Emma King is a percussionist based in London and Northern Ireland whose reputation has grown rapidly in the UK music scene, in particular through her performances as a Cajónero at the Glasgow and London Drum Shows. Emma joined the West End/Broadway Percussion show STOMP in 2014 and has toured extensively throughout Europe, Asia and South America with the company.
Why did you take up percussion and how old were you?
My first real memory of playing percussion was when I was 7 years old. I set up all the cushions from the sofa on the floor in my living room and played along with wooden spoons to Hanson’s MMMBop. I felt that it would be hard to top that as my debut performance so took a break from percussion for a couple of years and focused on piano and violin. When I was 14 I knew I wanted to do GCSE Music but my love for playing violin was quickly declining. Having played in youth orchestras for a few years at that stage, I found myself always looking back at the percussion section and being pretty jealous of all the cool instruments they got to play. So I managed to convince my parents to allow me to swap the violin for tuned percussion lessons.
Who was your first teacher and where did you start?
My first percussion teacher was Ruth Ripoll, she was great! My dad drove 60 miles every Wednesday night for me so I could have lessons at Belfast School of Music. I had a year of xylophone, snare and timpani lessons before I convinced my parents once again to let me have drum kit lessons too. Luckily they gave in so when I was 15 I started having one hour lessons on both.
What instruments/resources did you have?
It was compulsory to be in a group activity if you received lessons at Belfast School of Music so I had to travel up to Belfast on Saturday mornings (I got the bus on Saturdays, let my dad have a lie in!) I would always arrive half an hour early and get a little bit of practice in on the xylophone and timpani. I had a very old drum kit that my dad found in his uncle’s attic, it sounded terrible but as least I had something to practice on at home. At school the percussion department was pretty much none existent when I started getting lessons. They had the standard table xylophones and glocks and a few triangles which felt like they were all from the 1950’s. When I was 17 they decided to invest in a set of pedal timpani and a pearl export drum kit for the music department which was amazing for me, it meant I could practice in nearly every free period I had at school and that’s what I did. By the time I was 18 I had saved up enough money through working part time jobs to buy my own Tama kit and an Adams 4.3 Octave Marimba, so I now had my own little studio in the house. By this stage in my life music was definitely taking up every free minute I had, if I wasn’t at school or working I was practicing (well I had the odd night out too, I wasn’t a total geek!) Playing with Belfast Youth Orchestra and Ulster Youth Orchestra allowed me to tour Germany, Spain, Italy and Slovenia and perform at the closing ceremony of the School Proms in the Royal Albert Hall.
Do you have any advice for young percussionists during this stage of education?
Say yes to everything and try and play different genres of music with as many people as possible.
With your knowledge and experience now, what performance opportunities would you suggest for young percussionists to engage with?
Like I said in the previous answer, try and get as many playing opportunities packed in as possible. Get involved with your local music centres to see what ensembles you can join or if you want something more advanced give your National Youth Orchestra a try, you’ve nothing to lose. Try different genres too, get some friends together and make a band. Improvise! Have jam sessions with some friends and just make stuff up, it’s so important to know how to improvise and to play off people’s musical energy.
At what point did you decide this was the profession for you?
When I was 18 and in my final year of school I was a little confused about what I wanted to do as a profession. I knew it had to be music related but I didn’t think I was good enough to be a performer so I decided that I would go into the recording side instead and applied to study Sound Recording at University. A few months before my A level results came out I entered a competition which was open to anyone living in Northern Ireland who wanted to pursue music at third level education. It was a solo recital competition and the first time I had ever got the opportunity to perform as a soloist. I didn’t win but my feedback from the judges was so positive and they all asked why I wasn’t pursuing a career as a performer. With this encouragement from professionals in the industry I decided to change my career path and apply for music college to be a performer.
After school, where did you continue your studies and who did you learn with?
I took a year out after school to practice and audition for Music Colleges. To be honest I wasn’t really sure which college I wanted to go to when I was applying and I couldn’t afford to fly over to have consultation lessons before the auditions so I just took a big gamble. I had a few years with Mick Doran (Trinity/ENO) at UYO and I knew I wanted something completely new. When I went for my audition at Guildhall I felt a real connection with the department and knew it was the right place for me to study at. In my four years there I had lessons with Richard Benjafield, David Corkhill, Michael Skinner, Aidy Spillett, Ralph Salmins, Zands Duggan and Chris Brannick. I played a lot of folk music at Guildhall which was a welcome realise from the heavy classical side of the course. That’s really when my love of playing Cajon started, after seeing Tom Chapman playing with The Urban Folk Quartet. I also did an Erasmus exchange programme at Hochschule fur Musik Hanns Eisler in Berlin for 6 months in my third year. It was definitely one of the best experiences in my four years of studying. I had lessons with Rainer Seegers and Biao Li and was able to attend all the Berlin Phil concerts and hang out with the percussion department backstage, it really was an unforgettable opportunity.
Why did you decide this pathway? (Were there others available?)
Maths or Music were my only two options really and I quite fancied the freelance musician lifestyle more than the accountant in an office one.
What was your first ever professional engagement, what was it like and how did you get it?
My first professional engagement was with STOMP in the West End and it was very surreal. They held open auditions at the Ambassadors Theatre in September 2013, they had 4 or 5 rounds of auditions over two days and I got through to the last round. A few days later they called me and invited me to their 6-week training camp to learn the show and at the end of the 6 weeks I did my first show with the full time cast members in the West End.
What happened next?
After my first show I was asked to do another month of shows in the West End then in January 2014 I was offered a place on their Global Touring Company.
You perform with the West End/Broadway Percussion show STOMP, what's this like?
Amazing, it’s my dream job! I feel like it’s the perfect balance of everything I love about percussion and performing. It allows me to play intricate, challenging music with extremely talented performers but it also allows me to put my own flavour into the music and improvise in every performance. At the beginning it was a real challenge for me to let my body move freely which sounds crazy for a percussionist, but most of the time in classical music we’re physically sheltered behind an instrument. No lessons at Guildhall prepared me for standing on stage in front of 2000 people with a spot light on me using only my body to make a groove! That was something I had to pick up very quickly on the job! It’s not like a normal gig where you turn up, play the music on your stand and leave. You’re throwing paint cans at people, doing combat with poles and flying around the stage on a shopping trolley. Sometimes things go wrong which I secretly love because that’s when you really have to think on your feet and improvise quickly.
What do you enjoy about being part of a touring show?
Travelling the world and getting paid to play music! Being on tour with STOMP is absolutely incredible. Over the four years that I was full-time with the company we performed in nearly every country in Europe, UAE, Kuwait, Indonesia, India, Russia, China, The Philippines, Brazil, Chili and Australia. It’s an absolute privilege to be able to meet people in different corners of the world, experience new cultures and play music every night in beautiful theatres with my friends. On the other hand, it’s difficult to maintain relationships with family, friends and partners when you’re always away. You inevitably end up missing special occasions and with a change in time-zones it’s often hard to keep on top of your life back home. You’re constantly living out of a suitcase (you get very good at packing!) and often only socialising with your cast mates for weeks or even months. That aside, I’d say definitely give touring a go if it’s ever an option for you, I have so many incredible memories of cities I’ve been fortunate to perform in and made so many new friends along the way.
You have performed with many ensembles, artists and have also played on multiple records and sessions. What do you enjoy about the ‘portfolio career’ of a percussionist?
After four years touring full-time with STOMP I was ready for a change and to work on some new projects. With my experience of movement and being on-stage it seemed like a natural progression to keep doing on-stage musician work alongside some classical and pop projects. Since then I’ve worked with The Lost & Found Orchestra, Bangers & Crash Percussion Ensemble, Irish National Opera, London Contemporary Orchestra and Joss Arnott Dance Company. The best thing about a 'portfolio career' is never having two days the same and being able to work with so many talented people. Last Autumn I had the craziest 10 days ever jumping between projects. I started in Ireland, had 3 days of intense rehearsals for a percussion trio chamber music tour. Then flew back to England to play at an Arts Festival, I was playing boom whackers on top of a 3.5metre steel wheel made by Rolls Royse! Then I popped over to Saudi Arabia to play timpani for the live score performance of a movie and back to Ireland to start the percussion trio tour!
Are there any challenges?
Making sure you have the right balance of work and home life. When you’re constantly creating your own schedule as a freelancer and trying to make sure you’re always busy, sometimes you forget to put aside holidays and days off. This is obviously a pre Covid-19 problem! I’m definitely ready to be working flat out again now!
When and why did you start teaching?
I started teaching before I went to music college and taught the whole way through college. I was able to deliver workshops whilst on tour with STOMP and that was really special. In Brazil my colleagues and I got the opportunity to teach some workshops in favelas and I think that will always be one of the most memorable teaching experiences for me. These kids had Pandeiro chops that I dream about having! They taught us their music and we taught them a little bit of the show. Neither of us spoke each-others language but we both managed to learn a whole routine and perform it in a few hours! At the moment I tend to do more group teaching through outreach work with projects that I’m involved in, but I also love working one on one with students.
Does teaching help your performing career?
Absolutely. I love having to break every rhythm down and think of how to explain something in different ways because a student doesn’t understand the way I explained it the first time. Or maybe they feel it completely differently to the way I do, either way these things will only expand my musical library. I love having to come up with new ideas on the spot and being able to share my knowledge and love of music onto others.
What is your career highlight so far?
Oh that’s a tough one! Opening Adelaide International Festival 2018 with The Lost & Found Orchestra to 15,000 people and being on the same bill as Grace Jones was a big one. Playing outside in the old ruins of the Royal Opera House in Malta with STOMP was also pretty good. It was 27 degrees and there’s a moment in the show when we’re all hanging on harnesses ready to kick into a huge groove but just before we do it’s completely silent for about 10 seconds. I just lay back hanging on the harness gazing straight up at the stars and thinking how lucky I was to be doing what I loved, it was amazing.
What is the best thing about being a musician?
Getting paid to do something you love, performing with incredibly talented people and constantly pushing yourself to be better.
What would your 'Top Three Tips' be for a young percussionist thinking about a career in music?
1. Practice - make friends with a metronome for life right now!
2. Do some Body Percussion - it’ll make a huge difference to your independence and your overall feel for any music that’ll you’ll play in the future.
3. Just be a nice genuine person - most people get work in the industry through word of mouth. You could be the best up and coming percussionist out there but no-one will want to work with you if you’re not a nice person.
If you would like to find out more about Emma, please check out her website: