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BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra - Principal Timpanist

Gordon Rigby

Gordon Rigby has been the Principal Timpanist of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra for over 40 years. Whilst still a student at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (now RCS) Gordon was appointed Principal Timpani and Percussion of the Israel Chamber Orchestra. On return to the UK Gordon was appointed 2nd Percussion and Timpani at the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra before moving to Principal Timpani.


Why did you take up timpani and how old were you?

The first time I held a pair of sticks was lessons in pipe band drumming, age 10. It was very uninspiring, as we never graduated from standing round a table, without a pipe drum in sight. Luckily, on moving to secondary school at age 11, I found that Leslie Newland, who had recently quit his job as Principal Timpani of the [then] Scottish National Orchestra, and moved to a farm in Fife, was teaching. Leslie had been Principal Percussion of the Halle during Barbirolli’s time, so was the ideal all-round inspiration, and a great character.

What instruments/resources did you have? 


The school had two copper hand-tuned timps, a snare drum and a small xylophone. The school orchestra was of a comparatively high standard, with many of the students going on to successfully join the profession, and it attempted some challenging repertoire. We even had a go at Symphonie Fantastique. As we had no harpist, I had to learn the harp part on a borrowed vibraphone.

Do you have any advice for young percussionists during this stage of education?


My advice to young percussionists is to get involved in as much ensemble playing as possible.Aside from solo pieces that are now in abundance, no other instrument is so dependant on being part of a group. Also, listen to every opinion, and decide which fits you best. Do not specialise too early. Your ambition may be to be a timpanist, or a tuned specialist, but things will fall differently, and you need to be versatile. It’s important to join any youth or amateur orchestras that you can get involved in, to constantly be learning repertoire.

At what point did you decide this was the profession for you? 

On leaving school, I had the opportunity to study Physics at university, or to go to the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama [now RCS] in Glasgow. I was already attending the Junior Academy on a Saturday morning. Les Newland had moved back to Glasgow to freelance, and was teaching there. My decision was made one Saturday morning, when the Academy got a call from the BBC Scottish Symphony. They were recording Borodin 2, and had fallen one player short. I rushed there on the underground [2 stops] and was confronted at the door by two people, the Orchestral Manger with a contract to sign, and the M.U. rep. as I remember the fee for playing, and the fee for joining were the same! The enormous sound of being in the middle of professional orchestra had me hooked.

After school, where did you continue your studies and who did you learn with?

So I went for the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama! As soon as I moved to Glasgow, I was playing with the two orchestras more than attending the RSAMD. I decided not to continue with studies there, and found a job as Principal Timpani and Percussion with the Israel Chamber Orchestra. This was a great and enriching experience, especially when they appointed the great Rudolph Barshai as Principal conductor. This is another piece of advice. If you can, travel at least 3000 miles to commit your rookie mistakes! In spite of the music making in Israel, I became homesick, after 18 months, and returned to Scotland to freelance again. Soon afterwards , I auditioned for 2nd. Percussion doubling Timpani with the BBC Scottish and luckily got the job. Within a year or so, the Timpanist Glynn Bragg took the BBC’s offer and became Senior Music Producer, leaving me to cover the Timpani post full time. In the middle of this, the BBC decided to disband the SSO, and the Dance orchestras. After 8 weeks of strike, we were re-instated, but at the cost of losing the Scottish Radio Orchestra and the Northern Dance Orchestra.

What was the process in moving to the Principal Timpani position?

It was time to appoint a Principal Timpanist, many people auditioned and trialled. After months of this, where I was back playing percussion, they eventually made me an offer. Play first timpani in the Rite of Spring, under Simon Rattle. If it goes well , you can have the job. This was just before the Christmas holiday, with the performance set for January. I have never studied anything so much, and probably ruined Christmas for the rest of the family! I am now in my 44th year with the orchestra.


What is the best thing about being a musician?

Being an orchestral percussionist or timpanist gives you a lot of opportunity to listen to everything! I had composed a little at school, and took it more seriously around twenty years ago.I was already conducting a Junior and Senior choir, and started writing and arranging for them, setting poems etc.. This led to writing music for plays, and a couple of commissions for full orchestral works. I am currently working on the music for the fourth in a series of plays written and illustrated by Adrian Wiszniewski, based on a Maori legend, and romantically called ‘Pig Island.’

What is your career highlight so far?

The highlight of nearly 50 years playing has been to work with incredible soloists. From David and Igor Oistrakh to the current superstars like James Ehnes, Shura Cherkassky and Arthur Rubinstein to the continuing flow of incredible young pianists,, they never cease to be amazing and inspiring.And all this is lived in the company of some of the world’s greatest characters. Highly recommended!

Thanks Gordon! 

If you would like to find out more about Gordon, follow the link below:

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