Orchestral Contractor & Percussionist
Dave Danford is an established orchestral contractor actively working in the UK, providing orchestras and ensembles of professional musicians for concerts, events and theatre productions throughout the country. As a Percussionist he has performed with leading professional orchestras, for West End theatre productions, and as a soloist (including recitals and orchestral concertos).
Why did you take up percussion and how old were you?
I was desperate to play the drums from as early as I can remember. Despite neither of my parents being musicians they have always listened to a lot of classical music at home, and rock music on long car journeys! I was also inspired by watching some of the UK’s best folk bands perform at a monthly ceilidh in Cardiff organised by my uncle and aunt, and my first experience of playing drums in public was thanks to Welsh drummer Dave Powell letting me take over for one of the sets. He’s now doing amazing music educational work in South Wales with his company Upbeat. Despite this I didn’t actually take up percussion and drums properly until I was 11 years old, following a number of years of Classical Guitar and Piano lessons.
Who was your first teacher and where did you start?
I signed up for drum kit lessons on my first day at secondary school, with a local peripatetic teacher called Lawrence Macpherson Jones. Having previously had Piano lessons it was a straightforward transition to playing tuned percussion, and within a few weeks I started playing with the county youth brass band, my first experience of ensemble playing.
What instruments/resources did you have?
My practice resources were limited at first to the drum kit in school, and I had to borrow a kit off my teacher for my first brass band concert. However, my parents could tell I was serious about percussion, and were kind enough to buy me a second hand drum kit within a couple of years of starting, a curry-coloured Premier Olympic.
Do you have any advice for young percussionists during this stage of education?
I believe the best way any musician can improve is to do as much ensemble playing as possible. This is arguably more beneficial than personal practice. By the time I finished school I was involved in county ensembles twice a week (with additional courses during school holidays), local brass band rehearsals twice a week (with regular concerts and contests in addition), school ensembles a couple of times a week, and national ensemble courses a few times a year.
With your knowledge and experience, what performance opportunities would you suggest young percussionists to engage with?
I would recommend young percussionists try to get used to playing in as many different scenarios as possible. Being a percussionist requires being adaptable, so if you can get used to playing alone, as well as with one other person (such as a piano accompanist) and larger ensembles, you should be versatile enough to cope with various scenarios. Youth ensembles are one thing, but you could also consider joining a local brass band with adults, or playing for amateur musical theatre shows.
At what point did you decide this was the profession for you?
I’ve never had an ambition to be anything other than a professional musician, and my parents often remind me about the day I found out it was something people actually did for a living! I’m told that my face lit up, and I haven’t looked back since.
After school, where did you continue your studies and who did you learn with?
During my last couple of years at school I began having lessons with Graham Bradley, who was tasked with getting me to a high enough standard to get into music college. This involved a number of grade exams (both on Percussion and Drum Kit) in a short space of time, and my Mum often talks about how impressed she was with the structured plan he came up with after just one lesson. I studied at the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama from 2002 until 2006. Chris Stock was my Percussion teacher, Steve Barnard was my Timpani teacher, and I did second study Drum Kit lessons with Pete Fairclough initially, and then with Elliot Bennett.
Why did you decide this pathway?
The Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama wasn’t the only conservatoire I was offered a place at, but I had already started to pick up some playing work in the Cardiff area, so it seemed like a sensible choice to build on this, rather than starting again from scratch. I never considered doing anything other than going to music college after school.
What was your first ever professional engagement, what was it like and how did you get it?
My first professional engagement was thanks to my teacher Graham Bradley, who needed a dep one night for a local production of Stephen Schwartz’ Children of Eden. This was my first taste of playing in the band for a musical theatre production, and I knew right away that it was something I wanted to do more of.
What happened next?
For the latter part of my degree course I spent a lot of time concentrating on solo percussion repertoire, with the intention of finding performance opportunities as a percussion soloist. I became the first percussionist to win the RWCMD’s annual concerto competition (performing Ney Rosauro’s Concerto for Marimba), and my prize included performing at St David’s Hall with the college’s Symphony Orchestra. This acted as a springboard for subsequent solo work, and I spent the next few years doing solo recitals and concerto performances alongside my regular freelance work.
You were the Principal Percussionist for the West End show Bat Out of Hell The Musical, what was this like?
Spending two years playing the amazing music of Jim Steinman every night is one of the highlights of my career, and it was a job I loved from beginning to end. I was blessed with the most amazing group of colleagues (both on-stage and backstage), and there was a real team spirit from day one of rehearsals in Manchester in early 2017. It’s a time of my life I’ll never forget.
Were there any challenges?
I was “on remote” in a separate isolated percussion booth in all three of the theatres we did the show in, so I was very reliant on conductor screens to see what was going on. Ensuring these were positioned with a good line of sight from each of the percussion instruments in the room was crucial. There were a number of quick changes between instruments during the show, so careful planning of which sticks to use, and whether to have multiples of certain instruments, was important.
What would your advice be to a young percussionist aiming for a career in musical theatre?
I would advise any young percussionist aiming for a career in musical theatre to aim to become a good percussionist first, and then seek out the musical theatre work later. It’s very rare for a percussionist to do musical theatre engagements and nothing else, so it’s much better to concentrate on become a versatile, all-round percussionist so that you can sustain yourself without relying on one kind of gig.
You have performed with many orchestras, ensembles and theatre productions, what do you enjoy about the ‘portfolio career’ of a percussionist?
I love that being a freelance percussionist means I get to do a variety of different things, rather than the monotony of just one. It’s also a great way of avoiding complacency, because you never know what instrument you might be playing from one week to the next. I also enjoy the opportunity to work with many different people, rather than the same faces day after day.
You are also an established Orchestral Contractor, which involves booking musicians for orchestras and ensembles. How did you get involved in this side of the business?
In late 2010 a good friend of mine asked me to put together a small group of musicians for a Christmas concert at a university he lectured at. I hadn’t considered becoming a fixer before then, but having enjoyed the experience I decided to pursue it as a business, and my company Absolute Music Services has now been established for over ten years, with clients ranging from the Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod to the Royal Albert Hall.
How does this compliment your performing career?
Becoming an Orchestral Contractor has been good from a performing point of view, because I also play percussion for the majority of concerts I book the orchestras for. It’s allowed me to put myself forward as a player for some very special projects, including Casablanca at the Royal Opera House, and Home Alone in Aalborg, Denmark.
What is your career highlight so far?
Our second West End stint with Bat Out of Hell at the Dominion Theatre in 2018-19 is a time I’ll never forget, but I also loved performing the world premiere of Eilir Owen Griffiths’ Percussion Concerto ‘Emoticons of Time’ in March 2010, and organising/promoting two large-scale orchestral concerts featuring Dame Evelyn Glennie in 2013.
What is the best thing about being a musician?
I feel very privileged to be doing something I love for a living. Being a musician never feels like work to me, and I’m very thankful that I’ve been able to do this as a career.
What would your 'Top Three Tips' be for a young percussionist thinking about a career in music?
1. Find as many opportunities to play as possible, with ensembles of varying types and genres.
2. Invest in instruments as early as you can. The more instruments you have, the more different instruments you’ll be able to practice on, and the more useful you’ll be to people who need players for concerts.
3. Arrive early! Even if you aren’t bringing your own instruments to a concert they will need setting up, and the person who brought them is more likely to book you again if you help!
If you would like to find out more about Dave, please check out his website:
Social media accounts:
Dave has endorsements with:
Adams Musical Instruments adams-music.com
Balter Mallets vicfirth.zildjian.com/mallets/keyboard/balter-mallets
Grover Pro Percussion groverpro.com
Latin Percussion lpmusic.com
Protection Racket protectionracket.com