Freelance Percussionist & Teacher
A graduate of the Royal College of Music, Jackie has over 30 years experience of teaching timpani and percussion from beginners to diploma level. She has also had a long and varied career. After many years living “down south” she now lives in Nottingham where she has a private teaching practice, is percussion tutor for the Nottingham Youth Training Orchestra and still enjoys working performing all over the country.
Why did you take up percussion and how old were you?
I was learning the piano which I loved and the violin which I didn't! I was 14 and my school acquired a pair of shiny copper kettle drums. The minute I set eyes on them I knew I had to learn to play them! I decided to ask the school head of music (also my violin teacher!) if I could have lessons and oh, would she mind if I gave up the violin?! Luckily she agreed. It turned out that there wasn't a percussion teacher in Norwich so the school's clarinet teacher showed me how to set the timps up and how to tune them. They were hand tuned with calf heads. What no-one realised, least of all me, was that you needed to slacken off the heads when you finished playing and that they should never be stored next to a radiator! It was a nasty shock finding that one of the heads had split!
Who was your first teacher and where did you start?
As I said there was no percussion teacher when I first started playing the timps, but I muddled a long and, as well as the school orchestra, I joined the local youth wind band and the Saturday morning youth orchestra where I met musicians from other local schools. Eventually a percussion teacher was appointed, Angus Honeyman, and I started lessons ( free in those days!) on a Saturday morning. I loved playing the timps and initially wasn't that interested in learning the basics of snare drum or tuned. However Angus put me straight there! If I wanted to be a timpanist (I think I knew that from very early on) then I would need to study at one of the music colleges and I would need to be an all round percussionist.
What instruments/resources did you have?
Once Angus started teaching me I acquired a pair of snare drum sticks and a snare drum. I had a lot of catching up to do if I wanted to be ready to audition for music college! There were no facilities at my school for practising so I used to practise on Saturday mornings in a classroom when I wasn't needed in the youth orchestra rehearsal Luckily I found playing tuned percussion easy as I already played the piano. During the school holidays there was more opportunity to practise on the Norfolk & Norwich Youth Orchestra residential courses. This is where I first encountered pedal timps !
Do you have any advice for young percussionists during this stage of education?
PRACTICE if you love playing and truly want to progress it won't be a chore. Taking grades is useful to keep you on track but there is so much more to learn! Don't neglect tuned practice! If you don't have your own xylo or marimba try to get access to one in school or at your local youth orchestra. I've met so many percussion pupils who have come to tuned late and lack confidence. If you learn the piano it is a real help with tuned playing so I always encourage pupils to keep up their piano lessons. It will be so useful with your general musicianship as well! Practise pitching intervals so that you will be able to tune timpani without the aid of a tuner! If you are lucky enough to have a good concert hall near you, with visiting professional orchestras, go to concerts. Take any opportunity to sit in on rehearsals so that you can observe the percussion section close up. Remember to follow not just the main parts, but also the seemingly unimportant parts such as the triangle. Every percussion instrument has its own techniques. There are some very intricate triangle parts in Rachmaninov's orchestral works, in fact all his percussion & timpani writing is brilliant and always rewarding to play.
With your knowledge now, what performance opportunities would you suggest for young percussionists to engage with?
Join as many ensembles/bands/orchestras as you can fit into your week! You will learn so many skills that you can't learn in your bedroom practising and it's fun! You will learn to listen, and to be part of a team whether it's within the percussion section or the whole ensemble. A good performer will always be in demand, but be prepared to say no when the GCSEs and A levels are approaching!
At what point did you decide this was the profession for you?
I had always loved playing the piano but discovering the timpani at school opened my eyes to the joys of group music making. I wasn't an academic type so university wasn't an option. I just wanted to perform as a timpanist! I think I had decided that this was the career path that I wanted to follow even before l started lessons with Angus .... crazy! His arrival was just in time to prepare me for auditions ..... I decided to apply to the RAM and the RCM because they were the two conservatoires that I had heard of. I had also written to James Blades (then our most famous percussionist and professor at the RAM) asking him if I needed to learn percussion as well as timpani. Again crazy!! He put me right in the nicest possible way. I wish I had kept his letter!
After school, where did you continue your studies and who did you learn with?
Despite James Blades being a famous name in the percussion world I chose to study at the RCM. It just felt right! My timpani professor was Alan Taylor ( timpanist at the ROH and an amazing player) and Bernard Herman taught me percussion ( also in the percussion section at the ROH.) My first year was a real shock. I was surrounded by such talent. I felt completely out of my depth and lost all confidence. It didn't help that Alan had a reputation for not approving of women in the profession never mind on timpani! We're talking about a long time ago when it was rare to see women playing so called masculine instrument! Thankfully times have changed. In my second year Alan Cumberland took over the timpani teaching and things looked up for me! He was timpanist with the LPO and made an amazing sound. He was also a brilliant pianist and would often sit at the piano in lessons and play (no music) excerpts from orchestra works, even operas! Between them, Alan C and Bernard helped to rebuild my confidence and prepared me for the profession.
What was your first ever professional engagement, what was it like and how did you get it?
I was lucky to do paid 'gigs' throughout my studies at the RCM but it wasn't until my final year that I worked with a 'regular' professional orchestra. I was offered a trial with the Ulster Orchestra (and then the job of principal timpanist!) but something told me that it wasn't the right move for me at that time. The same year Alan asked me to stand in for him on timps in recording sessions of the Khachaturian Piano Concerto with the LPO. There is a famous (or infamous!) flexatone part in the slow movement and he was one of very few percussionists at the time who was expert on the flexatone! It takes great control to play it in tune and the melodic line is very exposed. It was a nerve racking experience, but the percussion section made me feel welcome. I had never been in a recording studio before and had no idea that it is a completely different way of rehearsing and performing. Luckily Alan gave me tips on the right sticks to use!
What happened next?
I was very lucky to land the job of timpanist with the Royal Ballet Touring Orchestra (now the Royal Ballet Sinfonia) just as I graduated. It wasn't a full time job but it gave me financial security as I was launching my freelance career. The repertoire was varied and often challenging. One ballet used the Milhaud Percussion Concerto played twice .... that's the way to learn a piece! At that time there was a lot of freelance work around including playing for visiting foreign ballet companies. Not only was I learning a lot of repertoire but I was developing a love of ballet which has never left me. I began to get extra work with the BBC Symphony Orchestra on percussion and timpani. I was privileged to work with the orchestra when Pierre Boulez was their chief conductor, often playing very challenging modern music! I also went down to Cardiff as an extra with the BBC Welsh Orchestra (now BBC National Orchestra of Wales). When the timpani post became vacant I auditioned and got the job! Unfortunately I was offered the job just at the time that I met my future husband who lived in London. After trying to divide my time between Cardiff and London for a year I sadly decided that it wasn't working so resigned. The positive side to this decision (apart from being with my husband!) is that I then began to get work with the RPO and later the Philharmonia. I played second timps to Mike Baker in the RPO and Andy Smith in the Phil. The challenge in playing second timps is to match the sound of the principal timpanist whilst not compromising your own style of playing! I learnt so much playing alongside these two very experienced players.
What do you enjoy about orchestral performance?
Whether I'm playing timps or triangle it is always an absolute thrill to be part of an orchestral performance. It still amazes me that 80+ individuals can come together and play as one, with such commitment and conviction.
You have performed with many orchestras, ensembles and artists, what do you enjoy about the "portfolio career" of a percussionist?
I love the variety, playing different repertoire and never knowing which part you will be on until you turn up. It really keeps you on your toes!
You've taught for establishments such as the RCM JD, Sutton Music Service and Surrey Arts. When and why did you start teaching?
I had enjoyed tutoring on the occasional youth orchestra course but didn't take on any regular teaching until my son & daughter were at primary school. I organised a percussion group in their school which they both played in and I really enjoyed the experience. I even gave my son drum kit lessons in school (not always a good idea!) Family life meant that I needed to avoid too much touring with orchestras so I was fortunate to be offered teaching jobs in local schools and at the RCM Junior Department. So gradually my work became a mix of teaching and performing.
Are there any challenges?
I decided very early on that teaching orchestral percussion was only going to work for me if schools were willing and able to provide the instruments and a room bigger than a broom cupboard! In every school I always include ensemble work so that pupils are able to experience the joys of group music making. This brings it's own problems! At the RCM JD we usually only had a brief slot in the end of term concert which meant organising the removal of all the gear from the percussion suite to the concert hall. All this effort for approx 10 minutes of music making! I did manage a few special concerts collaborating with the other JDs in London, the most memorable being a performance of Varese's Ionisation. This was the first work written solely for percussion: thirteen percussionists playing approx 30 different instruments. I joined Surrey Arts in 2005 as Percussion Team Leader and it was my dream job for 12 years! I supported a team of 20+ kit & percussion teachers, organised percussion projects throughout the county, and set-up a senior & junior county percussion ensemble. We had a huge range of instruments and before I left we introduced drum line! Pete Handley, who had been a Surrey Arts pupil before studying at the RCM, started his own drum line group Box9 and members of the group came to Surrey to give workshops. Drumline has proved a great way to encourage drum kit pupils into ensemble playing' teaching is really rewarding and leading ensembles is a great love of mine. Inevitably there is a lot of organising when it comes to concerts. and a lot of moving and lifting of gear. I usually spend the following day in bed recovering!'
You have been actively involved in outreach projects working with organisations such as the Philharmonia Orchestra and Surrey Arts. What do you enjoy about this side of your work and how does it differ from teaching?
Outreach work often means that you 're invited to work with young percussionists in an ensemble or orchestra. Usually they are there because they are keen and capable! You are there to provide support and advice (possibly to play a part as well) so that they can perform with confidence. It's a less intense experience as you're not in overall charge. There will be an experienced conductor and colleagues supporting the other instrumentalists. There's an overall feeling of teamwork as you work towards the final performance(s). The Philharmonia outreach projects often involve a specially commissioned work written with the young musicians in mind. They can be in unusual settings as well. In 2019 I took part in a performance with Hounslow Music in the Kempton Steam Museum. The giant machine was switched on so that the hissing and clunking sounds became a part of the performance!
What is your career highlight so far?
There are so many but here are three ..... A Philharmonia trip to Tokyo where I was unexpectedly promoted to timpani when Andy Smith was too ill to travel. We had already rehearsed in London so I was terrified and exhilarated at the same time! We performed Mahler 2 & 5, Brahms 4 and Madame Butterfly. My last concert at Surrey Arts called the Big Bang! Past and present members of the county percussion ensemble performed, along with Box9 drumline and the RCM percussion department at Dorking Halls. What a send off! More recently 3 performances of Star Wars The Empire Strikes Back at the Albert Hall. I had never seen a Star Wars movie so didn't appreciate the enormous fan base. Each performance was sold out and I don't think many of the audiences members had experienced live orchestral music before. It was brilliant to perform such amazing film music and to experience the audience standing ovations each night.
What is the best thing about being a musician?
It is a real privilege to earn a living doing something that you really love, and to see the pleasure it brings to audiences or the sense of achievement that students experience after a performance.
What would your Top Three Tips be for a young percussionist thinking about a career in music?
1. Practise regularly and thoughtfully.
2. Prepare thoroughly for performances/exams. You will feel so much more relaxed and confident if you do!
3. If you follow 1 & 2 then you should enjoy performing, and you will probably be an ideal candidate for further studies at a conservatoire!
To find out more about Jackie, follow the links below: