West End Percussionist for 'Les Miserables'
Scottish musician Ian Cape has held the percussion chair at Les Miserablés (the world's longest running musical) in London's West End since June 2011, following a record-breaking tour with the re-orchestrated 25th Anniversary production of the show. Whilst studying at the Royal Academy of Music, Ian began a varied freelance career playing across a smorgasbord of genres and styles. Classical work includes the London Symphony Orchestra, Royal Northern Sinfonia, BBC Concert Orchestra, Rambert Ballet, Aurora and the Hallé. Commercial work includes artists such as Queen guitarist Brian May, singers Alison Moyet and Lemar, the pits of the West End, numerous touring productions, and shaking/hitting/scraping things for assorted films/adverts/video games and tv projects.
Why did you take up percussion and how old were you?
I was around 9 when I began drum kit lessons, after literally years of begging my parents, who eventually gave in. They'd tried almost everything else, but I wanted to play the drums - I thought the drums were the best thing since sliced bread!
Who was your first teacher and where did you start?
I was lucky to grow up in a church that had a number of fantastic musicians - my first kit teacher was actually a wonderful young pianist with a prodigious musical talent, great ears and an annoying amazing ability to play anything. He went off to university, and then the drum teacher at the local high school took me on for lessons privately - I owe them both so much. I played kit for a few years before getting sucked into percussion through the local high school orchestra and wind band.
What instruments/resources did you have?
Hah! The church I grew up in had a relic of an 80s rocktastic Tama kit that I could practice on - it was huge! I couldn't get my legs round the snare drum because I was really little, so I had to pop the hi-hat pedal beside the bass drum, and have the snare drum on the left hand side. Santa delivered a wee junior drum kit to me when I was 9, a terribly rickety bright red affair which I loved, and then I upgraded to a vintage Premier kit when I was 12-ish and my folks could tell it wasn't just a fad. The local high school were also fantastic at letting this wee boy from the local primary school practice on their "big xylophone" and timps.
Do you have any advice for young percussionists during this stage of education?
Play as much as possible with whoever you can, whenever you can! At this stage, I just loved learning new grooves and listening to tapes (!) from my teachers, family and friends. I played in church a lot, and some pretty funny bands with the folk I grew up with. There was one called PTL: when we played Christian events it stood for Praise The Lord, and secular events we were called Please Turn Left. I was lucky: there weren't that many young drummers when I started out, so I had the opportunity to play with older people who were way better and more experienced than me. The school ensembles opened my eyes to this whole other world of percussion, and I couldn't get enough of it. I wasn't ever interested in doing grades on kit: when I moved into percussion, it was a useful thing to set goals with initially, and my teacher used them as a tool to learning scales and introducing me to other music.
With your knowledge and experience now, what performance opportunities would you suggest young percussionists engage with?
Seize as many opportunities to perform as possible, wherever! I was lucky - the local region I grew up in had just been split up into 4 smaller regions, so I managed to wangle taking part in the Edinburgh music ensembles and the Midlothian music ensembles. One of the Edinburgh percussion tutors (Aly Rankin) was a fundamental influence, and opened up all of our eyes to the detail of playing, and how different things were percussion-wise in other parts of the world - this was before the internet took off. I dipped my toe in the local brass band scene - it wasn't my cup of tea, but there is always lots to play, which is good for your sight-reading, and in many cases a superb social scene. I was extremely fortunate to have very supportive parents who would drive me to rehearsals and concerts and happily accept the role of a roadie. Playing with peers and friends is always great fun - form a band playing the music you want to play. It might be terrible at first, but with regular practice, even if you don't go anywhere. you'll have a hoot! Audition for your regional orchestras - I've made lifelong friends there. And the am-dram scene was always pretty big in Edinburgh - I guess having the Festival Fringe every year was great as there were always gigs...
At what point did you decide this was the profession for you?
After my first "proper" kit teacher moved away, I was encouraged to audition RSAMD Juniors on percussion: I had lessons there with Pam Dow for five happy years. She was fantastic at encouraging us to apply and audition for all the local and national youth orchestras, like Edinburgh Youth Orchestra, and NYOS. After I'd been in NYO GB for a year she suggested I apply to music college to have as an alternative option to university. I hadn't really seriously thought of it as a career path until then - I didn't really know if I'd be good enough, but I applied, auditioned and was successful.
After school, where did you continue your studies and who did you learn with?
I was at the Royal Academy of Music for four years, where I studied with Neil Percy (LSO), Dave Searcy (La Scala) and at the university of Paul Clarvis and Dave Hassell (to paraphrase Jackie McLean).
Why did you decide this pathway?
I went to the Academy because I felt it was the best fit for me - I'd been at the RSAMD every Saturday for five years, and wanted a change of scene. I'd had two years with Ian Wright at NYO, and wanted to have someone new - London it was. I was lucky to have a choice of which college to go to: at the time, I thought I wanted to work in a symphony orchestra and the teachers at the Academy seemed like a good choice. I also had a couple of friends who were at the Academy when I applied.
What was your first ever professional engagement, what was it like and how did you get it?
My first professional gig was a job share of Oliver, at Perth Rep Theatre, doing kit and as much of the percussion parts I could manage over several weeks. It was great fun: I was green as grass, keen as mustard and I soaked up the banter and stories from the other by comparison grizzled musicians. I had done some bits and pieces of playing for various am- dram stuff in and around Edinburgh with the MD, and obviously hadn't made too big a mess of it...
What happened next?
I started freelancing with the LSO when I was at the Academy: Neil (Percy) was kind enough to give me a shot, and has been exceedingly generous to me over the years. Things kind of grew from there: various orchestras called (and sometimes were nice enough to call again!), I depped a bit on some touring West End productions, and I had a bit of teaching on the side to maintain some kind of solid income for when things were lean on the playing front.
You have been the principal percussionist for the West End show, 'Les Miserables' for 9 years, what has this been like?
Unreal. Amazing. I have made several of my best friends in the orchestra over the years! It allows a certain amount of financial freedom and a quality of life quite different to the normal freelancing musician. I am incredibly grateful.
Are there any challenges?
Yes. Playing the same piece over and over again can be a challenge in itself. You HAVE to take time off to do other musical things to keep yourself stimulated! Familiarity can breed contempt, and you can forget how fortunate you are if you're not careful. I am extremely blessed with a team of absolutely fantastic deputies, so taking time off isn't a problem. Other challenges - I'm remote from the rest of the pit: it keeps me out of any politics which may occur! Being remote also means working to a musical director camera: you can't react to the other musicians in a normal manner, and have to trust (or not!) what you see on the MD monitor! Also, the part is pretty busy at times so you have to keep your chops in pretty good shape too.
Have you done any other theatre work?
Yes. Various bits of depping. My favourite place to work in a pit is actually with Rambert (Ballet). Not only are the musicians a great crowd of fabulous players, but if you can see the dancers, some of the things they can do are just astounding. Beautiful.
What would your advice be to a young percussionist wanting to get into theatre?
Firstly, don't limit yourself to focusing on theatrical work. Say yes to everything within your limits! There is a whole wonderful world of playing opportunities out there for the percussionist - you never know where the next gig may take you. I still have dreams of playing that sold out arena gig with an 80's power rock band, though I fear I may have missed the boat. Secondly, listen to as much music from as many different genres as you can get your hands on. Theatre as a genre covers so much ground. Also, the ability to work with (and without) a click is crucial these days. The ability to play simple things really (and I mean REALLY) well. If you can play good tambourine and shakers, there's always going to be work. There's nothing more destructive to the groove than a tambourine wielded badly... Go and see shows: get to know the players, and ask if you can sit in. Most people enjoy having visitors to the pit, though who knows how that will work with Covid..... If a young player is serious about working in theatre, keep up your timpani practice: there's a hell of a lot of pedalling fairly unique to working in theatre and generally you'll only have two timps due to space limitations. These days there's a basic expectation that as a percussionist you'll be relatively proficient on most areas of percussion. The West End (pre lockdown) is one of the most financially secure sectors for musicians, so is highly sought after work. Good news travels fast, bad news travels faster.
Do you have any other strings to your bow?
I've always been interested in the technology side of things: I've been getting into Ableton and tinkering with home recording since Lockdown.
What is your career highlight so far?
I've been blessed in having so many highlights. Simon Rattle conducting Mahler 8 at the Proms was an experience - not much to do, and an awful lot of sitting around, but what a noise! I was brought up on The Beatles, so my first time in Studio 2 at EMI was really quite special. Aurora Orchestra doing the Ligeti piano concerto also stands out- amazing writing! And any time I go to Snape Maltings in Aldeburgh - it's one of the most special places in England.
What is the best thing about being a musician?
The music and the other people in the profession.
What would your 'Top Three Tips' be for a young percussionist thinking about a career in music?
1. Practice. Slowly and correctly.
2. Don't be limited - say yes to anything, and you never know where you might end up.
3. Listen to as much music as you can get your ears on. Go out and see live gigs, of every genre. You can always learn something!
If you would like to find out more about Ian, please check out his website:
Vater sticks www.vater.com
Acoustic Percussion mallets www.acousticpercussion.com
Aquarian drumheads www.aquariandrumheads.com