The Hallé - Principal Percussionist
Percussion Teacher at Chetham's School of Music
I was educated in Bedford and was a member of the Bedfordshire Youth Orchestra and Brass Band. I studied composition and percussion at the Royal College of Music in London and was a member of the European Youth Orchestra. My first job was as Sub-Principal Percussionist of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. I then joined the Hallé Orchestra as Principal Percussionist in 1989 where I remain to this day. I teach at Chethams School of Music in Manchester and have acted as an examiner for many major music colleges. I have written extensively for percussion and my compositions feature on the syllabuses of most of the major examining boards. I have three children and a grandchild and my wife Kate is the Principal Timpanist of the English National Ballet Orchestra.
Why did you take up percussion and how old were you?
I was 10 when I started. I come from a very musical family. My parents were both music teachers. My brother and dad were both trombonists so I was “encouraged" to play a brass instrument, but I always wanted to be a drummer so in the end they gave in!
Who was your first teacher and where did you start?
Keith Brightman was my first kit teacher. He was my hero and the reason I started playing. A lovely man called Fred Austin started me on percussion. He was a military man so I learnt traditional grip on the snare drum, which I still use today.
What instruments/resources did you have?
I learnt in Bedfordshire which at the time was a vibrant music service. They had four orchestras, two wind bands, a brass band and a dance orchestra. The gear wasn’t exactly “state of the art” but we knew no better so were more than happy. Pedal timps were a real luxury in those days!
Do you have any advice for young percussionists during this stage of education?
Try to play in as many ensembles as possible. Don’t lock yourself away in a practice room. Music is all about interacting with other musicians. When choosing solo pieces, try to find ones with accompaniment. As percussionists we are ALWAYS soloists, so we need to learn how to LISTEN!
With your knowledge and experience now, what performance opportunities would you suggest for young percussionists to engage with?
Look out for local bands, orchestras and ensembles. It’s a great way to make friends, but to also learn how to make music and, perhaps more importantly how to READ music efficiently. Search the internet for solo competitions in which you can take part. There are also many grants for which you can apply to assist you in funding your studies. You can find these online too.
At what point did you decide this was the profession for you?
Straight away. I love music and couldn’t think of a better career. I still can’t!
After school, where did you continue your studies and who did you learn with?
I studied at the Royal College of Music in London with Alan Cumberland and Mike Skinner. I also studied composition there with Stephen Dodgson.
Why did you decide this pathway?
My father and brother had both studied at the RCM, and my parents had very kindly funded private lessons for me with Alan Cumberland so it was always going to be my first choice. There really was no plan B. Luckily it worked out!
What was your first ever professional engagement, what was it like and how did you get it?
I played with the London Philharmonic Orchestra in a recording session at Walthamstow Town Hall. I was still at college so I was scared to death! They all seemed so confident and relaxed. Why weren’t they as scared as me?! It was a great experience though.
What happened next?
I played more concerts with the LPO, and many other orchestras in London and elsewhere in the UK before being appointed to my first job in Scotland.
You were Sub-Principal Percussionist with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra for 6 years, what was this like?
I had just the best time in Glasgow. I was very young and inexperienced so they took quite a gamble in appointing me, but I’m so glad that they did as it was a tremendous experience. We travelled extensively in Europe and also to Canada. I met my first wife in Scotland and my eldest son was born there.
You are Principal Percussionist of the Hallé Orchestra, what is this like and how does the job of a Principal differ to that of a section member?
It is, quite simply, the best job in the world. It differs greatly from being a section member as I am responsible for all the players in the section, which can sometimes be quite vast. I have the job of organising all the instruments and deciding who should play what in every piece. As well as learning my part, I need to know everyone else’s too in case they ask me any questions. I also get to choose which part to play, which might not necessarily be the hardest. Sometimes it's good to choose the one that is the most fun! I am very lucky in The Hallé to have a percussion section of talented musicians, and a pool of fine freelance players from which to choose should we need extra players. Therefore I can often opt to delegate tricky parts, knowing everyone’s strengths as I do. It’s all about trust.
You have performed with many orchestras, ensembles and artists, what do you enjoy about the ‘portfolio career’ of a percussionist?
I love making music. It’s such a thrill being on stage playing pieces that I have always enjoyed listening to, but in which I can now immerse myself as a performer. The great pieces (e.g Rite of Spring, any Mahler Symphony etc.) never lose their appeal. In fact I always find more things in them to love and appreciate every time I play them.
You teach at the specialist music school, Chetham's, and have taught at the Royal Northern College of Music, what is this like?
This is so good for me. Having to articulate exactly why and how I do what I do as a musician is such a good way of constantly assessing my own technique and musicianship.
When and why did you start teaching?
Quite simply, because I needed to supplement the cost of my studies. My first teaching was when I was quite young, but a younger player was showing great potential so I was asked to help her out. It is a great discipline having to analyse your own playing and try to pass that on to someone else.
You are a celebrated composer for percussion with compositions featuring on all the major exam syllabuses in the UK, how and when did you start composing?
I started when I was very young with some very embarrassing efforts! But I soon realised that decent percussion pieces were thin on the ground. So many of the pieces I had to play were transcriptions of pieces written for other instruments, and they rarely had accompaniments. So I thought I’d have a bash myself.
Does composing compliment your performing career?
Very much so. It helps enormously when playing a piece to know about the composition process as it gives me an insight into what the composer might have been intending, and makes me appreciate more the extremely difficult task of orchestrating.
What is your career highlight so far?
Performing Mahler 6 at the London Proms in 1983 with Klaus Tennstedt has to be up there. My brother was playing trombone too so my parents were chuffed to bits! But the highlight has to be when the Hallé were the resident orchestra at the Salzburg Festival in Austria. We were there for a whole month and had plenty of free time to explore the beautiful surrounding countryside. We also got to perform in the world-famous Festspielhaus, scene of the singing competition at the end of The Sound of Music!
What is the best thing about being a musician?
The social aspect is a big attraction. We have such a good time together. We like to play hard and work hard! But the biggest buzz is playing great pieces with a great orchestra. You can’t beat it.
Do you have any other strings to your bow?
I like to keep fit. Open-water swimming is my latest thing. I like cycling, badminton and football too. I’ve also been reading a lot more during lockdown. Food for the brain.
What would your 'Top Three Tips' be for a young percussionist thinking about a career in music?
1. Practice your rudiments and scales every day. There’s really no way around them! They’re so important.
2. Play in as many ensembles as possible. Interaction is so important. Be a musician first and foremost. Mix with other musicians and try to get a reputation as a thoughtful, sensitive and smart musician.
3. Listen to as much music as possible. Any music. And really LISTEN! Try to work out what you like and don’t like about pieces, and why.
Any last thoughts?
Have fun! There’s really no better way to earn a living.
If you would like to find out more about David, check out the links below: