Latin Percussionist, Composer & Educator

Hugh Wilkinson

Since graduating from the Royal College of Music Hugh has been in high demand as a percussionist. Specialising in Afro-Cuban and Brazilian hand drumming Hugh is also highly skilled as a classical and pop percussionist. He has recently played at the 02 with Quincy Jones, on the world tour of Sam Mendes’ production of Richard III and headlined the Meltdown Festival with Marc Almond. Known for his versatility and musical approach Hugh has performed live with Quincy Jones, Goldie, Beth Orton, Mark Ronson, Paul Weller, Caro Emerald, Lalah Hathway, Donnie Osmond, Marti Pellow, Kid Kreole, Marc Almond, Pete Tong, Nitin Sawhney, Roberto Pla, Tim Minchin, Siouxsie Sioux, DJ Vadim, The Heritage Orchestra, The Outlook Orchestra, North Sea Radio Orchestra, The London Philharmonic Orchestra, BBC Big Band, BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Concert Orchestra and the London Sinfonietta. Hugh is professor of Latin percussion at the Royal College of Music and Trinity Laban Conservatoire. 

 

 

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

 

I was 7 years old with lots of energy. A musician friend of the family suggested percussion might be a good outlet and they were right.

Who was your first teacher and where did you start?

 

My first lessons were with Barry Wilson, a jazz drummer and teacher in Norfolk. He started me off on the snare drum for a few months and gradually added the hi hat and bass drum. Orchestral playing came later with Angus Honeyman then Latin percussion when I was around 15 with a variety of teachers.

What instruments/resources did you have? 

 

My lessons were at a Saturday morning school with a few hand tuned timps and the basic orchestral instruments. My first kit was a single headed Premier Olympic with Krut cymbals. I loved it! I got my first set of congas, a red pair of LP original fibreglass drums when I was 15. I still play them now.

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

 

Play every day. Better to keep practising steadily even if you can only manage 30 minutes a day rather than longer sporadic bursts.. Buy the best instruments you can afford. They will be more inspiring to play and will last longer. Take playing opportunities whenever you can. Play with people better than you as often as possible. Grades can help focus practise and development but don’t let them become the only thing you work on. Playing with other people brings the most joy.

With your knowledge and experience now, what performance opportunities would you suggest for young percussionists to engage with? 

 

Most percussionists perform in an ensemble setting. Whether you’re an aspiring kit player, timpanist or conguero seek out groups to join in your area. If the scene is limited to music you’re not familiar with then branch out and give it a try. You might secretly be a killing Bodrhan player, you just don’t know it yet! Don’t be afraid to start your own group with like minded musicians, whatever style you’re into. Even if performance opportunities are limited it keeps you moving forward as a musician and you can make lifelong friendships.

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

 

It wasn’t a lightbulb moment for me but a gradual realisation around 16/17 that my hobby could actually become a living. 

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

 

I studied at the Royal College of Music. Orchestral and contemporary percussion with Kevin Hathway, Mike Skinner, Janos Keszei and Andy Smith. Latin percussion with Bosco D’Oliveira and Dave Hassell, Drum Kit with Ralph Salmins and Jazz vibes with Anthony Kerr.

 

Why did you decide this pathway? (were there others available?) 

 

I couldn’t find another course which offered the scope of playing and learning opportunities as the RCM. Some of my favourite players didn’t go down the music college route but I was too green and unfocused back then to forge my own path.

What was your first ever professional engagement, what was it like and how did you get it?

 

I played drums in a function band when I was 15. The previous drummer left to play for the Moscow State Circus and he handed me the chair. It was a gig or sometimes two most weekends earning decent money. I was the richest kid in school for a while! It was a useful grounding in lots of styles and classic tunes. The first gig was at a nudist camp in Norfolk and me being 15 my Dad drove me there. Red faces all round.

What happened next?

 

I had a great grounding in orchestral, pop and piano at my school and with the Norfolk county music service. My love of jazz drumming and Latin percussion really took off at the Dartington summer school. Keith Tippett who sadly died this year was the inspirational leader of the improvised music course with Ben Clark as the drum tutor. I attended every year from 15 until I left school for College. The range of musicians and playing levels was huge, from complete beginners to top pros. The beautiful thing was the spirit of collective music making without ego or any gun-slinging mentality.

You specialise in afro-cuban and brazilian hand drumming, how did you get into this and what would your advice be to young percussionists wanting to go down this route?  

 

After some baby steps on the congas at Dartington I saw Snowboy and the Latin section perform at the Norwich arts centre. The gig blew me away. I’d never seen or heard anything like it. It was a totally British take on Afro-Cuban music and it really worked! I asked Snowboy if I could get some conga lessons and he gave me his phone number after the gig. I remember nervously calling him the next week and arranging a lesson. I drove down to Essex in my parents rusty old Metro and started my journey of discovery into Afro-Cuban drumming. I still have the scrap of paper where I hastily scribbled down the New York Mozambique pattern he showed me before we moved onto something else. I think the best route into the music is to find some inspiring music to listen to and take lessons with a good teacher. Apart from giving a terrible deal to the artists themselves, Spotify is a great resource for listening and some of the playlists people have made give a broad range of tunes within any style. YouTube is full of free instructional videos but the quality of tuition and playing is variable.

 

You have performed with many orchestras/ensembles, artists, theatre productions and have also recorded on multiple films. What do you enjoy about the ‘portfolio career’ of a percussionist?

 

I’ve always been open to new playing opportunities and experiences. The adventure of crossing musical styles is something I love. Variety and new challenges keep me interested and hungry.

Are there any challenges? 

 

Working with big egos. From time to time you need to armour up because not everyone in the business is easy to get along with. In those situations it’s best to keep your head down but not be afraid to politely stand your ground if necessary. On a long running show you need to find new ways to keep things fresh. Learning the pad off by heart is a good goal and can remove one part of the repetition (reading the same dots every night!) Self doubt can creep in so remind yourself that everyone is human and there’s no such thing as musical perfection. All of your musical heroes have hit bum notes and experienced wobbles of confidence from time to time.

As a freelancer, what is your advice on sustainability of work and your views on success?

 

This question would have had a very different answer a year ago! As things stand we’re waiting for live music to restart as soon as the coronavirus is under control. Self motivation has never been so important. This is a chance to develop not only your technique but to listen to music you might not have given time to previously.

It’s hard to say what the live music scene will look like with venues, touring and organisations currently under existential threat. Some people will give up playing and others put off the idea of studying music which is tragic. My advice is to keep doing what you love doing and if it can pay the bills then even better.

 

You are a professor at the Royal College of Music and Trinity Laban, what's this like?

 

It’s an honour to be even a tiny part of some amazing young musicians journeys into the profession. 

When and why did you start teaching?

 

I started teaching drum kit to beginners when I was at school. This moved onto teaching more advanced students during and after my time at college. It was always a great way to earn money and help to unlock the potential in aspiring musicians.

 

Does teaching help your performing career?

 

It can do. The critical element of teaching helps you to sharpen your listening abilities, even if you’re dealing with complete beginners. Having to go back to basics and find new ways to think about producing sound and understand time can benefit the teacher as well. 

You are also a composer, when did you get into this? 

 

I started messing around with Macs and mics when I was still at college back in the late 90s. My first professional writing job was for the KPM library in 2006.

Does composing compliment your performing and teaching career?  

 

I think being a player helps my writing more than the other way around. Having access to so many interesting sounds and techniques gives me a great starting point for lots of the music I write. Being able to fill my time creatively with composition has been a blessing during the lockdown drop in live music. I try to incorporate writing and recording techniques into my teaching.

What is your career highlight so far?

 

Playing the music of Quincy Jones with the great man himself will be a hard one to top.

 

What is the best thing about being a musician?

 

Being in a space with great players and making music. Loading a car or van, travelling for miles, lugging and setting up the gear, sound checking and then doing it all in reverse is never fun. It’s the bit in the middle when the magic can happen that makes it all worth while.

What would your 'Top Three Tips' be for a young percussionist thinking about a career in music?

 

1. Be sure that this is what you really want. It’s never been more competitive to be a professional musician so you’ll need to practise and study obsessively in your teens and early 20s to stand a chance of making it.

2. Don’t be in a hurry to pay back your student loan. Travel the world, immerse yourself in other musical cultures, form your own bands and start to find your musical ‘voice’. Having something unique to offer in a crowded market is never a bad thing. (Sorry, that was 2, 3, 4, 5 & 6!)

3. Remember the importance of appropriateness in music. There is a tendency for young players to overplay and fill a tune with ‘look at me’ moments. Keep your powder dry and don’t forget that your job is to serve the music, not the other way around.

Thanks Hugh! 

If you would like to find out more about Hugh, please check out his website:

www.hughwilkinson.com