subtle the difference but what was happening was that I was paying attention to the actual strike of the drum and then noticing where I was feeling it.


What is really interesting is that normally we strike something and then if we don't hear it, or, we stop hearing it, then that's the end of the sound and so we move on to the next note. But it's amazing how when you listen to the body, how often the ear will stop hearing the sound but the body will still feel that sound - it's quite amazing! One of the things that I used to do was that I'd sit in front of the TV at home with the sound up and I would hold a piece of paper or a balloon and listen to what was on the TV through feeling the sound through my fingers. You can do this yourself, hold a piece of paper or balloon and you could have someone else play an instrument or you could quite simply sing and you’ll feel it through the fingertips, and you’ll feel it completely differently whether it’s a high note or a low note. With the lower sounds you'll feel much more, which is why I love low sounding instruments like bass drums, but higher sounds are much more difficult to decipher so a lot of the high frequencies I hear through looking, so all your senses are pretty razor sharp really.


Did you always want to be a soloist?


When I reached the age of 15 I decided quite clearly that I would try to go in for music full time and to be a solo percussionist. The aim was really clear, and if I couldn't do that I would do something else completely. When I when I went to audition for the Royal Academy and Royal College of Music in London, I said well ‘I wanted to be a solo percussionist’ and they said ‘absolutely not, that that is not possible, there's no such thing’ and I said ‘well there is because it's already formed in my mind!  So if it's in my mind it already exists!’


So, I went to the Royal Academy of Music and I had such a wonderful education, being an orchestral musician and having wonderful new music festivals, but, deep down I wanted to be a solo percussionist. I was spending all of my free time experimenting with things as a soloist and there was an awful lot of experimenting that had to be done!


Well thank you so much for experimenting because you paved the way for us! How would you recommend the young people here today find performance opportunities?


Things are very, very different than when I was a young player, we didn't have the Internet for example, we didn't have computers or devices or social media or anything like that! I think for me what was important as a young player was having the opportunities within school to play and because the school was a Community School we had lots of opportunities to play in the community. Frankly my peripatetic percussion teacher was just amazing because he allowed us the opportunities to play and so he really saw us as creators first and foremost, then musicians and then percussion players. So, he was absolutely determined that percussion should go alongside violin and piano, if any of those instrumentalists were playing then the percussionist needed ago as well! So, everybody was on equal par, that's really important.


But I think nowadays with our amazing platforms that we have virtually, use it in a way that is constructive. We’re encouraged to record ourselves or to video ourselves and by all means do that because it can be a really helpful tool, but don't feel pressurised to always share it. If you want to it's absolutely your choice, but, be sure that you give yourself space to learn, space to digest what you do, space to experiment and to give yourself time. It is really important that we all progress at our own pace.


How do you choose new repertoire?


Oh heavens I think it may depend on where you're at with your journey! For me I like to give variety, now if I'm asked to play at a contemporary music festival ­­then I know that I can put something by ‘Henze’ but I wouldn't necessarily put that into a lunchtime recital. So, it's very important to know your audience, and because I've chosen to be a multi percussion player I will want some multi percussion pieces in there as well as some mallet pieces etc. I think it's really about listening to yourself but knowing who that audience is going to be and make sure that you're telling a story. The audience want some emotion from what you do, so don't necessarily think virtuosically as far as how fast and how many mallets you're holding, what is important is the musical message that you're putting across and the contrast.


What was it like to play that first ever percussion concerto at the BBC Proms?


Well it was it was quite amazing, and I think it becomes more amazing as the years go by. I remember the whole reason why ‘Veni Veni Emmanuel’ came about, the percussion Concerto that we're talking about. I was just sitting at home watching the Proms one year and this remarkable thing was coming through my TV screen, I was absolutely amazed at the piece being played. I discovered that it was an orchestral piece by James Macmillan, the Scottish composer, called ‘The Confessions of Isobel Gowdie’ and I was just floored by the orchestration and immediately sort of stood up in my tiny little living room and said to myself ‘I must ask James to write a percussion Concerto!’


In those days I happened to be playing a lot with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, one of the first orchestras to really believe in solo percussion so they gave me a lot of opportunities, and I said to them ‘could we together ask James McMillan to write a percussion Concerto?’ And they said ‘yes that's a good idea’ and thankfully James said yes! And it has really stood the test of time with so many percussion players have taking it on board! So for any young player do have a look at the score for ‘Veni Veni Emmanuel’ and if you do have an opportunity to play it, you'll find the emotional journey of it as satisfying as the physical aspect of playing, and, it's wonderful for the orchestra!


Do you have any advice for percussionists thinking of a career as a soloist?  


Absolutely just go for it! If it's if it's something that you really want to do just do it, just get on and do it and don't think any more about it!


When I was starting out, I absolutely had to have this razor vision, just concentrating on that because it took a long time for pieces to be commissioned, to be written. You've got to be prepared for that and be patient. Of course you need time to learn this and to get it into your system, there's an awful lot of situations that you will find extremely enjoyable that are also extremely frustrating and hard work and sometimes disappointing as well! So if you've got that strength mentally and physically to go with all of the peaks and ups and downs, then absolutely you'll look back and you'll think ‘wow that was a really interesting journey’, so if you're thinking about it and you know want to, then just get on and do it!


Another big part of your career has been composing, how and when did you start or is this something that you have just always done?


I think I've just done it in dribs and drabs to be honest. For me, my biggest avenue of composing is for the media, so library music for films radio television that type and that allows me to use a lot of the unusual instruments and I enjoy very much! I like to compose to something, so a picture or story, a mood, rather than sitting with a blank sheet of paper. The media composing is something that business wise is also quite important for me and I think that that's something that we have to really take into account as well, where the revenue can come from with things like royalties and so on, that whole area of composition can, if you want it to, be quite lucrative. It's worth thinking about for me as it allows me to travel here there and everywhere and give these concerts, with the library/media music I can really fit that into the busy schedule I have.


What would you say to students if they've never tried composing, where could they start?


Oh well I'm an old fashioned person in that I like a pen and paper, so I will put a bit of manuscript on the piano or another instrument and quite literally write down an idea, it doesn't have to be anything in particular, it could be an idea in words, or it could looking out to a rainy day. So what kind of mood does that give you? It could be a whole soundscape that you suddenly think of for a rainy day, and then you might think ‘well what sort of instruments might I want to use what sort of landscape?’ ‘Do I want this rain to be out in the country?’ ‘In the Hills?’ ‘Or looking out on the sea?’ ‘A rainy day in a city?’


Or another way is just write 3 random notes down, and then play those 3 notes in loads of different ways and see what you think! It is quite literally getting started with just putting something on the page!


The piece that we are almost familiar with of yours is ‘A Little Prayer’, what was the inspiration?


I remember very clearly because I think I mentioned much earlier that at school we had this crazy little three octave xylophone and I remember, my teacher had introduced me to the instrument and what I wanted to achieve was a legato sound on the xylophone - which of course was so rickety and was such an old thing that there was no hope of getting any resonance out of it whatsoever! However, this is interesting because sometimes things that you know you don't have literally, your body allows you to try to achieve, and so internally you're feeling something smooth and organ like and chorale-like even, if it's not actually done on an instrument that will give you that!


It really started out with a really simple harmonic progression, all rolled and I played it once and people said ‘that's sort of chorale-like you know’, so I then preceded with the piece and created a bit of a structure and that was really it! Then someone said it is like a prayer, there's no religious connotations attached to it, so I decided to call it ‘A Little Prayer’ just so that it was easy to remember! But then when I did eventually have access to a marimba in my early 20s of course it was a different specimen altogether and that's when I realised that, yes, it could actually be a proper piece of music!


How do you approach your practise, and do you have any advice for us learning new repertoire?


Oh, that is quite a big question actually because if it very much depends where you're at with your journey. So, what might work when you start percussion may change through the years. What’s important, being a percussion player and playing multi instruments, is to divide your time and to find links from one instrument to another so that you're not looking at them as separate compartments. For example, I might say to myself ‘okay I've got an hour right now’ and within that hour I'd like to address snare drum, multi percussion and mallets. So I will create exercises that are relevant to the pieces of music I'm playing and think ‘what from the marimba piece can I bring onto the snare drum?’ ‘What elements of the snare drum piece can I use on the marimba?’ ‘And the multi piece onto the snare drum?’ ‘And the multi piece onto the marimba?’ But all the time you're thinking of the pieces of music, because I find it very difficult to motivate myself to play exercises or warm ups if they’re not related to the piece of music. I want to warm up my limbs but also warm up mentally.


I remember right from the beginning when I was 12 years old, my teacher making sure of this approach. If we were learning a piece of Bach for example and let's say it was in G minor and the beginning was almost like an arpeggio or scale, we would play that bar and then would transpose that to B minor, then into another key and another until we’d played it in every key! And then we’d take that bar and play the phrase on the snare drum using singles, then on the snare but using doubles and all the time we’re singing this phrase in our heads, so there's always that musical sentence. That's been absolutely key in my whole journey, simply because I just don't have time to keep practising exercises without linking them to my repertoire!


Another thing I would say is understanding the difference between practise and rehearsal. I do a lot more rehearsing and that's where I'm thinking of myself performing, I'm thinking of myself in a particular venue, the acoustic and the audience. So, when I play a phrase I’m projecting as though I'm actually performing rather than I'm in my practise room. That way, if you rehearse, you can learn to bridge that gap between practise and performance.


You've got a collection of over 2000 instruments, how do you choose the right instrument for a particular piece?


There’s no real set rule with all of this, simply because if you're having to play this piece of music in New Zealand, Australia, Canada or Brazil you're not going to be able to have your own equipment, so you have to be really adaptable. It's a real challenge for percussionists to always be adapting to different instruments but that's just the nature of the game.


With instruments I'm always thinking about voicing and what sort of sounds work well together and it may be that you need several performances to experiment with that. Also, don't feel hostage to thinking ‘right I made that decision and that's it forever more’ it could be that suddenly an instrument manufacturer comes out with another development of an instrument that might be better! So, it's always a moving target, keep an open mind with all of your setups. I mean for example with ‘Veni-Veni Emmanuel’ I remember James McMillan originally asked for a set of gongs for part of the piece and at that time I was using my own equipment so that was fine. But then once I abandoned the van years later, it was impossible for the promoters to have this particular set of gongs so we had to rethink what we would use. It's important to always be flexible with your thinking.


How do you design a multi percussion set-up?


Sometimes you might see a map or a drawing in the score itself and you might think ‘Oh well I have to adhere to that’ but don't feel hostage to that unless there's an absolute reason why the composer has done it -  they may have worked with another player and that set up if from that particular player, so it's really important to experiment with the setup and to come from where physically you feel comfortable as that will impact the quality of sound.  I'm not the tallest person on the planet so therefore a lot of the set ups have to be suitable for my height, for the length of my arm and for the control that I want.


Audience Question: ‘How much do practise each day?


Since lockdown I've played most days actually and it's been absolutely fantastic! I've so enjoyed reconnecting with the instruments because I so rarely have time to do that. Normally I don't have the opportunity to play every day because of course I run my whole business and there’s the travel, admin and so on! A lot of my practise is done visually, internally, silently and that means that I can sometimes look at a piece of music and imagine myself performing. I think the key thing for me it's making sure you use your time well so even if you’ve just got 5/10 minutes say to yourself ‘this is what I want to achieve within that time’ because what can sometimes happen is that you think well ‘I've got two hours to practise’ and then actually you might only have 10-15 minutes worth of really worthwhile things happening within those two hours. So, its thinking of what actually has been achieved. It's not so much the time, it's more what you do with that time and that's what's so important to me.


Audience Question: ‘Do you still get nervous before performing and how can I get over the fear of thinking that I might mess up in front of everyone?’


It is a really important point and something that you'll be chatting to yourself about forever more, I think! Yes, I do still get nervous, but I am able to I suppose recognise those nerves, recognise the situation that I put myself in, i.e. I've agreed to give this performance so it's no one else's fault but my own! I've made that decision and when you realise that you felt strong enough to put yourself in that position, then you know that you can handle it.


It's also making sure that your environment is absolutely right for you and get rid of any distractions or anything that is unwanted or unhelpful. For some people they might want peace and quiet, so they might just want to sit in the dressing room until it's time to go on, but other people they may enjoy all of the busyness and they may need that you know in order to distract them from just sort of sitting there and thinking about the concert, so we're all different. Be sure to recognise what is right for you and make sure that you can orchestrate that environment.


But also a key thing to remember is that we have all had performances that we think are crumbs! That's what live music is about, if we were all so perfect we would do all of our recordings in one take! We're human beings, we have good days and we have bad days the important thing is making sure you're consistent. Nerves are a good thing, you're not the only one at all, we all have them and they give us that little bit of edge and that little bit extra.


Audience Question: ‘Which grip do you use for four-mallet?’


I don't really know to be honest it's sort of Burton-ish with a few variations. What's been important for me is to really observe my own hands. It's perfectly OK to change your grip, so for some pieces you might want to perhaps use the Stevens grip for example with multi percussion pieces that need a lot of punch or different kinds of angles of the drums, but if that’s all different you might want to use another type of grip. Even thinking, ‘Well with this hand I might use this type of grip and with that hand another type of grip’ that's all fine too, there are no hard and fast rules. Just take a good old look and give yourself time with a grip, don't just pick it up for a few seconds and think ‘no that doesn't feel right’ give yourself a few days or weeks even and just experiment. The key thing is picking the sticks up, putting them down and then go off and do something else. Then pick them up, put them down rather than doing long stints with them. Also, you can look on YouTube and there's all sorts of ways that the people are holding the mallets, you've just got to kind of navigate through what feels right for you and what you want to do and give yourself that time.


Audience Question: ‘How do you manage to keep up your motivation?


It’s perfectly normal to go through periods where you absolutely do not feel motivated, you don't want to practise and nothing much is happening at all - that is perfectly, perfectly normal. I think what's important is to sort of accept that, don't try and push something or make something happen, just know that you know during all of your professional life you'll have moments like that. Don't be frightened by them, just simply accept them as part of the journey and know that it will just naturally pass it's almost like driving through going from North to South you'll see some lovely scenery, then the next minute it's a bit grey and boring and then lovely scenery again! There's no way that you're going to feel motivated 24/7 for the rest of your life, it's not going to work like that, you need moments to just sort of let your body to feel nothing and let it rest. Then all of a sudden, you'll feel absolutely buzzing again!


Audience Question: ‘Do you prefer to play solo or in an ensemble?’


Well when I when I was starting out as a solo player it was absolutely solo that I enjoyed the most without a doubt and then as the years have gone by, actually for the past maybe six or seven years or so I've much more enjoyed playing with other people and that's why I like to improvise. I think it has changed as the years have gone by, but I'm still very much keen to have new pieces commissioned.

Thanks Evelyn!

If you would like to find out more about Evelyn, please check out her website:

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